Wednesday 12 January 2022

A Feigned Madness by Tonya Mitchell


Fictional Drama / Fictional Biography
19th century 
New York

"Elizabeth Cochrane has a secret. She isn’t the madwoman with amnesia the doctors and inmates at Blackwell’s Asylum think she is. In truth, she’s working undercover for the New York World. When the managing editor refuses to hire her because she’s a woman, Elizabeth strikes a deal: in exchange for a job, she’ll impersonate a lunatic to expose a local asylum’s abuses. When she arrives at the asylum, Elizabeth realizes she must make a decision—is she there merely to bear witness, or to intervene on behalf of the abused inmates? Can she interfere without blowing her cover? As the superintendent of the asylum grows increasingly suspicious, Elizabeth knows her scheme—and her dream of becoming a journalist in New York—is in jeopardy. A Feigned Madness is a meticulously researched, fictionalized account of the woman who would come to be known as daredevil reporter Nellie Bly. At a time of cutthroat journalism, when newspapers battled for readers at any cost, Bly emerged as one of the first to break through the gender barrier—a woman who would, through her daring exploits, forge a trail for women fighting for their place in the world."

An outstanding story and brilliant research. It’s 1887 and Elizabeth Cochrane is fighting to get a job as a reporter for New York’s World newspaper, one of the city’s top dailies. However, she has a problem—her gender. In the Golden Age, very few women could get employment in newsrooms. Of those who achieved it, almost all had to write about ‘womanly’ topics such as fashion, flower galas and home decorating. 

Elizabeth was only interested in meaty topics and prepared to put herself in harm’s way to prove her ability. The editor of the World challenged her to get admitted as a patient to infamous Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum for ten days, then write an exposé. If she succeeded, he’d consider employing her.

How she tricked people into accepting that she was unhinged, and her experiences at Blackwell’s Island, make a dramatic story. The place was filthy, the staff were sadistic, and the patients suffered terrible abuse. Elizabeth ended up fighting for not only her own dream of independence and acceptance in a man’s world, but also the rights of those powerless and unable to fight for themselves. The flashbacks to her earlier life give a skilful contrast to the build-up of tension, danger, and terror she experiences at the asylum. 

This masterful and tightly constructed story is based on the true-life experiences of ‘Nellie Bly’, the pseudonym given Elizabeth by a previous editor. It is powerful and sometimes distressing, but also inspiring and unputdownable. The characters are skilfully portrayed, including minor ones, and from the opening page to the end, the narrative never lost pace. The end notes and bibliography are a welcome addition for anyone interested in reading more. 

Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds 

© Robyn Pearce
 e-version reviewed

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