Jeanne de La Motte-Valois, London, and the Pleasure Gardens

A prospect of Vauxhall Gardens. By Samuel Wales c. 1751.

Jeanne de La Motte-Valois, the instigator of the Affair of the Diamond Necklace and the heroine of her own story, fled to England following her daring escape from the Salpêtrière prison in Paris. (For more information on how and why she ended up in prison, take a look at The Short Story or my extensive post on Jeanne, which I linked to above.)

It’s no secret that the English had no liking for the French. They were perennial enemies (see, for example, the Hundred Years War). Jeanne had embarrassed the French monarchy through her plot to steal a diamond necklace, so the English welcomed her to London. Once she arrived, Jeanne began writing memoirs that were sensational and damaging to Marie-Antoinette’s reputation. They were also largely fabrications of Jeanne’s imagination. In any case, Jeanne made herself even more of an enemy of the French king and queen than she had already been. Jeanne was also in a bad spot financially, with creditors on her tail. On top of this, Jeanne had a history of suicidal thoughts and tendencies.

So, when Jeanne fell from the third story of her home in London and died as a result of her injuries, it wasn’t clear whether she went over the rail accidentally, was pushed, or jumped. It still isn’t clear whether her death was an accident, a homicide, or a suice. I wrote more extensively on the matter in this post here.

A friend who follows this blog pointed out a passage in this book from 1896 (The London Pleasure Gardens of the Eighteenth Century). The passage talks about the Temple of Flora, one of the pleasure gardens that were common in London at the end of the 1700s. While describing the Temple of Flora, the author points out that a translation of Jeanne’s memoir (her Life) placed Jeanne’s death in a house across the street from the Temple.

This is an interesting tidbit of information, not only because it gives a more precise location for the scene of the accident (or incident). It also gives us some insight into late-18th-century London. Pleasure gardens were more or less exactly what they sound like: they were garden that had flowers, benches, music, galas, dancing halls, food, drink, and fireworks. They were a combination of park, county fair, and assembly hall. Vauxhall and Ranelagh were two of the most popular of these pleasure gardens. It was common for people of all stations to venture out for entertainment to the various gardens that appeared all around London at the time.

The Rotunda at the popular Ranelagh Gardens. 1754 by Thomas Bowles.

The Temple of Flora was not one of the largest of these pleasure gardens. It was located just beside Westminster Bridge, on the left when going towards the obelisk (unfortunately, I’m not sure what is meant by “the obelisk”, since the obelisk doesn’t seem to exist any more; however, the direction is east). It was separated from the Temple of Apollo by Oakley Street (now Bayliss Street). It had a hothouse with a statue of “Pomona”, a gloss of Flora. The gardens offered refreshments in the form of orgeat (a sweet drink), lemonade, confectionaries, strawberries, and cream. For a few years in the early 1790s (the exact time period Jeanne lived nearby), the Temple of Flora was a fashionable spot. By the late 1790’s, it went downhill, and it appears the gardens were closed around 1796 (a few years after Jeanne’s death). Since she lived right across the street, it’s likely that Jeanne visited the Temple of Flora many times.

To read more about the Temple of Flora and other pleasure gardens, click here to read from The London Pleasure Gardens of the Eighteenth Century.

Thanks to Nico Hofstra for the tip!

Marie Jossel: Jeanne de La Motte’s mother

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).

Jeanne de la Motte-Valois

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].

click below to continue reading…..

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The Memoirs of Jeanne de La Motte

There’s nothing like reading the first-hand accounts of the main players in a thrilling historical drama. Or a dramatic historical thriller–you could use either to describe the Affair of the Diamond Necklace. Jeanne wrote several memoirs. They came out in French and English and sometimes in more than one volume, making for a confusing array of texts.

Here are the original versions of two memoirs by Jeanne de La Motte:

Mémoires justificatifs de la Comtesse de Valois de La Motte–In French, dense, and probably not accessible for people who don’t know French very well.

The life of Jane de St. Remy de Valois, heretofore Countess de La Motte–An English translation published while Jeanne was in London. Much more accessible to English-speakers if you don’t mind extraneous commas.

My take on the Memoirs:

Jeanne de La Motte’s story is fascinating from beginning to end, and no one would agree more than Jeanne herself. From a very young age, Jeanne learned to tell her own story to the best of her abilities, with the aim of capturing the attention and sympathy of those around her. She told her story while begging on the streets and she told her story while trying to get noticed at the court of Versailles. When the Affair of the Diamond Necklace broke, her audience became much wider and the list of antagonists in her story increased by (at least) one: now Queen Marie-Antoinette was on the list of people out to victimize her.

You can’t take Jeanne at her word. The outline of her life is almost certainly true, as well as those details that she had no reason to lie about (for instance, the date of her arrival in Paris) or that were easily verifiable fact (for instance, the date of her birth or marriage). But, otherwise, in her memoirs Jeanne makes herself into the tragic heroine, constantly wronged by fate and, more to the point, by those around her. The first villain of Jeanne’s story is her own mother. Jeanne’s mother is presented as a gold-digger who ruined her husband (Jeanne’s good-hearted father) and never loved him in return. Jeanne’s mother constantly beat her, forced them all to go to Paris where the children had to beg on the streets, barely mourned her husband’s death, and asked her children to claim that her new lover was their father. How much of this is true, it’s hard to tell. No doubt, Jeanne’s mother would tell a very different version of the story.

After her mother abandons Jeanne, other villains continue to plague her life: the nemesis is her foster father, or the officials at court, or Madame Elisabeth, or Marie-Antoinette herself, or the police, or the monarchy at large. Throughout her memoirs, Jeanne casts herself as the victim of wicked people. And yet, all the evidence points to her as the culprit in the Affair of the Diamond Necklace, no matter how poorly she was treated by how many people. It’s incredibly telling that the thief is the victim here, over and over again.

Even if Jeanne only partially believed her own tales, this was the way she chose to defend her actions: she placed herself as the victim. In her own mind, she was merely responding to a cruel world as best she could–and maybe her response wasn’t perfect, but it was no worse than could be expected in the circumstances. Underlying this is Jeanne’s assumption that she deserved much, much better. Jeanne denies ever having stolen the Diamond Necklace, but if you take it for granted that she did steal it, then you can see her memoirs as a lengthy justification for why she deserved that necklace that didn’t belong to her. Her entire unfair life led up to a point where she saw for herself the chance to get some justice. Everyone from her mother to the queen had denied her what was her right. The necklace became a chance to reclaim what she felt she deserved. When that fell through, the memoirs became her form of revenge–because her story was much more damaging to the Queen than the loss of the necklace.

The morality is suspect; just because a person was constantly abused (and there’s little doubt Jeanne was abused) doesn’t justify theft, cheating, and adultery (all of which Jeanne was almost certainly guilty of). When you take into account her motives and point of view, Jeanne’s memoirs make a fascinating study of morals and how flexible they can be.

If you are patient with language, whether its French or mind-numbingly archaic English, then I suggest you take a look at these memoirs and judge for yourself.

A Real Fake Countess–Jeanne de La Motte-Valois’s Lineage

The woman who I usually refer to on this blog as Jeanne de La Motte may have been a liar and a cheat, but like many lies there was a grain of truth in the fabrications.

By the time of the infamous Affair of the Diamond Necklace, Jeanne referred to herself as Comtesse. She and her husband had, shortly after they married, assumed the titles of Comte and Comtesse de La Motte-Valois (or just de La Motte for brevity). Neither Jeanne nor her husband, Nicolas Marc-Antoine de La Motte, were entitled to be called comte or comtesse.

Clearly, this didn’t stop them from assuming the titles anyway. It wasn’t just delusions of grandeur. Having a title at that time didn’t just mean you spoke with a posh accent or had a lot of money. In the late 18th century in France, to have a noble title was to have power, or at the very least the possibility of power. It carried its own weight. It especially came in handy when, as Jeanne did, one wanted to pretend to be the Queen’s fiend. Why would Jeanne pretend to be the Queen’s friend? That’s perfectly simple: Jeanne wanted to convince people to give her, Jeanne, money in exchange for peddling her “influence”. Say you were a young noblewoman looking for a place in the Queen’s household. Jeanne, a comtesse, tells you that she has the Queen’s ear and that she can get you the job. This kind of scam was hardly new.

The two biggest victims of Jeanne’s plot were the Cardinal Prince Louis de Rohan and the royal jewelers, Boehmer and Bassenge. You could add Marie Antoinette (the queen in question, of course) to that list, as well. Jeanne convinced Cardinal Rohan not only that she was a comtesse, but that she could reconcile him with the queen after decades of disfavor. All he had to do as help “the Queen” with some financial difficulties she was having. Later, Jeanne parlayed this trust into the theft of an extraordinarily expensive diamond necklace. The short version of the story is available if you look above and click “the short story”.

But Jeanne, at the least, would have probably felt herself thoroughly justified in calling herself a comtesse, even if it was a false title. Why? Because, adventuress though she was, Jeanne had royal blood in her veins and was one of the last living descendants of the royal Valois.

Jeanne, born in Fontette in 1756, was the daughter of an impoverished scion of the royal house of Valois and one of his family’s housemaids. She was not illegitimate; but her ancestor, the first Baron de Fontette, was illegitimate. He was the son of Henri II and Nicole de Savigny, his mistress. His name was also Henri, and he lived 1557-1621. The first Baron would have been powerful and wealthy, having been given a good apportionment of land by his father, the king. The men of the family tended to render military service to the crown, but over the two centuries between the first Baron’s birth and the birth of Jeanne de Valois de Saint-Remy (Saint-Remy was another appellation of the first Baron), the family sunk deeper and deeper into poverty.

Jeanne’s father was a nobleman without money or land. The family had sold off most of its holdings. They were left with the old, leaky castle, which Jeanne describes as having leaky roofs. Some accounts have Jeanne and her siblings (she had an older brother and two younger sisters) living like animals in a shed. When Jeanne was still quite young, her father took the entire family to Paris to see if their fortunes could be repaired. He died shortly thereafter. Jeanne’s mother, the former housemaid, abandoned her children, who were left to beg. One of Jeanne’s ways of begging was to tell people she had a royal ancestor and was one of the last of the Valois line. This eventually got her the attention of the Marquise de Boulainvilliers, who would provide the young Jeanne with some protection.

Jeanne de La Motte-Valois de Saint-Remy

Jeanne was particularly keen on her royal ancestry as her siblings weren’t. Her brother Jacques went into the navy and her sister went into a nunnery. With some help from noble friends, starting with the Marquise, Jeanne’s family were recognized to a point by the crown. The king ranted Jacques the title Baron de Fontette, Jeanne was entitled to call herself Mademoiselle de Valois, and her sister Marianne was to be called Mademoiselle de Saint-Remy. They received a small annuity, which Jeanne viewed as an insult. From the point of view of the crown, it was fair enough; Jeanne was related to the king, but it was a distant relation and she came from the illegitimate branch of the family.

No one, of course, can say for sure, but it seems likely that it was delusions of grandeur instilled in Jeanne by her father that made her long for a lifestyle that was out of her means in ancien regime France. Every bit of money she had went through her fingers like water. When she got hold of some 120,000 francs from Cardinal Rohan, she was suddenly seen living in ostentatious grandeur with lovely new carriages and gold-encrusted everything. This kind of behavior wasn’t uncommon of nobles of the time, who were almost invariably in debt. Jeanne, however, was living so far beyond her means that she was stealing enormous amounts of money to acquire the lifestyle she felt she deserved. She and her husband were known to defraud jewelers by purchasing jewelry on credit (a comtesse could pay for such jewelry, surely?) and then sell it for ready cash.

There is, of course, an element of simple human greed in Jeanne’s story. But it’s also a story of desperation, pride, and a deep feeling of injustice. Jeanne certainly suffered during her childhood. Combined with the stories she was told by her father and his final words to her–to never forget that she was a Valois–this meant that she must have developed a deep, insatiable need to match her outer trappings with what she felt she deserved. She might have gone about it in unethical ways (bribery, probably sexual favors, and out-and-out conning) but to the end, she probably felt she deserved what she took. That is, of course, presuming that she didn’t believe her own stories, most of which are almost certainly at least half lies.

Click HERE for a very nice run-down of Jeanne’s lineage, from the first Baron de Fontette (son of Henri II) down to Jeanne and her family. With Jeanne, this royal line died completely.

Marie-Antoinette in Pop Culture

Just for a little bit of fun, here’s a tidbit of Marie-Antoinette in popular culture. Hole, Courtney Love’s band, released nobody’s daughter in April this year. The album cover (aside from a spiffy parental advisory label) shows (most of) a portrait of Marie-Antoinette.

This particular portrait (history lesson alert!) is a redone version of the painting of the queen in her white muslin dress, known as en gaulle. People were so scandalized by the portrait because it looked as though the queen had been painted in her undergarments. The painter, Elizabeth Vigee-Le Brun, reworked it with this pretty blue gown and a different hat.

With a touch of wit, the portrait is–ahem–cut off at the neck. Turn the CD over, and the back cover is of Anne Boleyn given a similar cropping. I guess being queen can be a dangerous occupation if you aren’t careful.

Madame du Barry and the Diamond Necklace

The Characters #7: Madame du Barry

Every good story starts somewhere, and the origins of the Diamond Necklace Affair–in fact, the origins of the necklace itself–lie with Madame du Barry, the mistress of Louis XV, grandfather of Louis XVI and grandfather-in-law to Marie Antoinette.

Women like Madame du Barry weren’t uncommon in royal courts. Generally, they were expected to exist, a la Louis XV’s earlier maîtresse-en-titre Madame de Pompadour or Louis XIV’s mistresses (Madame de Montespan, La Vallière, and many others). There was a delineation of duties between the queen/wife and the mistress. The queen bore children, acted royal, and cemented an alliance with the kingdom from whence she came. The mistress pleased the king, was often the leader of fashion, and was generally there because the kings never got to choose their wives.

Madame du Barry, mistress of Louis XV and intended purchaser of the Diamond Necklace. (Painted by Vigee Le Brun)

The du Barry was one of the more flamboyant personalities of her time. She entered the king’s life after Madame de Pompadour’s death. She was a courtesan, a beautiful blonde girl who caught the eye of the king. She was married off to a comte du Barry to make her eligible for the vaunted position of royal mistress–yes, apparently even the mistress had to be noble. The king was very fond of du Barry and lavished gifts on her. This is where her personal tastes made an impact on history.

Knowing that she loved diamonds and that her tastes verged on the vulgar, the royal jewelers Boehmer and Bassenge began to assemble diamonds for an enormous necklace named the Slave Collar, meant to grace the neck of Madame du Barry. It was, relatively speaking, reasonable to expect the King to purchase this necklace for his favorite, or for him to give her the means to purchase it for herself. The jewelers, however, didn’t receive a commission for this necklace. They had taken upon themselves the risk of purchasing the diamonds and assembling it in a gaudy setting.

Before the diamonds had been placed in their setting, the King died of smallpox in May 1774. This put his grandson Louis XVI on the throne alongside his wife, Marie Antoinette. The nation rejoiced, but this king was a very different king from his grandfather. Not for him the procession of mistresses. He was, alas, not able in the first years of the marriage to consummate it. This was bad news for the jewelers, who needed someone with flashy tastes who the king was willing to lavish their necklace on. They’d gone deeply into debt to purchase the necklace, and only royalty on the caliber of the French monarchs could afford their necklace.

Luckily, the queen was Marie Antoinette, who as a young woman had expensive tastes and flashy ways. The jewelers obviously weren’t going to be able to sell the necklace to du Barry anymore, since she’d been exiled to a convent. But if the new, pretty, extravagant queen would buy the necklace, they would be saved from ruin. Unfortunately for them, Marie Antoinette didn’t want to buy their necklace. She and du Barry hadn’t gotten along while Marie Antoinette was the dauphine, so aside from the necklace being gaudy and too expensive for even Marie Antoinette to buy on a whim, it also had negative connotations because it had first been offered to the du Barry.

Without Madame du Barry for whom to create this diamond necklace extraordinaire, the entire Affair of the Diamond Necklace probably would have never unfolded. The implications for what might have happened to the monarchy and French history are potentially huge.

Madame du Barry must have been shocked when she learned about the plots surrounding the necklace that had been intended for her. In fact, in the parade of witnesses brought into the Palais de Justice when the conspirators in the theft of the necklace that was initially meant for Madame du Barry, the dead king’s mistress was questioned. As Frances Mossiker, her sudden reappearance on the scene started the rumors flying. What did Madame du Barry know? What part had she played in the theft of the necklace by the Comtesse de la Motte, or Cardinal Prince Louis de Rohan?

Madame du Barry arrived at the Palais de Justice on December 7, 1785 to answer the questions of the Parlement (the court). Du Barry told the court that Madame de La Motte had introduced herself with the proposition of being taken on as the royal mistress’s dame de compagnie. She painted herself as graciously turning down the idea because she didn’t need a companion and besides Madame de La Motte made a lot out of having royal blood, which made her overqualified for the position. Madame de La Motte came back again to get Du Barry’s help in putting forward a petition to the king for more money.

The story according to Madame de La Motte is almost unrecognizable. She objected to accusations made by du Barry–that Madame de La Motte had long ago signed her name with “de France”, an incriminating detail. The accusations, she said, came from a twisted memory of genealogical tables Madame had shown du Barry. According to Madame de La Motte’s version, du Barry was unpleasant to the interrogators, refusing to give her name and age.

In either case, Madame du Barry’s evidence didn’t provide the “smoking gun”. In fact, the du Barry knew very little about the necklace. The piece of evidence she gave was intriguing, but didn’t necessarily prove anything. Her recollection of a document on which Madame de La Motte signed herself “de France” was significant because there was a contract to purchase the diamond necklace signed “Marie Anoinette de France.” A real queen of France would never add “de France”; she would let her name stand alone, since she was powerful and regal enough to do without a last name. This suggests that the contract was forged, but then again this was a pretty fair assumption to make anyway.

So in the end, Madame du Barry’s evidence didn’t really add much, but her presence at the trial created a stir and she was, all things considered, the catalyst for the Affair of the Necklace.

Unfortunately, Madame du Barry was a victim of the French Revolution. She was executed in 1793, during the Reign of Terror.

Marie Antoinette: The Key to the Enigma

How does a Cardinal, a senior member of the French court, come to believe that the Queen of France is willing to meet him on a scandalous midnight rendezvous? How does the public come to believe what a fabrication cooked up by an adventuress named Jeanne de La Motte-Valois?

The “key to the enigma” as Frances Mossiker puts it in The Queen’s Necklace, is the Queen’s reputation. Our friend Comte Beugnot said, “The Queen’s reputation, sad to say, provided the key to the whole diamond necklace enigma.”

Marie Antoinette has come down to us as a tragic icon of fashion and excess. She was queen, was able to indulge her extraordinary whims (like three-foot-tall hairdos and fake miniature villages), and ended up losing her head because her people didn’t like it. Of course this impression is mostly false. Although she indulged a great love of fashion and overspent tremendously, she did gravitate towards simpler (perhaps scandalously simple) dress once

Marie Antoinette as a girl

she passed her twenties. It is also important to remember that the Queen was a target for dislike and dissatisfaction for the people. She had very little to do with the financial troubles of France, despite her spending. In an ocean of debt, her expenditures were minimal, though unfortunately for her they were conspicuous.

It might be fair to say that Marie Antoinette was insensitive of her people’s suffering, or at least that she was sheltered in her palaces. But it’s very unlikely she said, “Let them eat cake.” Marie Antoinette may not have been fully aware of the starvation and misery of the French people, but it would be unfair to say she was unfeeling or uncaring. She set aside a great deal of money for charities of different sorts. The evidence shows that she cared for suffering set before her eyes. Other suffering might have simply missed her notice.

To many people in her own time and ours, the love life of Marie Antoinette is at least as interesting as her flair for fashion and self-indulgence. There is a long list of men that Marie Antoinette was linked to in her own day. She was accused, for instance, of having an affair with her husband’s brother, the Comte d’Artois. The underground rumor mills of Paris (which put ou pamphlet with nasty pornographic or near-pornographic images of the Queen) weren’t above linking her to her female friends, either. There were rumors she was the lover of the Comtesse de Polignac and the Princesse de Lamballe. (Rather sadly, Lamballe was a loyal friend who remained in Paris and died very brutally during the Revolution at the hands of people who believed these rumors and butchered her body.)

Tongues wagged about the relationship between Marie Antoinette and Axel von Fersen of Sweden. There is no firm evidence the two were lovers (and there probably never will be–in 2003 experts attempted but failed to determine what had been erased from letters between Marie Antoinette and Fersen). However, over the years, historians have concluded that they were, indeed, lovers. After all, the Queen installed him in rooms in her own domain at Versailles. Interestingly, the people who created and circulated the scurrilous pamphlets never linked her name with Fersen, probably the only serious candidate for a “lover” for the queen.

There are many reasons that Marie Antoinette’s behavior was viewed with so much suspicion. Her position put her in line for criticism. She was the Queen of France, which under normal circumstances is not a particularly powerful position because of the way queens were traditionally treated. They were purely there for breeding purposes, and very little gloss was put on this reality. Louis XVI, however, was not decisive and was not a born leader. He also loved his pretty wife. The result was that she had some sway over him, and that, to many eyes, she was–most unnaturally–ruling France through her husband. To compound this, Marie Antoinette had no children for the first several years of her marriage because she and Louis XVI weren’t able to consummate the marriage fully. Add to this the fact that Marie Antoinette was a foreigner from France’s old rival Austria, and there was a great deal of suspicion of the Queen. She was a powerful, foreign female, who seemed to be failing in her primary duty as a woman and queen.

Marie Antoinette’s desire for privacy and informality were suspicious, too, to her subjects. The royal family had been put on very public display since the time of Louis XIV in the mid 1600’s. Etiquette had been handed down by the Sun King, and it was expected that this etiquette would be followed to the letter. This meant waking and going to bed with an audience, dressing with an audience, and eating with an audience. While a modern person would consider this all an atrocious invasion of personal space, the French people expected to be able to view and scrutinize their sovereigns. Because Marie Antoinette tried to block this access, the people assume she was trying to hide something. She also balked at the formal rules that governed everything. For instance, she would have suppers with men in the room who were not her family, which shouldn’t have been allowed. The Queen’s desire for privacy and informality probably stems from her childhood in Austria, where her large family lived more like wealthy bourgeois than like divine beings.

Marie Antoinette was undeniably vain and spoiled. She lost great sums of money gambling, and of course she spent massive amounts on clothing and decorating. She lacked judgment, and couldn’t take advice well. Her mother and advisers warned her early and often that her behavior was offensive to the French  nobles and French people. Marie Antoinette did not heed the warnings. Though her behavior was better when she was older and had children, the damage had already been done.

Witness the Diamond Necklace Affair. If she hadn’t already damaged her reputation, no one have believed that Marie Antoinette would condescend to meet a Cardinal in the midnight gardens of Versailles. If she hadn’t gained a reputation for loving diamonds, no one would have thought her capable of duping a Cardinal and stealing from the royal jewelers. Her reputation for sexual looseness and for greed, even if unearned, were enough to condemn Marie-Antoinette in the public mind. Jeanne de La Motte-Valois was probably more clever than she realized when she orchestrated the heist of the diamond necklace. She surely knew the Queen’s reputation and used it to her advantage, but she probably had no idea just how much of her story the public would believe.

Would the French Revolution have happened if Marie Antoinette were a different person? Would the currents of politics, time, and opinion have turned against the monarchy regardless? Or did Marie Antoinette single-handedly bring down the French monarchy? Like with most things, there is no single answer. It’s a combination of all of the above. The only thing that is certain is that the Diamond Necklace Affair would never have happened under another Queen. As Frances Mossiker said, the accusations levelled at Marie Antoinette would never have stuck to a Maria Leszczynska (her predecessor as Queen of France) or a Victoria or an Elizabeth II. Not only did the culture of the day–an odd mixture of promiscuity and public prudery–create the tempest that surrounded Marie Antoinette, her own behavior gave her enemies the opportunity to accuse her of any number of things and for those accusations to be believed.

The key to the enigma–the key to why the plot to steal the necklace ultimately hurt the innocent Queen and why the Queen ended up losing her head–is her reputation. “Reputation” is a complex mixture of her actions; the appearance her actions gave; the public’s perception of her; and the fears,  anxieties, and expectations of the time. 

In the comments, someone brought up this three-part blog entry about Fersen and Marie Antoinette on the wonderful blog Tea at Trianon.

For your perusal, here is an online exhibit from The Newberry Library.

Some books worth looking up on the topic:

Chantel Thomas The Wicked Queen: The Origins of the Myth of Marie Antoinette

Antonia Fraser Marie Antoinette: The Journey

Caroline Weber Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution

The Mysterious Death of the Comtesse

Jeanne de La Motte was almost certainly the mastermind behind the theft of the diamond necklace that caused the downfall of the ancien regime in France. If you want her full story click here. If you want the short version of the Affair of the Diamond Necklace, look above for “The Short Story”.

In May, 1786, Jeanne de La Motte was sentenced to be publicly flogged, branded on both shoulders, and imprisoned for life with all of her goods forfeit to the crown. There is almost no mistake that Jeanne’s gains were ill-gotten. She had duped a Cardinal out of a large amount of money, then used the Cardinal to orchestrate the heist of a diamond necklace worth a fortune. Still, the sentence was harsh. This was because the main offense was criminal disrespect for the person of the queen, Marie-Antoinette. It seems that during her efforts to swindle the Cardinal, Jeanne had made him believe the Queen wanted to buy the diamond necklace with him as her secret go-between. In order to convince him, Jeanne hired a whore to play the part of the Queen in the gardens of the Chateau de Versailles. This was very bad for the Queen’s reputation, because many people believed she was capable of meeting a Cardinal with a bad reputation at midnight in the gardens.

In any case, once she had been beaten and branded, she was put into the Salpetriere prison for women. It was from here that she made a daring and heroic escape. She fled across France and made her way to London.

The English naturally welcomed her with open arms. After all, England was always willing to embarrass France, their

Jeanne de La Motte-Valois de Saint-Remy

perennial rival. Jeanne was certainly not quiet, either. She had said some rather nasty things during the trial, and she kept up the flow of vitriol while in London. Many of her accusations against the Queen stuck; as the Revolution began to get off the ground, Jeanne was in London, happily writing tell-all memoirs that put Marie-Antoinette in a very bad light–if you believed what Jeanne said (for the record, I believe very little of it).

On August 23, 1791, the Courier and the Chronicle of London carried the death notice of Jeanne de La Motte-Vaois, self-style Comtesse de La Motte. Her death was the result of injuries from falling out of a third-story window.

The question now as then is, how came she to fall out of the window?

It might have been an accident. The Abbé Georgel, a friend of the Cardinal’s, claims that after a night of drunken debauchery, a tipsy Jeanne accidentally went out the window. He also adds that it was God’s judgment on her for being wicked, but then again he never really liked her.

Jeanne might have been pushed. British newspapers reported that bailiffs had come to collect debts owed by Jeanne. Nicolas de La Motte, Jeanne’s husband, claimed that it was agents of the Duc d’Orleans, who wanted Jeanne to return to Paris for political reasons. Nicolas paints a story of the poor woman’s terror as she’s pursued by these men. He says the Duc d’Orleans men tried to arrest her on trumped up charges of debt. Jeanne sent out the maid, trying to get help, but the maid returned with no one. When it appeared there was no help to be had, she dashed for the door. Instead of getting into one of the passing cabs or carriages, she went to her neighbor’s house. The neighbor tried to protect her by saying that he had no fugitive in his house when the men came after her.  The men battered down the door anyway and started searching the house. Jeanne was on the third floor, waiting as they moved up the floors searching for her. They started to break through the door to the room where she hid. She ran to the window, went over the railing, and held on with every intention of letting go and falling to the ground below if her pursuers made it through the door. The door cracked; Jeanne let go. This, at least, is how Nicolas de La Motte tells the story. How much of it is true is really anyone’s guess. But it’s possible that she was “helped” out the window by these alleged men.

Or, Jeanne might have committed suicide. This sounds like what Nicolas is implying happened, albeit suicide under duress. Jeanne actually had a history of suicidal behavior, which she talked about herself (after the death of twin sons, she says that she took a pair of pistols and was about to shoot herself but decided not to at the last second). Her memoirs from the time of her death make it sounds as though she was not suicidal–she talks about never giving up in her fight against her enemies–but in a moment of panic or distress, it’s entirely possible.

Exactly what happened is unclear. But what is clear is that Jeanne did not die immediately. She was badly injured, and suffered for several days before passing on.

As Jeanne lay dying, the situation in France was quickly heating up. The royal family made an ill-advised attempt to escape France, but were caught at Varennes. The attempt was a disaster for the royal family, who was now looked at with suspicion by all of France. They were brought back to Paris to be put under harsher arrest. The news reached Jeanne on her sickbed as she lay dying from the injuries sustained in the fall out the window. Jeanne considered the Queen her personal enemy, and she must have relished the humiliation and failure of the royal family. In many ways, it was Jeanne’s venomous words and accusations that led to the hatred that Marie-Antoinette received. It’s ironic, then, that Jeanne died in 1791, just about two years before the Queen would have her head cut off by guillotine.

The Epilogue–Part 2

The people who took part in the Affair of the Diamond Necklace were some of the most extraordinary people ever thrown together into one of the most bizarre moments in history. Soothsayers, prostitute, queen, cardinal, jewelers . . . when the trial took place in 1786, they even brought in a clockmaker to give testimony. The lasting consequences of the Affair of the Diamond Necklace brought on the fall of the monarchy in France. So what happened to this amazing cast of (real-life) characters when the Revolution swept across France?

Jacques Clause Beugnot, later Comte Beugnot, was an old friend of Madame de La Motte. He had known her from her less prosperous days in Bar-sur-Aube and had probably been romantically involved with her before she married Nicolas de La Motte. There is some evidence that Beugnot was at least partially involved in the aftermath of the theft of the necklace. He was amongst a group of La Motte friends and family who convened after the first arrests were made, trying to decide what was to be done now. He also, apparently, ended up with a diamonds ring, according to Frances Mossiker. He was shrewd enough to stay out of sight and out of mind when the storm hit. In prison, Madame de La Motte asked him to be her legal counsel, but he wisely did not accept the offer. He was already too closely associated with Madame de La Motte for his own good. Madame de La Motte, for her part, never mentioned Beugnot’s name either during the interrogations or later, when she was writing tell-all memoirs from London. This could be contrued either as an insult (he had been her friend, after all, at the very least) or as a sign of her affection for him (she was making sure suspicion never touched his name).beugnot

Beugnot was arrested in 1793 as the Revolution took over Paris. He had been part of the National Assembly, but the Revolutionary fervor was at such a pitch that today’s heroes were tomorrow’s villains. He was let out through a web of hazy connections–his wife’s uncle knew someone who knew someone, and he was let out of prison without falling under the blade of Doctor Guillotine’s machine. He was given the title of Comte (it was clearly not hereditary) and held several posts under the restored monarchy: director general of the national police, Marine Minister, Postmaster General, and Minister of State. He became quite a respectable and respected figure, and it seems very few remembered the hints of the scandal that had almost clung to him. He must have been grateful, to his dying day, that Madame de La Motte had not spoken his name.

Retaux de Villette was literally kicked out of France after being exiled by the Parlement de Paris. He was, as tradition dictated, given a loaf of bread and was booted in the ass. He went to Venice, where he claimed in his memoirs to have languished, though he also made some pretty outrageous claims about his romantic life. In 1790, those memoirs were published, and nothing more was heard of him (at least, it seems Frances Mossiker could find no more information on him, and neither could I).

Marie-Antoinette of course was the guillotine’s most famous victim. When she arrived from Austria to France as the new, young, pretty Dauphine, she was well-received. Of course, this all turned very sour in the coming years. Was it all because of her own behavior–her extravagance and the appearance of callous uncaring about her starving subjects? Or was she the scapegoat of the coming revolution, which would have come with or without her? In either case, she was widely reviled as Madame Deficit, La Autrichienne (the Austrian bitch), and many other rude and crude things. Her image was used in pornographic pamphlets as well as in fashion plates. The Affair of the Necklace was a huge blow to her reputation. More accurately, it was the Parlement’s refusal to convict Cardinal Rohan for criminal presumption. The Parlement was, in effect, saying that Marie-Antoinette was so dishonorable and had such a bad reputation that the Cardinal was perfectly justified in believing he had arranged a midnight rendezvous with her. All the nasty rumors and tales were given official sanction. This was a very, very bad outcome for the Queen. Indeed, she somehow sensed that the verdict was a disaster and she collapsed in tears.

Shortly before Marie-Antoinette’s execution, the topic of Madame de La Motte was brought up by Public Prosecutor Fouquier-Tinville:

Question: Was it not at the Petit Trianon that you knew the woman La Motte?

Answer: I have never seen her.

Question: Was she not your victim in the famous affair of the diamond necklace?

Answer: She cannot have been, since I did not know her.

Question: Then you persist in your system of denial?

Answer: I have n system of denial. It is the truth I have spoken and will persist in speaking.

Toussaint de Beausire was the young man who was arrested alongside Nicol d’Oliva in Brussels, Belgium. The two of them had left Paris because Brussels was much cheaper and Toussaint was deeply, deeply in debt. [Naturally, I give this a slightly different spin in the work of fiction I’m slaving away at: they flee Paris because they hear everyone connected with the Comtesse de La Motte is being arrested, and they want to avoid being arrested; obviously, they fail.] Toussaint was a failed architect who had gotten into debt very early in life and never actually made it through school because he kept pulling very bad pranks and swindling people. His family threatened to put him in a mental asylum by declaring him mentally incompetent.

After being put in the Bastille for a short time, Beausire was let go because it was fairly clear he had no direct knowledge of what had happened concerning the La Mottes and the diamond necklace. He had simply been there when the police found Mademoiselle d’Oliva. His family promptly did as they had threatened, putting him in an asylum. He was released from there as well a little later on.

Beausire probably married Nicole d’Oliva at some point–Frances Mossiker refers to them as being man and wife though she never specifies when and where it happened. It might well be that Mossiker, writing in the 60’s, said they were married because they had a child (who was later legitimized). In any case, they certainly ended up together, though it was far from a happy reunion. Beausire was not a great guy; according to reports that quoted Nicole d’Oliva herself, he kept his wife and son in a squalid back room while he enjoyed himself in the front room with lots of women. Lots and lots of fishy stories pop up here and there about the characters in the affair of the necklace, so you can judge the veracity of this story for yourself. In any case, Nicole died shortly thereafter at a convent, leaving Beausire free to remarry, which he did (producing six children in the process).

Beausire was one of the people who brought down the Bastille on July 14, 1789. He became a firebrand of the Revolution and made quite a name for himself. Of course, no one was safe as the tides changed day by day during the Revolution, and Beausire ended up in jail. It is perhaps unsurprising, given his character, that he turned informant, saving his own ass and getting a hated relative (one of those who had put him in an asylum) guillotined. Beausire was tried but acquitted and lived until 1818. Good guys finish last, I guess.

The Epilogue-Part 1

The Conciergerie prison, from which the Comtesse de La Motte escaped.

The Conciergerie prison, where the Comtesse de La Motte was briefly imprisoned.

When the verdict was given on May 31, 1786, it’s unlikely that anyone could have foreseen what was about to befall France. These were the waning years of the ancien regime, and the verdict in the Affair of the Necklace was one of the warning bells of the monarchy’s demise. That the Parlement had effectively reproved their Queen for her wanton behavior was extraordinary.

So what became of some of our main characters?

Jeanne de La Motte-Valois, having been sentenced to be whipped, branded, imprisoned for life, and stripped of all her possessions, was led out into the Cour du Mai early on a June morning in 1786. Even though it was early, there was a massive crowd. Jeanne was branded twice with a V, for voleuse (thief), though she surely thought of it as V for Valois. She struggled so hard that instead of being branded on both shoulders, one brand was on her shoulder and the other was on her breast. After this ordeal, she fainted. When she recovered, she was transferred to the Salpetrière prison. After about a year of imprisonment, she made her escape in June 1787. She makes quiet a harrowing tale out of it in her memoirs. Despite an upswelling of sympathy for her, even from a staunch friend of the Queen’s like the Princess de Lamballe, Jeanne could not stay in France, so she went to London, where she was assured a warm welcome. The English were more than willing to take in someone who had so successfully discomfitted the French king and queen. They might ot have been so pleased with her if they realized how badly she had undermined the position of the monarchy and the social order it symbolized. In London, she published a series of tell-all memoirs, which are entertaining but exaggerated in some places and simply not credible in others. Two years later, the Bastille, where Jeanne had been imprisoned briefly, was taken by a mob on July 14, 1789. This must have given her great satisfaction. But she wasn’t to live long enough to see Marie-Antoinette, whom she considered to be her enemy, beheaded. Jeanne died August 23, 1791, about two years before the death of Marie-Antoinette. There were reports that police had come to arrest Jeanne or that she was pushed by sympathisers of the French monarchs. She may have fallen, or even jumped. No one can really be sure, but conspiracy theories abound. On July 20, 1792, the revolutionary court reversed the conviction of Jeanne de La Motte.

nicolas de la motte

Nicolas de La Motte

Nicolas de La Motte threatened to publish an exposé about the Queen and Breteuil (one of her chief ministers) from London. He had gone to London as soon as his wife was arrested and clearly wasn’t about to go back and be arrested and suffer the same fate as his wife. When his wife escaped from prison and arrived in London, they found themselves at loggerheads. She was emotionally unstable, attempting to throw herself from a window at least once and attacking Monsieur de Calonne, her lover who mocked her over a game of cards. Nicolas returned to Paris from London in August 1789, one month after the Bastille fell. He became adept at extorting money for doing nothing. He played the dying monarchy off of the rising revolutionary government and was able to live very well off of the proceeds. He was paid off by the Rohan family to not publish all he knew about the Affair of the Necklace.

Nicole d’Oliva was let out of the Conciergerie prison on May 31, 1786, and was given a place to live by her lawyer, Blondel. After spending some time there, she moved in with Toussaint de Beausire, the man whom she had been arrested with in Brussels and whose child she gave birth to in the Bastille. Beausire was a very sordid character. He’d been in trouble since he was a child, but came from a respected family of architects. It isn’t clear whether he actually married Nicole (or when, if he did), but he kept her in very conditions while he lived it up. He abused her and purposefully kept her and her child in squalor. She retreated to a convent and died in 1789, at the age of only 28. Toussaint lived on, made it through the Revolution, remarried, and lived until 1818. Real life isn’t always fair.

Cardinal Rohan was nominated to the Estates-General, then took his seat at the National Assembly (the revolutionary body). He refused to be held up as a martyr to royal tyranny. He objected to the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, which made the French Church subordinate to the French government and eradicated the monastic roders. Rohan withdrew from the National Assembly and left France for his estates in Ettenheim, in what is now Germany. As French priests fled from the Revolution, he sheltered them. The remainder of his life was far more respectable than it had been, and he died in 1803 in his bed. His niece’s husband, the Duke d’Enghien, wrote, “Cardinal Rohan, fully conscious as he took the last sacraments, died a death so noble as to be truly edifying to all present–a fact that may astonish you as much as it did me.” [from Mossiker’s The Queen’s Necklace pg. 547]

Count Cagliostro left France and continued to wander the world. He ran afoul of the Papacy in Italy and in 1789 was imprisoned in the Castel Sant’ Angelo. Cardinal Rohan remained loyal to him, but the Cardinal’s letter of recommendation didn’t help Cagliostro. He was put on trial under the Inquisition for the crime of being a Freemason, which was punishable by death. The trail dragged on for two years, but he was naturally found guilty (this was the Inquisition). His sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. His wife, too, was sentenced to life in prison, where she probably died in 1794. He was transferred to the Castel San Leo, a more secure prison, and was dead by the time French troops invaded papal lands in 1797, though a newspaper had reported him dead in 1795 (was he really dead at that time, or did he die sometime between the article and the invasion by the French?).

There are more characters to follow. Next time, I will be exploring their fates.