However, this is only the latest chapter in the long history of the Salpêtrière. Dig a little deeper and it won’t be long before you discover the building’s violent past. In the 19th century it served as an institution for mentally ill women, best known by Jean-Martin Charcot, the original diagnostician of female hysteria and a great inspiration for Sigmund Freud. Here, in this troubling chapter of the Salpêtrière’s past, we stumble into it Crazy Women’s Ball.
Victoria Mas’s novel, set in 1885 and translated from French by Frank Wynne, is a compelling and immensely readable reinterpretation of this complex space as seen through the eyes of the women who inhabit it. Of course, a second and equally important view always plays a role: the outside world, in which we as readers participate. The story gushes with anticipation as Mas prepares for the highlight of the year, the annual Salpêtrière costume ball. It is the night when Paris society is invited to marvel at the spectacle of trapped women in ball gowns, and when trapped women in ball gowns are offered a little suggestion in the company of respectable society (and yes, that really used to be in the Salpêtrière . the case ).
Protagonist Eugenie is a bright young thing, intelligent and curious. She is wealthy, bourgeois, and despite her unfavorable tendency to speak her mind, mixes with one another relatively easily through her prescribed existence in Parisian society. Crazy Women’s Ball above all, however, emphasizes one message. Neither Eugenie’s class nor her intelligence can protect her from her only fatal mistake. She is a woman. And realizing it or not, she lives on the edge of obedience and neglect where one wrong step could mean the end of her life as she knows it. Like all women, she is never more than a few words or gestures away from shame. And when she confides in her grandmother that she can see ghosts, the hurry to get to the Salpêtrière seems to be set in stone.
There is something of The story of the maid in the dystopian systems of oppression that have led to the mass incarceration of perfectly healthy women. At long last, Crazy Women’s Ball confirms what anyone with a cursory knowledge of the institution already knew: that the majority of women within the walls of the Salpêtrière were not mentally ill; instead, victims of abuse, rape and exploitation. We meet women who are denied in order to save a family’s reputation or who are pressured into desperate acts of revenge on their tormentors for whom they are punished.
Every encounter of the women in the presence of the novel (the book is written in the present tense, so we are always in the moment) feels like an encroachment on a bizarre continuum of imprisoned life. Your days are characterized by routine and differ only in the approaching ball. But when new patients like Eugénie arrive, full of new anger and confusion, we are surprised by the contrast. Like a modern day prison drama, the characters of Mas constantly pique our curiosity as we long to learn more about the stories that led them there.
It would have been easy to choose an objectively “good” woman as the focus for the book. But if Mas did that, our novel would be just injustice and frustration. Instead, Eugénie is a challenge: her ability to communicate with the dead worries even contemporary sentiments. It makes us think. Your skills are both an important driver of action and a point of attraction for the reader. And if we feel sorry for the woman who sees ghosts, then we are definitely open to reassessing the “madness” of her Salptrière colleagues.
read Crazy Women’s Ball, I found it terrifying to imagine myself in a world where I was constantly in danger of being locked up without breaking a law. But Mas got me to challenge my contemporary eye on the matter, for there is a downside that falls delicately into the dialogue between the women of the Salpêtrière to suddenly toss a curve ball to our understanding. For many of the “patients”, the Salpêtrière is a place of refuge precisely because it is cut off from the outside world. It is a release from the pressures of an inherently misogynist society, a refuge from the men whose violent or exploitative acts have driven these women to the extreme limits of “acceptable” behavior, and a space for women to live in relative peace . As we learn, the eldest of the residents, ex-prostitute and mother hen Thérèse, will do everything to ensure that she never has to leave …
Mas’ characters are never really out of the system. The voyeuristic, invasive and performative examinations of the much vaunted male doctors (as we can see in André Brouillet’s painting “A Clinical Lesson in the Salpêtrière” from 1887) are of course just another incarnation of male coercion, only this time in the name of progress. But it’s the tension that Mas creates that makes the novel so entertaining. Are they safer outside or inside? What is the real difference between nurses and patients? Does it matter whether the public visits the ball to see if the benefits are so tangible for the women whose days are otherwise only determined by medication and examinations? We ask as many questions as it answers Crazy Women’s Ball provides brief but stimulating reading, and clears up a questionable period in medical “advancement”.