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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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