If you weren’t mad when you entered the gates, you will be soon enough…. Emilie Autumn tells a complex dual narrative of madness and mental institutions in her semi-autobiographical book The Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls. If the author’s name sounds familiar, it may be that you know her from her music career. Emilie Autumn has been one of my favorite musicians for over a decade by this point. Her dark lyrics, haunting voice, classically-influenced music, and unusual style appeal strongly to many goths, though Emilie tends to reject that label for herself. One of the recurring themes throughout her music is madness, especially how women struggling with mental illness are perceived and treated by society. In The Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls, she explores this topic more directly.
Emilie’s novel tells two overlapping stories: the semi-autobiographical account of her own stay in a mental ward and the fictional story of Emily with a “y” who finds herself admitted to a particularly depraved asylum in Victorian England. The book borrows the Victorian epistolary format, being told mainly through diary entries and letters. The “Hospital Entries” are part narrative account, part stream-of-consciousness ramblings about Emilie’s experiences in the psychiatric ward of a hospital after being forced to check herself in following a suicide attempt. Interspersed between these are “Asylum Letters,” mysteriously sent to Emilie by her Victorian alter-ego. Taken together, the two stories expose the failings of society’s approach to mental health over the past couple of centuries, and show how the toxic combination of misogyny, corruption, and stigma against mental illness seriously harms some of society’s most vulnerable members.
One of my favorite aspects of the story is Emilie’s exploration of the “Opheliac,” a variation on the “death and the maiden” trope. She first introduced the term in her 2006 album Opheliac, which features a song of the same name. A reference to Shakespeare’s Ophelia, who drowns herself offstage in Hamlet, “Opheliac” mockingly refers to “the disease of the melancholy, mad, and female.” At a deeper level, “Opheliac” serves to point out society’s obsession with romanticizing and sexualizing suicidal women. In The Asylum, Emilie explains how Ophelia and other suicidal woman became popular subjects of Victorian artists, who often used the opportunity to depict women in diaphanous nightgowns with scandalously displayed ankles. Emilie even throws in a subtle reference to L’Inconnue de la Seine (or, “The Unknown Woman of the Seine), whom death and the maiden enthusiasts will recognize as the unknown woman whose body was pulled from the Seine River in the late 1880s and used to create a death mask which became a beauty icon and inspired several works of art and literature. There’s so much to unpack in this concept, and the more you listen to Emilie’s music and read her works, the more layers you find.
The Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls was initially published as a limited edition full-color hardcover book back in 2008, and I was lucky enough to grab a second edition when she did one more reprint in 2010. These original editions came complete with colorful illustrations and interactive folds and flaps. Since then, Emilie has been working on making the book more accessible to a wider audience, while also preparing to adapt the story into a musical and possibly a film. Last year, she finally released the long-anticipated audiobook version, which she narrated herself after making a significant amount of edits and additions. The Asylum ebook is the newest incarnation of the story, though Emilie has teased a paperback release in the near future. The ebook is even more interactive than the initial editions, with full-color illustrations and hyperlinks. The book is peppered with puzzles and riddles that can unlock new songs from the Asylum website and also provide clues to a buried treasure that Emilie has hidden for her fans to find. You can download your own copy of The Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls from Amazon. A word of warning, however: the book deals in detail with subjects like sexual abuse, medical abuse, suicide, self-harm, and abortion, which some readers may find triggering.