THE GREAT DECEPTION
Imagine, if you will, that you are a young woman raised in poverty but fed on stories of your royal lineage–your great-great-great grandfather was the illegitimate son of Henri II. You have tried everything to get the attention of the King, your distant relative, and the Queen, his wife who is spoiled but generally supposed to guide her husband. You’ve attempted fainting in front of the King’s sister; you’ve attempted to sit in the office of the King’s minster, refusing to leave until you get some more money; you’ve been given the honor of carrying the royal name “Valois” but this hasn’t helped finances. You have been forced to sell the modest pension given to you by the crown–instead of steady installments, you get one lump sum.
Now it’s time to get creative.
Jeanne de La Motte-Valois (self-styled “Comtesse”) was nothing if not creative and bold. If she couldn’t get anywhere using the official channels, she would turn to deception. The deception was simple enough: she pretended to be Marie Antoinette’s newest BFF. Being the Queen’s friend didn’t just sound nice. When you had the ear of the Queen, people came flocking to you, asking you to talk to the Queen on their behalf. All she would ask in return was a little (monetary) reward. This was not a new con. It had been done before.
However, Jeanne took it to a startling new level. Her biggest victim was Cardinal Prince Louis de Rohan, one of the most important people in France, but on bad terms with the Queen. Jeanne sent him forged letters from “the Queen” and did all kinds of clever things to make him believe that the Queen was willing to reconcile with him. She even convinced him that the Queen needed small loans. The money, of course, went straight into Jeanne’s coffers.
But what is a self-styled Comtesse to do when the Cardinal she is conning begins to doubt her? Set up a face-to-face meeting between the Cardinal and the Queen. [click below to continue reading]
The Queen was known to take walks in the gardens of Versailles, sometime late at night. The Abbe Georgel (a friend of Cardinal Rohan) tells us that the Queen took these walks to get some air before going to bed and that this was not commented on until later, when these excursions came to include musical concerts. Although the Queen herself stayed on the upper terrace near the palace, it was (probably rightly) assumed that many ladies and gentlemen slipped away into the further parts of the gardens in order to, shall we say, get to know each other better. This behavior was transferred to the Queen’s essentially innocent walks in the gardens (this became a pattern–people presumed things about what her behavior meant, and they always presumed the worst).
Knowing this nugget of information (and given the Cardinal’s track record of falling for her lies hook, line, and sinker), the Comtesse only needed one thing: someone to pretend to be the Queen. It would be simple. One of those forged letters would be sent to the Cardinal: “I want to meet you in person to assure you that you are back in my good graces, etc, etc, etc.” The Cardinal would be told to go to the gardens of Versailles on a specific night, where someone dressed up as the Queen would appear in the dark to reassure him in person. What better proof could the Cardinal ask for than confirmation from the Queen herself? He would be fooled, the Comtesse’s bilking of him would go on.
The actress recruited to play the part of the Queen was Nicole d’Oliva, a prostitute from the Palais-Royal. She was taken under the Comtesse’s wing, unaware of the great con being perpetrated. She was dressed up in a linen dress like that worn by Her Majesty in the scandalous portrait by Vigée-Le Brun. The girl (according to Jeanne) asked if the man would try to embrace her (remember, this was a prostitute; she clearly understood the sexual connotations of this rendezvous) and whether he might expect even more (Jeanne says that she told Nicole this wasn’t very likely). Nicole was told that she would be watched by the Queen. She wasn’t told she would be playing the part of Queen, it seems. She asked how she was supposed to address the Queen in case they actually met–Your Majesty? Your Grace? Queen?
Jeanne, her husband, and Nicole set off for the designated meeting place, The Grove of Venus. Somewhere amongst the dark gardens, M. de La Motte said, “Ah, there you are!” to someone–who turned out to be Jeanne’s personal secretary (and designated forger) Retaux de Villette. Nicole was given a rose and already had a letter, both of which she was meant to hand to the nobleman who she would meet there in the dark. As she did so, she was to say only, “You know what this means” (if she said too much, the Cardinal might recognize that the voice wasn’t the Marie Antoinette’s). Jeanne briefly left Nicole in the Grove and went to find the Cardinal. Jeanne told him that the interview would have to be short because the Queen was worried about being caught by her sisters-in-law (this served the dual purpose of making him anxious and less attentive, and setting the stage for the meeting to be broken up quickly before the Cardinal had time to realize he was being duped).
The Cardinal was led to the Grove of Venus, where Nicole was waiting. She describes a state of excited nervousness, and she says she can remember very little of what happened–to use a cliche, it went by in a blur. She wasn’t sure whether he took the rose or let it drop, and she forgot to hand him the letter (this is the hinge of the plot in the novel I’m working on). But she did say the prescribed words. Jeanne claims that the Cardinal then got down on one knee and gave a heartfelt, rather pathetic speech. If this is the case, then it was probably best for the Cardinal’s dignity that just then sounds were heard nearby. These (conveniently-timed) sounds were courtesy of the personal secretary, Villette, whom Nicole had noticed earlier. Jeanne quickly broke up the little rendezvous and everyone scattered.
It was superbly done. The whole plan fit in remarkably well with all the Cardinal’s hope and his preconceptions of the Queen. You would expect this kind of lewd behavior from her, after all. In fact, this was exactly what the jury was to decide nearly a year later when everyone involved went on trial. When the con had been uncovered bit by bit, the really damning bit was the Grove of Venus scene. Since there was no real evidence that the Cardinal had been involved in the theft of the diamond necklace (I’ll touch on the necklace in a moment), the real question was of lesé majesté, criminal disrespect of the king or queen. In this case, Cardinal Rohan was accused of believing he could have possibly had a midnight meeting with the Queen. It was unthinkable that she would/could ever do such a thing. The problem was, of course, that everyone thought the Queen was not only capable of meeting a man in the dark at midnight, but almost certain to do if given the chance. This was, essentially, the ruling of the jury. Even though Marie Antoinette wasn’t on trial, her reputation clearly was, and she lost that battle in a very big way.
The diamond necklace had not yet entered the equation, but it would shortly do so. By the time the necklace did come to Jeanne’s attention, the Cardinal was fully convinced that he was back in the Queen’s favor. The Grove of Venus scene had convinced him of Jeanne’s truthfulness. When one of those forged letters was sent to him, telling him that “the Queen” wished him to purchase a massively expensive diamond necklace on her behalf . . . well, he had no reason to doubt it. The Queen did like diamonds, after all, and she had met him in the Grove of Venus and personally given him her assurances. Unfortunately for him, it was all a lie, if a rather clever one.
The most amazing part of this story is the credulity of a man who should have known better. It is a stark example of how easily people can be fooled into believing what they want to believe and seeing what they want to see. The Cardinal wanted to believe he was back in the Queen’s favor. He wanted to see the Queen there in the gardens, so that is what he saw. Reality was warped by his own expectations of what it was meant to be.