L’Inconnue de la Seine

Posted on May 26, 2011
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This is an extraordinary story, beautiful in a very strange way, though haunting, moving and Sisyphean in its resolution.

From madmikesamerica.com

She was found at the dawn of a new century – a young girl, drowned, hauled from the Seine in the grim light of a grey autumn morning.

The custom for handling a pauper of the river was to quickly make a wax death mask before decay added to the depredations of the water, then store the body and retain the mask for a few months for viewing. If the victim remained unidentified and unclaimed, the wax from the mask would be used for another waif pulled from the waters, and the body buried in a pauper’s grave. Sadly, this was the girl’s most likely fate; even if her identity was discovered, it was unlikely that her family could afford to take her.

At least this one looked at peace – so few floaters did. And the wax death mask that was hastily cast was also hauntingly beautiful in its expression. The girl’s face had retained a small, serene, almost enigmatic smile, as though she knew a secret which not even death could wrest from her. She was a waxen Mona Lisa sprung from a watery grave on a cold October day.

The mask maker, unable to dismiss the sweetness of her face from his mind, took a journalist friend to the catacombs where the masks were kept – and so a legend was born. The tale was told thus: here was the face of an unknown girl who, for unknown reasons – perhaps a pain too great to bear, perhaps a cruel twist of fate – had been taken to the bosom of the great river to sleep her final sleep. Her remains were unclaimed, her identity unknown. In death, she was as sympathetic as she was mysterious.

Like all good legends at their inception, bare bones to be clothed in any way one chose, her story appealed to those who were moved by her fragile loveliness and the tragedy of her lonely death. As the tale spread, it caught the imagination of the continent. Replicas of the mask were made and remade, the girl’s story told and retold, novels written about the mystery of her short life and tragic death. It was said that her visage set the standard of beauty for a whole generation of young German women. On and on her legend rolled, until the Great War swept her aside in a tide of horror and blood and loss even more powerful than the heedless flow of the Seine.

And so for many years she rested – in neglected corners of old houses, propped in the dusty windows of junk shops, discarded, chipped, and dirty in boxes of bric-a-brac destined for the trash heap. Not exactly forgotten, not exactly remembered, her mortal remains long consigned to the Potter’s Field, her face relegated to the place in the Zeitgeist occupied by people in old photographs and unworshipped gods. A fitful sleep, but a sleep of sorts nonetheless.

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