Dancing at the Asylum, Marilyn Ricci
Quirky Press, 2021 £5.00
Blurring the genres
Dancing at the Asylum tells the story of Carlton Hayes Hospital in South Leicestershire, originally Leicestershire and Rutland Lunatic Asylum. The asylum is real, and the book is dedicated to those who died at the asylum between 1908 and 1994, buried in an unmarked mass grave.
Throughout, the pamphlet blurs genres in several ways. Firstly, although it is formatted in lines and stanzas resembling poetry, it functions in a way that’s similar to a novel. This work is highly narrative and serves to tell two characters’ stories — we learn how Edward was traumatised fighting in the Second World War, and how Mary has had multiple pregnancies out of wedlock, resulting in miscarriage or adoption.
The language is undoubtedly poetic — take Edward’s description of one of his comrades:
Trooper Doyle’s face was a freckle
under a red shock of hair, blue orbs
circled in white desert dust.
However, the ultimate purpose of the poetry remains to tell a story, and to characterise Edward and Mary. Ideas of sanity and insanity, and how we treat those whom society deems mentally ill, are explored not through abstract imagery but through human tales.
At times, this pamphlet also seems to cross over from poetry into script, with moments of dialogue acting to move the story forward. For example, we learn through dialogue that (on admittance to the asylum) Mary is pregnant, and not for the first time:
When did you last have relations, Mary?
Aunt Jane came with a cake
No, a man. [...]
You’re three months gone.
This snippet of conversation conveys the facts of Mary’s situation at the same time as revealing her vulnerability and naiveté.
Perhaps the most significant way in which Dancing at the Asylum blurs boundaries is when it comes to fact and fiction. The setting’s a real one, but the characters are fictionalised. Despite this, the work paints a believable picture of these two individuals, even supplying admittance reports resembling facsimiles of real hospital documents.
Edward and Mary push against neat boundaries of sanity and insanity, presenting as complex, full human beings with rich histories. So it’s fitting that their stories be told in a way which is, in itself, innovative and genre-bending.
Creating a marker
Few pamphlets have as moving a dedication as this one. It is dedicated to
the 1,150 people who, between 1908 and 1994, died in Carlton Hayes Hospital […] and were buried nearby in a mass grave in Narborough cemetery without headstones or markers of any kind.
So the publication itself creates a kind of marker for the dead, a way of honouring them. Carlton Hayes was what we once called ‘a lunatic asylum’. And it had nearly twelve hundred people in its mass grave. What an utterly chilling thought!
But the particular detail that fired Marilyn Ricci’s imagination was the fact that the hospital also had ‘the best dance floor in the country’ — a light in much darkness, the thought of those dances.
And so she creates two fictional inmates, one (Edward) admitted in 1947 and the other (Mary) in 1966. In dramatic monologues, one for each character, she brings them alive, allows them to meet, and finally leaves them quick-stepping on the dance floor.
And the two characters do come alive. Edward, during active service in the Second World War, has been traumatised by an explosion. He’s haunted by the memories:
A long piercing whistle, we gag on oil, a flash
of green, amber and red. Marsh stares at the place
his hand used to be. Doyle lies in his seat
as though he’s asleep.
In the hospital, Edward sees Mary and recognises a particular ‘look on her face’. They have nothing in common, and everything in common. ‘Mary, don’t hold your grief like a prize’, he thinks.
Dancing at the Asylum is a beautiful piece of dramatisation. It begs for a radio broadcast where the characters speak while the listening imagination fills out the scene.
Edward comes from a classy background. Mary is made of more ordinary stuff. She doesn’t have his education, his references, his elegant choice of words.
But she has a moment of magic, and it’s transformative; it’s her marker. I won’t forget her:
Her hands feel like clouds soft with rain and, boy,
can she dance! Feather-footed in her scarlet dress,
rose in her hair and nothing like Marjorie on the