L'inconnue de la Seine

At the turn of the 19th century, the body of a drowned girl was pulled from the river Seine. The body was that of a girl around twenty years of age. The clothing and hair suggested that she was of the working classes. The lack of injuries indicated that she had taken her own life. And the smile, small, satisfied and haunting, left onlookers with the impression that she had found utter joy in death.

The story of l'inconnue de la Seine - post mortem

"Outside...not so very far away, lies the river. It has hidden many secrets, many tragedies. This child is just one more tragedy that has ended in its tide."1

Many bodies have emerged from the Seine - suicides, victims of accident or murder. The film "Death in the Seine" examines the lives of just a fraction of the 306 bodies taken from the river from April 1795 to September 1801 - a mere six years. These victims were recorded by the attendants - Bouille and Daude - in the mortuary - if the bodies were identified the men jotted down details of their lives.

The unknown girl of the Seine died a hundred years after this pair wrote their fragmentary and pathetic biographies. Through this time the bodies brought from the river were still placed out in the mortuary behind Notre-Dame in the hopes that they would be identified, and the Sunday stroll through the morgue was one of the attractions for all classes: "the allegedly serious business of identifying corpses {turned} into a spectacle"2. None of the thousands who passed through each day and viewed this particular young girl came forward to identify her.

Eventually a death mask was taken - whether because this was standard procedure or because of the haunting beauty of the face is not certain. She was recorded in the morgue's books as "ecadavre feminin inconnu" - an unknown female body. The body was buried in an unmarked grave. The mask was copied countless times - hanging in art studios and sitting rooms, till the unknown girl of the Seine was one of the most recognisable faces of Europe.

The unknown as inspiration

The plaster mask that hung on so many walls inspired artists and writers, as well as romantic young girls. She was considered the ideal beauty, and her hairstyle and enigmatic smile were copied by countless European maidens. But the real attraction was the mystery - the story behind the death and the transformed smile. Several short stories and novellas were written about the girl - all, of course, ending with her tragic suicide, and dealing with the events in her life that led her to welcome death. Others, such as the early "The Worshipper of the Image" by Richard le Gallienne, examine unfortunates who become wholly obsessed with the beauty of the mask. Vladimir Nabokov's "L'inconnue de la Seine" speculates on the identity of the lover whose betrayal sent her to her death, the playwright Ödön von Horváth renders her a siren, rather than a girl abandoned by her seducer.

The drowned girl has been immortalised in play, poem and story, in photographs and paintings. Her life has been dissected and imagined from every point of view, but it seems fitting that today, as when she was first found, she is recognised just as an unknown girl. The most well known of all works inspired by the unknown girl is Asmund Laerdal's "Resusci-Anne doll".

In the 1950's Dr. Peter Safar was reinventing mouth-to-mouth resuscitation - a practice that had fallen into disuse. He combined it with chest compressions to form the process that became modern CPR. He approached Asmund Laerdal - a toymaker who worked with plastics - to create a dummy that could be used for CPR training. Laerdal made the doll now known as Resusci-Anne, and used the face and hairstyle of the girl from the river Seine. (Incidentally, the story that the doll is modelled on Laerdal's daughter, who died by drowning, is incorrect).

Identifying the unknown

Many have traced a likeness to girls they have known - living or dead, in the plaster features of the death mask. Is she a Hungarian music- hall artist named Ewa Lazlo, murdered by a convicted blackmailler, or a Russian named Valerie from St Petersburg?

The story of the unknown girl of the Seine is given just that title - the story of - for the simple reason that even those few brief fragments about her may not be true.

A German researcher claims to have followed the "trail" of L'inconnue, eventually finding the factory where the plaster casts were made, and the unknown herself - alive and well - the daughter of a very ingenious manufacturer. Another daughter of a craftsman - this time of a Parisian who made plaster casts, stated that her father said it was impossible to make such a mask from a corpse, and that the original was a model from the studio. Even the year of death cannot be agreed upon. Many sources list the date of death as 1900, despite the fact that she first appeared in literature in 1900 (the book: "The Worshipper of the Image" was written some years before, putting the mask into existence before then), but some researchers claim the hairstyle puts her death at least 40 years earlier.

In the unending bonds of death
The voice of your beauty calls
In the pale crowds of drowned young maidens
You're the most pale and enchanting of all.3

For a picture of L'inconnue, I like this one


If anyone knows where one of the reproduction masks can be obtained, I'd love to know. For something that must once have been as ubiquitous as three flying ducks on your wall, they're incredibly hard to find. Update: thankyou to bol, who found this story, which tells me that the masks can be found here.

Quotes:
1: "These Old Shades" - Georgette Heyer. Actually nothing to do with the Unknown of the Seine, except for the fact that it's the same river.
2: "Spectacular realities" - Vanessa Schwartz.
3: "L'inconnue de la Seine - Vladimir Nabokov. Translation, mine, with much assistance.

Acknowledgements:
Influence and authenticity of L'Inconnue de la Seine: Anja Zeidler
Spectacular Realities: Early Mass Culture in fin-de-siecle Paris: Vanessa Schwartz
snopes.com http://www.snopes.com/medical/emergent/cprannie.asp
Laerdal medical http://www.laerdal.com/mainnode.asp?nodeid=7068283

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