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. Read More