In Ladies of the Field, Amanda Adams offers an arresting description of a woman with ‘hair cropped mannishly short, a board strapped beneath her white linen shirt, and a red ribbon looped through the buttonhole of her well-cut suit jacket.’ Her subject is no fin-de-siècle bohemian: she was an archaeologist, writer, and devoted wife, so devoted, indeed, that she accompanied her new husband to the Franco-Prussian war in 1870. He had volunteered as an engineer; she, rather than serve army canteen slops with the other women, donned the uniform of a franc-tireur (sniper). It was just three months since convent girl Jeanne Henriette Magre had married Marcel-Auguste Dieulafoy.
Jeanne and Marcel proved extraordinarily compatible, pursuing – as far as the times would allow – a joint career. After the war, Marcel found work on the railways, but was soon appointed Inspector of Monuments, and the Dieulafoys began a life of exploration with trips to Morocco and Egypt. It was, however, their first journey to Persia in 1881 that set the course of their life.
Having explored ancient Persepolis and Babylon (which had been conquered by the Persian Empire), they organised an ambitious archaeological dig at Susa, eventually recruiting hundreds of local workmen. Together, they found sufficient artefacts to furnish two halls of the Louvre, with the massive Lion Frieze perhaps the most notable. Jeanne wrote riveting accounts of their adventures, published with her photographs and drawings, and despite the hardships – not least life-threatening illness – remained breathlessly enthusiastic.
Between 1888 and 1914, the Dieulafoys made two dozen trips to Spain and Morocco, but were furious when Jacques de Morgan was appointed in 1897 to take over at Susa. Jeanne was undaunted: granted the Légion d’Honneur in 1886, she had become a successful author. She even developed her award-winning novel Parysatis (1890) into a theatrical production, with orchestral music by Saint-Saëns, in 1902.
In 1914, Marcel was finally posted to Rabat in Morocco, but on her way to join him Jeanne contracted amoebic dysentery. She never fully recovered, dying in 1916 at Pompertuzat, not far from Toulouse.
The Dieulafoys were unconventional to the point of scorn. Jeanne routinely wore male clothes in the field, arguing that they granted relative freedom to a woman trying to work in an Islamic state, but continued to wear a man’s suit back in France, even though transvestitism was illegal there: she was granted special dispensation (permission de travestissement) from the prefecture. Her insistence on female equality was radical, too: she described herself as Marcel’s collaborateur (the masculine form) and argued fiercely, on the eve of the First World War, for women to take a more active military role. Yet her stable, loving marriage and implacable opposition to divorce suggest a conservatism at odds with her public image. Her achievements are, uncontroversially, without parallel.
Text: Simon Coppock.