An illustrated essay 3 – Marguerite de Navarre

Place Foche, Alençon

Place Foche, Alençon

Marguerite de Navarre, who became Marguerite d’Alençon, was one of the most influential women in France. She was born in 1492 into an aristocratic family; her brother was to become Francis I, King of France. Marguerite’s life centred around him and she benefited from the education that he received, which was far more extensive than most girls were exposed to at the time. At the age of sixteen the decision was made that she should marry Charles, the Duke of Alençon. Raised to be a soldier, he was not very educated, in stark contrast to his wife. Marguerite settled to live in the austere Château d’Alençon, which was the prison when I lived in the town. Sitting alongside the Palais de Justice and La Mairie in Place Foch, the lineup of buildings is impressive and often photographed.

The first time I photographed Alençon’s prison, courthouse and town hall was in 1971. I was fourteen years old and on holiday with my parents with no idea that I would live nearby and hear the clatter of cutlery on the prisoners’ metal plates reverberating around the square at mealtimes or be invited to weddings in the Town Hall. Luckily I have no personal experience of the courthouse!

The most memorable of the weddings I attended was in 1999 when one of the little boys I had looked after in the seventies officiated at the wedding of another inside the magnificent building. The special moment was decisively captured but only just because the official photographer stood up in front of me at that precise moment—reminiscent of my grandfather’s efforts of photographing Royals!

The compilation above is the first of two that I have taken where there are very few cars in the foreground, because it is now a car park mostly bursting with vehicles. In pride of place is our Austin Cambridge! This is my very first joiner, taken long before the term was coined by David Hockney.

An illustrated essay 2 – Sainte Thérèse of Lisieux

Basilica Lisieux

Marie-Françoise-Thérèse Martin who became Sainte Thérèse of Lisieux was born into a lacemaking family in Alençon in 1873. She entered the Carmelite Convent of Lisieux, fifty miles north of Alençon, when she was only fifteen on 9 April 1888 and she died there in 1897. Sainte Thérèse is one of the best-loved saints of our time and her imposing white basilica now dominates the Lisieux skyline. Considered the second most important pilgrimage town in France, Lisieux is visited by thousands of Catholic pilgrims every year.

Sainte Thérèse of Lisieux birthplace and childhood home in Alençon is retained as a monument to this extraordinary young woman and was looked after by nuns at the time I visited. To one side of the house there is a chapel and her parents’ bedroom, which includes the bed in which Sainte Thérèse was born. The living room displays objects that were used by her family, including Thérèse’s childhood diary. Thérèse was often unwell and died of tuberculosis when only twenty-four, suffering agonies in the final stages of her illness. After her death, the church directed that her autobiography should be published. Printed and distributed a year after her death to an initially very limited audience, the impact of The Story of a Soul was significant. Pope Pius XI made her the ‘star of his pontificate’, signing the decree for the opening of the process of canonization on 10 June 1914 and she was canonised in 1925, twenty-eight years after her death.

An illustrated essay 1 – Alençon Lace 1999

Alencon Lace

Alençon Lace is world-renowned but at the beginning in the twelfth century lace-making in France was politically complicated. The uniquely-styled needle lace, made with threads said to be finer than horsehair, did not emerge until around 1665. The factory still exists in the town today but it has been turned into a museum with only a few women still working there, mainly to demonstrate the intricacies and complexities of making this particular lace; to educate and keep the history alive. Working under bright lights, the conditions are completely different from those experienced in the previous centuries when an apprenticeship lasted ten years and girls could start learning at the age of five, by which stage they already knew how to hold the tiny needle. After long lives filled with working in poor light, most of the lace-makers went blind.

The French Connection

Sally Hedges Greenwood article in French newspaper

My contacts in France, in particular in Alençon were of help to me in 1995 when I was writing about different aspects of the town. Their announcement that I was seeking information from members of the public was of great help to the project.