Writers seem to be rediscovering the feminist and ace reporter Nellie Bly. A vibrant, stubborn young woman, Bly thirsted to become a female journalist during the 1890s when women were relegated to the home. Bly was truly an independent woman, one of the early pioneers of feminism. I’m thrilled that she is seeing such a resurgence of popularity.
I read Bly’s own version of her descent into a madhouse, Ten Days in a Madhouse, as well as the 2018 novel What Girls Are Good For: A Novel of Nellie Bly by David Blixt and the 2019 novel, The Girl Puzzle: A Story of Nellie Bly by Kate Braithwaite. In 2020, author Tonya Mitchell gives us A Feigned Madness. The Girl Puzzle, I found, is much like reading Ten Days in a Madhouse with interspersed with additions written by Beatrice Alexander, a fictional secretary to Ms. Bly. It seems more factual and less novel-like. A Feigned Madness seems as well-researched, but with the addition of some filling in of the gaps in Bly’s life. Mitchell turns a mention of George McCain in the historical record into an unrequited love between Bly and McCain. The two communicate with unsigned cards illustrated with flowers, the “meaning was in the flowers themselves” as given in a Victorian book, The Language of Flowers, which listed the symbolism of various blossoms. I found this little detail charming. Somehow, I preferred the “looser” style of Mitchell’s work.
Mitchell manages to convey the horror Bly encountered when she infiltrated Blackwell’s Island in New York City’s East River. At the time (and even now) there is such little understanding of the human psyche that it is frequently difficult to tell whether a person is sane or not. Women, due to their lack of social, financial, and political standing, were at risk for being institutionalized for frivolous reasons such as excessive masturbation, laziness, and unspecified female problems. I also enjoyed reading about Bly’s time in Mexico.