the Fire at Bazar de la Charité

March 20, 2012

Due to my intermittent research of Belle Epoque material to make me apprehend further the mentality Parisians had in those glamorous prewar days and charmingly apply it to confer my novel some welcomed authenticity, I recently made a pragmatic habit from reading the happily online-available old French newspapers like Le Figaro and Le Gaulois, courtesy to Gallica . Not because I’m tired of consulting the Times and the Sun, with which I’m proud to announce that I’m completely up to date, but the calculated browsing through such original and reliable materials genuinely provides good information on gossipy subjects both useful in my work and juicy enough to relish even a century after they were printed, not to say it improves my lame knowledge of French grammar in the most pleasant of ways.

This being said limiting to one acceptable introductory paragraph whose utility my English teacher would seriously doubt though we’ll refrain it, imagine what I’ve found in a 5 May, 1897 Le Figaro edition I just stumbled across while really checking some hot Dreyfus Affair opinions right from the horse’s mouth and no, nothing regarding assassins, expensive jewelry or the kind of things I regularly post here, on the contrary, quite a Christian happening (to a certain extent…).

It all started one fine evening the benevolent Paris elite ladies dedicated to pious philanthropy work at the annual Bazar de la Charité which was decorated to reassemble a medieval nonetheless picturesque street with vivid theme ornaments and chic boutiques borrowed from Théâtre du Palais de l’Industie to aesthetically attract  the rich and generous all events implying charity need. A rudimentary cinema was installed and, for the sake of accuracy, most of the fake colorful buildings and even the ground, covered with dark pine planks, were made of a material so loved by fire: wood, which surprisingly nobody seemed to consider inappropriate or life-threatening despite numerous previous conflagrations, denoting a completely French spirit: let us not be practical but delectable because what’s the chance for a tragedy to occur? You’ll see, dear organizers, you’ll see…

Things went on nicely, half the high society eleemosynary couples gathering on the 60 meters of historical setting eager to considerately help humanity with disputably large sums of money before the eyes of all good reporters and tattlers taken as witnesses to their altruism. Aristocrats and wannabe grand dames of bourgeois background mingled with all sorts of common people, pretending more holly than the Pope in the splendor of their charity.  It was the busiest afternoon  since the bazaar had been opened last Saturday on the popular rue Jean-Goujon, a domain offered gratis by  gracious Mr. Michel Heine and modest satin Worth gowns lead by top hats, if you understand the allusion, blended beautifully…

When suddenly things gone wrong.

Whether it was an issue from the cinema installation or an oil lamp which set fire to a curtain nearby, at 4:20 p.m. sharp the whole ensemble was ablaze, flames covering the planks and obstructed the frenzied mob to safely escape the place though Duchess Sophie Charlotte d’Alençon, perhaps the most impressive woman present, struggled to establish an approximate order, refusing to exit until the frail children and alarmed ladies were securely out. Le Figaro declared that two hundred persons hastily passed the exit door, dezoriented,  startled, leaving as many behind in a horrific context, men burning alive, shouting, contending to reach the gate with overwhelming desperation in the 8 minutes  the destruction lasted.

Many Baronesses, Countesses and highly esteemed women terribly died then but the one I’m most fond of, Duchess Sophie, was by far the most important and regretted, her story being extremely misfortunate as she could’ve survived effortlessly if she hadn’t been so religiously zealous, sacrificing herself to let some ordinary girls escape, pretty damn magnanimous of her. It’s ironical Ferdinand d’Orléans, her husband,  who was also attending the  fair yet stood in the opposite part of the bazaar when the inevitable happened, tried to find Sophie, rushed to where he last saw her and, only a few steps apart, being informed by an idle citizen that she was out, got away. Barely there did he realize his utter stupidity, a mistake deplored for the rest of his days.

Sophie had been trapped between several wood boards, enveloping a scared kid with her steady arms and, serene as if having a tea, calm, dignified, she faced the cruelest of deaths, slowly, excruciating, definite… In the end, her earthly remnants were degraded to such extent that only her dentist could definitely identify Sophie by analyzing the skeleton’s teeth, important limbs of her body, one hand and a leg, missing. She had perished like a veritable martyr, faith relatively fitted for her spiritual aspirations and very similar to her ex-fiancee and sister’s, all whom were bounded by a gypsy’s prevision that Sophie would die by fire, King Ludwig II by water (the mad Swan King was supposed to marry her, yes)  and Sissi by steel (the Duchess was also Empress Elizabeth’s younger sibling). The eccentric trio had a story of its own, an absolutely tragic one, that is.

Basically, Ludwig, fascinated with Sissi’s character (they had a long-term allegedly platonic relationship across the years and he called her “dove” while she nicknamed him “eagle”), knowing he’d never be satisfied having another woman as his companion, engaged the virginal Sophie (Sopherl for family) mostly because she reassembled her older sister, fair-haired, blue-eyed, gracious and an enthusiastic admirer of Wagner’s compositions, wasted considerable sums of money on wedding preparations but had to dissolve the betrothal when the unconscious Sophie risked a love affair with photographer Edgar Hanfstængel . The dangerous liaison all keen mothers fear would’ve went really smooth if the smug Edgar had helped bragging about his substantial score which he didn’t, obviously, resulting in her humiliation. Later in Saxony she met Ferdinand and the tale continued.

At the time of Sophie’s death, one of the three, Ludwig, was already buried for a decade, indeed drowned, like the gypsy figure foretold, in a controversial situation it’s better to elaborate in other post, so it’s easy to imagine how Sissi felt when she heard her sister, a continuous source of consolation subsequent to the distressing Mayerling incident,  followed in the predicted circumstances.  “We all die of violent deaths.” she muttered, scarcely opening her mouth as she didn’t want people to gaze upon her yellowish teeth , when receiving the news and, in truth, she was assassinated at Geneva the next year.

Returning to Duchess Sophie, a kind, ethereal being nonetheless lacking human vices (let us not forget she was sent to an asylum  after attempting to elope with her lover/ gynecologist Dr. Glaser to Switzerland), she was sumptuously inhumed at the Royal Chapel of Saint Dreux at the end of a stupendous requiem mass. Up to now, she’s very popular in France, a symbol of kindness and dedication.

Finally, the Fire at Bazar de la Charité  was both a personal and public “catastrophe” as Le Figaro titles it, claiming many brilliant lives and creating a funny paradox between its destination and the known outcome.

Ah, the decadence of Belle Epoque…

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