The Marriage of Figaro by Beaumarchais

In spite of the videos above, this post is not about Mozart or his opera. It is in fact about The Marriage of Figaro, a play by Beaumarchais.

Among other things, such as spy, music teacher, and political activist, Pierre Beaumarchais (born Pierre-Augustin Caron) was a playwright.

Beaumarchais’s life itself is worthy of one of his own farces. He began as a watchmaker, had misadventures in Spain, helped raise funds and support for the American revolution, and then began writing plays (for more on his remarkable life, see here). His most famous plays were–and are–his Figaro plays, most notably The Marriage of Figaro (Le Mariage de Figaro in French). The Marriage of Figaro was a sequel to The Barber of Seville (or Le Barbier de Seville), which premiered in 1775 at the Comédie-Française and was a massive success.

The Marriage of Figaro is a farce centered around two couples: Count Almaviva and his wife Rosine (whom Figaro helped bring together in The Barber of Seville); and Figaro and his fiance Suzanne. When the play opens, Figaro and Suzanne are about to get married, but they have a problem: the Count wants to sleep with Suzanne (who spurns his advances). In a bedroom scene, everyone is blaming everyone for sleeping with someone else, but no one is really sleeping with anyone. Figaro ends up jumping out a window.

Countess Rosine, learning that her husband intended to cheat on her with the unwilling Suzanne, concocts (with Suzanne) a plan to humiliate him: Suzanne will pretend to give in to him, but at the rendezvous, it will be a young page boy names Cherbuin who shows up, not Suzanne. Cherubin will reveal himself, and the Count will be shamed.

That, at least is the plan. The Count suspects Cherubin of having an affair with the Countess, so he sends Cherubin away as a soldier. In his place, the Countess decided to take the place of her maid Suzanne at the rendezvous with the Count. Figaro is in on the plan, but later, through happenstance, comes to believe that Suzanne really is having an affair with the Count after all. He’s so upset that he gets together a bunch of friends, intent upon barging in on the Count and Suzanne “in the act”. As he waits, he goes into a famous–and politically provocative–tirade against the aristocracy.

Suzanne and the Countess enter in one another’s clothes. The Countess goes off with the Count, and Figaro–thinking Suzanne has just left with the Count–is so upset that he goes to talk to the woman he believes is the Countess, but who is really Suzanne. She scolds him for his lack of trust and he begs for forgiveness. Meanwhile, the Count continues his attempts to seduce the woman he believes is Suzanne. When he realizes it’s really his wife standing before him, he falls to his knees and he, too, begs forgiveness.

For anyone familiar with the Grove of Venus scene, this all sounds eerily familiar. Both feature midnight assignations between a man and a woman; both feature manipulation and mistaken identities; both feature women of the lower class dressing up like women of the aristocracy (in this case, a prostitute dressing up as the Queen instead of just a maid dressing up as a countess). The revolutionary undertones are evident in both: turning the house on its head and teaching the Count a lesson; turning the wold on its head and making the Queen the stuff of farce. (As a note, when several of the actors were arrested in 1785, it was for lèse majesté–criminal disrespect for the person of the monarch, in this case the Queen.)

The similarities become even more striking when you consider that the play was first put on–after years of being censored for its subversive content–in April 1784, and the Grove of Venus scene occurred that July.

Jeanne de La Motte-Valois, who called herself a Countess, orchestrated the little farce in the gardens of Versailles. She hired a prostitute, Nicole d’Oliva, to play the part of Queen Marie-Anoinette and meet with Cardinal Rohan, who was anxious to regain the Queen’s favor after decades of being out her good graces.

Was Jeanne inspired by the play? There is, of course, no direct proof, but the circumstantial evidence is strong. Jeanne certainly took Nicole d’Oliva to see the play while Nicole was still living in her household. There is also the case of the painting, La Reine en Gaulle, which caused a great sensation. In that painting, the Queen wore a simple white muslin dress and carried a rose. In the Grove of Venus, Nicole–playing the part of the Queen–wore a white muslin dress and handed a rose to the gullible Cardinal. In fact, if you are to believe Comte Beugnot, an old friend of Jeanne’s, there was even a candy box on Jeanne’s mantel that had a miniature version of that infamous painting.

(A side note, when I wrote a fictionalized version of the Affair of the Diamond Necklace, I imagined Nicole becoming almost physically ill when Jeanne takes her to see Figaro because the parallels are so clear.)

Some theorists assert that the Grove of Venus scene was actually put on by the Queen. Was the Queen involved? She was, after all, an amateur dramatist, fond of putting on plays in the little theater at her Petite Trianon. She had played the part of both the Countess and Suzanne. Perhaps the Grove of Venus scene was her idea of a great joke, or her way of humiliating the Cardinal, whom she had detested since she was a young dauphine. Or maybe it was all part of the Queen’s attempts to use the Cardinal to help her get hold of a diamond necklace and forcing him to pay for it (for a little more on that, see The Short Story). The circumstantial evidence is much thinner here; yet people at the time believed it.

On balance, it’s very difficult not to see the hand of Jeanne de La Motte in the Grove of Venus scene. It looks as though she was inspired by Figaro and by the painting–and by the possibility of tens of thousands of francs from the Cardinal.

Of course, it wasn’t just Jeanne de La Motte-Valois whom the play influenced. The play became famous even before it was officially allowed to be performed. For years, it was censored because of its themes. While it was censored, it was put on in private performances, even by the Queen herself. Nothing is better publicity than being banned, and when the ban was finally lifted, the play benefited from its own hype. It was massively popular the moment it opened. The timing made a difference as well: the release of the play coincided with rising food prices and revolutionary discontent. It’s anti-monarchical bent was in tune with the politics of the time. Whether the play was influenced by the coming Revolution or whether the play in some way contributed to the coming of the Revolution is an impossible enigma. But to this day, it is as a lightning rod for discontent that the play is usually remembered.

However, it is not the play that is best remembered at all: it’s Mozart’s opera, written just two years after the play was un-banned. Which brings us full-circle to the videos above. I promise, this post was not, I repeat, not an excuse to listen to Mozart. Or at least, not entirely.


The Bastille and the Diamond Necklace

Since Bastille Day was just a few days ago, I am taking the chance to write about the role of the infamous, famous, and perhaps misunderstood Bastille, in particular as it concerns the Affair of the Diamond Necklace.

The Bastille was famous in its day. In the public imagination, the Bastille was a dark hulk of a prison full of terror. Unlike other prisons, the inmates of the Bastille were largely important, or well-to-do, or liable to rouse the rabble. The fortress, built in the 14th century,

The Bastille

was deep, dark, mysterious, and secretive. Jeanne de La Motte referred to it as “that dread prison, the very name of which brings a shudder.” “There, countless victims of arbitrary power languished amidst groans, tears, and curses for the day that gave them birth,” according again to Jeanne (who had a tendency for melodrama when it came to her own suffering and who liked to play victim to the monarchy, justifiably or not).

Like the Tower of London, it was a place of legend, where people had a tendency to simply disappear. Like the Tower, its reputation probably wasn’t entirely earned: Less than a dozen people were executed inside the Tower, and a grand total of seven prisoners were being held in the Bastille when it fell.

But three years before the Bastille was stormed on July 14, 1789, it was the holding pen for Cardinal Rohan, Jeanne de La Motte, Count Cagliostro, and Nicole d’Olva.

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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 Palais de Justice and the Conciergerie

The Palais de Justice is aptly named. It is a former palace where, to this day, justice is meted out.

Sitting on the Île de la Cité, the center of old Paris, the Palais de Justice has its roots in the Roman period, when the governor’s palace was there on the island. Clovis (king of the Francs) also resided there in the old fortified Roman palace. The Carolingians (ie Charlemagne and his successors) moved out of Paris, but Paris again became the center of France when the Capetian kings set up shop on the Île de la Cité, enlarging the old Roman fort/palace. By the fourteenth century, the Palais de la Cité had become one of the grandest in Europe to reflect the growing power and

The Conciergerie in the 15th century

territorial reach of the French kings. It was here that Louis IX, a saint in his own right, put his most prized holy relics, in the chapel (the Sainte-Chapelle, one of the most fantastic chapels in Europe). In the fourteenth century, the monarchs moved out of the palace, leaving it for lits de justice (a meeting of Parlement, or law courts) and official receptions. From that point until the fall of the monarchy, it was the seat of justice and became the Palais de Justice. The care of the palace was left to the king’s concierge. “Conciergerie” refers to the prison attached to the official duties on aconcierge, which were extensive. Thus, the prison attached to the Palais de Justice became known as the Conciergerie. The Palais de Justice and Conciergerie became a law court and prison stuck together in what used to be a royal palace.

Today, not a lot of the oldest building survives. Approaching it from the Metro stop that is conveniently close, you first see the big black-and-gold gates closing off the Cour du Mai and the Palais de Justice. To the left is Saint-Chapelle, and to the right is the Conciergerie. Remember, these are all interconnected–church, law court, and prison.

The Cour du Mai was, perhaps, the most interesting part of the Saint-Chapelle/Palais de Justice/Conciergerie complex. It isn’t particularly exciting when you just look at it. It’s closed off from the street and there are police there to make sure the Palais de Justice is safe. It sits between the three buildings, which more or less form three sides of the courtyard. However, what interested me was what happened here two hundred twenty-five years ago.

It’s a startling vision: in the early morning, a young(ish) woman is dragged into the courtyard from the prison. She isn’t fully dressed because she didn’t know she was being brought to be punished for her crimes–specifically, crimes of thievery and lese-majeste. The executioners (who carry out all sentences, not just death sentences) tie her up even though she fights. She’s whipped. Though she would later add a bit of melodrama to it, the beating was probably done by the books, just as it should have been. Next, she began to really fight because she saw the hot poker in the small brazier. There was a tussle, but she was stripped bare when her clothes were slashed by the executioners. The hot brand, with a v for voleuse or thief, was brought forward. She twitched at the last moment, and though it was supposed to brand her shoulder, the V was burned into her breast. Then she bit into one of the executioners, fainted, and had to be carried away.

This was, of course, the feisty heroine of our tale, Jeanne de La Motte-Valois, who wouldn’t go down without a fight. Jeanne had been arrested in Bar-Sur-Aube after it came to light that she’d orchestrated the jewel heist of the century, convincing a Cardinal that he was buying a necklace on behalf of the Queen, Marie-Antoinette. As it turns out, the Cardinal was just acting as guarantor for a transaction between the royal jewelers and a thief (namely, Jeanne).

At first, Jeanne was kept in the Bastille, along with her accomplices. Later, they were moved to the Conciergerie prison for the convenience. For the trial, she and the others were brought over to the Palais de Justice, where they were sat upon stools–sellettes–and interrogated. Jeanne continued to claim that she was a friend of the Queen’s, that the Queen truly had authorized the sale of the diamond necklace, and that she (Jeanne) was the victim of the Queen’s plot to discredit the Cardinal. Despite her version of the story, she was convicted and sent back into the Conciergerie to await her sentence. In this place at this time, prisoners weren’t told anything, so Jeanne almost certainly had no idea when her sentence would be carried out or what it would be. Of course, her sentence was: to be flogged and branded then imprisoned for life. For the last bit, Jeanne was later transferred to the Salpêtrière, a women’s prison from which she escaped and fled to England.

Jeanne (and her friends, such as Nicole d’Oliva) was hardly the most famous prisoner to pass through the Conciergerie. In latter years, it was known as the waiting room of the Revolution. It held many, many victims of the Terror. Perhaps ironically, one of those prisoners was the Widow Capet–Marie Antoinette. During the September Massacres, victims in the Conciergerie were put to death in the Cour des Femmes/Women’s Courtyard (if I had realized that when I was standing in that courtyard, I would have been duly creeped out). Victims were eventually sentenced in batches. The condemned were taken away immediately in a tumbrel to be executed in the Place de Greve.

Today, when you visit the Conciergerie, you enter into the Salle de Gendarmes. Above this in bygone days was the Grand’Salle of the King’s Chambers. Today it is an impressive,open medieval hall. This and the adjoining, smaller Salle des Gardes were part of the service areas of the medieval palace. The Salle de Gendarmes was the hall where the many servants attendant on the king would dine. Above the Salle des Gardes (not to be confused with the larger Salle de Gendarmes) was the Grand’Chambre. In the Grand’Chambre, the king entertained lavishly in medieval times. During the Revolution, this was where the Revolutionary Court–the one that sentenced all those people to the guillotine–sat and passed judgment. Fire destroyed these upper chambers in the 19th century, and today they belong to the Palais de Justice.

Aside from seeing these remnants of the medieval palace, by going left at the end of the Salle de Gendarmes, you come to the area that has been reconstructed as the Revolutionary prison. Here there are lists of all those beheaded by the Revolution, including Marie-Antoinette, Louis XVI, Madame Elisabeth, Robespierre, Danton, and Desmoulins. There are also some “cells” to show how a prisoner might have been kept. The conditions were generally very poor. There is a cell set up to simulate the one where Marie-Antoinette was kept. There are mannequins. A black-clad Marie-Antoinette sits at her desk, while at her back her two guards are standing behind a screen and watching her (she was perpetually watched by guards). Just beyond this, you can go out into the women’s courtyard, where the lady prisoners could take some air. Presumably, Jeanne de La Motte came here on many occasions. It was here, as I mentioned, that so many were murdered during the September Massacre, after Jeanne had escaped to England. Today, it’s quite peaceful. There is a fountain in the corner where women could wash their clothes.

With that, the tour of the Conciergerie comes to an end.


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.