Today it is a pleasure to welcome Anne Goodwin to Swirl and Thread. Anne published her third novel, Matilda Windsor is Coming Home on May 29th. With World Mental Health Day on October 10th, Anne was inspired to write a fascinating post entitled ‘Sweet delusions in Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home: how I entered the mind- set of a character with a diagnosis of chronic schizophrenia‘.
When writing Matilda Windsor is Coming Home, Anne drew on the language and landscapes of her native Cumbria and on the culture of long-stay psychiatric hospitals where she began her clinical psychology career.
You can read Anne’s wonderful piece below but first let me introduce to Matilda Windsor is Coming Home.
[ About the Book ]
In the dying days of the old asylums, three paths intersect.
Henry was only a boy when he waved goodbye to his glamorous grown-up sister; approaching sixty, his life is still on hold as he awaits her return.
As a high-society hostess renowned for her recitals, Matty’s burden weighs heavily upon her, but she bears it with fortitude and grace.
Janice, a young social worker, wants to set the world to rights, but she needs to tackle challenges closer to home.
A brother and sister separated by decades of deceit. Will truth prevail over bigotry, or will the buried secret keep family apart?
[ Guest Post ]
Sweet delusions in Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home: how I entered the mind- set of a character with a diagnosis of chronic schizophrenia
My new novel, Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home, is about a seventy-year-old woman who has been confined in a psychiatric hospital since the age of twenty. It’s partly inspired by my former career as a clinical psychologist. Although I’m more acquainted than the average novelist with the weird world of the mental hospital, I’ve never been an inpatient or taken mind-numbing antipsychotic medication. I haven’t been given a stigmatising diagnosis or been forced to live in close proximity to strangers for fifty years. How did I get inside Matty’s head?
Initially through my professional experience, as you might expect. My psychology training emphasises the continuities between ‘sickness’ and ‘wellness’ and conceptualises mental health difficulties not in terms of psychiatric diagnosis (which says little about the person behind the label) but as interaction between vulnerabilities and stress. In other words, to emphasise what’s happened to the individual: the novelist’s bread-and-butter.
I had a varied role in the hospital: in addition to clinical, training and organisational work, I was expected to undertake research. A participant-observation study, where I sat silently soaking up the emotional atmosphere of a ward for an hour a week for a year, was sometimes uncomfortable but it expanded my understanding of institutional dynamics.
These professional experiences were far in the background when I embarked on this novel in 2014. Although there’s a member of staff as one of my three point-of-view characters, I wanted a patient to be the novel’s beating heart.
I wanted readers to empathise and identify with Matty, even though she might seem strange. But I didn’t want to compromise on the severity of her disturbance. I wasn’t writing ‘schizophrenia-lite’.
One way I achieved this was by delving deeply into her backstory: what had happened to her before her admission to Ghyllside psychiatric hospital. Originally, I wrote this 30,000 word account to enrich my perception of her character, but, when I discovered enough twists and turns to interest readers, I decided to include a condensed version in the book.
The injustice she had suffered, with no hope of redress, could destabilise anyone. But what form would that instability take? I could have made her violent, or plunged her into severe depression, but I wanted to make her pleasant company for readers. How could she lose her baby, her home, her family, her future and remain upbeat?
When our circumstances are unbearable, we can all close our minds to the truth. Think of the denial of stage of bereavement; think of some of the responses to the climate emergency and the pandemic. As TS Eliot said, humankind cannot bear too much reality.
When readers first meet Matty after fifty years’ incarceration, she doesn’t consider herself a psychiatric patient. Instead, she is a society heiress on a country estate, the nurses are servants, her fellow patients are houseguests and the psychiatrists are journalists. When informed the hospital is closing, she concludes (in 1990) it’s being requisitioned for injured soldiers in the Second World War.
I wrote Matty’s scenes by juggling two conflicting realities – hers and the hospital staff’s – and trying to make them seem equally plausible. But Matty’s version becomes less sustainable when the past begins to encroach on the present. When she tries to alert the staff to her unease, they pass it off as delusions of grandeur.
I enjoyed following Matty’s logic, and readers seem to have enjoyed this too. But I might have been puzzled by her indifference to the other patients/guests if not for the memory of an adventure holiday in Tanzania.
Travelling by truck, sleeping in tents with little space between them, we spent our days and nights in a group. Yet we didn’t make friends. It wasn’t until the end of the holiday, when we had our own hotel rooms, that we began to get to know each other. Until then, we needed to balance the lack of privacy with a psychological distance.
This helped me understand how, in the hospital, people who’d lived alongside each other for decades failed to connect. It wasn’t due to mental disturbance but the privations of the institution. Thankfully, the old asylums are now extinct.
The closure of the long-stay psychiatric hospitals at the end of the twentieth century represented a major social change. While this is well documented in the academic literature, I hadn’t read any novels that accurately portray this transition, so I thought I’d write one! And here it is!
[ Bio ]
Anne Goodwin writes entertaining fiction about identity, mental health and social justice. She is the author of three novels and a short story collection published by small independent press, Inspired Quill. Her debut novel, Sugar and Snails, about a woman who has kept her past identity a secret for thirty years, was shortlisted for the 2016 Polari First Book Prize. Her new novel, Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home, which has been featured on BBC Radio Cumbria, is inspired by her previous incarnation as a clinical psychologist in a long-stay psychiatric hospital. Subscribers to her newsletter can download a free e-book of prize-winning short stories
Twitter – @Annecdotist
Buy directly from the publisher, Inspired Quill: https://www.inspired-quill.com/product/matilda-windsor-is-coming-home/
Amazon US https://www.amazon.com/dp/1913117057/
Other purchase options via Matilda Windsor link tree https://linktr.ee/matildawindsor