This is what happens on rainy days. You go through the archives.
I’m at the point in my settling-in process that the easy decisions regarding what might go where have been made. I’m down to the boxes of unsorted stuff, the ones I just have to go through.
It’s a cold rainy day, the first in a long time, so I opened one of those boxes. it’s not the Staffordshire Hoard, not close, but still, what a find. These photos, letters, menus and announcements are Mme. Noel’s memory palace.
I need to tell you about Mme. Noel. She was presented to me — in stories, as she died decades before I met Jean-Yves — as a rather sad figure. That may be her in the photo above, though I have not seen another of her that is so flattering. But the consensus is that her husband is the guy in the other photo, so we’ll go with that. And indeed, Jean-Yves’ assessment, of a life gone awry, seems to be about right.
The early photos are of huge family gatherings: grandparents, parents, cousins, children, dogs and cats. They are gathered at the family chateau, which I have seen. It is perched atop a hill, still with its property surrounded by high walls. Mme. Noel saved studio portraits of relatives, one of which was dated 1885, so I guess a print made from a glass plate. She saved photos of christenings, communions, weddings — many weddings. She saved menu cards from those events, meals with five courses and five dishes — did you get them all? — at each course.
There were so many family celebrations. Mme. Noel’s first communion is in there. It was a big deal back then, something like a bat mitzvah, with entertainment and all. Her parents hired a magician; along with the lunch menu is a list of the tricks he performs. Notice the date: the end of May, 1914. They had to have seen that war was coming. I wonder whether her father held this extraordinary event because he knew it would be the last one for a while.
WWI is represented by photos of many, many men in uniform. One unit is shown with its tank. Then there is a shot of a few men in a hospital ward. The family photos from this time are of much smaller groups of people.
WWII has fewer photos, but many love letters between her and M. Noel. France didn’t fight, of course, so I have no idea where he was stationed or why. I suppose I could read the letters to find out.
The unfortunate business of war aside, she lived her life surrounded by a large, loving family — if the letters are to be believed — with money, a beautiful house and beautiful clothes. Then she got married.
I think she regretted it almost immediately. Jean-Yves told me her father was furious. I think he ran a bank and M. Noel was one of his clerks. but the deed was done. She was cut off from her family. She never had children of her own. The photos and letters stop. She lived on a bank clerk’s income until her father died. Then, I don’t know. Did men still control their wives’ money back in the 1950s? One way or another, over her and her mother’s objections, the chateau was sold. The money was used to buy a rather sad apartment building down the street from Pere Lachaise cemetery. Mme. Noel moved into a one-bedroom, third-floor walkup. She stayed there for the rest of her life.
Now I have her photos and I have no idea what to do with them.