I am currently working through one of Jeanne de la Motte-Valois’s memoirs. It is available online through Google Books (click this link to go there). This version is the original English translation, published in London’s Paternoster row in 1791. At this time, Jeanne was living in London. Shortly after the publication of this memoir, she died after a fall from a London window onto the London streets (some say she was pushed).
Presumably, Jeanne told her story in French. Unless her English was very good, someone translated this work. Whoever did it was not a great prose stylist. The wording is clunky at best. Most of the sentences stretch on for a week or two without any reason for doing so. Combined with the fact that the English of 220 years ago was slightly different from the English of today, the language of the memoir itself can be a bit tedious. But once you get used to it, it’s worth the trouble. The story is extraordinary.
Google Books offers a text version of the book. You can highlight, copy, and paste the words. But because the software isn’t perfect, and because the page images have some flaws, the text version is messy. As I go, I am copying the text and cleaning it up. I’m doing it roughly; there’s simply too much work for me to go through it with a fine-toothed comb. However, I will bring to the readers of this blog some of the results of this clean-up.
The first of these posts will be about Marie Jossel, Jeanne’s mother. Jeanne was not, to say the least, her mother’s biggest fan. According to Jeanne, her father–the son of a minor nobleman, descended from the illegitimate child of Henri II, unprepared to support his family in any way–had been intended to marry a young noblewoman practically since his birth. As a young man, he fell for a maid in his household, the lovely but barbed Marie. Jeanne’s father, named Jacques like Jeanne’s brother, wanted to marry Marie, but his father disapproved. In spite of his father’s disapproval, Jacques married Marie (the English translation refers to her as Maria for no discernible reason).
As Jeanne herself puts it:
Maria [or Marie] Jossel, a girl who had the charge of the house at Fontette [meaning she was a maid], was the person who had attracted his [Jeanne’s father Jacques’s] eye. She was solicitous to please him and in a short time became pregnant. My father, wishing at once to make her an honorable reparation and to legitimate his child, was induced to ask my grandfather’s consent to marry her; [Jacques’s father], thinking such a union degrading to an illustrious line of ancestry, gave a pointed and formal refusal. This opposition did but increase my father’s ardor; who, after many unsuccessful efforts to win my grandfather to compliance, and remaining unmarried till he was thirty-six years of age (four years longer than the law required) [until the age of thirty, men were required to seek their father’s approval to marry in France], at length solemnized the marriage at Langres in Champaign, under the names of James de Luz and Maria Jossel, where my father had purchased an estate upon which he resided some time previous to the nuptials. About a year after, my grandfather, upon his deathbed, forgave the indiscretion of his son; after whose decease my father and mother left Langres to take possession of the estate at Fontette [the family estate, where Jeanne herself was born].
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From this era I date the commencement of my troubles. No sooner was my grandfather in his grave and my father in possession of his paternal inheritance than, freed from all restraint, Maria began to display her real character and fully evinced the meanness of her birth by an unlimited indulgence in that folly and extravagance which is ever predominant in vulgar minds on sudden elevation. She listened eagerly to the flattering insinuations of those who addressed themselves to her vanity and persuaded her that she did herself great injustice in continuing in the country, where she was only known as Maria Jossel; that she should repair to Paris, where she would figure in the first circles as the Baroness de Valois, a title which her accomplishments would not disgrace.
There needed no more to determine a female already intoxicated with vanity and suddenly raised from obscurity to affluence. She resolved to follow their advice [and] painted in glowing colours the advantages which would certainly result from a residence in the metropolis, and exerted her influence so effectually that the unsuspecting goodness of my father fell too easily a prey to the insinuating address of this cunning female, who having previously found means at different intervals to strip him of almost all his possessions, and to feed her poor relations with the spoils of the paternal inheritance, whose art was sufficiently crafty to make that very poverty, which she herself had occasioned, an argument in favor of her design. My father listened to what appeared to him so very plausible: that a journey to Paris and regaining the title and demesnes [domains] thereto annexed was the only means of repairing his shattered fortunes and restoring an illustrious name to its original splendor; with suggestions similar to these, and apparently so plausible, did she varnish over her interested designs, and urged my father (if I may be allowed the expression) to this desperate attempt.
Here ,I hope the candid Reader will bear with me a moment, while in extenuation of my father’s indiscretion I attempt to give a slight description of those natural accomplishments in my mother which united to constitute that fatal influence so replete with misery to her wretched offspring. Her form was elegant; her fine blue eyes appearing through long silken eye-lashes and her eyebrows finely arched, rendered her face extremely interesting and markingly expressive, while her dark tresses falling in graceful profusion over her shoulders displayed to the greatest advantage the natural whiteness of her skin. With these fatal charms, she possessed a strong understanding and a ready wit. Vain from her personal charms, she was volatile in her temper, impatient and revengeful.
Such is the outline of my mother.
The family set out for Paris, where they hoped to restore their fortunes. Along the way:
We stopped at a village on the road to Paris, where we dined, and my mother, having left my father and brother at the inn, took me out with her into the fields, and after upbraiding me for some trifling fault, treated me with the utmost severity, the marks of which were very plainly to be seen. When I had undergone this inhuman discipline, she commanded me to dry my tears, and we returned together, as though we had been good friends.
Jeanne’e father Jacques objected to this treatment of his daughter, so Marie began to”play nice”. This was just an act, however:
Her pretended fondness and caresses so far filled my little bosom with affection for her that I followed her almost everywhere and totally forgot all that I had before suffered. But, alas! this happiness was but of short duration; it vanished, only to give place to still greater severities, which were inflicted upon me, without a conscious offence, by this unfeeling parent.
A spirit of revenge, I soon fatally experienced, had been lurking in my mother’s breast under the specious disguise of kindness and affection; nor can I assign one plausible reason, in extenuation of her conduct, for again giving way to the impetuosity of her temper, except my having communicated to my father what she had already done to me. Strange and unaccountable as what I am now about to relate may appear, it is strictly true that my mother, having enticed me to some little distance, gathered a quantity of stinging nettles, of which she formed a rod, and had the precaution to use it on such parts of my body where she thought the marks would not be discovered.
Once they reached Paris, Marie used the threat of more violence to bully her children into begging on the street:
But a short period had elapsed when my mother (with indignation I remember the humiliating circumstance) instructed and commanded me to run after the people who passed by, repeating these words, which she had put into my mouth : “Gentlemen or Ladies, take compassion on a poor orphan, descended in a direct line from Henry the Second of Valois, King of France.”
Of course, this was true, but it could have been put to better use. Many people simply didn’t believe the story–it seemed too incredible that the descendant of a king would be begging on the street. Jeanne usually took her younger sister with her, while her brother went out to beg or make a bit of money clearing paths for the wealthy through the filthy streets. Jeanne’s father wasn’t fully aware of what was happening; he was apparently not fully aware of much. He was a weak man, led by his wife and unable to make a useful living. He was beloved by Jeanne, however. When, downtrodden and on his deathbed, he said to her:
“I tremble at the thought of leaving you in the care of such a mother!”
When he died, the family left for Versailles, where the court was based and where they might be able to get more from their begging:
About three months after, my mother again departed for Versailles, taking us along with her, and hired a ready-furnished lodging at La Porte du Bucque, where she again resumed the trade of sending me about to ask charity.
It didn’t take long for Jeanne’s mother Marie to find another lover:
She very soon deprived herself of the countenance of this benevolent family [who offered shelter and support] by forming an unaccountable connection with one Jean Baptiste Raymond, a native of Sardinia and a soldier whom she seemed to consider as her second husband.
And Jeanne describes her own duties at this period:
Here it was that my mother assigned it as my task to bring home every day ten sous, and on Sundays and holidays twice that sum; but this was what I could very seldom accomplish. I now began to feel the noble blood of the Valois flowing within my veins, and opposing, like an indignant torrent, such a degradation of a descendant of that illustrious family, I pondered much the last words of my dying father [to never forget that she was a Valois]; yet the fear I was under, increased by the severest treatment, probably for the very purpose of making the most vivid impressions of terror, constrained me to obey and again to solicit charity for a poor little orphan descended from Henry II.
If she failed, Jeanne was subjected to beatings from her mother and her mother’s lover Raymond. The abuse Jeanne reports is serious, but there’s no telling whether what she says is true, partially true, or fabricated. This is what she reports of her mother and Raymond:
…for sometimes Raymond would come out to seek me, and having found me sleeping under a window or on the steps of some door, would lead me home, trembling, like a lamb to the slaughter, where we were no sooner arrived than my mother, shutting the door, ordered me to strip off the poor rags which did but ill conceal the nakedness of my body. Having pulled off these, even my very shift, she would beat me severely with a rod steeped in vinegar, till the splinters stuck in my flesh; after which, with the assistance of the man, she tied me with cords to the bedpost: and if during this cruel operation I happened to cry or make the least noise, she would again apply the rod with such reiterated fury, that it was frequently broken about my back.
Raymond was arrested several times for pretending to be Jeanne’s father, a baron down on his luck. He used the story to elicit sympathy and a bit of money. Because he looked the part, he was believed, though not by the police, who knew better. After his treatment of her, Jeanne asks, “Was it unnatural, that I should rejoice at his confinement?”
It must here be remarked that Raymond, though twice before imprisoned, had still the audacity to beg as usual with my brother near the Tuilleries . . . .
His insinuating address led many to pity him as a nobleman in distress. These accomplishments had rendered him so popular, [and he had] added to his boldness [so that even] after two imprisonments [he had the audacity] to beg even in the very face of the palace; [it’s no surprise] that he was again apprehended. This imprisonment was much more serious than the former two; he was confined fifteen days, at the expiration of which he was sentenced by the Court to be exposed twenty-four hours at the Place de Louis Quinze, the scene of his imposture, with inscriptions and copies of the titles he assumed hung round his body; after which he was banned for five years from Paris.
My mother, for what reason I know not, led me and my brother to behold this spectacle. She appeared greatly affected. “‘Tis all your fault!” said she to me, weeping. “’Tis all your fault!”
Raymond was suffered to remain eight days to settle his affairs and to re-establish his health. The seventh after he had been thus exposed, he set forward on his journey, and my mother determining to go with him, told us with much seeming regret that she was going to conduct M. Raymond, assuring us that she did not mean to stay longer than five but would return within eight days at furthest. They then went out to communicate this to their landlord Dufresne and Theresa his niece, and afterwards departed together, leaving us three little children without the least morsel of victuals except a small bag of nuts. Three weeks passed away without any news.
Jeanne doesn’t speak of her mother again. Marie never came back for her children, never sent them word of herself apparently. Where Marie and Raymond went is anyone’s guess, but it’s clear she abandoned her children. Jeanne and her siblings were taken in not long after this by the Marquis de Boulainvilliers, a noblewoman whom Jeanne came to consider a mother. What happened to Marie? How much of Jeanne’s version of events is true? It’s very difficult to say. This is a period of Jeanne’s life that she didn’t need to fabricate for the sake of exonerating herself: her childhood didn’t have any bearing on her guilt or innocence in the theft of the Diamond Necklace. It was, however, supremely important to her presentation of herself as a tragic victim. She told (and embellished?) the story of her childhood, which was certainly troubled, in order to win the sympathies of her readers.
Make of her words what you will.