A celebration of the life and work of the British writer Jennifer Dawson

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The Ha-Ha

The Ha-Ha tells the first-person story of Josephine, a young woman who struggles to cope with the constraints and complexities of what late-1950s English society expects of her. She suffers a mental breakdown and spends time in a psychiatric hospital struggling against the unreconstructed mental health system to keep hope alive and hold onto her own identity.

 

The Ha-Ha, Jennifer Dawson's first novel, was published in 1961 to great critical acclaim and won the prestigious James Tait Black Memorial Award. The Ha-Ha was also made into a television drama, adapted for stage production in Edinburgh and London by director Richard Eyre and broadcast several times on BBC radio.

 

Jennifer Dawson wrote the book in 1960, a year after the reforming 1959 Mental Health Act. In her Afterword to the 1985 Virago Modern Classics edition of The Ha-Ha, Dawson comments:

 

"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."

 

Some reviews of The Ha-Ha following first publication:

 

"So startlingly unusual, so original, so accomplished...quite simply, a perfect novel." - Susan Hill

 

"A remarkably talented first novel...Miss Dawson is neither sentimental nor sensational...Her heroine is a convincing and sympathetic character, and when her mind begins to shift into the nightmare perspective of schizophrenia the writing creates and atmosphere of quiet terror." - The Observer.

 

"A most moving and intelligent attempt to present a cetain kind of social disorientation." - New Statesman

 

"Cool, short, tender and occasionally as prettily ruthless as the impact of a stiletto heel...twice as alarming because everything is implied rather than explicit." - The Tatler

 

'A very fine first novel. Dawson writes very well, with . . . a poetic perception of how tremulous is the distinction between the mad world and the sane.' - Glasgow Herald

What is a ha-ha?

 

A ha-ha is a turfed ditch used to keep grazing livestock out of a garden or estate whilst providing an uninterrupted view from within. The name "ha-ha" was given to the feature because, when walking towards it from the garden, the ditch only becomes apparent when the observer comes very close to it.

"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 maid in a starched cap carrying the silver kettle, but the laugh I gave shocked even the Principal."