By Victoria Mas
I would classify The Mad Women’s Ball as Literary Fiction, but it’s also historical. There are some real figures from Paris at the time within the novel, and the Salpêtrière hospital (asylum) did exist, and its history is at least as dark as what is told to us in the pages of this story. The elapsed time within this story is a matter of weeks – not counting the epilogue.
We follow two main characters. The first, Geneviève, is a senior nurse at the hospital and she worships Doctor Charcot and fully believes in the work he is doing at the hospital and that he (and by extension, she) is helping these women. Her view is very much one of the time, and yet there are the odd rather perceptive observations, even if she doesn’t follow through with the logic of these to their real meaning.
This hospital unsettles all those who enter its walls, especially a man who has come to commit his daughter, or his wife, or his mother. Geneviève has lost count of the men she has seen sitting in this same chair: labourers, florists, teachers, chemists, merchants, fathers, brothers, husbands – but for their initiative, the Salpêtrière would doubtless be less populous. Granted, women sometimes bring other women here – mothers, though more often mothers-in-law, sometimes aunts, but the majority of the patients have been committed by the men whose name they share. It is the most wretched fate: without a husband, a father, there is no support – and no consideration for their existence.
The second, is Eugénie, an independent thinking woman who has no trouble voicing her opinion.
Eugénie glances up at her father.
“When you talk about an intelligent youth, you are referring to both boys and girls, are you not, Papa?”
“As I have already told you, a woman’s place is not in the public domain.”
“How sad to imagine a Paris composed only of men.”
“Men are too serious; they don’t know how to have fun. Women know how to be serious, but we also know how to laugh.”
“Do not contradict me.”
“I am not contradicting you, we are having a debate. Which is precisely what you are encouraging Théophile and his friends to do tomorrow -“
Which is of course how she ends up in the Salpêtrière, although the fact that she sees ghosts is used as the excuse.
While there are some women in the Salpêtrière who do need help, the majority seem to be there because of PTSD reactions to sexual assaults, or being too much trouble to male relations, or being a young widow who didn’t grieve their dead husband in the way their mother-in-law expected. The way they are treated by the doctors is horrifying, made even more so by Geneviève comment that it has been much better since the arrival of Doctor Charcot.
Knowing the stories of all of the women in the asylum, while fiction, could be based on true historical figures engendered an anger in me. As it probably will for most women reading it.
So while the core of the story is the tale of how Geneviève and Eugénie cross paths at the asylum and how they help each other, there is so much more in the pages of this book. I have a lot of thoughts on what I read, but I can’t share them here without telling you of events in the book that you should read for yourself.
It was an uncomfortable read. But a very good one, and one I would recommend.