Monday, 22 October 2012

Thanks to Annemarie Neary, author of the wonderful A Parachute in the Lime Tree for her generous Goodreads review of Spirit of Lost Angels. If anybody is interested, please join our Triskele Books bookclub discussion on A Parachute in the Lime Tree!

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Mad Women of the Hell of La Salpêtrière

In her generous review of Spirit of Lost Angels on The Queen's Quill Review, Andrea Connell's comment on La Salpêtrière prompted me to write a short piece about this asylum for “insane and incurable women”:  To me, this was perhaps the most fascinating portion of the story - descriptions of the appalling conditions under which the women were kept, the rivalries that developed among cell mates, the rules one had to learn in order to survive this prison. The narrative was stark and believable and, believe it or not, educational. Since I finished the book, I’ve been looking up the history of the Salpêtrière Hospital, intrigued at how low mental health care and the care of women had deteriorated at that time.

As an author, I too, found the asylum parts of the story the most fascinating to write about.

Located in the 13th arrondissement of Paris, this building was named La Salpêtrière due to its origins as a producer and storage area for saltpeter (used to make gunpowder).

For many years it was then known as a cruel and harsh place to which people suffering from mental health problems were sent … as well as various other “conditions” not considered suitable for society: beggars, prostitutes, protestants, epileptics, orphans, Jews, criminals, drunks, witches, depressives, blind women, adultresses, homosexuals, thieves, magicians, idiots, suicidals, bohemians, cretins. The old, the young, the children, all imprisoned together, sent there by families, husbands, neighbours.

On Sundays, prostitutes were rounded up and carted off to La Salpêtrière

In the late 18th century, Dr. Philippe Pinel, child of 18th century enlightenment, finally did away with the women’s chains and the approach to mental disease began to change. Today, Dr. Pinel’s sculptural monument stands before the main entrance in Place Marie-Curie, Boulevard de L'Hôpital.
Dr. Pinel removing patient's chains.

In the second half of the 19th century, when Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot took over the department, La Salpêtrière became world famous as a psychiatric centre, and students came from all over the world to listen to Charcot's lectures. Among them was a young man by the name of Sigmund Freud.

Despite its modern-day state of the art facilities, the hospital is still littered with memories, some of the original structures remaining as a bleak reminder of how things use to be.

During my research into La Salpêtrière, I stumbled upon a beautifully poetic little book – Les Folles d’Enfer de la Salpêtrière (The Mad Women of La Salpêtrière Hell) written by talented French sculptress and illustrator, Mâkhi Xenakis.

Invited to exhibit at the La Salpêtrière hospital in Paris in 2004, Mâkhi Xenakis discovered in the hospital archives the hellish imprisonment there of thousands of women since the time of Louis XIV. This discovery led her to pen a heart-breaking account of the tragic inmates, in Les Folles d’Enfer de la Salpêtrière, and to install 260 amazing sculptures in the hospital chapel and the gardens:

I found this link, and video (in French) both moving and enlightening.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Many thanks to Andrea Connell and The Queen's Quill Review for a generous review of Spirit of Lost Angels. Andrea's comments have inspired me to write a blog post about La Salpêtrière asylum in Paris that features in this story. COMING SOON...

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Autumn Chestnuts and Fortified Villages

Keen as ever for a break from internet research, and to seek out more tangible sources of documentation for my current book, I recently paid a visit to la Maison d’Expositions de L’Araire.

As I headed towards this historical society stone building, admiring the panoramic view across the Yzeron valley to the city of Lyon, it was obvious autumn had sneaked up on me again while I wasn’t looking. In this rural heart of the Monts du Lyonnais, flame, mustard and crimson-coloured leaves almost outdid the green, and I drew my cardigan around me against the damp nip in the air.

La Maison d’Expositions de L’Araire is a humble place, the volunteers who run it always offering a welcoming smile and more than happy to answer my myriad of questions. An elderly woman beckoned me inside, towards the hearth, and the sweet aroma of roasting chestnuts filled my nostrils. She rattled her poker about in the flames as we talked about the weather, and how suddenly the summer had left us for another year. After what I hoped was a polite interval, I bade her au revoir and headed off towards the exhibitions.

La Maison de L’Araire boasts permanent exhibitions of an old silk-weaving loom, and a model of a Roman aqueduct, from when the Romans inhabited this part of France, but it also features temporary exhibits and since my novel-in-progress is set in the 14th century, I was particularly interested in the model-sized fortified villages.

During the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453), the inhabitants of this west Lyon region constructed high stone walls around their villages to protect them from the hordes of pillaging, plundering soldiers. This fortification was named the vingtain, as each peasant was required to pay a twentieth (une vingtième) of his harvest towards its construction and upkeep. I pictured the people complaining about this extra tax; yet another to leech their meagre earnings. But I also imagined them working in the fields, startled and frightened as the cries of bandits reached their ears, and hurrying off to the relative protection of their fortified village.

I took the usual photographs, filled my notebook, thanked the historical society volunteers, and hurried off through the early dusk to join my friends for an aperitif in the village bar.