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Julie Schwabe and the Water Doctor's governess

The Water Doctor's Daughters, by Pauline Conolly The Water Doctor's Daughters, by Pauline Conolly, in which Julie Schwabe plays a significant role, is due to be launched in the UK next February by Robert Hale. It tells the story of the children of the widowed Malvern water-cure doctor, James Marsden. When he was about to remarry in 1852, Marsden sent his five daughters to Paris with their governess, Celestine Doudet, who was establishing a school in her late mother's apartment. Two of the girls died and Doudet faced two sensational trials. Her greatest supporter was Julie Schwabe, who not only had a great interest in the education of women, but had previously employed Doudet. Here follows an extract from the book about Mrs Schwabe's involvement in the case...........

In 1855, French born governess, Célestine Doudet, stood trial over the deaths of two of her pupils. They were the children of wealthy water-cure practitioner, James Loftus Marsden, of Malvern. In 1852, Doudet had taken the young Marsden's to Paris where she established a small school. She was later charged with the manslaughter of ten year old Marian and of cruelty to Marian’s four siblings. The defence argued that the deplorable condition of the Marsden children was due to the effects of whooping cough and a strict homeopathic diet, insisted on by Dr Marsden, to cure all five of his daughters of ‘self abuse’. Of course, it was Mlle Doudet who claimed the young girls were ‘impure’.

Mlle Doudet’s greatest supporter was the widow of the wealthy Manchester manufacturer, Salis Schwabe. Mrs Schwabe took an active interest in social issues, particularly the education of young women. However, she also had a personal connection to the accused. She had previously employed Doudet as a governess at her home, Crumpsall House, on the edge of Middleton. Ironically, the Schwabes were also believers in homeopathy. Julie Schwabe’s late husband, Salis, had been treated by the homeopathist Dr Edward Phillips. In 1851, Mr Schwabe was listed a patron of the Manchester Homeopathic Hospital and Dispensary.

Julie Schwabe offered to post bail to secure the governess’s release, but the French did not allow bail in criminal cases. At the trial, she told the court that Dr Marsden had deliberately lodged the charges in France because the country had a special love for children, and because Doudet would have nobody from England to defend her:

‘So I thought, well!, I’ll go myself, and here I am. she insisted: ‘I am the mother of seven children, and if I believed that Mademoiselle was capable of one-tenth of what she has been accused of, I would not have travelled from England to testify.

There is no doubt that Mrs Schwabe was sincere and good intentioned in her support of the accused, albeit misguided. The governess was acquitted of manslaughter but found guilty of cruelty at a second trial and sentenced to five years gaol. By the time of the subsequent appeal, Mrs Schwabe had returned to England but she provided a written statement;

Julie Schwabe ‘My interest in Mademoiselle Doudet is not due to sympathy but to my love of the truth, and this conviction is so complete and entire that when I visited her in Saint- Lazare [prison] the day before my departure, I said that if she were acquitted, I would receive her within my family as before.'

When the appeal failed, Mrs Schwabe made an ill-advised approach for help to the social activist Charles Dickens. She sent the novelist a box of documents with a covering letter, but was rebuffed in a terse letter. The novelist said he was busy writing Little Dorrit, but his sympathy almost certainly lay with the abused children. By now, Doudet was regarded as the female equivalent of Wackford Squeers, who ran the brutal boarding school, Dotheboys Hall, in Dickens’ novel Nicholas Nickleby. In his reply to Mrs Schwabe he wrote;

‘I cannot plunge into this sea of distraction. I have no other impression of Miss Doudet’s case than I have of any other case in which a person has been tried and found guilty and has been in no wise benefitted by an appeal.’

That same month, she appealed to her friend, fellow Manchester industrialist and MP, Richard Cobden. Her letter has not survived but Cobden’s response is a model of diplomacy and good sense;

'Where the courts have all confirmed their first judgment, you cannot expect the government to revise their decision by giving a full pardon to the prisoner.’ ‘If you wish to appeal for a mitigation of the sentence, time is a necessary element to enable the government to comply, without casting a stigma on the judicial authorities.'

His final comment on the matter was a plea (which fell on deaf ears) for his friend not to ignore the opinions of others;

‘Recollect that although you are convinced of the innocence of this poor person, others are as satisfied of her guilt, and the best way whether of convincing them of their error, or of inducing them to look with indifference or compassion on her case is to give them time and not to irritate them by keeping alive the controversy when no good can possibly come of it.’

At Easter in 1856, Cobden’s 15 year old son, Richard, was holidaying with the Schwabes in Heidelberg and subsequently wrote to his father (April 2):

‘Mlle Doudet was the constant talk during the holidays and Mrs Schwabe does not seem to have the least doubt about her innocence.’

Writing to his wife, Catherine, on April 7th, Cobden observed drily;

‘His (young Richard’s) allusion to Mlle Doudet shows he must have been well dosed with that topic.’

A few days later, word arrived that young Cobden had died suddenly. To her credit, Julie Schwabe immediately put aside her campaign and rushed to comfort a heartbroken Catherine Cobden. However, she soon took up the cause again, determined to have Célestine Doudet released. On June 27th 1858, the governess was pardoned by Emperor Napoleon III.

The full story of the case and what happened to the surviving girls is told in The Water Doctor’s Daughters, written by Australian author, Pauline Conolly. It will be published by Robert Hale at the end of February 2013. More information is available at http://www.paulineconolly.com

Submitted by Pauline Conolly
October 2012

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What a fascinating read about Julie Schwabe's efforts to prove the innocence of Governess Celestine Doudet, when charged with the murder of two of her charges. It's certainly left me looking forward to the publication of the book (The Water Doctor's Daughters by Pauline Conolly) early next year. Many thanks for bringing this information to a wider audience. Only for reading it in the said 'Middletonia', it would have probably slipped under the radar, and I would have been none the wiser!
yours sincerely,
Bill Sullivan

As an avid reader, I can't wait for this book to come out. Will watch out on Amazon for it.
Jean Rutter