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Friday, September 05, 2008

THE MAIDS

I don’t know why the case of “The Two Maids” fascinates me, but it always has. It begins and ends with a mystery. On the evening of Thursday, February second, 1933, Monsieur Rene Lancine, a retired lawyer living outside of Le Mans, France, became concerned when his wife and eldest daughter, Genevieve, did not arrive at a friend’s house for a planned dinner party. He had not seen them since morning but he knew they were both looking forward to the dinner, and when they failed to arrive he anxiously returned home
He found all the doors of his home locked and the house dark- except for what looked like a single candle burning in the attic room where two servant girls slept. M. Lancine was concerned enough that he immediately went to the police station. Several officers accompanied M. Lancine home again, and one officer climbed over the back wall of the house and thus gained entrance. In side, on the landing half way up the main staircase, were the battered and mutilated bodies of Madam and Mademoiselle Lancine, still wearing their coats and gloves. The murder weapons were scattered about the landing, dropped from the hands that had wielded them; a kitchen knife, a hammer, and a heavy pewter pot. But the bludgeoning had only been part of the assault.. The eminent psychiatrist Jazues Lacan put it succinctly; “They tore out their eyes as Bacchantes castrate their victims.” One of the daughter’s eyes was found on the carpet. Both of Madam Lancine’s eyes were found in the folds of her scarf, still around her neck. And in the bare attic room the police discovered the two servant girls, Christine and Lea Papin, naked and huddled together in one bed. The police wrapped them in bathrobes and brought them in for questioning. Already the press photographers were showing up. Both girls readily admitted to having committed the murders. But they failed to offer an explanation for the brutal slaughter.The case was an immediate sensation and a cause celebre’ for every side of the moral and political debate in France - to the Paris tabloids the sisters were “The Monsters of Le Mans” and “Les Arracheuses d’Yeux” (The Eye Gougers), and the murders were “…the most terrifying and cruel murders ever committed.” Jean Genet, author of “Waiting for Godot” was inspired by the trial to write a play, “The Maids” in which he has Christine say, “Madame likes us like she likes her armchairs. And maybe not that much!” Simone de Beauvior commented, “…there are no doubt women who deducted the cost of a broken plate from their maid’s wages, who put on white gloves to find forgotten specks of dust on the furniture:…one must accuse their childhood orphanage, their serfdom, the whole hideous system set up by decent people for the production of madmen, assassins and monsters.” And to the new science of psychology there were dark undertones of incest and the assault upon the victim’s eyes was thought significant. The case was a theatre d’ete (a summer theatre), or perhaps a sarriette (a summer treat), in much the same way that the murder of Sandra Levy and the O.J. Simpson trial were to be a half century later. But after 77 years the central mystery of the Papin sisters remains; why?The sisters were born into the brutal and cruel life of the French peasantry, still common in rural France between the World Wars. It was a life with little education, and what passed for a social safety net was administered by the Catholic Church as charity and moral lesson. There were originally three Papin sisters. The eldest daughter, Emilia, had been raped by her drunken father when she was nine years old. The mother had divorced the beast, but that threw the family into bitter poverty. Emilia had been sent to a nunnery and she rarely saw her family again. The mother hired out as a house maid. The younger sisters were sent to an orphanage. And when Lea and Christine were thought to be old enough (their early teens) they too became servants. As often as possible the sisters worked together. But after a few years they no longer spoke to their mother.When the Papin sisters moved into the Lancine home, Christine was 24 and Lea just 20. They had worked in several other homes around La Mans, and had good work records. And they worked for the Lancine family for seven years without trouble. Mademoiselle Lancine was known to be strict about cleanliness, and often ran one of her white gloves across surfaces to check the sisters’ work. But the only thing that might have been unusual about that particular afternoon was that mademoiselle and madam must have come home unexpectedly. It was then that the rulers of the home would have discovered that the fuses had been blown by a badly repaired electric iron. It was that relative minor inconvenience which had somehow precipitated the explosion of bloody violence on the landing.After their arrests, the sisters were separated. Christine began to wail and cry out for her sister. After several days they were allowed contact again, and Christine showered Lea with kisses. The doctors sent to examine the girls decided that Lea was a simpleton and that Christine was mentally and emotionally unstable. At one point Christine became so distraught at the separation that she tried to gouge her own eyes out and had to be restrained in a straight jacket. When their trial finally came in September of 1933 Christine was sentenced to the guillotine, but this was later commuted to life in prison. Being alone again in prison she went into a profound depression and stopped eating for long periods. She lost weight. Eventually she was transferred to an insane asylum, where in 1937 she died of “cahexia”, a diagnoses which basically meant that she simply gave up fighting to stay alive. Lea was sentenced to ten years of hard labor, of which she served eight. After she was released, Lea was reunited with her mother and they moved south to Nantes, where Lea worked as a chamber maid at a hotel under an assumed name. She died in 2000.It is a sad story, and I have not more than touched on the details here. It highlights a world now long gone, and the life of two bourgeoisie peasant girls, born into a universe that seems to have had little use for them until they achieved fame by doing something despicable. And the instant they did it no longer mattered who the Papin sisters really were. At that point they became merely characters in someone else’s play.
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1 comment:

  1. Basically people treating other people as no more than dogs,sometimes people snap and cannot take it no more.Is it as mundane as that?The Papins may have felt outrage after having done their chores,and through no fault of their own the iron broke,and the attitude of their so superior employers to this fact was more than they could take....You people need chastising most strongly and we are going to do it.Ye git me?

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