‘Madwoman’ by Louisa Treger

Author : Louisa Treger
Title : Madwoman
Pages : 280
Publisher : Bloombury
Publication date : June 9, 2022


Based on a true story, a spellbinding historical novel about the world’s first female investigative journalist, Nellie Bly. 

In 1887, young Nellie Bly sets out for New York and a career in journalism, determined to make her way as a serious reporter, whatever that may take.

But life in the city is tougher than she imagined. Down to her last dime and desperate to prove her worth, she comes up with a dangerous plan: to fake insanity and have herself committed to the asylum on Blackwell’s Island. There, she will work undercover to expose the asylum’s wretched conditions.

But when the asylum door swings shut behind her, she finds herself in a place of horrors, governed by a cruelty she could never have imagined. Cold, isolated and starving, her days of terror reawaken the traumatic events of her childhood. She entered the asylum of her own free will – but will she ever get out?

An extraordinary portrait of a woman ahead of her time, Madwoman is the story of a quest for the truth that changed the world.


Madwoman‘ is based on the true story of Nellie Bly, the world’s first female investigative journalist and is one of my favourite books so far this year.

The reader first meets Pink, as she’s called back then, when she’s nine years old. Pink is somehow getting the best of two worlds. An education via her father, who’s a judge, and stories fuelling her imagination by way of her mother. Growing up, Pink would very much like to be a lawyer, often helping her father collect facts for his cases, but a career like that isn’t available to women. Women are meant to get married and have children and, if for some reason or other they really have to go out to work, then there are underpaid jobs in housekeeping or factories. They really can’t or shouldn’t hope for anything better. But Pink does.

Unfortunately, Pink’s life changes dramatically when her father dies. Her dream of a career in law lies in tatters, her mother’s second marriage is a disaster but all these experiences will shape her character and her future. It’s clear from the beginning she’s a determined and intelligent young lady, not intent on being outdone by her brothers in any way, and with her sights firmly set on a better life in which she need not be dependent on a man.

The law career might not be happening but maybe journalism is an easier door to get a foot into. Pink writes an article about the injustices women in the workplace face, which is published by the Dispatch in Pittsburgh under the pseudonym of Nellie Bly. Her articles are a success but the advertisers aren’t pleased and threaten to pull out their money. Nellie decides to pack her bags and head to New York, where surely people are more progressive and happy to hire a woman as a reporter. Desperate to prove her worth to the owners of The Globe, she comes up with a rather dangerous plan : to fake insanity and have herself committed to the asylum on Blackwell’s Island, where she will work undercover to expose the horrid conditions the patients live in.

Needless to say the circumstances in the asylum are truly horrendous. The staff consists of criminals and prostitutes who could not care less about the patients if they tried, and have had no training whatsoever. The doctors are apparently blind as bats or equally uninterested in what goes on. It’s all quite devastating and sometimes pretty uncomfortable to read about. Many of these women weren’t even “insane”. Some were put there by their husbands because they were in the way of a new love affair, for instance. Or that infamous “hysteria” illness so many women seem to suffer from. Basically, an asylum was often an acceptable way of dealing with inconvenient women, and nobody cared as long as the insane, real or not, were hidden away out of sight.

Will Nellie ever be able to get out of the asylum though? Will she be able to write her story and bring about changes about how vulnerable people are treated? How will she be affected and will she ever be the same again?

I must confess I’d never heard of Nellie Bly but I’m glad I picked up ‘Madwoman‘ and got to know her. This is the kind of novel that makes you want to jump on the internet and find out a whole lot more about everything you’ve just read. ‘Madwoman‘ is based on Nellie’s life but, as tends to be the case, there are gaps the author has had to fill in herself. It all sounded perfectly plausible to me and I wouldn’t be able to tell you what was fact or what was fiction. I very much appreciated that Louisa Treger didn’t just focus the entire novel on the asylum but gave me, as the reader, the opportunity to get to know Nellie from a young age and watch her grow into the woman she would ultimately become. The one with the tools to do what she did. Nellie really was ahead of her time and she deserves to have her story told.

Madwoman‘ has everything I look for in historical fiction and I flew through its pages like a woman possessed. There are some truly chilling moments, there were times I felt quite emotional and I found myself incredibly invested in Nellie’s life and later on the circumstances she and her fellow patients found themselves in at the asylum. The writing is top-notch, the pace spot-on and the characters are unforgettable. This is the kind of novel that reminds me of why I love historical fiction so much, the kind of novel that makes me wonder why I don’t read more in this genre, the kind of novel that stays with me for days or even weeks, raging at the injustices and the knowledge that, not so long ago when you really think about it, the voice of one young woman brought about change as she made her mark in a man’s world. Highly recommended.

‘Madwoman’ is out now! My thanks to the publisher for the advanced review copy, which I received via Netgalley. I’ve since also purchased myself the pretty hardback. All opinions are my own.

20 Books of Summer : 2/20

  15 comments for “‘Madwoman’ by Louisa Treger

  1. June 17, 2022 at 1:01 pm

    Wow wonderful review Eva! I definitely want to read or listen to this one! xx

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Karen
    June 17, 2022 at 1:25 pm

    Sounds fabulous, I really want to read this one. I first head of Nellie Bly in another book a few months ago.

    Liked by 1 person

    • June 18, 2022 at 8:35 am

      So weird how you can go years without hearing about someone and then suddenly they pop up twice in a short period of time.


  3. June 17, 2022 at 2:09 pm

    I read very similar historical fiction this year “Mad Girls of New York” by Maya Rodale. It follow same storyline. Great review!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. June 17, 2022 at 6:46 pm

    I had no idea this was about Nellie Bly! Thanks for a wonderful review, Eva💜 I’m off to give this another look.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Jo
    June 17, 2022 at 8:16 pm

    Great review, Eva! Very keen to read this x

    Liked by 1 person

    • June 18, 2022 at 8:40 am

      Thank you, Jo! I had quite high expectations for some reason and I wasn’t disappointed. Hope you enjoy it when you get around to it.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. June 18, 2022 at 3:12 pm

    This sounds pretty good, even if they did get some of her real story wrong. For something more accurate, read “What Girls are Good For” by David Blixt.


  7. June 18, 2022 at 9:43 pm

    Fab review! I’m definitely adding Madwoman to my wishlist now. 😉


  8. June 19, 2022 at 10:12 pm

    Sounds interesting! The only thing I knew about Nelly Bly was that she was inspired by Around the World in 80 Days to try it, and succeeded in even less than that – 72 days, I believe. She must have been a fascinating woman!

    Liked by 1 person

    • June 28, 2022 at 8:59 am

      Yeah, that’s mentioned in the notes at the back of the book. She was definitely ahead of her time.

      Liked by 1 person

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