Good Reading : September 2006
16 goodreading ı SEPTEMBER 2006 One day Iris Lockhart receives a phone call in her frock shop in downtown Edinburgh. The male on the other end of the phone infor ms her that the psychiatric hospi- tal in which her great-aunt, Euphemia Lennox, is presently incarcerated is about to close down, and what does Iris propose to do about Euphemia? Iris is astounded.This is the first she has ever heard of Euphemia Lennox – and the one person who could throw light on the puzzle, her grandmother Kitty, has recently fallen victim to Alzheimer’s disease and is in a nursing home, unable to communicate coherently. So Iris goes to the hospital, Cauldstone, and there the administrators confirm that Euphemia Lennox is indeed her great-aunt. Iris learns that even though Esme had been called just that all her young life, in Cauldstone she has only ever been known as Euphemia because that is her official name, and no one takes any notice of any protestations by inmates. Iris also learns that Esme is a fiercely independent and keenly intelligent woman who has been hor- ribly wronged. At one point ‘Euphemia’ is awaiting the arrival of her admissions box, and the orderly explains: ‘All the stuff she had with her when she came in. However long ago that was. How long has it been, Euphemia?’ and when the old lady replies, in a clear, staccato voice: ‘Sixty- one years, five months, four days’, the orderly ‘chuckles like someone whose pet has just perfor med a favourite trick’. The shocking story of how Esme came to be incarcerated for ms the backbone of The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox. And the really tragic aspect of Esme’s fate is that it is based on true stories. Cauldstone is actually Craighouse, a Gothic pile which was once a psychiatric hospital and is now part of Napier University in Edinburgh. ‘I grew up just outside Edinburgh, in a place called North Berwick,’ Maggie told me over the phone, ‘and “Craighouse” was kind of slang. It was a bit like the bogeyman – your mother would threaten you with going to Craighouse, but only in a very lighthearted way. It closed in 1990 when the Community Care Act came in, when Thatcher decided to close down a lot of these psychiatric institutions. At that time there were a lot of stories in the media about young women who’d been sent to these places in the 1920s and ’30s for reasons of immorality, and then they’d just kind of languished there. A friend of mine told me about her grandmother’s cousin, who was sent to an asylum because she’d eloped to Ireland with a legal clerk.’ I had read that Maggie had tried to get into Craighouse while researching the book but had been thrown out by a security guard. ‘Yeah, it’s true!’ she laughed. ‘It was a really hot day, and I was car rying my son on my shoulders. It’s now part of a university and it was the summer holidays so the whole thing was cordoned off, but a friend of mine who’s there at the university had drawn me a very detailed map of the part of the building which houses the library, and the way in. The library used to be the morgue; for the students it holds a kind of fasci- nation, this for mer asylum. So I wandered in with this baby on my shoulders, and after about ten minutes a security guard said “Who are you?” I feigned ignorance but he chucked me out.’ cover story now you see her... MAGGIE O’FARRELL’s electrifying new novel, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, is the story of an injustice so grotesque that it almost defies belief. Yet it’s based on a number of true case histories. ALISON PRESSLEY spoke to the author about her haunting book.