Unmasking the Bourgeoise

Arsenic and Lace

A Love Story




Real Life

Marie Fortunee Cappelle was born in Paris, France in 1816. She was the daughter of an artillery officer. When she was only twelve years old, her father died a sudden death, and her mother who remarried, died seven short years later. At the age of eighteen, Marie was sent to live with her maternal aunt, who was married to the secretary-general of the Bank of France. Despite the advantages of wealth, comfort, and opportunities available to her, it was obvious that the girl and her aunt disliked each other. In her memoirs, Marie describes feeling painfully aware of her status as the "poor cousin" (Hartman, 11). In fact, by her aunt's social standing, the dowry of 90,000 francs left to her by her parents was not impressive, and Marie soon realized after her arrival that she was regarded as a marriage liability.

Marie Lafarge: Hartman

The responsibility of finding a husband for Marie was taken by one of her uncles. However, unbeknownst to Marie, he contracted the services of a matrimonial agency. The service produced only one candidate, who fit the advice of her father that "no marriage contract should be made with a man whose only income is his salary as a subperfect," that of Charles Lafarge, son of an honorable justice of the peace. His personal record included letters of recommendation from his priest and local deputy. Moreover, he was advertised as being a wealthy iron master with property amounting to more than 200,000 francs and of earning an annual income of 30,000 francs from the forge alone. To prevent Marie from discovering that Lafarge was turned up by an agency, her uncle arranged a "fortuitous" meeting with his "friend" at the opera. Marie found twenty-eight year old Lafarge both unrefined and repulsive. But four days after their initial meeting, her aunt announced their engagement. Within a few weeks of their engagement, Marie and Charles were married and left Paris to live at the forge. (Hartman, 12)

In her memories, Marie described the despair she experienced upon arriving at the estate. According to Marie, her in-laws were nothing more than vulgar farmers and the estate was a shambles. She was also terrified by her husband's sexual advances. In despondency, Marie locked herself in their bedroom on the evening of their wedding and threatened to take his life with arsenic. Charles promised that he would not demand his marital privileges until he restored the estate to its original condition and Marie agreed to stay. Their relationship was said to have improved in the ensuing weeks, even after she discovered that his business was bankrupt. (Hartman, 12)

In January, 1840, however, Charles complained of an intestinal illness. He no sooner surmised its cause to be from a cake he received from his wife. Charles' condition worsened; he suffered from constant stomach cramps, vomiting, and nausea, all of which kept him bedridden for several days. Charles died within several days of the first attack. Tests revealed traces of arsenic in the deceased's body. The Lafarge family established a case against Marie for the murder of her husband. After a twenty-two month long trial, Marie was found guilty and sentenced to a life in prison. (Hartman, 13)

In July 1844, only four years after the "Affaire Lafarge," news of another arsenic poisoning, of a husband by his wife, was released to the press.

Both of these women's stories offer some insight into the domestic confines of bourgeoise women and some of the terrors in which women faced during this time.