Everything I Don’t Know About Selika Lazevski

Everything I Don’t Know About Selika Lazevski

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This blog post is about the research behind an essay I published on Paris Review Daily on 9 February 2018 (accessible here).

I first blogged about Selika when her image went viral in 2012. The best source of information was a commenter called Marie (her profile has since been deleted), who pointed out the source of the six images we have of Ms Lazevski: the French Ministry of Culture’s Médiathèque de l’architecture et du patrimoine. I dug around a bit and found out about L’Africaine, the Meyerbeer opera that was likely the source of Selika’s first name. A book about photographer Félix Nadar was published in 2015, and I excitedly assumed that he had taken the images of Selika. First lesson of research: check your sources. I was wrong, but by the time I realised that, people had copied the error and it even turned up in the publicity material for a fictional short film about her, The Adventures of Selika (2017).

So at the beginning of 2017, I decided to research Selika properly. This is a pretty detailed account of where I looked. I had a tremendous amount of fun – for all the long boring slogs through identical newspaper small ads, there were sudden surges of adrenalin as I’d think I’d made a breakthrough. If you, too, want to have fun with archives, Selika and adrenalin, I’ve marked opportunities for further research. Here’s the Culture Ministry’s records and the photographs.

I was informed by an archivist that the information with the photographs of Selika in the dark habit is as follows:

date: 1891
Mlle Lavzeski (Selika), écuyère
Mlle Lavzeski, Nouveau Cirque
Mlle Lavezeski
Mlle Lavzeski

and in the light habit as:

date : 1891
Mlle Selika Larzewski, écuyère de Haute-Ecole
Mlle Selika Laszewski, écuyère
Mlle Lasvezski

And that’s it! So, on with the hunt.

Who photographed Selika?

So, not Félix Nadar but “Studio Nadar”. Félix was no longer working in the Paris studio in 1891. His son Paul was in charge. Dr Jillian Lerner of the University of British Columbia told me that it was likely that “Studio Nadar” meant the images were shot by an anonymous photographer working within the studio. I went to the Bibliothèque Nationale and ordered Paul Nadar’s visitor book, but although it was full of visiting cards featuring names like Monet, Dreyfus, Rothschild, Dumas, Zola and the Comtesse Greffulhe, it was too late for the photographs of Selika. I didn’t order the handwritten letters between Paul and Félix because I didn’t have the time nor the ability to decipher that much nineteenth-century French cursive [RESEARCH OPPORTUNITY HERE]
I wasn’t aware of any other collections of the Nadars’ paperwork but I did check Paul Nadar’s photographic journal, Paris-Photographe, first published in 1891, and there was no sign of Selika.

Where does her name come from?

Selika is the name of the heroine of L’Africaine, an opera partially completed by Giacomo Meyerbeer (who is buried in a cemetery near my home in Berlin) at the time of his death in 1864. Meyerbeer had intended to call the finished work Vasco de Gama, and it tells the story of a Hindu princess who is first enslaved by Vasco da Gama and then becomes the mistress of his fate. She frees him to be with his love and kills herself nobly by inhaling poisonous blossom. Somehow the Hindu princess became an African princess when Meyerbeer’s friend, François-Joseph Fétis, repackaged the unfinished opera as L’Africaine for its first performance in Paris in 1865.

L’Africaine was a huge hit. I know this because I typed the name Selika into Gallica, the BNF’s digitised collection, and got 442 hits. I trawled through them all. Not one is a reference to Selika Lazevski, but they did testify to the popularity of Meyerbeer’s heroine. I found not just mentions of performances of L’Africaine, but also a dog, a ship, a horse, a scarf colour, some (white) anti-heroines (a lady lion tamer in 1890’s Papa la Vertu by Réné Maizeroy, Le Pays du Mal: Palotte by Emile de Molènes, and a character in Le Sphinx aux Perles by Gustave Haller), a camel in Aristide Bruant’s Les Bas-Fonds de Paris, and an ice cream bombe all named after her. In another book, L’Enfance de Georges Aymeris, a child has a black doll from America called Selika. I also learned that the first African-American soprano to perform in the White House, Marie Selika Williams, had adopted the name.

So I started to think of Selika as a stage name, chosen either for its exoticism or as resonant of a noble Black woman (depending on who chose the name). I used lots of different search terms to try to find this missing Black horsewoman, and nothing turned up. I also discovered that Félix Nadar photographed Meyerbeer, but this is just the sort of tantalising coincidence that doesn’t necessarily mean a thing and makes one long to write fiction.

(Selika is also a village near Lake Malawi, another name for Seleucia in Iraq and a Hebrew name for a woman; a bellydancer at the Jardin de Paris in 1893, and a few other things I managed to stop myself adding here).

Who were the Lazevskis?

At last count, I’d uncovered twelve different spellings of the name Lazewski: Lazevski, Lazevski, Lavzeski, Lavezewski, Larzewski, Laszewski, Lauzevski, Laszewski, Laschewsky, Lasjewski and Laczewski.

Imagine the fun! Well, there was a Lazewski associated with circus horsemanship. Better still, there were three. One was found for me by the Winkler Circus Archive in Berlin. He’s a gentleman amateur mentioned in Oskar Justinus’ Vom Cirkus (published 1888) riding a full-blood Arab from the empress’ stable. I’ve focused on the French circus scene in my research but, my goodness, the German scene is more than its equal. Who knows what I could have found if I’d expanded my research? I was very lucky that the Winklers looked this up for me. And that the librarian at the Spandau circus collection instantly located more information for me in “Signor Saltarino’s” lexicon of circus artistes:

“Laszewski, Lucian von, haute-école rider and trainer, born on 9 May 1864 in Riga, died young on 20 March 1888 in Riga from consumption.”

So he was dead three years before Selika was photographed.

Now, here’s where you realise that circus research is like the crack of research. So good, so tempting, but it will break you. Names change. People adopt new ones. Dates and places get tricky. Because it turns out there’s another Lazewski, and he’s a much better bet for us. Valli di Lazewski was working at the Nouveau Cirque in the same period that the Ministry of Culture notes said Selika was there.

Here’s Valli, I believe, from a photograph album in the Fonds Soury at the French Ministry of Culture. He’s spelled “Laschewsky”.

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According to circus historian Paul Haynon’s notes, Valli was born in Poland on 29 August 1864 (a few months after Lucian so I guess they’re not brothers) and married on 16 February 1888 in Riga (a month before Lucian died). He was trained by E Wulff and made his Paris debut at a hippodrome in 1887. Were he and Lucian related? Were they, as Dominique Jando, the circus historian who runs Circopedia, suggested to me, the same person (the more work you do with nineteenth-century sources, the more you see how errors creep in and slip ups are made)? Again, the dates and locations are tantalisingly close, but I can’t afford to go to Riga to hunt for whatever records might have survived the twentieth century. [RESEARCH OPPORTUNITY]

I have more material on Valli though. He crops up in the papers at Olympia in London and tracking down a runaway horse on a Paris street. For Paul Haynon, he answered a brief questionnaire about his career, which I was enchanted to find in the Paris archives. Haynon also collected the notes of his wife, who was called Laure/Laura/Lara (forgive my bad reading of the handwriting). She was clearly not Selika although she was an écuyère of haute école. A librarian at Bibliothèque Nationale told me she had found a “Mlle Lazewski” in Gallica and I thought for one glorious moment that it was Selika. Then, mindful of my mistake with Félix, I cross-checked it. The Mademoiselle Lazewski was “Madame Lazewski” in other papers that day. It was Laure, not Selika.

Here she is, also from a photograph album in the Fonds Soury at the French Ministry of Culture. She’s spelled “Lasjewski”.

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I wildly wondered whether Selika could have been adopted by them, but there’s a strike through the query about them having children in Paul Haynon’s notes. But there was something: Dominique Jando told me that it was common for performers to take the surname of their teacher – so perhaps Valli taught Selika.

Much of this could have been answered if I had been able to find an article called “Valli de Laszewski et son Epoque” by Paul Haynon from 6 March 1937 in L’Inter-Forain. There should be a copy in the Fonds Paul Haynon in the Paris Archives, but after spending a couple of days checking every dusty box in the collection on two separate trips to Paris, I couldn’t find it. I contacted the current publishers of L’Inter-Forain and they don’t have it, and neither do the Théâtrothèque Gaston Baty or the National Fairground and Circus Archive at the University of Sheffield. I would love to get my mitts on it. [RESEARCH OPPORTUNITY]

Did Selika perform at the Nouveau Cirque?

The Nouveau Cirque opened in February 1886 at 251 rue St Honoré in the heart of Paris. It was originally intended to have a dual purpose: from October to May it would be a very grand circus indeed. From May to October it would be a swimming pool. The ring sat on top of the 25m-diameter pool, and sometimes the carpet was peeled back and the cover removed so that circus performers could frolic about in the pool as part of their act or the pantomimes that made up the last half of each show. Here’s a poster for the Nouveau Cirque in its summer incarnation:

Selika swimming at the Nouveau Cirque

Yes, as you can see, it mainly seems to be about white men getting massages from Black men. So here’s a thing: there does seem to be a theme of sorts connecting the Nouveau Cirque to Black performers. Joseph Oller, who founded the circus, was an early adopter: in the 1870s he ran a café-concert venue that featured a series of Black animal tamers, starting with a man called Delmonico. In 1891, three years after Oller departed, one of the Nouveau Cirque’s stars was Rafael Padilla, aka Chocolat, a Black clown. Padilla was probably born a slave in Cuba and travelled with his “owner” to Spain where he was freed, later working for a clown who brought him to Paris and the Nouveau Cirque, where he teamed up with the English clown George Foottit as a hit double act. He also starred in Nouveau Cirque pantomimes which seem to have been written as vehicles for him, albeit massively racist vehicles. If you want to know more about Chocolat, the French historian Gérard Noiriel has written a biography which was adapted into a film (see trailer here). Here’s some footage of the real Chocolat and Footit in action:

In the Fonds Paul Haynon I found a hand-drawn plan of the circus at this time, with a note made even of the horses’ names in some of the individual stables. I went through all the advertisements for the circus in Gallica in 1891 and found no trace of Selika. Both the Fonds Paul Haynon and the Bibliothèque Nationale’s Département des Arts du Spectacle have handwritten lists of some performers in the shows, but I couldn’t find Selika, unless she was there under another name. Nor does she appear on a poster, although I did see an advert for a horse-riding seal at the Nouveau Cirque which was worth the trip in itself.

Maybe Selika performed there under another name? I couldn’t find any references to Black women performing there until the twentieth century, and then as dancers. I made some lists of the names of the Nouveau Cirque’s “clownesses” but there are few pictures and none of them look like Selika.

Selected sources

Chocolat: La véritable histoire d’un homme sans nom (Gérard Noiriel)
Le Cheval à Paris de 1850 à 1914 (Ghislaine Bouchet)
“Le Reve de Chocolat” (Sylvia Chalaye) in Africultures, 2013/2 (n° 92-93)
“‘Race’ As Spectacle in Late-Nineteenth-Century French Art and Popular Culture” (James Smalls) in French Historical Studies 26.2 (2003)

Was Selika a haute-école écuyère?

If Selika ever did ride haute école in the circus, she had no impact on critics, writers or artists. Several other Black circus performers of the nineteenth century did, and I had some wonderful sidetracks into their life stories. There was the strongwoman Miss Lala (dizzyingly painted by Edgar Degas), British horseman Pablo Fanque, horseback acrobat Sara l’Africaine (whom I’m currently writing about), Chocolat, and Delmonico to name a handful. But there’s nothing in the press or in the books I’ve checked about Selika.
This doesn’t mean she didn’t ride in the ring, however, as plenty of écuyères performed in quadrilles of twelve or more riders where they were as good as nameless – again, I have a small collections of names that appear once and never again. Perhaps Selika did this, but the surviving lists of performers at the Nouveau Cirque are scant and she’s not mentioned – by that name – on any of them. She didn’t need to be especially talented for this. While some écuyères trained their own horses, others with less riding skill were simply bundled onto a very highly prepared horse and had to do little more than stay on board and give their mounts the right cues.
I did find one reference to a Sélika riding haute école, but it’s fiction and she’s described as Basque, blonde and blue-eyed. It’s a story or extract called “Les Baisers” by J H Rosny, published on 11 January 1908 in Comoedia.

Was Selika American?

Miss Lala and, very possibly, Sara L’Africaine were from America. A careful combing of circus records in the USA might reveal some results. [RESEARCH OPPORTUNITY HERE]

Was Selika an artist’s model?

Nigel Gosling’s Nadar (1976) captioned Selika as “Mlle Lauzeski, model” (she appears on the same page as another Nouveau Cirque écuyère of the period, about whom I’m also currently writing). This suggests she was posed as a circus écuyère rather than actually being one – something I think is a very real possibility given the nature of her “nom d’écuyère”. I did some digging into the world of artists’ models and found nothing, although I’m sure someone with more familiarity with the terrain could perform a better search [RESEARCH OPPORTUNITY]. Félix Nadar and Paul both photographed a Black woman known as Maria “l’Antillaise”, a servant in their household from the Antilles. Félix photographed her bare breasted, and I’ve seen some claim she was his mistress. For Paul, she posed fully dressed. But she is not Selika.

Selected sources

Dictionary of Artists’ Models (Jill Berk Jiminez)
The Black Female Body: a Photographic History (Deborah Willis)

Selika Dahomey Amazons rifle drill

Selika Dahomey behind the scenes

What about the Dahomey “Amazons” and Paris’ human zoos?

There is absolutely nothing to link Selika as an individual to what was going on in the Jardin d’Acclimatation but the contrast between her image and the portrayal of the Dahomey women just struck me. There were in fact troupes of Black women performing in European and Russian circuses as Dahomey Amazons (whether they actually were or not I don’t know). I didn’t manage to fit them in the essay, but you can read about them in Irina Novikova’s article, listed here.

Selected sources

La France Noire (Pascal Blanchard)
“Imagining Africa and blackness in the Russian empire: from extra-textual arapka and distant cannibals to Dahmoey amazon shows – live in Moscow and Riga” (Irina Novikova) in Social Identities, September 2013, vol 19, issue 5
Guerrières et guerriers du Dahomey au Jardin zoologique d’acclimatation (Fulbert Dumonteil) February 1891
Le Monde Illustré, 21 February 1891
Le Voleur Illustré, 26 February 1891
Le Figaro, 8 February 1891
Dances with Darwin 1875-1910, Vernacular Modernity in France (Rae Beth Gordon)


Well, there are still many threads to pursue. Selika was real. She existed. I’ve flagged opportunities for further research. If I can pursue them (time and finances willing) I will, but meanwhile, if you are able to research any of these leads, please do get in touch with me. Perhaps she never performed, either because she lost interest, couldn’t ride well enough or met some other mishap or better adventure. Perhaps the circus owners lost their nerve – it was one thing to have a Black clown, acrobat-strongwoman or animal tamer, but another to have a Black woman dressed in the ultra-respectable riding habit, performing the highest equestrian art and wearing a Jockey Club top hat not, like Chocolat, as a joke, but with dignity and aplomb.

Archives and Records Considered

I received incredible kindness and help from archivists on this quest. They let me walk in off the streets and into their stacks, rolled out trolleys full of goodies and searched collections to give me armsful of print outs. They were peerless. So huge thanks to:

Bibliothèque Nationale de France, especially the Département des Arts du Spectacle
Paris Archives/Fonds Paul Haynon
Sammlung Variété, Zirkus, Kabarett at the Stiftung Stadtmuseum Berlin
Bibliothèque Musée de l’Opéra, Paris
Théâtrothèque Gaston Baty, Université Paris 3
Zirkusarchiv Winkler, Berlin
National Fairground and Circus Archive, University of Sheffield

One small boo to the Archives de la Préfecture de Paris, whose receptionist told me emphatically that they had no circus records. I was back in Berlin before I realised that they housed part of Tristan Rémy’s archive [RESEARCH OPPORTUNITY].

Thank you also to circus historians alive and dead, from Paul Haynon to Tristan Rémy and Dominique Jando. You’re a unique and dogged breed of scholars. My (top) hat goes off to you.

Quotations in the Paris Review Daily piece:

– “two great seductions, woman and the horse,” is Baron d’Etreillis but I’ve temporarily lost my notes re the source and translator.
– “the troubling beauty of a woman on a horse, this plastic coupling of two curvilinears that are the most perfect creation: the stallion, aggrandizing woman in all her majesty; woman on the creature she rides, posed audaciously like a wing” is Hugues le Rouxin Les Jeux du Cirque et la Vie Foraine (1889) translated by Hilda Nelson in The Écuyère of the Nineteenth Century in the Circus.

Women Who Spend Too Much Money On Horses #265372


She Is to Make Her Debut in a Paris Circus

A Countess of ancient lineage, and who for many years has been one of the ornaments of the Austrian court, is about to make her debut as a circus-rider of “Haute Ecole” at the “Nouveau Cirque” at Paris. She is the daughter of the late Count Ugarte, Austrian Envoy to Wurtemberg, and is married to Hector Baltazzi, the uncle of the ill-fated Baroness Marie Vetzera, who perished, together with Crown Prince Rudolph of Austria, at Meyerling [you can read about poor Marie here].
A few months ago Countess Ugarte obtained a legal separation from her husband, whose diminutive stature contrasts ridiculously with her tall, slender and handsome appearance. She is one of the most superb horsewomen with whom I have ever ridden, and at one time owned and managed a famous racing stable.
Knowing that her insane extravagance with regard to horseflesh often led to financial ruin, Renze, the celebrated circus proprietor, repeatedly made her magnificent offers to become the star equestrienne and school-rider of his circus, and now that she is separated from her husband, without sufficient resources, I suppose that she has cast to the winds her scruples concerning the adoption of a professional career.
Hector Baltazzi, her tiny husband, is just as enthusiastic about horses as she is herself. Indeed, I have always been of the opinion that this passion constituted the only bond of sympathy between them. For Hector Baltazzi is a Levantine, from Constantinople, who has merely been tolerated by the sporting section of Austrian society on account of his good riding and perfect knowledge of the turf, but who has never been permitted to penetrate the exclusive circles to which his wife belongs and in which she moves.
Indeed, she was invited everywhere, and used, when I knew her, to go to most places without him, her husband being pointedly ignored by both court and society, and not a day passing without her being made to feel that she has been guilty of a dreadful mesalliance. – N Y Recorder

The Morning Call, 3 August 1891, page 6.

According to this Chicago Tribune piece from 1912, Anna Ugarte always felt dogged by association with the Meyerling scandal. After leaving Austria she alternated between Paris and hunting in Leicestershire. She shot herself through the heart in Melton Mowbray in 1901.

Who is the woman in Sir Edwin Landseer’s The Shrew Tamed?

The more I’ve learned about research over the last decade, the more I’ve realised how easy it is to slip up. I’ve seen how one writer’s creative suggestion becomes “fact” in the next book down the line, and I’ve made that mistake myself. I’ve also endeavoured, when possible, to have the issues corrected in reprints. These tiny gaffes are often a matter of elision that results in misreading. Take the discussion surrounding Sir Edwin Landseer’s famous 1861 painting, The Shrew Tamed.

Several authorities claim that the woman in the painting is Skittles, aka Catherine Walters, the beautiful courtesan and queen of the “pretty horsebreakers” as the demi-mondaines who rode and drove in Hyde Park among the cream of society were known. Indeed, the painting is also known as “The Pretty Horsebreaker”. Writers are correct in claiming that Landseer’s painting stirred up contemporary anxieties as to whether these elegant young women were not only leading young men astray, but also respectable young women and even their mothers, eager to make their daughters more marriageable through imitation of these glamorous figures. Indeed, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine wrote at the time: “We hope it will now be felt by Sir Edwin Landseer and his friends that the intrusion of ‘pretty-horse-breakers’ on the walls of the Academy is not less to be regretted than their presence in Rotten Row.”

But Landseer did not paint Skittles. He painted another equestrienne who has appeared again and again in my research concerning the pretty horsebreakers, and who fascinates me although no one has yet written her biography. Her name is Annie Gilbert and it is not clear whether she was a courtesan or not. She was a professional horsewoman, skirting the line of respectability by a) earning her own living, b) doing so riding horses and c) occasionally working as an artist’s model. Here’s the London Daily News‘ review of Landseer’s painting when it was unveiled at the Royal Academy in 1861:

“‘The Shrew Tamed’ (135), by Sir Edwin Landseer, displays perhaps more real power than the large and ambitious work of last year. This picture has been painted, we hear, in compliment to Miss Gilbert, the accomplished horsewoman who has so thoroughly mastered Mr Rarey’s system of horse-taming as to have practised it herself with perfect success. A vicious thoroughbred mare has had, as we see from the strap now thrown aside, its leg bound up, and after a struggle to which the condition of the straw bears witness, lies thrown. The ‘shrew’ is at length so entirely subdued that she now permits her mistress to recline at full length on her shoulder, and even advances her muzzle at the patting of the small fair hand, as if begging for a caress to seal a better understanding for the future. Sir Edwin has indicated the extinction of fire in the mare’s eye too strongly; the result is the poor creature looks wall-eyed. The lady’s self-possession and saucily assumed air of conqueror are highly amusing. A spacial at a safe distance, high up on the trusses of straw, seems to enjoy his mistress’s triumph. The drawing of the mare and the subtle metallic changefulness of her colouring of her sleek hind quarters are most masterly, though the texture of her coat is too satiny. The execution is throughout of the most daring kind: the straw in particular, though extremely sketchy, is so suggestive as to perfectly satisfy the eye.”

Annie’s role is confirmed by Royal Academy documents quoted in a 2009 Oxford Art Journal article by Pamela Fletcher called “Narrative Painting and Visual Gossip at the Early-Twentieth-Century Royal Academy”. She also appears in William Powell’s Frith’s “The Derby Day” panorama. The London Look: Fashion from Street to Catwalk by Christopher Breward, Edwina Ehrman and Caroline Evans describes her as “beautiful, witty and consumptive”. She was tough enough to ride for hours with the Queen’s Hounds, whose master approved of few “Dianas” but allowed for her “cheerful spirit and dashing riding” (quoted in The Queen’s Hounds and Stag-Hunting Recollections by Thomas Lister, page 73).

Extracts from some of Landseer’s letters at the time suggest a woman at ease in male company:

“Do tell me talking of neighbours — if you will let me have your carriage one night to take Annie G. to the play (with her sister) and will you give Hills leave to receive them at 1 5 L. P. afterwards? for a glass of soda water? — A. G. has no end of lovers, but seems to patronize me! I suppose she thinks my Picture will be a trump card for her. She has got a little too fat in some places — she says if I finish the Picture and people rave about it she will richly reward me! I am trying to do things soberly.” (December 1858 to Jacob Bell)

“Annie Gilbert has had a fall Hunting — but is not much the worse — I hope soon to finish the group in which she is no. 1 copper bottomed. She had a party the other Eve her Birthday & asked me — the lot were rather too fast for me sober as I have become & I did not go.” (another letter to Bell, both quoted in Sir Edwin Landseer, by Richard Ormond.)

I don’t know what happened to Annie or where she came from – another of those lines of research which will have to wait till I win the lottery – but I hope I’ve marked out a little corner of the internet for her, and possibly inspired other researchers to discover more.

Those Lissom Heroines on Horseback

Embed from Getty Images

Very often we look back on women the Victorian era and see only the equivalent of some modern-day heroine of Cosmo magazine who wears a size zero and eats only mung beans. That’s why I loved finding this caricature from Punch in 1872 mocking “the young lady with a model figure, light as a feather”.

Unbridled Dressage, Brushes with Scandal and a Tragic End: Adèle Drouin


Scores or maybe even hundreds of women in nineteenth century Europe performed as haute-école riders in circuses and hippodromes* before audiences from all classes. A handful of them became famous, as the expansion of the newspaper market meant that they were the first women to be widely celebrated for their equestrian skills (other than the odd huntress in Britain, some queens and princesses). Their feminity was considered a draw – the spectacle came not just from their performance of complicated dressage movements, but also from the fact that they were respectable and attractive young ladies whose magnificent horses obeyed them utterly.

In a competitive marketplace, these horsewomen needed to stand out. They needed a gimmick. It might be a pink riding whip. It might be the tiniest waist. If you were Jenny De Rhaden, you made your horse rear then laid down on his back, your hair trailing into his tail and onto the floor (and lost your sight when the stunt goes wrong). Adèle Drouin had a unique party trick – she rode a sophisticated pattern of dressage moves with no bridle or even a neck strap on her mare, Diane.**

I first learned about Adèle in Hilda Nelson’s The Ecuyère of the Nineteenth Century Circus, and this post is the result of a few random dips I’ve taken into old French newspapers to try to find out more about her life. It’s not an exhaustive biography but should hopefully give some sense of the often long working lives of these women and the tightrope they walked between celebrity and notoriety in a time when there was little room for error if you were a woman.

According to Baron de Vaux, she made her debut at the tender age of 18 or 19 in either 1865 or 1866 at the hippodrome on what is now the avenue Bugeaud in Paris. He describes her thus (my probably faulty translation):

Of medium size with a pretty face and a marvellously well-made bust, endowed by nature with all that could make her contours more seductive, she was charming in the saddle from the very first day and soon acquired an exceptional bearing.

With M. de Corbie as a teacher, she rode the horses who performed the airs above ground at Versailles and was never unseated. De Corbie had inherited his skill in training “amazones” from his own tutor, the Comte de Montigny, who wrote L’Equitation des Dames. Unlike many horsewomen who lacked balance or suppleness aside, his pupils had no problem with cantering on the left rein, according to the critic “Gladiateur II”.

When de Corbie trained a white horse to perform without a bridle, it was Adèle who first rode him at the hippodrome. When the hippodrome burned down in 1869, she was snapped up by the Cirque des Champs-Elysées and rode there on Diane. Here is their routine, as detailed by de Vaux (all without a bridle, and again, beware my sketchy translation, my International Horseman’s Dictionary wasn’t quite up to the task):

  1. Enter at a canter, halt, salute, rein back, figure-of-eights in rein back.
  2. Turn on the haunches/pirouettes to the right and to the left.
  3. Strong trot. Figure-of-eights.
  4. At a walk, voltes to the right and to the left, travers.
  5. Small successive counter-changes of hand in travers at a walk.
  6. Spanish walk interrupted with halts with tension sustained in each leg.
  7. Canter departs intermixed with flying changes and instant halts followed immediately by half turns in rein back.
  8. Piaffe and passage.
  9. Spanish trot.
  10. Extended canter, sudden halt in the centre and exit in a rapid rein back.

How was Diane trained to do all this with no bridle? According to de Vaux, it’s done by teaching the horse to interpret taps of the whip as instructions instead of rein pressure. Eventually, the whip doesn’t even have to touch the horse for it to respond, and later voice commands can be used. It’s thought-provoking – we should remember that the rein, bit and boot are languages that we have chosen for the horse and not necessarily the only ones that can come to have meaning for him.

To give you an idea of a typical evening’s entertainment involving Adèle, here’s the show on offer at the Cirque Napoléon in October 1868, starting at 8pm (again, I’ve done my best with the translation):

First half

“Travail à cheval” by Mlle Lehmann [no idea what this horse work involved].
La Cachucha danced by Price junior [a Cuban dance performed with castanets. I believe the Prices in this bill are a famous musical clown dynasty, one of whom was painted by Renoir].
Ribbon jumping by Mlle Monfroid [ribbons were run from the balcony to a pole in, I would guess, the centre of the ring. Mlle Monfroid stood on a cantering rosinback horse and leapt over the ribbons]
The Grotesque Dwarves – performed by Jacob and Lehmann.
Le Solo interrupted by Price.
The clown and his elephant, by Chadwick.
Debut performance of the horseman, Pacifico.

Second half

Jumping through hoops [presumably on a rosinback] by Mme Loyal.
The Icarus Games, by Russels and his children.
Adèle on Diane.
Comical interlude by Price senior.
Debut of Hernandez, Spanish horseman.
The Little Postillion by Leguay junior.
Debut of the gymnast Farinis and his son.

By 1875, Mlle Drouin was so well known that Le Figaro had to assure its readers that she was not the unfortunate labourer’s daughter, named only as Adèle, who was described as “the sad heroine of the nocturnal drama at Clichy”. This referred to a story the newspaper had printed the day before, headlined “The Mysteries of Clichy”. The Adèle in this story is a beautiful former écuyère known in her days at the hippodrome for her striking figure and bold eye but now long forgotten by the boulevardiers. I include part of this shadow Adèle’s story here because it makes an interesting contrast to that of the more virtuous Mlle Drouin.

Figaro describes the shadow Adèle riding a white horse with neither saddle nor bridle and pulling off astonishing feats in her performing days. When the hippodrome burned down, she, too, had a contract with the circus, but she also had a drink problem, and her poison of choice was absinthe. She arrived at work drunk and was promptly dismissed. Her subsequent fall was rapid. She fell in with ex-cons. In the midst of a row over some kind of gambling match six or eight months later, one of Adèle’s admirers knocked out his opponent in a cabaret in Saint-Ouen (an incident also covered by Figaro). Adèle ended up serving three months in prison while her partner was put away for five years.

By this time, she was 33 years old. She rapidly found herself a new partner named as “A…..” who was formidably strong and known throughout Clichy, Saint-Ouen and Saint-Denis. This was, Figaro says, less a love match than a business association. Adèle would pick up men and take them to a room in an isolated house on the route de la Révolte, whereupon A…. would stride in as the “outraged husband”, batter the unfortunate man, strip him of all his worldly goods and throw him out into the street.

This worked well until one victim was rescued by a neighbour, Madam L….., who helped him testify to the crimes. The gendarmes went to arrest the pair, but A…. spotted their approaching tricornes, jumped out of the window, scaled a wall and scarpered towards Paris. Adèle disappeared. A few days later, the police staked out the house on the route de la Révolte and nearly caught A…, who escaped once more. A…. then went underground, finding a job in an oil factory in Clichy, where he was recognised and once more evaded arrest.

Two days later, a pair of gendarmes spotted Adèle the square au Batignolles and reasoned rightly that A…. could not be far away. The gendarmes seized him and threatened him with a gun. Adèle slipped away in the uproar and out of this blog post, because at this point I’m going to set this rogue Adèle to one side, lest I get lost in the archives. Maybe I’ll write more about her at a later date.

In June 1885 our respectable Adèle Drouin was still going strong. She appeared at the Cirque d’Été in a quadrille of eight “goddesses”, four of whom were haute-école riders. Adèle played Minerva, Mathilde Vidal was Bellone, Thérèse Gautier Amphitrite and “Mlle Lencka” Diana.

In 1893 she found herself dragged into a scandal involving another écuyère. Jenny de Rhaden’s husband had shot and killed a circus horseman who had been corresponding with his wife. A newspaper published a photograph of Adèle mislabelled as Jenny. I wonder if it was this one from the famous Studio Nadar, as Jenny was also photographed there. A month later Adèle was in the papers again after a “lively discussion” with a madame Marguerite de Clarynkal and had to be separated by circus proprietor Franconi. The writer at Gil Blas (possibly de Vaux himself) believed that the fault was all on Adèle’s side and hoped that she would soon apologise. It was rather a blot on a lady’s history.

According to de Vaux, Adèle left behind the circus and the hippodrome when she married, which would – if we can trust the baron – have been some time in 1893, the year the book was published and the last two reports in Gil Blas cropped up. She would have been 46; 28 years is a formidable reign in any sporting or entertainment field. The era when the écuyère was queen of the circus was ending, and she timed her retirement well.

On the 26 April 1911, Comoedia reported that, at the age of 64, Adèle had been committed to an asylum. At the time she was living on the avenue de Wagram. She had become paranoid and was sitting up all night with a candle in hand. She then turned up at the local police station wearing little but a veil-like piece of cloth, in the belief that the assassins  pursuing her would thus not be able to see her. The scan of the article at Gallica is hard to read, but possibly says that she was married to a very rich antique dealer from the Madeleine district of Paris and lived in a modest flat that cost 400 francs to rent.

She died in 1913 and Baron de Vaux was once more on hand to record the achievements of a horsewoman he’d once found “delicious” and mourn the passing of the “écuyère vedette“phenomenon. Sadly this piece has been too poorly scanned for me to read and will have to wait for another time.


* A hippodrome was shaped rather like its Roman namesake and roofed; a circus was not a tent but a building with a ring as its central focus.

** In the 1840s and 1850s, an écuyère called Mathilde Monnet performed with neither bridle nor saddle. She probably used one of these, a surcingle with a leaping head attached; it would have been easy to hide under the long, full skirts women habitually worse for sidesaddle at that time. I saw one in the tackroom at the Académie du Spéctacle Equestre at Versailles in late 2015 when I was researching The Age of the Horse. Going by the dates, Mathilde was not the shadow Adèle.




Take a Horse to Fashion Week

Berlin Fashion Week starts today, just to get the edge of New York, Paris, London and Milan. I suggest accessorising with a horse, as this Italian model has done.

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