By: Grace Hitchcock
Publisher: Barbour Books
Publication Date: January 2020
Reviewed by: Skyler Boudreau
It’s the 1880’s, and Edyth Foster is a wealthy, thriving, woman in New York. Much to the scorn of her peers, she makes a habit of going against the grain and engaging in typically masculine pursuits like fencing. When her uncle, responsible for the fortune Edyth’s parents left her until her twenty-fifth birthday, finds a loophole in their will allowing him to claim the fortune instead, he takes full advantage of it. Edyth is sent away to an insane asylum, both removing her from the picture allowing him full access to her fortune and putting an end to her eccentric behavior.
During this time period, women were expected to fully submit to the demands of an exclusively male-dominated society or risk being labeled “problematic.” An abundance of men chose to have their “problematic” sisters, wives, and daughters committed to insane asylums. The women were placed there with ill-intentions, not because they were genuinely struggling with their mental health, but to silence them and as punishment for not following the strict demands that their toxic culture placed on them.
Asylums were also used to get women out of the way of their male relatives. Men could commit their wives if they became interested in a different romantic partner and didn’t want to cheat. In The Gray Chamber, Edyth’s Uncle Boris has her committed because a stipulation in her parents’ will allows their fortune to pass to him rather than her if she either dies without children or is diagnosed as insane and sent to an asylum. A woman’s word was not taken seriously during this time. They were often dismissed as hysterical, as Edyth is throughout the novel. Commitment was a simple solution to a man’s problem with a female relative, and one that was difficult for a woman to fight against.
Author Grace Hitchcock paints this difficult history in broad and commanding brush strokes. She forces the audience to reflect on this dark time period and what it did to half of the population. She explores how easy it was for men to take advantage of their power within society and have women locked away for their own financial, personal, or political gain. She fearlessly guides her readers into this era and when her audience emerges, they will do so with a new interest in women’s history.
The Gray Chamber also explores the difficulty women faced when entering a predominantly male field. Edyth is very interested in fencing. She is one of the best students in her friend Bane’s fencing club. It’s not a hobby that is considered fitting for a young woman, and she faces opposition from not just her family and peers, but from some fellow club members as well. During a scene in the beginning of the novel, one of the other fencing students is rude to her. Upon expressing her discomfort, he responds with, “‘Please. We all know, Edyth, that you are one of the boys. No need to pretend you don’t hear worse, but it is a shame that you don’t dress up more often.’” (pg. 54) This is a common occurrence even today. Her male peer harasses her because of her gender and then tries to laugh it off by claiming she is one of them. He doesn’t respect her because of her gender, and then tries to ignore it as an excuse for the harassment. Hitchcock makes a point to address similar gender issues and inequities throughout the novel.
While The Gray Chamber places wonderful emphasis on these cultural issues, it does have some weaknesses. A lot of the action sequences are cut out completely. There’s a scene where a detective is hired to sneak into the asylum where Edyth’s friends suspect she is imprisoned. He needs to find a way into the asylum and a safe way to sneak away again. That entire section of the novel is cut out. Rather than show this sequence happening, the detective’s intentions are stated, and then he isn’t heard from again until after all of the action has happened, when it’s briefly mentioned that he was successful. A similar situation happens when her friends concoct a plan to rescue her. The first half of the plan, breaking into the asylum with a larger group of people, is completely skipped over. Both scenes could have added a lot of suspense to the rescue itself, but the opportunity was lost. It happens several other times throughout the novel too. Removing most of the action sequences removes the tension. As there isn’t much driving the climax forward, the pacing feels off.
Reading this novel did interest me in learning more about women’s history during this time period, and it has some great commentary on the way women were treated during the 1800’s. It’s an easy novel for history lovers to get through. However, the plot was a definite weakness.
Quill says: This book is a good way to jump start an interest in women’s history!