Lake Effect, Spring 2017, Volume 21: "The Blue Sky, The Gray Woods"

The Blue Sky, The Gray Woods

by: Kathryn Nuernberger


Whether Elisabeth Thible was ever satisfied is not something we can say. Aside from reports from the day she was the first woman to go up in a balloon, her name is invisible in the archives.

Jean-Baptiste de Laurencin gave her his seat in the basket because in January he’d been in Le Flesselle, which crash- landed after twelve minutes in the air and it was enough for him to fall once. The other men let her have his seat because of how everyone who went up talked about the strange and unexpected beauty of sound up there.

In that unearthly stillness familiar sounds from far below, the bark of a dog, a voice calling, even a torrent of wind rushing through trees, though uncannily clear, had a poignantly remote quality.

Elisabeth Thible was an opera singer and she went up dressed as Minerva singing from Monsigny’s La Belle Arsène.

Arsène is a woman who could never be made happy. When asked by a fairy what might relieve her sorrow, she said she wanted to be carried into the fairy’s beautiful sphere. You can imagine how long she was content with a castle in the clouds. By the second day, the fountains had lost their sparkle and plash. By the third she was thrown out of the air into the gray woods where she found herself on the run from a growling din of bears. She fell into the grip of a woodcutter who offered her shelter, but only if she would cook for him and do other things as well. The stage directions indicate she exits left flung over his shoulder and kicking. Because it was the 18th century, it turned out rape and a kettle pot suited her and brought her satisfaction at last. Monsigny’s reputation is as the first comic librettist.

There are no accounts of how Elisabeth’s voice carried or whether it is unearthly to hear the notes go up as the notes went up. The lyrics, “I want to go to the divine sphere, make for me your beautiful paradise, where I do not have carry anyone else along” were swept by the breeze over the onlookers’ open mouths.

She was so quickly forgotten that a few years later when André-Jacques Garnerin wanted Citoyenne Henry to go up in a basket with him, the officials thought a woman in the air had never been done before. Garnerin pleaded his case before a tribunal in Paris that wanted to know how the reduced air pressure would affect a female’s delicate organs. And then he had to appeal the ruling.

The next tribunal relented to let her go, and the public could call such a woman what they would. Garnerin made a fine spectacle of it by cutting lose the balloon and opening the first parachute for an astonishing and magnificent descent. After that we never hear of her again either, so it is impossible to say whether she was any more satisfied than Elisabeth to be done with air.

La Belle Arsène is based on Voltaire’s poem “La Béguele,” which is the origin of the famous line, “The perfect is the enemy of the good,” though there is a great deal of debate about the accuracy of that translation.