Trigger warning for rape.
In the nineteenth century, a woman could be diagnosed with hysteria for an array of symptoms that range from hallucinations, epilepsy, and depression to irritability, menstrual pain, or doing too much/too little of something that bothered the men in her life. Hysteria could get a woman locked away for life in the United States, France, the United Kingdom, and other places until doctors were able to differentiate illness and mental disorders from normal behavior. This terrifies me and fascinates me, so a book like Victoria Mas’s The Mad Women’s Ball (smoothly translated by Frank Wynne) is my equivalent of watching a horror movie. I get chills. I wonder what I would do. Then I recommend it to other people so that I can spread the feeling around.
Historically, Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot studied women with hysteria and other illnesses (or not) at the notorious Paris hospital, the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital. His practice involved “lectures,” during which patients would be hypnotized so that they would perform muscle contractures, paralysis, and other physical symptoms of their “illness.” I’m using a lot of danger quotes here because Charcot’s actions and patient diagnoses were perfectly acceptable at the time. Now, in the twenty-first century, we know a lot more about mental illness, conversion disorders, human behavior, etc. Also, we have medical ethics that would prevent Charcot’s lectures/performances. Charcot is a tertiary character in The Mad Women’s Ball. Two of the main characters, however, share names with one of Charcot’s most famous patients, Louise Augustine Gleizes.
Geneviève Gleizes is the head nurse of one of the wards at Salpêtrière. She maintains order on the ward with a firmness that masks a surprising brittleness. At first, Geneviève is a rock, but it isn’t long before we start to see that she’s suppressing grief for her deceased sister. Then there’s Louise, Charcot’s patient du jour, who performs at his lectures in an effort to become famous. Sort of. Lastly, we meet Eugénie. I’m not sure if she’s based on a historical figure. I wouldn’t be surprised if Eugénie, who sees ghosts, was based on one of the many women who had successful careers contacting the other side during the height of the Spiritualist craze. Eugénie and Geneviève immediately put each other’s backs up. Geneviève is offended when Eugénie claims to see and hear Geneviève’s sister. Eugénie just wants to get out of the Salpêtrière and Geneviève represents everything that’s holding her prisoner.
The Mad Women’s Ball rushes by. It plays out over the weeks before the eponymous event, where the wealthy of Paris are invited into Salpêtrière to see the patients dressed up in costumes for their entertainment. The whirlwind plot makes it seem like everything is spiraling out of control just that much faster as the characters lose their grip on their equilibrium. This makes the book sound a lot more grim than I think it is because, while things are falling apart, all three of the primary characters are learning. Louise learns to shed her naiveté. Eugénie learns what it takes to be free. And Geneviève learns to let go of “sanity” so that she can finally feel her emotions. This book is a master class in character development and plotting. And it definitely made me feel the frisson of terror I was expecting at the same time that I marveled at the story.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.