Book Review

The Mad Woman’s Ball by Victoria Mas translated by Frank Wynne

The Salpêtrière asylum, 1885. All of Paris is in thrall to Doctor Charcot and his displays of hypnotism on women who have been deemed mad or hysterical, outcasts from society. But the truth is much more complicated – for these women are often simply inconvenient, unwanted wives or strong-willed daughters.

Once a year a grand ball is held at the hospital. For the Parisian elite, the Mad Women’s Ball is the highlight of the social season; for the women themselves, it is a rare moment of hope.

Geneviève is a senior nurse. After the childhood death of her sister, she has shunned religion and placed her faith in Doctor Charcot and his new science. But everything begins to change when she meets Eugénie, the 19-year-old daughter of a bourgeois family. Because Eugénie has a secret, and she needs Geneviève’s help. Their fates will collide on the night of the Mad Women’s Ball…

The Mad Woman’s Ball is a wonderful novel that I read in two sittings.  The story itself is relatively straightforward but Victoria Mas uses the narrative to explore the ways in which women were so often unfairly treated historically – even by those closest to them – with many banished to an asylum for little to no reason in many cases. 

the majority of the patients have been committed by the men whose name they share

The novel follows two characters for the most part – Eugénie and Geneviève.  At just 19 years old, Eugénie should be setting out on the adventure more generally known as life, and yet chafes at the expectations placed upon her.  She envies the freedom that her brother has and has no desire to marry, even though that is her father’s only intention for his wayward daughter.  Eugénie has a rather peculiar ability, and it’s this that sees her committed to Salpêtrière Asylum after she confides in her grandmother who in turns tells her father.  Eugénie is an intelligent woman, and it’s very clear that she does not belong in an asylum – both to the reader but also to many of those around her.  Betrayed by those closest to her and who should have her best interests at heart, she has no choice but to seek help from the head nurse as she struggles with her confinement.

Geneviève’s situation as the head nurse at Salpêtrière is quite different. A long time believer in medicine and science, she believes that she is making a real difference to the lives of those in her care.  She initially comes across as being quite cold and detached – she cares little for the specific circumstances facing these women, and seeks only to maintain a relatively peaceful environment to enable the doctors to do their work.  Eugénie’s plight is eye-opening for Geneviève, highlighting to her that many of these women are here for no reason other than their men don’t know what else to do with them when they become inconvenient in some respect.

Eugénie’s circumstances – plus that of fellow patient Louise – highlight the way in which many women were committed unfairly.  It’s not news that this happened, but it’s all the more shocking when you read about some of the specific circumstances – Louise’s tale is particularly harrowing.  It’s a quick and engaging read, and if I had any slight niggle with it it’s that Geneviève’s change in opinion of Eugénie after a demonstration of the latter’s ability comes a little too quickly – she jumps from disbelief to belief with hardly any interim period of doubt.  Additionally, I think that the overall message that some men mistreat women – both then and now – is perhaps a little heavy handed in places.  It’s an enjoyable read, but it’s not entirely subtle. 

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