Jennifer Dawson – The Ha-Ha


The Ha-Ha is Jennifer Dawson’s first novel, published in 1961. It follows the life of Josephine, a young woman with a mental illness, that often leaves her in hysterics, after she has been removed from Oxford and committed to a mental institution.

As we sat there I could even see the even-toed ungulates marching through the waste, and files of armadillos with scaly shells, and hosts of big black flies. The door opened…it was only the made in a starched cap carrying the silver kettle, but the laugh I gave shocked even the Principal.

A German refugee sister, and a fellow patient, Alasdair, push Josephine towards “normalcy,” encouraging her to contemplate life after she’s been released from the clinic (on being “regraded”), to find friends, interact with the outside world, instead of being perfectly happy within the boundaries of the clinic. However, the question does arise: can that do more harm than good?

“The committee? Regrade? I knew they graded eggs and milk, I did not know that they also had this word for humans. Regrade me?…As what?”

I think the quote above sums up the book – despite touching upon sensitive subjects, Josephine is smart, and witty. Despite being oblivious to the norms of society, and how to conduct “normal” conversations, she’s profound and imaginative, and appreciates life for what it is, in an almost uncomplicated manner.

The afterword, in fact, gives us more of an insight into the book. Written after the Mental Health Act was passed in 1959.

The book was written in that loophole between this Act of Parliament and the libertarian mental-health movement of the mid-sixties and early seventies where voices grew louder as they suggested that physical treatment, the pads and cooling-off rooms, locked doors, and even drugs and informal, voluntary confinement of the mentally ill were socio-political violence against the real, non-conforming voices of our under societies.

Dawson herself spent six months in a hospital, after a breakdown, and Josephine’s outlook seems to be an insight into Dawson’s experience itself. Small gestures, like a hidden chocolate under the pillow, mean so much, as does companionship and someone to talk to; someone who discusses an escape, shows a different life, and treats one with love and respect.

18 Responses to “Jennifer Dawson – The Ha-Ha”

  1. I thought this book was wonderful when I read it; I’ve suffered from mental illness myself and thought that Dawson gave an absolutely fantastic insight into it that really rang true. it’s weird how important small gestures become; just recieving letters when you are feeling ill.

    • I love receiving letters/long emails when I’m well – it just adds a spark to the day, so, I can imagine how much nicer the small gestures are when you’re feeling down and out. I’m going to head over to VVV, and read your review. Like you, I thought this book was wonderful, so, I was glad to have read it. Weird thing is, I just couldn’t find a pic of the cover online – and the one I finally got was this awful blurry one from Library Thing.

  2. I’m adding this one to my list. Thanks for sharing about Dawson’s life — I like knowing about an author’s relationship to their subject because it can make such a difference in my understanding of the story.

    • You’re right about that – I think this book rings much truer due to the author’s first hand experience. It doesn’t seem forced or unreal, and the writing is incredibly evocative.

  3. Wasn’t there another book more recently published by a man called The Ha-Ha?

    It kind of worries me how many books are written about women being put into mental institutions or locked up. From Jane Eyre on down…

    • No idea about the other The Ha-Ha.

      I found this bit in the afterword of The Ha-Ha quite interesting:

      ‘Are mental institutions part of the social control of women?’ feminists were asking, noticing the far higher rates of sickness for our sex then.

      It’s an interesting question, because sometimes it does seem like that… or maybe it’s because women are more prone to display their emotions, which might not conform with society, and men are more likely to mask it. I don’t know, but, it seems a valid question. Or maybe, men with anti-social tendencies are more violent, and subsequently, are locked up in prison whereas women go to hospitals? No idea…

  4. I’ve wanted to read this since reading Verity’s review; I do “enjoy” reading books about mental illness.

  5. This sounds fascinating, Uncertain. The impossibility of defining a clear divide between eccentric and ‘unacceptable’ behaviour has always intrigued me. And the entitlement of the state to prescribe treatment for the unwilling is an uncomfortable thing to reflect upon. Thank you for highlighting this book; I had never heard of it, or the author, before.

    • I’d not heard of the book/author before either. Picked it up randomly at a second hand bookstore sometime last year, because the blurb sounded interesting.

      I genuinely believe some things shouldn’t be allowed; e.g. EST. Its long-term effects are hideous, and I mean – in the long run, it can actually cause brain damage! How can that be legal for people who’re “different,” specially as EST hasn’t yet proven to be a long-term answer, but a short-gap solution? Again, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and I really don’t know what I’m talking about. Maybe I should speak to someone who understands this better.

  6. It does sound unusual. i think the cover certainly does it justice- it looks intimidating, sensitive, and yes, as Sarah says above me, uncertain…nervous somehow. V. Interesting.


  7. I’m adding this to my list too (also love the cover of this). I find this period so fascinating and heartbreaking for people, especially women, who suffered mental illness. You should also read Janet Frame’s “Faces in the Water”. It’s a fictionalised account of her stays in mental hospitals in 1960s New Zealand. I’ll have to put up a review soon except I accidentally returned the book.

    • Thanks for the recommendation. I love the name of the book, Faces in the Water, and I’ll definitely try finding it. Like you, I find this period equally heartbreaking and fascinating, and I’m glad that social conformity isn’t the be all and end all anymore. Look forward to seeing your thoughts on this one, if you do get ’round to reading it.

  8. 15 historyofshe

    It’s such an interesting topic to read about! So many people have so many different experiences so it’s nice to see that the author put her’s into the story. Definitely adding it to my tbr.

  9. This is a topic that really interests me (mental illness versus non-conformity, and, as Aarti was saying, the ease with which for decades women were locked up), so I’ll definitely be on the lookout for this. Thank you for the fabulous review.

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