‘They were all very kind at Oxford,’ I assured her, for she had seemed to think they were not. ‘No one shunned me or ripped my stockings or took my bicycle on “loan”.’
‘So,’ said the Sister nodding as she slid the enormous bundle of silver keys into her pocket. ‘So. That was good.’
So starts Jennifer Dawson’s 1961 novel The Ha-Ha, her first novel; which won the 1962 James Tait Black memorial award for fiction. It tells the story of a young woman’s stay in a psychiatric hospital; the author had worked as a social worker in a similar place.
Our narrator; Josephine, a fragile, clever young woman, with an unspecified mental illness (possibly schizophrenia) has been carefully taken away from college life, when Josephine’s imagined private world begins to overtake her in public. Committed to hospital, Josephine is coaxed gradually toward returning to ‘normal life’ by a German sister. As Josephine begins to recover, her mind returns to the time before her hospitalisation, when she was still living with her mother, who disapproved of her daughter’s eccentricities and called her ‘the giggly one’.
“I thought of Mother reading her nightly portion, ‘stoking up’ as she would say, digesting a biscuit, or copulating, grey and withered, with Father, while round her raced the arthropods, the pigs, the hippopotami, the even-toed ungulates and ruminants (rumini?). They pranced and they danced, and I laughed and laughed. I had not laughed so loudly, so coarsely, since the Principal’s tea-party. Mother came rushing up flushed and anxious.
‘Josephine, my dear Josephine,’ she looked severe, but sad too. ‘Try to pull yourself together; I have not seen the giggly one for such a long time! What has happened to our good resolutions?”
Josephine’s mother we discover is now dead, an accident with an electric blanket – and Josephine has been left to exist in a world her imagination fills with animals. As the novel begins and Josephine is asked if the animals have retreated, her affirmative reply seeming to point to her recovery. Josephine is to be prepared for release, and in a bid to help rehabilitate her to regular life, she is given a job in the town, cataloguing a library for a Colonel and his wife. The society of people out in the so called normal world is one strewn with hazards for Josephine, interacting with people again can feel stressful, she doesn’t always understand the rules. One day she bumps into Helena an old college friend, a friend with no knowledge of Josephine’s illness and hospitalisation, Helena invites Josephine to a party, and Josephine is torn about whether to attend.
In the afternoons after she finishes her work, Josephine walks back to the hospital, stopping to sit for a while in a ha-ha on the edge of the hospital grounds. Here she meets Alasdair – a patient from the male side of the hospital. Alasdair is rather casual about the hospital rules and routines; his laid back air of world weary experience is instantly attractive to Josephine. Josephine talks to Alasdair about her work, the party that she does attend and which is not a success, and he regales her with tales from the men’s ward.
“The next day the world filled slowly with rain. It was the first for nearly two months, and everything was wrapped in a film of grey-green. It hung there like a screen before the summer world, and I wanted to run behind it and regain the dry landscape where I had been happy. I wanted to run behind it and hide from the Sister’s cries that followed me everywhere that Saturday:
‘Josephine, Josephine, was it a good party? Was Waterminster Place a happy place, dearie?”
Josephine begins a relationship with Alasdair – the first such relationship she has had. Alasdair takes Josephine on day out to the other side of the hill they see from the ha-ha. This day out is such a happy one for Josephine, but she is still fragile, and not really ready for the new world that Alasdair has opened up to her. When Alasdair leaves the hospital, it sparks a crisis for Josephine.
“I will swim back silently,” I thought, “as though I had never been absent.”
Josephine’s voice throughout this novel rings clear, funny, bright but vulnerable, Dawson’s narrative is both engaging and perceptive. Aside from the story of Josephine, Dawson’s novel also acts as a protest against many of the practices in such institutions at this time, as Dawson herself explains in her Afterword to my edition.
It would seem that Jennifer Dawson’s six novels are all out of print – and I would so like to read more of her work,