The Mad Women’s Ball, by Victoria Mas

This is one of the books that our group won when Rosanne recently submitted our story to a book website. I will return it when next we meet so that it can be passed on to other readers.

The Mad Women’s Ball, or Lenten Ball, was an annual occasion at which invited guests of the Paris bourgeoisie flocked to watch the inmates of the Salpétrière hospital in Paris, who eagerly attend dressed in exotic costumes.

The madwomen file in; they are milkmaids and marchionesses, peasant girls and Pierrots, musketeers and Columbines, cavaliers and sorceresses, troubadours and sailors, peasant girls and queens.

It is a curious, mixed crowd, like a country fair to which the bourgeoisie have come, not to celebrate, but to jeer at the villagers in costume.

Salpétrière, literally, saltpeter factory, in 1656 was converted to a hospital for poor women. By mid-nineteenth century, it evolved into a women’s insane asylum. And by 1855, the year in which the book takes place, it was an institution in which “hysterical” and difficult women could be dumped by exasperated husbands, fathers, and others “in charge” of the female population.

The Salpétrière 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..

Victoria Mas packs a lot in her slight book, only 211 pages. She first briefly but sufficiently lays out life in the hospital, then quickly switches to the Cléry family. Dad runs the show, with Mom kowtowing to him, and even son Théophile bowing to his father’s rule. Nineteen-year-old daughter Eugénie, though, balks at the family structure. She is smart, headstrong, and independent. She also sees dead people, a perfect excuse for her father to unceremoniously dump her into Salpétrière.

The head nurse at Salpétrière, Geneviève, has been at the hospital for twenty years. She is stern and has control of the patients in hand. But she brings her own baggage.

The story unfolds as Eugénie and Geneviève collide, and as the inmates prepare for this year’s Mad Women’s Ball.

Mas bestows individual identities on the inmates; they are not a background mass for the main figures. The deftly woven characters, from those desperate to escape to the handful who have become comfortable in their surroundings and are fearful of the real world, like Thérèse, La Tricoteuse (the knitter), an older woman who is mother hen to the others, and who makes a shawl for each of them. She skillfully blends real people, Dr. Jean-Martin Chacot, who greatly influenced Freud’s work, his assistant Joseph Babinski, and their most famous patient, Louise Gleizes, into her fictional world.

Mas’ language drops the reader in the midst of 1885 Paris, from her descriptions of the city, with is cobble stone streets and horse and carriage transportation, to the characters’ specific clothing, to dialogue and internal monologue throughout. That this is carried through with an English translation from French (by Frank Wynne), speaks to her substantial descriptive talent. Only a very few awkward words and phrases appear in a fluid translation. It is genius.

The writing is almost clinical and unemotional, and while it allows the reader to keep a level of detachment, we still care about these people.

(I recommend browsing the internet for Salpétrière, the mad women’s ball, and Charcot. It’s a fascinating trip. Mas nailed it).

About connieciampanelli

I am the administrator of this page on behalf of our book club. I retired from La Salle Academy after serving as a secretary in The Admission and School/College Counseling offices to a total of fourteen years. A lifelong avid reader with a B.A. in Liberal Arts, Major in English, I read as I breathe, meaning reading is like the oxygen that keeps me alive.
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1 Response to The Mad Women’s Ball, by Victoria Mas

  1. connieciampanelli says:

    Tony and I watched the film, made in France. It was marvelous film-making, beautifully acted, the cinematography gorgeous, but while the novel avoided graphic depictions of women in the asylum, being mistreated, tormented, and even tortured, the film expanded on the book and included many scenes that were difficult to watch. A long sequence that took place when Eugénie is thrown into solitary confinement in a dungeon cell never happened in the book.
    The movie is a good one, but it’s rough.


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