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L'Inconnue de la Seine: The Unknown Woman of the Seine

The Face that Launched a Thousand Pens

By Teyana JacksonPublished 7 years ago 3 min read

In the last shivering years of the 1880s, as France teetered on the edge of a decade that would bring political upheaval and worldwide attention, the body of a delicate young suicide victim was fished from the dark water's of the Seine. Our story begins here.

According to the ever-expanding legend that swiftly built on the tails of the woman's discovery, her body would be taken to the Paris Morgue, where the pathologist in charge of examining her corpse was so enamored with her ethereal beauty, that rather than simply conducting his investigation, he worked for hours to create a plaster mask of her face. The stricken man, nearly brought to tears by what he'd seen, allegedly commented, "Her beauty was breathtaking, showed few signs of distress at the time of passing. So bewitching that I knew beauty as such must be preserved."

In the years that followed, her peculiarly peaceful visage would go on to become a morbid staple of Parisian Bohemian society, gracing the walls of artists, musicians, poets, and playwrights. The enigmatic expression of her death mask inspired works decades beyond the day of her passing, and yet despite the woman's fame and unending string of admirers, her identity remains unknown.

In fact, nearly all of her story is lost to history. While the claims of the awe-struck pathologist responsible for capturing the girl's image is most often credited as the origin of the famed death mask, no real proof exists. Some even theorize it didn't belong to the victim of a tragic suicide at all, but merely to the daughter of a German mask-manufacturer. Whatever you believe, the influence the face depicted would have on people around the world is indisputable.

Albert Camus, a French philosopher, author and journalist, compared her smile to that of the Mona Lisa, leading many to ponder the meaning behind the subtle curl of lips, as well as what it might say about her place in life and society before her death. The original death mask bearing her likeness would be reproduced time and time again, until it was sold in shops across the country, and eventually around the globe.

Its impact was felt far and wide, as for years following, fiction and suppositions as to L'Inonnue's true identity sprung up in country after country, her visage braiding with romance and intrigue in the roiling minds of writers everywhere and leaving a literary stamp not soon to fade.

The earliest mention of L'Inconnue can be found in Richard Le Gallienne's 1900 novella, The Worshipper of the Image, in which he writes of an English poet who falls so deeply in love with the girl's mask, he causes the death of his young daughter and drives his wife to suicide. A plethora of similarly macabre depictions of the mask would continue to appear throughout popular fiction, either as the main plot, or one-off references as in Rainer Maria Rilke's novel, Die Aufzeichnungen de Malte Lauris Brigge (1910) in which her protaganist reflects:

"The caster I visit everyday has two masks hanging next to his door, The face of the young one who drowned, which someone had copied in the morgue because it was so beautiful, because it was still smiling, because its smile was so deceptive- as thought it knew."

Critic Al Alvarez is quoted as writing in his book The Savage God, "I am told that a whole generation of German girls modeled their looks on her," citing the opinion of Hans Hesse of the University of Sussex, he added, "the Inconnue became the erotic ideal of the period, as Bardot was for the 1950s. He [Hans Hesse] thinks that German actresses like Elisabeth Bergner modeled themselves on her. She was finally displaced as a paradigm by Greta Garbo."

The unknown girl's story has even graced the silver screen, an adaptation of Reinhold Conrad Muschler's 1934 best-seller Die Unbekannte, making it into theatres in 1936. His popular fictional version casts the girl as provincial orphan, Madeleine Lavin, a young woman who has fallen in love with British diplomat Lord Thomas Vernon Bentick. After a tumultuous affair, the older man returns to his fiancee and Madeleine, distraught, casts herself into the Seine.

Perhaps most intriguing is the fairly recent twist added to the century old mystery: the face that spurred the creation of dozens of literary and dramatic works, is the same likeness gracing your local classroom's CPR doll.

The unknown girl's visage was referenced for the head of the first aid mannequin created by Peter Safar and Asmund Laerdal in 1958, and was used beginning in 1960 in a variety of CPR courses. It's 20th century adaptation (although perhaps morbidly creepy) has ensured that while her beginnings are a mystery, and her true identity will surely never be known, through the work of countless artists, writers, and one odd pair of dummy crafters, L'Inconnue's image has managed to become "the most kissed face of all time."

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About the Creator

Teyana Jackson

An aspiring writer and poet currently living on the East Coast. More work can be found on allpoetry.com, thebluenib.com, and in the poetry anthologies "Circular Whispers" and "Seasonal Perspective"

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    Teyana JacksonWritten by Teyana Jackson

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