My  book, The Water Doctor’s Daughters,  is the  biography of a dysfunctional family,  but  it is also Victorian  era true crime.  It centres on the case of French born  governess  Mlle Celestine Doudet.  In 1855 the governess was tried over the deaths of  her two young English pupils, Marian and Lucy Marsden.  She was also charged with ill-treating their three siblings; Emily, Rosa and Alice.  The girls’ father, Dr. James Loftus Marsden,  had  sent  his daughters to a school the governess had established in her Paris apartment. It was located on the first floor of a building near the Champs Elysees. The apartment complex  has changed very little.

Dr James Loftus Marsden

Dr James Loftus Marsden

Mlle Doudet's Paris School

Site of Mlle Doudet’s Paris School

Apart from her sister Louise, Doudet’s strongest supporter was Mrs Julie Schwabe,  wealthy widow of a Manchester  linen manufacturer.  Mlle Doudet had previously been employed as governess to the Schwabe children.


The Schwabe mansion, Crumpsall Hpuse.

The Schwabe mansion, Crumpsall House.

Following two Paris trials and failed appeals,  Mrs Schwabe loyally  maintained her campaign on Mlle Doudet’s behalf,  pressing for clemency or a re-trial.  Unable to enlist the support of her friend Florence Nightingale, who  was busy ministering to sick and  wounded soldiers in the Crimea,  Schwabe turned to  the social activist Charles Dickens. She sent the celebrated novelist  a letter of appeal and a box of  supporting documents. It was a serious error of judgment. In a  terse reply written  from Folkestone on July 22 1855,  the author cited the complexities of the case and his busy agenda for declining to take up the cause.   It is  far  more likely that  his sympathies lay with the dead  children and their surviving  siblings.  In English newspapers of the day Doudet  was being  portrayed as the female equivalent of  Dickens’ fictional character Wackford Squeers, who ran the brutal boarding school, Dotheboys Hall in  the novel Nicholas Nickelby.  Mrs Schwabe’s letter has not survived, but here is  Dickens ‘ response;

 Dear Mrs Schwabe

 I have this morning received your letter and box of papers.  The arrival of such a heap of documents leaves me but one course.

 It is incumbent on me to represent to you that I cannot  enter on the examination of a case which requires to be pursued through such a labyrinth.   I had begun to read the account of Miss Doudet’s trial, but I now abandon it in despair. My life is a busy one, my thoughts are intently set upon a new book, [the serialized Little Dorrit] I am surrounded by occupations which have their plain ends and uses, I have innumerable correspondents who have a right to my punctuality and attention, and I cannot plunge into this sea  of distraction.  I have no other impression of Miss Doudet’s case, than I have of any other case in which a person has been tried and found guilty and has been in no wise benefitted by an appeal.  That she does not want friends, your generous devotion and that of the lady whom you mention, sufficiently assures me. To waste my energies in turning from the work and duty that I have clinging to my sleeve, to wander through a maze like this, would be to write my life and purpose into the sea-sand now lying before my window.

 I will immediately send the whole of the papers to the Household Words office in London, addressed to you, to the care of Mr. Wills there. That gentleman  will send them on to any address you may forward to him for that purpose.

Faithfully yours

Charles Dickens    

In November that year, Dickens  left to spend the winter in Paris, where his  portrait was painted by  the fashionable artist Ary Scheffer, another Doudet supporter and  a close friend of Julie Schwabe.  Several years earlier she too had sat for Scheffer. His  resulting  portrait  of Mrs Schwabe appears in my book.

Ary Scheffer's 1855 portrait of Dickens. (Wikipedia)

Ary Scheffer’s 1855 portrait of Dickens. (Wikipedia)

Julia Schwabe

Julia Schwabe by Ari Scheffer

One wonders whether the predicament of  the  governess  was raised   during the famous novelist’s  daily sittings!

In 1956 an article in Dickens’  Household Words compared the neglected botanic gardens in  Belgium’s Ghent to the tragic young Marsden sisters;

‘Other unhappy captives, lank and lean, bald and mangy, beg hard for someone to have compassion …..He [the nurseryman] is the Celestine Doudet of greenhouse evergreens; his pupils do not thrive; his oleanders are in the last stage of suffering.’



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  1. With the characters of renown from history that your book portrays, I’m believing your book will be read with great interest. The Victorian era holds a fascination to all who love the advent of the industrial period. and its influence on their way of life. I love the photos you have used. I have written in the 1850’s as well, but in a different place and with a different class of people. All the best for future writing.

    • Pauline

      Thanks Heather, there are also even stronger links to Darwin, Tennyson and Thackeray. Like you, I am fascinated by the Victorians; for the
      enthusiasm and energy of the era as well as all the moral complexities.

  2. Yes, Pauline, I agree with you – Dickens was probably moved more by the children’s plight than by the governess’s situation. (I like your reference to Wackford Squeers!) And I love the tone of Dickens’ reply – ‘go pester someone else’ is about the sum of it!
    Thanks for including the letter here – a wonderful detail from a great true-crime book!

    • Pauline

      Mrs Schwabe also wrote to her good friend and well known MP Ricahrd Cobden. His response was negative as well, albeit more diplomatic!

  3. The plot thickens. I can see another book coming on. (written while waiting for our flight – in case you’re wondering)

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