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, outcasts from society. But the truth is much more complicated – for these women are often simply inconvenient, unwanted wives or strong-willed daughters. Once a year a grand ball is held at the hospital. For the Parisian elite, the Mad Women’s Ball is the highlight of the social season; for the women themselves, it is a rare moment of hope.
There are definitely some interesting women living in the asylum at Saltpiétre, under the care of Dr Charcot. We are introduced to Eugénie first, who lives with her parents, brother and grandmother in Paris. While she seems like an archetypal society young lady, there’s something more to Eugénie. Since she was an adolescent she has been seeing and communicating with dead people. This isn’t something she wanted and she’s been keeping it a secret for many years. Not even her brother Théophile or her grandmother know what’s been happening. She finds herself having strange physical symptoms like her limbs feeling heavy, then someone might come to her. One evening while attending to her grandmother before bed, her grandfather appears and starts to tell her that something precious, thought lost forever, is caught under the drawers of her dressing table. Sure enough, as Eugénie takes the drawers out she finds a sentimental piece of jewellery that her grandmother never imagined she’d see again. She trusts her grandmother, so out pours the story that she can communicate with dead people. Eugénie trusts that her secret is safe and never suspects that she could be betrayed by those she loves the most.
This novel’s strength lies in the portrayal of it’s women and the shocking truth of how easy it is for a man to have a woman placed in an asylum. Even more horrifying for me was how the women became objects: a father’s cold decision to choose his reputation and offload her like a defective belonging; a doctor using the women in his performance as an expert in his field; the grotesque spectacle of dressing up the women in costumes to be paraded around in front of Paris society at the ball. The interesting relationship between Geneviève and Eugénie kept me reading, but there was also a fascinating role for the older woman Therése. She seems to be quietly knitting in the corner, but there’s a lot more going on with this woman and she is vital to the smooth running of the ward. This is a fascinating piece of historical fiction, with a feminist perspective and the added bonus of a supernatural element. It questions what makes us ‘mad’ – is someone who believes in spiritualism any more mentally ill than someone who believes in God and the events of the Bible? I definitely recommend this and have to mention the absolutely stunning cover too.