Bleakly Hall

It is 1920. Monty is a nurse who has come to work at Bleakly Hall, a run-down hydropathic institution, which during the War had been turned into a military hospital. This is run in a haphazard way by the two Blackwood brothers, both damaged by the War, one physically, the other psychologically. She has her own reasons for coming there, since she has matters to settle with Captain Foxley, a permanent guest at the hydro, whom we soon realise is a chaotic and dangerous character.
The story begins to unfold as sharp, cleverly-written social comedy, but soon there are flashbacks to the characters’ experiences in wartime, mostly terrifying and brutal. I really admire the way that the author manages the shift in tone so adroitly, without the characters, presented in such different contexts, losing credibility.
Modern fiction set around the Great War usually arouses the sceptic in me, but Elaine de Rollo’s Bleakly Hall gets just about everything right. The period detail is accurate, the investigation into what war does to people is acute, and the psychology, even of the most outrageous characters, is believable.
Captain Foxley is a real creation; he is spectacularly shell-shocked (We first meet him madly yelling out to the dead men of his old platoon) and yet he behaves with ruthless rationality. He is a man utterly without conscience, cuckolding one of his hosts and bankrupting the other with no twinge of conscience, and ruthlessly in his sexual pursuit of any available woman. It is as though demanding that life repay him for what he has undergone during the War. Yet he is also a hero; the embodiment of the qualities that make a successful trench-raider, he is the spirit of war come to haunt the peace.
One thing that the book presents very well is the ambivalence of survivors. War’s horrors are strong in their memories, yet many of them have a nostalgia for a time when they were most keenly tested and needed. In the War’s aftermath, they are dated, left-overs. The run-down hydro is the ideal setting for this, as Elaine de Rollo gets good comedy from the incursion into this backwater of some bright young things, and a modern journalist. (The book avoids, however, the kind of heavy symbolism that you find in, for example, J. G. Farrell’s Troubles, where a similarly dilapidated hotel gets rather overwhelmed by the weight of the meanings the author imposes on it.)
Elaine de Rollo teaches (under another name) at Napier University in the building that used to be Craiglockhart hospital, the most famous of all the hydros that became military hospitals. She brings alive not its moment of historic significance, when Rivers tried out his talking cure on Siegfried Sassoon, and Wilfred Owen was encouraged to write poems as therapy, but its hydropathic other existence, as a centre where hypochondriacs were given quack cures and sugar pills, and made to drink foul-tasting medicinal waters. This choice allows her to come at the subject of the Great War from an unusual angle. I can’t think of a recent novel set in these times that I have enjoyed more.

2 Comments

  1. Posted May 4, 2011 at 7:21 pm | Permalink

    When is your book coming out? Will it have an annotated bibliography? Is a bibliography available now?

  2. Posted May 4, 2011 at 9:57 pm | Permalink

    My book…
    It’s a bit in limbo at the moment, as I’m rewriting my thesis to suit a more general audience. And I keep getting distracted by other projects. But it will happen.


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