One of the first feminists, Olympe de Gouges, began her life in 1748 when she born Marie Gouze in Montauban, Quercy in southwest France. Her mother was Olympe Mouisset and her legal father, Pierre Gouze, was a butcher, but she claimed to be the illegitimate daughter of Jean-Jacques Lefranc, Marquis de Pompignan. She was forced in 1765 to marry a man she felt great repugnance for and did not love. He was a caterer and minor official named Louis Aubry. In 1767, around the time he died, she moved with her son, Pierre, to Paris where her sister Jeanne was living.
Whether the name Gouges was a variant spelling or not is unclear. However, what is clear is that Jeanne sometimes signed her name Gouges, and Olympe also adopted Gouges as her surname instead of taking her father’s or husband’s last name. As a single woman intent on surviving in Paris alone, her own surname helped her to establish her independence and identity. Continue reading →
Francis (François in French) Tussaud was Madame Tussaud‘s son. He was born to her and her husband François on a Saturday, 2 August 1800. Two years later, Madame Tussaud decided to promote her waxworks in England, and she left her son Francis behind in the care of her husband, mother, and aunt, and took her 4-year-old son, Joseph, with her. Madame Tussaud eventually broke it off with her husband but continued to write to Francis, her mother, and her aunt from England.
Francis grew into a young man who had a strong desire to be an architect. However, his father must have thought otherwise because he obtained an apprenticeship for him with a grocer. The apprenticeship proved costly, and once François discovered this, he then found an apprenticeship for his son with a billiard table builder. For a time, Francis unhappily pursued that career, and, perhaps, that is why he finally joined his mother and brother in England. Continue reading →
One famous French beauty and socialite was Juliette Récamier or Madame Récamier. She was known to hobnob regularly with aristocrats and the elite, and one day, in 1803, when she was hosting and mingling, a rather interesting incident occurred. It involved Jean March Gaspard Itard. He was a French physician at the National Institution for the Deaf and Dumb and he had been accompanied to Madame Récamier’s by a feral boy* whose case he had taken up and whom he named Victor of Aveyron.
The story of Victor begins when he was first spotted by woodsmen near Saint-Sernin-sur-Rance in the commune of Aveyron as early as 1794. Periodically, between 1797 and 1798, Victor was again seen. Stories differ as to whether he emerged from the forest on his own or whether woodsmen captured him with their nets. However, once he emerged from the woods, he stayed with numerous people, although he also ran away regularly and was recaptured. Continue reading →
After Charlotte Corday’s execution for assassinating Jacques-Jean Marat, her body and guillotined head were said to have been buried in Ditch No. 5 of the cemetery of the Madeleine on rue Anjou Saint-Honore in Paris. Ditch No. 4 held the body of Louis XVI, and Ditch No. 6 would be readied shortly for Marie Antoinette and Philippe Egalite. However, that was not the end of the story, as years later Corday’s skull allegedly appeared in the possession of Prince Roland Bonaparte, grandson of Napoleon Bonaparte’s brother, Lucien.
The neighborhood where Corday was buried was supposedly “infected by the putrefaction of the bodies buried there,” and because of that the cemetery was closed sometime after 1794. Around that same time a Monsieur Descloseaux bought the cemetery. Most of the bodies were moved, and the cemetery transformed into a pleasure garden. However, Corday’s body supposedly remained there, and, in 1804, Descloseaux claims he added a cross to mark the spot of her grave. Continue reading →
Jean-Louis François Pinet’s career as shoemaker began almost from birth. He was born on 19 July 1817 in Chateau la Vallière commune to a shoemaker from whom he learned the trade. When his father died in 1830, Pinet went to live in the home of a master shoemaker, and, by age sixteen, he was working in Tours earning five francs a week. A few years later, in 1836, he was a declared an accredited journeyman shoemaker (compagnon cordonnier bottier du devoir).
During these early years, Pinet worked hard. He also saved his money and purchased his own tools so that he could become an independent shoemaker with his own atelier. He then left Tours for Bordeaux and then moved from Bordeaux to Marseilles, where he was appointed head of the Société des Compagnons Cordonniers (Workers’Association of Shoemaker Companions). However, by 1844, Pinet had settled in Paris. Continue reading →
In 1733, love came knocking at Voltaire’s door in the form of Émilie du Châtelet, the intelligent daughter of Louis Nicolas le Tonnelier de Breteuil. Through an arranged marriage, she had become the wife of an army man named Marquis Florent-Claude du Châstellet-Lomont. The Marquis was frequently absent and considered dull, formal, and cold. In comparison to her husband’s dullness, formality, and coldness, Émilie was dramatically passionate, and the first time she fell head-over-heels in love it was not with her husband. Instead, she was smitten by a French Don Juan named the Count of Guébriant, who unfortunately thought of her as one more notch on his bedpost. Continue reading →
On 20 July 1799, Joseph Fouché, 1st Duke of Otranto (1st Duc d’Otrante) became the first Minister of Police, but he had not started out to be the head of Napoleon’s security. He was born in a small village near Nantes known as Le Pellerin and was schooled at the college of the Oratorians, a Roman Catholic Society of apostolic life of Catholic priests that was founded in 1611. Eventually, he transferred to Arras and in 1789 began studying for the priesthood when he encountered Maximilien Robespierre, who would go on to become one of the best-known figures of the French Revolution, and their meeting resulted in Fouché becoming a Jacobin. Thus, when the college of the Oratorians dissolved in May of 1792, he gave up the church having never taken his vows. A few months later, soon after the Tuileries was stormed on 10 August, he was elected a deputy in the National Convention and was one of the deputies who voted for the immediate death of Louis XVI. Continue reading →
The French Sherlock Holmes, detective Eugène François Vidocq, was born on the 24 July 1775* in Arras in the Pas de Calais, Nord, France. He was the third child of a baker named Nicolas Joseph François Vidocq and his wife Henriette Françoise Dion. Vidocq earned the nickname le Vautrin (“wild boar”), and this was the same name that the French author Honoré de Balzac later used for a fictional character based on Vidocq in his La Comédie humaine series. Moreover, the famous writer Victor Hugo based two characters from his book titled “Les Miserables” on Vidocq – both Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert. If being immortalized by two famous writers was not enough, Vidocq earned the nickname “French Thief Taker,” a name similar to that used by London’s Jonathan Wild, a notable crime figure who was called the “Thief Taker General” and who operated on both sides of the law in the late 1600s and early 1700s. Continue reading →
Napoleon was an avid theatre goer who went to the theatre weekly and sometimes saw plays more than once. For instance, he saw the tragedy Cinna twelve times. He also had a favorite actor, François-Joseph Talma. The two men met while Napoleon was a general and forged a friendship. However, initially, their friendship consisted of Napoleon, Talma, and a third gentleman sharing ghost stories and tales about old castles.
Over time Napoleon and Talma’s relationship became closer. Part of the reason their friendship developed was that Talma appeared to be the theatrical personification of Napoleon and he taught Napoleon about the theatre. Napoleon in turn, supported Talma and brought him into his inner circle after he became First Consul. One insight into the relationship between Talma and Napoleon follows: Continue reading →
One of the most popular silhouette artists of the 19th century was a Frenchman named Auguste Armand Constant Fidele Edouart. Supposedly, he got his start one night while visiting a family. They showed him some silhouettes produced by a machine and he condemned them. The family challenged him to do better, and he took up the challenge “seized upon a pair of scissors and the cover of a letter, and putting the father in position, ‘in an instant … produced a likeness.’” He also did the mother’s likeness, and his natural skills were so outstanding, his career as a silhouette artist began that very night.
Edouart was born in Dunkerque in 1789 and left France in 1814 heading for England. Prior to his career as a silhouette artist, he supported himself and his family in what he called mosaic hair work that involved creating images from various shades of hair. The work was painstakingly slow and tedious, and according to one person when describing a mosaic hair work man-of-war: Continue reading →