The early spring of 1852 was a particularly cold one with Paris’ streets still covered in snow and angry ice poking from the corners of the rooftops of buildings. At the time, the newspapers propagated that one in every three people hurt themselves every day and the hospitals were overflowing. Much like the insolence of those who had taken it upon themselves to govern the country, the daily journals were easy to exaggerate and furnish the truth with whatever “facts” they wished. That, of course, did not stop the people from making their opinions known, even at the cost of their lives.
The change of power was one of turbulence and a half-baked revolution, which ultimately resulted in the ban of social and political clubs. While in theory, the intellectuals hid like a bunch of scared mice, they simply changed where they found their cheese, or so the secret pamphlets that were passed around proclaimed. Indeed, a majority of them managed to persevere, others were punished by law, while a third, very small group of people, were entirely unaffected, if nothing because they never existed in the first place.
Madame Olympe’s Ladies’ Club for intellectual and cultural prosperity was, by all means, non-existent. While it constituted a well-known secret in its circles, for the average person it was nothing more than a queer-sounding name for a fairy tale, which can never take place in real life. After all, what do women know about high-regarding notions such as education and intellectualism? Indeed, the ladies in the club were a strange bunch – the youngest being a 14-year-old, while the matron of the salon was a 72-year-old widow, whose own knowledge and experience through regime change was the foundation of the club.
Barely widowed, with her husband’s corpse still warm in his casket, Olympe de Savoir refurbished their family apartment in the heart of Paris, greatly invested in woman-written literature and got ahold of her late spouse’s friend’s wives. The actual logistics of the conception of the society were often far-fetched and mostly shrouded in mystery. Depending on who you asked, Madame Olympe wrote a handful of letters to the aunt of Louis Philippe to give a start to the club, while others claimed that she manipulated Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte to give his blessing and ensure security for her. Upon being asked herself, Madame Olympe would always look at you in the eyes over the rim of her glasses and wink in shared secrecy, a sort of initiating ritual, which meant that even though you will never know her secrets, you will always be welcomed to ponder them with the society.
When Ophelia was first blessed by the magical gaze of Madame’s ebony eyes, she felt like she was trying to navigate a confusing dream – the kind that feels like it has lasted a lifetime and sits on your mind for a long time after having awakened. The very place she had found herself in was the sort only her “rowdy thoughts”, as her mother always accused her, could fabricate. With its looming chandeliers, carved floors and high ceilings adorned by paintings of angels and naked women, Ophelia shuddered at the very opulence of the salon. The deep hues of the red and blue wallpapers and the contrasting old, leather spines of the books only served to make her feel further out of place. The people in the salon, all women, provided little comfort to her growing nerves, as they were all either engaged in intense conversation or held a thick tome in their hands. All alone after her friend Marie had run off somewhere, Ophelia desperately wanted to leave, hide in her room and come out after a week there. She never took well to large crowds of people in the same place at the same time and the salon currently hosted at least thirty women. That was when the matron finally noticed her and cajoled her into entering another, quieter room. Madame offered tea and sweets, letting Ophelia take in the mesmerising scent of exported bergamot and the beauty of foreign porcelain in her hands.
“You do not seem to enjoy yourself much,” said Madame.
Ophelia carefully mulled over her words, for she did not wish to potentially insult her benefactor. “I was not exactly planning on coming here. My friend, Marie, told me I would enjoy it, but so far I simply feel rather… overwhelmed.”
Madame hummed at the statement and let a small smile grace her red lips. “It is a lot, I agree. After my late husband’s passing, I was quite intent on changing the apartment as much as possible, but perhaps I have gone too far.”
“No, no, Madame, it is not the space, as much as the audience in it,” Ophelia was quick to explain her musings. “You see, I am of delicate constitution, or so my dear mother says. I do not take well to big crowds of people.”
Ever since she was born, Ophelia would feel this crushing weight in her chest whenever she was surrounded by people. Because of this many would certainly describe her as quiet and unassuming as she was too scared to go and talk to people outside of her family. Balls and other social events were always out of the question and so her perpetual solitude resulted in perpetual loneliness as well. She would be frequently sent out to the countryside where her grandparents lived to heal herself, at least that’s what the doctors had suggested upon her mother’s inquiries. It wasn’t until years upon years of lonely discovery of the fields surrounding their house and solitary confinement in the library, that she would meet Marie Depain, the sole daughter of an emerging bourgeois family and her newfound neighbour. The Depain family bought out the neighbouring house and turned it into the family home, a haven away from the bustle of the capital.
The two girls are hard-pressed to even call themselves acquaintances, a consequence of Ophelia’s timid nature and Marie’s abundance of friends, who frequently visit her. However, the latter’s 13th birthday proves to be a turning point. The Depain household is bizarrely quiet, with just a single window letting light out, despite the supposed celebratory nature of the day. Ophelia notices a dark figure sitting in the grassfield behind both houses and a little voice in her head tells her to go out and see for herself. This is where she finds Marie, hugging her knees and silently crying – no one came to her party, despite all preparations. She sent out the invitations a month in advance, made the maids clean every surface of the house and the chef created a three-course menu and a special cake just for today. Just the day before she was playing games with her closest friends; yet now, she finds herself completely and utterly alone.
Ophelia sits down next to her and without saying a word, hugs her. She knows that no words will be able to repair the situation nor will they make Marie feel better. All she knows is what she needs most of the time – a friend, a hug, a silent understanding that some things that cannot be put into words needn’t be.
The next day Marie knocks on her door and their friendship is cemented in the books of their personal history. As the years pass, Ophelia will spend less and less time in the family house, especially after her grandparents’ passing. Sometimes, the two friends meet in the city, but more frequently, Ophelia comes every Thursday to have tea with her dear friend. For years, that is all she knows. With her lonely childhood left behind, a new brighter adolescence keeps her heart warm at night.
The late winter of 1851 marks a new beginning, not only with the celebration of Ophelia’s adult life, but with a shift in her relationship with Marie. Marie suddenly becomes unavailable most times they both find themselves in Paris and their weekly Thursday afternoon lunch in the countryside soon becomes a biweekly occurrence until it entirely consists of one meeting a month.
One faithful Thursday afternoon, after the beginning of the new year, they finally find time to see each other after almost a month of silence. The roads are covered with thick ice, so they decide to meet in the Depains’ central Parisian apartment. Marie is strangely quiet, taking slow deliberate sips of her tea, which leaves Ophelia feeling viciously out of place. All of a sudden, the familiar mahogany floors and the warmth of the fireplace are alien and dazing.
“I need to tell you something,” Marie says in a small voice.
“What is it?”
“I realise I have been absent the last few months. And I sincerely apologise for that but…” Marie stops to mull over her next words – she looks like a client at the Saturday market trying to decide which farm’s apples are better than the others. “The reason why… Well, it is hard to explain. And I don’t expect you to fully understand, but do you remember how two years ago, all political and social clubs were banned?”
Ophelia tentatively nods her head, unsure of the direction this conversation is heading.
“Well, not all of them ceased to exist, despite all undertaken legal measures. And I… I have joined one.” Marie leaves her cup on the side table and nervously weaves her hands together. She refuses to look Ophelia in the eyes.
The latter, on the other hand, has no words. Her mind is empty of any possible response. Her first thought is to imagine the painful struggle Marie will face in prison, if she is found out, or worse, the excruciating pain of her death. Her second thought is righteous indignation, or at least the perceived notion of it. Not only has her closest friend exposed herself to cardinal punishment, but she’s also lied to her for months on end! All of the letters saying she is “deeply apologetic, but there is work to be done in the house and it would be best to move the afternoon tea” were a lie? For what exactly? For a secret club in which they are doing God knows what?
“I know this may be hard on you, but perhaps it would help you understand my situation better if you were to come with me?” Marie looks at Ophelia with eyes full of hope. And lord knows, Ophelia could never say no to her dearest friend’s pleas. Ever since they were younger, whatever Marie required of her, Ophelia offered, selflessly devoted to their friendship. Marie wanted to play a certain game, discuss a new book, try a new meal? Ophelia would clear the entire room of furniture, stay into the small hours of the night and annoy the family’s butler until his ears bled from listening to her requests, if only it would make her dear friend content. Even now, when she feels a deep hole settle in her very being and betrayal coats every beat of her heart, Ophelia can’t find it in herself to decline the demand.
Snow is yet again coating the streets of Paris when they leave the apartment. They have to keep their skirts above their knees in order not to fall. Marie’s high-pitched voice can be heard throughout the entire empty street, full of promises that Ophelia will enjoy the club so much that she will feel at home there, the same way she is. She rambles on about the interior, the impressive collection of books Madame possesses and, of course, the lovely ladies she has met there. The more Ophelia listens the more she feels she has been replaced by a shiny new toy. She feels inadequate, as if she no longer fulfils her purpose as a friend if this place is so incredible that it constitutes disregarding their long-standing close friendship.
When they finally reach the building, Ophelia is surprised to see that it is hidden in broad daylight – right in the middle of Paris, close to the Place de la Concorde. Despite the inconspicuous exterior of the building, the foyer inside is highly impressive with a large chandelier swinging above their heads and a wide, marble staircase. Madame Olympe, the matron of the salon’s apartment, is on the third floor. Much like the entrance, the apartment is a hidden treasure, more reminiscent of a chateau as opposed to a Parisian flat. It has high ceilings, with walls covered with intricate wallpapers and bookshelves lining most of them, at least in the rooms Ophelia gets a glance of. The main salon is somehow even more impressive in size and decoration, but what is truly beguiling is the audience – all women, from those graced with the brightness only adolescence possess, to those whose eyes and skin have seen much turmoil in their lifetime, all of them engaged in a conversation or a book. And before she knows what is happening, Marie is beaming at her side and gushing over everyone in the room, until her eyes land on an apparently close friend, and she leaves Ophelia all alone.
That is how she found herself drinking tea with no other than the matron herself. Madame Olympe had let her inside a smaller antechamber, which was composed of a high, wooden table, chairs and fine china displayed in glass cases. A small kitchenette was also attached to one of the walls, but it only sufficed to make tea.
“I understand that in the beginning, it may be hard to find your voice around here, especially because everyone likes to talk,” Madame Olympe laughed at her own joke and promptly continued. “But I assure you, this is a safe space for everyone and you are more than welcome to explore.”
“I am afraid I am not exactly certain as to what I am to explore…”
“Marie did not explain to you what we do here?” Madame asked. Frankly, Ophelia was not entirely listening to her.
“I created this salon to encourage women to find the world, and then themselves. I have lived many lives – a daughter, a wife, a mother, a grandmother, yet not once did I feel entirely human. I sacrificed my being for the sake of others and I would like to spare anyone, willing to listen to what I have to say, the pain.”
Madame Olympe looked positively regal, with her chin tipped upwards and her sharp eyes looking straight down Ophelia’s own. Ophelia’s head was spinning from the revelation in front of her. A safe haven for women?
If you were to ask Ophelia what she wanted to do with herself, she would be hard-pressed to find a satisfactory answer. Her mother wanted her to become like her, a respected lady in high society, who has successfully procreated and educated her offspring, while continuously supporting the endeavours of her entrepreneurial husband. Her father did not know that Ophelia existed half the time so one would only waste their breath if they were to ask him. Society, especially high society, would more or less have the exact expectations as her mother, but Ophelia never found the difference between the two anyway. So was this her purpose if she couldn’t think of one herself? A life confined to the expectations imposed on her?
Ophelia mused over what Madame had said to her – never entirely human. Sheltered from childhood, distant from both of her parents and having found an adequate relationship with a singular person, was Ophelia ever entirely human herself? She thought back to her initial reaction to Marie’s news, the deep betrayal that settled in her body – was her spirit truly so dependent on a single person? Did she not have a spirit of her own?
Ophelia braced herself and looked straight back into Madame Olympe’s gaze. “I would love to explore. Would you show me the way?”