Chances are you’ve never heard of Emilie Autumn unless you move in very particular musical circles; I very much stumbled across her when someone referenced her in a blog. Her style is self-described as ‘victoriandustrial’ with a bit of musical theatre thrown in, which isn’t everyone’s cup of tea but something I actually quite like (if you want to check her out I’d start with Opheliac, which is generally considered to be her best album). She’s bipolar and an outspoken feminist, both of which feed into pretty much everything she does. She’s occasionally a bit controversial in her comments and her aesthetic has garnered accusations of romanticising mental illness, but overall I like her and her music has actually helped me through some tough times.
In 2009 Autumn self-published The Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls to accompany the tour she was on and is based on the time she spent in a mental institution. Part autobiography, part historical novel, part fantasy, AFWVG is an odd mish-mash of styles mixed in with handwritten notes, recipes and photographs including shots of Autumn herself and as a whole looks stunning.
I would definitely describe this as a Marmite book: either it works for you or it doesn’t.
The fictional half of the book is told in letters ‘received’ by Autumn during her time in the mental institution. Emily-with-a-Y, a Victorian violin prodigy who is condemned to life in The Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls, a place where vulnerable girls are mistreated and abused, and ultimately part of sinister dealings by the corrupt Asylum doctors. It’s fairly standard fare, but for the most part it’s executed reasonably well. Emily-with-a-Y is likeable and very human, although she does fall prey to the ‘Chosen One’ trope a little as the Asylum doctors find her a little too interesting for no apparent reason. There are also a few issues with overly-loquacious style and structure – there are places where the action begins to pick up pace only to be followed by a whole chapter describing the food at the Asylum – but I found it relatively enjoyable and, with a good editor (which will be happening now that Autumn has signed with a publishing house) it definitely has potential.
You do need to let historical accuracy go a little which people have complained about, but I don’t think that that was what Autumn was going for. Although her description can be a little clunky at times she does create a vivid, gritty world that holds genuine fear for the female characters and, although the villains are exaggerated, she draws parallels between their attitudes towards women and sentiments that are still held by some today that manage to cut close to the bone.
But it’s the autobiographical parts of the book that are by far the more interesting. Autumn bares her soul in these sections, drawing on things that she wrote around the time she was committed to create not just an account of her time in the mental institution, but a holistic look at what it means to be ‘crazy’. She’s definitely not always likeable in these parts, but she’s brutally honest about it and it’s both harrowing and beautiful. These parts aren’t for the faint hearted – the three diaries she includes sections of are very difficult to read – but I would honestly say it’s worth it. If you’ve ever been through anything similar then Emilie’s thoughts and experiences will probably speak very personally to you.
Unfortunately, I get the feeling that Autumn became more interested in the fictional world that she created than telling her own story because the autobiographical chapters become less and less frequent and don’t receive any proper conclusion. Instead she meshes the two worlds she’s written about together, which is fair enough, but I would have liked some closure or reflective thoughts on her time in the institution. I would definitely call this my main complaint because I enjoyed (although maybe that’s not the right word) the autobiographical parts much more than the fiction, although I realise that how much Autumn tells us is entirely up to her as it is very personal.
I’m not sure I could say that I recommend this book. It’s definitely not everyone’s cup of tea and I know that a lot of people didn’t like it, either because of the faults in the composition of the fiction or because the autobiography didn’t connect with them, and I can definitely understand why. I have to say that I’m glad I read it though because it spoke to me personally. I think it’s the kind of book each individual would have a different experience with, so if it sounds like your kind of thing then check it out. Just make sure you have a strong stomach.