The Salpetriere asylum, Paris, 1885. Dr Charcot holds all of Paris in thrall with his displays of hypnotism on women who have been deemed mad, hysterics, and been cast out from society. But the truth is much more complicated – these women are often simply inconvenient', unwanted wives, those who have lost something precious, or wayward daughters. For Parisian society, the highlight of the year is The Mad Women’s Ball, when the great and good come to gawk at the patients of the Salpetriere dressed up in their finery for one night only. For the women themselves it is a rare moment of hope.
Genevieve is a senior nurse – after the childhood death of her sister Blandine, she shunned religion and has placed her faith in Dr Charcot and science. But everything begins to change when she meets Eugenie, the 19 year old daughter of a bourgeois family who have locked her away in the asylum. Because Eugenie has a secret - she sees spirits. Inspired by the scandalous, banned work that all of Paris is talking about – The Book of Spirits – Genevieve is determined to escape from the asylum (and the bonds of her gender) and seek out those who will believe in her. And for that she will need Genevieve's help...
'Enter the danse of this little masterpiece and let yourself be dazzled. Assured of hitting the bestseller lists' The Parisian; ‘Essential reading’ Cosmopolitan ‘A lovely, moving first novel, a cri de Coeur against the condition of women in this world’ Marie France
Victoria Mas was born in 1987. The Mad Women's Ball, her first novel, has won several prizes in France (including the Prix Stanislas and Prix Renaudot des Lycéens) and been hailed as the bestselling debut of the season. She has worked in film in the United States, where she lived for eight years. She graduated from the Sorbonne University in Contemporary Literature.
This book was an enjoyable, interesting read but it also broke my heart. It is powerful and eye- opening. This is one of those books that will stay with me. It broke my heart for all the women who were unfairly treated during this time and institutionalized. It is a short, quick book and I feel like it could have been even better if it was longer and more in depth on some of the characters pasts. I also would have loved more on Eugenie's new life after her escape. I would recommend this book for anyone who loves historical fiction. Overall, a very good read!
Thank you Net Galley and Abrams, The Overlook Press for an ARC of this book in exchange for my honest review.
This book will be published September 14, 2021.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
“Illness dehumanizes.” And certainly madness in the 1880’s is the ultimate in dehumanizing diseases. The story takes place in the Salpetriere asylum in 1885 Paris. The patients are all ages, all levels of society. Not all the women are truly sick, some have just been deemed inconvenient or problematic by their families and placed here. “The Salpetriere is a dumping ground for women who have disturbed the peace. An asylum for those whose sensitivities do not tally with what is expected of them. A prison for women guilty of possessing an opinion.” Dr. Charcot is the famous neurologist who uses hypnosis to induce “fits” in his patients so that they can be observed and studied. He and the other doctors treat the patients like specimens to be studied. Genevieve is his senior nurse, a woman who believes in the good doctor, but he doesn’t care a whit for her opinion. And Eugenie, whose father has her admitted after she tells her grandmother about her ability to see the dead. Based on a true event, once a year there is the Mad Women’s Ball, a chance for le beau monde of Paris to come witness the women, to watch the spectacle of them dressed in their ball gowns. To the invitees, it’s entertainment; to the patients, it’s a diversion from the boredom of their everyday existence. The book shines when it describes the lives of women, their lack of choices, the way men control them in all matters. There’s also a great sense of time and place, both within and outside of the asylum walls. I can’t say that the magic realism of a woman that sees and hears the dead really worked for me. I would have preferred a story based on Eugenie’s other qualities, her independence, her intelligence, her unwillingness to conform, being the reason she was locked up. But the device obviously advances the plot. This is a dark reminder of what it meant to be female in previous centuries. This is well done historical fiction which would make a strong book club selection. My thanks to NetGalley and The Overlook Press for an advance copy of this book.
“Somewhere between an asylum and a prison, the Salpetriere took in those that Paris did not know how to cope with: invalids and women.”
Thoroughly enjoyed this short novel that covers some big topics about mental health and asylums in history.
Eugenie has been signed over to the institution by her family after telling her grandmother she can see and communicate with spirits. Meanwhile Genevieve’s job is her whole life, since her sister died she never lets herself feel anything. Particularly not for her patients. She has cut herself off, and is a great fan of Doctor Charat’s new theories and experiments.
But when the two women meet, they both change one another. Eugenie is desperate to find people who will accept her and her abilities. Genevieve is starting to wonder if the Doctor everyone has idolised is actually as great as everyone thinks.
The actual ball is only a very small portion of this story, so bear that in mind if you were expecting differently.
But overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this and would recommend.
“The Salpetriere is a dumping ground for women who disturb the peace. A prison for women guilty of possessing an opinion.”
************************ Library copy available for pick up
I’ve been waiting for this one ages! So exciting 😁
In her debut novel, Victoria Mas explores the vulnerabilities of women in the late 19th century but she also explores their strengths and their commonalities. The book opens on the scene of a sixteen-year-old young woman, Louise, going to a lecture held by Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot at the Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris. The head nurse, Geneviève, accompanies Louise to the theater and reflects with pride on Dr. Charcot’s accomplishments and the entourage of important people he attracts to his presentations, politicians, journalists, and others, exclusively male. They are spectators, but Louise is the spectacle. Dr. Charcot hypnotizes her and induces an attack of hysteria, so that it may be studied. What Mas details in the narrative seems more like a grand mal seizure to me, as Louise spasms in what looks like demonic possession.
Geneviève is known as “the Old Lady” by the women patients who live at Salpêtrière. She is the head nurse, stern, unyielding, but somehow conveys stability to the patients. Geneviève is committed to logic, to science, and so seemingly to the world of men as superior, for that is what culture and medicine have decreed in this time and space. Her sister Blandine died at age sixteen. Blandine had been devout, but her piety had not kept her from dying. Geneviève feels guilty that she is still alive and she is angry at God. Many nights she writes letters to her beloved sister, telling Blandine about her thoughts and events in her life.
Eugénie is from a middle-class background, intelligent and astutely observant. Eugénie realizes that her only value to her father is her marriageability. She asks to attend salons with her older brother, Théophile, which her father disallows. Secretly, she attends. When she engages in what she calls debate with her father, he calls her insolent. If Eugénie should tell anyone her greatest secret, she knows they would carry her off to Salpêtrière.
In this narrative, Eugénie becomes a literal and figurative bridge between a spirit world and a world of flesh and blood. She has a lively intelligence and curiosity, a penchant for learning everything she can; yet another unseen world that she has not asked for and did not seek impinges upon her consciousness. She is science-minded like Geneviève but due to her experiences she is aware of another realm, another way of being that is considered neither logical nor rational. Is she mad? Between madness and science, is there another completely lucid space? A space that is hidden from our everyday gaze, that is impossible to see with the blinders of rational existence. What do madness and science have to say about it? This book offers an exploration into these thoughts. I saw Eugénie as a woman of Geniviève’s intelligence with Blandine’s otherworldliness, although certainly not her piety. She is not “convinced by Christian doctrine; she does not deny the possibility of a God, but has preferred to believe in herself rather than in some abstract entity. She has found it difficult to believe in a heaven and a hell that are eternal - life already seems like a form of punishment, and the idea that this punishment would continue after death seems absurd and unjust.”
Dr. Charcot is a famous neurologist known as a pioneer in the fields of neurology and psychology. In this narrative, he is chauvinistic and egotistical, building up his reputation at the expense of his patient’s well-being. Eugénie’s father is narrow-minded and doesn’t consider his daughter’s personhood, her right to happiness and fulfillment in life. Théophile is the sole sympathetic male in this narrative.
“The Salpêtrière 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 possessing an opinion.”
In 1885 Paris, nineteen-year-old Eugenie Clery, a strong-willed young woman, is committed to the Salpêtrière Hospital for the mentally -ill by her father after her grandmother betrays her secret about her spiritualistic leanings that she had shared in confidence . Here she meets Genevieve the senior nurse of the facility – a practical woman who believes in science, doesn't believe in God (after a personal tragedy) and has faith in renowned neurologist Dr. Charcot’s methods for treatment of those suffering from mental illness. Dr. Charcot’s methods include hypnosis and every week he holds a practical demonstration of his methods for an audience of male doctors and interns. Louise, one of the patients Eugenie meets (the origins of her illness are discussed later on in the narrative) is the current case study. Louise is also romantically involved with one of the younger doctors who has promised to marry her. Eugenie knows that Genevieve is the only person who can help her but to do so would mean convincing her that she is not mentally ill. To do so she must use her gifts to make a connection with someone from Genevieve’s past – her younger sister Blandine whose death she still mourns- and she must do this before The Madwomen’s Ball. The Lenten Ball, The Madwomen’s Ball is an annual event wherein select members of the Parisian bourgeoisie are invited to interact with the patients of the asylum – a bright event that the women of Salpêtrière look forward for the festivities and the potential opportunity to meet someone sympathetic to their plight and an opportunity for the invitees to openly observe these women and satisfy their curiosity.
“Madwomen fascinate and horrify.”
The Mad Women’s Ball by Victoria Mas (translated by Frank Wynne) is an atmospheric, insightful and thought-provoking story that paints a heartbreaking picture of the plight of women banished from their homes and families and society in general on the whims of those whom they should have been able to trust. The story not only looks at the stigma associated with mental–illness during that period but also sheds a light on the practice of dubbing those not conforming to societal /patriarchal expectations as mentally ill. Not only were these women denied agency but were treated like experiments by their doctors and theater by those who were "curious” about what went on behind the closed doors of the institution.
“No woman can be certain that her words, her aspirations, her personality will not lead to her being shut away behind the fearsome walls of the hospital in the thirteenth arrondissement.”
The narrative is shared from the perspectives of Genevieve, Louise, and Eugenie. Given the short length of this novel, there isn’t much much scope for in-depth character development or exploring the relationships between the characters beyond a certain point. On that note, I thought Eugenie’s story was left somewhat incomplete. The Author's Note only provides a glossary for real people from that era who make an appearance/ are referred to in this story. I did feel the need for an Author’s Note on the historical context of this novel and the different themes that have been explored in the novel including the spiritualist movement of that era and some background on the Salpêtrière asylum , which unfortunately was missing.
Overall, while I truly appreciate the premise of this novel, I wasn’t completely satisfied with the execution.
“Unswerving faith in any idea inevitably leads to prejudice. Have I told you how calm I feel since I began to doubt? What is important is not to have beliefs, but to be able to doubt, to question anything, everything, even oneself. To doubt.”
Why I chose to read this book: 1. after reading GR friend, Carol's review, and seeing the gorgeous cover design, I was immediately drawn in to add this book to my WTR list; and, 2. September 2022 is my self-declared "Historical Fiction Month".
Praises: 1. "Since the dawn of time, they (women) had been the victims of decisions that were taken without their consent" is really the essence of this story! 2. it's so disconcerting that, over the years, so many physical and intellectual constraints were imposed upon women that many were committed to lunatic asylums such as Paris's Salpetriere Hospital, which is where this story is set in 1885. Author Victoria Mas successfully captures this setting, not only in this hospital, but on the Parisian streets and its homes as well; 3. I felt like I could get into the minds and hearts of several believable characters, whether empathetic to their terrifying situations, or at least, understanding of their thought processes. The dialogue was suitably authentic; 4. in reality, this hospital's Lenten Ball (aka The Mad Women's Ball) was an event anticipated by the upper-class society, not only as a "break" for a few hours from the fasting and prayer required during Lent, but hopefully to witness a hysterical fit or two. The female patients, on the other hand, also eagerly prepared personal costumes for this Ball, but with the hopes of being freed by a sympathetic guest. Although the Ball was the culminating event in this story, the skillful building of descriptive characters and settings two weeks prior to the Ball was necessary; and, 5. at times, it was quite suspenseful! Several possible scenarios came to mind, but which one will come to fruition, and how?
Niggles: 1. although satisfying, the ending was somewhat predictable for some of the characters; and, 2. I wish the author included an "Afterword" with historical references to the Salpetriere Hospital.
Overall Thoughts: I enjoyed this fast-paced, well-researched story about the history of an institution that I was unfamiliar with!
Recommendation? Historical fiction fans would most likely enjoy and learn from this underrepresented piece of Parisian history.
May is mental health awareness month, a subject in which I have a vested interest. There is no doubt that the treatment of mental health has improved but there is also little doubt that access to treatment is not available to everyone in need. Also, the stigma of having a mental health issue is very much alive. Still, things have changed albeit slowly. The treatment of women in the past became very much an issue with husbands, fathers, and others could inter women in a mental health institute for disobedience, for being different, for being rebellious and many other issues that had nothing to do with insanity. And so may I present, The Madwomen's Ball.
Paris France, 1885, The Salpetriere, an institute for the insane. It is here the famous Dr. Charcot will make his reputation, giving live examples on various women, showcasing hypnosis. This book features four women, one who works as a nurse at the Institute, two who are patients and a young woman from a wealthy family whose father brings her to the Institute after learning she can communicate with the dead.
We learn of life, treatment inside the Institute walls, get to know these four women with very different motives and feelings about being placed here. It is a novel of friendship, misjudgements, mistreatment and sisterhood. It emphasizes the strength of women, and the unfairness of society. It is a good story that has won many literary prizes in France and is being made into a movie by Amazon.
Prix Renaudot des lycéens 2019 The topic of Mas' debut novel is interesting and important: Set in 1880s, it tells the story of the women who were declared mad and committed to the Salpêtrière - mostly, these were perfectly healthy females who refused to play the roles society expected them to and women their families (mainly their husbands) wanted to get rid off for various reasons. There, the patients a.k.a. hysterics were kept like in a prison and treated as research objects by doctors like Jean-Martin Charcot who hypnotised women suffering from trauma and nervous conditions, thus inducing seizures, as a public spectacle. Charcot, his colleague Joseph Babinski and other historic personalities figure, and this could have been an excellent examination (haha, sorry) of the treatment of women, if it wasn't oh so clumsily crafted.
Our main characters are Eugénie, a young woman who can see dead people (this is presented as a fact), reads Le Livre des Esprits (one of the first works on spiritism) and is committed by her father, and Geneviève, a nurse who starts to doubt whether what happens at the Salpêtrière is right. While these two join forces, the yearly "Mad Women's Ball" is approaching, an event where "normal" Parisians can enter the ward and dance, so thus another entertainment spectacle that entails staring at suffering women.
So what's the problem here? Unfortunately, Mas spells out everything: Why every character does what, how everything is connected, why what happens is bad. All characters are stock characters, meant to educate the readers - and it's tedious. There is a fantastic story buried in this undercomplex melodrama, and I hope Mélanie Laurent's movie version will bring it out.
Extra points for the translation though, as it was done by the wonderful Frank Wynne!
"In a mad world, only the mad are sane." (Akira Kurosawa)
With glazed eyes, the bevy of women cluster around the dirty windowpanes. They lean with foreheads pressed upon glass observing the streets below. They view people who scurry alone or in pairs trying to brace themselves against the fury of the wind and the cutting edges of the icy flakes. Each boasts a destination with hurried footsteps. Frazzled minds from without.....frazzled minds from within.
Victoria Mas sets her provocative novel that will illicit differing responses from the readers as they choose to turn its pages. It's March of 1885 and Mas dares us to enter into the walls of the renowned La Salpetriere Asylum for Women in Paris. It is a place of longstanding with patients raging from 13- 65 years of age. Patients who differ in their signs of distress as the widening variations of sweeping flowers in a French country field.
Mas has done explicit research. The mentally ill and the mentally challenged were only part of the residents of this stone establishment. And this was on par with the treatment of mental illness around the world both then and now. "Patients/Lunatics/Nobodies". Most asylums were holding places for females who had fallen from grace as determined by their judgmental husbands and fathers. Any woman who was particularly verbal and disagreed with the head of the household could find themselves silenced for the rest of their lives. Pursuing a career or an interest banned by society would find yourself under lock and key. More's the pity for lost lives and lost talents.
Madame Genevieve is the head nurse in longstanding for twenty years here at La Salpetriere. She follows orders given by the famous Dr. Charcot, neurologist and authority on women's mental illnesses of that time period. Charcot, and others like him, resorted to using hypnosis on women as they stood like lab rats before a crowd of male professors. The nurses subdued unruly patients with cloths soaked in ether or chloroform. Daily life within the asylum was spent subduing the uncooperative.
Genevieve remains removed from those around her, but she displays a different temperment in regard to her sister, Blandine, who passed away. She stores a treasure-trove of letters she has penned to the dead Blandine over the years. But a new patient, Eugenie, will turn her world upside down.
Eugenie has become a patient at the asylum due to her insolence against her father. Even her own grandmother turns against her when Eugenie expresses an interest in Spiritualism. Abandon all hope who enter here. And this is where Victoria Mas' novel will be taken to a higher tier of thought. We will enter into the minds and actions of both Genevieve and Eugenie. And we will view the heartbreaking realities visited upon women in those circumstances.
The Mad Women's Ball is displayed with a gorgeous cover with varying choices of colors and designs. It's translated from the original French and has won awards there. It may not be for everyone. But my take is that even though it is a work of fiction, it leans on true factions of life for so many. Perhaps awareness, in itself, is a small inlet into restoring these women sullied by those in the past.
I received a copy of The Mad Women's Ball through NetGalley for an honest review. My thanks to ABRAMS (The Overlook Press) and to Victoria Mas for the opportunity.
UPDATE: I watched the movie on Amazon Prime a few nights ago and really enjoyed it. This is a case where the movie was actually better than the book. The acting is excellent and we get a better idea of what life was like for the patients in the asylum.
I was intrigued mostly by the title of this book in the beginning but I really liked the story once I started reading it. Eugenie, a young woman in Paris in 1885, confesses to her grandmother that she sees dead people and is able to commune with them. Her father, an important figure in the City, is dismayed by this and commits her to The Salpetriere Asylum, a neurological clinic where she meets Genevieve who has worked as a nurse at the asylum for 20 years.
The Mad Women's Ball was held every year and involved the patients dressing up for the entertainment of some of the Paris elite. It seems it was a highlight for the patients and for the guests but for different reasons. This story is based on real people and a real place. Although I found it interesting and enjoyed the story, I had been hoping for a more in-depth look at life in the asylum. I don't particularly care for books about spiritualism but the remainder of the book was interesting. There's a movie showing on Amazon Prime based on this book and I plan to watch it after I'm done reading. I believe it's in French with English subtitles of which I'm not a big fan but it's gotten pretty good reviews so we shall see.
Just after I started reading this one, a book called "The Painted Bridge" (2012) popped up in my Goodreads newsfeed and the premise sounded similar except that the asylum in that book is in Victorian England. Reviews are mixed but I think I'd like to read it at some point for comparison's sake.
It is short and well-written story, discussing how terribly women were treated in the late 19th century but without being a polemic.
The narrative has a simple plot, not-overly dramatic, showing how women were punished for having opinions by being rejected by their families or even locked away, how women were totally under the control of the men in their lives, only enjoying the freedoms allowed them and not able to live life on their own terms. And while other women can be a source of comfort and support, there are also many women willingly complicit in the oppression of their fellow females.
Although the main character is horrified at the thought of being trapped within the confines of the asylum, for many of the women, especially the poorer ones, the asylum offers them a kind of freedom. It is they only place where others have shown concern for their welfare and it is a haven of liberation from the subjugation to the whims and sexual violence of men which they suffered on the outside. Even in the asylum the women are subject to the control and exploitation of the doctors (all male, of course) who treat the women as interesting cases rather than real human beings, disregarding their feelings and desires.
And the ball itself arouses conflicting emotions. Although it is appalling to imagine these poor women shown off as entertainment for the Paris elite the women themselves look forward to the ball, the atmosphere in the asylum becoming more calm during the time they spend preparing to enjoy a novel entertainment in fancy company within the ‘safety’ of the asylum walls.
I often don’t enjoy books that have won prizes but this is a gem
I received this book from Net Galley, in exchange for an honest review.
Sacrée déception. Le Bal des folles part sur deux sujets très intéressants : la place des femmes dans la société française de la fin XIXème, et leurs "folies". Ainsi, l'action se déroule à la Salpêtrière -hôpital où l'on "soigne" les aliénées, mais qui a plus une fonction d'internat qu'autre chose- et où le célèbre Dr Charcot faisait ses fameuses démonstrations de crises d'hystéries avec l'aide (consentie ou on) de ses patientes.
Le gros problème, c'est que si le contexte est très intéressant, l'autrice n'a aucune histoire à nous proposer, et très vite elle en brode une avec le personnage d'Eugénie. Eugénie est une jeune fille de très bonne famille à la personnalité affirmée et qui refuse de se limiter à ce que la société de l'époque attend d'elle (une épouse, une jument). Mais Eugénie a le malheur de confesser à sa famille qu'elle voit et entend des esprit, et son père l'interne immédiatement à la Salpêtrière pour éviter honte et déshonneur. Sauf que dans le roman, il est admis et prouvé qu'Eugénie n'est pas folle et qu'elle voit bel et bien des esprits, ce qui pour moi décrédibilise complétement le propos. Là où moi je m'attendais à lire plus sur les conditions de vie des personnages de l’hôpital, de leurs différents "traitements", etc, l'autrice en fait nous propose l'histoire d'Eugénie, enfermée à tord, qui va chercher à s'enfuir. Pourquoi avoir introduit cet élément surnaturel ? N'aurait-il pas été plus intéressant et intriguant de laisser le lecteur dans le doute quand à la prétendue folie d'Eugénie ?
Je ne peux m’empêcher de comparer le roman à deux autres ouvrages. Le premier, c'est The Ballroom de Anna Hope, dont l'action se déroule dans un asile dans l'Angleterre début XXème où là j'ai trouvé le contexte retranscrit de façon crédible. Le second, c'est Alias Grace de Margaret Atwood, pour justement le doute et le mystère qui plane dans le roman quand à la culpabilité de son personnage principal féminin, et sur le spiritisme et les croyances surnaturelles dans la haute bourgeoisie. Je ne saurais que trop vous recommander ces deux livres, qui en plus discutent également la place des femmes dans les contextes choisis.
The year is 1885. In Paris, the social event of the year is the annual mad women's ball. It's the one time of the year where the bourgeoisie mingle with women who are deemed to be the cast offs of society. The women seen as inconvenient, unwanted and undesirable. Genevieve is the senior nurse at the Salpetriere asylum, in charge of caring for these women. Of logical mind, she sees her patients as objects to be studied to the talented Dr Charcot rather than people. That is until new patient Eugenie arrives. Sent to the asylum by her father, she has a special gift. A gift that will connect to two women and open Genevieve to a world beyond science.
I liked the two main characters, although the shirt length of the novel hinders their development and emotional depth quite a lot. I warned to Genevieve more, given that we see more of her backstory and upbringing withing the narrative itself. She goes through a journey throughout the novel, and overall I found her character arc quite interesting. Eugenie I found harder to like. She's rash and headstrong, purposely saying things that she knows will get her into trouble - making me less sympathetic to her plight. The situations she finds herself in are largely her own fault. Of the secondary characters, a think a lot more time could have been spent fleshing them out a bit more - especially Therese and Louise. Both had so much potential to be vividly described and fleshed out, but beyond a bit of personal history they never really are - which lessens the impact of the story some what.
My main issue with the story itself is that there isn't really much of a plot. The ending is pretty much inevitable, and it doesn't really tell me anything new beyond the fact that men are exploitative arseholes regardless of the historical period. Although I enjoyed my time reading this, I just ended up feeling a little bit flat and meh about the whole thing.
Disappointing. This wasn't what I expected, nothing stood out for me, the characters are boring and the universe of the Salpêtrière wasn't explored properly, Charcot was barely there, it felt like the summary had almost nothing to do with the book. The writing isn't particularly good, the ending is not surprising at all. There isn't really a proper story arc in this book. Such a shame that this interesting concept was wasted.
A quick read about the Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris in 1885. A hospital for ‘hysterical’ women and other mental illnesses, and every year the Lenten Ball is held there, where all the well-to-do etc can come and gawk at the madwomen. Professor Charcot famously holds lectures where he demonstrates hypnotism on patients and induces fits, in front of hundreds of male students. The treatment of problematic women and mentally ill patients in the past is still amazing to read about it, and I found this an interesting and well written story. The main characters are Genevieve, the matron who has worked there for twenty years and Eugenie, an upper class young woman who has been committed by her father. There are other important characters, patients, Louise and Therese and Eugenie’s brother, Theophile. An impressive debut novel and a beautiful cover as well.
4.5 kawał dobrej lektury, książka, która zdecydowanie zasługuje na uwagę! jednak według mnie zdecydowanie za krótka z chęcią czytałbym o losach tych kobiet przez następne strony, jednak nie miałam takiej możliwości ;(
Before I begin reviewing, please know that I may be harsh because I went into this book wishing to love it. My expectations were high, because this book has won numerous prizes and the premise is right up my alley. So what went wrong?
Let’s begin with what I enjoyed. The Mad Women’s Ball is easy to read. Whenever I picked it up, I was compelled to keep reading, which is no small feat.
So why did I not love this book? For me, there are multiple problems, the biggest one being that it’s so incredibly on the nose. Nineteenth-century France freaking sucked when you were a woman, and Mas has tried to make this clear with every tool she has. Women are raped, beaten, silenced, etc. After a while, I became numb to the suffering the characters endured. This is a personal preference, but I would have liked for Mas to show us the violence of the patriarchy in more subtle ways. I thought about a scene from the movie Suffragette , in which a rich lady wishes to bail out her fellow suffragettes but needs her husband to sign the papers for her, even though the money she wishes to use is her own. Her husband, ashamed of his wife’s political views, refuses, and the two end up leaving without having paid the other women’s bail. This scene is so effective because without having to resort to extremes, it shows us the violence of the society in which these women live. No such subtlety for The Mad Women’s Ball, although in the second half of the book, Mas does try to nuance things by having two characters proclaim that they actually enjoyed their stay in the asylum. This I appreciated greatly, and it was also sorely needed to give the novel some depth.
Even so, Mas has a super clear opinion on everything. The women in this asylum are all victims of the patriarchy! They’re just misfits of society, nothing is wrong with them apart from trauma! And that is frankly insulting to Doctor Chartot, a man who actually existed and did a great deal in helping to distinguish between different neurological diseases and prove that they were in fact real diseases with physical causes. Thus, the patients actually housed in the Salpêtrière asylum suffered from a range of very real conditions still recognised today. Even the ward that housed those diagnosed with hysteria also housed those with epilepsy, of which we can say that it is beyond a doubt a real illness. I would have liked to at least see Mas acknowledge this. Additionally, I would have greatly appreciated it if Mas had used this novel to explore what madness means. Is it bound to time and place? Are there universal elements or constants? Why not write a character we would still deem mad or at least mentally disturbed and then show us that those people also deserve love and compassion and proper care? A wasted opportunity.
Furthermore, Charcot is portrayed as a sadistic man who stages elaborate shows using his patients without any regard for their well being. That he hosted such shows is correct. However, the real Charcot is so much more complicated than how Mas portrays him. He let women be his students and assistants in a time and place when that was not the norm; he vigorously advocated for people to accept that the working classes were no different from the middle and upper classes on a physical and mental level when that was very much not what those middle and upper classes believed; he argued that hysteria was by no means a female-only disease and that those afflicted from it where by no means faking it which, again, was not the norm. All of this I found out after maybe half an hour of research, so it is beyond me why Mas did not include any of this in her novel. It almost seems as if she was adverse to nuance, but that is precisely what a novel like this requires and what the time period and setting and, again, actually existing people deserve.
There’s also no suspense within this novel. Everything is told immediately (even when it should at times have been shown). Louise freezes when an intern kisses her? The reader might logically infer this is because she has suffered through some form of sexual violence, but rather than letting us work this out for our own, at least for a bit, Mas immediately tells us exactly what has happened. The matron has come to think of her patients as bothersome objects. That’s interesting! What could have happened to make her this way? Worry not, Mas will tell you straight away! Can Eugénie really communicate with spirits, or is there perhaps something else going on? Haha no of course she can see ghosts, there’s no doubt about that. There’s no subtlety, no room for interpretation on the reader’s part for the whole of this novel. Frankly, it feels very lazy.
Again, perhaps I’m unduly harsh about this. Most people who’ve left reviews here seem to have really enjoyed this novel. I simply wish I could have enjoyed it as much as they, but the utter lack of nuance made this seem like such a cheap shot at 'old doctors evil, feminism good'. A shame.
While not as amazing as the reviews make it sound, The Mad Women’s Ball is a decent read. I enjoyed our lead gal and her conversations with ghosts. It would have been nice to feel like I knew a couple other main characters as well as we end up knowing her. Both the nurse and Louise (a ‘hysterical’ woman) are key players but I never truly felt like I knew them with as much depth as I’d have liked. This is a shorter novel, translated from French. It could actually have been longer (shocking I know, it’s rare to wish a book was longer). I’d have liked more about our characters, their motivations, and experiences prior to being put up at the asylum. It’s certainly tragic that, back in the day (but assuredly still happening on occasion today), that someone with power could abuse and manipulate a person and then leave them (more or less) for dead at the asylum. The doctors we encounter in The Mad Women’s Ball are historical figures, including Babinski, a famed neuroscientist (thank you Big Bang Theory for teaching me this and not needing to look up a bunch of historical fact. Lol). All our other characters are fictional to my knowledge.
Overall I’d say this will likely make a better movie (which I will watch) than a book. The plot feels very linear and the set-up will lend itself to a well written script. And so, I can’t believe I’m about to say this, maybe wait for the movie to be released?
Please note: I received an eARC from the publisher via NetGalley. This is an honest and unbiased review.
This absorbing well crafted novel transports us to Paris in 1885.France was in a period of intellectual and social upheaval in the aftermath of the 1848 revolution and its subsequent reverberations.Science had become a new form of religion and competed with Catholicism for the devotion of Parisians. The Salpetriere Hospital , headed by Jean-Martin Charcot, was in the forefront of the new fascination.The asylum treated women who were abandoned by society and deemed mad or hysterical and held public displays of hypnotism of these women.The crowning social event of the season was the Mad Women’s Ball, where Parisian socialites could mingle with these women and gawk at them up close.
Victoria Mas reimagines this historical period and creates a novel that immerses us in fin de siecle Paris,portraying the emotions and thoughts of these incarcerated women.Many of the women are neither mad nor deserving of being shut away.They live under a patriarchal system that allows men to institutionalize non conforming or confrontational women.The author’s deft touch introduces us to the women housed in the Salpetriere. Two women are central to this portrayal. Genevieve is the head nurse who has been at the asylum for twenty years.Haunted by the death of her sister, she has devoted her life to science despite the limitations her gender has placed on her talents.Eugenie is a patient who has been institutionalized by her overbearing father because of her interest in Spiritism.Although these two women have different ways of coping with their realities, they both share an unspoken bond because their talents have been stifled by a male dominated system.The gradual development of their relationship provides a lens that reveals their personalities and backstories.
The women’s differing beliefs highlight the tensions between scientific belief and spiritual intuition. As this conflict evolves we also wonder what is a safe place for women in a society that values conformity above all else.The interplay between Genevieve and Eugenie, along with the interactions of other inmates, begins to form a picture of solidarity and sometimes ironic comfort among the institutionalized women.Some of the women view the asylum as a safe haven because it protects them from male predators outside the asylum walls.Others long for escape into the wider world. We are left to wonder which set of desires is more rational.
This chasm between appearance and reality is one striking theme that runs through the novel.The author’s prose combines vivid physical description and shifting imagery and left me wondering how to separate reality from delusion.This clever creation is a jewel that draws the reader into its world and leaves one with much to ponder.4.5 stars.
I refused to finish it. I was bored senseless from the very beginning it’s very dry and lacklustre writing, but I was placing fault there more on the translation than the text. Then came the on-the-nose very obvious and primary school feminist concepts which were stressed as though they were some massive revelation?
I felt like the author thought readers were too stupid to handle the most basic concepts and spoke to us as such, spoon feeding us everything rather than showing and treating the most basic 1980s understanding of feminism as it was revolutionary.
On top of that, there was something very iffy about a upper/middle class woman being wrongly out into an asylum and thus deserved to be liberated whilst the lower class women were abused in there and had a miserable time. I don’t have time for middle-class white women feminists ideas of empowerment — it’s not only embarrassing but woefully dull and certainly doesn’t make for good literature.
Fue una buena lectura, que me absorbió desde las primeras páginas, que no pude parar de leer porque quería saber más y más, el argumento de la novela es duro, cruel, desalmado, atroz, sin embargo esa descrito de una forma suave, amable, delicada, apacible.
La historia tiene muchas actrices pero las tres protagonistas principales sin duda son Eugénie, Louise, Geneviève, mujeres intensas, con una vidas difíciles, todas muy distintas, sin embargo coincidirán en esta cárcel de mujeres, esos lugares llamados manicomios, porque esto perdonen no era un hospital, la falta de libertad, los aislamientos no producen nada bueno, todo lo contrario matan en vida.
Por esos años de 1885 los padres se deshacían de su hijas, lo maridos abandonaban a sus mujeres en esos tétricos lugares, por tener su propias ideas, por ser sensibles en temas que según ellos no las convenía, o no estimaban que era lo correcto.
Estas páginas me recordaron un poco a la vida de Juana de Castilla, no es el mismo siglo, no es España, es Francia, aunque los sucesos narrados son muy similares, no se las encerraba en castillos, se las encerraba en hospitales para mujeres, por aquello de que en esos tiempos atrás la mujer tenía que ser sumisa, si no era así se las consideraba locas, prohibiéndolas las libertad, la vida, impidiéndolas exponer sus ideas, solo había una camino, el camino de la obediencia, el cual si no cumplían eran expulsadas de la vida.
En estas páginas aun creo que es peor lo que las hacían, además de apartarlas de la vida, las hacían toda clase de experimentos o más bien aberraciones con ellas, abriendo las puertas como si de un espectáculo se tratase, donde solo acudían hombres, provocándolas reacciones mediante medicinas llevándoles a estados de epilepsias.
A Louise la ingresan allí después de ser violada por su tío con solo 16 años y estar sometida constantemente a los malos tratos por parte de su tía.
Eugénie tiene una inteligencia superior, la entusiasma leer, la apasiona todo lo que tenga que ver con los espíritus, no está de acuerdo con lo que le impone su padre, ella no quiere casarse y tener hijos ella quiere otra vida, al contar un secreto a su abuela, la abuela se lo comunica al padre, engañada es trasladada a ese lugar.
Geneviève es la enfermera de esa cárcel, es la única que mira a las mujeres que residen allí como personas, no como experimentos, es esa persona afable que entre tanta mandad, siempre aparece por arte de magia en las vidas de una inmensidad de personas.
Geneviève se involucrara hasta el punto de arriesgar su trabajo y su propia vida por salvar aunque sea a una de ellas.
Me olvidaba de Théophile, este muchacho también entrara en el plan junto a Geneviève, para salvar a una de estas mujeres.
La descripción de estos sucesos que ocurrían por esos años me lleno de gran indignación, rabia e impotencia, diría un sinfín de cosas pero mejor me estoy calladita, también decir que en estas páginas están expuestos estos sucesos, porque la historia está para que se conozca, para que no se comentan estas salvajadas nunca más, quizás en esta novela el nombre exacto del mal llamado hospital no es real, pero que hubo esta clase de lugares para mujeres si es real, da igual el nombre, lo importante es contar lo que sucedió.
Se hace una mención a una lectura que lleva como título “El libro de los espíritus” busque por internet, ya tengo el libro en mi poder.
Fue una lectura a pesar del tema tratado, llena de sentido y sensibilidad, paginas narradas delicadamente con mucho amor, cariño, sentimiento, descrito con el alma, para colarse en lo más profundo del corazón, es de esas historias que no se olvidan fácilmente.
Posdata: Pero nunca olvidéis que la historia que cuenta un libro no siempre es igual.
Extractos del libro:
La enfermedad deshumaniza, convierte a esas mujeres en marionetas a merced de unos síntomas grotescos, en flácidos peleles en manos de unos doctores que las manejan y les examinan todos los pliegues de la piel, en animales estúpidos que sólo despiertan un interés clínico.
¿Por qué creer en Dios está bien y creer en los espíritus no?
La cuestión es que ustedes temen lo que no conocen. Y pretenden curar a la gente.
Las promesas sólo comprometen a quien se las cree.
La indignación es un sentimiento avasallador, y no conviene malgastarlo.
Pero a veces mentir, más que una necesidad, es un consuelo.
El decorado es tal que uno desearía que durara para siempre.
Creo... que nunca he estado fuera. Que siempre he estado aquí.
3.5 stars - A short historical novel that packs a real punch. Playing on the real life figures in the history of medicine in France, this explores how societies conceptualize mental illness or neurodiveristy, as well as how those concepts change when they are applied to women
TW for just about everything, so double check this one before reading.
I liked this. It was upsetting...unsettling and sometimes creepy which kept me interested, but sometimes it felt slow at least to me. I look forward to watching the film to see how they portray the characters.
A la base, c’est une histoire sur les femmes en France (et ailleurs en Europe, j’imagine) à la fin du 19eme siècle. Celles qui ne jouent pas le rôle qui leur est désigné par les hommes et la société sont déclarées malades et internées. Une fois internées, elles sont oubliées et n’ont presque plus de possibilités de s’en sortir. Une vie d’ennui, d’ordres, de dépendances, de non-autonomie les attend, et si elles n’étaient pas folles avant l’arrivée à la clinique, elles le deviennent bien vite.
Le docteur Charcot, grand figure de l’histoire de la neurologie (et psychiatrie ?) ainsi que le tristement célèbre bal des folles ne jouent que de rôles secondaires pour donner le cadre à cette histoire. Son essence sont les femmes qui se trouvent à la Salpêtrière : les aliénées qui y sont souvent contre leurs grés mais parfois pas, ainsi que les infirmières.
J’ai beaucoup aimé découvrir les histoires de ces femmes. J’y ai vécu avec elles, j’avais envie de prendre une ou l’autre dans mes bras parfois, je me suis liguée avec quelques-unes d’entre elles et j’ai souffert avec elles.
Pour moi, une très belle histoire et une découverte un peu surprenante pour un premier roman.
« Mais la folie des hommes n’est pas comparable à celle des femmes : les hommes l’exercent sur les autres ; les femmes, sur elles-mêmes. »
Some books are based on such an interesting premise that I can't wait to read them. Sometimes there's a brilliant payoff in discovering a great author or an new subgenre; other times the whole experience is meh. Victoria Mas' The Mad Women's Ball is certainly based on an interesting premise. And it is most definitely NOT meh.
Set in late 19th Century Paris, the novel follows several characters connected—through employment or institutionalization—to the Salpetriere Asylum. For its time, Salpetriere is ground-breaking. The new medical "tool" of hypnotism is being used to study female madness. Hundreds of medical men (and only men) gather to see Dr. Charcot, who directs Salpetriere, induce seizures in his patients, for reasons of medical research, of course.
The ball of the title is an annual event which the wealthiest, most powerful Parisians attend for a chance to rub shoulders with "madwomen," who for one night are allowed to dress in finery and mingle with those living outside the asylum. Yes, the mad women's ball was a real event. You can read more about it here: https://victorianparis.wordpress.com/...
Of course, many of the mad women aren't mad at all. This is an era when it's easy for a man to "dispose" of an inconvenient wife, mother, or daughter by taking her to Salpetriere. There's Therese, a murderess with an excellent reason for her crime; Louise, subjected to her uncle's sexual abuse; and Eugenie, who is visited by the dead. Eugenie has been committed by her father—a wealthy authoritarian and rationalist—who disowns her shortly after she confesses her "gift" to her beloved grandmother.
The Mad Women's Ball explores two topics: perceptions of female madness and the possibility of spirit communication. The novel's characters have strong opinions about each. Victoria Mas shows us their many different responses when those opinions are challenged.
The Mad Women's Ball succeeds as a fast-paced story of adversity and (occasional) triumph. It also gives readers a great deal to chew over regarding history, what it means to be female, and their own perceptions. I received a free electronic review copy of this title from the publisher via NetGalley; the opinions are my own.
The Mad Women’s Ball, originally published in France as Le Bal de Folles, is a debut novel by Victoria Mas which earned its author rave reviews, literary prizes and critical accolades. It is now being published in an English translation by Frank Wynne, bringing the work to a wider audience.
The novel is set in Paris in the mid-1880s and presents us with two strong female protagonists. On the one hand there’s Genevieve, senior nurse at the Salpetriere, an asylum which houses various madwomen, hysterics and outcasts. Its director, Dr Charcot, experiments with hypnotism on some of his high-profile cases during public lectures which feed the public’s thirst for voyeurism. Genevieve, is a firm believer in the power of science, personified in Charcot and his associates in whom she has full and unconditional faith.
However, Genevieve’s beliefs are challenged when she meets Eugenie, an independent-minded young woman from a bourgeois family, who has been conveniently locked away at the Salpetriere after claiming to converse with ghosts. Is Eugenie delusional, or is she the victim of a patriarchal society, a society which wants to get rid of uncomfortable women?
The “Mad Women’s Ball” of the title is a yearly event held at the asylum during the Lenten period: a costumed ball which gives a rare opportunity to high class society to mingle with the dangerous females of the asylum. Besides becoming itself a metaphor for the abuse suffered by the Salpetriere patients, the ball provides the perfect set-piece for the novel’s denouement.
The Mad Woman’s Ball is an atmospheric work which combines fictional and historical elements (Charcot, as well as some other characters in the book did exist), and its Gothic and supernatural overtones add some frisson to the plot. However, I must admit that I was disappointed overall, and that I expected more from a worked dubbed as a “literary sensation”. While the two protagonists are well drawn and there are some interesting figures in the “supporting cast”, most of the other characters, particularly the male ones, are there merely to serve the plot or to highlight the general nefariousness of the male sex. Indeed, one of the problems of this novel is that it seems to be continuously underlining and highlighting its “message”. Here’s a typical paragraph:
The sole purpose of the corset was clearly to immobilize a woman’s body in a posture considered desirable – it was certainly not intended to allow her free movement. As if intellectual constraints wee not sufficient, women had to be hobbled physically. One might almost think that, in imposing such restrictions, men did not so much scorn women as fear them.
Don’t get me wrong. The novel’s feminist message is laudable, but I think readers should be expected to be intelligent enough to get the point without it having to be explained to them.
Perhaps the real problem is that there are several very good, and some great, works of feminist Gothic and historical fiction available in English – by the likes of Evie Wyld, Sarah Waters, Alison Littlewood, Sarah Perry and Susan Fletcher, to name but a few – which cover the same territory. The Mad Women’s Ball faces stiff competition and while an entertaining and interesting read, I do not feel it is original enough to make it memorable.
Beh, “pazze” si fa per dire. Perché nel celebre ospedale parigino della Salpêtrière finivano per lo più le donne depresse, sole, abusate, abbandonate, scomode per quella società francese di fine Ottocento dominata ancora totalmente, purtroppo, dagli uomini. C’è chi si ribella a una vita familiare di violenze, chi diffonde idee considerate “sovversive”, chi si oppone al potere di un fratello o padre padrone, chi scappa, uccide, ruba, si prostituisce per disperazione: ognuna di queste donne ha dietro di sé una triste storia, vittima di prevaricazione e di ingiustizia. Un carattere della società di quel tempo che, francamente, così rimarcato non ricordavo, seppur avendo letto romanzi (penso a quelli del sommo Zola), che me l’avevo descritta a tuttotondo. Fra queste donne c’è Eugénie, giovane borghese lì portata a tradimento dal padre e dal fratello, perché ammette di avere un dono speciale, considerato folle, e perché osa opporsi a quel ruolo in cui la famiglia l’ha voluta relegare; ma c’è anche Geneviève, rigida capoinfermiera convinta della supremazia della scienza su ogni cosa, e che tuttavia crederà a Eugénie, escogitando con lei un muto accordo. Il titolo del romanzo, "Le bal des folles", "Il ballo delle pazze", è a mio avviso fuorviante, sia in francese che in italiano. Perché “folli” appunto tali donne per la maggioranza non lo erano, anche se tali erano ritenute dalla società. E il famoso “Ballo”, incontro che la Salpêtrière concedeva annualmente tra le “detenute” e il mondo esterno, è narrato alla fine, e in sé, resta un fatto marginale. Fondamentali sono invece le storie che si sviluppano attorno, e che ci parlano di lotta, coraggio, amicizia e solidarietà femminile, in una realtà retrograda e difficile. Un romanzo forte e meraviglioso, che mi sento di consigliare senza indugio.