On an early summer afternoon in 1841, the stagecoach from Paris drew up in front of the Hôtel de La Poste in Nonant, a village in Lower Normandy. Among the alighting passengers were two girls in their late teens: the tall one, pale and elegantly dressed, was Alphonsine Plessis, a fledgling courtesan; the other, plump and pink-cheeked, was her maid, Rose.
Alphonsine had spent her early childhood in Nonant, where she was born on 15 January 1824. This was the first time she had returned home since leaving for Paris three years before. In spring she had given birth to a child fathered by the viscount who was her protector and on her doctor’s orders was coming to convalesce in the country. She had arranged to stay with her older sister, Delphine, who lived nearby, but the long journey had exhausted her, and she decided to rest at the hotel for a couple of days before moving on to Delphine’s cottage. At around five o’clock, refreshed by a siesta, Alphonsine came downstairs and said, smiling, to the proprietress,
—Bonjour, Madame Vienne. You don’t recognize me but you know me well. I’m the little Plessis girl.
—Ah, certainly, my poor child. No, I wouldn’t have known you.
“La pauvre Plessis” was still a subject of conversation in Nonant and its neighboring hamlets. Tales were told of her angelic mother, who had been forced to abandon her two children to escape the murderous abuse of her husband. It was said that Marin Plessis, a man whose infamy had earned him the reputation of an evil sorcerer, had sold the thirteen-year-old Alphonsine to Gypsies, and even more disturbing were the rumors of incest. Mme Vienne had last seen Alphonsine as a wild urchin exploiting her precocious sexuality as a way of begging for food, but the young woman who had arrived that day, wearing a lace-edged bonnet that prettily framed her ingenue face, had indeed changed beyond recognition. Her burnished peasant complexion had gone, replaced by the smooth sheen of white china, and she had acquired a self-assurance and social ease that completely belied the misery and degradation of her adolescence.
Eager for news of relatives and mutual friends, Alphonsine asked Mme Vienne if she and Rose could join the family table for dinner. The son of the house, twenty-five-year-old Romain, was also there that night, and although he did not remember Alphonsine, he still had a vivid picture of her mother, Marie. It had been market day and Mme Vienne had stopped to greet Mme Plessis, whose pallor and air of sadness had conveyed even to the twelve-year-old boy that something must be very wrong. Soon after came word of Mme Plessis’s flight. Romain, who wrote poetry and had spent several years in Paris studying medicine and law, was a sympathetic, sharp-witted young man, and Alphonsine warmed to him immediately. As soon as dinner was over she asked him to show her round the garden, and while he picked her a bunch of flowers, she chattered away, intriguing him with hints of piquant episodes in her Paris life.
The following day was a Sunday, and Alphonsine went out early for a walk. This is the gently undulating countryside that Degas described in his notebooks twenty years later: “Continuously going up and down green humps. . . . Exactly like England, large and small fields, surrounded entirely by hedges. Damp foot- paths, ponds/greenery and shady ground.” The Merlerault region of L’Orne is pastureland whose lushness feeds into the creamy richness of the cuisine: Camembert is a regional speciality, not surprisingly, as the grass is the best in France. Le Merlerault– bred horses, such as Napoléon’s stallion Acacia, were renowned for their speed and agility—the reason that the English formed their cavalry here during the Hundred Years’ War. And it was while staying with a friend at a château in nearby Exmes that Degas began his series of equine paintings, inspired by the sleek beauties stabled at Le Pin National Stud outside Nonant, which is still active today. Since the time of the first Normans, the raising of horses has been an aristocratic pursuit, and for Alphonsine, ownership of a fine mare or stallion, the symbol of her Normandy childhood, was something she coveted more than anything else.
Watching her leave the hotel, Romain had presumed she was going to mass, but if this was Alphonsine’s intention, she changed her mind, having come across a handsome peasant boy with nostalgic associations. As a seventeen-year-old, Marcel had been her first conquest, his seductress of no more than twelve or thirteen at the time. Intent now on impressing him with her new prosperity, Alphonsine invited Marcel to lunch at the hotel, where she proceeded to order some of the finest wines in the house. He, however, was impressed only by Rose, so giggly, frisky, and radiantly healthy that she all but eclipsed her delicate mistress. Nevertheless, he and Alphonsine parted like old friends, embracing affectionately, before she set off to spend the afternoon visiting acquaintances from her childhood.
When she returned that evening, there were half a dozen new arrivals in the dining room, a rowdy group of men, laughing, smoking, and lasciviously eyeing the two girls. Anticipating a barrage of “banal remarks and insipid compliments,” Alphonsine again asked Mme Vienne if she and Rose could sit at their table, and afterward Alphonsine withdrew alone to the garden with Romain. Enlivened by the wine, she was more forthcoming now about her debut in the demimonde; her attentive companion put her completely at ease, and she surprised him by her frankness—even replying to his blunt query about her state of health. “I’ve told everything to your mother. I gave birth to a beautiful little boy two months ago and I’ve come to the country to recuperate.” The only subject on which she refused to be drawn was the loathsome reputation of her father. Marin Plessis had died earlier that year in miserable circumstances, and Alphonsine begged Romain not to compound her sorrow by questioning her about him.
As they were talking, two of the travelers sitting on a nearby bench came over and tried to strike up a conversation with her. As part of the management, Romain felt he could not appear to be monopolizing a guest and so tactfully got up to go—only to be followed by Alphonsine. Taking his arm, she suggested they walk together on the Paris road, saying that she needed an excuse to get away from the tiresome men. They hadn’t gone far when they came across a wedding party returning from the town of Le Merlerault—a young couple followed by a jubilant procession of parents and friends. “Now that’s the kind of gaiety I like,” said Alphonsine. “Look how they love each other.” “They’ll love each other more in a very short while,” added Romain.
His suggestive tone was deliberate, intended to coax the young courtesan into revealing further confidences, but it was also an act. Romain may have been eight years older than Alphonsine, but he was an innocent when it came to women; his poems, published before he was twenty in a collection called Le berceau, are melancholy Petrarchan odes to chaste young girls, to a cruelly unattainable married woman, and to the soprano Mme Damoreau-Cinti—the juvenilia of a sentimental idealist. Alphonsine, with her paradoxical appeal—the childlike demeanor counteracted by knowing black eyes and coarse banter—was unlike anyone he had met before. Darting into a wheat field to pick her a bunch of cornflowers, Romain found himself one moment courting her like a lovesick boy, the next listening pruriently to her risqué stories of her Paris nightlife. Alphonsine was only too aware of the effect she was having on her companion. She amused herself by observing him as he struggled to overcome his attraction and teased him about his “most veiled of allusions to a project everyone is discussing”—presumably his engagement. Sulkily dropping his arm, she told him that she expected confidences in return, something she gradually coaxed out of him over the coming weeks. The bond they established in Nonant that summer was the beginning of a lifelong friendship.
Alphonsine’s father, Marin Plessis, was born as the result of a quick, illicit union between a priest and a prostitute. Marin’s father, Louis Descours, had grown up in a lower-bourgeois family who saw the church as the best career opportunity for their son. A simple, weak young man with no real vocation, Louis was easy prey when, in the early spring of 1789, the daughter of a neighboring farmer set her mind on seducing him. The louche ways of Louise-Renée Plessis—“as infamous for her foul tongue as for her misconduct”—had earned her the sobriquet La Guenuchetonne, meaning a debauched woman—half beggar, half prostitute. But if the illiterate, maligned Louise had derived some self-satisfaction from corrupting a member of the clergy, it was shattered by the discovery that she was pregnant. On 15 January 1790, she gave birth to a son, who was baptized on the same day in the village church of Lougé, held by the midwife who delivered him. The baby had been named Marin after his paternal grandfather, Marin Descours, but the birth certificate records his father’s identity as “unknown,” and only Louise and her parents attended the ceremony. As a rule in the Normandy countryside the illegitimate offspring of a bourgeois father was provided for by the paternal family, who regarded this as an obligation. It was not the case with the Descours, however, even when Louis became vicar of the same village, Lougé, where his bastard son lived in a hovel of a cottage with his mother.
As soon as Marin was ten or eleven, he was sent to work as a farmhand, joining the large number of child laborers in Normandy. By the time he reached puberty, he had developed into a tall, slim, virile youth. Emboldened by his superb looks, Marin made a play for the daughter of his employer—unwisely, as the farmer found out and ordered him off the premises. By his early twenties Marin had become a peddler roaming the countryside and selling his trinkets and utensils from door to door. Dressed in the costume of his profession, short culottes and a waistcoat, he had all the swagger and sophistry of the traditional mountebank and could woo his female customers with fantastical stories of far-flung places and the novelty of his wares. “He was of an ideal beauty,” remarks one local chronicler, “but it was a beauty that contained something fatal: he had, as the Italians say, the Evil Eye.” Marin’s sexual magnetism had an almost hypnotic power over women, some of whom were swept away against their will, while others succumbed out of fear. Then, after more than a decade of countless fleeting encounters, he decided that the time had come to take a wife.
Marie Deshayes was plaintively beautiful and more than usually intelligent for a country girl. She and her sister, Julie, were outgoing and hardworking and, having reached their mid-twenties unmarried, were resigned to a future of spinsterhood and caring for their widowed father. Marie was then employed as a maid by the Count and Countess du Hays, who owned the nearby turreted Château de Mesnil in Saint-Germain-de-Clairefeuille. It was in this manor kitchen that she first set eyes on Marin Plessis. “As soon as she saw him she fell in love,” E. du Mesnil, a local historian, wrote in a letter of 1882. Descendant Charles du Hays confirms this. “Marie Deshayes fell in love at first sight. She wanted Marin Plessis and she got him, despite the alarm and pleas of her family.”
If Alphonsine inherited her promiscuous nature from her father, then her grace and natural distinction may have been the result of her mother’s aristocratic blood. For more than a century her French biographers have mistakenly claimed that her maternal great-grandmother was Anne d’Argentelles, a descendant of the noble seigneurs of Mesnil, who married a servant, Etienne Deshayes. Among their six children was Louis Deshayes, wrongly identified as the grandfather of Alphonsine. In fact, there was another Louis Deshayes in the neighborhood. This Louis Deshayes was married to Françoise Leriche and farmed a small holding in Courménil, about ten kilometers north of Nonant. The younger of their two daughters was Marie Louise Michelle Deshayes, and it is she who was Alphonsine’s mother.
However, according to E. du Mesnil, it was local knowledge that sometime after the marriage of his tenant farmers, the count had exercised his “droit du seigneur,” leaving Françoise Deshayes pregnant. It was this, du Mesnil suggests, that explained her granddaughter’s taste and manners, her passion for beautiful things and for thoroughbred horses. “Because the Count du H was a gentleman to the ends of his fingernails. His family went back to the celebrated Alou, who was one of the companions of Guillaume at the Battle of Hastings.”
If the rumor is true and the countess was aware of her husband’s transgression, she was exceptionally forgiving, as she loved Françoise Deshayes’s younger daughter as much as her own children. Marie was brought up at the château and encouraged to remain with the du Hayses instead of helping her parents on the farm. Her role was to take care of the family linen, and the countess had plans to marry her to a good local man. But then Marin Plessis appeared. As Vienne put it, “She was seized by a furious, blind passion for someone totally the opposite of herself.”
The couple were married on 1 March 1821 at the mairie in Courménil, the groom’s side of the family represented by Marin’s mother and two Plessis relatives, a laborer and a weaver, and the bride’s by her father, aunt, and uncle. “From that moment an impossible life began for the poor woman,” continues du Mesnil. “One would see her following her husband from fair to market, sleeping sometimes here, sometimes there, selling cotton scarves and little items of haberdashery.” It may have been either a relative or the du Hayses who came to the rescue, helping the couple to raise enough money to open a shop selling haberdashery and basic groceries in Nonant. This was a large village of around eight hundred inhabitants, which, since the recent completion of the Rouen-Alençon grande route intersecting with that of Paris- Granville, had become an important junction. The Plessis house and shop, a simple little square building with a double façade, was situated at the crossroads. Marin now had a respectable profession, he had made a good marriage, and he was adored by his wife—the years of humiliation were over. But it was on the very day of the wedding, according to Charles du Hays, that his true character revealed itself, and Marie was forced to realize how unsound her judgment had been.