Sunday, May 24, 2015

Comtesse du Barry: Another victim

The Comtesse set sail for France, for reasons that remain a mystery, on March 1, 1793.  Surely, she, of all people, knew the potential for danger.  She arrived home to find her château under seal and herself considered an outlaw.  She appealed to authorities and the seals were removed, but a man named George Grieve had it in for her and laid in wait for the opportunity to strike again.

Back at Louveciennes, the Comtesse du Barry entertained friends, former aristocrats, in the grand manner of the Ancien Regime, where they addressed each other by their forbidden titles and spoke openly about the situation in France.  Careless behavior in such a political climate.  Behavior, maybe, of a woman so naive and lacking in unkindness as to imagine that members of her household would turn against her.

Spies among her servants betrayed her and Grieve appeared before the Convention to denounce her, "Despite her notoriously unpatriotic associations, she has managed by her wealth and her caresses to evade the spirit of the Declaration of the Rights of Man.... By her luxury she has insulted the sufferings of the unhappy people whose husbands, brothers, fathers, and sons are shedding blood for the cause of Equality..." followed by a laundry list of her offenses.  Still, for the time being, authorities rebuffed his efforts to have her arrested.

You'll have to read Stanley Loomis' detailed account of the time period, if you're interested.  He tells of the Princesse who was executed because she'd written a letter of support to the Comtesse after her arrest;  the Comtesse's last love (as she'd written a friend after the Duc de Brissac's murder, "One does not die of grief."); the male friend who was denounced for coming to her aid, then committed suicide;  the various villagers and servants to whom she'd been kind and generous who sold her out when the time came;  the list of treasures that Zamore had helped bury on the grounds of her château, then reported to Grieve.  With the cooperation of villagers and servants, Grieve eventually succeeded in amassing accusations sufficient for her arrest.

Grieve was there, Johnny on the spot, when she was taken into custody at her home.  Authorities burst in, smashing doors and wreaking havoc.  From prison, she wrote a letter to authorities accusing Grieve of assaulting her that day...  "My pen refuses to describe the horrors and outrages which he perpetrated..."  She didn't specify exactly when, but the speculation is that he did it during a scuffle in her bedchamber where she rushed to try to burn correspondence and documents that would incriminate herself and others, or when they were alone in a carriage en route to the Sainte-Pélagie prison in Paris.

Unbeknownst to her, and coincidentally, the Comte du Barry, who had set her on the path that wove through places of fabulous wealth and which offered nearly unimaginable experiences, but that ended at the scaffold, was arrested in Toulouse on the same day.  He, too, was charged with "incivism" - ie. not being civic-minded enough as judged by those who dictated what it took to be civic-minded during the Revolution.

One of the many, many side stories that make up the big picture is that of the du Barry's friend, the Chevalier d'Escourre, who turned his small cabriolet à deux up the drive to Louveciennes just as the Comtesse's entourage was setting off for prison.  He  quickly summed up the situation, realized there was nothing he could do to help, turned around, and headed the other direction.  Grieve, whose energy for pursuit seems to have been boundless, sent two gendarmes in hot pursuit and the unlucky visitor was taken away to prison.

The dynamic of Revolutionary prison atmosphere is a whole other subject.  Aristocrats, beggars, nuns and priests, Royalists, prostitutes, actors, Revolutionaries - people from all walks of life, classes, political views, thrown together.  The descriptions are numerous and mind-boggling.  Comtesse du Barry was imprisoned at the same time, in the same place, as the famous Revolutionary Madame Roland, once powerful Girondist whose party was overthrown as more radical Revolutionaries took power.  Madame Roland wrote her memoirs in prison and left this description of Sainte-Pélagie.:  "The women's part of the prison is divided into long and very narrow corridors on each side of which are tiny cells.  Each cell is closed by an enormous lock which a turnkey opens every morning;  the prisoners then gather in the corridors, on the staircases, in the little courtyard or in the dank and stinking commons room."

Grieve moved into Louveciennes after her arrest and spent months building his case against her. His papers exist, "annotated in the tiny precise hand of Grieve, evidence still of a hatred so malign as to be almost inexplicable," and are presented in Loomis' book as are the charges levied at her trial. Among the charges she faced:  she attended a memorial service for Louis XVI, dressed in black, at the Spanish Embassy in London, after the King's execution.  True as charged.

Once convicted, the Comtesse made a last desperate attempt to save herself and said that she had important information to provide.  She was told that she'd be spared and, wild with relief, she revealed the locations of her hidden treasures and offered to write the bank in London to have her jewelry released.  One can imagine the feigned support in the authorities' faces as her words were recorded.  Then, she was told the tumbrel was waiting for her. It's no wonder that she was one of the few that went to the guillotine hysterical and begging for her life.

That night, Grieve is quoted as saying, to friends, "Never have I laughed so hard as I did today when I saw the grimaces that beauty made when she was facing death."  It's difficult to believe that the ideals of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité were at the root of Grieve's interest in bringing the former Jeanne Bécu to her knees.

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