When her husband, Max, is appointed director of an asylum in Essex, Stella is not overjoyed.  She is bored; ‘dying of chronic neglect’.  She resents the restrictions of her position and the limited perspectives of the other wives.  To relieve the monotony, she develops an attraction to Edgar, a handsome and charismatic inmate, a one-time sculptor who is assigned to duties in her garden.  They fall in love.  When she learns from ‘her friend’, the senior psychiatrist Dr Cleave, that he has brutally killed his wife in a fit of jealousy, she is in too far in to pull back.  Nearly discovered in Stella’s bedroom, Edgar steals Max’s clothes and flees the asylum in the boot of her mother-in-law’s car. After a while, Stella abandons her family and joins him to live in a derelict warehouse in East London. At first, all goes well. Stella claims she is happier there than she has ever been. But Edgars dark side emerges; he becomes jealous that she is encouraging the attentions of Nick, his assistant.  He beats her up.  She is rescued and returns to her husband, who has been ‘relieved’ of his post in Essex and taken another position in North Wales.  Edgar discovers where she is and comes for her, but the police have followed him and he is arrested and sent back to the asylum again.  Stella, distraught and preoccupied, fails to respond when her 10 year old son, Charlie, drowns in a lake while out on a field trip in her care.  She is certified and locked up in the same asylum, also as a patient of Dr Cleave.   

But the urbane Cleave has other designs on Stella.  Some months later, when Stella appears on the route to recovery, Dr Cleave suggests an ‘arrangement’ whereby Stella is released but lives with Cleave as his wife. He takes her up to the clock tower and proposes, but not before he has informed her that Edgar is back in the institution and they might meet at the annual ball. At the last minute, Cleave prevents the meeting. Edgar does not go to the ball.  Stella walks away and kills herself by jumping off the tower.

This gothic tale of erotic obsession and possession is shocking in its intensity and apart from the last twist, Cleave’s proposal, its credibility.  Patrick McGrath, whose father was once medical superintendant of Broadmoor, is the master of dark suspense. In prose of steely control, he captures the reckless dangers of falling in love for those who have little self control. We observe with horror how Stella and Edgar become possessed by a magnetism that is bound to destroy them and the lives of those connected to them, yet we sit in hypnotic trance, watching the plot work its inexorably deviant route to an inevitable conclusion. 

When Stella refuses to answer Cleaves question about love, he comments;  ‘There’s no defining it then.  No discussion possible?  It springs to life.  It cannot be ignored and it tears people’s lives apart.  But we can’t say more.  It just is.’ 

But doomed love affairs have a structure, a sequence which with some variations, they all conform to.  First, there is the recognition, the look. ‘I feel that you are the one I have wanted all of my life.’  

Then, the identification; the lovers let each other into their imagination, become part of each other. ‘Powerless to control the hunger they had for each other, their bodies flaring at the slightest contact, they lose any independent will and can only live for the time they can become one again; body mind and soul.’  

Next, the relationship develops a structure, they make assignations. Pragmatic thoughts are never far from the thoughts of the secret lover, but for a single purpose. 

But there are complications; there are always complications, but as Stella fears, it may be the very constraints of their situation that drives their passion, the excitement and danger, the effect it would have if it were known, the dreadful risk to another’s happiness. That’s the awful power, the evil, dark side of love.  And when all is known, disillusion sets in with the cold test of reality.  Familiarity, uncertainty, squalor gnaw into passion and blight the fruits of love. Jealousy, the paranoid anger generated by a terror of abandonment, destroys it. Edgar would kill Stella to keep her. And Stella cannot live without him. The conclusion is inescapable.      

So is falling in love a form of madness?  It seems so. The obsession, the compulsion, the delusion, the despair are all make believe; a dangerous departure from the normal rationality of human behaviour. And yet its a magic that so many of us want to experience just once in our lives. But we must contain it otherwise it will overwhelm us.    

Edgar, Stella, Max and Cleave are all in their own ways, mad with love.  Their innocent victim, Charlie, is dead. 

Edgar has been institutionalised for committing the kind of horrific act that threatens the stability of the social order; he has killed and mutilated his wife. He continues to believe he was justified in doing so and is sufficiently charming and plausible for Stella to identify with his sense of grievance and injustice.  He occupies a no-mans land where the making of art and the maintenance of sanity had a precise and delicate relationship. Disturbance in one would create a dysfunction and breakdown in the other.  The very nature of the work, the long periods of isolation followed by the public display, the admiration so intricately balanced with the risk of rejection, all conspire to create unnaturally intense relationships with friends and sexual partners   But like many artists, he has the soft core of a child, a touchy, clingy child. Any expression of distress from Stella, he receives as imminent desertion.  So when disillusion occurs as it inevitably will, the sense of betrayal is profound and murderous.

And what of  Stella?  Fragile, impetuous, and spoilt, with a provocative and dangerous beauty, she is the hysterical focus, where sanity and madness elide with each other in  dramatic gestures and impetuous acts. For the first time in her life, she desires somebody with all a physical and emotional intensity that overwhelms her; she abandons herself, mind body and soul to her passion.  But Stella has met her match, a man with all the darkness and passion that she possesses and less of the control.  She accepts him without reserve, ignores all the warning signs. She has to. To love him conditionally would have implied criticism.  It simply doesn’t arise.  So she surrenders her whole being to him; is possessed by the thought of him.  She has no will, no choice, and without him, no life!  She just lives in and for the moment of her madness.        

Max, the husband, continues to function, but he is burdened down with what has happened.  He loses all spontaneity and humour and responds to the pathology he observes everyday on the wards with a sensitivity that does not allow separation.  The line between sickness and sanity is blurred and Christ-like, he suffers for all humanity.  He can never again be refreshed, he loses weight and begins to read philosophy.

And what do we make of the mysterious Dr Cleave?.  Why does he issue his shocking proposal to Stella?  He is not a man of passion (or if he is, he keeps it very hidden).  Does he not realize the impropriety of his behaviour?  Does he not appreciate the danger it has for his patient?  He is an intelligent man, but is he playing a game of power and control, seeking to break the will of Stella as well as Edgar?  Is he a kind of crazed despot, who gets a detached satisfaction from the possession of another’s soul?  The lasting horror of this story is not the inevitable death of Stella, but the way that Cleave changes from the harmless and interesting yet compassionate psychiatrist into a sinister psychopath who has engineered the conditions for the tragedy for his own omnipotent purpose.  

‘I have resumed my habit of returning to the office in the evening.  The police were most accommodating, and I now possess all the drawings he made of her in the studio, and also the sketch done in the vegetable garden.  They are curiously tentative in outline and feature, and as a result have a sort of softness to the eye, what the Italians call morbidezza. I also have the head. I have had it fired and cast in black bronze.  I keep it in a drawer in my desk.  He worked so obsessively on it, those last days before he left Horsey Street, and so he worked it down, that it became slender and tiny in the end, no bigger than my hand; but it is her.  I often take it out, over the course of the day, and admire it. So you see, I do have my Stella after all.

And I still, of course, have him.’

How much of what we call love is possession?

 Asylum was first published in 1995.  It is still in print and was made into a film featuring Natasha Richardson as Stella and Ian Mackellan as Cleave.  

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