The crumpled Letter,
Prostitution and courtesans in the nineteenth century.
1 – Preambule, DIVAGATIONS…
The following article is more than an article.
It is rather a booklet for dreaming, dedicated to the novel The crumpled letter:
a vagrancy to learn more around the novel and the trilogy:
murder at the French Riviera Belle-Epoque.
If like me, you like History, you will love discovering what I have learned by doing my research.
To write the historical detective novel The Crumpled Letter, I happily traveled around Cannes, delving into its Belle Époque remains, accompanied by Maupassant. But the purpose of writing a historical novel is to make the literature fade within the plot. That is why I wanted to give my readers a glimpse of what I had discovered while doing my research, which only appears implicitly throughout the novel.
This booklet exists for all of you who wish to dream around during Cannes’ Belle Époque, Maupassant or my characters. “You’re delusional!” I’ve been told. And so the Divagations were born.
I will try through these musings to somewhat question the era, the city and the characters. Without ever forgetting that The Crumpled Letter remains above all a detective fiction, literature of pure distraction but no documentary; even though I have indeed prospected the archives of Cannes, many novels and historical essays, images.
The three heroes of this novel, whose action takes place in 1884, are Lola Deslys, a young courtesan born in Suquet, (old town of Cannes), Miss Fletcher, the governess of Lola, an English noblewoman living in Cannes, and Maupassant, the famous writer.
While the story is light and akin to a thriller, it is also a pretext to question the place of women in our society.
I walked around my city imagining it as it must have been over a century ago, and I plunged into the world of the customs of the Third Republic, of Cannes at that time, of Maupassant and his love of the region.
I’ll try to lift the veil in some ways regarding prostitution and courtesans. I will take you on a journey around Cannes in 1884 through the prism of my novel and will tell you about Maupassant’s special relationship with the city, the Mediterranean and its boats
I am not a historian and I have not applied any specific methodology in my research. I just delved deeply into the history of the Belle Époque and Cannes. In addition to rereading my classics, I read historical essays on this period, frequented assiduously and put to contribution the municipal archives of Cannes, as well as the Société Scientifique et Littéraire.
Throughout my research for this novel, in addition to these disconcerting data on the condition of women and their relationship to prostitution, I found other strange elements, such as the large number of little girls who died at the Sacré-Cœur orphanage in Cannes without the newspapers ever mentioning them.
I can but only wish you a great reverie, but also contemplation, on what life was like under the French Third Republic, particularly in Cannes.
This was the beginning of what would be later called the Belle Époque.
The crumpled Letter,
2 – La pierreuse or the prostitute on the sidewalk
Notice on the right, on the painting of Zola’s Nana, by Manet, the silhouette that could go unnoticed of the seated man.
Prostitution and courtesans in the nineteenth century: prostitution under the Third Republic.
While doing this research for The Crumpled Letter, I discovered some amazing things, especially about prostitution. More than half of the women at the end of this century in France were devoted to prostitution in order to survive, or, in the case of women of the bourgeoisie or of the greater world, to be able to have a small financial autonomy, since once married, they were legally minors. We tend to talk about this past period with an air of superiority, but let’s not forget that, until 1965, women were not allowed in France to open a bank account in their name without their husband’s permission, even if they worked. They needed the husband‘s permission to work anyway. This was not that long ago.
Lola Deslys, my main character, is a courtesan. Why courtesan and not prostitute? Because she doesn’t tout on the sidewalk, and she manages to find her clientele among men who are well established, by entering certain circles, painters’ workshops, theatre, or by parading around in her beautiful car on the Croisette. Pierreuse is one of the names given to prostitutes.
They often began, like my heroine, as models for painters or photographers.
1965: In France, reform of the matrimonial regime of 1804: a woman can manage her property, open a bank account, and exercise a profession without her husband’s authorization.
1970: In France, the mother becomes the equal of the father in matters of parental authority.
I obviously knew that prostitution was a recurring theme among 19th century writers and poets. I was unaware of the real place it was taking in this Third Republic’s society. I thought of this particularity as a taste for the bawdiness they used to have. In effect, it is a reflection of a reality that we have difficulty imagining these days. If you wish to go further on this subject, you will find at the end of the chapter on courtesans names of authors who have approached this theme in the form of novels, tales, short stories, poems or documentary essays.
So I’m going to talk about it in two stages: prostitutes as we broadly understand them nowadays, and in the next chapter, Courtesans.
It all started with Napoleon Bonaparte. The decree of March 3, 1802, legislated compulsory health visits for prostitutes to contain the syphilis epidemic of the time. On the order of Napoleon I on October 12, 1804, the police prefect of Paris, Dubois, prescribed the official organization of the so-called pleasure houses. Brothels are now legalized.
But since the State does not wish to legislate those impure things in the Assembly, it is the municipalities that must draw up decrees establishing the regulations and statutes of prostitution in their commune.
Thanks to this, I found regarding Cannes:
The decree on prostitution established in 1886 by the City of Cannes.
Girls must therefore register at the prefecture, then, only then in a brothel.
Street girls are said to be encartées (recruited) and brothel girls are numbered. These prostitutes, recognized by the State, are said to be submissive, as opposed to illegal ones called insubordinate and punished by law. Brothels, or Maisons closes in French (literally “Shutted houses”), were forbidden to open shutters or doors. The girls weren’t supposed to be seen from the outside.
Soliciting, or touting, is forbidden, girls are confined to the houses registered at the prefecture and the town hall. They can only go out dressed in certain ways, at certain times and to walk only in certain streets. They will undergo a health check at least twice a month, mandatory, humiliating and paid on their money. This visit is perceived as more degrading than a trick (trick) with the client and abhorred by prostitutes.
card issued by the prefecture for submitted girls, according to the 1890 framework
In case of positive control to a venereal disease, most often syphilis, the girl is sent to hospital or prison. In Paris, they’re sent to the austere Saint-Lazare prison (the last buildings of this former prison have now become the Françoise-Sagan media library in the 10th arrondissement) to be isolated and treated there. The girl won’t get her card back until she’s healed.
Exit from the refectory to Saint-Lazare
At the time, it was thought that syphilis could be cured if there were no more external signs. The long underlying journey of the disease was unknown. That is why many men who died “insane” were in fact simply suffering from syphilis, so we found out later. Many artists were affected: Baudelaire, Daudet, Feydeau, Géricault, Goncourt, Hoffman, Chabrier, Donizetti, Musset, Flaubert, Maupassant, Nerval, Nietzche, Schubert, Manet, Schumann, Toulouse-Lautrec…
The map of the prefecture, printed on a white card, is turned red if the prostitute is syphilitic.
The State, and in particular the tax authorities, benefited from this trade by taking fifty to sixty per cent of the profits. In Paris, there were about 200 official establishments under the control of the police and doctors in the middle of the century, but only about sixty at the end, as a result of the multiplication of clandestine brothels which then counted fifteen thousand prostitutes.
Toulouse-Lautrec : la fête de la patronne
In France, from about 1871 to 1903, there were 155,000 women officially declared prostitutes, but the police arrested 725,000 during the same period for clandestine prostitution in Paris alone. Because the majority of women who are involved in prostitution are not encartées. They thus escape police surveillance and stays in Saint-Lazare.
The prostitute is reduced to a sub-citizen status subject to regulations whose application is left to corrupt police officers. This was the time when a series of scandals led to the dissolution of the morality police (in 1881), which while similar to a sweep stopped corruption in no way.
The Prefect of Police Lépine later authorized meeting houses, where prostitutes did not live, but where they came only to work. They are often apartments whose address is discreetly transmitted in bourgeois circles. One can find there, on catalogue, authentic bourgeoises or aristocrats, famous half socialites or actresses, but also ordinary prostitutes, although rather elegant, or in any case presenting well, with an appearance of small bourgeoise.
Next to these houses there are women’s public houses, which are cafés with montante waitresses (as in who go up in the rooms); not counting the bath and massage institutes.
The police estimate that 40,000 people frequent the various houses in Paris every day, which would be equivalent to saying that a quarter of Parisian men had relations with prostitutes.
It is not taking into account the de facto prostitution happening occasionally, at the end of the month, for survival, temporary; the one practiced in exchange for small presents, ribbons, meals, aids, for the care of a sick child even. The lorettes (prostitutes) and other grisettes, i.e. the workers, modistes (milliner), seamstresses, linen maids could not do otherwise than to sell themselves from time to time to survive, pay their rent, feed their children or dress properly.
Many caricatures or paintings show us men in monocle and top hats coveting in the street these workers, waiting for the right moment to approach them. In Degas’s paintings at the Opera, they are always present in a corner, potbellied gents with their lorgnette and cigars, watching out for the young dancers.
And let us not forget the prostitution, in fact, of servants – maids, chambermaids, kitchen girls – who are forced to give in to their boss’s advances simply to keep their jobs. So do actresses. As I write these lines, the Weinstein case is in the news. Have things really changed?
There’s also the phenomenon of students moving in with a grisette. They come to Paris to study, financed by their parents in the Province; they do not earn enough to pay a real rent by themselves, with their eighteen hours of work per day. Both parties will find there an advantageous middle ground. She will be able to live a real fake family life with her little student, and he will find there enough to satisfy a natural impulse while waiting to be able to marry the girl from a good “pure” family destined to him. When he returned to his Province, he left a grieving young woman who had dreamed for a few years that he might end up marrying her. It will take many a condition for the evil not to be too great for her: if they did not have children, if he did not go elsewhere and therefore had not infected her with syphilis, scourge of the century, if she was foresighted and had constituted a safety net…
However, this situation leads to an imbalance in each other’s social places, upsetting the future of the respective couples; the very form of social peace corresponding to: “everyone must stay where they belong.” For the workwoman with her worker husband, frustration will be a source of dissatisfaction, the young woman having experienced more “educated” relationships. For the student who has become bourgeois and his wife from a good family, frustration will be a source of disinterest towards his “lady” and can even lead to mental abuse (cf. Une vie by Maupassant), because the young man will seek the freer relationship he had and which he is not supposed to demand from his pure and tender other half. The consequences of these situations could be the subject of a real and exciting sociological study that I will not deal with here.
Add to that the bourgeoises and aristocrats. They bring to the marriage their dowry (if it is not a fictitious one. For let us not forget that the practice of the dowry aims above all to exclude from the will the daughters among siblings). But if their husbands are stingy or enjoy gambling, they won’t have any access to that money; Civil Code of 1804 denies the right of property and the legal personality of married women. The only political and social identity for women is that of wife and mother. “Let us take care that the married woman does not envy the fate of the independent concubine, free to dispose of her earnings”, warns a lawyer of the time in her legal thesis.
Indeed, many honest women will have recourse to the meeting houses to be able to earn a little personal money, to maintain their status, to complement their dressing table with a jewel or even flowers. It may seem futile, but in their environment it could be a source of humiliation to lack these frivolities. And also because they might envy the fate of concubines? Yet in their golden prison, they are well protected…
 Leduc, 1898, quoted in Femmes, dots et patrimoine, collective work published by Presses Universitaires du Mirail in 1998, text by Florence Rochefort, p182.
You can admire this painting by Gervex still at the town hall of the nineteenth arrondissement of Paris.
On the right, we recognize Maupassant, his friend, with a mustache,
and Valtesse de la Bigne, a great courtesan whom I will tell you below…
The crumpled Letter,
My heroine, Lola Deslys, is no ordinary prostitute; she is what we call a courtesan.
What follows is the fruit of my imagination, pure fiction. In 1878, at the age of 14 and working in a perfume factory not far from La Croisette, Lola was noticed for her beauty by the photographer Numa Blanc and used as a model on the motif. He photographs her outside, to highlight the touristic views of Cannes. She quickly realizes that she has earned in a few days the equivalent of a month’s salary. Her portrait is displayed in the photographer’s window and will attract the attention of painters and their friends.
She then began a career as a model, which led her to accept a few gifts from painters and their friends in exchange for her favours. She then leaves her parents’ apartment to live alone in a small room. While engaging in what must therefore be called prostitution, she has never known solicitation in the streets when the novel begins. That’s why I classify her as a courtesan.
A decisive meeting with a young student, Eugène de Bréville, will allow her to live in a home worthy of its name. Eugène will even have a house built for her, Les Pavots, in this brand new district now emerging around the recent boulevard de la Foncière, boulevard Carnot nowadays, near the Hotel Central, behind the station. At about eighteen, she is no longer really a prostitute, but a courtesan, entirely maintained by a young man from a good family, who spends for her without counting everything that his family provides him with.
When the Brévilles discover this situation, they will take action to avoid the worst. This subject is often disclaimed in the literature on the venal women of the 19th century, and I will quote only the most famous novel regarding the theme, many times adapted to the cinema, The Lady of the Camellias. That’s when my novel The Crumpled Letter begins.
Who are these famous courtesans, also called Cocottes?
Their reign began under the Second Empire. These luxury prostitutes are known to ruin their rich lovers in sumptuous spending: parties, jewellery, houses, etc…
What is a demi-mondaine?
The demi-mondaine originally referred to women of the world who had fallen into prostitution and then ended up also referring to cocottes (prostitutes) of all conditions. It was Alexandre Dumas fils who launched this term in 1855 with a play entitled Demi-Monde.
Among the other appellations designating a cocotte, we find with more or less different meanings: danseuse (dancer), fille de noce (wedding girl), fille de brasserie (public house girl), buveuse (drinker), trotteuse (trotter), pierreuse, asphalteuse (asphalt walker), lionne (lioness), demi-mondaine, demi-vierge (half-virgin), délurée (brazen), femme aux mœurs dissolues (promiscuous women), de petite vertu (of easy virtue), femme galante (loose woman), femme de mauvaise vie (loose woman), membres de la garde ou de la haute-bicherie (high-class prostitute, considered to be of the greatest elegance), grandes horizontals (who can be taken horizontally). In a more familiar and also tastier register, you also have: caillette, créature, gourgandine, grisette, lorette, rouleuse, toupie, sauteuse, gigolettes. (Various declinations for “loose women”).
Painting: Rolla ou le suicide pour une courtisane, by Gervex (it is recognized that it is a courtesan thanks to the corset’s colour on the ground: red. Honest women wore only white, pale pink or cream as underwears.)
They live in furnished apartments for the most modest and in private mansions for the most influential ones. Their clientele is made up of the bourgeoisie, rich industrialists, bankers, rich provincials and, for the most fashionable, French or foreign aristocrats.
The demi-mondaines often have several servants and lead an idle life in the midst of the most ostentatious luxury. They spend a lot of time grooming.
They only go out in the afternoon around four o’clock to parade in the Woods, attend horse races, go to the theatre, the restaurant or their friends’ houses. They sometimes host for only wealthy men in their homes.
They often have an official lover and several secondary lovers. They can extort up to several hundred thousand francs a month from them and they burn incredible sums of money in grooming, ornaments, horses, cars, etc., squandering the fortunes that pass through their hands every day. They sometimes lead men to ruin, suicide, or being the dishonour of their families.
If a man buys these women, swallows up his fortune and ruins himself for them, he wants everyone to know. She is the yardstick by which the degree of his wealth is displayed.
The courtesan must also exhibit herself in an endless luxurious parade, ostensibly announcing her exorbitant rates.
Some artists, painters or musicians, poorer, can be admitted to their circle of friends if they get a return in kind. For example, a painter could paint a portrait of them, a journalist, or a critic praising their talent as an actress.
For while female workers do not survive on their wages, actresses are not better off. Being an actress is not enough, you have to sell yourself to survive before you break through.
Theatres and operas thus serve as showcases for actresses to show themselves to customers, who come to do their bidding. Only a few of them, extremely rare, will manage to live from their art.
Even Sarah Bernhard started her career as a courtesan.
 Cf: Fiche de Sarah Bernhardt, registre des dames galantes, Paris SAM Série BB, registre no 1, quoted in Gabrielle Houbre, Le Livre des courtisanes : archives secrètes de la police des mœurs, 1861-1876, Paris, Taillandier, 2006, Bruno Fuligni, Dans les archives secrètes de la police : Quatre siècles d’histoire, de crimes et de faits divers, Paris, L’iconoclaste, 2009.
Among the tens of thousands of beautiful girls who sold themselves in France, only a few reached these peaks. And they, the great courtesans, were beautiful, but not only. They also possessed intelligence and were experts in worldliness and libertinism…
As an honest child of our puritan 20th century (whatever one may think and comparably), I condemn prostitution, not for moral or religious reasons, but because I believe that a woman should know how to find her financial independence without selling herself. Yet something attracts me to these women. I admire them. I am fascinated by the fact that it is precisely this paradox that has made them the unwitting mothers of a feminism which not yet declared its name.
They paved the way for the sexual liberation that was born in the following century. First of all by their absolute absence of taboos. They brought hygiene (they washed and took many baths!) as well as contraception.
Doctors and scientists could not fathom this mystery that escaped them: why did prostitutes have so few children compared to other women, especially in view of their numerous sexual relations? They saw the hand of God punishing them for their loose life by an absence of fecundity, which was for them the ultimate reward of the woman. In reality, they were afraid to probe the subject too much and kept to themselves. Women secret transmitted between women. If the walls have heard of it, honest women might have been interested in the recipe and you can but imagine the result!
However, Louise Ebel in her article Cocottes et Courtisanes, is right to stress: “But, under this exhibition of luxury and pleasure, do courtisanes really possess the freedom they claim to have? If they seem to make fun of men, they are nevertheless irreparably linked to them, at least financially. Since without money they are nothing, they also belong to their buyers. They may pretend to do as they please and regularly throw themselves into romantic or saphic whims, but they know that when they return they will have to bail themselves out with their often unprepossessing rich protectors. Moreover, unlike the wife preserved within the home as a secret treasure that is displayed on special occasions, the courtesan is a commodity whose cost is legitimized by a permanent exhibition.”
Françoise Ducout writes: “No rest for them! The performance hardly finished, the last bravos extinct backstage, they have to run home, change, make their hair, wait for the crew of the lover of the day, or evening, who takes them to the Opera, the restaurant, the music hall, where they are asked to appear to be examined, envied, loved. When night comes, do they finally give in to a restful sleep? The generous donator is there, closing the doors of the room…”
Queen of their lives which is a permanent theatre, the price to pay is a sacrifice in their bedroom. The rooms of famous courtesans resemble sacrificial altars. The last act is played here. This is why it is often in the arms of other women that they find the warrior’s rest, security, refuge.
Here are some famous courtesans, whose more detailed biographies you will easily find. I do not dwell on their beginnings, because they often resemble each other: poverty, abuse, excessive ambition, hard work.
I published the portraits on my blog, so you can contemplate their image. Excerpt from Miss Pandora’s blog
 In the preface to Cléo de Mérode: le ballet de ma vie, Paris, Pierre Horay, 1955.
Marie Duplessis, fine, elegant and discreet, inspired Alexandre Dumas fils his Lady of the Camellias. He said that he simply told her story, having personally had a relationship with her. She was 23 when she died. Her husband, the Count of Perregaux, closed her eyes.
Cora Pearl was a cheeky girl with very bad manners. She was the mistress of Prince Napoleon and the Duke of Morny: “I have never deceived anyone, for I have never been someone else’s. My independence was my entire fortune: I knew no other happiness.”
 Cora Pearl, quote from her Memoirs, 1886.
Lola Montez is a so-called “exotic” dancer of Irish origin, but of Creole mother. She faked Spanish origins to create voluptuous choreographies. She was the mistress of Louis the first of Bavaria, travelled extensively, going from Ireland to France, Bavaria, or the United States. She wrote a kind of practical book on beauty recipes, a mixture of messy memories and cosmetic advice.
Céleste Mogador made herself known by creating the quadrille, or cancan, at Bal Mabille, provoking havoc within the Tout-Paris. She was the wife of the French consul in Australia, since she had married, against the advice of her family, the Count of Chabrillan. She launched the Goulue (famous thanks to Toulouse-Lautrec) and ended up in an asylum in Montmartre.
The Marquise of Païva was born in Moscow. She had four husbands. The last to date was a marquis and a count, this one cousin of Bismarck. Having begun her career with musicians, including Wagner, she later received writers, painters, philosophers, economists and bankers at her table. But although she was Marquise and Countess, she was never received in the houses of the real ladies. She had a castle built on the Champs-Élysées, the Hôtel de la Païva, now owned by a prestigious English club since 1903, the Traveler’s Club. She was accused of spying after the war of 1870 and went into exile with her last husband to Silesia, where she died of boredom in a castle; now her tomb.
Laure Hayman. Descendent of the painter Francis Hayman, she was loved by the Duke of Orleans, the King of Greece, and inspired painters and writers, including Paul Bourget and Marcel Proust. Her nickname: “la déniaiseuse des ducs” (as in she took away Dukes’ innocence).
The Countess of Castiglione, mistress of Napoleon III, was a famous spy. Described as the most beautiful woman of her century, she used photography obsessively. At the end of her life, slave to her own image and unable to grow old, she hides at home, veils her mirrors and only comes out at nightfall, so as not to be confronted by the gaze that passers-by might have on the ravages that time has caused to her beauty. She attended the famous clinic of Doctor Blanche whose three generations of doctors she knew, and where Maupassant died.
Valtesse de la Bigne. She loved painters and writers. Smart and knowledgeable, she managed her fortune with common sense, investing in works of art that she sold to Drouot in 1902; with the exception of her bed that she gave to the Museum of Decorative Arts, where it can still be observed. Zola used it as a model to make Nana’s bed. When Alexandre Dumas fils, in turn, asked her to enter his room, she answered him: “Dear Master, you do not have the means!”At the end of her life she opened a training centre for the young girls who wanted to follow her path, and she advised Liane de Pougy so that she would know how to screw and not get screwed. She advised to change her name because: “One cannot keep the same name when plucking the pigeons as when plucking the geese!”
I leave aside the many mistresses of Edward VII, one of whom, of public notoriety, was Churchill’s mother,
Lady Randolph Churchill
and the other,
Alice Keppel, the great-grandmother of Camilla Parker Bowles, current wife of Prince Charles.
The time was Victorian in England, but not for everyone.
This list is not exhaustive.
I would like to stop here the catalogue of my courtesans, because we approach 1900 and the years past this point. My trilogy ends in 1893, date of Maupassant’s death. But it’s impossible not to mention Liane, Caroline, or Emilienne.
Liane de Pougy ended up religious. She will say, deliberately provocative and of a vulgarity that allowed her distinguished posture: “The only difference between the women of the world and us, it is that we wash ourselves between the legs.”
Caroline, the Beautiful Otero, died poor in Nice, in a small boarding house at 26 rue d’Angleterre, collecting photos of the crowned heads who were her lovers and who committed suicide for her, after having ruined herself on the roulette table of the Casino de Monte Carlo. She survived thanks to the Casino which provided her a small income.
Emilienne d’Alençon was Etienne Balsan’s mistress, launched Coco Chanel’s hats and fell into drugs and misery. When she died, she was buried in the mass grave.
Liane, Caroline and Emilienne were nicknamed The Three Graces of the Belle-Époque.
But still, others were in the news: Gaby Deslys, Lina Cavalieri, Cleo de Mérode, Mata-Hari…
To learn more about this subject, banal prostitution or the courtisanerie, you can read the works of the men of letters of the 19th century who wrote on this subject. Among the most famous: Zola with Nana, Maupassant too with Boule de Suif and La maison Tellier, or Aristide Bruant in his songs.
You will find this subject treated by: Balzac, Goncourt, Baudelaire, Alexandre Dumas father AND son, Flaubert, Huysmans, Octave Mirbeau, Romain Rolland, Jules Vallès, Leo Taxil. As for the essays, dating from the time, at random: Gustave Macé with Gibier de Saint-Lazare; Alfred Carel with Les brasseries à femmes de Paris; Charles Virmaître with Paris Impur; and let’s not forget the inevitable Alexandre Parent-Duchâtelet with La prostitution à Paris au XIXe siècle.
There are also some memoirs or memories of courtesans who were not afraid to talk about their lives. For those who have written more recently on this subject, you will find information or analysis with: Lola Quijano-Gonzalez, Catherine Authier or Alain Corbin. Camille Laurens’ book, La petite danseuse de quatorze ans, addresses the subject of prostitution in opera. There is also a chapter on this theme in Anne Martin-Fugier’s excellent book La place des bonnes en 1900.
I really liked the very nice article on the MissPandora blog, run by Louise Ebel, from which I borrowed a bit (with her permission) .
But you too, go on an adventure on the internet; you will be blown away by what’s to be read on the subject.
 Stephen Clarke, Edward VII: An English king made in France, Albin Michel 2017
The crumpled Letter,
4 – The crumpled letter: tracks, clues…
1884, the beginning of the Belle Époque.
Cannes, a pearl in the Mediterranean, with its Croisette where one comes to parade.
Lola Deslys, a young courtesan in a pram, elegant canary- yellow horse-drawn carriage.
Miss Gabriela Fletcher, a black dressed lady, cigarillo smoker in secret.
And Maupassant, a writer famous in 1884 for having already written La Maison Tellier, and Boule de Suif, but not yet Bel-Ami, a “Hivernant” like any other, as Cannes visitors at that time were called.
Lola, daughter of Italian emigrants, will hire Gabriella Fletcher of Ramsey as her governess. She needs her knowledge to rise to another social level.
Miss Fletcher is on the verge of suicide. She has just experienced a cruel breakup in love, she is alone, she has no money, no job. The hand given to her by Lola, even though it drives her a little more into her own social demotion, is providential.
This third character, Guy de Maupassant, what a jubilation it was for me to imagine him wandering the streets of Cannes and meeting the fate of these two heroines I had created!
Leaving a party in a palace – the one that would become the Majestic, and which at the time was the Beau Rivage – our friends will discover in the bushes of the park, by the sea, the inanimate body of a young maid of the hotel, Clara Campo. She was a childhood friend of Lola’s, lost to her. She had been trying to reach her in the last few days and Lola had not found the time to answer her, negligently.
How did Clara Campo die? And why did this happen?
Will Lola succeed in avenging her friend’s memory and shutting her remorse in this city where everything is always done not to disturb the apparent sweetness, the parties and the ostentatious luxury? So as not to disturb the lives of the powerful, always there in their entirety and on time every winter?
I dived with delight into the carriages, the parasols and the gas streetlamps.
For a whole year, as I started dreaming about my characters and my story, it was in an altered state that I walked around, nose up, in my city. Before my eyes transpired the old streets, the small trades, the horse-drawn carriages and the long dresses, while the modern buildings disappeared. All this to give you this novel.
My dearest wish is that it makes you dream as much as I did and still do, that it enchants you, that it brings you a jubilant escape.
That for the time of a story, you may share the life of the Hivernants, not only on the Croisette, but also behind the scenes.
The crumpled Letter,
5 – The courtesan, the declassed and the writer,
The Crumpled Letter, three characters in search of identity.
Here we are, in the heart of the novel The Crumpled Letter.
For it is through the characters that a novel comes to life. Lola Deslys, Miss Fletcher and Maupassant.
They are the ones who first appeared to me and influenced situations and intrigue.
I looked for a way to present them to you and I simply had to go back in time to do so. They are so real to me, although two of them are characters of pure fiction and the third, a renowned writer, lived from 1850 to 1893, that I fantasized their police record.
As you may know, the Third Republic’s police had an extremely dense surveillance network. Anyone who had anything to do with morals was particularly in their line of sight. The small town of Cannes, which doubled or even tripled in population during the winter, receiving on its magical shore the crowned heads of all Europe, needed a very effective intelligence service to avoid any attacks, numerous at the time, and to protect this great population.
That is why it was not difficult for me to extrapolate and create their police record.
I imagined that Lola Deslys, because of her situation as a promiscuous woman, had been in their cards since she was very young; that Miss Fletcher, because of the rumour about her sexual inclinations, or about a suspicion of theft after her dismissal, had also been written down despite her belonging to a more shielded world.
And Maupassant, it is no secret to anyone, frequented brothels and led a debauched life from a very young age. I extrapolated and guessed that the police were also watching him despite his notoriety. As a matter of fact, there is no police record on Maupassant.
The handwritten notes you can read on the cards of my characters are in keeping with the style found on the real ones of the time. See the exhibition “Fichés ? Photographie et identification du Second Empire aux années 60”, organized at the Archives nationales, and resumed in a virtual exhibition on the Criminocorpus website.
Lola Deslys, born on the miserable hillsides of Suquet, is a pure local child.
The vicissitudes of life led her to prostitution and made her a courtesan.
The place is appropriate for such matter, especially in winter, with all these wealthy and well-meaning gentlemen towards the comely girls.
To keep her lifestyle afloat, not to become encarted, while rising culturally and socially, Lola needs, in addition to her natural charms, a good dose of courage and intelligence.
This is how she came up with the idea of putting an ad to hire a housekeeper, whom she expected to teach her some essential rules of good manners, some rudiments of culture, and while she’s at it to keep her accounts.
Miss Fletcher enters the scene.
Miss Gabriella Fletcher of Ramsey has just lost her job as a tutor to Lady Sarah Clarence‘s children. This great lady was also her great love.
This financial decline, accompanied by immense heartache, brought her to the brink taking her own life.
Accepting a place with a woman of little virtue is but social suicide… It’s exactly what’s needed to drown, body and soul…
She doesn’t know how much her meeting with Lola Deslys will change her life…
The man of letters, Guy de Maupassant, interferes between these two singular women.
Known as a great swinger, curious about everything, a fine observer of the human soul; the unusual association of these two women with a strong character, the courtesan and the governess, will intrigue, amuse and then definitively win over Guy de Maupassant.
He feels a sensual attraction towards Miss Fletcher, troubled by the feeling of her inaccessibility.
When the murder of one of Lola’s childhood friend comes to darken their festive activities and teasing, they will strive to restore justice.
The crumpled Letter,
6 – The crumpled Letter, why Cannes ?
If I chose Cannes as the setting for the action of the novel, besides the fact it is the city where I live, that is because its situation at the dawn of the Belle Époque was particularly surprising.
Cannes before 1835 was for a long time a small, banal Provençal town with a very diverse population. One third of the activities were directed towards the sea and port ships, despite the poorly protected harbour; another third towards agriculture; the remainder was devoted to crafts. Access by road was difficult. There was only one inn.
In the 1830s Lord Brougham fell in love with the town and built a villa, thus launching the city of Cannes as a fashionable resort for the entire English aristocracy. Following him, the entire High Society of Europe became enamoured of Cannes.
We call them the Hivernants (Winter visitors). They don’t just visit Cannes as tourists would, but they settle there during the long winter months.
Indeed, it as out of the question to come to Cannes in summer. It’s way too hot! It must be said that women’s fashion was also not of the best utility considering the climate. This was no thinking matter, especially not for the ladies!
Born in 1889, Cocteau attended a lunch shared by two courtesans. Transfixed, he talked about the scene in warlike fashion: “Armour, breastplates, corsets, pearl collars. At the table, it was no small matter. Escutcheon, cuirasses, sheaths, bones, scabbards, shoulder pads, shin guards, cuissards, gauntlets, corselets, pearl halters, feather shields, satin, velvet and gem harnesses, chainmail, they are knights bristling with tulle, sacred beetles armed with asparagus tongs, samurai of sable and ermine, pleasure cuirassiers that harnessed and caparisoned from the dawn of robust soubrettes.” You can’t come in the summer with all that clothing! Men were no better off in suits, ties and fake collars.
These rich Hivernants had magnificent villas built which were opened in the first days of autumn and closed by covering the furniture with covers in spring, when they return to live the “Season” in Paris, London or Moscow. It’s an endless series of dinners, parties, concerts and masked balls.
Masked ball given by Baron Lycklama in Cannes
This regular migration of European nobles, the most powerful and influential politicians, brang with it the best of artists, painters, writers and musicians.
Of course, the “demimonde” (courtesans, actresses, singers, dancers, prostitutes) followed and launched fashions, in a scandalous parallel life.
In short, the elite was there every winter.
The people of the servants follow those to be served, for one does not move without them.
The local population of Cannes found an advantageous prospect there. These newcomers were demanding and spent without counting. They needed servants and craftsmen. Florists, perfumers, cooks, pastry chefs, caterers, fashion designers, seamstresses, lace makers, washerwomen, carriage hire companies or jewellers. They wanted delicatessen, great wines, great cafés, restaurants, tea rooms, or ice-cream parlours. Hotels first, then palaces as well as boarding houses will proliferate.
The times were troubled and difficult from a social and political point of view and one can imagine an underground world of crooks and thieves, but also of spies slipping into the shadow of the crowned heads who moved. This implies some police officers specialized in state security to protect prominent personalities.
The Cannes police had to settle the cases of morals, thefts and possible attacks, not to mention the many beggars.
I took such a pleasure in immersing myself in the old maps of Cannes and the details of the city life in 1884, that I cannot resist the desire to communicate to readers some elements that fascinated me.
If you liked The Crumpled Letter, and if one day you visit Cannes, or even if you already knew the city, it will perhaps amuse you to discover them or to walk in the footsteps of Lola Deslys.
In 1856, the city had only three inns; in 1862, there were seven. But in 1863, everything will accelerate with the arrival of the train and the construction of the station of Cannes.
Cannes then became, in the 1880s, this fairytale city lined with palaces and small castles, frequented by the greats.
What Hivernants like is that they can meet among themselves, sure that they will be quiet and protected in this enclosed place. The socialites in search of festive distractions in an enchanting landscape rub shoulders with many rich pulmonaries looking for a beneficial climate conducive to healing.
PLAN of Cannes in 1884, adjusted to the novel The Crumpled Letter
Let’s start with Lola’s house.
I wanted for her a house that was neither too sumptuous nor too expensive. It had to still exist when I was writing the story, so that I could be inspired by it, contemplate it, imagine Lola, Miss Fletcher and Maupassant passing through its gate and leaning over to the balcony.
For a long time I went to and fro Cannes, creating possible walking routes for Lola: how would she get to the theatre, the hotel, the old town to see her mother, Maupassant, etc.? This is how I understood that the station would have an essential strategic position. It was here that the rich and influential men arrived and departed and it was essential that she be able to follow the train traffic and observe the comings and goings of the Hivernants as announced in the local newspaper.
This came at a very good time, since the district just above Cannes station had just been revealed to itself in 1883 by an unprecedented real estate operation in the small town: the construction of boulevard de la Foncière, now boulevard Carnot.
Houses, buildings, streets and boulevards were erected at incredible speed. New, trendy, electrified neighbourhood; exactly where Lola would have liked her Eugene to have built her house.
While walking there one day, I noticed a house whose name was displayed: Les Pavots (The Poppies).
The house still exists.
It took me a little imagination to see it as it was then, surrounded by fields, orchards, orange trees, laurels or olive trees… An isolated house like this one always had, in principle, a vegetable garden, a pond for water retention, a shed for the horses. I like to imagine her with some chickens pecking in the back and a yard to hang the clothes not far from the logs stored under a canopy for the winter.
watercolour by Agnès de Bolladière
It may have been built a few years after 1884, but in any case, it has all the characteristics of the cottage fashion that was built in Cannes during the last quarter of the 19th century. Maupassant’s last place of residence in Cannes, in 1892, the chalet de l’Isère, was built in the same style. It too still exists, and it is currently a charming little hotel.
So I fell in love with this pretty house, Les Pavots, which you can still see, now stuck between other buildings, at the corner of Avenue Saint-Nicolas and Rue Marius Aune. Its dimensions seemed perfect, allowing Lola to spread her wings. From Les Pavots, Lola can walk anywhere in Cannes.
The house has an ideal view over the train station and is next to the Hotel Central, a very recent palace at the time. This palace was ceded to the city and in 1934 it was transformed into a school: Bristol High School.
Lola, in the novel, will meet there the Prince of Wales, “Bertie”, lodged incognito, who will later become King Edward VII of England. The orphanage Notre-Dame du Sacré-Cœur was located nearby, right next to the Society of Helpers establishment. Two congregations that the Cannes people sometimes confuse because of their proximity.
You would look for it in vain because it was completely razed, even if the name of rue de l’orphelinat continues to testify to its past existence. It has become what the people of Cannes call “le foyer Mimont” – the home of the young people of Provence. This orphanage was the scene of these unexplained deaths of little girls during the winter of 1884, deaths still not elucidated to this day and never mentioned in the newspapers of the time. I found the trace of this tragedy in the municipal archives, through health inspections and exchanges of letters between the Duchess of Vallombrosa, President of the Patronesses, Drs Buttura and Gimbert and other personalities alarmed by the situation. Orphan girls counted for nothing. But the fear of a cholera epidemic looming in the spring of 1884 forced the authorities to inspect the Sacré-Cœur.
I would have loved to locate the action of my novel in the Carlton, mythical palace of Cannes, but it did not exist yet in 1884! The Beau Rivage hotel was one of the first on the Croisette.
First a casino, in 1863 – date of the birth of Lola and the arrival of the train in Cannes -, with the appearance of a Gothic castle because the British loved this style, it became in 1867 the Beau Rivage hotel.
Luxuriously decorated, it offered over a hundred rooms, superb reading rooms, a smoking room, a library. In 1882, two years before our adventure, the founder of the Paris City Hall Bazaar, Xavier Ruel, bought it and renovated it. That is why you see in the novel it enjoys bathrooms with running water and hydraulic elevators. The Beau Rivage hotel has since been transformed into the Majestic hotel, the flagship of Cannes hotels.
 Xavier Ruel, son of a small tanner, placed as an apprentice at a weaver in Lyon who mistreated him, escaped and a few years later launched into the business by hiring a score of peddlers who sold on the sidewalk in Paris at the site of the future Bazaar of the Town Hall. If he came to Cannes, it was because of the illness of his daughter Louise, who died there of phtisis. He lived in Villa Daigremont, which later became Capron College. I spent years between the walls of this villa since I was a resident there.
The building of the Grand Théâtre of rue d’Antibes, where Lola will be performing, still offers us its bas-reliefs of tragic masks on its façade. It is in the middle of the track, just opposite the beginning of the boulevard de la République.
That’s how I spotted it at 102 rue d’Antibes.
Siegl Jewellery plays a role in the novel, allowing Lola Deslys to wear real jewellery during her performance at the Theatre. I cannot tell you more by fear of spoiling the plot.
Paolo Siegl, who came from Florence where he had learned the jewellery trade on Ponte Vecchio, opened his jewellery shop in 1880 in the rue d’Antibes, on the site of the current number 104, right next to the large Theatre in the rue d’Antibes. His sisters, fashion designers, will also create hats in the shop. His son, Démophile, was born in the back shop, rue du Bivouac.
Because the jewellery moved several times, in 1884 in rue du Bivouac, nowadays rue Bivouac-Napoléon, then after a passage on the Gambetta place, the brand will be find at 54 rue d’Antibes in 1931. The grandson, Roger, has taken up the torch, and has passed it on to his own son Jean-Marc. It was the place where the elite came to shop. Personalities from the greats and the demi-monde, princes and dukes, the Emperor of Annam and Liane de Pougy marched there. Churchill made some purchases here as well, Picasso also or more recently Bruce Willis.
When I was writing the novel, jewelery still existed. Now it is closing.
If you want to buy a Siegl jewelry, it will now go on the web! http://siegl1880.com/
Rue Bossu, located not very far, is currently called rue des Belges.
On the current place de Gaulle, then called place des Îles, a space housed boats under construction or under refit. It was the Cannes shipyard. You will still find above some doors of the district bas-reliefs representing merchant sailing ships. This place was strategic, between the Allées, the Navy and the Croisette, with its first palaces. It was loud, smelly, and popular. The site, of course, bothered the Hivernants, and it was moved in the years that followed.
The perfumery of L’île Notre-Dame did exist.
It was specifically a distillery of orange blossom water that Louis Hermann had created and installed near the brook of Foux, just before he threw himself into the sea. Hermann then began to cover the river with a street to which he would give his name before it became, at the end of the Great War, the rue des Etats-Unis. His first name sounded too Germanic, whereas Hermann was actually Alsatian.
The street of Châteaudun left as only trace the passage Châteaudun, because the street Jean Jaurès replaced it. It was a pretty crowded place, with hovels, a pissoir and brothels.
Rue du Redan, where Maupassant rented an apartment in 1884, became rue Dollfus.
On the other hand, you will always see the Forville market in the same place.
Even if it has changed its appearance, it has remained a real market with farmers who sell their seasonal vegetables, where it is good to stroll especially on Sunday morning.
The town hall, too, is still the same.
It was built in 1876, in front of the quay Saint-Pierre. It housed a library, the main police station, the Post Office and the Telegraphs.
Le Suquet, sometimes called “Mont Chevalier” – the name of the Mont Chevalier School bears witness to this – is still there, offering the face of the old city and its many small typical restaurants.
In the castle overlooking this medieval complex, the Castre Museum was created. The fortress itself deserves to be moved. It belonged to the abbots of Lérins, lords of the region.
Damaged at the end of the 16th century, it was partially destroyed in the 18th century and sold as national property during the Revolution to the Hibert family. In 1878, it was rented to a ceramic factory, the pottery works of Mont Chevalier. In my novel, Clara Campo was trained as a domestic servant with the Hibert family when she left school at around eleven, before working at the earthenware factory as a teenager.
The school of Ferrage is that of Lola and Clara. It was demolished in 1987 before being replaced by the town hall.
Everyone knows the famous boulevard de la Croisette but you should know that at the time, it did not continue as far as Pointe Croisette, now called “le Palm Beach”. It turned there into a rocky path not always passable. From there, it was an area of marshes, brush and rocks, with an attraction at the very end: a pigeon shooting. This is where Miss Fletcher is trying to kill herself.
The restaurant La Réserve, approximately at the site of the current Canto harbour, signalled its approximate end.
What I call “la Marine” or “les Allées” in the novel, corresponds to the current Allées des Libertés, where the Splendid hotel, the bandstand and the statue of Lord Brougham already existed:
Miss Fletcher faces the Countess of Orcel on the tennis court of the Beau-Site Hotel:
First tennis court in Cannes, created in the park of the Beau-Site hotel by the Renshaw brothers.
It was the first clay court in the world. Invented in 1874, lawn tennis was originally designed for English grass. Two British champions, the Renshaw brothers, train and set up courts in the park of the Hotel Beau Site near the Villa Éléonore. As the dry climate of the Côte d’Azur used up the grass too quickly, the Renshaw imagined then in 1880 to cover these courts with a protective layer. They will use the grinding of the defective terracotta pots, a red powder, from the nearby town of Vallauris. That’s how clay courts were born.
 The Villa Éléonore is the first English villa in Cannes, built by Lord Brougham in honour of his daughter who died of phtisia.
These are the main places in the novel. I’m forcing myself to stop because I could talk about the transformation of the city, its ghosts, its remains, for hours.
But what if we measured the characters with this ell? Characters, places… and ghosts, right? I happily mixed fictional and real characters in my story. I haven’t written about this diversity yet, I’ll do it for the release of the second volume, maybe?
I will only mention here those who left traces in the city, so that you can find them, at random of your strolls in Cannes. For some continue to speak to us through the names of villas, streets or boulevards.
The castle of the Duchess of Vallombrosa is still there, with its park, at 6 avenue Jean de Noailles.
The good doctor Buttura owns a street in the centre of Cannes where one finds the premises of the family allowance fund.
The mayor of the period of the novel, Gazagnaire, who was also a notary, he lived in the very elegant Pavillon des Roses, not far from the theatre of the Rue d’Antibes. This building is still in situ, 2 rue des Mimosas, which is strange for a Pavillon des Roses!
And let us not forget the famous Prince of Wales, eldest son of Queen Victoria, future King Edward VII. He loved Cannes so much – where he could commit his escapades by staying away from his mother, who went down to Nice instead – that he left us the tradition of royal regattas as a gift. He also sowed his name everywhere: avenue prince de Galles, hotel prince de Galles, residence prince de Galles and even the Albert-Edouard pier which was created in his honour. Unfortunately, its statue, built in 1912, was destroyed during the occupation through the Second World War by collaborationist groups.
My third character really existed, you all know him. Maupassant, the writer. He imposed the dates of the novel on me, because of his presence in history I had to make the action hold during his attested visit to Cannes.
Over the winters, he has lived in different places, sometimes rented all year round.
He would sometimes stay aboard his elegant cutter.
His last stay in Cannes, dramatic, took place at the end of 1891, until January 5, 1892 at the Chalet de l’Isère, 42 avenue de Grasse.
Believe it or not, Maupassant whispered me everything about him, and his presence over my shoulder when I was writing was comforting to me. You must doubt my reason, but no, I assure you, he was there.
When my cat once in a while stared at an empty spot in the room next to me while I was writing, I knew he was seeing him. The man of letters came to visit me and check that I don’t write too much nonsense about him!
He loved Cannes and the Mediterranean, the colours, the smells, the flowers. I can no longer observe the old buildings of Cannes and especially the façades of the Old Port without thinking that his gaze has also landed on them.
It was on these shores that he lived his last moments of freedom. This is what he wrote in 1888, aboard his boat:
“… I feel within me the intoxication of being alone, the sweet drunkenness of rest that nothing will disturb, neither the white letter, nor the blue dispatch, nor the timber of my door, nor the barking of my dog. They cannot call me, invite me, take me away, oppress me with smiles, harass me with politeness. I’m alone, really alone, really free. She’s running, the train smoke on the shore! I float in a winged dwelling that sways, pretty as a bird, small as a nest, softer than a hammock and wanders on the water, at the whim of the wind, without holding on to anything.”
The crumpled Letter,
7 – Maupassant’s shadow in Cannes
« I saw water, sun, clouds and rocks – I cannot tell anything else –
and I thought simply, as you think when the waves lulls you,
numbs you and takes you for a walk »
Maupassant, « Sur l’eau » 1888
« I feel good only on the water ». Guy de Maupassant, letter to Princess Potocka.
Maupassant in Cannes? Maupassant, isn’t he a Norman author? Fécamp, Étretat? Rouen? What about canoeing on the Seine? And Paris, the great boulevards, the theatres, the ministries, the political, financial, journalistic circles, as we see them so well in his novel Bel Ami?
Certainly! And yet, remember that short passage in Bel Ami where Forestier comes to die of tuberculosis in the south. It takes place in Cannes, on a hill.
Maupassant first discovered the Mediterranean through Corsica (also seen in Une vie – the honeymoon) and appreciated its colours, light, soft wilderness and warmth.
Maupassant suffered from various physical miseries. All because of syphilis, without knowing it. The hidden consequences of this disease were suspected by some scientists, and ignored by most.
Anyway, he’s looking for the sun.
At the end of 1883, he really discovered Cannes. In winter, the small town combines both the provincial and quiet life he sought, and the Parisian worldliness, essential to maintain its literary advertising. Everybody’s here. It goes well beyond Paris, moreover, the European upper class was all over it.
Barons, counts, marquises and dukes. Princes and kings sometimes misplaced their crowns. And their wives. And their mistresses.
« An aristocratic enclave in the Third Republic, in a Europe that still had few republics! »
At once taciturn, fierce, in love with solitude and jealous of his quietude, which are necessary for him to write, Maupassant also liked to show himself to the World. Recognition he seeks and flees at the same time.
He followed the fashion of the Hivernants and also came for the winters. Very quickly, he fell in love with what he saw as a small operetta town sitting like a creamy dessert on sparkling water.
More than any other, he detected the contradictions, the pain and the vibrant death under the festive and luxurious appearance.
He doesn’t care about the aristocrats, but wasn’t he also their victim?
He therefore came regularly to Cannes from 1884 until January 1892, one year before his death. And his last house as a free man, before being locked up, before going mad, is in Cannes, at the Chalet de l’Isère.
Maupassant’s love for the Côte d’Azur is inseparable from his love for the liquid element. Because in Cannes, there’s water! The sea! This element is indispensable for him. Maupassant is a sailor at heart. Very early he aspires to have his boat, and when a boarder as a teenager, he only supported the situation thanks to his dream to buy a boat for his holidays in Normandy.
He will have several in his short life, boats and skiffs, and he will canoe on the Seine with his friends and “girls”. He even put a caloge in the middle of his garden in his villa la Guillette, in Étretat.
la Guillette, in Étretat,
a « caloge »
A caloge is an old fishing boat, a caïque, which, disarmed and put upside down, is transformed into a house. It will serve as accommodation for his valet François Tassart, who will appreciate only moderately. But from Maupassant, it is an honor to live in the caloge.
I searched the places, the houses, where Maupassant lived in Cannes, for the exact locations.
1 rue du Redan, was located on rue Dollfus;
the pension Mon Plaisir, on boulevard d’Alsace;
the Villa Continentale, whose entrance is from the back at 5 rue du Lac, is not to be confused with the Hotel Continental, a huge building that he did not live in;
he even slept at the Hotel Splendid, which is still there on the Allées.
hôtel pension Marie Louise
Chalet de l’Isère
But how could he live in Cannes without a boat?
He had three ships in all, moored in turn at the Port of Cannes, which was not yet called the Vieux Port.
He began in 1884 by buying a large rigged boat named La Louisette, and he added the services of a sailor named Galicia, because if he knew sailing on the Atlantic or English Channel rather well, he quickly understood that the Mediterranean could be misleading and reserve insidious traps for those who underestimated it and considered it a nice junk lake, on the pretext that it had no tides.
Moreover it will reveal its true face to him one day of big swell which starts to fortify. Galicia worried then about the behaviour of the boat in case of heavy weather, and he suggested to his boss to buy a real boat if he wanted to sail further offshore and make real cruises (the term in this sense did not really exist yet, it was still rather synonymous with crusades, but Maupassant invented in a way the pleasure cruise, thanks to his book Sur l’eau.)
Maupassant approved and he heard about the Flamberge, an eleven-metre long, nine-tonne sailboat belonging to a writer friend, Paul Saunière, who had been Dumas’ secretary. Flamberge was the name of the bestseller of a Saunière novel.
It is a small yacht, a “cutter”. Maupassant slow to acquire it, Saunière donated it to the Cercle Nautique de Nice, which made it do some regattas and sold it to a ruined gambler, the Count of Lagrange. He got tired of it and left it abandoned for a while at the Ardouin shipyard in Antibes. It is under the name of the Audacieux that Maupassant finally found it, recovered it and renamed it Bel Ami.
He bought it for 1,800 francs. Its hull was tapered and its sails wide. Eight people could be on board even though there were only four berths for passengers. Two experienced sailors formed its crew, Bernard and Raymond. They were recommended by Muterse, friend of Maupassant, in love with the sea, like him.
Maupassant was full of pride every time he gets on board. The teak deck, the solid rigging, the copper bar, he paid for everything with his copyrights. This magnificent sailboat was the symbol of his literary success, his childhood dream reached.
Maupassant enjoyed these moments of solitude until he got drunk. He liked to fly like a bird between sky and water. He tasted the freedom and harmony of the waves and the wind.
It docked in all the ports on the coast: Villefranche, Nice, Antibes, Cannes, Saint-Tropez, Marseille, sometimes Portofino…
It is on this sailboat that Maupassant made this famous cruise from which he wrote, a mixture of anecdotes, diary and intimate reflections, Sur l’eau.
The painter Riou made of this some beautiful etchings.
Le Bel-Ami I.
Maupassant’s tragic destiny did not stop with his person but also with his possessions, his house, his boats. When he died, all the furniture decorating his villa was sold at auction, scattered to the four winds. The villa itself was proposed several times to the town hall of Étretat which at each occasion did not follow “for lack of budget”.
In April 2014, the AFP published this wire: “About fifteen pieces from Guy de Maupassant’s sailboat, the “Bel-Ami”, will be sold at auction on Saturday in Pau, we learned on Thursday from the auctioneer in charge of the sale. The lot put up for sale consists of photographs, furniture, navigation objects – lanterns, water barrel, copper bar, buoy, lamp – from the 11-metre wooden sailboat that the Norman writer, passionate about sailing, had bought in 1886, following the success of his novel Bel-Ami (1885). The “square mahogany table” where Maupassant worked on board is also part of the sale. Some of the pieces were described in the 1888 autobiography Sur l’eau. The sale comes from the personal collection of a resident of Gironde, who holds it from his ancestors, who bought the sailboat in 1895 from a Bordeaux wine merchant. Maupassant had sold it to him a few years before finding it too small. He later acquired another sailboat, 15 metres long, which he also called “Bel-Ami”. Some objects from the first “Bel-Ami”, condemned to be demolished in 1904 at the Libourne arsenal, had been saved. The auctioneer indicated to have proposed to the town hall of Étretat (Seine-Maritime), where Maupassant lived (1850-1893), that it buy back the objects, but, for lack of budget, the Norman town hall will not be able to follow the auctions, they specified.”
It is one of the miseries of the town hall of Étretat. They never have enough money for Maupassant. I find it hard to believe that there’s not a single patron somewhere in the world ready to help the town hall of Étretat to turn the Villa La Guillette into a museum where one could visit the surviving objects of the “Bel-Ami”… (among other Maupassantian archives)
In 1888, Maupassant, who wanted a bigger boat, bought La Zingara in Marseille.
It is a beautiful yacht of 15 meters and 13 barrels, built in 1879 in England. With it he will make a trip to Italy from which he will write La vie errante. The Bel-Ami II was an excellent ship and a good walker. It was arranged with all comfort, especially for entertaining friends for dinner. There was a cabin forming a lounge, and a dining room for ten people, surrounded by couches that could serve as bunks. There was also a small cabin that was Maupassant’s bedroom, containing just one berth in a small space. In the evening, in the corridor leading to the kitchen, two hammocks were raised where Raymond and Bernard slept. This is how Maupassant talks about it in La Vie errante: “It’s a twenty-ton boat all white, with an imperceptible golden thread that runs around it like a thin cord on a swan’s side. Its fine new canvas sails, under the August sun that throws flames on the water, look like silver silk wings unfurled in the blue sky. Its three jibs fly forward, light triangles that round off the breath of the wind, and the big foresail is soft, under the sharp arrow that rises, eighteen metres above the bridge, its point shining through the sky. Everything at the back, the last sail, the mizzen, seems to be sleeping.”
He made his last sea trip to Cannes on December 27, 1891. Of course, he didn’t know that. His sailor though he was having trouble moving. A few days later, in the first days of January, 1892, he apparently attempted suicide and was taken in a straightjacket by train, accompanied by François, his valet, and a nurse, to Dr. Blanche’s clinic in Auteuil.
« I saw water, sun, clouds and rocks – I cannot tell anything else – and I thought simply,
as you think when the waves lulls you, numbs you and takes you for a walk »
Maupassant, « Sur l’eau » 1888
This article is not finished…