At the close of the Victorian Era, society still expected middle-class women to be “the angels of the house,” even as a select few strived to become something more. In this time of change, Emeline Evans dreamed of becoming a nurse. But when her father dies unexpectedly, Emeline sacrifices her ambitions and rescues her family from destitution by marrying John Dorr, a reserved lawyer who can provide for her family.
John moves Emeline to the remote Missouri town of Labellum and into an unusual house where her sorrow and uneasiness edge toward madness. Furniture twists and turns before her eyes, people stare out at her from empty rooms, and the house itself conspires against her. The doctor diagnoses hysteria, but the treatment merely reinforces the house’s grip on her mind.
Emeline only finds solace after pursuing an opportunity to serve the poor as an unlicensed nurse. Yet in order to bring comfort to the needy she must secretly defy her husband, whose employer viciously hunts down and prosecutes unlicensed practitioners. Although women are no longer burned at the stake in 1900, disobedience is a symptom of psychological defect, and hysterical women must be controlled.
A novel of madness and secrets, A White Room presents a fantastical glimpse into the forgotten cult of domesticity, where one’s own home could become a prison and a woman has to be willing to risk everything to be free.
From Netgalley in exchange for a review
It’s 1900 America, and Emeline’s father is dying of stomach cancer. Emeline has hopes to return to college to train in nursing, but these hopes are dashed when her father dies, and the family are forced into bankruptcy. Emeline takes the unusual step of approaching the Dorr family and asking if she could marry the son John, an up and coming lawyer.
Within months they are married and on the way to Labellum, a small town setting, where John has been sent to prove himself. The house they move into has been left fully furnished, and despite Emeline’s disquiet and dislike of the furnishings, John refuses to let her redecorate.
Emeline finds that married life is not what she expected – she finds her husband remote and unreachable, the house disturbing and frightening, and the day to day housework unrelenting and unappreciated. Lottie, her one housemaid, can only work 3 days a week and “lives out” as they cant afford to have someone living in. Not only that but she is heavily pregnant.
Emeline’s behaviour is soon marked as “hysterical” – she imagines people inhabiting empty rooms, the furniture moves of its own volition and there is a monster that lives in the woods. She is also confronted with the women of the town, few of whom are welcoming, and some are domineering and expect to be followed.
Rescue comes in the form of Emeline finding a purpose outside of the home – helping the poor with non medical issues (usually teaching people about germs). However, it’s not long before it becomes dangerous – she ends up performing an abortion on Lottie, which doesn’t go well and everything comes to a head.
The source of Emeline’s “hysteria” isnt fully explained, and you are not entirely convinced she isnt making at least some of it up – however, there is a hint when her brother James comes to visit that she has done similar things before and essentially overreacting to new experiences where she’s out of her comfort zone. The relationship with her husband John isn’t all her own fault, as he’s performing how he believes a new husband with a new job should act. It’s only after returning from a trip to St Louis where his behaviour changes for the better, but it only makes Emeline’s suspicions worse.
Had the book continued in the gothic style of her hysteria, I suspect I wouldn’t have finished the book – it would have suited a much shorter book. However, once Emeline got out of the house and found something useful for her to do, it became much more interesting. There are some flashbacks to when Emeline was slightly younger that shows her desire to help people, no matter if you have to do something legally wrong in order to do something morally right.
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About this author
As a reporter and community editor, Stephanie Carroll earned first place awards from the National Newspaper Association and from the Nevada Press Association. Stephanie holds degrees in history and social science. She graduated summa cum laude from California State University, Fresno.
Stephanie blogs and writes fiction in California where her husband is stationed with the U.S. Navy.