Book Review – The Mad Women’s Ball by Victoria Mas

First published, 2019

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Set in Paris in 1885, The Mad Women’s Ball tells the story of four women at the Salpêtrière Asylum, a hospital for lunatics, hysterics and epileptics, in the run up to their annual Lenten Ball.

At the Ball, the cream of the Capital are invited, in their top hats and furs, to eat, dance, and socialise with the madwomen. And, as the inmates spend their year looking forward to the Ball, so the patricians spend the year dining out on stories of the patients and their behaviour.

A powerful feminist story, The Mad Women’s Ball speaks to the experience of women who are considered difficult (for all manner of reasons), while they are passed from the care of embarrassed or disgusted fathers, into the hands of note-taking and ogling medical men. The women are put on display for the edification of giggling male students and the only person who really cares for them is the emotionally shut-down matron, Geneviève.

And so, the main characters:

Young Louise, who developed a womanly figure early and was sent to the asylum after her uncle took a fancy to her.
Thérèse, a former prostitute who has been so violently assaulted by men that she finds peace in the asylum, where the majority of her time is spent knitting, with women.
Eugénie, who confided in the wrong person about her ability to see spirits and who, without proof of her abilities (because there is no way of proving these things) might never leave the Salpêtrière.
And Geneviève, the emotionally closed-off nurse, whose life is her work and whose late sister Eugénie can see over her shoulder. But when the only person who might just listen to the lunatics is herself a woman and therefore under threat of incarceration in the institution, will anyone pay attention and release those who’ve been wrongly detained?

A brilliant novel, filled to the brim with pathos and memorable characters. The writing is robust and assured, and the narrative comes with what I can only describe as an arched eyebrow of a voice, which I loved.

“Beyond the walls of the Salpêtrière, in fashionable salons and cafés, people speculate about what Professor Charcot’s ‘clinic for hysterics’ might entail. They imagine naked women running through the corridors, banging their heads against tiled walls, spreading their legs to welcome some imaginary lover, howling at the top of their lungs from dawn until dusk. They picture lunatic bodies convulsing under starched white sheets, faces grimacing beneath a tangle of hair, the wizened countenances of old women, obese women, ugly women, women who are best kept confined, even if no one can say precisely why, since the women have committed no sin, no crime. For those troubled by the slightest eccentricity, whether bourgeois or proletarian, the very thought of those ‘hysterics’ kindles their desire and feeds their fear. Madwomen fascinate and horrify. Were those people to visit the asylum for the late-morning rounds, they would surely be disappointed.”
9% in, Chapter One, The Mad Women’s Ball by Victoria Mas

A must read. I loved it.