Wednesday, September 28, 2011

11. The mysterious Hélène

This week's blog is a contribution by Paul Delaney. We met in 1986, when he lived in London and I well remember the study where he was then writing the biography of Charles Ricketts that appeared in 1990 (Clarendon Press) and that, twenty years on, still is the authorative work on the life of Ricketts. 

The mysterious Hélène de Sousy, mother of Charles de Sousy Ricketts

Every biographer knows that he risks getting things wrong, and tries his best to guard against this. Sometimes, however, you are led astray by the most unexpected things.

Dustwrapper for J.G.P. Delaney, Charles Ricketts. A biography (1990)

When writing the biography of Charles Ricketts, I had difficulty in pinning down Ricketts's mother. Only rarely did he mention her; and he said almost nothing about her family. He said that 'he was born of a French mother, who was bred Italian & had Spanish blood by her father'. He revealed that her full given names were 'Hélène Cornelia Pia Diodata'. His maternal grandfather, he said, had known Rossini. These were the sole references to her family or origins.

However, Ricketts's parents married in a civil ceremony in London on 20 January 1868. The date of this marriage was puzzling, as Ricketts was two years old at the time. In the certificate, Hélène described herself as the widow of a man called Jouhan, and the daughter of Louis, marquis de Sousy; occupation: nobleman. Finally, this was something concrete to go on. There was indeed one French noble family titled de Sousy, which had included a marquis, who was too old to be Hélène's father, and his grandson, a count called Louis of the right period. This was the only possibility, despite the discrepancy in the title. As this was a military family, I found a dossier on Louis, comte de Soucy in the military archives at the Chateau de Vincennes in Paris. One document listed his daughters. None of them was called Hélène Cornelia Pia Diodata.

Charles Robert Ricketts, father of Charles (1838-1883)

In such circumstances, one must formulate a hypothesis that explains all the known facts. As Hélène bore no title, as she had no money, as she seemed to have no inherited possessions and no grand family connections, such as she should have done if she had been the daughter of a marquis, I concluded that she must have been illegitimate. This seemed confirmed by the fact that the marquis's family's name was actually 'de Fitte'; 'de Sousy' was their title. So, had Hélène been legitimate, her name should have been Hélène de Fitte de Sousy. The late marriage also worried me: I guessed it had been a remarriage for legal reasons. So many elements did not quite fit. Clearly, however, something was amiss here.

A few years ago, a woman contacted me claiming that she was a descendant of Ricketts's mother. This intrigued me. I had been told by Ricketts's cousins that his sister's two sons had left no descendants. Yet, there was still the mysterious first husband called Jouhan mentioned in her marriage certificate.

The story of Ricketts's mother that she revealed to me seemed incredible. At first, I refused to believe it. The weight of the evidence eventually persuaded me. Everything that I wrote in my biography about Ricketts’s mother was wrong. The information she had given in her marriage certificate was false. Her maiden name was not 'de Sousy' at all. In fact, Ricketts had no family right to his middle name. She was not 'born French', as Ricketts had claimed. What's more, she had abandoned a first family, a husband (who was not called 'Jouhan') and four children, causing a huge scandal, and disappeared from their lives. As this first marriage had never been dissolved, her marriage to Ricketts's father was bigamous. The only true information in her English marriage certificate was that her father was of noble origin, though he was not the marquis de Sousy.

At the moment, I am not at liberty to reveal more than this. The descendant of Ricketts's mother and I are preparing an article, which will set the record straight.

What intrigues me the most about all this is how much Charles Ricketts knew about his mother's true origins.
                                                                                               Paul Delaney

A signed copy of Delaney's biography of Ricketts
The publication of the full story will be noted in a future message. Thanks are due to Paul Delaney who has kindly written this invited contribution to the blog, which is open to other writers on the subject as well. Please contact me at the address stated in the right-hand column of this page.