Empress of the Nile
A Childhood Passion
Christiane’s early fascination with ancient Egypt was an unusual preoccupation for a little girl from the French upper middle class, which tended to have fairly rigid, conservative ideas about girls’ proper interests and behavior. But her parents had no desire to limit her horizons or encourage her to conform to the prevalent view in French society that women’s roles should be restricted to those of wife and mother.
That opinion was particularly strong in the aftermath of World War I, when Christiane was growing up. With more than 1.3 million of France’s young men killed in the war, the country’s birthrate had dropped dramatically. As a result, young women faced considerable pressure to marry and have children as soon as possible; contraception was illegal, and refusing motherhood was considered an unpatriotic act.
Christiane’s father, Louis, paid no attention to such ideas. He was unusual in other ways as well. A literature major in college, he was a lawyer by profession, but his true passions lay outside his work. He was a talented violinist, and Christiane recalled frequent impromptu evening duets in which he played the violin and her mother, Madeleine, who had an operatic voice, sang arias. On Sunday mornings in winter, her father would often lock himself in his office at home and study sheet music. When Christiane asked him what he was doing, he replied, “I am listening to an opera.” Indeed, she added, he could read the notes on paper and hear the music in his head, an ability that left her awestruck.
Somewhat surprisingly for someone of his social class, he was also a staunch man of the left, a lifelong advocate of individual freedom, tolerance, social equality, and economic justice. Madeleine Desroches, meanwhile, was one of the rare Frenchwomen of that time to have graduated from college, collecting a classics degree. Although she never worked outside the home, she was a powerful role model for her daughter—“living proof,” as Christiane said, “that a woman, no less than a man, could have access to the world of knowledge.” Her father, “already a feminist,” supported that principle as much for his daughter as he had for his wife.
“My parents were humanists,” Desroches later told an interviewer. “They taught me humanist values such as respect for one another, for your neighbors, for people in general, respect for civilization. My brother and I grew up in an environment very open to culture, music, and foreign languages.” For both Desroches children, curiosity about the world outside France was highly encouraged.
Unlike many of their more insular compatriots, Louis and Madeleine Desroches had an eclectic group of friends, some of them intellectuals, who came from a wide variety of countries and cultures. Once, Desroches remembered, her father told her that “we were considered to be strange people because we received strangers.” She added, “Believe me, there were very few Parisians at that time who felt the same way.” Among the Desroches family’s closest friends were Sir Norman Angell, the Nobel Prize–winning British economist, and his family. The two families often spent several weeks together in the summer.
From her earliest days, the petite, dark-haired Christiane was talkative, opinionated, curious, and self-confident—all qualities that her parents encouraged. From the time they were small, she and her older brother were included in mealtime conversations about a wide variety of subjects, from current events in France and the rest of the world to literature and music. “It was a sacred ritual,” she remembered. “My parents were constantly bringing up subjects that would open our minds, and they wanted us to talk about them.” Baptized as Catholics, the Desroches siblings went to catechism classes, but their father encouraged them to maintain a certain skepticism about what they were taught, instructing them not to take literally everything they were told.
Christiane’s questioning attitude and budding determination to think for herself was reinforced at the Lycée Molière, the public high school for girls she attended not far from her home in Paris’s affluent 16th arrondissement. In France, girls were not allowed to study at public high schools until 1880; even then the sexes were segregated. The Lycée Molière, which was established in 1888, was only the third girls’ high school to open in Paris.
The idea of public secondary schools for girls touched off a fierce controversy in France when it was first introduced. For some, the thought of girls focusing on their studies rather than on their domestic future was shocking. In the case of the Lycée Molière, the decision to name the school after the famed seventeenth-century playwright was considered even more of a scandal. Some critics on the right pointed out that Molière’s sophisticated satirical comedies contained more than their fair share of racy dialogue, not considered fit for the ears of innocent young women. Naysayers on the left noted that Molière was hardly an advocate of education as a tool for the advancement of women. His plays, like Les Femmes Savantes (Learned Ladies), made savage fun of women who flaunted their learning. Education, in his view, had its place but should never be allowed to interfere with a woman’s natural destiny as a wife and mother.
As it happened, the Lycée Molière did indeed prove to be a seedbed for women’s emancipation. It was, one student said, “a nursery for our aspirations. Our teachers encouraged us not to stop our intellectual activity after we graduated but instead to continue our studies.”
After leaving the lycée, a number of its graduates received university degrees and went on to become trailblazers in a variety of previously all-male professions. Among them was Jeanne Debat-Ponsan, who after acquiring her medical degree became, in 1906, one of the first women doctors in France. Another was Louise Weiss, who graduated from Oxford in 1914 and later became the founder and editor of a noted French political review, L’Europe Nouvelle.
In 1930, the lycée produced two particularly stellar graduates. One was Christiane Desroches. The other was Jacqueline David, who as Jacqueline de Romilly (her married name) became one of France’s leading scholars of Greek culture and language. Like Desroches with ancient Egypt, de Romilly “embraced the culture of ancient Athens with an almost romantic fervor,” The New York Times
wrote. She was only the second woman to be elected to the Académie Française, the elite group of political and scholarly figures charged with maintaining high standards of literary taste in the country.
Six years after Desroches and David graduated from the lycée, another woman scholar, who would become internationally known herself, was hired there as a philosophy teacher. But Simone de Beauvoir lasted only three years. While the school considered itself broad-minded, its tolerance did not extend to a teacher’s having an affair with a student—or in this case, students. Beauvoir was fired for seducing at least three of them.
In the Desroches household, it was a given that Christiane would go to college; the only question was what she would study. At that point, neither she nor her parents entertained the idea of turning her obsession with ancient Egypt into an academic pursuit. “At the time, we never considered a career for me as an Egyptologist,” she said. “It was considered a fad, a madness, not a profession.”
Shortly before she graduated from the lycée, her father encouraged her to think about studying art history, perhaps focusing on sixteenth-century French drawings. She could combine studies at the Sorbonne, he said, with classes at the École du Louvre, a small institution of higher learning located on the museum grounds that specialized in art history. The idea of sixteenth-century drawings, however, “bored me stiff,” she recalled. So Louis Desroches made an appointment with Henri Verne—who, as the director of France’s national museums, was in charge of the Louvre—to explore what other avenues his bright, lively sixteen-year-old daughter might follow in her studies.
In retrospect, it might seem a little surprising that the head of the Louvre would have the time or interest to offer advice to Desroches about Christiane’s educational future. He was, after all, the chief of one of the most august public institutions in France, which also happened to be the oldest, largest, and most highly regarded public museum in the world.