Sunday, June 29, 2014

19th Century - A Crime of Passion: Why? Praslin Family Letters

While I'm in France later this month, I'm going on a small group tour of Vaux-le-Vicomte.  I'm not much of a tour person, mainly because tours require that I engage my nemesis, Small Talk.   I only signed up because a van will pick me up and drop me off at my hotel thus saving me the terrifying prospect of taking public transportation out of the city, alone, and conceivably ending up in Siberia. Tour van enables me to avoid another nemesis:  Metro Map

In preparation for my visit, I reread "A Crime of Passion" by Stanley Loomis because, although it wasn't the scene of the crime, Vaux-le-Vicomte was the family home of the principals of the crime, the Duc and Duchesse de Praslin - and their nine children.   For six years, the château was also home to Mademoiselle Henriette Deluzy (an illegitimate, orphaned, and for the most part, friendless and poor governess) who also figured in the drama.

Early on, the Duc and Duchesse de Praslin had enjoyed a marriage based on love, rather than on alliance or financial considerations, as did most of their contemporaries, but somewhere along the way, they became estranged.  The Duchesse was emotional, the Duc cool and distant.  Maybe she was emotional, bordering on unbalanced-seeming, because he was cool and distant.  Maybe he was cool and distant, because she was emotional and unbalanced-seeming.  The more emotional and desperate his wife became, the colder he became.  First, he cut her off sexually, despite her pleading letters, then he claimed that her increasingly desperate behavior and unannounced visits to the children's domain in the château were upsetting to them and he refused to allow her to see them.  

I'm  going to try not going to indulge my inner psychotherapist too much in today's post, but if you're interested, A Crime of Passion is available on Amazon and Loomis indulges his inner psychotherapist in it and every other of his books.  That's why he's my fav.  It's a fascinating story and Stanley Loomis tells it well. You can read an earlier post on the Praslin case here.

Eventually the Duc slaughters (excuse the indelicate phrasing, but it's a fact) the Duchesse in her bedchamber.  I don't know if he was a good man finally driven to murder by his wife's behavior,  or a psychopath, or desperate to rid himself of her for some other motive - love for the governess, fear of divorce and scandal, or any number of possibilities, but in the early morning hours of August 18, 1847, the Duc murdered the Duchesse, then threw back a dose of arsenic, thus setting himself on the path to an excruciating death a week later.

The case was not only a huge scandal, the backlash had political repercussions because the Duc was a Peer of France and he and his wife belonged to the inner circle of the court of Louis-Philippe.  

Author Stanley Loomis had the privilege of inspecting the evidence from the case that is (was?) stored in the French National Archives.  Aside from the more sordid souvenirs like the bell pull that the Duchesse yanked from the ceiling in a panic and the Duc's bloodstained dressing gown, there's a voluminous amount of letters that the Duchesse de Praslin wrote her husband.  She was a prolific writer whose words poured forth, at all hours of the day and night,  to be delivered to the Duc by a servant. The Duc rarely responded.  It must've driven the poor woman to distraction.  Loomis seems to be more sympathetic towards the husband and my sympathies lie (and did even before he killed her) with the wife.  Poor thing.  Maybe she just wanted someone to listen!

Her first letter is dated January 28, 1838, after an argument.  

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

18th Century: Robespierre Receiving Letters from Friends of his Victims with Assassination Threats by William Henry Fisk

This is a fictional scene, but if it weren't, what do you suppose Maximilien Robespierre may've been thinking?  Are the flowers surrounding him the artist's implication that Robespierre wanted to soften his world, hide from the outside world? Is he bedecked in patriotic colors to justify himself?   What about his nonchalant pose and the disrespectful way he's torn up and balled up the letters and tossed them to the floor?  Maybe the red, white and blue is worn in defiant justification and the flowers are his thumbing his nose at the pain he caused and moving through life, disregarding the pain he caused. His facial expression certainly isn't repentant or sympathetic.  It could be one of realization and quiet horror, though.  If he were ashamed and in denial, wouldn't he have read the letters, hunched over, away from the window to the outside world, then carefully stacked them and, perhaps, hidden them under his mattress where he could pretend they didn't exist?

Like everything, there's more than one way to look at the painting.  It's just one more thing for me to puzzle over and I can't seem to let the era go until I feel like I understand.

I have the sense that Robespierre wouldn't have wanted to read letters from the friends of his victims nor the farewell letters prisoners wrote before their executions.  According to what I've read, he didn't attend executions.  He sometimes fell ill and didn't attend especially stressful meetings and sessions.  He seems to have hidden behind the vernacular (am I using that word correctly?) of Virtue in order not to face, head on, how far out of control events had spun.  Maybe he didn't want to admit to himself what he was doing.

It's a fact that Marie Antoinette's last letter to her sister-in-law, Princesse Élisabeth, was found under Robespierre's mattress after his death.  (Or so I've read.  I didn't find it myself, so how can I be sure?)  Did he not given it to someone, say, Fouquier-Tinville, who had a large collection of them, because he didn't want to face that the woman he'd been instrumental in destroying had been the sort of woman whose last words were, in my opinion, sublimely beautiful?  Read Marie Antoinette's last letter and judge for yourself.

Many convicted prisoners wrote letters to their loved ones (and occasionally to their enemies, the creditors, or others) which, instead of being delivered to their intended recipients,  were handed over to Prosecutor Fouquier-Tinville and ended up in the French National Archives.  Eventually, someone came upon the boxes and published them at which time, at long last, the descendants of the victims of the guillotine were able to read their final missives.

To remember and honor these men and women, by allowing them to express themselves, more than two hundred years later, seems the least I can do...

So, here are a few...

17th Century: Words Preserved - A Life Honored

I'm grateful that so many memoirs and letters remain, so we can read about the thoughts and lives of those who came before us.  It's important to somehow honor them by considering and pondering their concerns, loves, problems, joys.

An especially well-known collection of letters is that of Madame de Sévigné...  She lived in Paris in the 17th Century, during the reign of Louis XIV and the thousand plus letters that she wrote to her daughter, married and living elsewhere, began to be published even during their lifetimes.  The letters are a fertile source of information about Seventeenth Century court life as well as a window into mother-daughter connection.  Biographers have made much of the complex relationship and comment upon the "passion and pathos," as one book reviewer put it, of the mother's letters.  Madame Sévigné's was what might be called "intense" today.  Her daughter, Mme de Grignan's, letters haven't survived, so one must glean impressions of the daughter and her letters by reading responses in the mother's letters - if that makes sense.

Madame Sévigné's former home is one of two buildings that house my favorite museum, Musée Carnavalet, in Paris.  Is it not easy to imagine the expression on my face as gaze on the courtyard trying to absorb what it all means?

The letters covered many topics - politics, financial and health problems, extended relatives, the postal service, the war, the relationship with her daughter, court gossip, fashion, the war, her travels.

A few examples...

Monday, June 16, 2014

A Voice of Reason

The Abbé Raynal was one of the Philosophes whose writings, during the Age of Enlightenment, inspired a change of thought that led to the French Revolution. The ideas he forwarded, against the monarchy, the Church, and the status quo, caused an uproar and he was obliged to flee France to avoid persecution.  When he returned after many years of exile, he found his native country embroiled in a war that shocked him and he wrote (perhaps co-wrote) a letter to the Assembly distancing the ideas of his and his fellow Encyclopedists from that of the radical political groups in Paris.

To set the scene:
When his letter was read to the Assembly in May 1971 Jean-Paul Marat's newspaper, l'Ami du Peuple, was misleading and inciting with lies, the government was divided, times were bad.  But, it was before the royal family's failed Flight to Varennes, before the September Massacres, before the King and Queen were beheaded, before circumstances got completely out of hand.  Oh, but if only his words had been heeded.

I quote excerpts from the Abbé's letter to the Assembly, as printed in Stanley Loomis' "Paris in the Terror":

"Returning to this capital after a long absence, my heart and thoughts are turned towards you.  You would have seen me before the feet of this august assembly if my age and infirmities allowed me to speak to you of the great things which you have done and of those other things which need be done in order to establish in this unhappy land that peace, liberty and happiness which it is your intention to procure for us."

Friday, June 13, 2014

Horse Tales

A few years ago, when my friend, Barbara, and I visited Versailles, we attended this show at le Grand Écurie with my cousin, Nathalie.  It was more of an artistic presentation, complete with dance and fencing, than one reminiscent of the role of the horse in the Eighteenth Century, and not one that my unsophisticated tastes fully appreciated (it didn't help that I was ill and exhausted) but there was one unforgettable sequence.  The horses, without saddles, bridles, rider or any evident cues, performed a synchronized routine in which they chased each other, reared, almost seemed to dance with each other. It was impressive.  I'd love to watch a training session.  

Comte d'Artois

Louis XVI's brother, the Comte d'Artois was kind of a punk.  A handsome, wealthy, spoiled, entitled, frivolous punk.  He was fun, though, as long as things went his way.  He and his friends were influential in establishing the horse racing craze that overtook the French Court and he was a regular at the track.

Court manners were lax at the races, to say the least.  Pre-PETA, pre-regulation, sometimes people got reckless.  I get the feeling that the track was a loosely managed anything-can-happen affair.  For example, here was an Englishman named Fitzgerald who impressed the Queen by clearing an especially high jump. Naturally someone suggested that the feat be improved upon (à la the show Jackass that my kids used to watch) and someone came up with the brilliant idea that Fitzgerald jump his horse over another horse.  Marie Antoinette tried to talk them out of it, but d'Artois "hotly insisted" and the attempt was made.  Guess how that turned out.  Not as bad as it could've, fortunately.  Just some bumps and bruises, then off to the next adventure.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Tally Ho!

Empress Maria Theresa discouraged Marie Antoinette's developing interest in riding from the beginning.   Letters from Austria admonished her for riding and for hiding that fact that she was riding.  The Empress didn't want the Dauphine to ruin her figure nor, more importantly, all importantly, she didn't want a fall to prevent a potential pregnancy or harm an actual one.  Marie Antoinette explained to her mother that her husband, the Dauphin, and his grandfather, the King, encouraged her to ride.  It was one of the few interests that she and her new husband had in common.  Not that she could keep up with him.  Riding and hunting were the two most widely accepted pastimes that he liked and did well.  

At first, Marie Antoinette was satisfied with riding donkeys.  Soon, donkeys didn't measure up well against the hundreds of horses that were at her disposal.  Who can blame her for wanting to upgrade?  One day, she went out on a donkey and met a groom at a pre-arranged location in the forest and switched to a horse.  She got more adventurous, followed the hunt at a distance, rode more often and had a couple of falls to explain away to her mother.  

Young Marie Antoinette, fetching in her riding habit

The forests surrounding the Chateau de Fontainebleau were a favorite hunting spot for generations of French kings.  This hunting party, hosted by Louis XIV, galloped in the forests and fields close to a hundred years before Louis XVI and his contemporaries.

Villagers mocked unpopular Louis XV by imitating his familiar cry of "Tally Ho!" as they watched a speedy carriage carrying his smallpox ravaged body to its resting place in St. Denis.

~ A small section of the Chateau de Fontainebleau ~

Sunday, June 8, 2014


Continuing with the horse theme, let's think about the horse drawn sleighs of the Eighteenth Century - the tinkling laughter of the ladies, rhythmic hoof beats and foggy horse breath, crunching of snow under the rails of the sleigh,  dancing plumes and jingling bells.  The sky gets dark, dark, dark at night without electric lights, making the moon and stars spectacularly brilliant.  The Princesse de Lamballe's friendship with Marie Antoinette began, in earnest, during a cold Versailles winter when the sleighs that Louis XVI's father had used in his youth were pulled out of the stable and a favorite childhood pleasure of the Dauphine's was revived.  I like to think of a description published of the Princesse who "made her appearance in them wrapped in fur, with all the brilliancy and freshness of the age of twenty... peeping from under sable and ermine."  I hope gliding along the snow helped her get over the fact that her young husband had recently died of a venereal disease.  If there was a picnic basket stocked with champagne and chocolate, all the better.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Princesse de Monaco: Decembre 8, 1776 - 9 Thermidor, Ans 2

Françoise-Thérèse de Choiseul-Stainville, Princesse Joseph de Monaco, appearing suitably pensive.  

The number of names born by royalty and the aristocracy should tip us off to the complicated nature of their lives.  Françoise-Thérèse de Choiseul-Stainville, Princesse Joseph de Monaco is a name that I come across in stories in which she's not the principle, but more of a bit player.  She's closely related to, or associated with, half a dozen Eighteenth Century French men and women with hyphenated names and changing titles that I know moderately well, but I don't know much about her.  

Considering the overlying, connecting, interwoven nature of life, in general, and the complexity of the French Revolution, there must be an infinite number of fascinating untold stories from the era.  Only a comparative few were recorded.  I want to know every single, solitary one.  

Here's a teensy fragment of Princesse de Monaco's story....


Tuesday, June 3, 2014

I'd have expected something in a pastel...

This is billed, in a Bulgarian museum, as being one of Marie Antoinette's carriages.  I wonder how they know that.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

"That I should be in a fiacre! Is it not droll?"

In the late 1770's, an insignificant event took place that was completely blown out of proportion, causing another chink in the Queen's reputation.  Marie Antoinette loved the theatre.  She loved the music, the entertainment, and that she could, for a few moments, behind the mask that was the fashion, act as if she were a normal person leading a normal life.

So, one evening...