One snowy winter evening in 1848, a car drew up to the front of a country house in the village of Ligneuville, in the Belgian Ardennes. He was dressed elegantly and walked uprightly. “Who is this mysterious man?” asked the villagers. “Where is he from?”
After a while, they discovered his name – Monsieur Arthur Hawarden – and a few years later he had become fairly well integrated into village life. He was perceived as a charming man, intelligent, and of great learning. He was courteous and generous … yet his past was still shrouded in mystery.
It wasn’t until he died in the old mill on the edge of the River Amblève 15 years later that his secret was finally revealed.
Monsieur Hawarden was not a man. He was a Frenchwoman called Meriora Gillibrand. But the mystery remained: why did she live her life in Belgium as a man?
Fleeing from the scene of a crime
Meriora Gillibrand belonged to French high society and apparently was a beautiful woman. Two young men were deeply in love with her. She became engaged to one, which filled the rival with jealousy. So much so, that the two young men fought, and her fiancé was killed.
When she heard of her fiancé’s death, she immediately suspected the rival and during the confrontation, she stabbed him, and he too died.
All possibility of happiness had been destroyed for Meriora. Her fiancé was dead, and she was a murderer, facing the real possibility of a long prison sentence.
An ingenious plan is devised
With the help of close friends, a cunning plan was concocted. She would leave Paris and go into exile in Belgium. Moreover, she would throw the police investigation completely off the track by taking up a new identity … as a man.
And so, in Ligneuville, Monsieur Hawarden was born.
Did her disguise give her the freedom and peace she sought after? Or was she always looking over her shoulder, fearing discovery? We shall never know.
Naturally her secret was revealed upon her death on March 1st, 1863, and she is buried – as Meriora Gillibrand – in the cemetery, where you can see her tombstone.
Based on an article by Adrien Jans in Le Soir, Sunday, October 20, 1957. With thanks to Tim Peeters for pointing out this interesting story to me.
- Her life was the basis for the 1935 novel Monsieur Hawarden by Flemish writer Filip Pillecyn (1891-1962). Set against the crisis in the Eifel area, a woman dresses as a man and retreats after an unhappy love to a country house, filling her days with walks in the region and looking back on her failed life.
- It was made into a 1968 Belgian-Dutch movie, Monsieur Hawarden, directed by Harry Kümel. It was selected as the Dutch entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 42nd Academy Awards, but was not accepted as a nominee.