Maverick Life

BOOK REVIEW

Determined to change the world — ‘Madwoman’, the story of Nellie Bly

Determined to change the world — ‘Madwoman’, the story of Nellie Bly
‘Madwoman’ by Louisa Treger book cover. Image: Bloomsbury Publishing

‘Madwoman’ is not only a joy to read, but it is a voyage into a time in history when a woman shows us what is possible when we’re determined to change the world we live in.

“When I write a book, I start with the research, which I absolutely love,” says classical violinist and author Louisa Treger. “You follow different avenues, some don’t lead anywhere, but some of them turn into gold. When a character springs to life, I start writing. What I most enjoy is when I am working and I look at the clock and suddenly, it’s lunchtime. It’s the best high when time disappears because I am so immersed in a story.” 

Treger’s latest book, Madwoman, is based on the story of Nellie Bly, a trailblazing journalist who had herself committed to a women’s asylum on Blackwell’s Island in 1887 so that she could report on conditions there. Treger has a PhD in literature, focusing on early 20th century women’s writing. When she started to work on Madwoman, she explains that she “went to Blackwell’s Island, where Nellie was incarcerated, just off the coast of New York”. 

“I walked the island to understand its story. It was so gut-wrenching. I stood on the site of the asylum and I could see Manhattan across the river — so close, that you could actually see people going about their life. Yet, it was completely inaccessible because the currents were so strong. A few of the women incarcerated at the asylum tried to escape by swimming. They didn’t make it.”  

Nellie Bly left Pittsburgh for New York in 1887. Her mother had married a violent man after the death of her father. Treger explains, “it was because of that and not despite it, that she became such a success. It made her determined to break out of the cycle of poverty and abuse. She realised she had to rely on herself. 

“I chose to write about the early part of her life because it helps us understand what made her such an extraordinary person. I think that the trauma in the asylum made her childhood trauma resonate and that was partly why it was so hard for her. It took tremendous courage.” 

When Bly arrived in New York, she was determined to find a career in journalism. It was an ambitious project, given that there were very few women journalists at the time and they worked only on fashion, society news, art reviews and the like. Down to her last dime, Bly managed to convince a newspaper that she would fake insanity and have herself incarcerated on Blackwell’s Island. The agreement was that if she pulled it off and wrote a worthy story, they would hire her.  

Bly’s account of the asylum, which she called the ‘human rat trap,’ showed that conditions were horrendous and violated the most basic of human rights. The women held there were subjected to cold baths, their straw pellets reeked of sweat and urine, and, at night, they were given a blanket that offered no protection from the cold. The food served was inedible, with meat that was often rotten. The women had to sit in silence for protracted periods and the nursing staff were violent and emotionally abusive. 

Through her reporting, Nellie Bly showed that many of the women were not ‘insane’, instead, they had been conveniently ‘disposed of’. 

“One of the things that struck while I was writing was how little things have changed for women — in the way that their roles were surveilled,” says Treger. “Half the women in the asylum weren’t actually mad. They refused to conform. Some did not want to get married; others had lovers or were there because their husbands had tired of them. The asylum was a socially acceptable way of disposing of inconvenient women. When we think about something like the Britney Spears case, we realise how this is still happening, despite the gains made. Nellie risked her life to go into the asylum to expose how the most vulnerable, invisible, and marginalised members of society were treated. Those women had no face and no voice.”

Writing Madwoman was both an artistic and emotional enterprise. “What happened to Nellie was so harrowing. I went to a very dark place to write the book. It mirrored what was happening in my life because London was in its first lockdown. Everybody was feeling confined and afraid, and I was also going through a divorce at the time. There was a parallel between what was happening in her life and what was happening in mine at the time of writing,” she says.

The text brings the power of this emotion to life in visceral ways:

“Nellie looked down at her filthy dress, her chapped hands with their raw knuckles, the nails bitten to the quick. Was she like the others? At that moment, there was nothing to distinguish her from them. Even their struggle against inhumane treatment had become hers. She felt the last fragments of her identity as a reporter disintegrate.”

When she was sent to Blackwell’s Island, Bly knew that the newspaper that she was writing for would try and get her out, but she had no way of knowing when that would be or even if it was possible. It must have had a profound effect on her both physically and mentally. Treger explains that “she was submerged in this experience where she was witnessing this incredible brutality daily. Her experience at the asylum had no clear end date. As days went by with no word from the newspaper, she started fearing that maybe something had gone wrong. How could she come out of that as the same person who went in?”

After leaving Blackwell’s Island, Bly wrote a powerful, hard-hitting piece on her time there, prompting an official investigation. She continued to write about issues affecting the socially marginalised. Later on in her career, she went to report from the frontlines of World War 1.

Madwoman is a not only a joy to read, but it is a voyage into a time in history when a woman shows us what is possible when we’re determined to change the world we live in. DM/ ML

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