The Mad Woman’s Ball by Victoria Mas

In only 200 pages, this glorious little book packs a proper punch! It’s based on very real events. In the late 1800’s in a hospital called La Salpetriere, highly esteemed Dr Charcot – credited with being one of the founders of modern neurology - experimented with hypnotism on women classified as hysterical or mad. However, many of these women were no such thing. The law of the time allowed a man to have his wife/daughter/sister incarcerated merely because she was inconvenient or strong-willed or barren or distraught or unwanted. Charcot would host regular displays of hypnotism on his patients and bizarrely, once a year a grand ball. The so-called mad women were dressed up “like stars of a freak show” for Paris’s chic upper classes to gawk over. “Their allure was paradoxical; they aroused both fear and fantasy, horror and sensuality.” The ball was a highlight on the calendar of French high society and a rare moment of hope for the inmates.

In the novel, we meet a nurse named Genevieve who after the childhood death of her sister has shunned religion and dedicated her life to science and the service of Dr Charcot. We also meet Eugenie, outspoken daughter of a wealthy Parisian family who have her locked up when they discover her secret. What happens between the two women culminates in unexpected events on the night of the Ball, with both their freedom and their sanity at stake….

I absolutely loved this captivating little book which cleverly and succinctly takes us back to Paris in the 1880’s, delving into early medical experiments, trauma, spectacle, power and sisterhood. Do read it!