Blanche Monnier was born into a family that traced its lineage back to French aristocracy, descended from the noble Poitiers who helds an ancient castle and estates at Courcy in the former Duchy of Normandy.
Louise Monnier, Blanche’s mother, was a proud woman who maintained ties to high society in Paris. An ambitious socialite, Louise chafed at their middle-class provincial lifestyle, and pinned great hopes upon her daughter marrying well.
Because young Blanche Monnier was cursed with extraordinary beauty.
On 23 May 1901, the Procureur général in Paris received an anonymous letter which alleged that a girl was being held captive at 21 rue de la Visitation, home of respectable 75 year old widow Madame Louise Monnier Demarconnay and her adult son Marcel. The local Commissaire rushed to the address and forced entry to the attic, which they found secured by a heavy padlock.
Louise and Marcel Monnier were both arrested, despite insisting that Blanche lived in the squalid attic by choice. At trial the real story emerged, that in 1874 Blanche had outraged her mother by announcing she intended to marry a penniless attorney. Tricked into the attic by her mother, Blanche was to remain imprisoned until she changed her mind, but lost it instead.
Upon discovery, Blanche was taken to a sanitorium in Blois where she died in obscurity despite the international scandal surrounding her case, known locally as “La Séquestrée de Poitiers.” Blanche remained plagued by anorexia, schizophrenia, coprophilia and exhibitionism to the end of her life, dying at the age of 64 in October 1913.
Her story certainly inspired La Séquestrée de Poitiers (1930) by André Gide, but also there are echoes of it in The Yellow Wallpaper (1892) by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. The madwoman in the attic was a potent literary motif first made famous by Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) in which Edward Rochester imprisons his first wife Bertha in the attic.
There’s a Gothic romance aspect to the tale of Blanche Monnier. Unable to have the love of her life, she refuses to yield to the half-life chose by her mother, thus lives no life at all. It more than reminds me of Gilman’s short story, in which the unnamed woman is found creeping around the room on all fours, rubbing against the wallpaper, exclaiming “I’ve got out at last… in spite of you.”
Dredging deeper into my memory of that BA(Hons) I did a century ago, there’s also Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), which rewrites the tale of Brontë’s Bertha from a postcolonial perspective, though with no happier a denouement. In that version, both prequel to and bold revision of Jane Eyre, the so-called madwoman sets herself alight to be free.
Prisoner of empire, prisoner of mind, prisoner of men, doesn’t seem to matter. Why is the alternative to imprisonment for women either madness or death?
Hmm… I need to re-read some books. Maybe that’s what these ‘difficult women’ have been talking about all along… .