The Objects

17th May 1815

Source: Balzac's desk and chair, The Maison de Balzac, Paris.
Photograph by Katherine Hambridge

Balzac and the Belle Hollandaise

Contributed by: Katherine Astbury

In the middle of May 1815, Parisians were gripped not by the legislative elections or by the preparations for war but by a murder trial. Antoine Serres de Saint-Clair faced a retrial in front of a military tribunal for murdering the prostitute Cornelia Kersemacker, known as ‘La Belle Hollandaise’, in November 1814. It was the theatre critic, Martainville, who regaled the readers of the Journal de Paris with details day by day as the trial proceeded but it was also covered at length in the Journal de l’Empire and the Quotidienne. The conclusion of the trial was dramatic. When, on 18th May, Saint-Clair was found guilty, accused of dishonouring the military profession, and stripped of his Légion d’honneur, he pulled a dagger out and stabbed himself, declaring he had never made an attempt on anyone’s life. Mortally wounded, he was carried back to prison but his actions would live on in fiction.
The murder forms part of the backdrop to one of the most significant literary productions of the 19th century: Balzac’s ‘Comédie humaine’, a series of novels published in the 1830s and 1840s where characters recur from text to text. Balzac appropriates the murder of ‘la belle Hollandaise’ as part of the backstory of the prostitute Esther Gobseck, who reappears a number of times in the series. Her mother, Sarah, nicknamed ‘la belle hollandaise, also a prostitute, was murdered by a captain when Esther was a child. The name of the victim has been changed by Balzac but there is no mistaking the origin of the fictional event.

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