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A Feigned Madness: Book Review

A Feigned Madness by Tonya Mitchell

What's it about?

Elizabeth Cochrane has a secret. 

She isn’t the madwoman with amnesia the doctors and inmates at Blackwell’s Asylum think she is.

In truth, she’s working undercover for the New York World. When the managing editor refuses to hire her because she’s a woman, Elizabeth strikes a deal: in exchange for a job, she’ll impersonate a lunatic to expose a local asylum’s abuses.


"The foul weather was unrelenting, as if it had conspired with the asylum to cloak us in misery. Wind pressed against the windows and found its way through the sills, persistent to embrace the weakest among us. In Tillie, it had found victory; she shook without cessation. She was terrified to bring attention to herself, but each convulsive shudder was worse than the last. Each time a nurse came in or glanced her way, she looked as if she would jump from her skin."

"A few minutes later, we entered Allegheny Cemetery, and McCain slowed the horse. The air was sweet with the smell of clover. The paved road stretched out before us, a twisting gray ribbon threading among the tombstones. McCain halted the horse under the shade of a tree near the lane, jumped down, and came around. I didn't know his intentions, but I didn't care. Somehow, it seemed right to be with him in this lovely place, on this lovely day."

My thoughts:

This book had been on my radar for a while. I kept seeing it advertised on Facebook, then I followed the author, and I knew it was going to be just my cup of tea. A pioneering and headstrong woman, a coal-choked New York city, and a harrowing Victorian asylum – what was not to love?

I was lucky enough to be interviewed by Kim Taylor Blakemore for her 7 authors event in September, and this was how I came in contact with Tonya Mitchell, the author of A Feigned Madness. She so very kindly reached out and asked if we’d like to read each other’s work. I said, ‘YES PLEASE!’

A Feigned Madness is the story of the pioneering journalist, Elizabeth Cochrane, also known as Nelly Bly. Under the pseudonym, Nelly Brown, she managed to have herself incarcerated into one of the most notorious asylums in America. As it turned out, it wasn’t all too difficult to get in, but getting out was not so easy. She was in there for ten days, and what a harrowing ten days they were.

Mitchell writes some truly terrifying scenes of daily abuse, primarily at the hands of two sadistic nurses. Overseen by the, at best incompetent and at worst perverse, superintendent, these two nurses humiliate, starve, drug, and beat the life and hope out of patients. And as suspected, most of these “insane” inmates are simply poor, unfortunate women. As events snowball towards a nerve-racking climax (no spoilers here!), you start to wonder if and how Nelly is ever going to make it out alive.

Meanwhile, other chapters shift to a few years earlier, showing us snippets of Elizabeth’s history, how she came to New York, and who the handsome and mysterious George McCain is and what he means to her. These held some of my favourite scenes, depicting life in New York on both sides of the social scale. Mitchell incorporated the quintessentially Victorian obsession, the language of flowers, to build romantic tension, and she shone a light on some more minor characters who shaped Elizabeth into the woman she became. These tender, loving, even sometimes humorous moments provided relief from the chilling scenes in the asylum.

This is a heart-rending Victorian gothic novel, made even more distressing because it is based on true events (with only some artistic licence used by the author). The note at the back of the book is also fascinating and I would urge you not to overlook it. For strong world-building, a cracking and fast-paced plot, and a heroine you can’t help but root for, I highly recommend this debut novel.

About the author:

From her website:

"Tonya received her BA in journalism from Indiana University. Her short fiction has appeared in The Copperfield Review, Words Undone, and The Front Porch Review, as well as in various anthologies, including Furtive Dalliance, Welcome to Elsewhere, and Glimmer and Other Stories and Poems, for which she won the Cinnamon Press award in fiction.

She is a self-professed Anglophile and is obsessed with all things relating to the Victorian period. She is a member of the Historical Novel Society North America and resides in Cincinnati, Ohio with her husband and three wildly energetic sons."

Check out her website and the book here. 

About the author

Delphine Woods

Delphine Woods

Delphine Woods is an author who loves to write historical mysteries and thrillers. 

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