Talking rats, striped stockings, a good cup of tea, and a long stay at the most “experimental” madhouse in Victorian London. What else would one expect from Emilie Autumn?
I have been a huge fan of Emilie Autumn since 2005, when I stumbled across her first album accidentally. Her book, The Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls, came out in 2009, but because of the cost (let’s just say it ain’t cheap) I have only now been able to get a copy.
The Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls is hard to define, given that it explores the relationship between reality and fiction and the past and the present. The contemporary segment of the book could be seen as Emilie’s memoirs covering her stay in a psychiatric institution at some point in the early twenty-first century, while the historical segment tells the tale of Emily, a girl living in the nineteenth (or perhaps, given references to their being a king, very early twentieth) century. Emily’s story is not so much a serious work of historical fiction as a mishmash of different tropes associated with Victorian London and the horror movie version of an asylum. Oh, and the rats talk. If you’re a fan of Emilie’s music you’ll see a lot of references to her on-stage persona, accompanying performers, and various song titles and lyrics in Emily’s story. If you’re not a fan of her music, that wouldn’t prevent you from understanding the story. A passing knowledge of Emilie’s personal life might prove enlightening, though, when she makes references to an unnamed “famous” ex-boyfriend on occasion.
Emilie writes in much detail about her manic depression, and she is extremely candid about how it affects her and what it feels like. The book starts with a description of her suicide attempt, and being interrupted by her then-boyfriend. A few days later she checks herself into a psychiatric hospital voluntarily because she has been informed she can’t get her prescriptions refilled until she does. Once she checks in, she can’t check out, and her boyfriend leaves her without saying goodbye and without returning to visit. What follows is an account of horrible food, threats at the hands of other patients, and sexual harassment courtesy of the aptly named Dr. Sharpe. The longer she stays in, the more her sanity slips, and eventually she beings receiving notes from the other Emily.
The book has several major recurring themes: mental illness (generically known as “madness” most of the time), sexual violence, gender roles, and striped stockings. Emilie and Emily both use theirs to store everything from keys to paperclips to dead rats; is that not a theme? A lot of the plot of this book is less than straight-forward, and the best thing is to just go with it. Don’t question, don’t over think, just go along. This isn’t a fantasy book and it’s not about time travel; it’s about the imprint the past leaves on the present world.
One of the most interesting aspects is how, as time goes on, the two stories begin to blend together. When Emily is first introduced, her voice and writing style are very unique and easy to distinguish from Emilie’s, yet as time goes on the two voices become more and more alike, and their stories get stranger. Sprinkled liberally throughout are drawings (some related to the plot, some not so much…) and hand-written excepts from Emilie’s diary. The book itself if incredibly beautiful, and more of a coffee table book than anything else.
I really enjoyed it, though perhaps enjoyed is the wrong word considering it gets very dark in places. This is a book completely unlike anything I’ve ever read, and it is quite difficult to describe. All I can say is I hope Emilie is able to move forward with her dream to turn it into a West End musical.