‘Learning about the past helps us to understand where we are today’. So said Victoria Mas, the prize winning bestseller French author of ‘The Mad Women’s Ball’ during our interview with her for the Tertulia Members Forum, last week, coming to us all the way from Paris.
The book centres around the Salpêtrière Asylum for Women, Paris, in 1885, and the work of Doctor Jean-Martin Charcot, a French neurologist and professor of anatomical pathology. He is best known today for his work on hypnosis and hysteria and is thought to be the founder of modern neurology. Parisian society at that time was enthralled by his public displays of hypnotism on women who had been deemed ‘mad’ or ‘hysterical’ and in the main abandoned by society and family to the Salpêtrière Asylum.
Victoria Mas was compelled to write her book when she became aware of the ‘heavy history’ surrounding an annual event in Parisian society in the late 1800s, called the Mad Women’s Ball. This was when the patients or perhaps more accurately the inmates of the Salpêtrière Asylum were put on display for the Parisian elite to gawk at for entertainment in the hope that they would have a fit for all to see. Contemporary Parisians were not aware of the existence of this event and the significance of how those women had been treated and perceived.
Geneviève is one of the book’s main characters. A senior nurse on the ward of the hysterical women, she has dedicated her life to the pursuit of science. She believes wholeheartedly in the endeavours of Doctor Charcot, at times setting aside any empathy for the plight of the women in her charge.
However, when Eugénie, a 19-year-old woman from a bourgeois family, is admitted to her ward, everything changes. Geneviève is not prepared for the effect Eugénie will have on all the inmates, including herself and her own convictions. Mas explains to us how the doubt that Geneviève experiences is essential to her learning and growth: “Such a beautiful journey when we doubt and when we question ourselves and when we are able to go someplace where we didn’t even think we were able to go.”
One of the long-term inmates of the asylum is asked, “Do you miss the outside?”, and her reply is, “I wonder if I was ever really outside.” Although many of the women were actually not suffering from any ailment, some in fact felt it was safer on the inside away from the violence they had experienced on the outside.
Eugénie has been admitted to the Salpêtrière because can see and hear the dead. In fact, it is her grandmother who betrays her. However, Eugénie herself had realised she was not mad when she discovered a book written by Alan Kardec, a leading figure in the ‘Spiritism’ movement in Paris at that time.
The book takes us to meet, head on, the patriarchal society of that time; where brothers and fathers get to decide the fate of their daughters, wives and sisters. The events are true to the reality of that time, yet the book explores so much more than the black-and-white relationships between men and women. Questions of boundaries and who is on the inside and who in on the outside are also explored – but they are never really answered for us. We have to decide for ourselves.
At the end of the story, though, I believe we can be hopeful that today is better than yesterday. We have come a long way. Yet, we are also reminded that echoes from the 1800s – when ‘women were the victims of decisions made without their consent’ – can still be heard in modern society. We must in no way be complacent about how far we have come – or indeed take it for granted either.
Bríd Conroy and her husband Neil Paul run Tertulia – A Bookshop Like No Other at The Quay, Westport.