Kenwood’s painted bridge leads to a Victorian visionary novel for Wallace
The fake bridge at Kenwood inspired Wendy Wallace’s dark Victorian story
When Wendy Wallace realised the painted bridge at Kenwood that she’d looked on fondly for years was an illusion, it gave her an idea for a book. “I found the bridge such a great metaphor. When I used to go to Kenwood once in a blue moon, I never realised it was a sham bridge. One day I walked down toward it and realised it was a rotting piece of scenery. I like the idea of something you can see, but isn’t quite there, an illusion.”
Wallace’s debut novel, The Painted Bridge, takes its title from the fake scenery on the Heath, where the author swims regularly in the ladies’ pond. The story is set in the suffocating atmosphere of a Victorian asylum, with a main character, Anna, who is put into psychiatric care after her husband discovers she is a visionary. “She sees the bridge through a window and thinks, ‘That will be my way across’. Walking there very frequently, I turned the metaphor over in my mind,” says Wallace, who is based in Muswell Hill.
Wallace had already taken inspiration from a collection of photographs by Dr Hugh Diamond, who pioneered ‘psychiatric photography’, a process whereby diagnoses of mental health were thought to be possible through the medium of photography. The photographs were of women in his care, ghosts of a psychological experiment. “I think the reason that that idea grabbed me was because the theme of seeing interests me. A lot of women have been visionaries throughout history and probably a lot of them have been called mad because it is a highly subjective, unscientific thing. I liked the idea of a heroine who saw visions.”
The story is a paranoid and suspenseful one, a constant tussle between absurdity and normality, freedom and confinement. Main character Anna is in tumult, a guinea pig imprisoned in a parlour of macabre psychiatric experimentation, while visions occur to her. The story is about many things but above all it is about vision and illusion – even the main character is mystifying. “I wanted it to be a question mark for the reader over what her mental state was. I do think we are all on a spectrum of mental health,” says Wallace
The Painted Bridge is Wallace’s first work of fiction, after two non-fiction books. Daughter of Dust, about Sudan, and Oranges & Lemons, a study of a Camden school. Both works were inspired by her 15 years in journalism and were so succesful, Wallace’s agent suggested she write fiction. “I didn’t take much convincing whatsoever. That’s it, I was off. It is very different from what I was doing in some ways, but lots of people thought that Daughter of Dust was a fiction work and feature writing can be closer to fiction in craft. For me the idea of researching a novel was so appealing and so similar to what I had been doing.”
Since writing the book - which included researching in the Bedlam archives - Wallace has immersed herself in the dark and experimental world of the Victorians.
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She now blogs regularly on little-known oddities of Victorian culture. “The blog has taken the place of journalism for me. Obviously it is not really like what I used to do, except in the pleasure of little stories. I really enjoy the research aspect and the novel I’m writing now is also set in that period, although slightly later, in 1882. So the research has carried on.“
The Victorians left such a rich heritage, it is a common era for novelists to set their stories.
Wallace did worry that she might overlap with existing writers, but her curiosity for the topic overcame any worry. “I really did worry I was the only reading woman in the Western world not to have read Fingersmith. I have read it now, but I hadn’t read it and people would say when I told them about my novel, ‘Oh, just like Fingersmith’, and I would think, ‘Oh heavens, the book I’m writing has already been written. But of course, it never has. I was so interested in the idea of the photographs that I just had to stick with that. I also had to remind myself that there are very few new stories and yet everyone is going to be original.”
The Painted Bridge is published by Simon and Schuster at �14.99. Wendy Wallace will appear at the Hampstead and Highgate Literary Festival on September 11 with Kate Colquhoun in Murder and Madness in Victorian England. Tickets from www.hamhighlitfest.com.