In 1913, when Henri Alain-Fournier published Le Grand Meaulnes, few people knew that its heroine, Yvonne de Galais, was based on a real-life person. Only much later was it revealed that Fournier had met a girl whose identity was unknown and that his adolescent love for her had led to the writing of the novel.
Le Grand Meaulnes may be better known to English readers as The Lost Domain and to American readers as The Wanderer. It was in 1969 that an article appeared titled “Qui était Yvonne de Galais?” and written by Albert Fournier. No relation of Alain-Fournier (photo right), he was a close friend of Marguerite Audoux, author of the novel Marie-Claire (1910), which Alain-Fournier greatly admired.
With hindsight the article proved disappointing. Without identifying Yvonne, who had died in 1964, Albert Fournier offered a few dates and hints on the basis of which it was possible to pick up the trail of births, marriages, deaths, and military service and public records, to piece together the girl’s background. Her real name was Yvonne Marie Elise Toussaint de Quiévrecourt.
In recent years the whole story has entered the public domain. Photos of Yvonne de Quiévrecourt (left), once tantalizingly shown to a select few, can now be found in several books and on at least one web site. Yet, the allure remains. Alain-Fournier’s encounter with Yvonne was, in the words of novelist John Fowles, “one of the most famous private thunderbolts in the history of love.” Robert Gibson, writing in The End of Youth: The Life and Works of Alain-Fournier (2005), described Fournier’s passion as having led to “the most delicate rendering so far achieved in literature of the romantic adolescent consciousness.”
In brief, on 1 June 1905 Henri Alain-Fournier descended the steps of the Grand Palais, Paris, towards one of those encounters of which many young men dream. In front of him, he saw an elderly lady accompanied by a tall, elegant, fair-haired girl. Drawing level with them, she glanced in his direction. Her eyes were intensely blue. For a moment Fournier stopped in his tracks, then, as they moved slowly along the Cours-la-Reine, he followed. The young lady’s head was hidden beneath a white parasol and the elderly lady did most of the talking, frequently laughing.
It was this momentous encounter that, eight years later, resulted in the publication of Le Grand Meaulnes. Fournier’s history is told in full in Robert Gibson’s biography and Yvonne’s (or as much as is relevant) in Michèle Maitron-Jodogne’s Alain-Fournier et Yvonne de Quiévrecourt: Fécondité d’un renoncement (2000). But one mystery remains. On 1 November 1905 Fournier visited the Salon d’Automne exhibition at the Grand Palais and noticed a small canvas by the Lyonnais painter Georges Décôte (1870-1951). Fournier described it in a letter (quoted by Gibson):
“It was a lady at the piano, her back towards me, with blonde hair and a large chestnut brown cloak … I simply couldn’t tear myself away. I hadn’t had such a precise reminder for two months. I would have given my dying oath that it was Her, tall like her, with her head inclined slightly forward, sitting there in the dusk.”
No one knows what became of that painting – at that time called “Pianist” – and it is unaccounted for by the Musée de Lyons, which holds other works by Décôte. It is interesting to speculate that it might be hanging unrecognised in a dark corner of a Parisian flat or was bought by an American art-lover and taken back to New York.
The one hundredth anniversary of the first edition of Le Grand Meaulnes will be marked in 2013. Two years remain in which to find the painting. There are many friends of Alain-Fournier around the world, who might be persuaded to join the search. Je jette le gant!