A historical novel centred around the institutionalised women of Paris, The Mad Women’s Ball revolves around The Salpetriere Asylum in 1885 and the women there. Dr Charcot is known throughout Paris for his work and demonstrations of hypnotism on the women of the asylum, but these women are usually those that have gone against the norms of society and have been shunned or abandoned by their families and husbands. Nevertheless, these women are the main attraction, and what draws all of Paris to an important event of the year the Lenten ball, also known as the Madwomen’s Ball. One night of the year where the women of the asylum can dress in finery and mix among Parisian society while the members of society can gape and observe the women that they often hear such tales about.
The Salpêtriére is a dumping ground for women who disturb the peace. An asylum for those whose sensitivities do not tally with what is expected of them. A prison for women guilty of possession an opinionp. 27
The book splits mainly around two women, Genevieve and Eugénie; while also highlighting some moments for a patient at the asylum called Louise. Genevieve is a nurse at the asylum, disbelieving of god and religious faith, she places her faith in Dr Charcot and medicine; having seen such wonders he has worked. But this faith is shaken when she meets Eugénie, a young girl committed to the Salpêtriére by her bourgeois family because she sees spirits. Genevieve’s opinion on everything is questioned as events at the asylum play out and she starts to empathise with the girl.
Truth be told, whether free or incarcerated, women were not safe anywhere. Since the dawn of time, they had been the victims of decisions that were taken without their consentp. 83
While I enjoyed this book, there were times when it struck me to my very core. Before I touch on these elements though, I would just like to say that Victoria Mas dealt with these issues beautifully. Yes, it was hard at times to be confronted with such situations regarding women, but I do really appreciate how wonderfully she towed the line with the detail of her writing. She didn’t harp on or overwrite any bits but she also shone a much needed light where it was needed and I loved that. Her storytelling is beautiful to me and I don’t think she needed to do anything different to improve this work.
While it is a piece of fiction, it’s based off real history that once happened and still feel very real to me now. It dealt with gender issues and feminism in a big way with the women of the Salpêtriére being committed by husbands, fathers, and family members who no longer wanted them or saw them as inconvenient things. Eugenie is a woman who challenges this in a big way, wanting to converse with the men at the salons and assert her opinions as to her, they are just as important as a mans. Instead of seeing her intelligence as an asset and recognising her ‘gift’ as powerful, her family see her as unsuitable and troublesome and commit her to the asylum; place she has heard so many unpleasant things.
When there, she is once again seen as troublesome as Dr Charcot, his fellow doctors and students treat the women as objects of student – specimens at their disposal which they can poke and prod to their cater to their curiosities; rather than recognising them as the women that they are and the feelings they hold. One doctor even goes as far as to seduce and take advantage of a paralysed patient. As I was reading this, the Roe Vs Wade decision was overthrown and I couldn’t help but feel helpless. I was reading about atrocities that were a thing of the past while our real world was being thrown back into that past. While it was heart-wrenching to read about women being committed by their own families and loved ones, it was beyond horrifying to read about women not having independence and license over their own bodies whilst it was also playing out in real life.
I think given my own chronic health condition and having had that questioned over the years, there was a part of me that was wondering how this would have affected me had I been born in that generation of women. Would I have been carted off to the Salpêtriére or viewed as an inconvenience? This book was really enjoyable in terms of the storytelling but I think part of what made it so great was that it did get me to look at the world in a different way and make me think about things that I probably never would have had I not read it. I love books like that.
Have you read The Mad Women’s Ball? What did you think? Let me know.
Cheerio for now!