Wednesday 26 May 2021

Warehousing Society's Estranged: A Review of Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home, by Anne Goodwin

This book review is written as an open letter to my friend and fellow mental health blogger Aimee Wilson at I’m NOT Disordered.

In the dying days of the old asylums, three paths intersect. A brother and sister separated for fifty years and the idealistic young social worker who tries to reunite them. Will truth prevail over bigotry, or will the buried secret keep family apart? (Anne Goodwin)

Dear Aimee,

You asked what I thought of the book I’ve been reading this week. I’m glad you asked because I think Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home by Anne Goodwin is a book you’d enjoy.

A little about the author before I get going. I first met Anne a few years ago when Fran and I approached her as a potential reviewer for our book High Tide, Low Tide. (You can read her review here.) I met her in person in 2015 at a book launch for her first novel, Sugar and Snails. It was the first author event I’d attended and I loved hearing Anne talk about and read from her book. The cupcakes were fabulous, too! She got in touch recently and invited me to review her latest novel. She was kind enough to send me a free Kindle copy.

I should say up front that the book carries a trigger warning for mentions of rape and themes of mental trauma.

The story opens in Cumbria in October 1989, but also switches back to earlier periods in the lives of the three main characters, Henry, Matilda, and Janice. Many people in the book are referred to by different names (including titles such as the prince, the circus girl, and the shrimp-woman). This confused me a little, but when you think about it most of us are known by different names to different people at different times in our lives, and some people change their names altogether. You know me as Marty, but that name only goes back ten years or so. I’m Martin to anyone who knew me before 2011. Once I’d figured some of the different names out (I kept a notepad close to hand) I could see how they added to the story. For example, the lead character is variously known as Matilda, Matty, or Tilly. This gave me more insight into her situation and relationships than if she’d gone by one name through the whole book.

Anne grew up in Cumbria and worked there as a clinical psychologist in the NHS. This local knowledge shows in her use of dialect and real world references. I smiled at the mention of Keswick’s gift shops and Jennings bitter. I have fond pre-covid memories of holiday trips to Keswick, in particular the Pack Horse Inn which is tucked away just off the main street.

Origins, home, and family (especially mother-daughter relationships) are important themes. Most of the story takes place in and around Henry’s childhood home where he still lives, and the mental health unit where Tilly is living when the story opens. It’s hard to say much about the plot without giving things away, but there’s a strong whodunnit element (perhaps that should be whoisit / whereisshe). I found myself jotting down clues as I tried to figure out what was happening or would happen next. The threads of the story are very well interwoven and there are a number of twists along the way. Several times I had to scribble out what I thought I knew as the story unfolded!

I mentioned the trigger warnings. There are a number of accounts of rape and sexual abuse in the book. These are mostly brief, but no less potentially triggering for that, of course. I’d say these scenes are important to the story, although there was one incident which I couldn’t place or make sense of. The other trigger warning is about mental trauma. Mental illness and its treatment (and ill treatment, both in a clinical/professional sense and in terms of society’s attitudes towards mental illness) feature prominently throughout the book.

The main character Matilda spent fifty years as a patient in Ghyllside mental hospital before being moved to the smaller residential unit of Tuke House as the story opens. She’s diagnosed with schizophrenia and treated with antipsychotics but something didn’t ring true for me about her diagnosis. She has a very tenuous hold on reality, but to me (with very limited knowledge of the condition) her symptoms and behaviour suggested dementia more than anything else, especially given her age. “Does Tilly really have schizophrenia?” I wrote in my notebook at one point. Another clue? Maybe. If you read the book, I’d love to know what you think!

Stigma is very prominent. A few examples will give you an idea.

“George Windsor’s daughter would never go barmy.”

“Tilly a raving lunatic?”

“... a horde of nutters.”

“Crazies a stone’s throw from The Willows?”

Ghyllside hospital is referred to as “the loony bin,” and one professional talks of having a “schizophrenic moment” when he really means he’s in two minds over something. Suicide is seen as a shameful reflection on a person’s character, and a “lack of moral fibre.” A man who took his life is accused of abandoning his wife and child. The only explanation offered is that he “[m]ust have been wrong in the head.” You have to remember that the book is set in the 1930s and late 1980s. Our work with Time to Change and the many conversations I’ve had with you and other friends give me hope that society has moved towards a more compassionate understanding of mental illness and suicidality. But I also know there’s a long way to go.

Just about the only progressive voice belongs to the newly qualified social worker Janice. She values connection and has a strong saviour ethic. “This was why she trained as a social worker [...] for the human connection with people who were otherwise hard to reach.” She is my favourite character, not least because I identify with her relentless (or is it naive?) hope and optimism. I’ve been called pathologically positive in the past, and it’s not a compliment! The same could be said of Janice.

She’s not working in a vacuum, though, and there are signs of progress. The old ways of the asylum (summed up in the book’s most powerful phrase as the “business of warehousing society’s estranged”) are changing. The patients in Ghyllside are assessed for relocation to Tuke House (and then on into the community) based on their individual abilities. They are to be “identified not by brand of psychiatric disorder, but by a systematic assessment of their skills.” On the other hand (and without giving the plot away) Janice’s compassion, inexperience, and compulsive desire to set the world to rights are not without consequences. She’s doing her best, but I was left wondering just how helpful that best might be. A sobering thought, seeing how closely I identified with her. If only good intentions were enough!

The stigma and shame surrounding pregnancy outside marriage is another recurring theme, leading in some cases to abortion, adoption, or abandonment of the child. Speaking to her adoptive sister, one woman says, “They [their respective birth mothers] would’ve kept us if it wasn’t for the stigma.” The ache for reconnection between siblings, and between children and their birth or adoptive parents, weaves the individual characters’ stories into patterns which remain frustratingly out of reach. There were times I wanted to scream at the characters — or perhaps the author! — as they come closer and closer to finding one another, but never quite manage to. (Or do they? — no spoilers, remember!)

I’ve rambled on longer than I meant to, but before I finish I want to mention how the book explores the origins or causes of mental illness. Genetics, trauma, and the environment are all suggested as potential factors, but it’s the last of those which receives the most attention. At one point, Janice the social worker seems to think removing someone from their hospital environment into the community will restore their humanity. “Detached from the hospital,” she imagines, “her passengers were transformed from patients to people.” To me, this says more about Janice’s attitudes than the patients. They always were people, whether inside or outside the hospital and regardless of their diagnoses or how long they’ve been there. I think you would agree.

Janice’s naivety is challenged by events. It would give too much away to talk about what led to Matilda’s incarceration, but by the end of the book, “[Janice had] learned a painful lesson about environmental influence: put a woman in a madhouse and she’d behave as a madwoman, but putting her in an ordinary house wouldn’t necessarily reverse the process.” In other words, we are affected, often deeply and irrevocably, by our circumstances and by those around us. We might have expected Janice to have a better handle on this. Earlier in the book it’s said that “[her] identity had been shaped by her parents’ choice to pluck her from the orphanage.”

So, after all that, what did I think of the book?! In case you can’t tell (!) I enjoyed it a lot and it gave me plenty to think about. I don’t have any direct knowledge or experience, but it feels realistic as to how things must have been back then, and how easily people could find themselves lost within a mental health system that echoed rather than challenged the stigma and prejudice festering beyond its walls. My only criticism is that not all the loose ends were tied off, but that leaves room for the promised sequel.

If you’d like to read it yourself, Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home is published by Inspired Quill and available from the publisher or Amazon from May 29, 2021. You can find Anne Goodwin on her website or follow her on Twitter.

I can’t wait to hear what you think of all this!



The following information has been provided by the author.

Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home Blurb

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?

In this, her third novel, Anne Goodwin has drawn 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.

Find out more on Matilda Windsor’s webpage.

Author Bio

Anne Goodwin grew up in the non-touristy part of Cumbria, where this novel is set. When she went to university ninety miles away, no-one could understand her accent. After nine years of studying, her first post on qualifying as a clinical psychologist was in a long-stay psychiatric hospital in the process of closing.

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 second novel, Underneath, about a man who keeps a woman captive in his cellar, was published in 2017. Her short story collection, Becoming Someone, on the theme of identity, was published in November 2018. Subscribers to her newsletter can download a free e-book of prize-winning short stories.

Author links

Twitter: @Annecdotist
Link tree:
YouTube: Anne Goodwin’s YouTube channel
Amazon UK:
Amazon US:
Inspired Quill:
Newsletter signup:

Book Links

Matilda Windsor webpage:
Matilda Windsor link tree:
Matilda Windsor’s Twitter: @MWiscominghome
Matilda Windsor at Inspired Quill:


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