On 8 December 1886, this advertisement appeared in the Le Figaro newspaper:
The “C.L.” who had placed the advert was William Castle Leaver Jnr. His father’s school in Newhaven, Sussex, was struggling. William Jnr had been sent to Versailles in France to teach English and to learn French. He might, so father thought, become a valuable member of the Newhaven teaching staff in years to come. William Jnr’s lodgings in Versailles were just a 10-minute walk away from rue Albert Joly, the home of artist-painter Charles Marie Joseph Albert Touchemolin. M. Touchemolin had a daughter, Pauline Celestine Elise. Did William Jnr bump into Elisa in the street, did they share a common interest, or had Elise’s father sent her to William for English lessons? We do not know. (Note: Both father and daughter generally went by their last given name.)
The upshot was, however, that on 6 August 1889 a blushing 21-year-old Elise walked into the Town Hall at Versailles for her civil wedding to William, the formalities being completed by the deputy mayor of Versailles.
The bride had the permission of her parents. The bridegroom had the permission of his parents. William’s mother was not present at the ceremony, but the French Honorary Consul in Newhaven had countersigned her written permission. All was in order. And the deputy mayor who performed the ceremony on that August day ensured that all these details, names, addresses, ages, witnesses etc. etc. etc. were all written down and preserved for future historians. French bureaucracy is not always a bad thing.
Two days later the couple went to the church of St Symphorien to be married according to the rites of the Roman Catholic church.
Some 9 months later, (no, there never were any children) according to the address on an advertisement which appeared in Le Figaro, the young couple were living with her parents in the apartment in rue Albert Joly. William Jnr. was still trying to drum up business for his father’s school, but by 1895 the school had had its day. William Snr. and his wife Maria had retired to 53 Beaconsfield Villas. The name of their home was Villa Alsace. Why?
The explanation goes back a good few years. Elise’s father had been born in 1829 in Strasbourg in the French region of Alsace. When Elise was still a toddler, Alsace had been annexed by Germany in 1870, at the end of the Franco-Prussian. Elise had French nationality as did her parents. Both father and daughter were ardent Alsatian “nationalists”. Both kept their French nationality despite the difficulties this caused. Eventually a move to France proper became imperative for the family.
Neither father nor daughter ever forgot their homeland.
But back to Brighton. It is quite likely that by the mid-1890s young Mr and Mrs William Leaver were living with his parent in Beaconsfield Villas – and perhaps the parents indulged their daughter-in-law by calling their home after her homeland.
The young couple then moved briefly to Waldegrave Road before settling in a newly built home at 41 Surrenden Road. This home they named Alsace House.
Elise may not have been easy to live with. William was a businessman and perhaps a little strait-laced. At some point between 1911 and 1923, the couple divorced. Elise remarried a military gentleman and moved out of the area.
Brighton is and was a broad-minded town. But even in such a broad-minded town, Elise must have stood out. Her first passion was her homeland, Alsace. She, like her father, was obsessed by the tragedy that was the annexation of Alsace. One of her very first publications was “Pro Patria” (1897), described as “A small sketch of a vast subject”, that subject being, the loss of her French homeland exemplified by the loves of a young Alsatian woman. In 1907 she published “Alsatian Tales” in English. Both books were illustrated by Alfred Touchemolin, her father.
The Scotsman newspaper described “Pro Patria” as “crude sentimentalism”. The Journal des Débat politiques et littéraires was somewhat more indulgent to this daughter of France, calling Elise a distinguée litteratrice [a distinguished literary figure] and praising “Alsatian Tales” as une attrayante collection de contes alsaciens-lorrains [a attractive collection of tales from Alsace-Lorraine].
Elise’s second passion was spiritualism and the occult. This was at a time when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had made spiritualism not only popular but respectable in Britain. Elise, under the various pen names of Jean Delaire and later Mrs Muirson Blake, was no Conan Doyle. Her books were not universally admired. One book in particular evoked considerable criticism from Le Mercure newspaper:
Le roman de M. Delaire « Around a Distant Star » … est un timide essai de fiction fantastico-scientifique… dès le début, une histoire d’amours et de fiançailles était assez inutile ; on espérait que, par la suite, elle servirait à dramatiser le récit, mais il n’en est rien. [Mr Delaire’s novel “Around a Distant Star” is a timorous essay of the fantasy-science genre… from the very beginning, it was a pointless tale of loves and betrothals; we had hoped that later these would add to the drama of the story, but they do nothing of the sort.]
As this novel is, not surprisingly, difficult to find nowadays, it is thanks to the Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction that an outline of the story is available:
“Two young fellows travelling on an electrically propelled faster-than-light spaceship to a planet about 1900 light years away, in order that, after avoiding carnivorous plants, they can witness through a super telescope the death and resurrection of Christ; the narrator of the tale then returns to Earth, leaving his friend behind to teach Christianity to the monkey-like natives.”
The residents of Brighton might well have been glad that Elise had moved away from Brighton by the time she published a novel called “A Pixie’s Adventures in Humanland” in 1927.
As the 19th century turned into the 20th, Elise was becoming more and more involved with Theosophy. She was president of the Brighton Lodge of Theosophists for at least ten years until 1919. In the run up to WWI many people were turning to spiritual matters. This is exemplified by the very long report by the Brighton Herald (1913) of a talk given my Madame Delaire called “Reincarnation and the riddle of life”. The respectability of such a talk was not in doubt: the well-attended meeting was held in the Public Library and was presided by no less a person that the highly regarded Henry D Roberts, Director of the Library.
“Jean Delaire” was also the editor of a journal called “Christian Theosophy”. This later post may have been taken up after she moved away from Brighton. Her second husband Muirson Blake, formerly a soldier in India, appears to have been far more involved with spiritualism than was her first husband. Almost immediately after her wedding to Blake, she was travelling extensively with him, spreading the word of Theosophy:
Theosophical work has also been well sustained through the year. A valuable asset was the visit made to many French Lodges by Mr. and Mrs. Muirson Blake, who delivered in the principal towns scores of lectures in French and in English. They won to themselves the sympathy of all in the places visited—among which Paris, Dijon, Lyon, Marseille, Saint Etienne, Grenoble, Mulhouse, Strasbourg, Luxembourg—and the reports received testify that their extensive tour yielded very encouraging results. (from the General Report of the Theosophical Society, 1924)
Elisa and William were still living in Surrenden Road, in 1903, her parents, Albert and Wilhelmine came to live with them. Despite being a well-known artist of his native country, Albert Touchemolin did not choose to depict Brighton or Sussex in his artwork. The fine views from the back of the house, over the Preston Valley did not seem to appeal to him.
Sadly for Elise, both her parents died within days of each other, her mother on 27 December 1906 and her father on 4 January 1907.
The fine Edwardian houses of Surrenden Road can hardly be described as cottages. It was not Albert but his daughter who gave the house its name and there seems to be no evidence that Wilhelmina was American. Apart from that, the report by Le Temps newspaper is completely accurate.