The Baudelairean Horsewoman: Jenny de Rahden


The new Écuyères essay is up at the Paris Review Daily’s blog: it’s about Baroness Jenny de Rahden.

This is part of a series on circus horsewomen of nineteenth-century Paris. The earlier essays are on Selika Lazevski (research blog here), Sarah l’Africaine (research blog here) and my obsession with these circus horsewomen (research blog here). Two more essays are in the pipeline, and I’m considering a newsletter of more stories, so contact me or sign up to this blog’s RSS feed if you’re interested. I can’t stop researching these horsewomen!


My starting point years ago was Hilda Nelson’s The Écuyère of the Nineteenth Century in the Circus, which is heavily based on Baron de Vaux’s Écuyers et Écuyères: Histoires des Cirques d’Europe and Jenny’s own book.

I was very caught up in Jenny’s own Roman de l’Écuyère, which you can view here on the peerless Gallica [source of the images above], where I also found the vast number of newspaper clippings relating to her. I have just discovered searchable German-language databases but haven’t ventured into them on Jenny’s behalf instead. If I do, and find more, I will add an update here or in a newsletter I’m trying to organize.

I didn’t discover the German Wikipedia article till late in the process. The more I work on these mini biographies, the harder I find it to be certain of biographical facts. I usually check multiple contemporary sources about the same events and I see errors that are carried forward by later texts and plenty of instances where there are two believable versions of an event. They are a work in progress, and I try to make the ambiguities and contradictions clear.

I found “Les Proses de l’Écuyère de Cirque (1850-1914)” by Paul Aron a very helpful overview of just some of the literary texts inspired by circus horsewomen in France in this period.  I’m building a database of sorts for these mentions, and Nichola A Haxell’s “‘Ces Dames du Cirque’: A Taxonomy of Male Desire in Nineteenth-Century French Literature and Art” also introduced me to new texts.

Multiplying Jennies

I’ve been researching Jenny’s life on and off for years, and in that time, have gotten muddled more than a few times.

Both Baron de Vaux and Saltarino’s Artisten-Lexicon (1895) mention a “Miss Jenny” or “Mlle Jenny” who was not Jenny de Rahden. I think one of the circulated pictures of an écuyère leaning back as a horse rears up might well be this Mlle Jenny rather than Jenny de Rahden – it’s certainly the case in Saltarino.

I then thought *this* beautiful Jenny de Rahden was our Jenny. And it turned out she’s the Baron de Rahden’s sister or Jenny’s sister-in-law. Check the dates, everyone! And then check them again with multiple sources. And then take a punt to decide which you trust.

In L’Écho d’Alger on 30 October 1897, I found Pierre Hachet-Souplet writing about an écuyère he calls “Flora” who was described as Baudelarian, rode a pied horse and had blond hair. This sounds very like our Jenny from the Jules LeMaître review of her early performances in Paris, but then the Hachet-Souplet article takes a twist, regaling us with the tale that when Flora was asked for her favourite scent, she said bergamot, omitting to mention that if she made an error as a child her father stuck her head in horse shit –  until she was 16 years old. Yes, another strange article that makes me think I’m missing some very specific context.

Rhaden or Rahden?

Presumably because it’s a Russian name, Jenny’s name is spelled in both variations. I got VERY confused about this until I decided to stick to the spelling used for her memoir. Rahden.

Jenny at the Movies

Hilda Nelson says that Jenny’s memoir was made into a silent film, Elvira Madigan, but I’m fairly certain this is not the case. Elvira was a very real person with a distinct tragic story (you can read it here) and several films were made about her life, but she’s not Jenny. There is a silent film called “L’Écuyère” (1922) but this is based on an 1885 novel by Paul Bourget that’s unconnected to the circus.


Jenny’s memoir inspired a play by Louis Lormel called (of course) L’Ecuyère, drame en 1 acte et 2 tableaux (1908), a radio drama by Robert Sadoul (Seule, la mort…, broadcast 26 June 1948) and a feuilleton for France Soir by Paul Gordeaux and Jacques Pecnard. I recently discovered a novel called Le Dernier Salut de l’Amazone by Véronique Chauvy based on her life.

Possible Sightings

If you want to reliably see Jenny, look at the facsimile of her book on Gallica.

The Musée du Carnavalet in Paris has a poster by Jean-Alcide-Henri Boichard that, if it dates from 1895, could be Jenny performing at Cirque d’Hiver. It might be also Emilie Loisset, who wore “bohemian” costume, was often said to be blonde and more conventionally pretty, and was at the Cirque d’Hiver in the early 1880s. However, I haven’t read of Emilie doing this particular trick. You can see it (and buy a print) here. The museum has been closed for restoration the entire time I’ve been researching the circus horsewomen. I’m desperate to go when it reopens.

There’s a Nadar studio photo of a circus horsewoman called Mlle Jenny and I did, for some time, think it was our Jenny, but I think it’s the écuyère I mentioned above. Click on the images here to see it next to the image of Selika Lazevski.

In a trawl around Getty Images I found this old engraving, issued at the time of the trial. She looks more like a bar maid who could hold her own than a Baudelarian horsewoman, and Getty claimed that she was killed by her husband in 1893. Which is definitely not true.

I’ve seen several claims that she is one of the models for the dressage écuyère depicted by Toulouse-Lautrec in the image accompanying the essay on the Paris Review site but have been unable to confirm this.


Bibliothèque Nationale de France, especially the Département des Arts du Spectacle
Paris Archives/Fonds Paul Haynon.
Sammlung Variété, Zirkus, Kabarett at the Stiftung Stadtmuseum Berlin.
Bibliothèque Musée de l’Opéra, Paris – they have a surviving poster of Sarah in action, described in the essay.
Théâtrothèque Gaston Baty, Université Paris 3.
National Fairground and Circus Archive, University of Sheffield.

Published by Susanna Forrest

Writer Amazons of Paris, The Age of the Horse and If Wishes Were Horses.

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  1. Absolutely riveting. And what an understandable obsession. The line continues to Nell Gifford of Gifford’s Circus who was a wonderful horsewoman — and so sadly died of cancer recently. I can’t wait to read your book — I assume it’s a book?

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