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Sunday, September 5, 2021


This is a dark, complex gothic novel – the characters are well constructed and the dialogue flows well. It is a compelling read and a testament of the injustices directed at women. (Review by Fiona de Goede)

Several interesting facts about Victoria Mas’ novel The Mad Women’s Ball are that it is the author’s debut, it was translated from French and the upcoming movie will be released later this month. Originally titled Le bal de folles, translated by Frank Wynne, Mas has won several literary prizes for his novel.

The Salpetriere Asylum is the setting for the story, the year is 1885 and the inmates, all supposedly mad women, are excited at the prospect of the upcoming ball to be held at the asylum. For one day of the year, they feel normal, they get to choose exquisite costumes and they are allowed to mingle with outsiders.

The invited guests are the crème de la crème of the Parisian elite. For them it is an opportunity to rub shoulders with the mad women and their excitement of witnessing up close the behaviour of these poor souls, is a highlight of their social calendar. Attending the ball is the equivalent of visiting the zoo or a freak show.

The senior nurse at the asylum is Genevieve – she runs a tight ship and lives a very solitary and bleak life once she leaves for home every day. Having lost her beloved sister at a very young age, Genevieve dedicates her life to science and  entirely shuns religion. Dr Charcot, with his claims of hypnotism working wonders for the tormented and hysterical women, is the truth that Genevieve embraces and believes in.

We are introduced to several of these women, deemed mad by society, and their stories illustrate the patriarchal society of the times. They have all been committed to the asylum by either a husband, father or brother. Louise, a young girl incarcerated at the asylum, falls in love with one of the doctors who is involved in her treatment. A particularly harrowing scene is described where Dr Charcot puts Louise under hypnosis – she writhes and flails uncontrollably, expressions of ecstasy and pain flit across her face and in conclusion her body arcs from head to toe after which she collapses onto the floor. The doctors who witness this demonstration sees this as medical and scientific progress. Ostensibly several sessions of hypnosis are the way to study female hysteria and to ultimately find a cure for this “madness.”

Therese, also known as The Knitter, occupies herself day in and day out by knitting scarves and shawls for the other women. She has been an inmate at Salpetriere for more than 20 years and it is the only place she can truly call home.

Eugenie is a young girl of 19, her father is a lawyer and her brother is being groomed to follow in his footsteps. They are a traditional bourgeois family, typical of the time – the father is the head of the house and his wife, daughter and mother have no say and are not entitled to an opinion of their own. Eugenie discovers that she has a very special power – once her father has been made aware of this, he arranges, together with his son, to have her committed to the asylum.

Genevieve is made aware of the secret power that Eugenie has and she has a startling revelation – the result is a complete change of heart regarding her outlook towards the work being done at the asylum. She decides to help Eugenie escape and the entire plan is formed around the night of the Mad Women’s Ball. The final twist to this rather unusual tale is quite bittersweet.

This is a dark, complex gothic novel – the characters are well constructed and the dialogue flows well. It is a compelling read and a testament of the injustices directed at women. - Fiona de Goede

The Mad Women’s Ball is published by Penguin: ISBN 978-0-8575-2703-5