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When Rose de Freycinet’s mother, Jeanne Pinon, opened her school for young ladies in 1803, she did so with the aid of a loan of 500 francs from the Abbé Sicard. When, fourteen years later, the school finally closed, possibly in part because of her failing health, she found a retirement refuge in the Abbaye des Bois. From Abbé to Abbaye, surely there must be some link between the two? If so, it is hard to find.

As far as Jeanne’s life before she opened her school is concerned, almost everything that we know has been discovered by Suzanne Falkiner and incorporated into her book Rose, but what we know of the relationship between Jeanne and the abbé comes mostly at second-hand, from the Introduction to Woman of Courage, Marc Riviere’s translation of the 1927 edition of Rose’s journal,. In preparing the work for publication, Riviere had access to twenty-six letters between Jeanne and the abbé, and it is from him that we learn, not only of the loan but also of its very short period, a mere thirty days. It does, indeed, seem a very small amount with which to start a rather large enterprise (the school would accommodate boarders), and presumably would have been needed merely to solve a temporary problem; Jeanne’s husband had just died, and there may have been delays in resolving his estate.

Riviere also tells us that Sicard had known the husband, as well as the widow, because in a letter dated 23 September 1803 he thanked her for a gift of spectacles, as a memento of ‘your dear husband’. The loan had been made in August, and Etienne Pinon only died in the previous June, so the death was presumably expected and plans had been made for what must follow.

Figure 1. Left: The Abbé Sicard. Copper engraving by Charles-Etienne Gaucher, after the drawing of Joseph Jauffret (Musée de la Révolution française); Right:The Abbaye aux Bois in 1739. From the plan of Paris commissioned by Michel-Étienne Turgot :and drawn up by Louis Bretez.

The Abbé Roch-Ambroise-Cucurron Sicard was no insignificant figure. Throughout his adult life he devoted himself to education, and especially to the education of the deaf, who at that time were almost always also mute, because they had never heard speech. By 1808 he was already able to describe himself as ‘Directeur de l’Institution Impériale des Sourdes-Muets; Membre de l’Institut de France, de la Commission du Dictionnaire de l’Académie française, et de plusieurs Sociétés littéraire de France, et étrangères ….

He was not, however, an uncontroversial figure, and his relationship with the Pinon family may not have been altogether one-sided. The final decade of the 18th century and the first few years of the 19th were dangerous times to be a priest in France, and his biography tells us that he came close to death on several occasions. Even after the end of the period known as ‘la Terreur’, there were fates almost as bad as the guillotine awaiting the politically suspect. One such awaited the abbé, if he was not very careful.

“….. a decree of 18 Fructidor Year V (September 5, 1797) included him on the list of writers who were to be deported to Sinamari. Fortunately, he avoided the fate that threatened him by taking refuge in the Faubourg Saint-Marceau. There, he spent more than two years composing his Grammaire générale and his Course d’Instruction d’un sourd-muet de naissance.” [L’Abbé Sicard, p. 42]

Sinamari is in French Guiana, a forerunner of the infamous Devil’s Island, and transportation there was close to a death sentence. This extract implies that Sicard escaped this fate by being hidden by a friend or friends, which makes intriguing his note, in the third Edition of the Grammaire générale, in which Jeanne is mentioned.

“There is not a language that refuses this kind of analysis; they are tested every day on Greek, Latin, German, as well as French, in Paris, in the pension of Messrs. Germain and de Fonbonne, rue Neuve-Saint-Paul, no. ° 6; on French and Spanish, in that of Mme Pinon, rue de Sèves; in that of Mesdames Féris and Aubert, rue des Capucines, n° i3: in that of Mesdames GAMBES, rue de Bellefond, near rue Rochechouart faub, Montmartre, in that of Mme Masset, rue du faubourg du Roule; in that of the ladies Carmichael, rue d’Enfer, in the house of the Deaf-Mutes itself, where I gave those Grammar-Logic lessons to the young people entrusted to the care of these respectable mistresses, to whom I owe so much gratitude for the courageous care I received from them in days of trial and persecution.” [Elemens de Grammaire Générale, p. x. My highlighting]

When this was published, in the 1808 Third Edition, Sicard’s ‘days of trial and persecution’ were effectively over, but during those days Jeanne had been living with her husband in the rue d’Enfer, presumably in close proximity to the ‘ladies Carmichael.’ What all this suggests is that when they first met, it was Jeanne who was in the relatively secure position, and Sicard was a fugitive in need of protection. That he received it when he needed it would explain his close tie to this otherwise somewhat obscure schoolteacher.

But if that is the story of the Abbé, what of the Abbaye aux Bois?

It was certainly a very ancient foundation, tracing its origins back to the very beginning of the 13th century, although it did not occupy the site in the Rue de Sèvres until 1654. From then until 1792, the nuns specialised in education, prudently focussing their efforts on the daughters of the rich. Inevitably, that came to an end with the revolution and the building was repurposed. For a time it was used as a prison, but it was later sold piecemeal for private residences, and at some stage after the restoration of the monarchy it returned to its religious vocation and educational function. The roles were regularised by a royal decree of 18 November 1827 that assigned it to a religious order called the Chanoinesses de Saint-Augustin de la Congrégation Notre-Dame (Saint Augustine’s Canons of the Congregation of Our Lady). It would seem, however, that the educational function must have been well established long before the decree was promulgated.

The letting of rooms to suitable tenants also became the norm, but what was implied by the word ‘suitable’ is something of a mystery. There can hardly have been two occupants less alike than Jeanne Pinion and the far more famous Juliette Récamier, a noted beauty and socialite.  In the first decade of the 19th century, her salon was a meeting place for the noted literary and artistic figures in Paris but when she moved to the Abbaye even such a high profile personage, with multiple influential friends, had to make do at first with a small, two-room apartment high up in the building. It was not until ten years later that she was able to move to a larger suite where she was again able to entertain in the way that she wished.

Was it the Abbé who secured Jeanne ia place in the Abbaye? I have not been able to find a direct connection between the the two, but the Abbé’s biography shows him to have been a friend, or at least an acquaintance, of Chateaubriand, and he was a great supporter of Juliette and a frequent visitor, once she was living there and especially after she moved to the larger appartment and re-established her salon. The link, however, is very tenuous, because there is no evidence of a connection between Chateaubrand and the Abbaye before Juliette moved in.

The Abbaye is described as letting rooms ‘to women of high social standing’. How on Earth did Jeanne Pinon manage to get there?