Mme. Noel

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.

11 thoughts on “Mme. Noel

  1. This is a great collection. Where did she live? Is there a local museum or library that might be glad to have these photos?


    1. She grew up in one of those nondescript villages well outside Paris. She spent her adult life in a working class neighborhood in Paris. So I don’t know. Here in Vendee there is quite a bit of interest in history with a well-kept archive and all. But Paris has much better stuff to choose from, plus the photos are not really Paris-focused. I should track down the archive in the department where the chateau is located. Maybe they would be interested.


  2. Ever since The Great Downsizing™, our approach to such matters is to toss things that do not have obvious utility or a clear sentimental value. These photos are problematical because one senses they should have value to someone. Donating to the local history archive is a good idea. If it were here, I’d likely post the availability of such a collection on the appropriate areas of Reddit. Perhaps you know of local social media where historians or others gather online – perhaps someone is interested in the person/clothing/time period/photo techniques/whatever. Antique shops often collect old photos and re-sell and that would keep them in circulation at least. End of day, I’d probably give the disposal project only a very limited amount of effort before consigning the photos to the dumpster. Scritches to Jacques.


    1. I think the first thing to do is find out where exactly the chateau is located. I have the name and photos of the chateau, so it should be possible. Then contact the local government archives. If they don’t want them, they will know who does. If no one does, I don’t know. Some are in pretty bad shape and probably dumpster-worthy. Others might interest collectors. I see this kind of thing come up at auction. Militaria buffs want military photos, that kind of thing. Some people here collect post cards and there are a lot of post cards.

      So I moved most things into archival storage boxes. They are out of the crumbling shoe boxes and all. I can stash them out of the way and start looking into it.

      A side benefit of doing something like this is that I meet interesting people. It gives me a reason to introduce myself to folks that I would not otherwise know. So even if no one wants the photos, it will not be time wasted.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m sure you’ll find somebody who will be interested in some of them at least. Or you could write her story and illustrate it with the photos … a sad life indeed.


    1. Writing the story is an interesting idea, no matter what happens to the photos. I know someone who could coach me through that. I’ve always turned down her offer, but this is worth exploring. I’ll give her a call. Thanks for the suggestion!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Very interesting series of pictures. I agree with catterel and the idea to write a story. The love letter you found could be inspiring.
    PS: I still have the letter my Dad wrote to my Mom during WWII and the time he was a prisoner of war. For a long time I did not have the courage to read them…


    1. Reading your parents’ letters would be creepy. Fortunately Mme..Noel is more like a historic figure for me. Still I did put such personal letters aside for now.

      The journalist who would advise me on this likes the idea. She’s looking for a likely publisher. I wrote to relatives who knew Mme. Noel. I can’t wait to hear the stories they will tell. We’ll see how it goes.


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