Posted on | January 30, 2010 | 18 Comments
The Ha-Ha is Jennifer Dawson’s first novel, published in 1961. It follows the life of Josephine, a young woman with a mental illness, that often leaves her in hysterics, after she has been removed from Oxford and committed to a mental institution.
As we sat there I could even see the even-toed ungulates marching through the waste, and files of armadillos with scaly shells, and hosts of big black flies. The door opened…it was only the made in a starched cap carrying the silver kettle, but the laugh I gave shocked even the Principal.
A German refugee sister, and a fellow patient, Alasdair, push Josephine towards “normalcy,” encouraging her to contemplate life after she’s been released from the clinic (on being “regraded”), to find friends, interact with the outside world, instead of being perfectly happy within the boundaries of the clinic. However, the question does arise: can that do more harm than good?
“The committee? Regrade? I knew they graded eggs and milk, I did not know that they also had this word for humans. Regrade me?…As what?”
I think the quote above sums up the book – despite touching upon sensitive subjects, Josephine is smart, and witty. Despite being oblivious to the norms of society, and how to conduct “normal” conversations, she’s profound and imaginative, and appreciates life for what it is, in an almost uncomplicated manner.
The afterword, in fact, gives us more of an insight into the book. Written after the Mental Health Act was passed in 1959.
The book was written in that loophole between this Act of Parliament and the libertarian mental-health movement of the mid-sixties and early seventies where voices grew louder as they suggested that physical treatment, the pads and cooling-off rooms, locked doors, and even drugs and informal, voluntary confinement of the mentally ill were socio-political violence against the real, non-conforming voices of our under societies.
Dawson herself spent six months in a hospital, after a breakdown, and Josephine’s outlook seems to be an insight into Dawson’s experience itself. Small gestures, like a hidden chocolate under the pillow, mean so much, as does companionship and someone to talk to; someone who discusses an escape, shows a different life, and treats one with love and respect.