The Whys and Wherefores of Esme Lennox

nice reading roomOne of the novels we read this year as part of Summer School was Maggie O’Farrell’s The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox. It is a disturbing book in many respects, telling, as it does, the story of a young woman confined to an asylum at the age of sixteen for nothing more than being the odd one out, the child in the family who dances to a different tune, the girl who will not conform to the social mores of upper middle class 1930s Edinburgh.  Part of our discussion inevitably focused on the question of why Esme found it so difficult not only to fit in with her family’s requirements, but also to understand them in the first place.  If you have read the novel you will know that while the Lennoxes are in India the child Esme has been left alone for three days with the dead body of her younger brother after he and the servants who have been assigned to look after them, have been struck down by cholera.  This trauma, not to mention the fact that her parents had left her in a position where it could happen, might well be seen as sufficient reason for her later behaviour, but I for one felt that there was more going on here. And while others cited her behaviour prior to this incident as evidence for some more integral problem in her personality, I sat there simply identifying with Esme every step of the way.  Because to me the situation was obvious – Esme has Aspergers.

I never quite know how to speak about my Aspergers. I don’t like the term Aspie but neither do I feel comfortable saying that I have Aspergers much less that I suffer from it. It isn’t something you have or suffer from, as if it were a particularly persistent cold or bout of flu; it is part of who you are, as essential a part of your being as the colour of your eyes or the fact that you are tone deaf. And if I find it difficult to talk about now in 2017, and at times difficult to get people to accept that it is as valid a way of responding to the world as that which is experienced by those who are neuro-typical (NT), then how much more must that have been a problem for Esme. I’m not even sure if the term Aspergers was current then.

For those who are acquainted with Aspergers there are several signs along the way that Esme is part of the tribe. However, for me the real clincher comes when her sister, Kitty, remembering the way in which Esme complained about an uncomfortable chair during a photo sitting, recalls

She was funny like that, always so ridiculously over sensitive.  She was like that princess in the story about the pea and the mattresses.  Is there a pea, I would say to her when she thrashed about in the bed at night, trying to get comfortable, and she would say, whole pods of them.

The problem of sleeping on a strange mattress is never easy for anyone but it takes on whole new levels of horror for those of us with Aspergers. I could regale you with stories of the last time I had to change mine – of the six months, the three failed attempts to find an acceptable replacement and the four figure sums involved – but it is an experience I am still trying to forget. However, the one thing I do remember is saying to a friend when I finally found a mattress I could actually sleep on, that the experience threw a whole new light on the story of the Princess and the Pea. Now there was a woman with Aspergers if ever there was one.

Of course, Esme isn’t the only character in O’Farrell’s novel who dances to a different tune to the people around her. Two generations down the line, Iris is the same, but for Iris there are more options available.  Others may not approve of her refusal to conform to how they believe she should live her life, but no one is going to throw her into an asylum as a consequence. Iris and I live in slightly more enlightened times.

Coming back to The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox reminded me again of just how few novels there are which deal with Aspergers in women and this is a great shame because Aspergers presents differently in women to the way it does in men.  The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is, I’ve always felt, a bit of a two-edged sword. It is very good about male Aspergers and about someone who has a high AQ (the way in which the difference from the neurologically typical is measured) but not all of us are male and not all of us have an AQ of 50. The only other book that I can think of that explores a woman with Aspergers is Clare Morrall’s The Language of Others.  In fact, now I think about it, the other two relevant novels on my bookshelves are both intend for children, Celia Rees, Truth or Dare and Siobhan Dowd’s The London Eye Mystery and, like Mark Haddon’s book, they are both about boys.  Am I missing something?  Is there a whole Aspergers literature out there that I have simply overlooked?  If you have any other titles to add to my pitiful list then I would be very pleased to hear about them.

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11 thoughts on “The Whys and Wherefores of Esme Lennox

  1. It’s been too long since I read Esme Lennox for me to comment on whether she’s Asperger’s, but one female character I recently encountered who I felt must be was May, the narrator of The Floating Theatre by Martha Conway (published in the States as The Underground River). Two others I’ve heard about but not yet read are Harmony by Carolyn Parkhurst and Odd Girl Out: Being Autistic in a Neurotypical World by Laura James (a memoir).

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    • Thanks for the suggestions, Rebecca. I’ve not come across Martha Conway before, but will look out for a copy of ‘The Floating Theatre’ as well as the other two you mention. There is no direct mention of Aspergers in O’Farrell’s novel but then even as recently as 1990 when it is set it wasn’t something your everyday person would have been aware of. Even today, most women with Aspergers only realise the fact when they are checking out symptoms against the behaviour of a child (usually a boy) in the family. In my case, when I look back, I can see that my grandmother almost certainly danced to this different tune. Given that this is the same as the relationship between Iris and Esme I have to wonder if there is a tendency for it to skip a generation. My Dad was as NT as they come.

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  2. I loved this book and I probably read it soon after it was published. I don’t know that I assigned a label to Esme’s behaviour and I’m more or less certain that Asperger’s wasn’t a term used in the early 1900s, but I recognised in many families there were children of both sexes who are different to their peers and that there were people who accepted this, and those who didn’t. One of my favourite novels of all time and it must have been especially interesting for you as you recognised many of the traits.

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    • No one else on the Summer school had read it and they all said it was ‘the’ book we had studied that would find a permanent place on their book shelves. It was my own situation that I identified with first but later I thought about the link between Iris and Esme and realised that my own grandmother had been forced into a loveless marriage at thirty because she was an embarrassment to the family. However, she had a male cousin who was equally, if not more eccentric and his behaviour was simply thought to mark out what a special person he was.

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  3. It hope it doesn’t sound reductive to say I’m fascinated by Aspergers. Likewise, many find my bipolar disorder in the same vein. It’s so often misunderstood by the general public, confused with multiple identity disorder, which irritates me.
    I didn’t realize Esme Lennox dealt with Aspergers. I’m intrigued.

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    • Not at all, Lisa. The more people know about both issues the better they will be understood by the population at large. O’Farrell never mentions Aspergers but to someone who lives with it I think it is very obvious. If you haven’t read the novel then I can’t recommend it too highly but be warned, it isn’t a comfortable read.

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    • Thanks Harriet. A number of things over the last few months have made me realise that I need more quiet thinking time and blogging among a community of friends is definitely the best way of achieving that. It means I sheall have to give up some of the other things I was doing but they weren’t giving me the same pleasure anyway. Do re-read the Farrell. I think it’s the only book we’ve ever read in Summer School where everyone wanted to keep their copy. Normally we give a big donation to the local Oxfam bookshop at the end of the week.

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