Written By: Jennifer Cody Epstein
Published By: Random House Publishing Group – Ballantine
Reviewed By: Melissa Minners
I recently received an email from a Random House representative asking me if I would like to check out a new historical novel about two women under the influence of a powerful doctor in a notorious women’s asylum located in Paris. It sounded rather interesting – I enjoy historical fiction and I also enjoy reading psychological thrillers, so I thought, why not. Thus began my adventure into The Madwomen of Paris by Jennifer Cody Epstein.
The Madwomen of Paris centers around Laure, a woman who spiraled into hysteria after the untimely death of her mother, father, and unborn baby brother. A wave of hysteria was taking place in Paris during the late 1800s and Laure had become its latest victim. She was separated from her younger sister and sent to the Salpêtrière to convalesce under the care of the leading expert on the disease, Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot. Now healed Laure works as a ward attendant in the asylum, helping with the patients while seeking out her younger sister’s whereabouts during her off hours.
One day, a young woman is brought to the asylum in a serious state – violent, bloody, and bruised, the woman is afraid of everyone and everything. No one knows exactly who she is, only that she was brought to the asylum after attempting to commit suicide by jumping from a bridge. The woman is slated to be sent to the lunacy ward as it is believed there is no getting through to her, when Laure somehow connects with her, getting her to eat and agree to be examined by the doctor. She remembers her first name is Josephine, but little else. Josephine is eventually assigned to Laure’s care and eventually opens up to her, admitting that she was on the bridge to commit suicide after having murdered her tormentor.
Laure has always trusted Dr. Charcot, his teachings and his healing powers. Josephine causes her to begin to question Charcot’s methods. Charcot’s belief in hypnosis as a tool to study hysteria, possible causes and cures, is widely known and embraced by such important doctors in the psychiatric field, such as Freud, Babinski, Tourette, and more. However, Charcot is not without his critics. Some don’t believe that Charcot has actually hypnotized his patients and that it is all just an act. However, Laure is beginning to believe that hypnosis is actually making Josephine’s hysteria symptoms worse. Josephine has been seeing her dead tormentor everywhere she goes.
As the two become closer, Laure becomes certain that the best thing for Josephine is to get her away from the Salpêtrière. The question is how and where will they go that Charcot won’t be able to find them?
Hysteria was thought to be a great mysterious epidemic in France, suffered mainly by women. Charcot believed the disease had a great deal to do with women’s sexual organs and impulses and many of his stage conducted experiments were attempts at proving his hypothesis. The Madwomen of Paris reminds us of the early days of psychiatry and how women were treated at that time. Though he acknowledged that hysteria was a psychiatric disease of some sort, he blamed it on the weakness of the “frailer species” and not the environment or actions of others. Laure and Josephine’s struggles in this novel further illustrate what women were treated like in the late 1800s. It also briefly touches upon women’s struggle for equality and suffrage and what men thought of women who dared to fight for such rights.
Jennifer Cody Epstein is a rather descriptive writer, and I could almost picture the forbidding halls of the Salpêtrière and all the horrors that awaited those who were unlucky enough to find themselves confined there. The novel drags a bit in the beginning as we learn about Charcot, the inhabitants of the Salpêtrière, and Laure’s struggle to find her sister, but once Josephine enters Laure’s life, things start to move rather quickly. Although I sometimes found Laure to be a bit whiny as a main character, I grew to like her and was as infatuated with Josephine as she became in the novel. The mystery of Josephine was intriguing, as was the planning of their hoped-for escape. And the plot twist at the end! I simply loved it!
I have already recommended this novel as a historical fiction worth reading if not for the engaging tale, then for the view of what psychiatric hospitals were like in the 19th Century. Psychiatry was in its early stages and patients were often used as guinea pigs by doctors who wanted to learn about the mind with no regard to the patient they were attending to. The book actually inspired me to do some research on Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot and I found his arrogance and misguided research regarding hysteria to have been represented well by the author. I found The Madwomen of Paris to be an educating and entertaining historical fiction worth the read.