Maggie O’Farrell’s rebel Esme Lennox refuses to be the ‘perfect victim’ – even in an asylum


“It’s a common turn of phrase to speak of getting lost in a book … a book can also be where one finds oneself,” writes Rebecca Mead.

There are books that seem to comprehend us just as much as we understand them, or even more. There are books that grow with the reader as the reader grows, like a graft to a tree.

After a teacher introduced her to George Eliot, Middlemarch became the book of Mead’s life (eventually resulting in her bibliomemoir, The Road to Middlemarch).

When I was 16, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by British writer Maggie O’Farrell became the book of my life.

Set between the 1930s and the late 20th century, the novel is inspired by the real-life stories of incarcerated women that emerged in the aftermath of the Thatcher government’s policy of deinstitutionalisation.

It centres on Esme Lennox, who survives a childhood tragedy and a cholera epidemic in colonial India. Shades of Mary Lennox from Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden (a book O’Farrell loved as a child) can be seen here. (In fact, she has said she unconsciously drew on it.) However, Esme’s story can also be read as an homage to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story The Yellow Wallpaper.

Upon the family’s return from India to Edinburgh, Esme grows up to become a “difficult” young woman. Burdened by Esme’s reluctance to find a husband and her disregard for banal social niceties, her parents incarcerate her in an asylum, where she spends the next six decades.

O’Farrell first read The Yellow Wallpaper at 16. She was taken aback by Gilman’s “clean, insouciant style” and the way she addressed the subjects of “oppression, illness, madness, marriage”.

And she saw in Perkins Gilman’s work a “demand to be heard, a demand to be under-stood, a demand to be acknowledged”. Those same demands underpin her depiction of Esme Lennox.

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‘I recognised a kindred spirit’

I can’t remember exactly what I was thinking when I took up my red biro and selected this novel from the summer reading catalogue my mother subscribed to, but it turned out to be an unexpectedly prescient choice. As I prepared to enter my final year of high school I was already getting ominous glimpses of the not-too-distant future.

My insular community in Perth’s northern suburbs still expected young women to have at least one eye trained on matrimony. While many of my peers and their parents were treating the forthcoming year 12 ball as a wedding rehearsal, I remained preoccupied by a “joke” told by a boy at a birthday party the previous year: “Why are women’s feet smaller than men’s? So they can stand closer to the kitchen sink!”

In Esme, I recognised a kindred spirit, and her experiences rendered visible the misogyny that pervaded my everyday life. I’ve re-read her story countless times: every time, it feels as urgent as ever. But now I’m in my early thirties, she speaks to me differently.

I can see beyond the immediate injustice of her situation and appreciate the subtle ways she resists oppression. Esme learns fighting back is not necessarily the most effective way to challenge power structures. Rather, she learns to “read” the logic of patriarchy and switches from overtly defying authority to quietly subverting it.

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A campaign of disobedience

Like all O’Farrell’s novels, The Vanishing Act offers a profound literary encounter. The writing is haunting and visceral, managing to be firmly grounded but simultaneously otherworldly. From childhood, Esme is naturally attuned to the minute and magical workings of the universe, finding wonder and serenity in the natural world:

She shut her eyes, held her breath, and listened. There it was. The weeping, the slow weeping, of rubber trees leaking their fluid. It sounded like the crackle of leaves a mile away, like the creeping of minute creatures. […] Esme tilted her head this way and that, still with her eyes shut tight, and listened to the sound of trees crying.

Esme’s status-conscious family do their best to stamp out her natural curiosity. As a very young child, she is strapped to a chair at lunchtime “[b]ecause, as her mother announced to the room, Esme must learn to behave”.

The restraint prevents her slipping under the dining table where, ensconced within the “illicit privacy of the cloth”, she can see the guests’ “shoes, worn down in odd places, the idiosyncrasies in lace-tying, blisters, calluses, who crossed their ankles, who crossed their knees, whose stockings had holes, who wore mismatched socks, who sat with a hand in whose lap”.

This scene is simultaneously endearing and startling; while it epitomises Esme’s inherent disregard for social convention, it also offers a startling premonition of her constrained future.

Like all Maggie O’Farrell’s novels, The Vanishing Act offers a profound literary encounter.
Sophie Davidson/Hachette

Despite these punishments, Esme continues her campaign of disobedience as an adolescent. She hides her embroidery down the side of the sofa in attempt to buy herself time to read. She has the audacity to leave home without a hat and to play Chopin loudly on the piano. And at a ball, she is discovered in an armchair with “one leg slung over the arm, a book in her lap, her legs wide apart under her skirt”.

On occasion, she literally fights back. While walking home from school on a foggy winter evening, Esme is surprised by a family acquaintance, Jamie Dalziell, the scion of a wealthy local family and the object of Esme’s mother’s matrimonial hopes.

Believing she is about to be attacked, Esme belts him “round the head with all the combined weight of her books”. Jamie, momentarily offended that Esme did not recognise him, quickly recovers and pressures her to go out with him, but she refuses, reminding him “it’s up to me” and declaring that she’d “rather stick pins in my eyes”.

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Restoring agency to the literary ‘mad woman’

But Esme’s rebellion cannot continue forever. As she gets older, she finds her individual agency is no match for the weight of societal expectation. Following her incarceration, she develops her “vanishing act”, a creative strategy that allows her to rebel inwardly, while protecting her from the punitive gaze of the asylum authorities.

It is most important to keep yourself very still. Even breathing can remind them that you are there, so only very short, very quick breaths. Just enough to stay alive. And no more … Think yourself stretched and thin, beaten to transparency. 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.

Esme’s ‘vanishing act’ allows her to rebel inwardly, protected from the punitive gaze of the asylum’s authorities.
Hans Eiskonen/Unsplash

It may seem odd to valorise Esme’s wilful self-absence in light of contemporary feminism’s emphasis on women’s strength and agency, and our awareness of the effects of trauma. But while her vanishing act resembles traumatic dissociation, it remains wilful and subversive. And it permits Esme to subtly undermine the authority of the asylum’s doctors and nurses and reject their image of her as degraded and helpless.

This is conveyed most powerfully in the novel’s closing pages, which speak back to the degradation of the “mad woman” through centuries of literature, from Jane Eyre onwards. I don’t want to give the ending away, so I’ll just say that when the asylum closes, Esme makes her unceremonious return to the “community” with vengeance in her heart.

There is a poignancy in Esme’s refusal to embody the mythical “perfect victim” – who is devoid of desire, hatred or blame. For my part, I will always cherish the way the older Esme is first introduced, staring through her cell window to conjure an entirely imagined freedom:

If Esme cares to gaze into the distance – that is to say, at what lies beyond the metal grille – she finds that, after a while, something happens to the focusing mechanism of her eyes. The squares of the grille will blur and, if she concentrates long enough, vanish. There is always a moment before her body reasserts itself, readjusting her eyes to the proper reality of the world, when it is just her and the trees, the road, and beyond. Nothing in between.

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