On September 16th 1966, the newspaper France-Soir ran the following article on Lea Papin after one of their journalists paid her a visit. The article, which includes some factual errors as well as an unfortunate tendency to moralize, carried the following heading:


Through the service door an aging maid going grey, wearing a grey blouse and grey dress, leaves every Saturday at 5pm precisely, the luxury hotel where she has worked all week. She walks through the grey streets of an old town in the west of France, but  I have sworn to keep the name secret.

She carries at her side a grey shopping bag bulging with the white aprons rolled around an identity card that she has not shown to anyone for more than twenty years. On that document, grey from wear, is printed her true name: Lea Papin, born Le Mans, 1912. Since leaving prison in 1941, she has tried to escape the curse of that name, which her employers do not know about. In vain!

She can reflect with delight, kneeling in the chapel of the Virgin, where she never fails to stop when she is going home for the weekly break, that the Virgin is named Mary, Lea's adopted alias. Her prayer is poisoned by her deception. She gains relief, making on the shopping bag a furtive sign of the cross, and going back across the street towards her room. She locks the door and stretches out on her iron bed.

And there she is, that famous Marie, full of her past. And this is Lea, the rebel, the lover and the criminal who rises from the core of her flesh and her memory.

She gets up then and takes care to never surprise herself by turning her grey and asymmetrical eyes to the mirror that is placed -- perhaps unconsciously -- in a corner of the room where the sun can never flush her out. She heads towards a wardrobe and takes some photographs from a drawer. They all depict the same young woman with haughty features, fierce of eyes and dark of hair: her sister Christine, who died while mad in the asylum at Rennes, two years after being condemned to death. And as Lea, who has worked as a domestic since the age of fourteen, has retained a kind of mania for neatness, she passes a soft cloth over the shiny image. A kind of caress.

And Lea walks back and forth in the cramped room. She washes the aprons, she makes her dinner.

She confesses:

"I do what I can to keep my room simple so that my sister, who watches me from above (because I'm certain she is in Paradise), doesn't laugh at me. I pray for her. I pray for our mother who lived with me until she died. To help me, she said...and all at once I didn't pray anymore. Christine watches me. She is always beautiful and young. She smiles as in the old days: with irony! I come apart, I shrivel up, I sweat from fear, I faint...And there's a trunk in my room."

It is a trunk with an old lock, with a round lid that comes up creakily and which is fastened by two little bolts that lock. Quite a ceremony is needed to find the keys, to force them, turn them, tear them back, open the strips of metal which hang on hooks on the side of the chest.

"I've got it," says Lea, feeling like a hand that paralyses my wrists, and I throw the keys...It seems to me that I have committed an evil action. I am shaking. I am getting old.

It is a fact that the chest is brimful of sin. It overflows with lacy collars, linen, of woven fabrics styled in the manner of other times. They are the costumes that the Papin sisters, the maids, made for special occasions, in their garret, while Madame was content with ordinary linen.

Christine of the fierce eyes made hems as wide as two fingers. Lea, younger and more stylish, wrapped herself in the white vapours of Alencon lace. Lacy collars and fabrics, despite Lea's neatness, are going as grey as her hair and like her shadow which, having dressed up these relics, displays them in the room to the blinded mirror...

Intoxicated from incantations, on Monday, Marie the maid -- pardon, Lea! -- resumes her work at the luxury hotel.

They often give her the silverware to prepare. The knives are not ready. If something gets damaged, her blood freezes. One is not surprised by the memories of these gestures; she washes her hands, brushes and pumices them much longer than the younger girls, her workmates, who give her a friendly slap on the back:

"So Marie, are you dreaming?"

The grey Marie with the red hands, ie Lea with the bloody hands, tilts her head under the stream of water. She needs that purification, which she must renew until her death, if she never wants to feel the sting, like a needle, at the slightest trace of blood...

Haunted by the past, which burns to the point of reducing her to the colour of ashes, Lea Papin pursues her gentle madness until her testament:

"When I don't have to work anymore, I want to become Sister Marie, at Bon Pasteur, in Le Mans. I've been saving for it. At Bon Pasteur, one of my older sisters is a nun. I'll go back to her..." ........George Sinclair

(Translated from the French by Neil Paton. Translation Copyright N. Paton 2001)