Minou Drouet: A Forgotten Child Poet

Roger Hauert – Minou Drouet (1956) (1)

In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, the media and public opinion in France, and to some extent in Europe, were impassioned about a little girl who wrote very imaginative poems and letters, sang on stage with famous artists, starred in a film and was even involved in children’s fashion: Minou Drouet. When she grew up, she stopped writing poetry, and soon fell into oblivion, so that now only old people barely remember who she is. As writes Robert Gottlieb in his essay “A Lost Child” (November 2006):

In fact, you can’t find a book by Minou Drouet in any bookstore in Paris, not even her phenomenally successful Arbre, Mon Ami, which was published just over fifty years ago—early in 1956—by the aggressive René Julliard, who a year earlier had scored an international triumph with Francoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse. But Sagan had been eighteen; Minou was eight.

Minou Drouet was born on July 24 or 27, 1947. Her birth certificate did not indicate a father, and her mother relinquished her parental rights, so the baby was put up for adoption. On June 17, 1949, she was officially adopted by Claude Drouet, an unmarried woman who worked as a private teacher. The girl was christened Marie-Noëlle, with the diminutive Minou. As writes Robert Gottlieb:

Minou Drouet’s existence was turbulent well before she became a cause célèbre—in fact, from the very beginning. When she was a year and a half old, she was adopted by Claude Drouet, an educated woman who earned her living by coaching children at home. The story was that Minou’s parents had drowned in a fishing-boat accident, but actually she was illegitimate, and her birth mother had signed away all rights to her.

Indeed, when Ms. Drouet adopted her, she had heard about a child whose parents had both drowned, and she sometimes told that story in order to preserve the reputation of Minou, so she would not be called a “bastard,” since at that time single mothers were considered shameful.

Roger Hauert – Minou Drouet (1956) (2)

The baby was almost blind and affected with a strong strabismus; she also suffered from poor health and it seems that she had difficulties closing her mouth on food. Ms. Drouet herself had a very poor eyesight and had been completely blind during seven years of her childhood, then in her youth she had written a short tale about the marvellous world that a blind little girl creates inside herself as a shelter from the torments of the world. So her choice was deliberate: to raise a child who had suffered in the same way as her. She was also inclined to the occult, and she read the lines in the baby’s hands. Says Gottlieb:

Minou was almost blind at birth, and for three years or so lived in a semi-autistic state, unable to speak and cut off from communicating with people other than her mother and her beloved grandmother. Years later, she wrote, “Locked inside myself, I led the life of some kind of vegetable. … The doctors warned Mama, ‘The condition of this child is desperate. We can’t imagine her being cured.'” Other children were unkind to her, and her emotions were directed almost entirely to nature: to animals, birds, and especially the big tree in the garden—“Arbre, mon ami.”

It took on the part of Claude Drouet a long and patient work of love to change this sickly and closed off baby into a healthy, happy and creative little girl. Music was the means by which she could awaken to the world. There are several versions of how it started (her age at that time, the music composer and the medium through which she heard the music vary in each); here is the one of Gottlieb:

Then, when she was three, Minou heard Bach organ music on the radio, and it awakened her to the world. Music became her link to humanity, and in those early years it was music rather than writing that obsessed her. Her passion led to piano lessons from a local teacher, and her abilities led her eventually to Mme. Descaves, in Paris; if the child wasn’t a miniature Mozart (any more than she was a miniature Rimbaud), she was clearly gifted.

Roger Hauert – Minou Drouet (1956) (3)

A more extravagant version of Minou’s early childhood is given by Charles Templeton in An Anecdotal Memoir:

Minou Drouet’s mother was a prostitute and her father a field hand. As an infant she was taken into the home of a middle-aged woman, whose ambition to write well exceeded her talent. She adopted the child and raised her with love, surrounding her with music in a home dedicated to literature. It appeared that Minou was retarded. At six she hadn’t spoken a word. The judgment of four doctors was that she would never be normal.

One day, her mother played a recording of a Brahms symphony for her. Minou swooned. When she was revived, she spoke perfect French in complex sentences. Shortly thereafter she began to write poetry.

Similarly, Carol Mavor writes in “Tragic Candy, Time” (an article leaning towards post-modern speculations and titillation):

Her father was a very poor field hand. Many said that her mother was a prostitute.

By age six, little Minou still had not spoken a word. She was tight-lipped and silent.

In fact, Minou’s childhood has been surrounded by mystery, and fantastic tales have been told about her. Ms. Drouet herself seemed to be involved in fortune telling through cards or reading lines in hands. According to a French online article, Ms. Drouet told the author that Minou possessed a gift of clairvoyance; she could foretell exactly a visit or a death. When the controversy erupted about the authorship of her published poems, some critics hypothesized that her mother had hypnotized her or transmitted her poems by telepathy. The writer Louis Pauwels even hinted at “possession” and labeled her “not a case of a child prodigy,” but “a case of sorcery.”

Roger Hauert – Minou Drouet with Lucette Descaves (1956)

In 1954, Minou started piano lessons first with a tutor, Ninette Ellia. The latter put her in contact with famous pianists: Alfred Cortot, Yves Nat, and foremost Lucette Descaves, professor at the Conservatoire de Paris, who took Minou as pupil on July 29, 1954. Minou, an affectionate child, developed strong feelings for her teacher and sent her letters full of love, together with poems. Ms. Descaves showed them to professor Pasteur Vallery-Radot of the French Academy, who became immediately fascinated, and remained afterwards a staunch supporter of Minou’s exceptional talents. He told about her to the publisher René Julliard. Ms. Descaves entrusted Julliard with a batch of Minou’s writings, and Julliard met Minou on May 6, 1955.

Then things started to move fast. Professor Paufique, an ophthalmologist in Lyon, operated successfully on her eyes. In September, Julliard made a private edition of a booklet with a selection of poems and letters by Minou. A controversy immediately erupted, involving the major French media. Some disagreements concerned the quality of her poems, but mainly it dealt with her authorship, many stating that it was an imposture, that her adoptive mother had written the poems and letters herself. Templeton writes (getting wrong with Minou’s age, she was then aged 8, not 6):

Some of the poems were published and immediately provoked debate. It was said that no child of six could possibly have such thoughts, much less express them so profoundly. It was argued that, unlike music, poetry demands an experience of life, experience that no child so young could have had. It was charged that her adoptive mother — a poet herself who aspired to recognition but had been judged second-rate — was the author of the verses.

Several journals sent reporters to interview the Drouet family. In particular the magazine Elle sent a journalist and a photographer for an “investigation,” then published their report, claiming to give a “proof” of forgery. This article was shown to Minou. Also journalists revealed her adopted child status, something that Claude Drouet had hidden her in order to protect her. Many letters of Minou published later show the deep hurt felt by that sensitive girl, resenting the cruelty and wickedness of people; in a very sad one of them, addressed to her mother, she compares herself to a frightening cat whose whiskers have been cut out, or to an old castle surrounded by moat.

Graphologists and writing experts were called in by both sides, with conflicting opinions. At the end of November 1955, Julliard took Minou without her mother at his home for a few days, so he could witness himself how Minou composed her poems (and it is during that stay that she wrote that letter to her mother mentioned above).

Roger Hauert – Minou Drouet (1956) (4)

The surrealist leader André Breton published in Paris-Presse, December 20, a short article where he stated firmly that he did not have to investigate the facts, simply by examining the texts he could deduce that no child aged 8 and even beyond could write such texts, which show a maturity and experience of life unavailable to such a child. “Between the physico-mental structure of Minou and what is published under her name there is an incompatibility of structure.” He invoked in particular the works of Jean Piaget on the psychological development of children. He finally speculated on Ms. Drouet’s personality, and the possible reasons for her to write under the guise of her daughter.

Minou seems to hint at that in a letter to Pasteur Vallery-Radot, where she mentions “the article by B,” adding that “if this was true, I would have only to go back to classroom and burn everything I have written. This dreadful man says that some sixty-year-old dictates me what I write.”

Breton would not have written such a nonsense if he had only examined the writings of Ms. Drouet herself. As she told Julliard, in her youth she submitted some poems to a “floral games” competition, but did not win. Then around 1925 she had submitted her tale about the blind little girl, which was again rejected, and in 1948 she had again tried to publish it, still without success. She contributed articles to third-rate serials, especially religious ones. The book L’affaire Minou Drouet by André Parinaud reproduces two of her works, an article about the misery of fishermen and a short tale about a poor family, they are drab and show her as a mediocre writer, very far from the flamboyant imagination shown by Minou. And indeed Julliard said to Parinaud that he saw her writings, except her poems, and their dullness reassured him. When Ms. Drouet was accused of fraud, he envisaged publishing these texts, but he felt this would be ungracious to her.

It has been said that this “literary” quarrel was a way for media bosses to settle their accounts, in particular between Hélène Gordon-Lazareff of Elle and Françoise Giroud of l’Express, and that Julliard himself encouraged the debate in order to get more publicity. In particular he published in 1956 L’affaire Minou Drouet by André Parinaud, a detailed analysis of the whole controversy.

On January 14, 1956, Julliard published Minou’s first book, Arbre, Mon Ami, with 21 poems followed by letters she wrote to various people. In it she displays a flamboyant imagination, with powerful metaphors, and she freely creates neologisms. As remarks Carol Mavor, “like Apollinaire, she liked to make her poems into calligrammes, serpentine shapes, crystal cages of words.” At the same time she shows an immense sensitivity, a huge capacity for love towards all her friends, and a maturity usually not expected at that age. The book knew an immediate success. As writes Gottlieb:

By the time Arbre, Mon Ami was published, in January 1956, the publicity had been so unrelenting that within a few months the little book had sold forty-five thousand copies. (Later, Minou said, “I believe that René Julliard himself was at the bottom of this campaign.”) The celebrated actress Madeleine Renaud recorded a group of the poems and letters. A jazz band, Michel Attenoux et Son Orchestre, released the “Minou Drouet Stomp”—you can find it in a recent CD collection, Jazz in Paris.

A month after publication, Minou was put to the severest test of all. The February 13 issue of Life tells the story: To resolve the controversy, Minou agreed to take a test for membership in the Society of Authors, Composers, and Music Publishers. She was left alone in an office (from which “the telephone had been removed to prevent all communication with the outside world”) and given a choice of two topics to write on: “I’m Eight Years Old” or “Paris Sky.” “My eight years were already too sad,” she said. “I chose Paris Sky.” Within twenty-five minutes she had written a few dozen lines, and the judges, as Life put it, admiringly awarded her membership. ‘I’ve won’ yelped Minou.”

This poem, “Ciel de Paris,” was published in her second volume, Le Pêcheur de Lune (1959), with the following dedication (translated from French by me):

My Mummy, it is to defend you that I composed this poem, to prove that it was indeed me who wrote my little things. This text has been much more than an imposed subject, it has been for me an act of love towards you.

Roger Hauert – Minou Drouet (1956) (5)

Gottlieb tells then how Minou became a showbiz star:

Soon after the publication of her book, Minou’s life began its transformation from that of a controversial child poet to that of a full-fledged celebrity. She mixes with cabinet ministers at the Julliards’; she collaborates with famous singer-songwriters like Gilbert Bécaud; she’s photographed with Maurice Chevalier (he’s kissing her hand) and at the premiere of Jacques-Yves Cousteau’s The World of Silence. (She’s ten, and that big bow is still in her hair.) She stars in a movie. She launches and designs lines of children’s fashions. She demonstrates her guitar playing for Andrés Segovia. Pablo Casals teaches her his “Song of the Birds.” In Rome, she encounters Vittorio De Sica, and “quickly we were inseparable—we spent the entire day together.”

By this time, Minou was in rigorous training, every minute accounted for. She practiced the piano for hours every day; studied guitar and gymnastics; spent six years learning ballet. Soon she was touring France, appearing with other celebrities—pop singers and comedians—in nightclubs, theaters, arenas. Her act involved reading her poems aloud, singing to her own guitar accompaniment, playing “Clair de Lune,” Handel’s Passacaglia, Albinoni’s Adagio on the piano. (There’s a demented photograph of her standing on a piano, arching backward until her fingers are on the keyboard. She’s playing upside down!) In June 1957—she’s about ten—she’s at the Gaumont Palace in Paris, the largest theater in Europe (six thousand seats), performing between screenings of Gary Cooper’s Friendly Persuasion. In Brussels, she’s on with Jacques Brel and Charles Aznavour. At La Scala, she’s a guest of honor at a gala for Mario del Monaco. She’s thirteen when a rose is named after her.

She starred in the film Clara et les méchants directed by Raoul André in 1958 (some pictures from it can be seen here). In his article, Gottlieb recounts her private audience with Pope Pius XII, and how she made him laugh (the story can also be read in his shorter article in the JohnShaplin blog).

Claude Drouet’s influence on Minou has been much discussed. Because of her eyesight problems (and maybe the scoffs of other children), the girl did not attend public school for a long time, so she was educated at home by her mother. Julliard wrote in the introduction to Arbre, Mon Ami that Ms. Drouet raised her daughter with as much tenderness as severity, and that she constantly encouraged her to work, both for music and for her general education. Gottlieb writes: “The child was firmly disciplined—kept hard at work and punished for infractions of the rules.” In several letters, Minou mentioned being spanked on the buttocks, and Ms. Drouet did not deny using this form of punishment, which was considered normal at that time. However the press spread the rumour that Minou was a battered child, that one witness said having seen Ms. Drouet beating her daughter with a wet towel, etc. This image of an abusive mother is echoed in the article by Carol Mavor:

As in many fairy tales, Maman was the wicked stepmother. Mme. Drouet cracked the whip: ballet lessons, guitar lessons, hours of piano practice and gymnastics, “every minute accounted for.” Even though she could play Mozart while doing a backbend on the piano, Minou could never be perfect enough; one might even say “empty” enough. (“Innocence is … like air … there’s not a lot you can do but lose it.”) Mme. Drouet beat the innocence (air) out of Minou for the most minuscule mistakes.

Nevertheless, since Ms. Drouet had chosen to adopt a child who suffered the same blindness as her in her own childhood, one may speculate whether she used Minou’s talents in order to compensate for her own failure as a writer. Gottlieb writes:

Mme. Drouet encouraged her gifts—some would say exploited them. However devoted she was to her child, to strangers she could appear severe, controlling, overprotective. She would jump to answer questions put to Minou, declaim her poetry, boast about her talent. She was, clearly, a classic stage mother—using her child both to live out her own ambitions and to carry her and Minou onto a larger stage than was available to them in La Guerche-de-Bretagne. Minou read the situation with a cool precision: “My successes opened the door for her to opportunities that would otherwise have remained closed.”

Roger Hauert – Minou Drouet (1956) (6)

After her second volume, Le Pêcheur de Lune (1959), Minou ceased to write poetry. She tried writing novels and singing, studied nursing, married the artist and radio chronicler Patrick Font and soon divorced. Says Gottlieb:

In her early twenties, Minou published some fables, a novel for children, and a novel for adults, but the irresistible impulse to write had left her when she was fourteen: “When a bird no longer feels the desire to sing, it stays silent.” Her mother contracted Parkinson’s and needed her, her marriage petered out, and in her early thirties she retreated to La Guerche-de-Bretagne, to the house where she had grown up. There she cut herself off completely from her public past, making no appearances and refusing all interviews, until 1993, when, having remarried—her husband, Jean-Paul Le Canu, is a local garageman—she published a reticent and skimpy memoir, Ma Vérité (My Truth). But the public was indifferent. Her celebrity, like her talent, had disappeared.

In that book she wrote that since the death of her mother, “I sing in myself and I am the only one to hear me.” I quote again Gottlieb:

In her book, Minou acknowledged that part of her had found it hard to give up the fame, the applause, the perks: “You amputate part of yourself.” But she went on to say, “If I had the kind of child I myself was, I would try to protect her from all the temptations and assaults of the world. … Beyond the public recognition there’s everything that can’t be replaced—play, friends, family, a kind of freedom. Everything I had to live without.”

It doesn’t require much psychological acumen to figure out that what she needed to express and what she needed to suppress are the same thing: her anger at what had been done to her. “No one protected me. Adults rode on my back to exploit me. . . . I was caught up in the gears.”

She is also reported to have said: “I was sold like a soap, I was criticized as a child prodigy. I was neither.” Gottlieb stresses the responsibility of her mother:

And who was the person who should have protected her? Her mother—the one who exposed her to the world, first as a beleaguered victim, then as a performing seal. Yet it’s also her mother who rescued this semi-autistic, semi-blind orphan and gave her a life. Minou is rigorously fair, fully aware of her debt to the woman who adopted and succored her. But her account has very little warmth, and it leaves out a good deal—for instance, that her birth mother, who she discovered lived only a few kilometers away, had refused to meet her.

Under the influence of her mother, Minou Drouet rose from a near-autistic and nearly blind baby to a precocious poet with a powerful imagination, becoming a superstar … then abandoned poetry and fell back into silence, finishing her life in seclusion. Was the weight of her mother too heavy? Or was it the cruel adult world that tore her sensitive soul? Gottlieb concludes:

This is Minou Drouet before she’s eight—a primitive, an ecstatic, an original. A few years later, she’s become a phenomenon, a scandal, a by-word. “I was a lost child,” she says. “I was only a pathetic little animal,” she says. “What crime did I commit to be persecuted this way?” she asks. There is no answer. That she survived at all is a testament to her strength. That she lost Minou on her way to becoming Mme. Le Canu is the price she was willing to pay.

On the other hand, Carol Mavor writes:

Completely sugarcoated and consumed by the time she was fourteen, Minou lost her passionate desire to write.

As in the years before she was six, Minou is once again silent.

Roger Hauert – Minou Drouet (1956) (7)

The photographs by Roger Hauert shown in this article were scanned from the booklet Poèmes. They are included here for scholarly purposes. Please do not use them publicly without citing their authorship (or, for commercial purposes, without the express permission of the copyright holders).

Bibliography:

  • Minou Drouet, Arbre, mon ami, Julliard (1956).
  • Minou Drouet, Poèmes (with photographs by Roger Hauert), René Kister (1956).
  • Minou Drouet, Le Pêcheur de lune, Pierre Horay (1959).
  • André Parinaud, L’affaire Minou Drouet, Julliard (1956).
  • Chez les libraires associés, “Minou Drouet : ‘On a fait de moi un animal qui a mal’,” September 13, 2012.
  • Robert Gottlieb, “A lost child,” A critic at large, The New Yorker, November 6, 2006 (Full article reserved to subscribers). Republished in Lives and Letters, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Apr 26, 2011, pages 52–64.
  • Carol Mavor, “Tragic Candy, Time,” Cabinet, Issue 40, Hair Winter 2010/11.
  • Charles Templeton, An Anecdotal Memoir (1982), “Inside Television CBS & CBC.”

Poetry in White: Will and Carine Cadby

I get to meet a lot of people in the course of producing this site and, in one case, this has resulted in a deep friendship. Not only is Stuart a great fan of this site, but he informed me that anything he can scan from his collection is at our disposal. This was an especially generous offer because, from his descriptions, he appears to have one of the world’s biggest collections of little girl lore. With such an extensive collection, I assumed he could fill many of the gaps I have been trying to fill in. But alas, no collection is perfect and he does not recall owning any of the postcards from ‘La Journée de Suzette’ by Armand Gaboriaud. However, when I mentioned that series, it reminded him of a charming book called A Child’s Day (1913) using photographs by Will and Carine Cadby and accompanied by the poetry of Walter de la Mare. The samples he sent were just so precious and so I requested he scan the entire book.

There is not much biographical information available except for a kind of curriculum vitae. The couple were English and lived in London until settling later in Kent. Will Cadby, in particular, was personally known by Alfred Stieglitz and they maintained a written correspondence. Will began taking photographs in 1891 and his first exhibitions were in 1893. In 1894, the couple were elected members of The Linked Ring and began exhibiting in The London Salon. In 1896, Will began experimenting with white-on-white photography with models dressed in white shot with a white background. This signature style is apparent in A Child’s Day. The couple published their first of several children’s books in 1902, Dogs and Doggerel. For the most part, Carine did the writing and production while Will provided the photos. From 1912–1932 the Cadbys wrote a column called “London Letter” for Photo-Era magazine until its demise.

The Cadbys’ work had an international following and was appreciated in the United States as well as the European subcontinent. A particularly delightful example is Die Heilige Insel (The Holy Island, 1917). This kind of book would have been well-received during this heyday of Europe’s fascination with fairies.

Will Cadby – Die Heilige Insel (1917) (1)

Will Cadby – Die Heilige Insel (1917) (2)

It is remarkable that there have been so many books published in various languages containing images of little girls accompanied by poetic description. What follows are excerpts from de la Mare’s writing followed by the image that appears on the opposing page. We are introduced to our subject thus:

But nevertheless, as sweet as I can,
I’ll sing a song to Elizabeth Ann—
The same little Ann as there you see
Smiling as happy as happy can be.
And all that my song is meant to say
Is just what she did one long, long day,
With her own little self to play with only,
Yet never once felt the least bit lonely.

Will and Carine Cadby – A Child’s Day (1912) (1)

… At last from the pillow,
With cheeks bright red,
Out comes her round little
Touseled head;
And out she tumbles
From her warm bed. …

Will and Carine Cadby – A Child’s Day (1912) (2)

… So in her lonesome,
Slippety, bare,
Elizabeth Ann’s
Splash—splashing there;
And now from the watery
Waves amonje
Stands slooshing herself
With that ‘normous sponge.

Will and Carine Cadby – A Child’s Day (1912) (3)

… But sailing the world’s wide ocean round,
In a big broad bale from Turkey bound,
All for the sake of Elizabeth Ann
This towel’s been sent by a Mussulman,
And with might and main she must rub—rub—rub—
Till she’s warm and dry from her morning tub.

Will and Carine Cadby – A Child’s Day (1912) (4)

Now twelve above,
And twice six beneath,
She must polish and polish
Her small, sharp teeth.
The picture, you see,
Entirely fails
To show how nicely
She nipped her nails. …

Will and Carine Cadby – A Child’s Day (1912) (5)

Here all we see
Is Ann’s small nose,
A smile, two legs,
And ten pink toes,
Neatly arranged
In two short rows.

Will and Carine Cadby – A Child’s Day (1912) (6)

… Yet—though, of course, ‘twould be vain to tell a-
Nother word about Cinderella—
Except for a Mouse on the chimney shelf,
She put on her slippers quite—quite by herself,
And I can’t help thinking the greater pleasure
Is to dress in haste, and look lovely at leisure.
Certainly summer or winter, Ann
Always dresses as quick as she can.

Will and Carine Cadby – A Child’s Day (1912) (7)

And there she is (on the other side),
The last button buttoned, the last tape tied.
Her silky hair has perched upon it
A flat little two-stringed linen bonnet.
Each plump brown leg that comes out of her frock
Hides its foot in a shoe and a sock.

Will and Carine Cadby – A Child’s Day (1912) (8)

… While all the pigs
From York to Devon,
Have finished their wash
Before half-past seven.
But Elizabeth Ann
Gets up so late
She has only begun
At half-past eight
To gobble her porridge up— …

Will and Carine Cadby – A Child’s Day (1912) (9)

The following passage does not seem to make sense. Throughout the book, de la Mare incorporates the girl’s activities with those of wild beasts as in the pig reference above. In this case, it seems the poet did not have anything to say about the image itself.

… But Time, she nods her head—
Like flights of the butterfly,
Mammoths fade through her hours;
And Man draws nigh.
And it’s ages and ages ago;
Felled are the forests in ruin;
Gone are the thickets where lived on his lone
Old Bruin.

Will and Carine Cadby – A Child’s Day (1912) (10)

When safe into the fields Ann got,
She chose a dappled, shady spot,
Beside a green rush-bordered pool,
Where, over water still and cool,
The little twittering birds did pass,
Like shadows in a looking-glass. …

Will and Carine Cadby – A Child’s Day (1912) (11)

Please to look and see it there,
Dangling in her fleecy hair.

Will and Carine Cadby – A Child’s Day (1912) (12)

… “Happy, happy it is to be
Where the greenwood hangs o’er the dark blue sea;
To roam in the moonbeams clear and still
And dance with the elves
Over dale and hill;
To taste their cups, and with them roam
The fields for dewdrops and honeycomb.
Climb then, and come, as quick as you can,
And dwell with the fairies, Elizabeth Ann!” …

Will and Carine Cadby – A Child’s Day (1912) (13)

But this little morsel of morsels here—
Just what it is is just not clear: …
… But it’s all the same to Elizabeth Ann.
For when one’s hungry, it doesn’t much matter
So long as there’s (something) on one’s platter.

Will and Carine Cadby – A Child’s Day (1912) (14)

Now fie! O fie! How sly a face!
Half greedy joy, and half disgrace;
O foolish Ann, O greedy finger;
To long for that forbidden ginger! …

Will and Carine Cadby – A Child’s Day (1912) (15)

… And see! That foolish Ann’s forgot
To put the cover on the pot;
And also smeared—the heedless ninny—
Her sticky fingers on her pinny.
And, O dear me! Without a doubt,
Mamma has found the culprit out. …

Will and Carine Cadby – A Child’s Day (1912) (16)

… And here upon the stroke of three,
Half-way ‘twixt dinner-time and tea,
Cosily tucked in her four-legged chair,
With nice clean hands and smooth brushed hair,
In some small secret nursery nook,
She sits with her big Picture book. …

Will and Carine Cadby – A Child’s Day (1912) (17)

As soon as ever twilight comes,
Ann creeps upstairs to pass,
With one tall candle, just an hour
Before her looking-glass.
She rummages old wardrobes in,
Turns dusty boxes out;
And nods and curtsies, dances, sings,
And hops and skips about. …

Will and Carine Cadby – A Child’s Day (1912) (18)

… But now, dear me!
What’s this we see?
A dreadful G—
H—O—S—T!
A-glowering with
A chalk-white face
Out of some dim
And dismal place. …

Will and Carine Cadby – A Child’s Day (1912) (19)

“But now, my dear, for gracious sake!
Eat up this slice of currant cake;
Though certain sure, you’ll soon be screaming
For me to come—and find you dreaming. …”

Will and Carine Cadby – A Child’s Day (1912) (20)

But soon as Nurse’s back was turned
Ann’s idle thumbs for mischief yearned.
See now, those horrid scissors, oh,
If they should slip an inch or so!
If Ann should jog or jerk—suppose,
They snipped off her small powdery nose! …

Will and Carine Cadby – A Child’s Day (1912) (21)

But higgledy-piggledy
Slovenly Ann
Jumps out of her clothes
As fast as she can;
And with frock, sock, shoe,
Flung anywhere,
Slips from dressupedness
Into her bare. …

Will and Carine Cadby – A Child’s Day (1912) (22)

… This brief day now over;
Life’s but a span;
Tell how my heart aches,
Tell how my heart breaks,
To bid now farewell
To Elizabeth Ann. …

Will and Carine Cadby – A Child’s Day (1912) (23)

I was informed that there was some confusion about the date.  I had originally placed the date of 1913 for A Child’s Day which may have been confused with a film produced that year.  A colleague has informed me that the first edition was published in 1912 by Constable and was in a 12″ by 9¾” format, while the second edition was 9¾” by 7¾” and published in 1915 with a third reprint in 1920—sometimes referred to as the second edition by those who are now reproducing copies of many of these books with expired copyrights.

Official Walter de la Mare Society Website

Francis Chantrey: The Sleeping Children

In a corner of Lichfield Cathedral (Lichfield, Staffordshire, England) lies since 1817 a white marble statue depicting two girls asleep in each other’s arms on a bed. It was carved by the sculptor Francis Legatt Chantrey, who presented it at the Royal Academy Art Exhibition of 1816, and it is considered one of his finest works. Behind and above the statue stands a black marble plaque, see the following image (from Wikipedia, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license):

Francis Chantrey - The Sleeping Children (1817) - photographed for Wikipedia by Bs0u10e01 (8 June 2011)

Francis Chantrey – The Sleeping Children (1817) – photographed for Wikipedia by Bs0u10e01 (8 June 2011)

It represents the tribute of a bereaved woman to her deceased family. Ellen-Jane Robinson (née Woodhouse) lost her husband, the Reverend William Robinson, in 1812. Then she witnessed the death of her eldest daughter, also named Ellen-Jane, in 1813, followed by her younger daughter, Marianne, in 1814. She commissioned Francis Chantrey to immortalize the two girls; she told him of how in the past she had watched as her daughters fell asleep in each other’s arms, and this was how she wanted them remembered. She took inspiration from the monument to Penelope Boothby by Thomas Banks in St. Oswald’s Church, Ashbourne; thus Chantrey visited it before starting his work. The black marble plate is dedicated to her husband William Robinson. The next image (also from Wikipedia, copyright-free) shows the statue from another angle:

Francis Chantrey - The Sleeping Children (1817) - photographed for Wikipedia by Villafanuk (15 February 2006)

Francis Chantrey – The Sleeping Children (1817) – photographed for Wikipedia by Villafanuk (15 February 2006)

Note that Brooke Boothby, Penelope’s father, was also involved with the Lichfield Cathedral, in particular for the purchase of its 16th-century stained glass in 1801. There is another link between the two sculptures: poetry. In 1796, Brooke Boothby published a collection of poems grieving his daughter: Sorrows. Sacred to the Memory of Penelope. A transcription (by Bonita Billman) of a selection of 8 sonnets was published on Internet by Sonnet Central and by Wikisource. I corrected one of them and transcribed 6 other sonnets and one elegy in three blog posts (here, here and here). In 1826 the poet William Lisle Bowles wrote the poem “Chantrey’s Sleeping Children” about the Lichfield Cathedral sculpture (see also Wikipedia).

The following beautiful close-up photograph was used to illustrate the poem “Norse Lullaby” by Eugene Field (1850–1895), which repeats the refrain “Sleep, little one, sleep”. The strangest of it all is that it appeared in a blog “dedicated to sleep and sleep disorders, particularly obstructive sleep apnea“, and the post with the poem and picture has its title starting with “Three Steps to Sleep”, with categories “dreams”, “sleep”, “sleep apnea” and “sleep disorders”! I doubt whether poetry has ever been used to cure sleep apnea, but this would certainly represent the most charming form of medicine.

Francis Chantrey - The Sleeping Children (1817) - from cpapsociety.com

Francis Chantrey – The Sleeping Children (1817) – from cpapsociety.com

In 2008, Branislav L. Slantchev made a photo report on the Lichfield cathedral; it contains a wide-angle photograph of the statue under the church’s stained glass, and a close-up of the two children’s faces; both are copyrighted by the author.

Acknowledgement. This post originated from a comment to my Penelope Boothby post by the blogger DR Walker. His post dated July 26th 2015 contains several photographs of the Boothby monument and of the Sleeping Children.

Ernest Dowson and the Cult of Minnie Terry

Ernest Christopher Dowson (1867-1900) ranks among the best English poets of the last decade of the 19th century, but he remains little known outside a small circle of amateurs. He belonged to a group of young authors who thought of themselves as “the movement” or “the fin de siècle.” They appreciated “art for art’s sake” and viewed literature as a purely aesthetic activity, devoid of any moral or political message, expressing the inner personality of the author and to be appreciated only for its style. In poetry, they were influenced by French Symbolists, in particular Paul Verlaine for whom verses had to be like an incantation, where the musicality of the words matters more than the ideas that they carry. This view was in opposition to the canons of Victorian literature, where any work had to contain a denunciation of sin or injustice and implicitly call for moral or social reform. Hence this group of young writers earned from their detractors the label of “Decadents”.

Dowson’s poetry has a sparkling character, using repetitions of sounds, as in nursery rhymes: “Violets and leaves of vine / We gather and entwine” (A Coronal), or repeated groups of words, as in songs: “But the spring of the soul, the spring of the soul, / Cometh no more for you or for me. / … / But the flowers of the soul, the flowers of the soul, / For you and for me bloom never again.”  (In Spring). It relies also on the contrast obtained by putting together unrelated words: “They are not long, the days of wine and roses” (Vitae summa brevis spem nos vetat incohare longam), “I cried for madder music and for stronger wine” (Non sum qualis eram bonae sub regno Cynarae, the so-called Cynara poem). It contains also many elegant evocations of love and sensuality: “Let’s kiss when kissing pleases / And part when kisses pall” (To His Mistress).

Ernest Dowson contributed to modern culture in quite unexpected ways. He is credited with inventing the word “soccer”, although he spelled it “socca” or “socker” (The Letters of Ernest Dowson, no. 13 and no. 91). Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel Gone with the Wind owes its title to a sentence in Dowson’s Cynara poem: “I have forgot much, Cynara! gone with the wind / Flung roses, roses riotously with the throng”. This novel was adapted into a famous 1939 Hollywood film directed by Victor Fleming, starring Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh.

Ernest Dowson suffered from both bad health and shaky mood. As writes Desmond Flower in his Preface to New Letters from Ernest Dowson: “From his parents he inherited two destructive factors. From his mother a deep sense of depression … which caused her to commit suicide. From his father he inherited tuberculosis from which both of them died.” Indeed his father, whose health declined, died in 1894 of a drug overdose, but many suspected a suicide; then his mother took her own life in 1895. Years later his friend Conal O’Riordan wrote in a letter to Flower (see the Introduction to The Letters of Ernest Dowson): “I recall Ernest showing a photograph of his mother to me and I was moved to tears (being barely twenty-one at the time) by something extraordinarily pathetic in her charming face.” The following photograph taken in 1868 (scanned from The Letters of Ernest Dowson) shows the 9 month old Ernest on his mother’s lap, and one can see the deep sorrow in her eyes:

Artist Unknown - Ernest Dowson and mother (1868)

Artist Unknown – Ernest Dowson and mother (1868)

The legal proceedings for the inheritance of his parents took many years, so Ernest could not get his share of it. Although potentially a rich man, in reality he lived rather poorly and he died at age 32 from tuberculosis and neglect.

Now followers of Pigtails in Paint will be interested to learn that Dowson loved and worshipped little girls, and several of his poems center about girl love. He was, to repeat his own words about the lawyer William Clarke Hall (Letters, no. 115), “a charming person & properly a worshipper & devout follower of the most excellent cult of la Fillette.” (“la Fillette” means “the Little Girl” in French; Dowson spent a great deal of his childhood in France, thus he spoke French fluently.)

In 1889, Dowson worked in the family business, a dry dock on the river Thames located in a suburb of London. Once a little girl brought some joy in his tedious management work there (Letters, no. 5): “I have discovered an adorable child here, hailing from one of the three publics that surround us on either side—’which pleases me mightily’ as Pepys would say. It is astonishing how pretty & delicate the children of the proletariate are—when you consider their atrocious after-growth. Of course it is the same in all classes but the contrast is more glaring in Limehouse. This child hath 6 years & is my frequent visitor, especially since she has realised that my desk contains chocolates.”

After office hours he would work as sub-editor and dramatic critic for a moribund journal, The Critic; this position allowed him to get free tickets for any play showing and, as an avid theatre-goer, he took advantage of this opportunity. Thus he could admire child actresses on stage and he expressed his devotion for them in a peculiar way: by throwing chocolates at them. He seems to have corresponded with some of them, maybe with Mabel Vance (Letters, no. 16 and 153), but certainly with “Little Flossie”, a 9-year-old American actress billed as “the American marvel”, to whom he referred in his letters to Arthur Moore as “ma petite Californienne” (Letters, no. 1, 2, 5 and 17).

But his favourite child actress was Minnie Terry. Born in 1882, she belonged to the third generation of the famous Terry family of actors. As a devoted fan, Dowson watched all plays in which she acted, collected her photographs and various souvenirs about her. He nicknamed her “Mignon” (for her role in the play Bootle’s Baby), “la petite” or “la chère petite”. Below is a 1889 photograph of the 7-year-old Minnie, taken for The Theatre, available at the National Portrait Gallery.

Herbert Rose Barraud - Minnie Terry (1889)

Herbert Rose Barraud – Minnie Terry (1889)

The following two photographs, from the Victoria & Albert Museum, show Minnie Terry in the role of Mignon in Bootles’ Baby.

Artist Unknown - Minnie Terry as Mignon (1888) (1)

Artist Unknown – Minnie Terry as Mignon (1888) (1)

Artist Unknown - Minnie Terry as Mignon (1888) (2)

Artist Unknown – Minnie Terry as Mignon (1888) (2)

Another one shows Minnie Terry as Mignon, with actor C.W. Garthorne (Charles Warlhouse Grimston) as Captain Lucy, in Bootle’s Baby.

Elliott & Fry - Minnie Terry as Mignon and C.W. Garthorne as Captain Lucy in Bootle's Baby (1888)

Elliott & Fry – Minnie Terry as Mignon and C.W. Garthorne as Captain Lucy in Bootle’s Baby (1888)

This picture of the two, from the National Portrait Gallery, is probably also from the same play.

Elliott & Fry - C.W. Garthorne and Minnie Terry (undated)

Elliott & Fry – C.W. Garthorne and Minnie Terry (c1888)

Edit: There is an illustrated version of the book on which this play is based available on the Internet Archive site.  There was also a silent film released in 1914, in which the “Baby” was played by Margaret O’Meara. – Pip

Dowson wrote in The Critic dated 25 May 1889 a review of the play A White Lie (see Appendix A of Letters), in which he gave a dithyrambic eulogy of her role as Daisy Desmond, praising her perfection and spontaneity—even saying that at a critical moment she saved the play from the false note of some adult actor. Here is a photograph of Minnie Terry as Daisy Desmond, from the National Portrait Gallery.

Elliott & Fry - Minnie Terry as Daisy Desmond (1889)

Elliott & Fry – Minnie Terry as Daisy Desmond (1889)

Finally, from the Victoria & Albert Museum, a picture of Minnie Terry in the play On a Doorstep.

Alfred Ellis - Minnie Terry in On a Doorstep (undated)

Alfred Ellis – Minnie Terry in On a Doorstep (c1890)

A famous contemporary of Dowson, also an avid theatre-goer, did not share his enthusiasm for Minnie Terry. According to Hugues Lebailly’s article “Charles Dodgson and the Victorian Cult of the Child“, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) noted in his Diaries on Monday 2 July 1888 that he felt “a little disappointed” with Minnie Terry’s ‘Mignon’ in Bootle’s Baby, deploring that she “recite[d] her speeches, not very clearly, without looking at the person addressed”.

In the summer of 1889, an amendment was proposed to the Protection of Children bill that would have banned employing children under 10 years as actors on stage. Charles Dodgson wrote an article entitled “Stage Children” in The Theatre of 2 September 1889, explaining that playing on stage was a way for poor children to earn some money for their family while having fun at the same time. He “went on suggesting a long list of sensible measures that would secure their schooling, as well as their physical and moral health and safety, most of which were taken up in the final version of the amendment passed later that year” (Lebailly). On the other hand, Dowson wrote in The Critic of 17 August 1889 an article entitled “The Cult of the Child”, in which he stated that children under ten have by nature superior acting capacities, while among adult actors such talents are the exception. He cited Minnie Terry’s role in Bootle’s Baby as an example.

To Dowson, Minnie Terry represented the perfect model for the little girl, as he wrote (Letters, no. 68): “I’ve been kissing my hand aimlessly from the window to une petite demoiselle of my acquaintance—also par exemple a Minnie & presque aussi gentille as her prototype. This has temporarily revived me”.

His devotion to little girls was exclusive, it did not extend to teenagers or adult women. In his correspondence, he expressed his fear of girls growing up into adulthood (New Letters, no. D1, Letters, no. 53). In 1889, he tried “experiments” of platonic love with two teenage girls: first Lena, a barmaid, then Bertha van Raalte, the daughter of a tobacconist. But these relations did not last long; Dowson was not really motivated.

Dowson showed a rather cynical attitude towards adult women; he seemed to have a purely sexual interest in them, which he likened to debauchery and drinking alcohol (Letters, no. 4, 46, and 68). This shows also in his poetry. For instance, in the Cynara poem, one reads “Upon my soul between the kisses and the wine” and “Surely the kisses of her bought red mouth were sweet”. And in the later poem Rondeau, he rejects the “wine-stained lip” of a woman for the “white roses of virginity”. Indeed, it is probable that many of his sexual encounters happened with prostitutes or women he met in bars.

Being fed up with women, he finally confided to Arthur Moore his resolution (Letters, no. 78): “Methinks I will swear off wine & women & weeds & lates hours & confine myself to the writing of the r.o & the cult of Minnie Terry.” (Probably “the r.o” refers to the novel he was writing with Moore). Here are two pictures of Minnie Terry as a kind of romantic pin-up, typical of the Victorian child cult.

Elliott & Fry - Minnie Terry with a dog (undated)

Elliott & Fry – Minnie Terry with a dog (c1889)

Artist Unknown - Minnie Terry (undated)

Artist Unknown – Minnie Terry (c1888)

However, within a few months, fate would have Dowson giving up his cult of Minnie Terry. In November 1889, he entered a cheap Polish restaurant held by Joseph Foltinowicz, located at 19 Sherwood Street in Soho, at the back of the present Regent Palace Hotel. “I discovered it. It is cheap; the cuisine is fair; I am the whole clientele, and there is a little Polish demoiselle therein (Minnie at 5st 7—not quite that) whom it is a pleasure to sit & look at.” (Letters, no. 73) The “little Polish demoiselle” was Adelaide, the proprietor’s daughter, aged eleven and a half years, whom he nicknamed “Missie” or “Missy”. He would soon fall in love with her and, quite unexpectedly, he would continue to love her as she grew into her teens (cf. the poem Growth). Although she rejected his marriage proposal and eventually married another man in 1897, his feelings for her did not abate. That is how Ernest Dowson became the great poet of love that we now know. This is a very long story that will be told on another occasion.

References and further readings:

See also: What’s in a Name? Charles Dodgson

More material on Ernest Dowson in Agapeta.

Ode to a Sick Little Girl: Paul Goodman

It’s funny how things can just fall into one’s lap.  Right when Pip inaugurated his “Drawn and Quoted” theme, I happen to see a wonderful documentary called Paul Goodman Changed My Life produced by Jonathan Lee and released in 2011.

Paul Goodman (1911-1972) was an interesting man and perhaps a largely forgotten American poet, philosopher and a number of other things depending on whom you ask. Among his prolific work, perhaps his novel Growing Up Absurd published in 1960 put him in the spotlight during an emerging youth movement.  Although his wife did not particularly care, Goodman badly wanted children and he treasured his first-born little girl Susie.  In 1956 she was afflicted with polio and Goodman devotedly stayed by her side. Perhaps delirious from lack of sleep, he wrote this poem about his feelings and experience.  He shared it with the public at a talk at the Library of Congress in 1957.

MY DAUGHTER VERY ILL

My little darling looked so pale today
fading away
pining and thin like the transparent moon
in the afternoon,
I cannot sleep, obsessed by Susie’s colorless
cheerless face
and bony body in my arms too light,
she who was bright
and comparable to the meadowflowers,
alas! that the mowers
passed and did not spare, their petals droop
—my shoulders stoop
for fear and neither can I breathe for fear.
Nay!  Hear my prayer,
Nature!  who alone healest and not wishes
nor art nor pity,
and do thou, Creator Spirit, visit her
with the quick future
that alone stirs to courage and to walk
and to work.

paul-goodman-my-daughter-very-ill-19571

(Artist Unknown) – Susie Afflicted with Polio (1956)

J. R. Witzel and Fritz Hegenbart

Back to Jugend today.  These are both from the same issue of the magazine.

j-r

J. R. Witzel – Untitled – Jugend No. 52 (1896)

Ordinarily I would remove the text surrounding an image, but in this case it’s verse with plenty of white space, and I like the layout here:

Fritz Hegenbart – Das Kind unter dem Christbaum – Jugend No. 52 (1896)

Fritz Hegenbart – Das Kind unter dem Christbaum – Jugend No. 52 (1896)

See also: earlier J. R. Witzel post