21 February 1846: Marie Duplessis marries Count Edouard de Perrégaux

Marie DuplessisOn this day in 1846 occurred one of the most enigmatic episodes in the brief life of the Parisian courtesan Marie Duplessis  – her marriage to Count Edouard de Perrégaux at the Kensington Register Office in London.

Marie had met Edouard a few years previously, at a masked ball at the Paris Opera House in the rue Le Peletier. Edouard’s grandfather was Jean Frédéric de Perrégaux, a financier who had been made a senator by Napoleon Bonaparte and who became the first regent of the Bank of France. His son, Charles Bernardin, was made a count during the Empire. Edouard had fought in Africa against  Abd-el-Kader, the great opponent of France’s conquest of Algeria, and had acquitted himself very well. Afterwards, however, his conduct deteriorated. He contracted debts, which increased on his return to France. On the death of his father, he found himself with a very large fortune at his disposal. He proceeded to dispose of it as fast as he could, becoming involved in all the high life of Paris. On meeting Marie, Edouard rapidly dropped another courtesan, Alice Ozy, in order to take up with her, installing her in an apartment at 22 rue d’Antin.

As an amant de coeur, Edouard had to put up with his mistress having a roster of paying clients who took up most of her waking hours, with just a few hours at night reserved for him. Unsatisfied with this situation, wanting Marie to himself and to be with her all the time, Edouard rented a house for her in the countryside at Bougival with the intention of freeing her from this daily round of Paris – and from the exigencies of other men. Here for a few weeks the couple enjoyed a pastoral idyll, though they also made regular excursions into Paris to attend the Opéra and to eat at the Café Anglais or the Maison Dorée. Marie was flattered by Edouard’s exclusive passion for her and willing to reciprocate his love as far as she was able and for as long as he was able to continue supporting her. All he wanted to do was keep her happy, and he fell out with his family and friends as Marie continued to dissipate his fortune. It was around this time that Marie began to show signs of illness, coughing blood for the first time.

Then, on their return from a two-month stay in Baden, Edouard realised that he could no longer afford to keep on the house in Bougival. Marie felt she had been deceived as to the extent of Edouard’s fortune, and realised that she again needed to find other protectors to support her way of life. Or, as Romain Vienne puts it:

It was then that she noticed, by the sudden cooling of her sentiments, that she had loved him only superficially, in the intoxication of deceitful hopes; that she had been the dupe of lying appearances, and that she had built her projects on shifting sand.

Edouard did not make a complete break with Marie, but she returned to dispensing her charms elsewhere – including acquiring a wealthy new protector in the shape of the octogenarian Count Gustav Ernst von Stackelberg, a former Russian ambassador to Vienna, who set her up in style at 11 boulevard de la Madeleine.

And then, out of the blue, Marie and Edouard de Perrégaux were married in Kensington on 21 February 1846. Marie had obtained a passport from the Prefecture of Police on 25 January which described her as ‘Mlle Alphonsine Plessis, person of private means, living in Paris at 11, boulevard de la Madeleine’ and provided the following additional details:

22 years old, height one metre 65 centimetres, light brown hair, low forehead, light brown eyebrows, brown eyes, well-made nose, medium-sized mouth, round chin, oval face, ordinary complexion.

On 3 February Marie obtained a visa from the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, and she and Edouard set off for London. The address for both Edouard and Marie is given in the marriage register as 37 Brompton Row, Kensington.

Husband and wife never lived together after this mysterious marriage. It was perfectly regular according to English law, and Edouard could have made it valid for France by having it properly announced according to article 170 of the Civil Code. Instead he abandoned his wife immediately after the wedding and let her return alone to Paris. Marie kept the surname Duplessis but began to use the title of Countess for certain business matters. With the help of a specialist she designed her own coat of arms, using part of the arms of her husband, and had them emblazoned on her carriage, her linen and her silverware.

The rest of Marie Duplessis’s brief and eventful life is recounted in my book, Grandes Horizontales.

18 February 1847: Mary Duplessis’s belongings up for sale

Marie DuplessisOn this day in 1847 an announcement of the sale of the goods of the famed Parisian courtesan, Marie Duplessis, who had died only weeks earlier, appeared in Le Moniteur des Ventes. Viewing commenced at noon on the following Tuesday and the auction took place, in her apartment on the boulevard de la Madeleine, from Wednesday 24 to Saturday 27 February. Much of fashionable Paris attended the sale, fascinated to see the interior of an apartment few would have deigned to enter during the courtesan’s life. Among items up for sale were furniture, including pieces in rosewood and marquetry, wardrobes, beds, tables, dressing tables, armchairs, other chairs, mirrors and a piano by Ignace Pleyel, curios, including clocks and candelabras, clothes, silverware, diamonds, other jewels, curtains, carpets, books, pictures, horses and a carriage and its accoutrements. Despite the pecuniary difficulties she had been in before her death, which had led to her selling or pawning many of her more expensive clothes, Marie left a wardrobe of about 150 articles, including dozens of pieces of lingerie, 27 peignoirs, more than 30 gowns, masses of lace, boas and shawls. She also left a stash of invoices stuffed in a drawer, detailing the myriad purchases she had made over several years from dressmakers, milliners, restaurants, pastrycooks, florists, booksellers and other suppliers.

The sale realised just over 89,000 francs, of which nearly 50,000 went to her creditors, who had been waiting for her to die to claim at least some of what was owing to them.

The brief, turbulent life of Marie Duplessis is recounted in my book, Grandes Horizontales.

5 February 1847: Funeral of Marie Duplessis

Marie DuplessisOn this day in 1847 the funeral of the Parisian courtesan Marie Duplessis took place at the church of the Madeleine, a few hundred yards from Marie’s apartment. The mourners included Tony, the famous supplier of horses to elegant Paris, as well as several prostitutes who had been helped by Marie in the past. The funeral expenses came to 1,354 francs, and it is possible that some of Marie’s erstwhile lovers clubbed together to cover them. Her obsequies may also have benefited from the flowers and decorations provided for a grander ceremony, the other funerals taking place that day at the Madeleine being for the Countess d’Augier, the Count d’Escherny and an old man called Monsieur Ducamp de Bussy, who lived in the same building as Marie. The coffin was followed from the Madeleine to the cemetery of Montmartre by Edouard de Perrégaux, who appeared overcome with remorse.

Marie, who became the prototype of the virtuous courtesan through her portrayal as Marguerite Gautier in the novel by Alexandre Dumas filsLa Dame aux camélias, was only 23 years old at the time of her death. She had been born Alphonsine Plessis on 15 January 1824 in the village of Saint-Germain-de-Clarfeuille near Nonant in Lower Normandy, the younger daughter of a travelling pedlar called Marin Plessis and his wife Marie. In her early teens, her father placed her as an apprentice to a blanchisseuse, which can be loosely translated as ‘laundress’. Such an apprenticeship involved long hours of hard and repetitive physical labour. Emile Zola gave a detailed description of a laundress’s establishment in his novel L’Assommoir, from which it is possible to reconstruct an idea of Alphonsine’s working life at this time. First, piles of dirty linen would be sorted and washed, the actual washing sometimes being done at a communal washroom by a washerwoman, a lower level of worker than the blanchisseuse. Much of the work of a blanchisseuse consisted of ironing, which would be done at a large table covered with a heavy blanket, itself covered with calico. Several irons were heated on the large cast-iron stove, and it would be the job of the apprentice to keep this stove filled – always being careful not to overfill it – with coke. The room where the blanchisseuses worked would also be full of clothes hung up on wires to dry. On the floor there would be an earthenware pan, containing starch into which the linen would be dipped before being ironed. The blanchisseuse herself and her older employees would be busy ironing intricate objects such as caps, shirt-front, petticoats and embroidered drawers, while the apprentice could be put to work on the plain items, the stockings and handkerchiefs. The ironing would be done standing up around the table, a flat brick alongside each worker on which to place the hot iron. Work could go on until late at night, particularly on Saturdays, so that the customers would have their clean clothes to wear on Sunday.

Such was Alphonsine’s life when she was aged about thirteen to fourteen. Then one Sunday, her father, who had remained in touch with her, took her to visit an elderly acquaintance of his, a bachelor in his sixties or seventies by the name of Plantier. But more than taking her to visit, Marin Plessis left Alphonsine with Plantier; possibly he even sold her to him …

The story of how the young apprentice Alphonsine Plessis became the famous courtesan Marie Duplessis, including how she came to marry Count Edouard de Perrégaux, who followed her coffin to the grave, can be found in my book Grandes Horizontales.