Madame Mozart dies in Paris

When, a few weeks ago, a broadcaster mentioned that Mozart’s mother had died in Paris in 1778, my first thought was: I don’t even know her name! I knew about Wolfgang Amadeus, his hard-driving father Leopold, his gifted sister Nannerl, his long-suffering wife Constanza, all familiar names, but I didn’t know his mother’s name. It’s Anna Maria (although in some biographies, she is called Maria Anna). Her maiden name was Pertl and she was born near Salzburg in 1720.

Wolfgang Amadeus was her seventh child, born in 1756, but only the second to survive infancy, after Nannerl, five years Wolfgang’s senior. When the boy’s extraordinary talent declared itself early, Leopold was quick off the mark to showcase it. In 1762, when Wolfgang was six, the whole family, plus a servant, embarked on a tour. The children performed in Passau, Linz, and Vienna, but after impressing the royal family at the Schönbrunn Palace, Wolfgang fell ill. It was no doubt a relief to him to have his mother nearby. Leopold fretted about money; Anna Maria fretted about her son.

When Wolfgang recovered, the family embarked on a more ambitious tour that began in 1763 and would continue for three and a half years. The children performed in 88 cities and towns. Once again, the whole family travelled together. Madame Mozart had to put up with bumpy carriages and frequent breakdowns, constant changes in lodgings, inclement weather, the stormy moods of her husband, and the care of two precocious children, but we’ll never know much about it. As one Mozart biographer noted, “Leopold kept up a steady stream of letters to [his landlord and financial backer] Hagenauer…[but] there is barely a word in his letters about his wife.”*

We do, however, have one detail. On tour, Madame Mozart and Nannerl shared a bed, and Leopold and Wolfgang shared another.

The family reached Paris in November 1763. But a picture of “the Mozart family” shows three people only: Leopold, Wolfgang and Nannerl. Hmph.

The family lodged with Count van Eyck of Bavaria in the Hôtel de Beauvais on the rue François Miron in the Marais (the building is now the administrative court of appeal). Leopold was pleased about saving money on hotel bills. The children performed at Versailles for King Louis XV and his wife. The queen spoke fluent German and made the family feel welcome.

Both Wolfgang and Nannerl fell ill in Paris, adding to the strain on Madame Mozart, but they recovered and went on to London, crossing the Channel in a small boat with a fraction of their voluminous luggage (the rest stayed in Paris). All four were seasick. The family ended up staying in England for more than a year. They went to The Hague in July 1765, and there, in September, Nannerl became so ill that the doctors told Madame Mozart to prepare for the worst. A priest was summoned to administer the last rites. Anna Maria and Leopold took it in turns to watch over their daughter.

But Nannerl recovered. In December it was Wolfgang’s turn to sicken and hover for some days at death’s door, unable to walk or to speak. Eventually he recovered, too. Biographers suggest that it may have been typhoid fever that afflicted the children. By the end of January, they were back on stage. The show must go on. Leopold insisted.

Since Leopold rarely mentioned Anna Maria, it is possible she, too, had periods of illness, but we’ll never know. Or possibly she had a strong constitution and just carried on.

The family returned to Paris in May 1766 and spent two months there before touring through cities in France, Switzerland, and Germany. When they returned home to Salzburg, friends noticed that 10-year-old Wolfgang had grown very little during his time away. The travelling and the illness had taken a toll.

A planned concert in Vienna was cancelled when the Emperor Franz died and the court was plunged into mourning. Then a smallpox epidemic broke out, affecting both the royal family and the Mozarts. When the children finally performed before the widowed, black-clad Empress Maria Theresa (Marie Antoinette’s mother, shown below), the Empress and Madame Mozart held hands and talked about their children.

Between 1769 and 1772, Leopold and Wolfgang made three trips to Italy, leaving Madame Mozart and the teenaged Nannerl in Salzburg. I suspect the two women were relieved to have some time to themselves.

When father and son returned, the whole family moved into a more spacious house and actually stayed in it for two and a half years. Leopold, after all, was employed by the Archbishop of Salzburg and had duties to perform. And when a patient and supportive archbishop died and was replaced by a stern, non-nonsense cleric, Leopold’s freedom to come and go was curtailed.

This caused a dilemma. Wolfgang needed to be out in the world, not in a provincial city. He was 21 and it was time for him to find a permanent job to support himself. Leopold could not leave Salzburg, and he wasn’t sure that Wolfgang could manage the logistics of travel, music-making, and job-hunting, so the task of accompanying him on the next trip fell to Anna Maria.

Off they went on 23 September 1777. Leopold did his best to micromanage from a distance, sending dozens of letters with instructions and advice. Visit this person. Play such-and-such for so-and-so. Make sure the hotel servant uses boot-trees. They travelled via Augsburg and spent time in Mannheim, where Mozart acquired a girlfriend (the sister of the woman he later married), but not a job.

In March 1778, they continued to Paris. At first, they lodged in a gloomy space in the rue Bourg l’Abbé over the premises of a German-born “fripier” (bric-a-brac merchant).

Wolfgang was not happy. He missed his girlfriend, the streets were filthy, hired carriages were expensive, people were unwelcoming, and he struggled with the language. Madame Mozart spoke no French at all. And she didn’t like the food.

The two eventually found better lodgings at 8 rue du Sentier (shown as rue Centier in the Turgot map below) in what is now the 2eme arrondissement. The premises are now called Maison Mozart and there is a plaque on the wall. As the weather warmed up, life improved and Madame Mozart wrote to Nannerl about Paris fashions. Wolfgang had a few students, some new friends, and a job offer as an organist that he turned down.

But in June 1778, Madame Mozart fell ill, with a fever and a headache. She wrote to her husband about having a sore throat and earache. Leopold responded with Useful Advice (have a doctor bleed you). She did and it made her feel worse. So she stopped talking about how she felt. Her final letter is filled with cheery descriptions of Paris and a brief mention of being tired after visiting the picture gallery at the Luxembourg Gardens.

Madame Mozart was reluctant to have a French doctor see her. She may also have been worried about the expense of a doctor (Leopold was forever harping on about money and expenses). Wolfgang located a German doctor, who treated her with “rhubarb powder in wine.”**

On June 30, last rites were administered and Anna Maria Mozart died on the evening of July 3. Again, the disease may have been typhoid fever. As one biographer notes, “Water may have been the culprit; the Parisians never drank it, but the Mozarts had done so, unsuspectingly, wherever they were.”*** The very next day, she was buried at the church of St-Eustache, which at the time had a churchyard (it has since disappeared, but she is commemorated on a plaque inside the church).

Oddly, Mozart wrote to his father immediately after his mother’s death to say that she was ill, but not that she had died. He wrote another letter to a friend, telling the truth, and asking the friend to prepare Leopold and Nannerl for bad news. About a week later, he finally broke the news to his father. When Leopold wrote back, blaming Wolfgang for her death, Mozart stopped writing for a while.

The Mozarts were a complicated family. They were close, but often at odds. Leopold controlled his children’s lives so rigidly that his son never developed the skills he needed for seeking and retaining steady work. And far too little is known of the woman who held the family together and looked out for the children’s welfare, nursing them through their illnesses, and probably keeping their lives moderately sane during unbelievably prolonged and stressful travels.

When we are next in Paris, I shall stop by St Eustache and pay my respects to Madame Mozart. And I shall address her by name.

* John Suchet, Mozart: The Man Revealed (New York, Pegasus Books, 2017), p. 31.

** Stanley Sadie, Mozart: The Early Years, 1756-1781 (New York: Norton, 2006), p. 459.

*** Roye E. Wates, Mozart: An Introduction to the Music, the Man, and the Myths (Milwaukee: Amadeus Press, 2010), p. 107.

Text by Philippa Campsie, postcard from our collection, other images from Wikimedia and Google Street View.

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The writing on the wall, part two

After posting the last blog, I had a nagging feeling that there was a question I had not answered and a connection I had not made.

I found the question by looking at the images again. It was that date: le 29 juillet 1881. The date of the law that bans posters on certain walls. I’ve seen it time without number, in various forms (the one below was so large I couldn’t capture it in a single photo), but what does it mean? The answer surprised me.

The law in question actually concerns the freedom of the press and, with amendments, is still in force. It’s a long document with many provisions, but it was intended, among other things, to allow for the open expression of political opinions. Without this law, for example, Emile Zola could not have published his famous article “J’Accuse,” in defence of Captain Dreyfus in 1898.

The section in the law devoted to “affichage” (postering) does not actually say in so many words, “Post No Bills on Public Buildings.” What it does say is that the mayor of any city, town, or village may designate certain walls on which only official posters may be placed and that “affiches particulières” (advertisements or private notices) are forbidden on these walls. It’s quite open-ended in its way: leave certain walls alone and do what you like with the rest.

And people did, pretty much. The 1881 law did nothing to dampen enthusiasm at the time for painting huge advertisements on walls and plastering vertical surfaces with posters. In fact, in the late 19th century, Paris was a jumble of advertisements everywhere you looked. This famous photograph by Eugene Atget, taken behind the church of St-Séverin in about 1900, shows a typical assortment on walls and even on the Vespasienne on the right.

That photograph contains the name of the connection I had not made: Georges Dufayel, the forgotten master of publicity. Because it is hard to spot, here is his name in a detail from the photograph, along with a fine collection of useful brushes.

Dufayel’s an old friend. I first encountered his name in 2011, when I bought a postcard that set me off on a voyage of discovery:

The postcard showed an enormous building viewed from the heights of Montmartre. I learned that it had been a department store, famous in its day, now largely forgotten. The building is still there, but the top part, where it says “Dufayel” and the superstructure above, has been removed, along with its crowning searchlight. Still, in 2011 I was able to photograph the existing building from roughly the same place on the Montmartre hill.

The department store, originally known as Le Palais de la Nouveauté, had been founded by Jacques François Crespin, and it sold household furnishings and other durable goods. Georges Dufayel was Crespin’s protégé. Before Crespin died in 1888 and Dufayel became the sole owner, advertisements included both names, as in this poster for bicycles, which were all the rage at the time.

The “Palais” was a major Paris tourist attraction in its day. Dufayel offered more than just shopping. Note that the poster above advertises a bicycle track for clients to try out their purchases. Early on, Dufayel understood shopping as entertainment.

This postcard shows a visit by a large group from Calais. They were not the only group to have their photo taken in this spot.

Note the billboard behind the group, advertising a “cinématographe.” The store included a cinema, one of the first in Paris. Many of the films of Georges Méliès were shown there.

I ended up doing quite a bit of research on Georges Dufayel and found that in addition to running his department store, he vastly extended the practice of buying on credit pioneered by Crespin (buy that bicycle on the installment plan!), built a seaside resort at Ste-Adresse near Le Havre known as Le Nice-Havrais, and founded a publicity business.

He called this business, grandly, Affichage National. Dufayel always did things grandly. In 1889, he secured the concession for advertising on the walls surrounding the Exposition Universelle. Here is the delightful cover of one of his business brochures, with illustrations by the caricaturist Albert Guillaume. It suggests Dufayel might have had a sense of humour.

Dufayel even competed with the Morris columns for a while, creating “colonnes Dufayel” for advertising on the sidewalk. The column doubled as a mailbox. A postage stamp shows the design of the columns, with space on top for advertising products or Dufayel’s own name.

An informative Paris blog provided many examples of the colonnes Dufayel, so I went hunting through our own postcard collection and eventually (bingo!) found this:

It’s not easy to spot, behind the two men facing the camera, so here is a close-up.

Dufayel’s name and his posters were everywhere you looked in turn-of-the-last-century Paris. In reviewing our postcard collection, I kept finding more images in which his name is visible. Here you can see it in at least three places, along with the tower of the department store.

Dufayel died in 1916. His department store survived into the early 1930s, and his successors continued the tradition of publicity, which included patronage of some excellent poster artists of the day. Here is a lovely example from the 1930s, by Leonetto Cappiello, designer of many famous posters:

In the Second World War, the department store served as barracks for soldiers. One American soldier, E. Carver McGriff, who wrote a memoir of his war experiences, was billeted there in 1944:

The truck finally pulled up in front of Magasin Dufayel on Rue de Clignancourt, a large, upscale department store which the Germans had commandeered as housing for German occupation troops. Now it was our turn. When I entered, I saw an enormous stairway, and on its landing was a magnificent mirror some twenty feet high. The building was in excellent condition. We went to the next floor which was filled with cots, and that became my home.*

McGriff’s book is interesting and enjoyable, but I bought it simply because of its connection to Dufayel. I admit that Dufayel is a bit of an obsession with me. And part of that obsession is the fact that he is steadfastly ignored in so many histories of Paris. Why?

He was an outsider. He came from humble beginnings, and his department store was located in a working-class neighbourhood near Montmartre – unlike Le Bon Marché, La Samaritaine, Les Galeries Lafayette, Printemps, or the Bazar de l’Hotel de Ville, all of which are in much more affluent neighbourhoods. He was so successful that he made his competitors uncomfortable. He was awarded the Legion d’Honneur, but was never part of the inside circle of Parisians in his generation.

He was an odd duck. He built a house on the Champs-Elysées that was so grand that even he couldn’t live in it, and ended up living in a smaller building in the courtyard. (The house has been largely demolished, although a couple of pillars remain in one of the arcades off the Champs-Elysées.) Dufayel had no family (he was wedded to his work), and the only friend who is consistently mentioned is the architect Gustave Rives, who collaborated with him on many construction projects in Paris (including the department store and the house on the Champs-Elysées) and in Ste-Adresse.**

Dufayel was unconcerned by what others thought. He had a saying, “Bien faire et laisser dire.” Now this could be translated in two ways: “Do well and let them talk” or “Do good and let them talk.” He certainly did well. But did he do good? He employed thousands of people – although a strike at the store in 1905 brought to light his excessive demands on his employees; he didn’t seem to realize that not everyone was a workaholic like him. He sold a lot of furniture in a way that allowed lower-income people to buy things over time. He brought a touch of turn-of-the-century glamour to a small seaside town near Le Havre (although many buildings, such as the Casino and other attractions, have since disappeared). And he covered the walls of Paris with advertisements, including his own name. Hm. A mixed record.

Still, he interests me. After all my hunting, I still know so little about him. And the next time I see another postcard with his name on it, I shall probably buy it.

*E. Carver McGriff, Making Sense of Normandy (Portland, Oregon: Inkwater Press, 2007).

**Many of these big public buildings served a new purpose in the First World War, becoming the headquarters of the government of Belgium in exile. The building shown below still stands, and we have visited it.

Text and contemporary photograph by Philippa Campsie; postcard images from our collection; Atget photograph, brochure, and poster images from Gallica.

Posted in Paris architecture, Paris film, Paris shops, Paris streets | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 16 Comments

The writing on the wall

I once bought a book called How to Read Paris, which was really just a book about the city’s architecture. If I were to write a book with that title, I would talk about the words on the city’s walls. The streets are full of words, some put there by officials, some added by residents.

During the holidays, I went through photographs we have taken over the years, and began to classify the various types of writing.

There are, of course, street names, usually in blue and white enamel, but all kinds of other versions exist, often side-by-side with the standardized version.

In a few places, people have taken it upon themselves to suggest new names for streets. One, made to look like the official version, places the street in the mythical “21st arrondissement.” “La fa mi” looks like musical notes, but may be a pun on “la famille.”

Another suggests that a street in the 20th arrondissement would be better named for the rights of children.

A street on the Left Bank was unofficially named for the designer Eileen Gray.

Another commemorates a woman who was killed in 2019 by her ex-partner. (That year, we noticed many signs about the number of women killed by partners and ex-partners, and there were demonstrations in the streets about the appalling number of deaths in France and elsewhere.)

The names of architects often appear on the sides of buildings, usually at the level of the floor just above the street. Usually, they are chiselled in ordinary letters, but two Art Nouveau architects stand out. Hector Guimard is in a distinctive form, and Frantz Jourdain, the Belgian architect who designed La Samaritaine, seems to have signed at least one building with a personal flourish.

Buildings also used to advertise the availability of water and gas.

Plaques throughout the city commemorate the famous and the not-so-famous. The standard modern version is that of the metal “pelle” or oar shape designed by Philippe Starck…

…but all kinds of other versions exist as well. Here is one commemorating an architect who conferred nobility on reinforced concrete as a building material, an achievement not often celebrated.

And then there are the homemade versions, both poetic…

(Here lived a woman who felt herself infinitesimally small in looking at the stars)

…and prosaic.

(Here lived a woman who cooked 77,603 meals in her lifetime.) Both plaques are by the same anonymous author/artist.

Ghost signs indicate former businesses or advertisements. There are whole websites and Instagram accounts devoted to ghost signs, some of which are very attractive. We’ve photographed a few that might not make the cut. The only words we can make out on this one are “insectes nuisibles” (harmful insects), so we think it refers to an extermination company.

This one, on an adjoining wall, includes a drawing of an insect. The word “punaise” (bug) is just visible, along with a large letter M.

This truncated ad for a furniture shop is clearer.

And the sign for the French Neon Company is also quite legible.

Here is one that layers one ghost sign on another. I can make out “Dubonnet” as well as a sign for Rochefort wallpaper.

One very small ghost sign in the courtyard of a building in the Marais once directed people to a registry.

Officialdom posts rules and regulations on walls. Don’t leave your garbage here.

Don’t post bills on the wall (some wag has assented with a bill “D’accord” – okay).

Many of the Post No Bills signs include the date of the relevant law, for some reason. Sounds more official, I suppose.

A much more recent one: No smoking on the sidewalk.

No fishing (at the entrance to the Port de Plaisance). A wordless version.

No beating rugs under the bridge (at the same location). Who would have thought that was a problem?

Unofficial signs that mimic the official versions in enamel warn of psychotic cats or amiable dogs.

No parking, with, inevitably, a car in front. One assumes that the car owner is discouraging other people from parking there.

And then there is graffiti. Everywhere. It disappears when a building is cleaned or repainted. The Fondation Cartier in 2009 mounted an exhibition devoted to this controversial art form, called “Born in the Streets.” Some is witty or whimsical, some is just…tagging, often in hard-to-get-at spaces.

Some of it is incomprehensible. Here’s one, created with a stencil, just above a sign commemorating the flood of 1910. Challenge to readers: can you figure it out?

Here’s one we can read, but we’re not sure what it means.

Some are cadavers; others picnic. Erm, okay.

We have a few favourites. We have already mentioned “Libérez les sardines” in a previous blog. This one, on a door rather than a wall, is a pun on Grève Générale (general strike), but evokes a general dream.

Another, scribbled underneath a window, riffs on the description of the daily grind in Paris (“Métro – boulot – dodo” or Commute – work – sleep). The writer is clearly finding it all too much (mais trop). Underneath is a reference to “Nuit debout,” the protests against labour reforms that began in 2016 and centred on the Place de la République. But this writer wants a “Nuit dessous” – a night underneath (the covers perhaps?).

A quotation from Confucius is pasted on the entrance to an underground parking lot. When words lose their meaning, people lose their liberty. True.

This one notes that craziness is the price we pay for liberty. Also true. I guess.

But my all-time favourite, created with a stencil, is in English. It appears beside the door to the Association Valentin Haüy, an organization that offers training and other assistance to people who are blind. It reminds me a of a song by Gerry Goffin and Carole King called “Sometime in the Morning” (which those of a certain generation may recall).

Indeed, Paris is a city that can be read. The words change over time, as some vanish and new ones appear. Which is why one needs to go back again and again. As we will…when we can. Meanwhile, we wish all our readers the very best for 2022.

Text by Philippa Campsie, photographs by Norman Ball and Philippa Campsie.

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Rondo Parisien

For years, concerts “Chez Nous,” presented by Mary Ann Warrick in her home in the 16th, have been a highlight of our visits to Paris. Now we watch concerts in that familiar drawing room online. Recently, we saw a brilliant piano recital by Daniel Propper that introduced us to the “Rondo Parisien” by Camille Moke. Here is a picture of the composer as a young woman. She looks demure. (Spoiler alert: she wasn’t.)

In her introduction, Mary Ann mentioned that Camille Moke was a celebrated pianist in the 19th century who had been engaged to Hector Berlioz, but married Camille Pleyel, the piano manufacturer. I wanted to know more.

I found that Camille Moke never got to tell her own story. What we have are stories by others – musicians such as Berlioz or Franz Lizst, writers such as Gérard de Nerval or Alexandre Dumas – and those stories do not emphasize her gifts as a piano performer, but rather the fact that these men were attracted to her, dedicated music to her, went to bed with her, tried to marry her, and in one case, planned to murder her. It’s all about the men, not her. Harumph.

I also stumbled over the question of her name. She is known either as Camille Moke or as Marie Pleyel. Wikipedia gives her original name as Marie-Félicité-Denise Moke (Moke is pronounced “mock”). But the French genealogical website Filae turned up the name “Camille Marie Louise Moke,” born 4 September 1811 in Paris. Her marriage certificate calls her “Camille Marie Denyse Moke.”

Long story short. She was known as Camille Moke before her marriage (and at the time she wrote the Rondo), but when she married a man whose first name was also Camille, she started to use the name Marie Pleyel, the name she used for the rest of her life.

Her parents were Jean-Jacques Moke and Marie Madeleine Segnitz. Jean-Jacques is sometimes described as a Belgian professor of linguistics, sometimes simply as a language teacher (the word “professeur” in French can be misinterpreted). He was reputed to speak six languages and at the time of his death in 1857 was working as secretary for a Belgian museum. He seems to have remained in Belgium most of his life. His wife Marie Madeleine, however, lived in France for many years and for a while had a shop in Paris.

Camille Marie had at least three older siblings – two brothers and one sister. One brother, Henri Guillaume Moke, went on to have a literary career. Camille Marie appears to have been the youngest child, born at least seven years after her nearest sibling, in Paris (the others were born in Le Havre). One senses a complicated family situation.

I think it safe to say that the family was not particularly well off. Camille’s talent emerged when she was very young, but unlike the well-to-do society families who were aghast at the thought of a daughter performing in public, Camille’s gift was considered an economic asset. She made her debut at the Theatre Royal de la Monnaie in 1825, when she was 14 years old, playing, among other things, works by her teacher, Friedrich Kalkbrenner.

Camille also taught in an “institut orthopédique” – a school for young women with what were considered physical handicaps, such as a curved spine. (The 19th-century obsession with perfecting the female body in these institutions demands a blog of its own.) This particular one was run by a Madame Daubrée (or d’Aubrée) on the rue Harlay (now the rue des Arquebusiers) in the Marais. Music was an important part of the curriculum, and one of the other teachers was Hector Berlioz, who taught guitar. It was 1830. He was 26; Camille was 18.

According to Berlioz, Camille was the instigator of their affair. Perhaps. At the time, he was in love with an unattainable actress, and Camille was nearby and available. Whoever made the first move, the two became close and Berlioz proposed marriage.

Camille’s mother was unenthusiastic. I can’t say I blame her. Although Berlioz had good professional and even financial prospects, he was emotionally volatile and known to behave wildly at times, as the next part of the story shows. His strong emotions served him well as a composer – a placid person could not have pulled off the Symphonie Fantastique – but they didn’t augur well for domestic harmony, nor for Camille’s own career. (To be fair, Camille herself would not have been the performer she was if she had been conventional, chaste, and meek.)

Rather than opposing the marriage outright, Madame Moke chose to stall. She suggested the young couple wait a year or so. Berlioz had won the Prix de Rome and left Paris to take it up at the end of December 1830.

A little more than three months later, on 9 April 1831, Camille Moke married Camille Pleyel and was thereafter known as Marie Pleyel. Camille Pleyel was 42; she was not yet 20. Was it her idea? Her mother’s? Did Pleyel make her an irresistible offer? Who knows? He was a piano manufacturer with a prominent place in Parisian musical circles; she was a brilliant and beautiful young pianist. It certainly looks like a strategic move on somebody’s part.

Berlioz reacted with ridiculously exaggerated passion. He planned to come to Paris and kill Camille/Marie, her mother, her husband, and finally, himself. He even planned to dress up as a female domestic in order to get closer to his victims, for heaven’s sake. He got as far as Nice before getting a grip and abandoning the plan.

Spared a grisly murder, Marie Pleyel and her husband Camille went on to have a son in 1832, Ignace Henri, and a daughter the following year, Camille Louise.* But Marie and Camille Pleyel separated in 1836, at his demand, on the grounds of Marie’s infidelity.

There was certainly plenty of gossip. For example, according to a biography of Franz Liszt, in early 1835, Liszt asked to borrow his friend Frederic Chopin’s apartment while Chopin was out of town. Chopin agreed, not realizing that Liszt planned to use it for trysts with Marie Pleyel. The matter apparently caused a rift between Chopin and Liszt. Liszt prided himself on this affair. Marie’s opinion is not known. Both men dedicated music to her: three of Chopin’s nocturnes (in 1832, before the rift) and Liszt’s “Réminiscences de Norma” (1841) and “Tarantelle di Bravura” (1848), written in the later part of Marie’s career.

After the separation (Marie and Camille Pleyel never obtained a divorce), Marie and her mother left Paris. In 1836 she gave birth to another daughter in Hamburg, whom she named Marie Moke. Meanwhile, Camille Pleyel found solace with 21-year-old Emma Osborn, an Englishwoman who came to live with him in Paris.

No much is known about how Marie Pleyel spent the years immediately after the breakdown of her marriage, but Alexandre Dumas has left one story,** which he claimed to know because he was a friend of hers. According to Dumas, after leaving Paris, Marie was living in Hamburg, but too poor to afford a piano. So poor, in fact, that she was hungry. One day, as she was passing a shop that sold musical instruments, she went in on an impulse, sat down, and began to play. She improvised with such skill and feeling that the shop owner took an interest, and on finding that she was in financial trouble, arranged for her to play a concert that helped her earn money and begin to regain her reputation as a performer. It’s a good story, but did it actually happen?

What is on the record is that in 1839, Marie embarked on a concert tour, beginning in St. Petersburg, and travelling to Leipzig, Dresden, and Vienna (she met Gérard de Nerval in Vienna, and he was very taken with her). Her reviews were glowing and she was classed with the two other celebrated pianists of the time, Liszt and Sigismond Thalberg, both about the same age as she was.

After 1841, she made her home in Belgium, where her father was still living. A concert tour in 1845 and 1846 took her back to Paris, as well as to Bonn for a Beethoven festival and to London. The tour was briefly interrupted when her mother died in 1845 and she returned to Belgium for the funeral. After the tour, she was offered and accepted a position at the Conservatoire in Brussels, where she taught for 23 years, while also giving regular concerts. She was a single mother; she needed to work.

And she was a good teacher. Her colleagues respected her and her students did well.

Marie died in 1875, at the age of 63, just a few months after giving a concert in Brussels. Her younger daughter had died of tuberculosis in 1869.

Marie never published an autobiography, as Berlioz did. Some of her correspondence may be in France’s Archives Nationales. Her letters might tell a very different story from Berlioz’s, Liszt’s, and Dumas’s accounts. She also did not publish many compositions; the surviving Rondo Parisien dates from her teenage years when she was still known as Camille Moke; it was written for her teacher Kalkbrenner.

I wrote to Daniel Propper about it. He told me that it is a difficult piece to play, but popular with audiences. He has recorded it for DOM Disques; the CD will be available in 2022. Propper also drew an interesting comparison between Marie Pleyel and Clara Schumann:

Her [Clara’s] father didn’t want her to marry Robert as he feared that his daughter, an extraordinary talent, would be shadowed by Robert. Which indeed happened. It’s heartbreaking to read that, finally, after having brought up their many children, having seen her husband go mad and die, she didn’t have the strength to take up composition again, saying “No other woman has succeeded yet, why would I do so?” Maybe a hint of a reason why Camille/Marie also “disappeared” as a composer?

So many talented women have put their light under a bushel in the name of family harmony or because they assumed they would be ignored or simply because the lives they led did not allow the luxury of time for composition. Such a waste. Thank goodness for people like Daniel Propper, who seek out little-known pieces by overlooked composers that remind us of what might have been.

Text by Philippa Campsie. Images of Camille Moke / Marie Pleyel from Gallica. Image of Camille Pleyel and of Marie Pleyel’s grave from Wikipedia. Drawing of Berlioz playing the guitar from The Musical Quarterly, January 1970.

In sorting out the fiction from the non-fiction, I was helped by an academic thesis – Seducing Paris: Piano Virtuosos and Artistic Identity, 1820–48, by Alicia Cannon Levin, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2009 – and an article about Marie Pleyel by Lisa Yiu.

*Ignace Henri died in 1852, aged 20. Camille Louise Pleyel married her father’s business partner, Auguste Wolff. She also died young, in 1856, aged 23.

**Une aventure d’amour, 1862. The story about Marie Pleyel starts on page 32.

Posted in Paris music | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 16 Comments

A Penny for a Dancer’s Son

A few weeks ago, Norman embarked on some long-deferred tidying up and came across a beautiful bronze disc about 12 cm in diameter (not quite 5 inches across). He said he’d had it for years, and had probably bought it from a friend who was an antiques dealer in London, Ontario.

I knew exactly what it was. My grandmother had one too, but with her brother’s name on it. These bronze memorial plaques were sent to the families of men and women of Great Britain and its Empire who had died in the First World War. But I don’t think I’d ever looked at one quite so closely as I was able to look at this one.

I hadn’t realized that there are no fewer than three lions visible – the big one, another that forms part of Britannia’s headdress, and a third underneath the feet of the big lion – at first, I couldn’t figure out what that one was doing, but according to a description of the plaque, he is getting the better of the German eagle. I also spotted a lyre-shaped decoration on the trident and two dolphins (to represent Britain’s sea power).

More than 1.3 million plaques like this were issued after the war. This one was made at Woolwich Arsenal (others were made in Acton). Some people referred to the plaque as the Dead Man’s Penny, although hundreds were also made for women who served.

My first stop was the website of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to look up the name. Private Archie Joseph Bury Palliser of the 23rd battalion, Royal Fusiliers, died on 19 December 1915, aged 39. He is buried in Cambrin Churchyard Extension.

Cambrin is southwest of the city of Lille, north of Vimy Ridge. The map here contains names familiar from other blog explorations, such as Hazebrouck and Roubaix and Douai. It’s more than 50 kilometres north of Colincamps, where my great-uncle is buried.

Army records list Palliser as “Killed in Action,” but which action? I found the war diary for the 23rd Battalion for December 1915. The men had marched from Bethune on the 17th, with a piper at the head of the procession, in cold, wet weather. They were billeted for a day or so in a girls’ school at Beuvry. On the 19th the weather was dull but dry, and the battalion marched to a rendezvous at the Cambrin support point (about 5 km away) and then moved into the trenches.

There is a lot in the diary about troop movements, and even a special raiding party of 30 men, but nothing about fatalities, although on the following day the diary mentions a grenadier having been killed by a sniper. There are also mentions of intermittent shelling. Perhaps Palliser was in the raiding party and did not return. Perhaps he was killed by a shell or a sniper. A regimental history mentions that German snipers were “particularly troublesome” in that area.

But really, we don’t know how he died. So many young men died in obscure circumstances in the First World War.

So what do we know about his life?

I learned that Archie was born in London, England, on Christmas Eve 1874. This means that when he died, he was actually just a few days short of his 41st birthday, not 39 as the Commonwealth War Graves Commission had estimated. His father, Joseph Marryat Palliser (1843–98), was a wine merchant. I found a picture of Joseph online.

Archie was the youngest child in the family. He had four older sisters (Mabel, Norah, Ethel, and Fanny). A brother, Hugh, had died at the age of 11 in 1879. The family lived for many years in Baker Street with three servants. After leaving school, Archie worked for the Orient Line as a ship’s purser, travelling back and forth to Australia many times on ships transporting immigrants.

In the 1911 census of England, he is living with his widowed mother in Chichester Street, still listed as a purser. Then I took a look at the record for his mother, who is described as a “professor of dancing.” She was 72. I was impressed. Her full name was Sophia Louisa Isabel Hervé Bizet Michau (1838–1920). She used the name Isabel Bizet Michau in her advertisements.

I wish I had a picture of her. Isabel came from a family of dance teachers. I found her parents’ 1838 wedding certificate. Her father’s name is given as “Augustus Joseph Hervé Bizet, otherwise Michau,” and both he and his father, Louis Michau, are described as professors of dancing. It can’t have been a very secure profession, because Augustus declared bankruptcy in 1863, according to an announcement in the London Gazette.

Nevertheless, the Michau name was well known in England among those for whom dancing was an essential social skill. Augustus’s father, Louis Michau, was the nephew of the celebrated Madame Michau (c1783–1859), who

played a vital role as maîtresse de ceremonies for the Prince Regent’s court balls and dances in the early nineteenth century, and was later widely acknowledged as the undisputed expert on royal and aristocratic deportment. Moving between family houses in London and Brighton, following the seasons of fashionable Society, by the 1840s, Mme Michau and her family had built a reputation and clientele that was admired and envied by many within the pedagogic profession. As her most successful professional heir, Louis the elder had no need to re-locate each season to find pupils. To their house “every great family in the country sent its women and most of its men.”*

Madame Michau (born Sophie d’Egville) is given credit for introducing a form of the tarantella into England. Given the dance’s wild origins (an Italian dance ostensibly intended to dissipate the effects of a tarantula bite), the transition to polite society dancing suggests considerable talent. She even wrote music for her students to dance to.

But we are wandering away from Palliser and the First World War. How did the plaque with Palliser’s name on it get to Canada? That, too, turned up an interesting story.

I began looking into the lives of his four sisters. The oldest, Mabel, died unmarried in 1896 in London. In the 1901 census, the other three daughters – Norah, Ethel, and Fanny, who is now known as Bessie – are listed as assistants to their mother Isabel, the dancing teacher. Norah died unmarried in 1942 in Surrey. The third, Ethel, died in New Jersey in 1914 (I think). It was the youngest, Fanny/Bessie, who came to Canada.

She married a musician, Dalton Baker, in England in 1905. They moved to New York in 1913. In 1914, they came to Toronto. Dalton became organist and choirmaster at Timothy Eaton Memorial Church where, many years later, I was christened, and a teacher at the Royal Conservatory of Music, where, many years later, I sweated through music exams.

In the 1930s, the family moved to British Columbia, where Dalton taught until his retirement. They had children, and their descendants still live on the west coast of Canada.

Perhaps when her mother Isabel died in 1920 in London, Fanny/Bessie inherited the plaque. She may have left it in Ontario when she moved with Dalton and their two children to British Columbia. Somehow, it came into the possession of Norman’s friend, and Norman bought it when he was a graduate student (in those days, he supplemented his graduate school scholarships by buying and selling antique documents and objects). And then it sat in a box in our basement until a couple of weeks ago.

I realize that this blog has strayed from Paris, but at this time of the year, the First World War tends to dominate my thoughts. Every November 11, at the local cenotaph, I remember my two great-uncles who died in the First World War, as well as ten men from Perth Academy in Scotland who had come to Canada before the war and enlisted here. Now I will add Archie’s name to my list. According to the bronze plaque, the men (and women) died for freedom and honour. Or maybe they died out of a sense of duty and comradeship. Or something else entirely. No matter. They all deserve to be remembered.

Text and photograph of plaque by Philippa Campsie. Map from Gallica. Photograph of Joseph Marryat Palliser from Photograph of Dalton Baker from Footlight Notes blog.

*Theresa Jill Buckland, Society Dancing: Fashionable Bodies in England, 1870–1920 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), p. 81.

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Red children and foundling wheels

Some Paris names evoke long-gone places in the city’s past. The name Tuileries now represents a garden, before that a palace with a violent history, and before that, an area where tiles were made. I’ve always found it interesting that the French called a major palace after a tileworks.

Another name that has long fascinated me is that of the Marché des Enfants Rouges in the Marais, which can be translated as the Market of the Red Children – as if one could go there to sell off a red-faced child (perhaps a child having a noisy meltdown). Here is a photo I took of the entrance in 2016.

In fact, the name refers to foundling and orphaned children who were dressed in red to show that they were the beneficiaries of royal charity. The hospice established in 1536 by Marguerite de Valois, sister of King François 1er, was officially called the Enfants de Dieu, because the children came from the Hotel-Dieu, the hospital close to Notre Dame. They were the children of mothers who had died there in childbirth or of illness, or of poor women who gave birth at the hospital and left their infants there to be cared for by the nuns.

About a decade later, another institution was established at the Hôpital de la Trinité (founded in 1201 on the rue St-Denis as a pilgrim hotel outside the old city walls) for orphans who had been born legitimately but who had no relatives to care for them. These children had blue uniforms, and were known as les Enfants Bleus, although the name was not attached to the institution itself.

Very little remains of either establishment. A bit of the former chapel of St. Julien of the Enfant Rouges can be seen in the courtyard behind 90 rue des Archives, near the market (look for the arched but now blocked-in chapel windows).

The Passage de la Trinité at 164 rue St-Denis, recalls the site of that establishment. There is a « pelle » (one of those oar-shaped historical markers) just outside the entrance describing the former hospice.

These two establishments catered mainly to orphans whose mothers or families were known to the caregivers. But there remained another category of needy children – abandoned infants. Every year, hundreds of babies were left at the doors of churches or convents or simply at street corners by women who could not raise them – because the women were too poor, or had too many other children, or who had work that prevented them from caring for a child, or who feared the repercussions of keeping an illegitimate child. A marble statue by an unknown artist, titled simply “Abandonné” represents a child left on a street corner.

For these children, St. Vincent de Paul and the Dames de la Charité (a group of wealthy women who supported charitable endeavours) founded the Hôpital des Enfants Trouvés in 1638. This establishment occupied various different addresses, including buildings on the Île de la Cité and the rue du Faubourg St-Antoine (where the Square Trousseau is today; a pelle marks the spot). In 1772, the Enfants Rouges was amalgamated with this institution. The market kept the name in memory of the children who had once lived in that part of the Marais.

How did these places operate before the Revolution? They were charitable institutions, staffed mainly by nuns and supported by donations. Once an infant was admitted and registered, the nuns’ first order of business was to find a wet nurse, since safe and reliable methods of feeding newborns other than breast milk did not exist at the time. A local woman would do this work at first, until a wet nurse in the countryside could be found. After they had been weaned, the children generally stayed in the countryside with a foster family until they were about six, at which time they returned to Paris, ostensibly to receive an education in one or other of the charitable institutions.

The education they received was mainly religious. They served in the chapels, and the hospices hired them out to walk in funeral processions. According to Rachel Fuchs,

The families of the rich paid the hospitals for the honour and privilege of having the orphans and abandoned children in their funeral parade. It must have been quite a spectacle to see the children from particular institutions all dressed alike in the color of their institution.*

Just imagine all those red and blue children in the procession.

The girls were generally taught some sewing skills and the boys learned some manual tasks. A very few learned to read (because it was such a small proportion, one wonders how those few managed). The children remained the responsibility of the institution until they were 25. At that point, they were on their own. The lucky ones found situations or apprenticeships that suited whatever skills they had acquired; the rest survived as best they could on the street. And these were the ones who survived; many (most?) did not live to the age of 25.

During and after the Revolution, responsibility for orphans and abandoned children was taken over by the government. But that meant that their care was determined by bean counters, who reckoned the costs of staffing, wet nurses, foster families, and living expenses to the nearest centime.

After the Revolution, the red and blue children disappeared. The hospices provided only temporary care for abandoned or orphaned babies for whom foster parents were being arranged, and infirmaries for babies who were ill. Older children were supposed to remain with foster families in the countryside. Although the government now funded the hospices, the staff continued to be drawn from the ranks of religious communities – nuns and some lay helpers.

A group of buildings on the avenue Denfert-Rochereau (at the time called the rue d’Enfer or Hell Street), later known as the Hôpital St-Vincent-de-Paul, became the main centre for the care of these children. It had previously been owned by the religious community called l’Institution de l’Oratoire. The former chapel of the Oratoire – large, drafty, and hard to heat – held about 80 cribs. Since there were usually more than 80 babies there at any given time, doubling up was common. The hospice was chronically understaffed, and despite the best intentions of the staff, the infants received the barest minimum of individual attention.

One interesting provision in French legislation adopted in 1811 was the requirement that each institution in France devoted to the care of abandoned children install a “tour” or foundling wheel. These devices, set in the outside walls of the hospices, operated with a turntable – the baby was placed from the outside into a small cradle and the whole thing swivelled so the baby ended up inside. The person who had placed the child in the tour rang a bell to alert those inside to the baby’s presence. They had existed in various places and in various forms since the Middle Ages, but Napoleon made them mandatory.

This image by Henri Pottin shows the two sides. It’s a sentimental view, and shows both mother and father as the baby is committed to the foundling wheel. But in reality, it was the mothers of the babies who usually acted alone, often late at night, in doing the deed.

The tours d’abandon were controversial. Their supporters saw them as a safe alternative to abandonment in the street, where a child might die of exposure or animal attacks, or to infanticide, which was by no means unknown among desperate parents. Those who opposed the tours felt they encouraged irresponsible behaviour, since a child could be deposited without consequences. The debate raged for decades. During certain periods, the tours were guarded so that it was not possible to deposit a baby anonymously. In the latter half of the 19th century, the tours were gradually dismantled.

According to one Paris blogger, one of these tours remains in the wall of the old St-Vincent-de-Paul hospital, 72 avenue Denfert-Rochereau. You cannot see it from the street, but if you put your arm through the iron railings and aim your cameraphone just right, apparently you can take a picture of it.

In the early years of the 19th century, the government tried to eliminate the distinctions between enfants abandonnés (one or both of the parents were known and had chosen to give the child into care), enfants trouvés (the children were simply “found” and their parents were unidentified), and orphelins (the parents were dead) in favour of calling them all enfants assistés. The building on the rue Denfert-Rochereau was renamed the Hospice des Enfants Assistés. Note that the rose window on the right is the one seen in the illustration of the room where the babies were kept.

In 1849, the care of these children became the responsibility of the Assistance Publique de Paris, which exists to this day. The photograph below by Charles Marville shows its original building on the Île de la Cité, demolished in 1874.

One of the most famous abandoned children in French history was Jean le Rond d’Alembert (shown below), who worked with Diderot on the Encyclopédie. He got his name because his mother, the French writer Claudine Guérin de Tencin, left him on the steps of the church of St-Jean-le-Rond (a now-demolished church on the Ile de la Cité) in 1717. But, as sometimes happened, he was reclaimed. His father was a military officer who was away at the time of his birth and who upon his return, located his son and arranged for his housing and education – without, however, acknowledging his paternity.

A less edifying story is that of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who had a great deal to say about the upbringing of children, but who forced his mistress to abandon all five of their children to the Enfants-Trouvés in the late 1740s and early 1750s. Their fate is unknown, since Rousseau did not reclaim them.

Many parents clearly hoped to reclaim their children and left them with identifying objects: a thread bracelet or a charm or a bit of paper with a special mark or message. The hospice staff registered these items when a child was admitted and retained them. At certain times in the 19th century (the regulations changed periodically and the anonymity of the tour was not a constant), taking a child to a hospice required the mother and/or father to identify themselves, and some did so willingly, hoping that the separation might be only temporary.

For a small number of mothers or fathers, the dream came true. But these were the exceptions (fewer than 2 percent of children were ever reclaimed). In part, the numbers were kept down because the authorities imposed a set of requirements that included repayment for the expenses incurred by state for the abandoned child.**

Towards the end of the 19th century, the state added education to the children’s upbringing, both at the Hospice des Enfants Assistés and at some special schools (one of which was named in honour of d’Alembert). Some girls were trained as midwives, some boys were trained in printing skills, cabinet making, or horticulture.

By the early 20th century the children were once again kept in Paris rather than sent to the countryside, and dressed in checked uniforms and cloaks (probably not red, though). The sounds of their voices must have carried across the Boulevard Denfert-Rochereau. Here is a photograph of some of them attending a special performance at Christmas in 1940, along with wealthy patrons of the institution.***

Nevertheless, the 19th-century hospices, bad as they were, underheated, underfunded, understaffed, allowed a few children to survive and grow to adulthood. Many ended up in rural areas, living with foster parents and working alongside them. Compared with dying as an infant on a street corner, that is something.

Text and market photo by Philippa Campsie; Marville photograph from; photograph of the exterior of the Hospice des Enfants Assistés from Université de Paris; photograph of children and of marble statue by André Zucca from Bibliotheques Patrimoniales; other images from Wikimedia Commons.

*Rachel Ginnis Fuchs, Abandoned Children: Foundlings and Child Welfare in Nineteenth-Century France (State University of New York Press, 1984), page 16. This fascinating book is a detailed account of the institutions and the changing regulations mainly from Napoleonic times to the fin-de-siècle. A further book by the same author, Poor and Pregnant in Paris: Strategies for Survival in the Nineteenth Century (Rutgers University Press, 1992), tells the story from the point of view of the mothers. Both books were invaluable in writing this blog post.

**Occasionally, a wealthy benefactor donated money to defray these charges. Other requirements were that the mother had to prove that she was married and in a stable home situation.

***The photograph is by André Zucca, as is the one of the statue of the abandoned baby. It has been said that Zucca collaborated with the Nazis during the Occupation, taking photographs intended to show positive images of the time (this may even have been one of them). This assertion is disputed. Zucca was put on trial after the war, but other than being prevented from working as a journalist again, he was not punished.

Posted in Paris history, Paris hospitals, Paris markets | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 14 Comments

The strange case of the disappearing hotel

Norman recently bought, sight unseen, a shoebox of French postcards from a man in Winnipeg. Among them was a series of images from a Paris hotel called the St-James and Albany. They set me off on a hunt that led to an unexpected conclusion.

Here is the front door of the hotel – what you would see once you entered the courtyard from the street door on the rue St-Honoré. (There is another entrance from the rue de Rivoli.)

It’s a venerable luxury hotel, currently closed for renovations. Its entire contents were sold at auction earlier in 2021.

As the name suggests, there were originally two separate hotels: the Hôtel Saint-James, dating from 1864 and fronting on the rue St-Honoré at no. 211, and the Hôtel d’Albany, opened in 1894 (replacing an older establishment called the Hôtel de Rivoli), facing rue de Rivoli, at no. 202. They joined forces shortly after the Albany opened, before the exposition of 1900 brought an influx of visitors to the city.

What caught my attention was the caption on this postcard showing one of the main public rooms.

The home of the Noailles family! The august and multi-branched family from whom many prominent French politicians and writers have come, has connections to Lafayette, to Proust, and even to my own research on Charles Barbier.* I wanted to know more.

The hôtel particulier that became the Hôtel de Noailles was built in 1687. This is supposed to be an image of the place from the garden side.

I say “supposed to be,” because it reminds me of a real estate advertisement or an artist’s impression of a building that might not have been built as advertised. For one thing, the picture makes the building look as if it stands alone, without neighbours. In fact, there was a convent right next door. And I wonder how the owners found the space on the rue St-Honoré for something this wide – this was the middle of town, close to the Louvre.

It was not built for the Noailles; the family bought it in 1711. A map from 1694 shows that the family already lived in the neighbourhood, on the other (north) side of the rue St-Honoré, and were therefore right on the spot when the previous owner wanted to sell. Note that in this map, north is to the left.

The Turgot map of 1739 shows the extent of the Hotel de Noailles fifty years after its construction. If the original view was accurate, by now the eastern wing has been truncated and the house is hemmed in by other buildings. Still, it has a splendid garden that abuts the manège (a space for equestrian sports and exercises) by the Tuileries Gardens. In this map, north is to the lower right.

That same year, 1739, the fourth duke and duchess de Noailles had a son, Jean-Paul, who would eventually become the fifth duke. As an adult, Jean-Paul reminds me slightly of Mr. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, because he had five daughters to marry off (two sons and a sixth daughter all died in infancy). Unlike Mr. Bennet, however, he had money and connections and it seems that there was no shortage of suitors. He also had a calm and sensible wife, Henriette Anne Louise. Here is a lovely picture of her by Elisabeth Vigée-LeBrun.

Henriette Anne Louise de Noailles is described in an essay written in 1869 by Lady Verney, titled “A French Family of the Ancien Régime”:

The duchess was…an earnest, serious woman…devoted to her children’s education and to good works, who led an extremely retired life in the immense Hotel de Noailles, the great gardens of which ran down as far as the Tuileries. One of the daughters relates how, after dining with her at three o’clock, they used to follow her into a large bedroom, the walls hung with crimson silk laced with gold, with an immense bed in the corner. Here they sat for the evening, the duchess, still quite a young woman, in a bergère with her snuff-box, her books, and her knitting needles, the children each trying to sit next to her…**

This must have been a largely unvaried routine, since Henriette’s husband was often away from home, either serving the court at Versailles, or fighting in whatever war was going on at the time.

All five daughters married well: two became comtesses, three became marquises. According to Lady Verney,

The daughters were all disposed of while they were still what we should consider children; the eldest married her cousin, the Vicomte the Noailles, of very advanced Liberal opinions, when only sixteen; and the duchess was hardly spoken to by her husband for a whole year because she refused to accept the proposals of the Marquis de Lafayette, aged fourteen, for her second daughter, aged twelve. He was an orphan, and in possession of a large fortune, and the mother was afraid of trusting her little girl to such uncertain waters. As time went on, however, and she heard much good of the lad, she ended by giving her consent, on condition that the two children, as they were in age, should live in the Hotel de Noailles, and on these conditions, Adrienne, aged fourteen, was married to the young marquis, aged sixteen.

A plaque above the hotel entrance on the rue St-Honoré commemorates the wedding, which took place in the house.

Alas, the eldest daughter, along with her lovely mother and her elderly grandmother, perished on the guillotine in 1794 (they were buried in the mass grave in the Cimitière de Picpus; Lafayette’s grave is in the same cemetery). Lafayette’s wife Adrienne narrowly escaped execution (among other things, her death would have angered the Americans for whom her husband was a hero), but she spent years with him in prison. By all accounts, she was a remarkable woman. There are many portraits of her, but I like this one best, by an unknown artist.

They say that behind every great man is a woman rolling her eyes. Adrienne certainly stood behind her husband, but she was more likely to wince in discomfort than to roll her eyes, as her support for Lafayette ruined her health. She died in 1807.

Meanwhile, the family house on the rue St-Honoré had been commandeered by the Revolutionaries in the 1790s and by Napoleon in 1802, who gave it as a residence to his fellow consul at the time, Charles-François Lebrun. Lebrun was busy in Liguria (now part of Italy) and the Netherlands, and may not have spent much time in his newly acquired mansion.

With the restoration of the monarchy, the house was returned to the Noailles family, or at least what was left of the family. The fifth duke had survived, and even remarried, but the house probably held too many memories, and he sold it, perhaps as early as 1814.

A plan shows the house and garden in 1817-18. At this point, the house was no. 335 rue St-Honoré; the street was later renumbered.

“Plan de l’Hôtel de Noailles, rue Saint Honoré, en 1817-1818”. Anonyme. Dessin. Paris, musée Carnavalet.

The buyer was an Englishman, Lord Egerton, 8th Earl of Bridgewater, a learned antiquarian, heir to vast fortunes (a predecessor made millions from England’s early canal system), and a noted eccentric. It is said that he dressed up his dogs and had his footmen feed them at the dining table, that he stocked the garden with flightless partridges so that he could shoot them with ease, and that he wore a new pair of shoes every day. Although in his personal habits he was clearly several croissants short of a petit déjeuner, I suspect that some of the stories have gained extra details over time.

Lord Egerton, who not surprisingly never married, died in 1829. His heirs divided up and sold the property. The bottom of the garden went to complete the arcaded rue de Rivoli. In this image of the rue de Rivoli from 1832, there is a break in the row of buildings on the right, which may have been the Noailles/Egerton garden before it was built on to complete the street’s long row of buildings opposite the Tuileries Gardens.

What I find interesting is that at this point, the main house ceased to exist. The Musée Carnavalet contains several drawings showing the demolition of Hotel de Noailles in 1830. Here is one example.

The demolition cleared the way for the rue d’Alger, which today is a block and a half west of the building said to be the former Hôtel de Noailles. I’ve looked at many maps from this period, and clearly the Hotel de Noailles was farther west than the buildings that make up the modern hotel. This Google satellite view shows what is there now.

So is today’s hotel, which bears the plaque about the marriage of Lafayette, really the former Hotel de Noailles?

Probably not. At best, the hotel might include some elements from the demolished building.

It appears that someone simply moved the Lafayette plaque several doors to the east of the demolished house. With the change in the street numbering, the relocation of the plaque may have gone unnoticed.

Whatever its origins, as the Hotels St-James et d’Albany, the place had a storied career in the 20th century. F. Scott Fitzgerald stayed there on his first trip to the city in 1921. It was a home-away-from-home for Molly Brown (the “unsinkable” one). Thomas Mann set part of his strange, unfinished novel, Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man, at the hotel. Generations of well-to-do tourists ate their meals in what the postcard says is the former ballroom…

…or took the air in the courtyard garden (note the woman and child at right).

But it is not on the site of the former Hôtel de Noailles. It contains some remnants from the 18th century, but the family’s hôtel particulier is long gone.

One day a new hotel will emerge, shorn of all its old trappings, all bright and shiny and modern. The ghosts of the Noailles, or even of Lord Egerton’s dogs, linger elsewhere.

Text by Philippa Campsie; images from Wikipedia, Gallica, Google Maps, and the Musée Carnavalet.

*One of Charles Barbier’s supporters and a member of the conseil d’administration at the Institution Royale des Jeunes Aveugles was Alexis de Noailles. His mother was the eldest daughter of the fifth duke mentioned here (Lafayette was his uncle by marriage).

**Lady Verney was Florence Nightingale’s sister. Her essay draws on the memoirs of Anne Paule Dominique, the second youngest daughter in the family, who later became the Marquise de Montagu and published a memoir in 1864.

Posted in Paris history, Paris hotels, Paris postcards | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 20 Comments


Last month, when I learned that absinthe had been known as the “Charenton omnibus” – Charenton being the site of a famous mental hospital – I became curious about mental institutions in the Paris area. There are many interesting stories associated with them, and here is one.

Before the Revolution, there were three types of mental hospital. First, there were the “hôpitaux généraux” – the Salpetrière for women, the Bicêtre for men. Both institutions remain as general teaching hospitals to this day, both with massive buildings on vast grounds with internal streets. The Salpetrière is in the 13th arrondissement, close to the Gare d’Austerlitz. You can see a bird’s-eye view image of it here.

The Bicêtre is just outside the Periphérique in what is now the commune of Kremlin-Bicêtre. (In case you were wondering, the first part of the commune’s name dates to the 1830s, and commemorates an inn called “Au Sergent de Kremlin,” a hangout favoured by veterans of Napoleon’s Russian campaign.) Here is an image of the huge hospital that dominated the town from the mid-18th century.

It is generous to call these places mental hospitals, for they also served as beggars’ prisons and workhouses, housing a range of people from delinquent youth to poverty-stricken invalids to people with venereal disease to those suffering from mental illness.

Others were founded by the church and operated as charities, which makes them sound more pleasant than they were. Charenton, situated outside Paris just south of the Bois de Vincennes, was one, along with St-Lazare, a former leper hospital in what is now the 10th arrondissement, not far from the Gare de l’Est.

Charenton remains, but now goes by the name of Hôpital Esquirol and the town is called Saint-Maurice (too many negative associations with the name Charenton, perhaps). St-Lazare, after serving for many years as a prison, was demolished in the 1930s. There is now a park, the Square Alban Satragne, where it stood. Here it is during its time as a prison in 1912.

The inmates in these establishments represented much the same mixture as those in the hôpitaux généraux. One writer describes them as “populated by clerics, by mentally diseased people, and by the so-called libertins [a type of political prisoner], sorcerers, abortionists, pornographers, adulterers, spendthrifts, Jansenists, and protestants.”* A merry crew indeed. They do not sound like people with whom the mentally ill could find respite from their troubles.

Finally, there were smaller establishments called “maisons de santé.” Perhaps a dozen or so of these existed in Paris before the Revolution, and many more were out in the surrounding countryside. Some were run by doctors, others by entrepreneurs, because fees could be charged. Wealthy families were prepared to pay handsomely to have an embarrassing relative put safely out of sight.

One of these maisons became notorious during the Revolution for charging very high fees indeed. It was called the Maison Belhomme or Pension Belhomme. It was founded on the rue de Charonne (in what is now the 11th arrondissement) by a cabinetmaker called Jacques Belhomme. He branched out into this new venture in 1768 after discovering that taking care of people with developmental disabilities or mental illness could be surprisingly profitable. He bought the former Hotel de Ventadour and set himself up in business.

The place really did function as a mental hospital at first. It was here that Philippe Pinel, one of the earliest physicians to advocate for the humane treatment of the mentally ill, got his start. He went on to work at the Salpetrière, where he famously did away with the chains that bound the mental patients there and instituted – imagine this – non-violent forms of treatment. Here is a famous painting by Tony Robert-Fleury of his breakthrough, unshackling the chains of the unfortunate inmates at the Salpetrière.

Meanwhile, on the rue de Charonne, Belhomme’s establishment continued to flourish. When the Revolution broke out, Jacques Belhomme was a figure of some authority in his neighbourhood, and realized that his maison de santé might be put to even better – and more profitable – use.

In 1793, a new law required that residents of the city obtain a Certificate of Good Citizenship from what was known as the Vigilance Committee established in each quartier. Failure to obtain such a certificate could mean being hauled before the Revolutionary Tribunal, and from there it was just a short trip in a tumbril to the guillotine.

Belhomme spied both a business opportunity and a loophole. The business opportunity was the growing demand for prison accommodations. The existing prisons were full, and buildings such as the Luxembourg Palace and various convents and abbeys (by now emptied of their regular inhabitants) had been pressed into service. But the Tribunal still demanded that more and more people be locked up. Mental institutions were filling up with prisoners.

As for the loophole, it was this: it was possible to delay one’s appearance before the Tribunal if one were declared too sick or infirm to appear.

Belhomme decided to kill deux oiseaux with un caillou. His maison de santé became a prison-cum-asylum for those willing to pay to be declared unfit to stand trial. There was no shortage of customers.

The initial fee, once one had established contact with those empowered to make the negotiations, could be as high as six thousand livres… Upon payment of this sum, one was pronounced too “sick” to stand trial, transferred out of whatever disagreeable prison one happened to be in, and committed to Jacques Belhomme’s remarkable maison de santé.**

The establishment offered comfortable quarters and spacious gardens. The food was merely adequate, but one could always order out. Belhomme even expanded his operation into a neighbouring house, the Hotel de Colbert-Chabanais (shown here), to meet the demand.

For a few months, it was a popular place to be.

Visitors from the outside world were not only permitted but encouraged. Every evening a long line of carriages waited in front of the gates, and the sounds of laughter and music drifted into the street until the early morning hours… [Meanwhile] the accusations made against Belhomme’s prisoners became mysteriously misplaced by intermediaries in the busy offices of the public prosecutor.**

There was, however, one catch. You had to keep paying the bills each month. They included gratuities for the staff, wine merchants’ bills, and other extras. The inmates had once been affluent, but many had been reduced to penury during the Revolution. Income-producing lands and houses full of treasures had been confiscated. Relatives had been executed. Belhomme was sympathetic, but he made no exceptions. If you did not find some way to pay him, he simply declared that you were now fit to stand trial and released you to the Revolutionary Tribunal. And the Tribunal very rarely showed mercy, as the Duchesse de Châtelet fatally discovered after she failed to pay Belhomme’s bill.

Eventually, like so many others, Belhomme himself was denounced and his premises were inspected by members of the Comité de Sûreté Général. They were appalled to find that the regular patients – the sans-culottes, the citoyens – had been relegated to cramped, insanitary quarters at the top of the house while the aristocrats occupied the spacious quarters below. Belhomme was arrested, convicted of misappropriation of public funds, and sentenced to six years in fetters. He served a mere nine months in the Saint-Pélagie prison before being released on appeal.

While he was imprisoneed, Belhomme’s wife managed the maison de santé, but she died a few years later. At the age of 61, Belhomme married a 16-year-old, who bore him four children. Meanwhile, his establishment continued to take in a mix of patients and political prisoners.

Under the [First] Empire, the Belhomme pension once again served in its double role as a place of healing and a prison, preserving the ambiguity and confusion between the mentally ill and the opponents of the regime in power, [and] making the medical supervisor assume the role sometimes of an ally and advocate, sometimes of a jailkeeper, and sometimes of an accomplice in patients’ escape.***

In the photograph below, the building with the balcony across the front is the Hotel Colbert-Chabanais and the shadowy archway just beyond it leads into the courtyard and the other buildings.

After Jacques Belhomme’s death in 1824, his eldest son, Jacques-Etienne, who had studied with Pinel and written a thesis on the care and treatment of mentally handicapped individuals, and who went on to become a pioneer in the treatment of mental illness in children, assumed the directorship.

The maison de santé survived into the 1950s under a series of different directors, and acquired a solid reputation as a treatment centre.

The buildings on the rue de Charonne are gone now, demolished in the 1970s and replaced with a line of modern apartment blocks, but the gardens remain, complete with a two-storey pavilion that now serves as a social club for seniors, run by the City of Paris. Here is a photograph showing the pre-Revolutionary buildings on the site that have survived.

The story of Jacques Belhomme and his maison de santé has been told and retold by academic historians, but one of the more colourful versions, which I have quoted here, was written by Stanley Loomis, published posthumously in the magazine Horizon in 1974. The title he chose was “Vacation Hints: Where to Go in Case of a Reign of Terror.” The sort of thing one feels one should clip and file away, just in case.

Text by Philippa Campsie, image of the Hotel de Chabanais from Images d’Art, views of the rue de Charonne and front gate from Paris Parcours Revolution, all other images from Wikimedia Commons.

*Erwin H. Ackernecht, “Political Prisoners in French Mental Institutions before 1789, during the Revolution, and under Napoleon I,” Medical History 19:3 (1975), 250–255.

**Stanley Loomis, “Vacation Hints: Where to Go in Case of a Reign of Terror,” Horizon 16:1 (Winter 1974), 80–83.

***Olivier Walusinski and Denis Tiberghien, “Jacques-Etienne Belhomme (1800–1880): Pionnier de la pédopsychiatrie et aliéniste oublié, » Annales Médico-Psychologiques 174 (2016) : 615–623 (my translation).

Posted in Paris history, Paris hospitals, Paris quartiers | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

A taste of France

Many years ago, a friend gave me a birthday present consisting of three small objects, with a card that read: “What every young woman needs: a car, a taste of France, and a chance at a million.” The car was a toy car. The chance at a million was a lottery ticket. And the taste of France? Chewing gum flavoured with Pernod.

It was the perfect choice. Pernod and all those other anise/liquorice flavours (from fennel to tarragon) really do represent the taste of France to me. I didn’t grow up with them, other than the occasional box of liquorice all-sorts at Christmas (which invariably looked nicer than they tasted) or a long thin twist of red or black liquorice from the general store near the beach we visited in summer.

In France I first encountered the flavour in liquid form, but it wasn’t Pernod. You could buy a concentrated syrup of anise to which you added still or sparkling water, rather like the orange squash or Ribena we used to get in the U.K. To me it seemed a refreshing non-alcoholic drink, and oh-so French.

The alcoholic forms like pastis also required adding water, which accounts for all those colourful water jugs and carafes labelled “Ricard,” that you find in flea markets (some of ours are shown below).

Ricard was an anise-flavoured aperitif developed in the 1930s to rival Pernod (the company that originally manufactured absinthe), and one diluted it to taste at the table. (Ricard and Pernod have since amalgamated to form a single company.)

I also discovered fennel as an adult. My mother never cooked fennel when I was growing up. But after my first taste of fennel in a Toronto restaurant in the early 1990s, I was a convert. I ordered it whenever I saw it on a menu. In a restaurant called Chez Piggy in Kingston, Ontario, I found what I consider the definitive version: braised and silky. After some failed experiments, I found a recipe (shown at the end of this blog) that approximated the Kingston version, which is still my favourite way to eat fennel.

I like tarragon, but it won’t grow in our garden (not in the ground, not in a pot), although I have no trouble growing most other herbs. In our garden, tarragon becomes thin and etiolated and withers to nothing. I have no idea why.

At least I can find fresh or dried tarragon in local markets if I want to make chicken tarragon or tarragon dressing. I can’t say the same for chervil. We may live in a multicultural city where you can find nearly any ingredient from any country, but darned if I can find chervil anywhere. I buy the dried version when I go to France and hoard it carefully. (If you live in Canada and know of a source of chervil, please get in touch.)

Norman is also a fan of anise flavours and was thrilled to discover réglisse (liquorice-flavoured) ice cream at Picard during a hot summer visit to Paris a few years ago. We ate a lot of it on that holiday. (Actually, all the Picard ice creams were delicious.)

You can even buy anise pastilles in beautiful little tins decorated with pictures of a shepherd and a shepherdess gazing fondly at each other. They were first made by Benedictine monks in Burgundy. A company called Les anis de Flavigny still makes them.

All these similar flavours. I thought I should look a little closer and sort them out. I consulted The Visual Food Encyclopedia (a wonderful resource). The book makes a distinction between anise (the leaves and seeds of an aromatic herb, Pimpinella anisum, native to the Mediterranean region) and star anise (the fruit of an evergreen tree, Illicium verum, native to China). Here’s a picture of Mediterranean anise, Pimpinella.

The book tells me that anise can “tone up the heart” (whatever that means), stimulate digestion, and soothe coughs.

Both kinds of anise, as well as chervil, tarragon, and fennel, contain one or both of two chemical compounds that impart that distinctive flavour. One is anethole (as in aneth, the French word for dill, which has a similar flavour) and the other is estragole (as in estragon, or tarragon).

By comparison, liquorice is not a herb, but the root of a plant in the bean family (Glycyrrhiza glabra), native to several areas around the Mediterranean. It also contains anethole.

Anethole is responsible for the way in which pouring water into any liquid version of anise (pastis, ouzo, or absinthe) makes the clear liquid cloudy.

Now that absinthe can once again be sold legally in France, there is a whole ritual associated with it. We once went into a Paris shop that sold absinthe and the shop owner demonstrated it for us. First you need a special flat spoon with slots in it (some of these are very fancy). Here are some from the Wikipedia entry on “absinthiana.”

Put a small amount of absinthe in a glass and balance the spoon on the rim of the glass. Put a sugar cube on the spoon and pour very cold water over the cube and into the glass. Watch the liquid turn a cloudy pale yellow or green (the colour depends on the herbs used in its manufacture).

After being banned in France in 1915, absinthe returned in the early years of the 21st century under alternative names. In 2011, after a legal challenge, absinthe makers regained the right to use the word “absinthe” on their products.

There are several versions of the story about banning absinthe. Most commonly, one hears that the wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) in absinthe contained a hallucinogenic compound called thujone, blamed for all kinds of misbehaviour in absinthe drinkers, up to and including murder. Considering that wormwood is an insecticide, one does wonder what it did to humans, but apparently the concentration of the substance in absinthe was usually quite low.

Other versions say that the problem was simply that absinthe had an extremely high alcohol content and people got much drunker much faster. Still others say that contaminants in cheap versions of absinthe were to blame for hallucinations and the potential for violent behaviour. The absinthe drinker painted by Degas, however, doesn’t look particularly violent. She just seems glum.

But the drink definitely had a dodgy reputation. It was called not only “La Fée Verte” (the Green Fairy) for its colour and the likelihood of absinthe drinking leading to otherworldly sensations, but also “the Charenton omnibus.” Charenton was the site of a mental hospital and the idea was that drinking absinthe would take you straight there. Certainly, notable absinthe drinkers, like the poet Paul Verlaine, shown below with his glass, often behaved strangely. Of course, the volume of alcohol he consumed on a regular basis may have had something to do with that.

Verlaine’s Confessions tell of his struggles with absinthe. In one story, he comes home after a night of heavy drinking, undresses, and climbs quietly into bed, so as not to wake his mother in the next room. In the morning, she comes to rouse him and stares at him oddly. He assures her he hasn’t been drinking, no, not at all. Her response is simply to hand him a small mirror, at which point he realizes he has been sleeping with his top hat on.

What historians do agree on is the fact that the failure of French wine crops in the late 19th century because of the blight caused by the insect phylloxera led to a huge upsurge in absinthe drinking. Some go on to suggest that when the wine industry rebounded, winemakers lobbied hard to have absinthe outlawed so they could regain market share. Others note that there was a war on in 1915; the French needed to focus, and absinthe got in the way. Really, the history is as murky as absinthe with water in it.

Personally, we’re going to stick with fennel, tarragon, chervil, and the occasional pastis when we want that anise flavour. And whenever we make it back to Paris, we’ll head to Picard for their réglisse ice cream.

Here’s a recipe for you to try.

Braised Fennel

1 large fennel bulb or two small ones
1 tablespoon olive oil
½ cup dry white wine
½ cup vegetable stock
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Salt and pepper to taste

Remove the fennel stalks. If using a large bulb, cut into eight pieces vertically so that each piece retains a bit of the core to hold it together. Smaller bulbs can be cut in four.

Heat the olive oil in a large pot on medium-high heat. Add the pieces and brown on all sides, at least 5 minutes a side, turning as needed. You may have to do it in two batches to allow each piece to brown. The browner it gets, the better it tastes.

When all the pieces are brown on all sides, put them all in the pot, add the wine, stock, and lemon juice. Turn the heat down to low and simmer, covered, for 25 minutes. If there is a lot of liquid at the end of this time, uncover, turn the heat up and reduce the liquid until it is thick. Season with freshly ground pepper. Serve warm.

Text by Philippa Campsie; photograph of Richard jugs and ice cream by Philippa Campsie; other photographs from Wikipedia and Gallica. Suggested reading: Phil Baker, The Book of Absinthe: A Cultural History (New York: Grove Press,, 2001).

Posted in Paris flea markets, Paris food, Paris history, Paris popular culture, World War I | Tagged , , , , , , , | 21 Comments

How blind people learned to write: the truth can be told

Exactly 200 years ago, in June 1821, a crucial experiment was taking place in a school on the rue St-Victor in Paris. The school was the Institution Royale des Jeunes Aveugles (the Royal Institution for Blind Youth) and the students were learning to read and write using a system of raised dots in a code that represented letters of the alphabet. No, it wasn’t the system later developed by Louis Braille – although he was among the students who were part of this experiment. The inventor was a man called Charles Barbier (1767–1841).

I’ve mentioned him before, because I have spent some years uncovering his story, and learning that nearly everything written about him to date is either completely wrong or mostly wrong.

The quest started in December 2016, at the museum of the Association Valentin Haüy.

Norman, shown here, was doing research on methods of using Braille and I picked up a book about Louis Braille and started to read it. It described Barbier’s invention of raised dots that could be read by touch. I hadn’t realized that the idea was not Braille’s own. I went to speak to the museum curator, Noëlle Roy.

“What can you tell me about Charles Barbier?”

Noëlle stopped what she was doing and looked at me intently. “Are you interested in him?”

“I think so. Why?”

“We have his papers and letters here. I have catalogued them, but nobody else has ever taken a close look at them. Would you like to see them?”

Previously unexamined correspondence? A history researcher’s form of catnip. When I’d woken up that morning, I’d never heard of Barbier. Now I was longing to read his letters.

Noëlle brought me a large archival box. It contained not only letters, but publications and reports about Barbier’s work. Since our time at the museum was limited, I photographed and photocopied as much as I could to read later and began to piece together the story with additional research.

I made one important discovery at the Louis Braille Museum in Coupvray. This is a small town to the east of Paris, and although it is reachable by commuter train, it feels as if it is deep in the countryside. Norman and I went there on a lovely June day in 2017 with our friend Mireille.

The museum contains a photograph of what is said to be a portrait of Barbier as a young man.* I would love to know where the original is.

The guide, Stéphane Mary, brought out a file of information on Barbier. It contained a very interesting record from the French Ministry of Defence.

Nearly every account of Barbier’s life goes on and on and on about his military background, his rank as captain, his artillery training. Some writers have even suggested he attended the same military academy as Napoleon – Brienne. So I looked at the piece of paper with some interest. Here’s what it told me.

Barbier trained at the artillery academy in Douai, starting in May 1784. He became a second lieutenant in a Besançon regiment in 1785; was promoted to first lieutenant in 1791; and appointed captain on May 18, 1792. He quit the army two days later, May 20. And then, with the Revolution on, he left the country, as so many officers did. His military career took up eight years of his life in total, and he spent two days as a captain. That’s it.

The emphasis on Barbier’s military career accompanies a persistent myth about his invention of raised-point writing – that he developed it for the army, to allow instructions to be written and read in the dark on the battlefield. Some writers have waxed lyrical about Barbier’s grief when good men were killed because they lit a lamp to decipher a message from headquarters.

Balderdash. All of it. Barbier invented raised point type specifically for blind people. He says so in an 1815 book in which he introduced his writing system and explained its potential use by blind people. The book is available on Google Books where anyone can read it, although it seems that nobody has.

So what, exactly, was Barbier’s invention? That 1815 book was in the box that Noëlle showed me, a slim volume with green covers, rather blotched, marked up here and there by its author. I transcribed it (it’s only 33 pages of text with a series of illustrations) and began to understand what Barbier was up to.

In it, Barbier proposes nothing less than an alternative to conventional reading and writing methods for people who have not received the lengthy education necessary to become fully literate. They included blind people, but they weren’t the only intended audience. Barbier was thinking of farmers, artisans, the urban poor, deaf people, all those left behind by the education system of the time.

Barbier points out a problem with the conventional alphabet. A perfect writing system would have one symbol for each sound, no more and no less. But that’s not what we have. Some sounds can be produced with more than one letter (c, k, q) and some sounds can only be indicated with a combination of letters (ch, for example, or ou). Barbier also thought writing was far too hard to master. All those little squiggles that take years to learn. So he came up with a simpler approach.

He created a grid, well, two grids. One contained the letters of the alphabet and the other the 30 sounds of the French language. In other words, he offered a choice between conventional spelling and phonetic spelling. The rows and columns of the grid were numbered, and each letter or sound could be identified by its place in the grid – row 3, column 4, say, or row 5, column 1.

Each number was assigned a simple symbol. And each letter or sound could be represented by a combination of two symbols, one for the column number and one for the row number. Easy-peasy.

The one with raised dots was the easiest of all, because instead of an arbitrary symbol for each number, the column and row number was represented by the number of raised dots. Four vertical dots followed immediately by two vertical dots was row 4, column 2. And when you know the letter or sound that occupies that space, you can read.

Not only did Barbier invent this approach, he designed and fabricated the instruments necessary to make the raised dots – a tablet with grooves into which the dots could be pressed, a punch to make them, and a third tool to keep the dots lined up. These were essential.

He wrote to the Institution Royale des Jeunes Aveugles to describe his system. The director brushed him off. When that director left, the next one was interested, but maddeningly casual. He lost Barbier’s first letter and made appointments he did not keep. But he assigned a senior student to learn the system and teach others.

It worked. In 1821, Barbier’s system was demonstrated in front of the board of directors by two blind students. One was sent into a separate room. The other used the system to transcribe words dictated by one of the directors. Then the first student was sent for and proceeded to read the message correctly.

Yes, the system was clumsy and it did not extend to things like numbers or punctuation, let alone musical notation (music is an important skill for many blind students). But as a proof of concept, it was brilliant, and fired up Louis Braille to develop a neater, more flexible system, also using raised dots, and using the tools Barbier had made.

One further important discovery came in the library of the modern-day Institut National des Jeunes Aveugles, which is now located on the Boulevard des Invalides.

Letters written by Barbier to the school are kept there. I was not allowed to photocopy or photograph them, so Mireille and I spent hours transcribing. It was tiring work, and it took me a while to notice something important.

Just as most writers harp on about Barbier’s military career, most repeat the story of an early meeting with Louis Braille at which the young student (barely in his teens) points out defects in the system to its older inventor. They assume the two were at loggerheads and suggest that Barbier resented the young Braille. They play up the young-blind-student-versus-the-experienced-captain for all it’s worth. David and Goliath.

Never happened. Complete fiction. The letters tell the story. Louis Braille first published his own system in 1829 (he later altered and refined it). In 1833, four years later, Barbier hears about it and writes to the school, asking for a copy of the publication. He also asks if the inventor is a student or a teacher because he has never met him. By this time, Braille is a teacher in his twenties. Barbier takes one look at Braille’s system and immediately writes a letter of congratulation to Braille. The two meet several times thereafter, and their letters are invariably friendly.

I remember sitting in the library of the Institut reading that letter from 1833. By this point, I was getting pretty good at reading early 19th-century French handwriting. I turned to Zoubeida Moulfi, the librarian, and said, “Look! Barbier didn’t meet Braille until 1833. They’d never met before then.” She studied the letter and agreed. We stared at each other for a moment.

Turns out the story about Braille’s criticism of Barbier’s system was the fabrication of that director of the school who kept avoiding meetings with Barbier, Alexandre-René Pignier. He wrote his account after both Barbier and Braille were dead and unable to set the record straight. He’d been fond of Braille, and had, for some reason, disliked Barbier. So he wrote a story that puts Barbier in the shade and makes Braille sound even more precocious.

Now that I understand what Barbier was trying to do, I wonder about his motives. Why was Charles Barbier so obsessed with alternative forms of writing?**

I have a theory. Barbier himself found writing difficult. He employed a scribe to write his formal business correspondence (his own writing was messy). And he couldn’t spell (which may account for his preference for phonetic spelling). The scribe corrected his spelling of ordinary words, but took Barbier’s version of proper names for granted, and mostly, Barbier misspelled them. For example, Barbier always wrote Pignier’s name as Pégnier (maybe that’s why the man disliked him).

Whatever his reasons, Barbier wanted to make reading and writing easier for everyone. Along the way, he came up with a workable method that allowed blind people to read and, more importantly, to write down their thoughts and ideas and read them again later. Before Barbier, blind students could not take notes or write to other blind people (although a few learned to write for sighted people). This was a huge step forward. With his odd invention (and his donation of hundreds of sets of writing equipment to the school), Barbier opened the path to true literacy for blind people.

Yet Braille is in the Pantheon, and Barbier in an obscure grave in Père Lachaise (he died in 1841). The inscription on the simple slab is so worn down that it’s almost unreadable – except by touch. We paid our respects to him there in 2018 (thanks to Mireille for finding the grave) and I promised I would publish the real story one day.

And I have. On Wednesday, June 16, 2021, Disability Studies Quarterly published my article on Barbier. I have learned far more than I could put in a single article, but at least I have started to set the record straight.

Text and photographs by Philippa Campsie. Heartfelt thanks to the other members of Team Barbier, Mireille Duhen and Noëlle Roy, who provided translations, transcriptions, suggestions, hospitality, and encouragement every step of the way.

A podcast is now available on the Disability History Association website.

*If you Google Barbier’s name, you will also find an engraving of a different bloke with hair combed forward and very formal attire. That is actually Pierre-François-Hercule, comte de Serre (1776–1824), wearing the regalia of the Order of the Holy Spirit. Charles Barbier’s full name was Nicolas-Marie-Charles Barbier de la Serre and he was never a member of the order. Someone didn’t check carefully (or at all) and mislabelled the image of the comte de Serre.

**That 1815 book includes a whole range of variations on the grid method. Many were intended as simplified writing forms, but he includes some methods that would allow for coded messages (one looks like musical notation, for example) and methods of writing without a pen (which, in the days before fountain pens and ballpoints, required inkpots and other apparatus) for travellers and, yes, the military. But these other forms never caught on.

Posted in Charles Barbier, History of the blind, Paris cemeteries, Paris history, Paris museums | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 26 Comments