The Chateau de Verseilles and the Diamond Necklace

Versailles is known for being one of the most magnificent palaces in the world, the seat of one of Europe’s most flamboyant monarchies, and a place where history was made. Here, Louis XIV built an architectural symbol of his power, grandeur, and exceptionally Baroque tastes. The ceilings were painted with exquisite (if a little overblown) allegorical paintings. The state apartments were a string of rooms, each grander than the last and each named after the Classical god or goddess who best fit with a specific theme. For instance, the Mars Drawing Room has paintings of, well, Mars the god of war but also paintings about war itself, such as one of Alexander the Great.

By the time of the Affair of the Diamond Necklace, Versailles was a bit old-fashioned. So many people came and went, and hygiene was so little heeded, that the place must have been pretty awful at times. Luckily, the official rooms were only a small portion of the palace, and there were private rooms behind them. It still must have been a very impressive place, and it was, at this time, still the seat of an absolute monarchy.

Before the storm of the Diamond Necklace Affair hit, Madame de La Motte was actually a frequent visitor to the Chateau de Versailles. It was here that she had to bring her appeals for more money. She was a distant relative of the king–very distant. So distant that she wasn’t given much of a hearing, especially since she’d already been granted a

The Chateau de Versailles

stipend by the crown. Shortly before concocting her plan for pulling the wool over the eyes of a Cardinal of the Church, Madame de La Motte could be found importuning the finance ministers. Monsieur de Calonne was one such minister. According to Jeanne herself, courtesy of Frances Mossiker’s translation, she was “to hear him propose that I [Madame] share the treasure of his affections . . . with his current official mistress . . . !” Indignant she may have been, but one suspects that she might have encouraged M. Colonne’s advances (at the very least), because he apparently made efforts on her behalf. She likened it to the mountain that labored to bring forth a mouse; nothing came of his efforts.

Her next effort was a kind of sit-in. She refused to move from Calonne’s office until he gave her money. She got a small cash award.

It wasn’t long before Jeanne, her husband, her “personal secretary” Retaux de Villette, or someone near her, came up with the cunning plan of fooling people into believing that Jeanne was a close friend of the Queen. The idea was simple enough: Jeanne would tell people (falsely of course–Her Majesty would never see someone like Jeanne who had no real rank) that she had the Queen’s ear. Jeanne would agree to personally speak to the Queen on behalf of other people–of course, a small gift of thanks would be expected.

Soon, her plans became more ambitious to include Cardinal Prince Louis de Rohan, an old acquaintance of the woman who acted as Jeanne’s foster mother. The Cardinal was more susceptible than most to this scheme. He had lost the Queen’s favor years ago and now wanted it back. He was fabulously wealthy and could be fooled into parting with large chunks of cash.

But how does one fool a Cardinal?

Versailles was the backdrop to several clever deceptions–or not so clever, really, since they ought to have been obvious to Cardinal Rohan.

The first ploy was simple enough. Jeanne would come traipsing away from the Petite Trianon Palace (Marie-Antoinette’s retreat) at just the right time to be seen. Those who saw her would presume that Jeanne had just come from a personal interview with Her Majesty. After all, only the Queen’s closest friends were allowed to go to the Petite Trianon, and Jeanne had just been there. Of course, that wasn’t the case. All she did was walk to the palace, then start walking away again at just the right time as though she were just leaving a tete-a-tete with the Queen.

The second ploy was subtler but no less obvious, unless one were desperate to believe. On her way to Mass, the Queen

The bull's-eye window of the Oeil-de-Boeuf Room

passed through the State Apartments at Versailles. As she went, she would nod to the crowd in acknowledgment. Jeanne made use of this habitual nod. She told Cardinal Rohan to go to the Oeil-de-Boeuf Room (so named because of the “bull’s eye window” in the room), where he would receive a nod from Marie-Antoinette as a confirmation that he was in favor with her. The Queen nodded and he believed that she nodded at him.

The third ploy is the Grove of Venus scene. A more complete story can be found in other entries on this blog, but the basic idea is this: Cardinal Rohan’s faith wavered and he asked for some kind of confirmation from the Queen in person. Jeanne arranged this. She hired a whore to play the part of Her Majesty (the whore was name Nicole d’Oliva), and on a summer’s night, the Cardinal and the prostitute met. She handed him a rose and told him, “You know what this means.” Well, he thought he knew what it meant, though he was certainly wrong. He fell for the entire thing, hook, line, and sinker, so that later on, when he was asked to sign on as guarantor for the purchase of a massively expensive diamond necklace, he agreed to do it.

The Chateau’s was one of the most prominent backdrops for the Affair of the Diamond Necklace. If I were making a play based on the Affair, one of the sets would have to be Versailles. The essence of the place–its history, associations, and grandeur–lent credibility to Jeanne’s lies. It was the perfect distraction for the sleight of hand that was really going on.

The Rue du Jour

I have at last returned and (for the most part) recovered from my Continental trip. No, I was not stuck by an ash cloud; I got back to London (where I’m based; I’m not a native) on Monday, and the chaos began on Thursday. It is now the following Tuesday and there is still no sight of alleviation.

My trip to Paris was fruitful in that I saw several of the places on my list. Unfortunately, for various reasons that really don’t seem to make much sense in retrospect, I didn’t get to them all. Suffice it to say, I never made it to the Grove of Venus, which was actually heartbreaking, and I didn’t make it to the Rue St Gilles, which was less devastating.

I did, however, make it to the Rue Du Jour. Here’s the Google Map version.

The Rue du Jour was where my favorite Parisian prostitute resided in the 1780’s, when she met my favorite callow chevalier. I mean, of course, Nicole d’Oliva and Nicolas de La Motte. Nicole lived here, in the shadow of the Eglise Saint Eustache, a fantastic old pile. It is also directly in the proverbial (though not literal, as in the case of the church) shadow of Les Halles, which was a great marketplace. Now the marketplace has been sunk underground with the Metro even further below. It was quite a maze down below, and it was all we (me and my traveling partner) could do to find our way outside. Once outside, it took some time to orient ourselves because of the way the streets twist and split and braid around each other.

First, Les Halles. This was a covered marketplace, first created here in the 12th century. It would have been pretty obvious to Nicole, though at this moment I haven’t mentioned it in the novel I’m working on; it probably would have been relatively unimportant to Nicole anyway, who spent most of her time at the Palais-Royal. In any case, the covered market was demolished in the 70’s and replaced with the underground shopping.

This link has some more info and a picture of the old Les Halles; you will need to scroll down because it’s in alphabetical order: http://www.trussel.com/maig/encyclo/me_l.htm

When you step into the Rue du Jour–and here the British way of saying “in” as opposed to “on” a street seems appropriate– you get a feeling for the place in the 18th century. Many of Paris’s street are wide, but the older ones are not. This is one of the older one and it is flanked by buildings as tall as six stories. This gives a close, intimate feeling to the street. The ground floors are now shops, mostly for children’s clothing. The upper stories appear to be the same facades as the ones that Nicole would have known, with iron balustrades and bands of masonry demarkating the different floors. There are even gaps that I’m almost sure must have been carriageways or entrances to courtyards. Halfway down the road, there are large green doors in the rusticated front of an old building; when we were there, these were open, and we peeked in to see a courtyard. This is a fire station or some such, because the sign said “firefighters” (I only realized this after I got back from my trip and translated the sign).

Two things dominate the Rue du Jour: the church of Saint-Eustache and an archway. The church looms overhead in a magnificent way, just over the tops of the buildings. For Nicole, it must have been a constant reminder of the sinfulness of her profession–that is, if she had any religious sentiments at all, and she probably did given the time and place (almost everyone was Catholic).

As for the archway, I’m at a loss. Behind it, there’s a shop, and it looks as though it was once part of a building, the archway into the courtyard perhaps. I have yet to understand it and would be forever grateful to anyone who had a clue as to its purpose, what it may have once belonged to, etc.

So, what must it have been like to live here? It would have been thrilling to live so close to Les Halles, with the Palais-Royal a short walk to the west. Churches are a familiar sight in all European cities, but Saint-Eustache really does have a real presence here. It would have been a quieter, more out of the way spot than the bustling marketplace just a few steps away–like escaping from a maelstrom. It also would have been relatively comfortable place to live; perhaps Nicole’s circumstances were more comfortable than she let on.

Nicole’s mention of the Rue du Jour came during the trial two years after she met Nicolas de La Motte. As translated by Frances Mossiker, she says, “I lived close to the Palais-Royal at the time . . . in a small apartment on the Rue du Jour.” It is a passing mention, but it meant I could get a vivid, first-hand view of the place where this young woman lived. It’s a fantastic feeling.

Places of Interest

Two years ago, I spent two nights in Paris, and it was a lovely few days. At this point I wasn’t deeply enough into the Affair of the Necklace to seek out the locations where it took place. We had a very short time–basically one day and a half. We went up the Eiffel Tower and into Notre Dame de Paris. We spent the next morning at Versailles, which was wonderful despite the terrible state of my feet, which felt like they were deeply bruised after a week of intense sightseeing in Germany. In any case, I hadn’t thought to plot out all the places that were involved in the Affair of the Necklace and besides I wouldn’t have been able to get to all of them. I’m not sure my mother, who I was traveling with, would have wanted to be dragged along to random streets, anyway. So, in short, I didn’t really get to see the locations of the Affair of the Necklace. I saw Versailles, but couldn’t figure out which was the Grove of Venus (I figured it out later–turns out I was staring right at it from the steps by the orangery). I saw the Palais de Justice/Conciergerie from the outside, and stood right in front of the Cour du Mai without really realizing that it was a very important place in the tale of the Comtesse de La Motte. As I said, I hadn’t gotten as deeply into the topic at that point. I had just begun to delve in.

Now that I’m back in Europe for at least another nine months, I will go to Paris. After all, it’s a quick trip to Paris from London. Other matters will interfere until at least January (schoolwork and a trip home to the US for Christmas), but I will get there soon. And when I do, I have quite the list of places to go.

1. The Rue du Jour and the Église Saint-Eustache. This is where Nicole d’Oliva lived before she was recruited into the service of the La Motte’s scheme. As she’s the main character of my novel, I’m interested in seeing the street she lived on. I’ve seen it on Google street view, but I want to see it in person. It seems a lot of the old buildings are there, but the ground floors have largely been converted for commercial use. Still, this is where Nicole lived! Interestingly, she lived across the street from a formidable old church, Saint-Eustache. It will be an interesting church to visit in its own right. The Rue du Jour is also very near Les Halles, another place worth seeing in its own right.

2. The Rue Saint-Gilles. At the time, the street was known as the Rue Neuve Saint-Gilles, and the La Mottes lived here during the greater part of the Affair of the Necklace. This is where schemes were plotted, forgeries were made, and probably where the diamonds passed through on their way to London. The number of the house where she lived is today No. 10 (at least, it was in the 60’s when Frances Mossiker wrote her book). Google Street view shows some construction going on (but the photos aren’t super up-to-date). As with the Rue du Jour, the ground floor of most of the street is shops now, but you can still see the buildings where the great intrigue of the Diamond Necklace took place. And this is where that complex and brave, greedy and sympathetic woman, Jeanne de La Motte-Valois, actually lived.

3. The Conciergerie. This is where the accused were kept right before the trial began. It is on the Île de la Cité, right behind and attached to the Palais de Justice. I’m actually not sure how much access there is, but I would love to see the place with my own eyes where Nicole and Jeanne de La Motte-Valois were imprisoned, Nicole with her newborn baby.

4. The Palais de Justice. Here, the Parlement heard the case of a Cardinal who believed he had been told by the Queen to buy a massively expensive diamond necklace on her behalf. The prisoners gave testimony and the verdict was rendered here in the Great Hall. In the front courtyard, the Cour du Mai, Jeanne de La Motte was whipped and branded with the letter “v” on both shoulders (for the French word for thief). This was her punishment for having orchestrated a grand theft (that and life imprisonment–she escaped, though).

5. Place de la Bastille. The prisoners in the Affair of the Necklace trial were kept at the Bastille for most of the months they were imprisoned before the verdict. It was here that Nicole was dragged to from Brussels, and here that Jeanne de La Motte was brought from her home in Bar sur Aube. It was, of course, stormed on July 14, 1789 by revolutionaries and no longer stands. The revolutionary fervor wasn’t a direct result of the trial, but the trial certainly contributed to the growing (and ultimately fatal) disrespect for the monarchy. It’s an important place to visit in Paris, whether or not you care about the Affair of the Necklace.

6. Versailles. I mean the town of Versailles. It was here in the Place Dauphine that Nicole was lodged around the time of the Grove of Venus scene. She was put up here by the La Mottes, and it very well might have been their own residence. In any case, it’s a short walk from the gates of the palace, which means it was easy for the La Mottes and Nicole to walk to the gardens, where Nicole pretended to be the Queen in order to fool Cardinal Rohan.

7. The Chateau de Versailles. This is where quite a bit of trickery happened. Jeanne de La Motte orchestrated a few clever illusions–for instance, the Queen sometimes nodded to people at random. She convinced Cardinal Rohan to wait for that nod as a signal of the Queen’s favor–because the Queen couldn’t come out in public and actually say she favored the Cardinal. The Queen nodded to the crowd, and Rohan believed she was giving him a sign of her favor. Also, out in the gardens, just to the left out the back of the palace and near the orangery, there is the Queen’s Grove, which got the nickname ‘Grove of Venus. ‘ It was here that Nicole d’Oliva played the part of the Queen, handing a flower to Cardinal Rohan and saying to him, “You know what this means.”

8. Palais Royale. This is still a public place, very much in the spirit of the place in the 18th century. It mingled a sordid underworld of prostitutes and crooks with the grandest people in Paris going to see Operas or the art collection. It was owned by the Orleans family, who had some delusions of grandeur. Here, in the summer of 1784, Nicole was approached by Nicolas de La Motte. This was Nicole haunt, and La Motte found her there, noticed she resembled the Queen somewhat, and decided she was the perfect person to fool Cardinal Rohan.

The Palais Royale today

That’s the list. A lot of these places can be glimpsed through Google Street View, but there’s nothing like seeing them in person. Maybe sometime within the next two months, I’ll be able to post my own pictures of these places.