The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox

[contains spoilers]

It is most important to keep yourself very still. Even breathing can remind them that you are there, so only very short, very shallow breaths. Just enough to stay alive. And no more.

As Elaine Showalter notes in her influential book The Female Malady, “madness has been the historical label applied to female protest and revolution.” At the beginning of the twentieth century, when women in Britain were campaigning for access to the vote and to universities, hysteria was the most common of all the nervous maladies to be associated with the feminist movement. She also points out that men benefitted from women’s actual experience of psychosomatic illness. In addition to using it to rhetorically delegitimise women’s calls for equality, its disabling effects prevented women from expending energy on campaigns. But perhaps Showalter’s most important point is her reading of the origins of women’s mental distress, contending that throughout history women have suffered because of their traditional role, rather than mental illness being a deviation from it. Until the mid-twentieth century- and echoes of this are still heard today – the options afforded to women did not allow them to fashion their own narratives or public presence: you disappeared into marriage and motherhood, or you could very well have disappeared into an asylum.

The consequences of feminine “impropriety” are the subject of Maggie O’Farrell’s 2006 book The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox. A young woman, who calls herself Esme, although her given name is Euphemia, survives a childhood tragedy (her baby brother dies from typhoid) and goes on to become a “difficult” young woman. Her family, burdened by Esme’s reluctance to get married and preference for books and education over banal social niceties, incarcerates her in an asylum where she spends the next six decades. The story cuts between the 1940s and the present, when Esme is released because the asylum is being closed, and is taken in by Iris, a thirty-ish single woman who, as a distant relative, has unknowingly inherited guardianship of her.

O’Farrell’s writing is beguiling and magical, her concerns with memory, family, secrets and everyday violence timeless and penetrating. Australian readers may be familiar with O’Farrell through her 2017 memoir I Am, I Am, I Am, a haunting and lyrical series of vignettes that detail her seventeen brushes with death, from contracting encephalitis in childhood to narrowly escaping the clutches of a psychopathic killer. When she was hospitalised with encephalitis, O’Farrell was not expected to survive, then when she did, it was predicted she would never walk again. Happily, today she retains her ability to walk, but, the disease having made “lacework” of her cerebellum, her coordination and sensory perception are severely impaired. While her memoir may have been a way to expunge herself of the visceral horror each brush with death left her with, O’Farrell ostensibly wrote it to give courage to her elder daughter, who has a severe immune disorder that results in as many as a dozen anaphylactic episodes a year. Everyday items have the potential to kill her. Consequently, O’Farrell and her family cannot travel more than twenty minutes from a hospital. They cannot allow visitors to the family home to bring items that most other people taken for granted. They exist, O’Farrell writes, “in a state of high alert.”

A former journalist, she also occasionally writes on assignment for various publications. Her recent article in the Guardian on her chronic back pain, like her memoir, reveals an intuitive grasp of the secrets of the body, and the way memories and past experiences can be reawakened through somatic phenomena. When, working as a journalist in the 1990s, O’Farrell experienced pins and needles in her back and shoulder, her boss worried that she had RSI, and sent her off to the company physiotherapist. But O’Farrell knew better. In between making phone calls and chasing copy, she had a “sensation that there was something behind me, something only I could see, nebulous and malevolent, something I thought I had outrun, a long time ago, but here it was, back to haunt me, placing its clammy hand on my shoulder and saying, you didn’t think you’d get away that easily, did you?”

Bodily hauntings are a recurring theme of her fiction. Peppered among her novels are characters who are prompted, through what can start out as an innocuous occurrence, to re-evaluate the significance of a past experience. In her debut novel, After You’d Gone, a young woman goes on a mental excursion through her past after being injured in an accident. Her Costa award-winning 2010 novel The Hand That First Held Mine jumps back and forth between the 1950s and the mid-2000s, revealing the ways in which strangers’ lives can be indelibly linked. Secrets are revealed through experiences of birth and death, highlighting once again the way in which O’Farrell’s writing thrives on the idea of the truth making itself known through our bodies. And in her most recent novel from 2016, This Must Be The Place, referred to by one critic as her “break out,” a lecturer in linguistics, Daniel Sullivan, must come to grips with the grief he has spent his life running away from.

O’Farrell’s writing is underpinned by an acute appeal to the senses. Sometimes her imagery is intensely sensual, at other times sparse, but it always manages to add depth and convey emotion. She often alludes to action that occurs off stage or in the background, which underlines her preoccupation with excavating our past to understand how we came to land in the present: “Somewhere out of sight a child is crying. The dog stands in the doorway, watching the tiny figures of people walking along the bridge high above them. Sometimes this street feels so deep cut into the city it’s as if Iris is leading a subterranean existence.” These sentences, taken from The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, exemplify O’Farrell’s talent for melding description with penetrating insight. Appearing early in the novel, they allude to key themes in the story: the ways in which our lives are influenced by what has come before, including by grander occurrences that we have no control over, yet in whose shadow we find ourselves existing.

In The Vanishing Act, the narrative voice switches between the third person, focusing on the lives of Esme and Iris, and first person from the perspective of Esme’s sister, Kitty, whose role in Esme’s incarceration is part of the intrigue. The style is unsettling, with no clear-cut answer as to whether Esme has an intellectual disability or mental illness. At times I speculated whether she could be on the Autism spectrum, then wondered if I could be blinded by the prejudices of my own era, which have their origins in the very ideas that led to the incarceration of women like Esme. Other women in the asylum have tragic stories, and, like Esme, have experienced significant grief or trauma:

There was Maudie, who married Donald and then Archibald when she was still married to Hector, even though the one she really loved was Frankie, who was killed in Flanders… In the next beds were Elizabeth, who had seen her child crushed by a cart, and Dorothy, who was occasionally moved to strip off all her clothes.

In an interview with the Guardian, O’Farrell advised that these stories are all true; she came across them while researching conditions of asylums, and discovered that some of her acquaintances had had relations incarcerated.

While these days Esme’s presence in the asylum would be regarded as an abuse in and of itself, her treatment at the hands of the authorities is mostly portrayed with an understatement that serves to reveal its insidiousness.  When Esme spends the night at Iris’s house, she sleeps in her coat “buttoned up to her neck” and barricades the bedroom door with an armchair, revealing protective behaviours she learnt in the asylum. So it is in the asylum that Esme becomes docile. This was after all their intended purpose: to iron out the kinks in the personalities of rebellious women who bucked against what Charlotte Wood has called “the natural way of things.” The discipline meted out in the asylum via the punishment of individuality and the inculcation of “appropriate conduct” through brutality also results in Esme’s erasure. After her incarceration she became persona non grata to her family, but she also learns to vanish herself as a coping mechanism:

She shuts her mouth, closes her throat, folds her hands over each other and she does the thing she has perfected. Her specialty. To absent yourself, to make yourself vanish… Even breathing can remind them that you are there, so only very short, very shallow breaths. Just enough to stay alive. And no more… Concentrate. Really concentrate. You need to attain a state so that your being, the bit of you that makes you what you are, that makes you stand out, three-dimensional in a room, can flow out from the top of your head…

With this magical thinking, her discipline is complete. To be a good woman is to be a non-entity.

There is a cruel, ironic element in the way that Esme’s intellectual thirst is her downfall. She wants to acquire knowledge, but not the right kind. By refusing to husband hunt, she refuses the only sexual outlet her society permits, and thus denies herself a sanctioned expression of sexuality. Despite many of her peers ostracising her, a boy takes an interest in her, and her family pushes her to accept his invitations. She is initially uninterested at an intellectual level, but when he makes physical advances, she becomes curious. Alas, she has not been warned of the dangers that lie in wait for her as a woman; she cannot avoid becoming his prey. She gives birth in the asylum, where the staff assume she will simply forget about her child.

Esme’s sister, Kitty, encounters marital problems; her husband refuses consummation. Neither of them possess the requisite knowledge, and their times prevent them from seeking advice. When Kitty hears that Esme has given birth in hospital, she does not realise that her sister had been raped, and sees her child – the only evidence of a woman’s worth- through jealous eyes:

I don’t think, until that moment, I’d fully realised what had happened, what she had done. She had done that with him. And in me rose an anger. How had she known and not me? She was younger than me, she wasn’t as pretty as me, she certainly wasn’t as accomplished as me, she wasn’t even married and yet she had managed to…

Kitty takes possession of Esme’s son and spends the rest of her life erasing the memory of her sister in order to keep up the pretence that she has imbibed the requisite knowledge for successful womanhood.

The novel’s only flaw is that the juxtapositioning of Iris’s and Esme’s lives are a little too clean cut. Esme is unquestionably a victim; Iris has free reign, her own sexual transgressions going unpunished. These include an affair with a married man and a fledgling relationship with her step-brother. While these actions add complexity to Iris’s character, they downplay the ongoing presence of misogyny in contemporary women’s lives, and the way our behaviours and aspirations are still guided by the sexism that we have internalised. However, this qualm aside, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox is compulsively readable, heartbreaking, and endlessly though-provoking.