The Mental Deficiency Act 1913 allowed for the institutionalisation of people considered ‘feebly-minded’ or ‘morally defective’ and it is under this act that protagonist of The Girl Behind the Gates, Nora Jennings, is incarcerated.
Her crime? Becoming pregnant out of wedlock. The ramifications for this back in the Britain of 1939 are then retold through Nora in a shocking and brutal account of what it is to have your life and freedom taken from you.
Based on a true story, author Brenda Davies, a consultant psychiatrist, tells the story of Nora (not her real name) in a gripping, if at times difficult to read, story, following her from her life before Hillinghurst and out the other side. Told in two parts the first section is entirely Nora’s narrative and the reader feels every injustice along the road as she is ripped from her previous comfort and subjected to the horrors of life in a mental hospital of that time. In today’s world where mental health is rapidly gaining more understanding and parity with that of physical health it is difficult to comprehend what people were forced to endure for nothing more than being melancholy or addicts or pregnant.
But just as Nora’s story hits a climactic point part two begins and the reader is introduced to the psychiatrist who will help Nora. She is an important part of the story as this is where the reader starts to see Nora process all that has happened to her and appreciate that despite all that has happened she can move forward. However, the personal woes of the psychiatrist seem at odds with the rest of the story. Yes, it is helpful to know that she too had struggles and was inspired by her patient, but perhaps a novel about Nora is not the place to hear about her marital breakdown. Furthermore, some things are never fully explained – who is Martin, for example?
Despite this, however, the reader will smile, laugh, weep and dream along with Nora as she teaches us all that there is always hope: “I can live. I can love. I can be.”