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.  

Dear Théobald, 

I am reproaching myself more than you can imagine.  I am discouraged beyond words.  I feel and see and know all the things that I should do to make you happy.  And I want to do them more than you can possibly imagine.  I can no longer hope to put things on a footing that will be conducive to my happiness;  it is of yours alone that I now think and for which I hope.  I make the firmest resolutions, but a state of exasperation over which I have no control cases me to do things for which I am to blame. If only you knew how deeply grieved I am to be making you so unhappy!  But the truth is that I no longer have my head about me and I hardly recognize myself any more.  I used to take such pleasure in life.  A spectacle or a fête like today's used to charm me.  Now everything weighs on me, depresses or bores me because you are angry with me - and angry with me forever, I fear, unless you have pity on me.  I am in a state of mind too violent to last.   I shall try to calm myself.  But, oh, if you only knew what I am going through you could be less angry with me.  I feel that in such a moment I have a right to your pity and nothing else.  You are so kind that I know I can count on you.  A little patience, I beg of you, just a little more time  before you reject me entirely and give up hope of any happiness.  Soon I will be calm, I promise you.  I am in too violent a state of mind now to be judged forever.

For nine more years, the Duchess wrote and wrote and wrote and her letters deteriorated into multi-paged jealous rants.  She was particularly accusatory about his relationship with the governess who cared for their children which author Stanley Loomis maintains was most likely platonic.  A few weeks before she was murdered, the Duchesse de Praslin insisted that the governess be fired and leave Vaux-le-Vicomte.  Shortly after that, the Praslin family packed and headed to the shore for a holiday.  The Duc de Praslin tucked a spare vial of arsenic in his valise.  Or he said, under questioning.  There were rumors that the arsenic was given to him by someone within the court in order to avoid a trial thus nipping the scandal in the bud and sparing the Louis-Philippe the embarrassment of association with the murder.  They stopped en route at the Paris home of the Duchesse's father to spend the night and never made it to their vacation destination.

The Duc and Duchesse de Praslin and items of evidence from the case

Mademoiselle Deluzy
The Governess

Mademoiselle Deluzy may've had an interest in the Duc.  As a young single woman, facing a future with few prospects, the possibility of snagging the Duc may've sometimes seemed a good solution to her problems.  For that, many a woman could overlook the Duc's taciturn ways.  He was described by contemporaries as tight-lipped, reserved and unemotional;  looking as if he was "always about to say something, but didn't"; "washed out, pallid, sandy-haired sort with a disdainful Englishy-air about him." And, it turns out, a murderer to boot.  Not a very appealing description but, until he killed his wife, nothing completely intolerable.

Caring for the Praslin children obviously filled a maternal void for Henriette Deluzy, as evidenced by letters like this, that she wrote to the Duc and his daughters, Berthe and Louise, the morning after her dismissal.  Reading between the lines one is left to wonder, what exactly was the relationship between employer and employee?  Interesting the way the use of the plural is inconsistent.  

What a night!  What an appalling night!  May you never in your lives have to spend so terrible a one. Until now I never really knew what sorrow was.  When I wept in your arms it was peace and happiness compared to what I have suffered alone.  Without you!  Without you, the joy and happiness of my life! I wanted to run to you this morning and implore you to take me away from here....  People in this house have been good to me, but they aren't you, they haven't your beloved voices, you - the light of my life. During the night I was seized by a mad hope that you would be overcome with an irresistible yearning to come to me and embrace me again...."

And the response from sixteen-year-old Berthe de Praslin:

If you are unhappy, dearest Mademoiselle, so too are we.  How I longed to run and say goodbye to you again.  You can't imagine the anguish we suffered when we went upstairs to our bedrooms...  My mother came to see us this morning.  We've already had scenes by the dozen.  If we were the only victims, that would be all right.  Louise will write you about all the odious threats and her terrible plans.  I am afraid nothing can calm the storm now, but you may count on us,  We will do anything that we can for our father and for you whom we love - or rather, whom we adore.  

If you knew how horrible it now is to be at Praslin which we used to love so.  When we arrived here I became even more unhappy here than when you left us.  Nature seems as unhappy as we are.  It has been raining torrents and the wind has been blowing through the arcades.  Dearest, dearest, beloved, Azelle.  You are our real mother."

The dramatic, weepy letters between Henriette Deluzy and the children continue.  At one point, the Duc de Praslin loses his patience and rebukes her.:

I am not going to speak to you any more about your letters, because I always have to say the same thing.  Your letters are causing us much grief because of your sadness and your lack of common sense...  If you isolate yourself from people you're are going to lose their support and you will destroy yourself.  You must force yourself to see people and make new friendships.  Nobody is going to help you unless you help yourself.  You are caught in a vicious circle.  You do not see people because you are sad and you grow sadder because you do not see people.  The more good qualities one has - and you have many - the more one should be in touch with other people.  For the last time, and you must believe us for we three are your best friends, you must try to see people.  You cannot be too fussy at the moment about whom you see.  I am sorry to have to preach a sermon, but I am too genuinely fond of you not to say what I think.

This has gotten much longer than I intended.  One thing leads to another.  That's why I so often say, in conversation, "Let's not pull at that string."  Once I start, it's hard to stop.

... which, by the way, had an interesting history long before the 19th Century Praslins dragged the name through the mud.  It was one of the grandest, most extravagant homes of it's day, and was built by Louis XIV's finance superintendent, Nicolas Fouquet.  Miscalculating his sire's reaction, Fouquet threw a huge party to show off his home to Louis XIV who was less than happy for his success.  In fact, he was infuriated at his subject's audacity in building something nicer than he, the King, himself lived in Plus the King believed that Fouquet had embezzled from the royal coffers to fund it.  Within days, Louis XIV had Fouquet thrown in prison for the rest of his life.  His quick descent must've made his head spin.  


Mary Lewis said...

Oh my Madeleine!! This story is fascinating!! I so wish I could be with you to tour the Praslin house! The story about the original owner being thrown in jail for life for having built it is also amazing! I'm so impressed with how much research you have done on French history. Have a wonderful time in France!! I can't wait to hear all about it! Also, I love that you posted a picture of the letter opener. :-) LYLAR

SilverShund said...

I do hope you are feeling better and are now enjoying your trip!! The anxious tone :( I loved reading this blog tho, every bit is a morsel of either history past or the history you are making - every part is marvelous. Immerse ....

Madeleine Doak said...

Thanks, SilverShund! The anxious tone has been smacked around and retreated to where it belongs. I'm excited to be going to Vaux-le-Vicomte tomorrow and for all that I'll do in the days ahead. Thanks for commenting. I live for that!

Madeleine Doak said...

Mary, history is just gossip that it's okay to discuss without seeming catty! So, I can be as nosy about the Praslin's personal lives as I want and just seem like a nice person who likes history. Works out well for me. I love the letter opener. Thank you. I bought beautiful stationery, stamps, sealing wax, and another seal down the street. Haven't written a letter, though. Typical.

s. praslin said...

This is great info. My name is S. Praslin Duc de Praslin is my greatest grandfather my family is from Matagalpa Nicaragua.

Madeleine Doak said...

S. Praslin, thank you for leaving a comment. Most
of my information about the Praslins came from A Crime of Passion by Stanley Loomis. He tells the story well. I'd be interested to know your opinion and insight. Nicaragua? I'd love to hear more. Send me an email?

Cathie Snyder said...

Enjoyed reading this very much. The Duc's letter sounds pretty rational - no trace of even an ex-lover's angst in his sensible advice to his children's beloved "Azelle." As a pre-teen watching reruns on TV I loved the uber-romantic movie version with B Davis and Boyer, both at their most beautiful. Sounds like the family house had sort of the same effect as Wolsey's Hampton Court did on Henry 8. :o) Thx again for transcribing the letters - always fascinating to hear the real people speak from out of the past.

Madeleine Doak said...

Oh, I assure you, Cathie, I didn't transcribe the letters. It's been awhile since I wrote that post, but the letters probably came from Stanley Loomis' book on the case. I agree, though, there's no substitute for the true voice in a letter. Thanks for the tip on the movie. I hadn't heard of it. And, especially, for taking the time to comment.