Blackjack's Reviews > The Madness of Miss Grey

The Madness of Miss Grey by Julia Bennet
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really liked it
bookshelves: published-2019, arc

Julia Bennet's debut novel offers much to romance readers interested in historical authenticity, and even though I did my early graduate studies in 19th century lit, I still learned interesting information here on constructions of "madness" as well as what goes on behind the curtains at asylums. Probably needless to say, this is a darker book than most historical romances, which is by no means a criticism. Women were disproportionately targeted for medical intervention for all sorts of reasons that today seem unthinkable, and mental health treatment bears virtually no resemblance to today's care.

Helen Grey has been forced to live in a rural asylum since a teen, primarily to get her out of the way of her aristocratic father who is unwilling to claim this offspring of a secret affair with a deceased stage actress. Diagnosed immediately as hysterical and promiscuous, Helen at times rises to the occasion and uses her diagnoses to her advantage to try to escape. At the start of the novel, she has managed to escape beyond the asylum walls, only to be spotted wandering in the woods by the new doctor, just arriving to take over her case. I had my usual queasiness in this scene and in a handful of early ones due to the power imbalance between Helen and Will. Not only has Helen been conditioned to think of herself as promiscuous and mad, but others have as well. To try to add a romance between patient and physician on top of this troubling dynamic seemed highly improbable. To Bennet's credit though, Helen's interactions with others, including her new doctor, reveal her to be intelligent and insightful about her situation, and her use of sarcasm particularly alerts us to her ability to see through the façade of the setting. Also, Will Carter is a new kind of doctor; he approaches mental health treatment with the innovative idea that people can be helped rather than stigmatized and contained. He’s open to possibilities other than what his superiors tell him, and he becomes open to listening closely to Helen.

The transition of Helen from patient in need of Will’s help to lover in need of his legal intervention is, however, a plot development I thought could have benefitted from additional scenes. Will gradually feels sympathy for Helen’s mistreatment, as he realizes she has attracted particularly harsh treatment from some of the attendants, but I still struggled to identify the narrative shift when Will accepts that Helen does not belong there. I wondered too if Helen is set up as a special case, and when the young doctor has an about-face over the entire institutionalization of patients. Will’s naivety about institutionalization struck me as a little improbable, but this could be a gap in my own education. Perhaps young doctors entering this field in the 19th century believed in many of these diagnoses and thought they were helping. I did not have enough of a sense of Will’s own background as a doctor to determine how much he should have realized about the inhumanity of medical treatments and what he hoped to accomplish by working with Helen.

While the descriptions of Helen’s interactions with staff and doctors are among the most interesting in this novel, the romance itself did not work as much for me as I would have liked, mostly because nearly all of it takes place within such a gloomy setting. As much as the author pushes for readers to be skeptical of the diagnoses and identities of people within the asylum, the institution itself still had enormous power to define everything in it. Helen is defined as a mental health patient and as a woman severely lacking in power for nearly the entire book, and as kind and well-meaning as Will is portrayed, he remains her doctor and protector to nearly the very end. That is a dynamic that hinders me from fully succumbing to the romance.

I’m still though intrigued by what this new author puts out next, as she has a better sense of history than the vast number of historical writers writing today.
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Reading Progress

May 29, 2019 – Shelved
May 29, 2019 – Shelved as: to-read
May 29, 2019 – Shelved as: published-2019
June 8, 2019 – Started Reading
June 12, 2019 – Finished Reading
June 13, 2019 –
page 0
July 29, 2019 – Shelved as: arc

Comments Showing 1-4 of 4 (4 new)

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Sam (AMNReader) Okay! AND ADDED! Great review.

message 2: by Mariana (new) - added it

Mariana Great review!

message 3: by OLT (new) - rated it 4 stars

OLT (Possible SPOILERS here.) I'm looking forward to the next books by Bennet also. There seems to be some promise here.
As for this one, I wasn't bothered as much by the doctor/patient relationship of the romance as you. Considering the page limits for a romance novel it had to move along pretty swiftly. I was bothered by some other things in the plot more, such as how Will was able to marry Helen. Special license? How? And as a patient in a mental institution, how would she be allowed to marry. And the half brother? Too good. Too "deus ex machina." Without him, no HEA as far as I can see unless the two jumped ship to America. But the writing here is better than average. I gave the book 4 stars on Amazon.

message 4: by Emma (new)

Emma Excellent review.

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