We do know one thing that Marie Henry did while the Buvette de la Plage was under construction: she got pregnant. In May or June 1888, Marie Henry conceived a child who would play an important role in our story. The father remains unknown. Was it casual? Was it consensual? Was it a relationship that was headed towards commitment and then veered off? None of that information has survived.
And no one who has written about Marie Henry has ever been particularly interested. She appears in the Gauguin narrative with her infant, with no questions asked. But here at The Disappearing Gauguin, we are curious. The story of Marie Henry, orphaned daughter of innkeepers, sometime charge of the Ursuline Sisters in Quimperlé, perhaps an apprentice at a bakery, and then a buyer of land and builder of a building, is a fairly unlikely one. Young women with no family support rarely opened their own businesses at the western edge of Brittany in the 1880s (or, probably, today). Add to that the presence of an illegitimate child and if this were a nineteenth century novel, the unmarried mother would find herself carrying her starving child across the windswept ocean bluffs, shunned by all. There’s almost no way that the story would end with the mother retiring to a Mediterranean village and the daughter a respected schoolteacher.
But that’s getting ahead of ourselves.
Marie Henry gave birth to her daughter Marie Léa Henry on March 4, 1889. Two days later a man named Jean François Capitaine carried the infant to be inscribed in the public records at the town hall in Clohars-Carnoët. Two other men served as witnesses to the child’s inscription: Pierre Joseph Portier and Pierre Marie Cornou. The deputy mayor, Julien Le Delliou, took down the information in his mostly readable handwriting. Capitaine reported that the baby had been “born on March 4 at noon at the place called the Large Dunes, to Mademoiselle Marie Jeanne Henry, innkeeper, 30 years old, unmarried, and that she was to be called Marie Léa Henry.”
Still today in France, within five days of a child’s birth the father or, if that is not possible, a person who was present at the birth, must go to the town hall where the child was born to register the birth. Registering the birth gives the infant civil status; today, it means that the enfant will be enrolled in the national health care system, that the family’s tax status will change to reflect the new dependent, and that the parents can claim leave from work. In 1889, the birth certificate was the first in a chain of documents that a French citizen generated as she moved through life: birth, marriage, death, but also, for boys, registration for military service. You had to present a copy of your birth certificate to be married. If you wanted a passport, you needed a copy of your birth certificate; if you wanted to enroll in school; if you needed proof that you were who you said you were. The certificates are archived and digitized and nowadays easy to find online if you know the right buttons to click.
It was uncommon in nineteenth-century Brittany for a child to be illegitimate. Marie Henry was the only unmarried woman in Clohars-Carnoët in 1889 to register her child’s birth: every other birth certificate from that year lists both a father and a mother. For a child not to have a
father was a matter of shame; it suggested that the mother was promiscuous, in a time when women’s sexuality was not supposed to exist outside of marriage. Not having a father could also mean, for a child, economic hardship: men earned more money than women. It was just as difficult in 1889 to bring up a child on wages from cobbled-together jobs then as it is now Demographic data on abortions in France during this period doesn't exist, but we know that women had abortions because obstetrical treatises discussed it. Marie Henry could have chosen to end her pregnancy. The path ahead for her life as a single mother was murky at best; there was no way to know that her buvette would be a success. She took the risk.
Marie Henry had no husband to claim the child and give it his name. Instead, a neighbor, Jean François Capitaine, carried the infant to Clohars-Carnoët. Was he the father? Who was Capitaine? He was a 64 year old farm worker who lived with his wife, Marie Josephe Guyomar, at Kersellec, between the chemin des Grands Sables and Le Pouldu. One of the farms at Kersellec was owned by the Goulvens, close relatives of the same Goulvens whose daughter had been at the Ursulines’ school in Quimperlé. Jean François and Marie Josephe had their own grown children: their daughter Jacquette had married a farmer, Julien Marie Lozachmeur, in 1887, and the same deputy mayor, Julien Le Delliou, had presided over the wedding as presided over Marie Léa’s inscription into the roles.
Why does this matter? Why all the names? Because it shows us the interconnectedness of this community. I’m willing to bet that Capitaine was not Marie Léa’s father—because if he were, everyone in the neighborhood would have known that he was running around on Marie Josephe. (And besides, 64 was a lot older in 1891 than it is now.) What seems more likely is that Marie Josephe had helped deliver the baby, or had at least brought over a casserole and a gâteau Breton to keep the new mother’s strength up. Her husband was available so she recruited him to drive the wagon to town; maybe Marie Josephe wrapped the new baby in swaddling clothes and carried the bundle herself.
At the town hall, one of the Goulvens’ relations met them to act as a witness: Pierre Joseph Portier, whose cousin Jean was married to the Goulvens’ daughter Angélique. Did Angélique ask him to turn up to support her friend? She was herself about to deliver her first child, a son who would be called Alexandre. Cornou I have been unable to connect to the web of relations (you can breathe a sigh of relief). Perhaps Cornou, a farmer who lived in Penhars, was in town for the day and happened to have business at the mairie just when the Capitaines’ turn came. We can hope that, afterwards, they all went down the street to the one of Clohars-Carnoët’s cabarets and toasted the health of the new baby and her mother.
If they did, they may have talked about how unusual the baby's name was. Of the 108 babies born in Clohars-Carnoët in 1889, 73 boys and girls were given the name Marie as one of their prénoms. France’s patron saint is Mary—well, France is a historically Catholic country; it claims many patron saints, but Mary takes precedence in all the lists because she’s, you know, the Mother of God. Naming your child after her was a way of insuring a little extra protection, if you were faithful. And since, for generations, children of both sexes had been named after Mary, naming your little one Marie also meant you were likely naming them after someone you knew.
But Léa? Of the 2,012 children born in the township of Clohars-Carnoët between 1881-1899, only one was called Léa. In all of France, according to the sources that Ancestry has uploaded, only 18 Léas were born between 1889 and 1894. Marie Henry deliberately chose a name that would set her little girl apart.
Where did Marie Henry find the unusual name? She could have found it in a book of baby names. According to Guillaume Belèze’ 1863 Dictionnaire des noms de baptême, Saint Léa was a fourth-century Roman widow who founded a convent and was a friend of Saint Jerome’s. Her relics are in the church of Saint-Séverin in Paris. So it could be that her mother chose Saint Léa for the baby’s namesake—and if she were pious and steeped in religious practice, that would make sense. But piety and single motherhood would be a surprising combination.
Or: Marie Henry could have named her daughter after Léa d’Asco, a Parisian actress and cabaret singer. For her to have known the actress’ name, Marie Henry would have had to have been in Paris, or in a town where Léa d’Asco was part of a touring company. She could have seen d’Asco perform, or seen published somewhere one of the glamour shots that the photographer Nader took of d’Asco in the late 1870s.
Naming a child is a serious business. Marie Henry had months to think of what she would call her child: as she talked to workmen, as she cooked dinner, as she washed her clothes and hung them to dry in front of the fireplace during the long Breton winter, she murmured names to herself. Practicing their sound, letting them drop into the well and listening to their echo. She had been named, at least in part, for her mother, Marie Anne. Marie Henry took her name and her mother’s name and linked it to something unusual, something that would mark the baby as different, as special.
At the café that March afternoon, the Portiers and Goulvens, Capitaines and Cornous, may have wondered what would become of this young unmarried mother and her child. They could never have imagined the role that these two would play in the world of modern art.