In Susanna Forrest’s Écuryères series, she unearths the lost stories of the transgressive horsewomen of turn-of-the-century Paris.
Jenny de Rahden lies on the bed, half raised on an elbow. A gray-haired man who shares her elegant, strong-nosed profile—her father—stands over her, and behind him the room becomes shadow. In the photograph, Jenny lies on a strange counterpane, so great that it conceals the bed itself. Its overspilling edges are frilled, and it is white with large, dark, irregular spots. It has a curly, straggling tail: a horse in the invalid’s bedroom. She is thirty and she is blind, lying on the hide of the Hungarian stallion Csárdás, who carried her when she made her circus debut as a haute école or dressage performer. One day, she writes in her memoir, they’ll wrap Csárdás’s rough coat, the crackling hide that covered his aging, dipping back, around her and place her in her coffin. She hopes it comes soon.
Most of the écuyères or horsewomen of the nineteenth-century circus left no trace of their own thoughts behind. Jenny de Rahden wrote a book. Whether she did it because she needed money or needed to put down her own side of the story after years of being spoken for in the European press—or both—is unknowable but she called it a roman or novel. I can’t tell how much of it is genuine. Jenny lived in an era before fact-checking and though her life was undoubtedly tragic, her style is sometimes melodramatic. “Does life really throw up these bizarreries, of which novelists and playwrights seem to possess the only secret?” she asks at one point. Perhaps calling it a novel gave her freedom to rewrite a messier past and fit it into more conventional romantic feminine tropes, rejecting the saltier stories written about circus horsewomen by male writers of the period. She was, after all, writing in 1902 when the century had barely turned and respectability remained a stifling life vest for women. She’d known its constrictions and buoyancy since birth: Jenny was not circus-born and she had become an artiste to support her father when he bankrupted them by gambling on the stock exchange. As a performer, her reputation as a lady was constantly at risk, not least because she supported not one but two men with her earnings. This dance around sex, money, masculinity, and respectability deformed her whole life—and resulted in a murder in her name.
Le Roman de l’Écuyère tells a familiar tale of a girl from a good family whose mother, as in the best fairy tales, died on hearing her first cries on a stormy night full of omens, and a father who, like Beauty’s, ruined the family with foolish business decisions. The good heroine refused to sell herself in a marriage that would restore the family, and instead bought three magical horses with the last gift her mother left her: an Arabian, a Trakehner, and the spotted Csárdás. Aged just seventeen, she took her father and her faithful aunt Tantante from Breslau (then part of the German Empire, now Wrocław in Poland) to Riga where a circus director and his jealous wife cheated her and stole one of her horses, and a distinguished gentleman at a local newspaper came to her aid like an excellent fairy godmother and ensured her success. On she went on a path through the woods peopled by circus directors who pinched wages, by their wives and daughters who did not want her above them on the bill, and by men who threw roses at Csárdás’s hoofs and rattled the door of her dressing room.
From Riga she went to Moscow, from Moscow to Saint Petersburg, where she was adored. One local aristocrat presented her with a huge golden stirrup as a tribute to her skill and charm. Another Baron asked the circus director, “Is there a way of doing something with the little one?” He was told that she was a good girl with a father and aunt in tow. He stared at her with such intensity that she fell off her horse, and of course he was there to scoop her up and take her home.
Baron Oscar Wladimir de Rahden was the favored nephew of the empress’s lady-in-waiting, a rackety naval officer who slept with his colleague’s wives, ran up debts, and flew into duels at the slightest glancing brush to his honor. In Saint Petersburg, he was running out of favor, his aunt now dead. He liked Jenny. Respectfully, he visited and she found herself falling for this touchy hero. Her father disapproved, and his parents said they would disinherit him if he married an artiste. But they did marry, in Saint Catherine’s catholic church on Nevsky Prospekt. His parents cut him off. The Baron dedicated himself “to literature” and managing his wife’s career.
This Baron was built on a hair trigger, but he was a good man, according to Jenny the memoirist. It’s just that there were so many enemies out there when a woman was paid to perform before all eyes—the horse was no protection. There were men who did not always respect the écuyère’s art or wedding ring. In a portrait circulated by a photographer’s studio, she reclines, her bodice dabbed with stars, a feathered fan behind her head, looking more like an actress than a sober-suited horsewoman.
In Copenhagen, a young Danish lieutenant called Frederick Castenschiold befriended both Jenny and the Baron but fell in love with Jenny. The Baron could not withstand the insult, and a duel was called. Jenny was told the men were going duck hunting. When she arrived in the aftermath, breathless from a performance and a train ride, dazzling circles vibrating before her eyes, she found her Baron bandaged with a Turk’s turban, smoking and laughing with his friends. Castenschiold was the army’s best fencer and her sailor husband preferred pistols—he had taken a saber swipe to the temple from the Dane. The matter resolved, they proceeded to the actual duck hunt. The Baron gave Castenschiold a photograph of Jenny. Castenschiold was reprimanded in person by King Christian for dueling over a circus performer.
When Jenny first appeared at the Nouveau Cirque in Paris in October 1890, the critic and dramatist Jules Lemaître noted her conformation and that of Csárdás: “Very thin and very supple: a black thread; an elegant, dry little head, pale blonde hair tucked up under a top hat, with long kiss curls that cover half her cheeks and reach to the bottom of her ears, giving her pointy face a bizarre and disturbing air. She rides an equally bizarre big horse, pied as you’ve never seen before, riddled with ugly spots like ulcers, and which seems to be made of damp cardboard. She’s a Baudelairian horsewoman.”
Lemaître could not look away. “I don’t know if what she does is difficult, but it’s very arresting. At one point, the horse rears straight up, and the slender horsewoman bends right over backwards and dangles her head low … She has a bizarre fashion of saluting too, a composite of a feminine curtsey and a masculine salute. Go see her. In short, she’s very fin de siècle. I don’t know exactly what that means, but that’s what she is.”
Other commentators were keen to relate the story of the duel and the dramatic husband. The Baron wasn’t, as one writer later put it, the only “horse eating at the baroness’ manger.” There was also her father, David. Jenny paid him off when she married and sent him home. Then she called him back.
In Paris, the couple seldom went out. The Baron was always present, even at the circus—no one could talk to Jenny without him there. She was hotly applauded every night after her “brilliant” debut. From Paris, they went on to Italy, and in Milan they lost Tantante to blood poisoning, leaving just Jenny, her father and husband. Jenny earned the cash as the Baron wrote the odd article about Siberia and her father lagged along.
In Turin in May, the Baron managed two duels in one day after a count sent Jenny love letters “in the language of Dante” and, peeved that she did not respond, brought friends to her next performance and blew a whistle throughout. The Baron slapped him; honor was demanded. The Baron slashed the count’s neck with a saber (the count survived), refreshed himself with some marsala, then tackled the count’s friend, the best fencer in Italy, who caught the Baron’s face and then, after “halt” was called, stabbed the Baron in the shoulder. The Baron throttled him and knocked him over. Nobody’s honor was satisfied, but the duels were at least over.
At Asti, another man threw white roses into the ring as Jenny performed, and her horse, startled, leapt into the audience and landed on an old lady, who had to be paid off from Jenny’s meager buffer against destitution. In Lisbon, there was a man who was sure he could perform Jenny’s best trick. He came to the circus with his wife and son, strapped a Mexican saddle to his horse so he would stick, and up he and his horse went in a rear and didn’t stop till they were both on their backs and his leg was broken. So then all of Lisbon was angry that their best “sportsman” had been injured by a woman’s circus trick.
Madrid. Seville. On an afternoon’s outing, Jenny seized a man’s revolver and shot a runaway fighting bull that had disemboweled two mules and turned on her carriage. Malaga. Barcelona. Here, as Jenny joined the Circus Allegria, the Danish lieutenant Castenschiold reappeared like a bad penny, trailing tales of Monte Carlo debts and army discharges. He had been, he said, in Egypt and fighting rebels in the Sudan. He had no money and would like to work in a circus. When the Baron questioned him, he waved a knife at the Russian. The Baron turned his back, and the next day word in the circus said that Castenschiold had left for the Americas. He had not.
At Clermont-Ferrand, in central France, it became clear that Castenschiold was following them. He knew where Jenny kept her horses and lingered nearby. The Baron visited the police, who told him not to worry, even when he said he would defend his wife with his revolver.
August 23, 1890. Jenny was standing backstage beside her horse before her performance, the Baron at her shoulder, when Castenschiold materialized before them in the corridor that ran around the circus arena. The Baron, seeking to avoid what was barreling toward the three of them, turned and walked away around the curve of the corridor. Castenschiold spun on his heels and ran in the other direction, hurrying to meet him. They clashed. The Dane raised his stick and struck the Russian. The Russian drew his revolver and his fingers convulsed on the trigger. Jenny, buttoning her gloves, heard the two shots. Then two more.
She found the Dane bleeding on the floor, asking for someone to bring him two photographs—of his mother and of Jenny. The Baron walked past Jenny without seeing her. “Tell my wife I did my duty,” said his mustache, as he asked for an absinthe at the circus bar. The police took him into custody. Castenschiold died twenty hours later. In his rooms, they found a portrait of Jenny and a box containing unsigned letters from a woman, and more photographs of the Baronne de Rahden. In accordance with Castenschiold’s dying wish, this box was burned.
Now every circus director in Europe wanted Jenny, and her Baron, a tiger pacing in his jail cell, waiting for his trial, urged her not to lose her career. Those horses—equine and human—weren’t going to feed themselves. So she took on the best offer although it took her to Paris, which had caught scent of her scandals, and not a circus but a theater: the Folies Bergères.
Eight square meters is all the Folies Bergères gave her to perform on. They nailed coconut matting over the sloping boards and it shifted under the horses’ feet, making them uneasy. No barrier was mounted at the edge of the stage, just the flaring footlight reflectors, and at first the orchestra refused to perform with her, picturing a half ton of Csárdás smashing violins and skulls. When they saw her rehearse, they were won over, because Jenny and her horses were a miracle, a cavalcade on a pinhead.
Let me tell you about the duel Jenny undertook every night, as the men twirled flowers and pistols in the background:
She entered on a horse who bounded to the edge of the stage, his forehoofs thudding just above the heads of the orchestra as they played. Like dancers, she and and the horse stepped to the left and then to the right, the horse’s rigid frame flexing and his legs crisscrossing. They cantered around that eight-meter square space, then dashed across the ring, peeling back in tighter circles, once in each direction. Then she made him skip before they completed pirouettes and left the stage in a high-kneed Spanish walk.
She was back then on another horse, Da Capo, at a gallop, rucking up the matting as they halted. Across the stage and then another pirouette, and then with her hands and her stick she made Da Capo rear and then bow. There were four fences set in a square, and they leapt in and out of the box always, always in that eight … meter … square. The horse stopped dead in the center for a beat, then jumped out from a standstill. They ended with her most dangerous move: Da Capo walking on his hind legs like a bear, and Jenny bent back against the resistance of her corset and hung by her knee from the pommel of the sidesaddle, her head resting at the top of his tail. The first night, Da Capo toppled over backward onto her, pinning her for a second before she could pull herself clear. Miraculously she was only bruised. The barrel of the pistol had spun to an empty chamber.
She returned for her applause on foot and as she raised her top hat Da Capo careered on with neither saddle not bridle and took his own bow. He lay down at her feet and she sat on him. The audience was in raptures; the fee was 1,500 francs a month. Ten days after Castenchiold’s death, a critic wrote that he had seen her flirting with young men backstage.
The trial gives me a chance to break away from the strange, rhapsodic darkness of Jenny’s roman. Here, for once, there are other witnesses. The Paris papers sent their best men to cover the Baron’s trial, and when Jenny was fenced into another cramped space—the witness box—another story emerged in the questions the lawyers put to Jenny and her father. That tale splits away from the spare account of proceedings that Jenny the author later gave.
In this story, the Baron was a drunk who sank “cup after cup” of absinthe and cognac and treated his wife “like a filthy cow” and his father-in-law “like an old dog” (“He only drank when he got jealous!” protested Jenny in the witness box.) His eyes were small, his face “extremely hard.” The groom said he took out his drunken temper on the horses. In this story, Jenny brought her father back to live with them as protection, and her father confided in a maid that he would prefer rich, young Castenschiold as a son-in-law. In this story, Jenny might, just might, have written those burned letters to the young Dane and told him how to follow them to Clermont-Ferrand. In this story, Castenschiold was visited by a tall, slender woman in a white veil and heliotrope dress that his landlady identified as the Baronne de Rahden.
Jenny stood with her teeth gritted, refusing to answer most of the questions posed to her:
“You perhaps encouraged Castenschiold a little to pursue you?”
She lowers her head without saying yes or no.
“The evening before the murder your husband hit you and your father.”
“I don’t remember.”
The Baron was unmoved. When the jury withdrew, the reporters saw her go to him, “with the moist eyes of a beaten dog that wants to be beaten again,” and say a few words in German to her grim, furious husband. He smiled.
The judge told him off for letting his wife risk her life in the circus. One reporter suggested that he was defending his meal ticket as much as his wife’s honor. But the Baron was deemed not guilty—this was self defense, not premeditated murder—and finally, his composure cracked and he cried. The women in the courtroom swooned at the romance of it. Jenny nearly collapsed; she had leapt out of the square of fences once again, but where had she landed? One reporter saw the Baron as he went to collect Jenny after the trial: “They remained silent for a moment; he always glacial; her frozen, cheeks scarlet, eyes shining.” As he took a step toward her, she backed up in fear and ran away weeping.
Who is being melodramatic here? Jenny, the landlady, or the court reporter? Jenny sums up the court case in a brief chapter of her memoir and does not mention the heliotrope dress or her own interrogation. She is a faithful, distressed wife willing the jury to set her husband free. One journalist notes that the Baron was the “defender of her glory and her virtue,” and “she loved him in that role.”
That evening the couple—and her father—were on the train back to Paris so she could perform. Their life on the road continued, but the wheels were wobbling on their axles. Jenny performed as Leo in Pirates de la Savane —the role made famous by Adah Isaacs Menken thirty years earlier and for which Sarah l’Africaine was once touted—even though it meant swapping her respectable habit, the one buttoned to the neck, in favor of something scanty, and being tied to a galloping horse’s back. “She’s not scared of anything, La Rahden,” said someone leaving the theater. In her memoir, she doesn’t mention that the Baron tried to become a circus performer himself during this period—he was billed as a sharpshooter trained on the Mongolian steppe. He challenged Buffalo Bill Cody to a shoot off for his Paris debut. Cody ignored him, though the Baron did perform in the provinces instead. He made some money in a shooting match and they took it to a casino. The next year, Jenny pivoted to acting on the stage in Hamburg. This also went unmentioned in her memoirs.
In Jenny’s version, at this point, a deus ex machina of sorts appeared in Berlin. A Russian officer approached the Baron and said he would endorse his return to the Russian Navy, but only if La Baronne retired from the stage. A Russian officer could not be supported by an artiste no matter how meager his new salary. The Baron wished it; Jenny held back.
“I had my will, I had one goal in mind, that I was fixed on achieving. And I would not take a step away from the path that would lead me to this goal: independence,” Jenny wrote—shades of the teenage girl who had refused to marry her family out of trouble. But she would never say in her memoir that she could not rely on the dueling, gambling, tempestuous man she married to support her and her father for more than a month at a time, and that there was much, too, in the plaudits, in being the only one who could do that dangerous trick. The “little one” in the top hat on the expensive Hungarian horse from Maas. The horseshoe broach at her throat; the golden stirrups. But the Baron, while sympathetic, wanted to finally man up and rescue her from the circus. They made preparations to sell two of Jenny’s horses.
But what about Csárdás? He was blind. The flare of the footlights had permanently dazzled his great brown eyes. He still performed with Jenny, his trust in her and hers in him absolute, but on the Baron’s wages there was no money to feed the actual horse that had earned his keep for years. Jenny’s heart was wrung: “Ah! It’s cruel and hard to be obliged to separate oneself from a being you hold to heart … My life was intimately tied to that of this poor animal! And I must quit him now, as I would quit my past existence, my success and my career as an artiste.”
They did not return to Russia, in the end. Csárdás did not die. The Baron did—felled by a lung infection. Jenny sat and watched as the life rattled out of him and he turned to her and said: Ne tombe pas avec le cheval.
“Don’t fall with the horse.” She was, she wrote, now dead, too, as far as she was concerned. Her “good and loving” husband, so “wrongly judged” by many, was buried and her distress was so complete that the doctors tried to stop her riding. She was consumed with anxiety and headaches. “The life of an écuyère is neither a pleasure nor a joke,” she wrote, her health slowly breaking and her nerve faltering. But there was no one else to support her and her father if she wasn’t in the ring: the horses were not sold; Csárdás lived on. She was legged back into her saddle and on tour across Europe, losing nights to fever and fear. Then one morning, she opened her eyes and was blind. Her screams woke the hotel.
The doctors said that a surge of blood had ripped her retina and severed the optic nerve.
By now she was dogged, an arrow angled at fate; when that night’s circus director suggested that she could still perform, reading aloud the cost of lost receipts to her, she began to think that with dear, blind Csárdás she could trim their routine to satisfy the people who had paid to see La Baronne. Csárdás had never betrayed her, but she signed off fatalistically: “If this adventurous attempt fails, if God disapproves of my act, let his will be done! Better to die under the public eye in the course of my profession than remain condemned to a desolate life, a cursed existence. Death would be a deliverance.” The pistol was cocked; the duel with death was called.
In the wings, she heard the crowds but her focus was only on Csárdás as he moved under her. A wild energy surged through her in the blackness, and Csárdás felt it—he didn’t like it. The stallion froze. Jenny cued him. He began to resist. Csárdás had felt the sump at their feet, the deliverance Jenny sought, and now he backed away, “as if from an abyss.” And Jenny, for the first time, raised her whip. When it struck the stallion he reared up. He touched down and then leapt forward, and “I had the confused sensation that we were tumbling into the void, into a bottomless precipice, into the immeasurable nothing.” As she whiplashed off the saddle, Jenny struck a column at the edge of the stage and the blackness was absolute. It lasted for seven days.
Jenny dictated this roman from the bed in the photograph where she lies on Csárdás. She is glad, she writes, that her husband did not live to see her in this dingy room in Boulogne, this void with floral curtains. Csárdás is still her companion, she adds, and she has a letter from Castenschiold’s mother offering her deepest sympathy. What grace, what pure and grand consolation. She was not, she says, fitted with the lightness of heart required for the life of an artiste; her education and temperament forbade it. The golden age of the circus horsewoman was over by the early 1900s just as the era of the horse peaked and began a long, slow fade that filled the streets with automobiles. In Jenny’s future lay a brief, failed career as a singer, and when she died in 1921, the Paris papers remembered seeing her in her retirement, being steered around the Bois de Boulogne in a carriage, ignored by all the current belles.
I hope they wrapped her in Csárdás at the end, and let him carry her over to the other side.
Susanna Forrest is the author of The Age of the Horse: An Equine Journey Through Human History and If Wishes Were Horses. She’s currently working on a third book and a series of essays about circus horsewomen in nineteenth-century Paris.