Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Historical Steampunkers -- Jane Dieulafoy

One of the joys of writing Steampunk is the cast of genuinely intriguing historical folks you run across. Jane (Jeanne) Dieulafoy is certainly one of those. Born Henrietta Jeanne Magre to a wealthy French mercantile family in 1851, she met, fell in love with, and married Marcel-Auguste Dieulafoy, a French officer of engineers, shortly before the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war. When war came, Jane refused to be parted from her husband and so, dressed as a man, she accompanied his unit throughout the entire war. This got to be a habit.

Ten years later, husband and wife conducted an expedition to Susa in Persia which would gain fame for both of them. It was actually my abiding interest in Achaemenid Persia which brought the Dieylafoys to my attention, not my interest in Victoriana. Marcel-August was the archaeologist of the pair, while Jane was a gifted illustrator and photographer, and became an archaeologist in her own right over time. A number of artifacts, including the famous Frieze of the Immortals, were discovered by the Dieulafoys, and some were transported back to France where they were (and many still are) on display in the Dieulafoy wing of the Louvre. Almost as importantly, Jane made brilliant, clear photographs of their finds. Many of the artifacts have since disappeared and the architectural sites have degraded greatly. In many cases our sole resource for their study remains the portfolio of Jane's photographs.

Very cool if you're an Achaemenid Persian nut like me, but not exactly the stuff of adventure. But there was plenty of adventure along the way. For one thing, Jane insisted on dressing as a man for the ride through Persia, and cut her hair very short to make the effect complete. Hard to believe today, but it was actually illegal under French law at the time for a woman to dress as a man, but she requested from the government, and received, “permission de travestissement” -- exemption from the law. 

The country they traversed was wild and nearly lawless, and bandits were a constant threat. At one point, while most of the group was absent at the dig, a party of eight Persian bandits approached the camp -- guarded only by Jane -- and threatened to make off with the supplies. Jane had two revolvers -- apparently seven-shooters, which were not unheard off at that time, although I've been unable to find out the manufacturer.  Brandishing the revolvers, she was able to face the bandits down and send them on their way. The incident inspired a popular lithograph, captioned with her remark to the eight bandits: "I have fourteen balls at your disposal. Come back with six more friends."

After her return to France she wrote archaeological, travel, and historical pieces, and later an acclaimed novel, Parysatis, upon which Camille Saint-Saens based the opera of the same name. She became a chevalier of the Legion d'Honeur, was well-known in the Paris salons, a member of the French intelligencia when few women were. She continued to dress as a man for the rest of her life and she and her husband shared every "adventure" together until 1916 when, at the age of sixty-five, she contracted a fever in Rabat, Morocco and died shortly afterwards.


  1. What an incredible story! I would loved to have met this most remarkable woman. I will definitely be sharing this information with some of the ladies I know who are looing for inspiration for female adventurers for Space 1889.
    Thanks for sharing, Frank.

  2. Thank you for this glimpse of an extraordinary person.

    Characters like this, showing that a single person could be exceptional and be accepted for it, originally got me engrossed in this period.

  3. A friend of mine, now playing Red Sands, managed to convince his wife to play. She plays a character very much like this (sans menswear). I'll share the story with them. They'll love it.

  4. She really was quite extraordinary, wasn't she? At a time when society abounded with unusual and extraordinary people, she still managed to stand out. Even today, her photograph of the Frieze of the Immortals is virtually mandatory in any book on the Achaemenid Persian army, and it's been the cover of more than one.

    One thing I am rethinking, however, is the notion she used seven-shooters. There were some, but they were pretty rare, and although sources I have read credit her with two revolvers, a closer examination of the lithogragh shows her with a revolver in her right hand and a rifle of some sort in her left. I wonder if a six-shooter and an eight-round magazine rifle (possibly a Spencer carbine, with seven in the tube and one in the chamber) might not be a more likely armament mix to produce the "fourteen balls."