How Marianne, the Symbol of the French Revolution, became a much-loved Medical Accessory
In the early years of the twentieth century it was L’Inconnue de la Seine, the Unknown Woman of the Seine. Nobody knew who this beautiful young woman was. She had been dragged from the river in the eighteen-nineties. In the morgue a plaster-cast was made of her face because it was slightly smiling like the Mona Lisa. ‘The smile was deceptive as though she knew’, Rilke mythologized her. Her identity preoccupied Paris, as Jack the Ripper’s did London. She inspired speculation from spiritualists (including William James), detective writers (Arthur Conan Doyle, Rex Carlo), literary men (Nabokov, Romain Gary). Souvenir shops sold her death mask. Every sitting room with pretensions in Paris had one hanging on the wall.
French schoolboys like Albert Camus dreamed about L’Inconnue. She was ‘the lovely woman who stooped to folly and found too late that men betray’. The legend that people wanted to believe was that she was a tableau vivant artiste in the Funambules theatre, who had an affair with a wealthy married Parisian called Roland Vittes. Vittes, it was said, was blackmailed by a famous criminal, Louis Aragon (no relation to the Parisian novelist, who wrote a book about L’Inconnue, Aurelien, in 1944), and to save all concerned she drowned herself. A less romantic explanation was that the master hoaxer Alexandre Marius Jacob (1879-54) faked a pretty girl’s death mask and sold the idea to a knick-knack manufacturer in Paris. This version does not hold up, since Jacob, a Houdini of other people’s identities, and money, did not claim the hoax, to make a killing with his memoirs.
L’Inconnue’s impact deepened during the First World War. The demure features afforded by death made her a pin-up in the trenches. She was closing her eyes on the world, ‘peacefully in a calm state of mind’ (Montaigne’s ideal death). After it, she installed herself as the nineteen-twenties’ erotic ideal in France - the mistress who didn’t want to be any trouble and made herself scarce. She fell out of fashion, probably due to the rise in the number of women drowning themselves in the Seine during the Great Depression. But the German Occupation in the Second World War revived her image, and in the movie that most appealed to the defeated mood of the nation, Les Enfants du Paradis (1945), the heroine, the mysterious Garance, was modeled on her. The same resignation to life’s disappointments, sweetened by a wistful smile. The film pilfered from the urban legend, making another one - Arletty, the actress who played Garance, and looked like the mask, though a mite livelier.
Arletty became the alternative Marianne, one liberating the shame of the Occupation, perhaps, by posing as a living statue of French womanhood, tormenting the men, and while they were fighting over her, stepping down into the street to mingle with the crowd. But her reign was cut short when it came out that Arletty had disgraced herself with a German officer. ‘All over the world lovers say nothing to one another and are happy’, she murmured in the film. One supposes the Luftwaffe pilot didn’t speak French. At the post-war trial for collaboration, Arletty courted disaster by trying to be witty. ‘My body belonged to a German, but my soul was always with France.’ She ended up in prison. Her fate was to live on to be nearly a hundred, a blind recluse with few friends. As Garance, the L’Inconnue in the movie, she would have thrown herself into the river.
Meanwhile the death mask of the original L’Inconnue was to end up in the St John’s Ambulance Museum in London. In the nineteen-fifties her after-life went global when a Norwegian doll maker, Asmund Laerdal, designing the first training mannequin for Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (CPR), chose her mask as its face. He called her Resusci Annie. So L’Inconnue continues to be on everybody’s lips. Anyone who learns life-saving gives her the kiss of life.
I trained on Resusci Annie and told my artist friend Welsh. ‘Just like a sex toy’, he mocked. ‘Nice and comfy to bury yourself in.’ I explained to him that Asmund Laerdal chose her for healthy reasons. Men would never go mouth-to-mouth with a male model, whereas women are less inhibited, and, though her comeliness would bring ardor to the trainees’ task, Resusci Annie was essentially passive. And there wouldn’t be any embarrassments. She is designed, Laerdal’s publicity said, to bring out the best in people.
When I showed Welsh a photo of the L’Inconnue death mask he fell for it immediately. Welsh specialises in creating images of idealised women on glass plaques. And decided this year to use her face. September tourists are particularly romantic, I gather. ‘She has the smile of someone being photographed by a firing squad’, Welsh said, and told me about the archive snap of a woman about to be executed smiling because that’s what you did in front of a camera. But I disagree. She doesn’t look oblivious of what’s happening to her, someone caught short in the normal run, more like a person subsiding into happy silence after a long violent scream.
L’Inconnue is a mystery that has no beginning or ending. Marianne aspired to that for the Revolution, which was to be continuous, until the various French Republics stopped it, and she became identified with the face of a box-office close-up. Welsh is half in love with the idea of her as the representative of the unknown. He is an artist and loves Rilke. When a forensic journalist in the New Scientist revisits the myth, or one of the French tabloids comes up with the Alexandre Marius Jacob happy ending once again (a musical of the swindler’s life revived interest), we, who should know better, find ourselves blathering on incontinently about the existential moment when she entered the water and what led to it. The unknowable is unbearable.
‘What happened to the Revolution?’ I said to Welsh.
‘Round and round and round it goes.’ He twirled one of his glass plaques of her. ‘Selling well, too.’
Resusci Annie made Asmund Laerdal his fortune, and her face is no longer the
universal demonstration model (computerization is dehumanizing). Meanwhile those who do not buy into the latest application for CPR training are fortunate to know who we’re kissing: L’Inconnue, the ‘alternative’ Marianne, who looked like the Mona Lisa with her eyes closed, and Arletty too.