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by Maud Casey

Pub Date: Feb. 22nd, 2022
ISBN: 978-1-942658-86-3
Publisher: Bellevue Literary Press

An innovative novel examining the experiences of the female “hysterics” at the infamous Salpêtrière Hospital in 19th-century Paris.

The photographs of the women of Salpêtrière range from pity-inducing to horrific. In black and white, the portraits show women in “passionate attitudes,” the phrase used for the phases of hysteria. The women in the photos suffer from a multitude of issues: anorexia, religious fervor, epilepsy, and other conditions, some of which were little more than moodiness. In Casey’s unusual collection of short pieces that blur lines among fiction, poetry, and essay, these photos and other historical records, such as manuals and case notes, are used as the basis of poetic meditations on the collective and individual lives of these “incurables.” Some of the women have names: “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” tells the story of Augustine, who escaped from the asylum by dressing as a man. “Father, Ether, Sea” illuminates the life of Blanche, who falls into the category of “best girls,” women who were exploited into performances in the asylum amphitheater to show off their ailments and the doctors' “cures,” which often cross the line into abuses of all kinds. Some of the chapters are about the women as an anonymous group, such as “In the Before,” told in the first-person plural about the types of lives the women had before they came to Salpêtrière: They were orphans or children of manual laborers, impoverished, hyperactive, or melancholy. These stories belong most closely to the tradition of ekphrastic poetry, poems written based on visual art and often written in the voice of a figure from the image. The results are most successful when the soaringly lyrical language illuminates, rather than overshadows, the women’s compelling experiences.

A strongly conceived, though inconsistently rendered, scrapbook from a dark chapter of the belle epoque.