Discussion Notes

Ian Reid’s novels have proved to be popular choices with a variety of book clubs and reading groups.

The following topics and questions may be useful for stimulating discussion of The Madwoman’s Coat.

(Discussion notes on his previous novel, A Thousand Tongues, can be found below those on The Madwoman’s Coat.)

THE MADWOMAN’S COAT

Insanity

  • The book’s title draws attention to a way of describing some people that was common in earlier times and embodied particular attitudes. Are attitudes to mental health generally more enlightened today?
  • Prominent in the story are two institutions for treating the supposedly insane — Ticehurst House Hospital and the Fremantle Lunatic Asylum. How and why do they differ?
  • At the end of chap. 9, Lucy begins to wonder what insanity is, and whether “every person of artistic temperament is partly mad.” What do you think?

Arts and crafts

  • The coat found in Isabella’s cell is covered with intricate and puzzling patterns. The Medical Superintendent asks rhetorically, “Whatever possessed her to devise it?” What answer does the novel give?
  • In chap. 7, Lucy is angered by Julius Kendrick’s disparaging remarks about “handicrafts,” and says this reflects “masculine prejudice and ignorance.” Does one’s gender affect creativity and art appreciation?
  • William Morris and his daughter May, leaders in the influential Arts and Crafts Movement, are among the characters in this novel. What aspects of their aesthetic ideas and practices contribute importantly to the story?

Love

  • What kinds of family relationships are depicted in The Madwoman’s Coat? For example, how would you compare the bond between father and daughter in the Morris and Malpass families respectively?
  • Lucy is portrayed as having strong emotional responses, which are not always consistent. Is her mixture of feelings towards the men in her life understandable?

Grief and sorrow

  • This story begins with a death, and several more occur in the course of it. How do others react to Isabella’s murder?
  • Lucy’s father, aunt, and others all come to the end of their lives in different ways, and she is differently affected by what happens to each of them. What are the differences?

Structure and style

  • One critic made this comment on Ian Reid’s previous novel: “A Thousand Tongues is a novel of ideas … impeccably researched, meticulously plotted, and blessed with elegantly and artfully crafted prose. Nothing is laboured, and the pages slip by in a most beguiling manner.” Does The Madwoman’s Coat merit the same praise?

A THOUSAND TONGUES

Conscience

  • The story’s action extends across different periods and character sets. Do these correspond to different aspects of the general theme of conscience?
  • What light is shed on this theme by the pair of epigraphs – passages quoted from Shakespeare and Barnes that precede the novel’s opening?
  • If conscience is an inner sense of right and wrong, can it vary according to time and circumstance or is it shaped by certain basic moral values?
  • Among the conscientious objectors in the Princetown Work Centre, what different political views and personal motivations are revealed?

Secrets

  • How many hidden truths emerge in the course of the story?
  • Why have they been kept secret? Is it always a matter of deliberate concealment?

Race, ethnicity and class

  • What forms of racial or ethnic prejudice affect the attitudes of some characters?
  • Which characters eventually have a change of mind about this, and why?
  • How important is the influence of social class on particular individuals?

Characters 

  • Are any of the characters entirely admirable, or do they all have mixed qualities and motives?
  • Do your sympathies towards some of them shift as the story unfolds?

Different kinds of history

  • Formal research, genealogy, personal reminiscence… Are any other kinds of historical enquiry represented in this novel?
  • The two main present-day characters are engaged in scholarly historical studies, but each becomes dissatisfied with that approach and is attracted to alternative ways of exploring the past. Does the story as a whole imply a sceptical view about what the pursuit of historical fact can achieve?

Points of view

  • Different parts of the story are seen through the eyes of different characters. Does this narrative method hold your interest?
  • Does this storytelling technique suggest that the truth about anybody’s situation is inescapably subjective?

Time and place

  • A reviewer of a previous novel by this author says, “Wherever his characters go, Reid places us vividly there.” Has that been your experience in reading A Thousand Tongues? Did you find it to be true of the various periods in which the story is set, as well as the various locations?
  • In this story, history is intertwined with geography. Is our understanding of who we are always shaped by where we are?

Patterns

  • “A novel is a pattern,” says the writer Colm Toibin, “and it is our job to see clearly its textures and tones.” In the “texture” of A Thousand Tongues, what recurrent visual motifs or images have you noticed, and what do they signify? (Stones and stains, walls and cavities, monuments and graves…?)

Student life

  • The story includes scenes of university student life in early 20th-century London and Perth a century later. What contrasts in sexual behaviour does the story depict?
  • What else has changed, and what hasn’t?
  • Literature, history, politics: as represented in A Thousand Tongues, what do these fields of study have in common, and how do they differ?



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