Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Ada Leigh: Heroine of the Belle Époque by Imogen Robertson

Henri Brisport - Les Belles au parc Monceau, 1908

I’m editing my latest book at the moment. It is set largely in Paris during the winter of 1909 / 1910 and my lead character is a young English woman studying art at one of the women only ateliers. The pleasure of any sort of writing is to loose yourself in a different world and the Paris of the Belle Époque has been a fascinating place to spend a year, if somewhat dazzling. I’ve been overwhelmed with material, photographs and films, travel guides and memoirs but as always it has been the accidental discovery that has made the biggest impression. 

Librairie Stock, Paris, rue Saint-Honoré, 1909
I spent the first part of my research period at the London Library, and knowing the Paris floods of 1910 were going to play a big part in the final novel, I was browsing through their copies of the Times from January of that year. Before I’d even opened the page to the foreign news section though, my eye was snagged by one of the Special Announcements on the front page. The Ada Leigh Homes in Paris for English and American girls were acknowledging donations and asking for more, saying this: ‘The Homes have sheltered 22,723 Young Women who might otherwise have lived at questionable lodgings.’ At first I imagined an institution, deeply religious and probably unnecessary. Who were these women who had so much to fear from questionable lodgings? What did that even mean exactly? Still, the announcement was intriguing. Everything I had been reading about Paris up to that point had been soaked in champagne and the new electric lights, recommendations for the best hotels, tea-rooms reserved for ladies and the most useful omnibus routes for tourists. The poor were only mentioned to provide a contrast with the diamonds and satin of the customers crossing the pavement to the Café de Paris, or to add a little colour such as the cries of the street sellers pushing their carts. True, in reading the biographies of artists of the time one saw a certain sort of poverty, but it was a bohemian poverty still glamourised even when it was sordid and full of men and their mistresses arguing over the café tables of Monmartre. The heroine of my book was middle-class but with little money. She would not be at home in either setting and the story of those Young Women, English and American that the advert suggested were in Paris, and in need in great numbers didn’t seem to have made it to the literature I was reading. 

James Wilson Morrice - Street Scene Paris Pink Sky, 1908
I looked for more information on the homes and found, well very little, but in the end I found in the British Library a thin volume by Mrs Travers Lewis, Ada Leigh herself in fact called ‘Homeless in Paris.’ It had been printed as part of her fund raising activities. I started to read and it was one of those moments when a voice from a century ago speaks so clearly and fearlessly across the years, the emotion is a little like falling in love. 

The book tells the story of how Ada, an upper-middle class young woman, very religious from the first, came to spend most of her life in Paris caring for the destitute. Her story begins when, staying in Paris, she found the girl selling her gloves in the department store was English, and was not aware that there was an English chapel in the city. Ada offered to spend her Sundays reading the bible with the girl and any of her friends who wished to come. It was in this way she discovered any number of English women were living in Paris working six days a week for only their bed and board, and were locked out of their boarding houses on Sunday from sunrise to sunset. Some of these women started to come to study with her, she fed them too, and she began approaching others on the street, pressing invitations into their hands signed ‘from one who cares for you’. They told her ‘such sad stories I could not sleep.’

Gwen John - Chloe Boughton-Leigh, 1904-08
By 1873 she had moved to France and set  up a hostel for women in need. She did not ask questions or lecture, she simply cared for those who needed it and prayed for them, which probably won her a great deal more converts than haranguing them would have done. She dealt with drunks and pimps, went and collected girls out of brothels and opened a free registry for her charges to find respectable work. All this in face of deep opposition from her family to whom the idea of her, an unmarried woman, employed in such work was shocking. She was told that a gentlewoman’s name should only appear in public papers when she was ‘born, married and departed,’ and here was she openly campaigning for money. She asked where the more suitable candidates might be found, and as there was no one else willing to step forward she gained her point. Even her father was eventually won round. 

What makes her little book so remarkable to me though is the way she gives the women she helps their own voices. For instance she quotes one woman saying: ‘I hate Christian people… they build fine institutions for us when we are lost. Who will build one to prevent our being so?’  Another, an American girl brought over as a governess then dismissed with a pay off of 20 francs threw herself in the Seine. She told Ada, ‘It was not that I wished to die, but I did not know how to live.’ That girl did not recover from the illness that followed her suicide attempt. At other times Ada reports her cards offering help and prayer were handed back to her with the dry comment ‘give it to one of the new girls.’

Rue de Rivoli 1907
That book told me more about the loneliness and isolation that could overcome a stranger in Paris than anything else I came across in my research. I also developed a deep respect for this woman, her courage and generosity. Ada saved many lives and gave comfort to those in great need. She married in 1889 and was widowed in 1901 but was actively involved in the management of the homes until her death in 1931. She is all but forgotten now despite the many thousands of women she saved. She should be celebrated.

8 comments:

Katherine Langrish said...

What an amazing woman - thankyou for this! I'd love to read her story.

Penny Dolan said...

Imogen, this such an interesting. I am really looking forward to reading your book about the brave and hopeful Ada Leigh. Does it have any publication date yet?

Your observation about the main Parisian stories being about the rich or the bohemians - often scions of the rich it seems to me - with the poor as background extras and sound effects is a point well made.

Deborah Watley said...

Wow! What a woman! Thanks for bringing her story to light.

And, isn't it interesting how research often leads us to unexpected places?

Susan Price said...

Thank you, Imogen. Ada Leigh is a true heroine - one who saw what should be done, and did it, despite opposition. It's shocking that someone so brave and compassionate should be so forgotten.

Joan Lennon said...

Fascinating - thank you for posting about her!

Imogen said...

Thanks, all. If I ever write a non-fiction book, it will be about her! I have a fictionalised version of Ada in the new book Penny, but she really deserves a volume of her own. My book will probably be out Spring 2013...

adele said...

Lovely post and wonderful to meet Ada Leigh! I love the Belle Epoque and that is one of the times in History which I'd love to visit...

Leslie Wilson said...

I will look forward to reading your book! Ada Leigh sounds like a wonderful woman, one in a million. Great blog!