The Comtesse’s Song

Having recently (and briefly) dug back into Jeanne de La Motte-Valois‘s memoirs (The Story of My Life, or Vie de Jeanne de St. Remy de Valois), I came again across a charming passage which, I think, illustrates Jeanne’s brazenness not so much while she was in jail as after she escaped to England.

To set the scene: Jeanne was arrested in 1785 for her alleged part in the theft of a necklace consisting of 2700 carats of diamonds–and worth a literal fortune. The jewelers were under the impression they had sold the necklace to the Queen discreetly in order to avoid the political backlash that was sure to follow if the Queen squandered her money so frivolously. The Queen claimed she hadn’t bought the necklace, had never intended to buy the necklace, and had no knowledge of where the necklace had gone. Jeanne, a woman who claimed to be the Queen’s friend and a countess, was in the middle of the mystery; the evidence shows that she duped the jewelers and a Cardinal into believing that she was working on the Queen’s behalf, when really she was just trying to spirit away the necklace. Though it’s shrouded in mystery, it appears she succeeded in stealing the necklace. But the web of lies began to fall apart, and Jeanne was clapped in the Bastille. (For a more thorough description of the Affair of the Diamond Necklace, see The Short Story tab above.)

Jeanne is writing about her time in the Bastille, after her arrest but before her trial. The Governor of the Bastille, Launay, was later brutally murdered by the men who stormed the fortress only four years later. Shortly following the events of 1785 that she describes, Jeanne was transferred to the Conciergerie, which is adjacent to the Palais de Justice where the trial took place. She was convicted, publicly beaten and branded, and sent to

The Marquis de Launay, Governor of the Bastille, is arrested during the storming of the Bastille; he was brutally murdered by the revolutionaries. Storming of the Bastille and arrest of the Governor M. de Launay, July 14, 1789 by Jean-Baptiste Lallemand. Source: WikiMedia Commons

the Salpêtrière.

Jeanne writes this, however, from a safe distance. She escaped prison and went to England, where she was welcomed. The English were quite happy to take her in, because her presence was an embarrassment to their perennial enemy, France. In any case, it’s important to remember that Jeanne not only had an agenda, she was creating her own myth. Jeanne made herself heroine of her own tale, the victim of a cruel monarchy,  particularly of Marie-Antoinette. The description of a brave, defiant, downtrodden young woman is part of her own myth. She claims to have charmed pretty much everyone. Can it all be taken seriously? There might be a kernel of truth in it. To me, however, it seems to be mostly fabricated. I think that, while safe in London, she was  brave and defiant, and pretended that she had been the same while locked in the Bastille. This little story about her defiant song is more an indication of how she felt and thought while writing her memoirs than it is an accurate account of her mindset while in prison.

In any case, here is Jeanne’s account of her song:

At some moments, I had such a flow of spirits that I frequently amused myself with singing a number of songs as they succeeded in my mind, blending them all together, without any attention to regularity. Many of the invalids, who heard me, reported to the Governor that a lady in the third Comptée sang at least sixty different songs and airs every day, and that she got up to the window, where they saw her very plainly.

The Governor, upon this intelligence, ordered them to come and listen to what I sang; he also stationed another person to listen attentively to the words of my songs. I was aware of my spy, though he spoke very low. I redoubled my efforts, and sung this passage from Richard, Couer de Lion: “Oh, Richard! oh, mon roi!” (Instead of the name Richard, substituting Valois.) “–by all the world forsook!” I took occasion, in the course of my song, to introduce the name of the Governor, and finished with a loud laugh. The poor Marquis de Pelport, who saw our spy, dared not utter a word, but I, not at all alarmed at the spy, nor having the least fear of the Governor, continued my song.

At eight the same evening, the Governor came to see me. “Oh, oh!” said I to him gaily, “you are very obliging to make me a visit. You wish, then, to gain the goodwill of the prisoners, by coming to see them?” He smiled. “But you are a singer,” said he. “I am very sorry to have interrupted you!”

And this Governor, so very rigid and austere, who had prohibited singing in the Bastille, entreated me to do him the favor to sing a song. I at first hesitated, but after some little consideration, began to sing. And, that I might be heard throughout the Bastille, I sang a brisk tune. As soon as I had finished, “Very well, Governor!” said I rallyingly, “you have not behaved with the greatest consistency in sending my turnkey, St Jean, to desire me not to sing, for that is contrary to the rules of the Bastille, when I can absolutely say that I have authority to sing even from the Governor himself!”

Jeanne de La Motte, “The Story of My Life”

For further reading:

The Story of My Life (or “The Life of Jane de St. Remy de Valois, heretofore Comtesse de La Motte“) as published in English in 1791, and source of the above quote)

Vie de Jeanne de St. Remy de Valois, etc., as published in French in 1792

Governor de Launay’s Wikipedia page

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