vendredi 2 avril 2010

The woman in a bonnet

Et les soeurs institutrices de Dieppe

I knew there had to be a clue somewhere in the room, something that would tell me when the addition on the old house was built, and yesterday, I found it. Not that I was looking or anything. I was up on my ladder, merely tearing away the rest of what is in the way of the sheetrock we will install on the underside of the staircase up to the third bedroom at this end of the house. It was also the opportunity to clean out the old dust and cobwebs, and discover any problems that might be hidden under those thin boards.

I pried off the first one, let it fall between the ladder and the sawing table and sawhorses supporting the largest segment of the small balcony, and attacked the second board. It was more stubborn. I worked at loosening the grip of the nails, holding it to the carriage of the staircase, until I could pull it away in one piece rather than a few dozen splinters. Up on my ladder again, I grasped it in my two hands and pulled downwards. It gave way, hanging, still attached by the lowest set of nails, and I realized that a pair of blue eyes below the brim of an old-fashioned summer bonnet were gazing at me.

My startle reflex kicked in, and I blinked.

I had already discovered that the stairs themselves were built from sawed up Singer Sewing Machine shipping crates, an example of mid-twentieth century recycling (nothing was allowed to go to waste after the Great War, and it's still true here), and now I was discovering that the second thin board used to cover the underside of the risers and treads was actually the backing to a print of a woman that had probably hung in the house before, no longer interesting to the residents and discarded by then. Were they new occupants, who didn't quite share the taste of the previous owners, or had their tastes simply changed? It occurred to me to look at the first board I had let drop. I started down the stair to turn it over, but I stopped mid-step. The board had fallen with the hidden face up, and I had not even noticed. It was a hand painted sign for the 7th "salon" of "real independents", held from November 1-15, 1934.

I carried it outside and leaned it against the low wall of the entrance steps. Part of it was missing. I found one bit among the various shards of wood scattered around the ladder, and took it out to fit into the sign. A piece was still missing. I found it and carried it and the board with the lady, edged in folded yellowed newspaper out to set against the wall, as well. The second bit fit above the first, part of the field of darker beige. I set them on the wall and squatted in front of the woman in the bonnet, carefully unfolding the newspaper, looking for a date.

There was an article about Lord Halifax, a mention of Argentinian soldiers parading at the base of the Arc de Triomphe, and a photo of the just deceased Russian writer Alexandre Kouprine. All I had to do was Google him to find the date of his death, and I would know the date of the newspaper to within a day, and, most importantly, the year. From the wire dates of the other articles, the paper seemed to be from August 25. According to Wikipedia, Kouprine, dubbed "the Russian Kipling" by Vladimir Nabakov, died in Leningrad August 25, 1938.

Next to his photo, there was a headline of sorts, more literary than newslike:

Près de Dieppe, Un mot d'adieu dans un sac à main,
"Rennée, condamnée par les médecins,
a déclaré vouloir en finir avec la vie.
Moi aussi. Marcelle
Et les deux soeurs institutrices
se jettent sous un train

The train in question was the "rapid" that left Dieppe at 15 h 56 on August 25, carrying passengers arriving from London to Paris.
At the edge of this city, at the train crossing at the avenue de Bréauté, the mechanic Grosvallet [I believe, here there is a small hole from one of the nails holding the board in place under our stairs], who was driving the train, saw on the right of the train, coming from the route de Rouxmesnil, two young women, who, having passed the gate, had already walked 3 meters toward the train tracks. The locomotive was then about 10 meters from the young women.

"I had the impression," said the mechanic, "that one tried at the last moment to resist the other, who pulled her toward the train, and toward death."

The story was continued on page 2, the top of which is missing. At the torn edge, I can piece together that Marcelle and Renée Juë were 25 and 33 years old.
The elder was responsible for the the second class [the eleventh grade] at the Florian school, the younger taught the sixth class [the sixth grade]. This young woman, Renée, blond haired and of sweet disposition, taught her classes until the summer vacation, but she felt exhausted by the "anémie mentale" to which she saw no end. She showed sadness.

In a handbag, M. Le Roux found a piece of paper on which were written these words, "Rennée, condemned by the doctors, has declared to wish to finish with her life. I, as well. Marcelle."

The mother, widow these long years, lives in Neuville-les-Dieppe.

Devoted teachers, Mesdesmoiselles Renée et Marcelle Juë, very well known in Dieppe, where they studied at the School For Young Girls, were held in high regard by the families of their students. Their tragic death has caused tremendous emotion.

Some days later, unless they hoarded newspapers, which I tend to regard as a contemporary malady, people having been much more business-like and tidy in the mid twentieth century, someone folded this page from Le Petit Parisien and affixed it to the edge of the board with the face of the woman in the bonnet, set it in place, and nailed this news of Mlles. Renée and Marcelle Juë, along with the blue eyes, gazing from beneath the broad brim of the old-fashioned bonnet with the matching blue ribbon, leaving them to look upon the underside of our stairs for the next 71 and 1/2 years.

The salon, "Le Salon des Vrais Indépendants", appears to have been a salon for artists, possibly artists wishing to declare themselves even more "independent" than those who had participated in the Salon des Indépendants organized by the Société des Artistes Indépendants founded in the summer of 1894 in Paris by Albert Dubois-Pillet, Odilon Redon, Georges Seurat and Paul Signac, among others, to offer the opportunity for "independent artists" of little fame or fortune to exhibit "sans jury, sans prime" ("No jury nor awards"). The first salon was held in 1928, and I have been able to establish that Spanish painter Francisco Bores exhibited in that first salon, along with Hungarian artist Józsa Járitz, while Gabriel Zendel (whose work you can purchase here on eBay) exhibited there from 1929-1931.

Their offices are given as being at 68, rue d'Assas, near the Luxenbourg Gardens in the 6th arrondissement. From the look of the building presently in this location, I'd say the one that housed their offices no longer exists.

In the mid-1970's, my husband did his prépa studies in math on the rue d'Assas, and in 2010, my son would give his right arm to begin his university studies in law at Assas.

Could this be -- could it be? -- a sign?

(No pun intended.)

God knows I need one. A sign of good augur for my son, that is. If you have been following, you know l'école in France has not been a réussite pour mon fils, to put it mildly.


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