Dark, gothic and so complicated that one character almost combusts in a symbolic explosion of spite and vitriol, The Painted Bridge contains some of the most beautiful and descriptive passages in contemporary fiction. The characters in Wallace’s exotic tale emerge as heroes and others as villains, but all of their lives are enhanced by depictions of the London fog and dirt rising out of the Victorian slime.
From the opening pages, we are made aware of the illicit machinations of Reverend Vincent Palmer, who incarcerates his wife, Anna, in Lake House, a private asylum for decorous ladies considered to be suffering from hysteria. The fact that Anna is unhappy in a boring marriage to Vincent takes on new significance when the reader realizes that she’s a lot more sane than we first give her credit for. Anna
is hardly neurotic or even obsessive-compulsive, making her imprisonment by Vincent all the more outrageous. Imbued with a sense of charity and determined to give proper response to a shipwreck, Anna had traveled to Wales to rescue a boy who was pulled from the water still breathing.
After being duped by Vincent’s imprecations, she finds herself far from her home in Dover and also from her kindly sister Louisa.
Almost at once, Anna is shut away in Lake House and ordered into the care of Fanny Makepeace, the asylum's officious matron
whose close proximity and cool, silent stare prickle Anna’s skin. We see through the lens of the era’s infant photographic techniques a view of life and death in an asylum that is perched on the edge of closure. Owner Querios Abse has been clinging to the old ways that until now have manifested in vile restraints, emetics
to cool the blood, and a dreaded rotary chair kept hidden in the basement treatment room.
The trials and tribulations of Anna, Querios, his wife, Emmeline, and daughter, Catherine--as
well as Lucas St. Clair, an avid young photographer--are rooted in the history of the period. Wallace makes every attempt to ensure historical accuracy in a tale where the new art and science of photography is viewed as a cutting-edge way of diagnosing madness.
It is hoped that these new tools will improve the capacity to help the mentally insane and even “lead us into the mind of patients.”
Handsome Lucas takes photos of the patients as Anna’s anger gives way to fear. She sits at her window post in the day room among the screaming lunatics and looks at the wall photos of
the women, who seem afraid, angry and amused. She watches for Louisa and for Vincent, for the very moment that they will arrive to collect her. Forced to listen to the sound of rain on the tin roof and the formidable tones of Mrs. Makepeace, there
is a growing awareness of the oddness of Anna’s situation as her hopes of returning to London gradually fade.
Whisper and innuendo heighten the cruel misogyny driving the tale in this melodramatic Victorian landscape. The tone is dark, menacing, and tragic; the bridge by the lake remains almost unreal, “as if it was carved from the ice or had bloomed from its dull surface.” When Anna finds herself being undone, “pulled apart like a piece of knitting,” she knows she must keep hold of herself and not allow Makepeace and Querios to break her,
although Lucas's photos reveal a troubled, tangled soul.
Reminiscent of Dickens but with a deeper sheen of barbarity, Wallace wraps up a compelling slice of social history, creating a grotesque world propelled by ignorance and fear, a recognizable distortion where women either end up creating chaos in "God’s esteemed house" with their “sordid and carnal” matters or evolve into spiteful, scheming witches.