In Susanna Forrest’s Écuyères series, she unearths the lost stories of the transgressive horsewomen of turn-of-the-century Paris.
On the circus poster, nothing but these words:
“Today: Debut of Mademoiselle Émilie LOISSET”
Nothing else, no other program. Why would you add more? It suffices for the habitués of the Franconi circus. It’s a talisman, this feminine name …
Émilie Loisset! ÉMILIE LOISSET! ÉMILIE LOISSET!!!
—“Scapin,” a.k.a. Alexandre Hepp, in Le Voltaire, May 15, 1881.
I used to know three things about the circus horsewoman Émilie Loisset: she was beautiful, she was good, and, like many of the most cherished young women of a morbid, misogynist nineteenth century, she died tragically and gruesomely when she was only in her twenties. While these bare facts are true, they do not evoke a person so much as an archetype—the virtuous beauty who meets her fate with her melancholy face untouched. The way in which men wrote about her before and after her death reminds me of what Elisabeth Bronfen called “culture [using] art to dream the deaths of beautiful women.” In fiction and in reminiscences and journalism and even riding manuals, her death is reenacted over and over as melodrama, cautionary tale, and plot twist.
I was hoping that by collecting and overlaying these texts, I’d find the real woman amid them. What I found instead was an international game of telephone mined with conflicting accounts, confused identities (of both people and horses), facts carried over into fiction and fiction into “facts,” lavish, unverifiable hearsay, and, somehow, a glimpse of an individual who both was and was not what the men wanted her to be. I searched French, Belgian, Austrian, and German newspapers of the period, contacted aristocratic European families, triangulated points on maps and dates in sporting pages, signed up to genealogy communities, queried museums and archives, and finally found myself zooming in on the handwritten record of her death—and, as it turned out, her true name. I’ve reached the limits of what I can research during the pandemic, but this is what I know so far.
She was born Marie Laurence Émilie Roux in Paris in 1856. Her father, Jean-Joseph Roux, was a popular ice-cream maker, and her mother was Antoinette Fortunée Loisset, an illegitimate daughter of the circus proprietor Jean Baptiste Antoine Loisset and Virginie Hélène de Linski—his later wife and codirector, who had been just sixteen when she had Antoinette. Virginie went on to have many more children with Jean Baptiste, although between the Loissets’ constant traveling and their circus habit of reshuffling family and stage names, it’s hard to straighten out their doubled family tree (not to mention the fact that one child can be Séraphin François in Belgium and Franz Seraph in Germany and eventually be known simply as François). Most of the children performed in their father’s circus, with varying degrees of endurance and success: equestrianism was their specialty, whether rosinback acrobatics or high school dressage. Read More