A QUANDRY FOR QUEEN VICTORIA

Queen Victoria

Queen Victoria in her Robes of State. C. Royal Picture Library

In my non-fiction  book, The Water Doctor’s Daughters,  Queen Victoria is a central figure.

Early in  1842,  Victoria employed a well educated young Frenchwoman as one of her wardrobe mistresses.  Célestine Doudet  was  born in Rouen  on June  15 1817,  to a  highly regarded French army officer  and  an English mother.  She was recommended  to the queen by her patron, Madame de Chabaud-Latour, a woman with important connections within French society.  Doudet assumed special responsibility for Her Majesty’s jewels.  The appointment was curiously  short-lived, and my research has raised questions as to whether Mlle Doudet  left of her own accord.  However,  Queen Victoria provided Doudet with a brief letter of recommendation:

I consider Mademoiselle Doudet an excellent person, of mild disposition and amiable character, but her education has been too good for her situation of wardrobe woman with me, and I think that of governess would suit her better. I look on her  as a person of the greatest  probity and worthy of confidence.

Victoria

Buckingham Palace 8th April 1842

Mlle Doudet took the queen’s advice and subsequently  educated the children  of the English gentry.  In 1852  she was employed by James Loftus Marsden, a widowed  water-cure doctor from Great Malvern.

Dr James Marsden

Dr James Marsden

The doctor’s five daughters  ranged in age from 12 to 6.  No doubt the royal connection was an important factor in the  ambitious  Dr Marsden’s decision  to hire the governess.

Oddly enough, Queen Victoria had played a major role in Malvern’s rise as  a fashionable spa resort. When the 1851 Great Exhibition opened,  it was Malvern  spring water  that flowed from the famous crystal fountain. The queen accepted a bottle of the water, thus raising the profile of the town’s  water-cure doctors.

Soon after the governess was engaged by Dr Marsden, he fell in love with one of his patients.  To clear the romantic  field, it was arranged that   Mlle Doudet would  take the  girls to Paris, where she established a  small school in her late mother’s apartment.

Mlle Doudet's Paris school

Mlle Doudet’s Paris School

Early the following year, reports that she was ill-treating her pupils  surfaced. This girls’ maternal uncle, the Rev, John Rashdall  (vicar of Malvern Priory Church) went to Paris to investigate, but no action was taken.  On July 28  1853  twelve year old Marian died. Her sisters were taken back to England, but fourteen year old Lucy died six weeks later.

THE PARIS TRIALS

In 1855 , Célestine Doudet was belatedly   charged with the manslaughter of Marian and cruelty to all five Marsden girls.  There were two  trials, with both   creating  a sensation  in  France and England.  The  character reference from Queen Victoria was presented to the court by the governess’s barrister, Monsieur Nogent-Saint-Laurens.   More discomfiture for the Royal Family  came  when it was revealed that  Marian’s death was the  result of  an incident  following  a celebration of the monarch’s birthday.  As  Mlle Doudet testified:

The 24th May is the anniversary of the birth of the  Queen of England. She is my benefactress, and I have made a vow to celebrate that fête wherever I may  be. I would give holiday to my pupils…it was a fête of the heart.’.  

Mlle Doudet  had taken  two of  her pupils  on an  outing to the Jardin le Plantes  and when she returned home Marian suffered  what proved to be a fatal fall.  The circumstances surrounding this incident  would be the  subject of much debate and conflicting testimony.   Owing to allegations  of a sexual nature made against them,  the  surviving Marsden girls  found themselves  as much on trial as the accused.

The case  was widely reported in England. The Sunday newspaper Lloyd’s Weekly  published an article demonizing   Doudet and deploring the fact that  ‘…this hideous figure is presented as the protégé of the Queen …’  It was felt  that the  nation was  being portrayed in France as  condoning child abuse, and  that  the English were; ‘barbarians with faith only in the birch.’

On the other hand, Mlle Doudet had powerful supporters among the English  aristocracy, who campaigned  on her behalf  at the highest level. However,  after hundreds of  years of  enmity,  France and England had  become allies due to  the Crimean war.  At the time of the trials   planning was  underway for Victoria and Albert to  make an official visit  to Paris.  The Palace remained silent over the  whole, tragic affair. There was no statement in defense of Mlle Doudet, but neither was there any support for the Marsden children.

The Water Doctor's Daughters

The Water Doctor’s Daughters

The Water Doctor’s Daughters was published by  Robert Hale of London  in March 2013.

There is a self-guided literary walk around Great Malvern which visits many of the significant sites in the book. CLICK HERE.

NB – My thanks to the Royal Picture Library for granting me permission to use the image of  Queen Victoria.

 I love to receive feedback so  do leave a comment below.  Don’t forget to complete the little maths question though,  before your press ‘Submit’.

7 Comments
  1. Fascinating piece. Understandable that Queen Victoria (having taken advice no doubt) was silent on the deaths of the children. Mlle Doudet was either very wicked, or very unlucky. Either way, to impress Queen Victoria enough for her to write such a letter of recommendation, Doudet must have been very clever too. Typical of the French to say, “…the English were; ‘barbarians with faith only in the birch.’” The guillotine, of course, was not at all barbaric. Another brilliant piece, Pauline.

    • It was a very complex case Maddie, as you will discover. Celestine Doudet was only with the Queen for a brief period but a great deal was made of it. All the old emnity between the French and the English came to the fore during the trials.

  2. I think you should send a copy of The water Doctor’s Daughters to the Palace as I believe the Queen enjoys reading crime/mystery books.

    • Pauline

      Yes, that’s what I thought Yvonne. And she always drank Malvern water, just like Queen Victoria; well until they stopped bottling it recently.
      She might even give an introductory talk at the launch! Could you pop along and ask her for me??

  3. Hi I unearthed papers pertaining to Madame Doudet. They were written by a gentleman called Theodore Lee, who worked for a solicitor who defended Madame Doudet. She changed her plea to manslaughter and subsequently served 2 years in prison. If you would like a copy of the above I would be only too pleased to forward it too you.
    Regards
    Susan Coleman

    • Pauline

      Oh Susan, thank you so much for this. I am really excited at the prospect of more information. Are you able to send it via email? My email address is [email protected]

      Otherwise, I will be in the UK from mid June and could give you a mailing address there.

      The book was published in February 2013 and came out as an ebook a few weeks ago. There is currently a little exhibition about Dr Marsden and the Doudet case running at Great Malvern Museum, which features my book.

      Thanks again for taking the trouble to contact me!

      Best wishes
      Pauline

Leave a Reply

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.

Notification of new stories via Email

Enter your email address to receive notification of new stories on this website (your address will not be shown).

Search Pandora

Find us in Pandora the National Library of Australia's archive of Australian online publications in perpetuity.