41. The Love Life of Siamese Twins

THE POETS VÉRONIQUE AND Marie-Elisabeth Mouchand have left French letters with a unique heritage: two poets literally joined at the hip documenting in lavish detail the descent of their relationship into mutual loathing and, eventually, murder. The conjoined twins were born in Clermont-Ferrand during the German occupation of France. Their father Auguste was a baker and their mother Clotilde had been a wet nurse - the birth of conjoined twins ended her career, leaving her embittered. Véronique and Marie-Elisabeth were xiphopagic conjoined twins: two bodies fused in the xiphoid cartilage, which runs from the navel to the lower breastbone. They shared no vital organs and, had they been born today, could have been surgically separated with relative ease. In 1942, the survival rate of conjoined twins was low: according to the prevailing ideas of the time, such births were genetic anomalies and not expected to survive. At the age of six, the girls’ mother died as a result of a diseased liver and the twins were placed in the Institut Mistrac, a special home for children born with physical abnormalities in an eighteenth-century château near Geneva. There they were schooled by the controversial educator Roland Mistrac, whose radical theories emphasised the importance of monastic discipline, constant exercise and devotion to art. Students in the Institut were assigned an art specialisation – by a happy coincidence, the girls were given over to poetry, for which they both displayed precocious talent. The girls were also devoted to Mistrac’s fervent brand of atheism. Unusually for an atheist, Mistrac seems to have been a proselytising atheist. His textbooks stress the evils of religion, which he equates to the basest superstitions. At the age of fifteen, the twins were composing a poem every day. They seem to have been particularly close at this stage and were able to recite each other’s poetry, as well as the poetry of Hugo and de Musset at length. While both girls displayed an innate gift for the form, even at this early stage it is possible to detect a quality in the free verse of Véronique – a gift for invention, a vivacity, a clarity – absent in the verse of Marie-Elisabeth, who was better known for her technical abilities – rhyme, syntax, meter. It was at this point that the twins learned of the death of their beloved father. The news seems to have exacerbated their differences. Véronique continued her investigations in the possibilities of freedom, Marie-Elisabeth continued to delve deeper into the architecture of syntax. This has since led to the inevitable stereotypes: Véronique has become a standard-bearer for freedom, while Marie-Elisabeth has been adopted by the conservatives, particularly the French Catholics, who still hold her in high esteem. Step by step, the sisters continued their artistic journeys in opposite directions: Véronique began to read Georges Bataille and Simone de Beauvoir, while Marie-Elisabeth became obsessed with Augustine, Raymond Llull and Dante Alighieri. Véronique had two poems published in Les Temps modernes, while Marie-Elisabeth had twenty-three of her poems printed in Jeunesse Catholique. Of course, recent scholarship has shown us conclusively that these two sisters were not as different as was first supposed, and one can only speculate at the directions their work might have taken had their lives not been cut so tragically short. On the 23rd of August, 1965, Véronique died. After an extended inquest, Marie-Elisabeth was charged with murder and sentenced to be guillotined. She protested her innocence until the very last, claiming that Véronique had been depressed after having been jilted by Georges Berenguer, a Trostskyist poet who would later join the Situationists. Shortly before her execution, an interview appeared in Paris-Match in which Marie-Elisabeth claimed her sister had killed herself in such a way as to implicate her for the murder. The publication of the magazine interview didn’t sway the appellate judge and, in April 1968, Marie-Elisabeth Mouchand became the third-last woman to be executed in France.