Book Review: The Mad Women’s Ball by Victoria Mas

The Mad Women’s Ball by Victoria Mas is a critically acclaimed French novel of historical fiction, translated by Frank Wynne, that follows the mistreatment and dehumanization of women deemed “mad” and forced into imprisonment within a women’s asylum. 

The Belle Epoque was a riot of culture and prosperity for the French Republic, with innovations in medicine and mental health expanding as rapidly as the other technologies that helped drive the European economy forward. In Paris, the neurologist Jean-Martin Chacot has taken charge of the Salpetriere asylum—once a prison for women and the mentally defective—and turned it into a women’s asylum, scientifically run and with an end goal of actually curing madness. Alas, then, that the definition of madness in French society should be so wide-ranging as to include, among others:

A woman who publicly upbraided her husband for his infidelities locked away like some beggarwoman who’d displayed her pubis to passers-by; a woman of forty flaunting herself on the arm of a man twenty years her junior incarcerated for debauchery; a young widow shut away by her mother-in-law because the latter considered her grief for her husband to be excessive. The Salpêtrière 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.

Genevieve is a senior nurse at the asylum, and while rigid and formal, she’s still a beacon of stability for the many women warded there. Though not a cruel person, she’s long since had any empathy for her patients drained out of her. All she wants is to ensure that her charges are maintained according to sanitary standards, as the doctors advise. With the help of Therese, the former prostitute who’s been there the longest and is known and loved by just about everyone, Genevieve manages the women with efficiency each day before returning to her lonely Paris apartment in the evenings.

When young Eugenie is committed to the asylum, Genevieve assumes that the new girl is just like all the other women, protesting her own sanity despite all evidence to the contrary. But when Eugenie proves that she isn’t mad, Genevieve must risk everything in order to help set the younger woman free. The perfect opportunity, it would seem, is the upcoming Mad Women’s Ball, the annual Lenten gala that invites the Parisian elite to come dance and mingle with the “exotic creatures” kept caged in Salpetriere. For the frustrated women of the asylum, it’s their one chance at contact with the outside world. For Genevieve and Eugenie, it’s their one shot at freeing someone wrongly imprisoned.

This harrowing historical novel, translated from the French by Frank Wynne, is short but powerful, speaking not only to how women have been inhumanely treated since time immemorial simply for being true to themselves or inconvenient to others but also to how uncomfortably close we as a society still are to the sort of backward thinking that denies a woman her rights and liberties simply on the say-so of a powerful, and usually wealthy, guardian. Victoria Mas is even-handed in her depiction of Salpetriere—some of the women were glad for a clean, warm refuge from an unforgiving world outside the asylum walls, while others used their time there to build the skills they would need to thrive once assessed as “cured”—but she is highly critical of the misogyny that strips women of their autonomy and takes advantage of the powerless. She is also excellent at describing the feelings, and particularly the anger and helplessness, of the women of Salpetriere and extrapolating that as advice for modern times.

And besides, sometimes one has to choose one’s battles. It is neither possible nor appropriate to rebel against everything, all the time, to attack every individual or institution guilty of injustice. Rage is a powerful emotion and one that should not be used in a scattergun fashion. Eugénie realizes that her priority at this moment is not the rights of others, but herself. It is a selfish thought, and she feels a little ashamed, but that is just how things are at this moment: her first concern must be to get out of here.

These emotions resonate in this deeply humane, well-researched thriller. My heart ached for poor Louise, another asylum inmate with hopes of escape, and I’m still somewhat torn as to Genevieve’s ultimate fate. But I did very much enjoy the parallels to modern life in this cautionary tale, with its light supernatural trimmings, and hope it helps convince more people to stand up for what’s right and recognize the humanity in each other instead of simply ignoring injustice because it’s more convenient that way.

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