Maud Casey’s prodigious imagination, down-the-rabbit-hole research, and poetic prose come together in a beautiful fusion of fact and fiction in her fourth novel, City of Incurable Women (Bellevue Literary, Feb. 2022). The setting for the story of late-19th-century women hysterics is Paris’s Salpêtrière Hospital, an asylum with a population of thousands at the time. Casey uses archival photos and documents to tell the stories of patients there who were studied and photographed under the direction of neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot.
We hear the women speak: “You can’t remember them all, the various stages of hysteria. Ecstasy, though, you know by heart.... The photograph makes a body out of your godly imagination. Your inclination to ecstasy was your ticket out of the ragged stench of the room full of other women. You were chosen by the doctors, lifted up, slipped between clean sheets in a private room with a window you can open or close.”
Casey cites The Report on the Service of the Insane of the Department of the Seine in the Year 1877: “One doctor for every five hundred patients... According to the report, 254 women died that year due to insanity. Thirty-eight physical causes, such as scrofula, blows, wounds, alcohol, debauchery, licentiousness, and masturbation; twenty-one moral causes of death, such as nostalgia, misery, love, joy, and bad reading habits.”
For many years, Casey says, she’s been interested in “finding my way into the shadowy parts of history. I have an identification, empathy, desire to connect with people who are gone, historical figures that have been overshadowed.”
While Casey was working on her previous novel, 2014’s The Man Who Walked Away, based on a case history of a 19th-century psychiatric patient who was compelled to wander, her research led her to archival photos of girls diagnosed with hysteria. “The strangeness of the photos stayed with me,” she says. “Because not only were the girls posed for the photographs, but because photography took time, the girls had to hold the poses for a long time. So they were participants, although not necessarily willingly, and there was a dynamic between the doctors and the photographers and the girls.”
The inspiration for City goes way back, Casey says. “The photos were rattling around in my subconscious.” The photographer Laura Larson shared her interest and, around 2013, they started talking.
“Our thinking together taught me about photography and thinking visually,” Casey recalls. “An idea took shape, and I had a manuscript by about 2018.”
She sees the book as an overlap of historical facts and an imagined world where the elements of both cohere. “The actual case notes, for example,” she says. “I roughly translated them from the French, but invented parts as well.”
Casey highlights three girls: Blanche, Augustine, and Geneviève. “I owe a lot to the book Medical Muses by Asti Hustvedt,” she notes. “These women were kind of celebrities and threads of their stories run throughout the book. But I also wanted sections with the blur of other women. I imagined a collective consciousness. This is the ‘we’ point of view, finding a voice that ran alongside the three.”
Alice Tasman at the Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency saw an early version of the manuscript in February 2019. “The #MeToo movement was in full stride,” she says, “and Maud sent City. This is a book about women whose voices have been stripped of identity by their doctors, and I thought, this is so relevant, so powerful in this cultural moment.”
Casey says Tasman is “everything you want in an agent. She and I go back forever. We were each others’ firsts.”
Tasman laughs at this. “We met at a wedding in 1998 where I was dancing on a stage,” she explains. “She told me she had a manuscript and I took her number down on a napkin. She sent me the manuscript that became her first novel [2002’s The Shape of Things to Come] and we set up a meeting. She came to the office and I was totally in awe.”
Tasman says she sealed the deal when Casey asked if she had heard of Spartina by John Casey, and Tasman admitted she hadn’t. “I was so embarrassed. He won the National Book Award in 1989.” That was fine by Maud. “John Casey is her father,” Tasman says, “but she’s always forged her own path.”
Both of them knew that City needed care and attention, and Tasman went out with it “very selectively,” she says. “We agreed it needed to be in the right place.”
One person they reached out to was Bellevue Literary Press publisher Erika Goldman. “Erika was swift,” Tasman says. “We sold Bellevue world rights July 20, 2020.”
Goldman tells me, “I met Maud years ago at Book Court in Brooklyn, where she was reading from The Man Who Walked Away and I fell in love with her prose.”
Goldman sees this book as kindred to a nonfiction book Bellevue published years ago about 20th-century mental health issues: The Lives They Left Behind. “It made sense to publish City,” she says. “This is a profoundly feminist work. Maud is giving back the identities that were taken from these women. She has such sensitivity to resurrecting historical figures, people caught in the web of institutionalization. And she’s a beautiful writer—the self-assured kind of writer Bellevue publishes. The genius of the book is that it’s not historical fiction. She’s not disguising the fact that she’s reinventing.”
Tasman tells me, “Maud has been called operatic, and a stand-up philosopher. She combines poetry and philosophy. She’s a true original.”
If the women of Maud’s City could speak, I’ve no doubt they would agree.