In Susanna Forrest’s Écuyères series, she unearths the lost stories of the transgressive horsewomen of turn-of-the-century Paris.
On the circus poster, nothing but these words:
“Today: Debut of Mademoiselle Émilie LOISSET”
Nothing else, no other program. Why would you add more? It suffices for the habitués of the Franconi circus. It’s a talisman, this feminine name …
Émilie Loisset! ÉMILIE LOISSET! ÉMILIE LOISSET!!!
—“Scapin,” a.k.a. Alexandre Hepp, in Le Voltaire, May 15, 1881.
I used to know three things about the circus horsewoman Émilie Loisset: she was beautiful, she was good, and, like many of the most cherished young women of a morbid, misogynist nineteenth century, she died tragically and gruesomely when she was only in her twenties. While these bare facts are true, they do not evoke a person so much as an archetype—the virtuous beauty who meets her fate with her melancholy face untouched. The way in which men wrote about her before and after her death reminds me of what Elisabeth Bronfen called “culture [using] art to dream the deaths of beautiful women.” In fiction and in reminiscences and journalism and even riding manuals, her death is reenacted over and over as melodrama, cautionary tale, and plot twist.
I was hoping that by collecting and overlaying these texts, I’d find the real woman amid them. What I found instead was an international game of telephone mined with conflicting accounts, confused identities (of both people and horses), facts carried over into fiction and fiction into “facts,” lavish, unverifiable hearsay, and, somehow, a glimpse of an individual who both was and was not what the men wanted her to be. I searched French, Belgian, Austrian, and German newspapers of the period, contacted aristocratic European families, triangulated points on maps and dates in sporting pages, signed up to genealogy communities, queried museums and archives, and finally found myself zooming in on the handwritten record of her death—and, as it turned out, her true name. I’ve reached the limits of what I can research during the pandemic, but this is what I know so far.
She was born Marie Laurence Émilie Roux in Paris in 1856. Her father, Jean-Joseph Roux, was a popular ice-cream maker, and her mother was Antoinette Fortunée Loisset, an illegitimate daughter of the circus proprietor Jean Baptiste Antoine Loisset and Virginie Hélène de Linski—his later wife and codirector, who had been just sixteen when she had Antoinette. Virginie went on to have many more children with Jean Baptiste, although between the Loissets’ constant traveling and their circus habit of reshuffling family and stage names, it’s hard to straighten out their doubled family tree (not to mention the fact that one child can be Séraphin François in Belgium and Franz Seraph in Germany and eventually be known simply as François). Most of the children performed in their father’s circus, with varying degrees of endurance and success: equestrianism was their specialty, whether rosinback acrobatics or high school dressage.
Antoinette’s illegitimacy and her circus background made her a strange choice of wife for Roux, an established businessman. But by 1855, Roux’s Paris shop had run into financial trouble and bankruptcy, and he was subsequently found guilty of unfair trading, fined, and even imprisoned briefly. Émilie was born in the middle of his legal travails the next year, and her younger sister, Hortense Charlotte Camille—whose stage name was Clotilde Loisset—arrived in 1857.
This reversal of fortunes perhaps accounts for the family’s retreat into the safety of the circus. Both girls became equestrian performers when they were children, trained, it’s said, by their uncle (Séraphin) François Loisset—now a circus proprietor himself—and his wife, the famous and formidable horsewoman Caroline Loyo. Roux worked for François’s circus, too, managing the books. Though they toured across the continent they were not the fly-by-night tented circus we’re used to, instead performing for months at a time in Europe’s brick-and-mortar urban circuses and hippodromes.
The earliest record I’ve found of Émilie performing is from 1868, when she appeared at the Cirque Loisset in Belgium aged twelve with Clotilde, demonstrating “all the aplomb and all the valor of their older colleagues.” The sisters were “as gracious ballerinas as they are horsewomen.” They were both praised for their dressage and their work dancing or leaping on a cantering horse, its back often equipped with a small fringed stage or “panneau.”
The journalist Hugues Le Roux saw Émilie as an eighteen-year-old, playing Prince Charming opposite her sister, and was struck by what he later described as “the first revelation of the beauty of a woman on horseback, of the artistic union of the two most perfect curvilineal forms in creation: the horse adding height to the woman by the majesty of its stature, the woman daringly poised on the animal like a wing.” Writing after her death, he remembered her as having “a taste for sadness,” although that doesn’t really match accounts by men who were closer to her and is perhaps more of a fancy of his. However, this ghoulish male assessment was something Émilie seemed to inspire even before her death cast everything into macabre hindsight.
In 1878, Clotilde and Émilie were performing a vaulting pas de deux at the Cirque des Champs-Élysées in Paris when Clotilde’s horse shied to one side and struck Émilie’s. Émilie fell face first into the arena and was knocked out. Clotilde promptly fainted and fell off her own horse. The novelist Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly was in the audience, and later reminisced about Émilie having “the beauty of death—this beauty that is often far greater than the beauty of the living” as she lay unconscious in the sawdust for ten minutes. The sight of the two “poetic girls” being carried out of the ring “as though on a shield, on the shoulders of clowns” was, for him, “a painful but superb spectacle.” Like the troupers they were, Émilie and Clotilde reappeared within minutes to assure the audience that they were well.
Despite the fall, the Loisset sisters were on the rise. They had broken through to working for two of Europe’s greatest circus proprietors: Ernst Renz in Berlin, Vienna, and elsewhere, and the Franconi dynasty in Paris—the center of sophisticated European circus. There are several photographs of the sisters, including those taken by court photographers in Vienna and Breslau. They share soft, rounded features, dark-shadowed eyes, and tightly curled hair. Clotilde looks fairer than Émilie; both have fashionable sloping shoulders and smooth, corseted waists. Clotilde eventually specialized in acrobatic work on what one German newspaper delightfully referred to as a “nudelbrettschimmel” or “noodle-board gray” with a flat, broad back that made an excellent base for leaps and pirouettes. Émilie ascended into the most prestigious role for a woman in that era’s circus: a soloist dressage rider who also jumped high fences in the tiny ring. She became known as “La Petite Loisset” by her increasingly devoted fans. The next year transformed their sisterhood—and cleared the stage for Émilie’s growing celebrity.
In August 1879, Clotilde caused a continent-wide scandal by marrying Prince Heinrich XX Reuss zu Köstritz, the third son of the royal family of Reuss, a German state in what is now Thuringia. That a circus performer—and one whose acts included not just vaulting and a “gastronomic horse” but also cross-dressing—could marry directly into the aristocracy was not without precedent (one of the girls’ aunts, Victoire, had married a Comte di Rossi in the 1860s). Der Floh joked that Clotilde had truly gotten “a kingdom for a horse,” but the consequences were swift: the prince was demoted to Baron von Reichenfels, had his inheritance cut, and he was thrown out of the Prussian Army.
The new Baron von Reichenfels was something of a playboy, a gambler who’d won big at Baden Baden and blown the money taking his friends to Paris. He was a good rider who was seen at the circus or theater every night in Berlin, and a ladies’ man. He was already under a form of state financial guardianship for his exuberant spending, and now intended to leave with Clotilde for the Bulgarian royal court to seek employment. Here, the story takes a detour into rumor.
The combination of money, circus, and aristocracy was irresistible to the European press, and few journalists hesitated to run stories without a source or justification. I found a number stating that, in fact, the baron had had a lucky landing because Clotilde and Émilie were wealthy in their own right, as an aunt had given them 100,000 francs apiece. Which aunt this could be, I have no idea, as they had so many. Caroline Loyo was tucked away in a village on minuscule income; the ice-cream business was long since busted (and Jean-Joseph was the son of a farmer, not a duke); other aunts I can pinpoint were bound up in the circus. Perhaps Victoire, now a widow, had passed on some of the Comte di Rossi’s money—or perhaps the entire story was fake.
The other strand of stories concerns Émilie directly. When she performed at the Salamonski Circus in Berlin, it was said that the biggest bouquets were left at the stables for her by Franz Edmund Joseph Gabriel Vitus von Hatzfeldt, prince of Hatzfeldt-Wildenburg—best truncated to Prince Hatzfeldt from here on—another horsey German aristocratic sportsman, this time from Prussia. The Morgenpost claimed that the Baron von Reichenfels had only been able to marry Clotilde because Hatzfeldt wanted Émilie’s hand and did not want to marry her “direct from the circus,” so had paid the young Russian an allowance to keep his new sister-in-law out of the ring. L’Intransigeant said Hatzfeldt had been granted permission to marry Émilie by the German emperor himself. “Hup! Hup!” trilled L’Univers Illustrée, “the century’s going hell for leather.”
But now Émilie begins to emerge from this stork’s nest of gossipy newsprint as a three-dimensional person—a woman marked not by death or sex, but by will power, ambition, and pride. The association with Hatzfeldt stuck, and after her death, many prominent sources and even circus history authorities claimed she was engaged to him and would have married him when the season ended. I do not believe this was the case. L’Intransigéant’s theater editor, Georges Meusey, said she had refused the prince because she did not like him, and was “a woman of great sense.” She certainly did not retire from the ring—on the contrary, she became more famous, audacious, and celebrated.
It was perhaps around this time that she had a motto engraved onto the head of her whip, reading: “A princess wouldn’t deign to; a queen could not; I am Loisset.” The circus connoisseur Baron de Vaux claimed that this was a statement of intent—that Émilie refused to make a match any more lowly than the one Clotilde had achieved. It strikes me as the opposite: Émilie was saying she did not need to be royalty to outride and outdare her social superiors. She already mingled with aristocrats. She was already a better horsewoman than most of them. She proclaims her own name—her individuality, her skill—to stand above them.
After her death, a writer in Gil Blas recalled a conversation between Émilie and an aristocratic lady:
“And you, mademoiselle, when will you become a princess?”
“Oh, me? I am and will remain Princess Daredevil.”
To others fretting about the stunts she undertook in the ring, she laughed, and said, “Bah! What will happen will happen … And can you really see me dying with white hair, feeble and with rheumatism?”
And what stunts: Arnold Mortier said she could transform “blood horses into docile instruments.” Her haute école routine sounds as though most of it took place in the air, with her Arabian stallion Mahomet leaping on his hind legs about the ring with nothing but “a little touch to his kidneys” from her heel. A wag in Vienna wished that politicians could learn by watching as Émilie, with barely a nudge, made her horse spin and step from left to right; if only they could control public opinion and their colleagues so easily.
She had two horses called Pour Toujours and J’Y Pense whose identities are perpetually muddled by people who write about her life, and which I have been unable to untangle. One was her jumper, and he is the one who matters most. On Pour Toujours (or J’Y Pense), a dark bay (or black), tricky Irish (or English) thoroughbred (or hunter), she jumped enormous obstacles, including a table set for dinner with candelabras. In 1880, he tripped on the table, somersaulting over Émilie and dislocating her shoulder—she never showed fear, it was said, just injured pride. “A tough woman! And so small!!!” one audience member was overheard saying after a performance.
Franconi advised her to get rid of the horse, but as Albert Wolff wrote later, “the danger was an additional attraction for her.” One elder statesman of equestrianism told her that she was too tough—he warned her that her harsh hands would be the death of her. “Are you telling me that as a prophet or a friend?” she asked with a smile. “We’ll talk about your predictions in … twenty years.”
There is a dual quality to Émilie’s life at this time: her bravado in the ring and her celebrity are ranged against repeated accounts of a modest, single-minded loner. After her mother’s death in 1880 and Clotilde’s retirement from the circus, she traveled only with a maid and a huge, white shaggy dog called Turc who followed her everywhere and slept at the foot of her bed. She would live alone in a small apartment near the circus at which she was engaged, and was said to enjoy books, music, and art, and receive few guests. She would only permit admirers to give her flowers—she had no interest in jewelry or more lucrative tokens. When her followers crammed into the circus stables to see her, she offered them only “banal” smiles calculated to be polite but not enticing. Not that that mattered. The circus managers issued invitations to every aristocrat in town as soon as her first performance was scheduled, feeding on Clotilde’s notoriety. Some of the writing about her is feverish: “Our little queen!” “The most beautiful will-o-the-wisp anyone could imagine!” “A female centaur!” “The diva of equitation, the Patti of haute école, the most intrepid amazone, the most charming, the most dizzying experience since the advent of the Amazons!”
“Will she marry?” asked Scapin. “The lucky mortal whom she will choose will do well to think about two things: beneath that eternal smile is a will of iron that must get whatever she wishes.” For every ecstatic paean to her ash-blonde curls, slender figure, and blue eyes, there is a comment about her ambition and the fact that “she loves her metier ardently … and nothing else!” “Her success fills her heart enough,” wrote Arnold Mortier. The contrast between this ambition and her girlish style seemed to delight her fans. Albert Wolff, who was part of her circle, said she had American manners—by which he meant she was at ease in the company of men—and that when he and Carmen librettist Henri Meilhac dined at the Pavillon Henri IV with Émilie and others, “she was like a spoilt child whom everyone sought to spoil more.”
A writer in Gil Blas described the way her “somewhat disdainful coquetry was highly amused by the commotion she provoked … she enjoyed igniting these fires through which she passed, like a salamander, without being burned. Ultimately, she had only one devotion, her profession, and an absolute desire to conquer the public.” One source claims that those burned included not just Hatzfeldt but also the Crown Prince of Austria, who wanted her “to become his Dubarry.”
Whether this is true or not, I have no idea—there are many cases of mistaken identity in these reports—but she did come into the orbit of the Crown Prince. She was adored by his mother, the Empress Elisabeth, or Sisi, herself an unflinching and brilliant horsewoman who had lessons in circus horsemanship from both Émilie and her colleague and rival, the Austrian écuyère Elisa Petzold. Both were guests at Gödöllő, the hunting lodge outside Budapest where the empress’s coterie of sporting aristocrats hunted, tried circus tricks, and raced in relative liberty away from the stuffier court.
One of the young men in Sisi’s circle was a Hungarian magnate named Count Elemér de Batthyány. Such were the freedoms at Gödöllő that he was allowed to deliberately blank the emperor himself because his father, Lajos, a former prime minister of Hungary, had been executed for treason by one of the Franz Joseph’s generals in 1849. A handsome man with a neat beard, the younger Batthyány was a leading light in the Budapest Jockey Club who had once embarked on an unsuccessful balloon flight from Paris to his home, and had made a sporting journey around the world, lion and elephant hunting in India, ibex stalking in Tibet, passing through China, the East Indies, Japan, and taking a train across America. He sent home two Bengal tigers from this grand tour.
Around September 1881, a handful of newspapers across Europe announced that Émilie was engaged to Count Elemér. “It looks like the Austrian [sic] nobility are stealing all our horsewomen,” said Le Globe. A Berlin paper reported that she was still under contract to Ernst Renz, so the count would have to buy her out or wait, but that her conduct had always been immaculate and she was a worthy bride. In Belgium, La Meuse commented that “this mésalliance has turned all those devils of Austrian high society into a Chabanais”—the name of a notorious brothel frequented by the Jockey Club in Paris.
In early 1882, Émilie was twenty-five and a half years old, lionized, adored, perhaps in love, perhaps engaged, still quickened by ambition. She was contracted to perform for six months at the Cirque des Champs-Élysées in Paris—her beloved hometown. On April 17, she had been in Paris for eight days, taking in horse shows and preparing her acts with each of four horses at the Cirque d’Hiver, a grand twenty-sided drum of a building that still stands on the rue Amelot in the eleventh arrondissement. She practiced first on Mahomet, and then on Pour Toujours/J’Y Pense at two in the afternoon. She was rehearsing her high-risk entrance, in which the horse galloped into the ring, clearing the table in his path, and she saluted the audience.
Pour Toujours/J’y Pense refused the makeshift table, and Émilie caught him a few lashes with her whip. The horse spun and galloped back toward his box, but the massive iron door that sealed the stables from the ring had been closed. He slid into the door, hooves stumbling over one another, and reared up. A second of suspension and then he went over backward and landed on Émilie. The fork of her sidesaddle rammed into her abdomen, driven by the full weight of the horse. There was no blood or broken skin. When Franconi and others rushed to help her, she could only say, over and over, “I am broken; I will die.”
Some accounts say she walked, supported by the circus doctors—who knew this was hopeless—back to the small apartment at 5 rue Oberkampf, where she was staying with another Loisset aunt. They sent a telegraph to Clotilde and fetched her father from his home in Maisons-Laffitte. At 5 A.M. she lost her mind, convinced she was late for her performance, asking for the time, singing her entrance music (“La Valse des Gardes”) between vomiting. At 9 A.M. the following morning, her aunt closed her eyelids for the last time.
Her coffin was lost under wreaths of white flowers and bouquets. The mourners—her family, the sportsmen, the circus and hippodrome stars and managers, the journalists, the aristocrats—marched slowly through streets lined with subdued locals. The church was too small to contain the crowd. Another strange detail crops up: some accounts say that as her coffin entered, it passed another leaving—that of an écuyère from the Hippodrome who had died after an accident on the same day as Émilie’s. I have found no record of this woman’s death but think it may be another of these fanciful elisions that mine the coverage of Émilie: nearly a year before her death, a twenty-four-year-old écuyère called Fanny Ghyka had died of gangrene after her leg was crushed by her horse in the middle of a Hippodrome performance. Fanny, who had her own story, became a “fetch” sent to return Émilie to the underworld.
Émilie was buried with three generations of her family at Maisons-Laffitte Cemetery. Clotilde, once again, fainted. La Liberté visited the Cirque d’Hiver to stare at the spot where Émilie had been crushed and to sigh. Octave Mirbeau, another fan, writing as “Gardeniac” in his Petits Poèmes Parisiens, called her “chastity on horseback,” “a woman whom scandals never grazed.” He imagines her in a host of pale, female ghosts, and quotes Victor Hugo: “The dead today were once the beautiful!”
The detail of the mysterious Hippodrome écuyère reminded me that the fictionalization of Émilie’s death began even before it occurred. Days before her accident, a pseudonymous novel had been published by an “Alain Bauquenne.” L’Écuyère tells the story of a proud and aloof Finnish écuyère called Julia Forsell who is ruined by an Austro-Hungarian aristocratic clique and later kills herself in an elaborate and lurid fashion midperformance. Some of the details of Julia’s portrayal sound familiar (“a reigning prince of Taxis had promised her marriage, if she’d given up the circus, and she’d pulled away her hand”). The press latched it directly to Émilie’s death: “These pages seem like a sort of grievous prediction, and the fatal event gives them, by its sad reality, a powerful revival of interest,” said Le Monde Illustré. Le Figaro: “The last chapter seems to reproduce the details of this terrible death; we present these pages, which seemed particularly interesting to us.”
By the end of May, the Democratic Statesman in America was reporting that an “ardent admirer” of Émilie’s had published a novel in which a heroine modeled on her was killed in the ring, because he wanted her to leave the circus. It was true that the author of L’Écuyère was a devotee of Émilie—albeit one who viewed women as born to sexually torment men, and who used Émilie’s real surname in another novel to portray his own mistress (who also sought to be an écuyère). L’Écuyère is most probably the work of Octave Mirbeau, although I don’t believe it’s the key to the secrets of Émilie’s life. As the Société Octave Mirbeau points out, the rape of Julia by a venal marquis seems to echo Mirbeau’s own rape by a Jesuit priest as a child rather than anything likely to have happened—to Mirbeau’s knowledge—to La Petite Loisset. But the weird morbidity of the novel persisted: by 1897, a Gil Blas correspondent was claiming that some thought Émilie’s death had been a suicide. Postmortem, she appears in another French novel, La Petite Lambton, once more virtuous, romantic, and doomed. The wistful Émilie, the tragic beauty, the victim—not the ambitious, girlish, loner horsewoman—became the story I saw repeated decades later.
I don’t know if I’ve succeeded in reclaiming a definitive Émilie from this mythologizing—not when so many inconsistencies and questions have hatched before my eyes—but I hope that, by overlaying these texts, I’ve given one Émilie a chance to once more walk untouched through the fires in her salamander form. She balanced—sideways—not just on her horse but, like many women of her era and today, on a tightrope of skewed social expectations: a good girl with ambitions, a daredevil with a chaperone, a “little Queen” who turned down a prince and might have married a count.
Susanna Forrest is the author of The Age of the Horse: An Equine Journey through Human History and If Wishes Were Horses. She’s currently working on a third book and a series of essays about circus horsewomen in nineteenth-century Paris.
Read more installments of Écuyères.