The Mad Women’s Ball, by Victoria Mas

Wielding insanity as a weapon

I have had this book for a while, but it was lingering at the bottom of my unread stack until I saw a couple of reviews which intrigued me. The true joy of reading book blogs is the review that captures your imagination, or the special feeling when you discover a blogger who reads what you do. It’s a wonderful way to find books that you haven’t heard of, but which are just your thing. So thankyou to booksandbakes1 and BookBloggerish for your enthusiasm, because I loved The Mad Women’s Ball. To my shame it was genuinely quite dusty when I pulled it out of the heap.

The Salpêtrière asylum, 1885. All of Paris is in thrall to Doctor Charcot and his displays of hypnotism on women who have been deemed mad or hysterical. But the truth is more complicated – these women are often inconvenient, unwanted wives or strong-willed daughters. Once a year, a grand event is held – the Mad Women’s Ball. For the Parisian elite, it is the highlight of the social season; for the women themselves, it is a rare moment of hope.

The Mad Women’s Ball is fiction woven around a real institution – the Salpêtrière asylum – and it’s inmates and staff. The uncomfortable dynamic between those in power and those who are powerless is obvious from the start. Whether they be doctors determined to prove their diagnoses and treatment methods, or husbands, fathers and brothers willing to commit women who are inconvenient or intransigent, the whole balance is tipped towards men. The women in this place have no say at all.

Eugénie is confident in her privileged life, she is testing her boundaries, and stretching to the limit what her father will allow. She has a dangerous secret, and when it is revealed, her father takes her to the Salpêtrière. Geneviève is a nurse there, a position she loves, but she is gradually brought to the realisation that what she believes in and supports may be unjust and wrong. Naïve Louise is innocently day-dreaming of the day she will marry and be taken away, Thérèse knits shawls for the other inmates and watches over them protectively.

All these women are a close sisterhood supporting each other whilst hiding their true selves. The annual Costume Ball is just another form of disguise. One night each year when they can dress up, dance and dream, and perhaps escape.

The Mad Women’s Ball was a little bit more Gothic than I had expected it to be – very dark in places – but really, really good. I have since learnt that there is a film too, although I think I need to let the book settle for a while before I watch it.

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