So this is a book that has been on my TBR list for an age and I decided that my recent holiday to Malta was the perfect time to read it. And that I did. I actually finished it on the plane back to the UK.
“We can never know whether we are right to confess a truth. The moment of unburdening, the surge of relief, can quickly turn to regret. Regret that we have opened up, that we were swept away by the need to speak, that we have placed our trust in another. And in our regret, we vow never to do the same again.”
We head to Paris for this tale, our destination – the Salpêtrière asylum.
“Somewhere between an asylum and a prison, the Salpêtrière took in those that Paris did not know how to cope with: invalids and women.”
But this isn’t any old mental asylum…this is an asylum for women – mad, hysterical and outcasts from the society they find themselves in. They are all ages and from all levels of society.
“The absence of a clock makes every day seem like one interminable, suspended moment.”
However it is 1885 and the truth of the mater is far more complicated. These women are vastly normal, albeit unwanted wives, an inconvenience or strong-willed daughters. The asylum is a prison for those possessing and expressing an opinion.
“…A life according to the timetable and decisions of a man, a life with no passion, no ambition, a life spent seeing nothing but her reflection in the mirror or…with no goal behind bearing children, a life with no preoccupations beyond choosing what to wear.”
Once a year, the asylum hosts a grand ball that all of the Parisian elite are dying to attend – The Mad Women’s Ball. It’s the highlight of the social season.
“For one night only, the Salpêtrière brings together two worlds, two social classes, that would otherwise have no reason and no desire to meet.”
For the women themselves though, it is a night with a prospect full of hope and dreams.
“No one loves a madwoman…”
Doctor Charcot, a famous neurologist, is in charge of the asylum and he has an army of nurses on hand to assist him. He regularly entertains the Parisians with his displays of hypnotism on these women to induce seizures for the purpose of studying them. The women in this asylum are essentially lab rats.
“The women of the Salpêtrière were no longer pariahs whose existence had to remain hidden, but entertainment, thrust into the limelight without a flicker of regret.”
Genevieve is a senior nurse and Doctor Charcot’s right hand man (or rather, right hand woman). After a traumatic childhood incident, she has shunned religion and become a woman of logic and science, placing her faith entirely in Doctor Charcot. She is stern and unyielding but also places an air of stability to the patients.
Eugénie is 19 years old and is the daughter of a bourgeois family. She is also the newest addition to the Salpêtrière asylum. She is lively, intelligent and curious. She has a secret and she needs Genevieve’s help. But first she needs to get Genevieve to believe in religion again.
“Your greatest strength will be your greatest failing: you are free.”
Their fates collide on the night of the Mad Women’s Ball…
The event, The Mad Woman’s Ball, is based on a true event which I find truly fascinating. This book is exemplary in describing these women – their lives, their lack of choice, the way they are controlled by men.
“Often the truth is not better than a lie. I’m fact, our choice is never between truth and lies, but between the consequences that will follow each one.”
This book serves as a stark reminder to us all of what it meant to be a women in previous centuries. The author explores the vulnerabilities of the women in this book but not without also exploring their strengths, their commonalities and more importantly, their opinions and their thoughts; their hopes and their dreams.
You can find this book on Amazon
I would highly recommend this book!
Until next time,