SCHOOLGIRLS IN EXILE
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.’
A RELATED STORY ABOUT THE FRENCH DOCTOR WHO PERFORMED A POSTMORTEM ON LITTLE MARIAN MARSDEN APPEARS HERE.
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