Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Le Cas de Mademoiselle Suzanne

Suzanne's cryptographic tattoo - not on the back!

In the previous post on Rider Haggard's Mr Meeson's Will, I mentioned Le Cas de Mademoiselle Suzanne (The Case of Miss Suzanne), the story that Rider Hagged was alleged to have plagiarised for its plot concerning a young woman with a will tattooed on her back.  It comes from the pulp fiction writer Charles Aubert's 1883 collection Les Nouvelles Amoureuses (The New Loves). An anthology of tales of sex and seduction, it's online at the excellent Gallica (Identifier: ark:/12148/bpt6k57111708), and Le Cas de Mademoiselle Suzanne starts at page 159.

As far as I can tell (between my weak French and Google Translate) the story takes place in a fictitious town called Bize-la-Rizette at the confluence of the Orge and Rémarde rivers (a location now a suburb of Paris - probably Saint-Germain-lès-Arpajon). It's a slightly bawdy romantic comedy concerning the pretty 18-year-old Suzanne, who was a foundling and evidently the offspring of some liaison conducted at this confluence. She has been brought up by the town notary, M. Glayaux, and is mutually attracted to his young clerk, Laurent.

One summer morning, she becomes the centre of a mystery when the house cook Brigitte, coming to wake Suzanne, sees that her nightdress has ridden up to reveal an "embroidery" of unusual blue symbols on her buttocks. She goes to tell Madame Glayaux, the notary's wife, who also comes to see the symbols on the sleeping Suzanne, then in turn brings her husband. None of them can work out what they mean.

Glayaux questions Suzanne, saying she is keeping some secret from him, but she denies all knowledge. The family tries increasingly heroic measures - water, soap, oil, brushes, chemical bleaches - to wash off the symbols.  Finally the pharmacist, who is a little more intelligent, is brought in, and pronounces that the symbols are tattooed. On continued stringent questioning, Suzanne continues to deny knowing how they got there, and the symbols remain a puzzle to the ever-increasing number of observers who are brought in. There's talk of getting them photographed for the scholars at the Academy, and soon the news is all around town.

Embarrassed, Suzanne flees into the countryside and is about to throw herself into the mill-stream when Laurent comes along, and proves the only one to take a sympathetic interest. He argues that since she has no memory of the tattoo, it must have been done when she was a baby and mean something significant about her birth.  He also reveals that he's a puzzle geek - no puzzle is beyond him - and they go back to his room. At a glance, he recognises the symbols as "Un cryptogramme", and over a night's lovemaking he solves it. Who says men can't multi-task?

Ainsi qu'il l'avait promis, et stimulé, d'ailleurs, par son goût pour les problèmes, M. Laurent s'était appliqué tout de suite à trouver la clef du cryptogramme, ne s'interrompant de temps à autre que pour faire quelque caresse à sa douce Suzanne.

Tout d'abord, il comprit que la lettre K ne servait qu'à séparer les mots; puis il trouva que l'x correspondait à la lettre e; le signe V, à la lettre a; le chiffre 2, à la lettre 1; et ainsi de suite, jusqu'à ce qu'il eût recomposé tout l'alphabet.
The decrypted message gives instructions to take to the notary Glayaux a mysterious phrase "l'Orge est tombée dans la «Rémarde.»" ("The Orge has fallen into the Rémarde").

Puzzling over this, they fall asleep, and are woken much later when Glayaux finds them together. Suzanne is ashamed, but at Laurent's prompting, she says the words. All is revealed: Glayaux is in fact the one who has been keeping a secret. He was entrusted by Suzanne's illustrious mother to keep safe her inheritance (originally 100,000 francs) - we assume until such time as Suzanne could provide the solution to the cryptogram. Now, with interest, it is 250,000 francs; a rich woman, Suzanne is free to marry Laurent.

The story is daft on a number of levels (e.g. that nobody who looked after Suzanne as a baby or child knew about the tattoo, and the impossibility that such detail would last 18 years on a growing child). But I find it interesting that apart from the tattooed legacy, the resemblance to Rider Haggard's novel Mr Meeson's Will seems very slight in both content and tone, and even more so once you know that the tattoos are in very different locations. Critics of Rider Haggard who said Le Cas de Mademoiselle Suzanne concerned a tattoo on Suzanne's back either hadn't read it, or were being coy, or were distorting the details to increase the similarity.

- Ray

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