Vigée Le Brun at the Met

Every once in a while, there’s something to post regarding the 18th century in France. This happens to be one of those times. After all, the original intent of this blog was to write about the Affair of the Diamond Necklace and ancien-regime France.

Just yesterday, I came across an exhibit on right now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC that is so directly related to the Diamond Necklace Affair that it hurts:

The Met is putting on an exhibit of a very large number of Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun’s portraits. She was one of the most prominent portraitists of her age (and her art is absolutely beautiful; her style is just my taste). This is even more remarkable, of course, given that she was a woman. She happened to be one of Queen Marie-Antoinette’s favorite painters. In 1783, she painted the queen in a filmy white muslin dress, a style that was sometimes referred to as “en gaulle” or a “chemise” dress, since it so resembled the chemise, an under-dress. And therein lay the problem: it looked like the queen had been painted in her underclothes! When people saw it hanging in the salon, they were shocked. The resultant scandal did the queen’s already-spotty reputation no favors. Vigée Le Brun quickly painted a replacement with the queen in the same pose and still holding a rose, but this time clad in a dress of blue silk and with an elaborate coiffure.

All of this, of course, was part of the milieu in which Jeanne de La Motte-Valois plotted her jewel theft. Specifically, though, the portrait seems to have been the inspiration for a little bit of play-acting in the gardens of Versailles: Jeanne hired a young prostitute (Nicole Leguay D’Oliva) to play the part of the queen. She dressed Nicole in a white muslin dress and gave her a rose to hold. Sound familiar? It’s exactly the image from the scandalous portrait. This performance was meant to trick a Cardinal into believing he was back in the queen’s favor, which was part of Jeanne’s plan to get said Cardinal to act as guarantor for a very expensive diamond necklace. The necklace went missing, and a massive scandal ensued, one that Marie-Antoinette never recovered from.

You can click OVER HERE for a blog post all about the painting.

Now, the exhibit is only at the Met until May 15, so there isn’t much time to go see it. I know I’m going to do my best to get up there while I can!


Writerly Wednesdays–Names

Sometimes names–like characters–drop out of the sky into our waiting laps. Sometimes, it’s a little more difficult than that.

But what’s in a name, anyway? A young wizard by any other name would enchant just as heroically. Or would he?

Some writers tend to give their characters’ names special meaning. Oh, this name means “strong and subtle” in an obscure, dead language. It’s perfect. Who cares that it’s bizarre and un-pronounceable? It has meaning. It says so much about my character. Look, they aren’t even a two-dimensional cut-out anymore! The name gives him/her at least two extra dimensions! Look at me, I bent time-space!

This kind of mindset, obviously, is more common amongst newcomers to the game of writing. I don’t want to sound too smug, but I decided a long time ago that finding a good name–a fitting name–was much more important than finding a name with meaning. The name just has to work with what we know of the character. It doesn’t have to have deep symbolic underpinnings.

So, instead of sharing what some of my characters’ names mean, I’ll just share the stories of where they came from.

My previous project, about the Affair of the Diamond Necklace, was thin on names that I myself got to choose. It was about real people, real people who had lovely French names–Toussaint de Beausire, Jacques Claude Beugnot, Retaux de Villette, etc. Some of them even had a plethora of delightful titles: Cardinal Rohan could also be Monseigneur, Prince Louis de Rohan, or if you were feeling overconfident, just plain Louis. There were only a handful of characters who were not lifted directly from the history books: Marie, Violetta, Angelique, and Charles. And where did those names come from? The sky, basically. Angelique is about as close to a “meaningful” name as I have ever gotten. She’s a child with a happy disposition–a bit of innocence in the life of the main character, Nicole. The other names simply popped into my head and stuck.

My more recent project is a much more interesting case study in names. None of the characters are real people or based on real people (okay, there may be a loose connection between the female lead and the 19th-century actress Fanny Kemble). And Americans in the 19th century gave their children such colorful names. (I mean, Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard? Elihu Washburne? Hiram Ulysses Grant?) I could have fun naming my characters. Continue reading

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 Interrogation of Nicole d’Oliva Part 2

 Previously on the Affair of the Diamond Necklace . . .

My last post (here) was part 1 of my translation of Nicole d’Oliva’s testimony to the court during the Affair of the Diamond Necklace. The examiner told us how she told him that she had met Nicolas de La Motte one day while walking at the Palais-Royal. He took her to meet his wife, Jeanne de La Motte. The pair called themselves Comte and Comtesse, and

Portrait of Marie Antoinette, 1783 by Elisabeth Vigee-Le Brun. The gown and headdress were changed because the queen’s white muslin dress in the original portrait was considered inappropriate. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

made Nicole part of their circle. Jeanne claimed to be a friend of the Queen’s, and on a summer night, she took Nicole out to do a little favor for the Queen. Nicole was to hand a man a rose and a letter and said, “You know what this means.” She was playing the part of the Queen in the gardens of Versailles–in particular the Grove of Venus.

Here’s the short story.

Suffice it to say that Nicole’s bit of playacting fooled a credulous Cardinal into thinking Marie-Antoinette favored him. He later acted as guarantor for what he thought was a purchase of a necklace on the Queen’s behalf. Jeanne was the go-between. The necklace disappeared (presumably, Jeanne stole it), and eventually all parties were arrested. As a result, Nicole was interrogated.

As mentioned in part 1, this is my attempt at a translation of a transcription from a book in French. I do not know French, so it was difficult. Some of the phrasing might be stilted, and some phrases were downright impossible for me to decipher confidently. But, without further ado, here is PART TWO:

We asked whether, when this person came, she lifted her hat “avec son éventail” [with her fan] and he said to her that he hoped she would forget what had happened in the past [the interrogator is asking about the Grove of Venus scene, and the person in question is Cardinal Rohan] . She answered that she did not raise the white Thérèse [a kind of hat] she had on her head, that she had no fan that night, and that she did not say she forgot the past because she was not able to say anything of the sort.

A little background is helpful here; the Cardinal had mortally offended Marie-Antoinette when she was still Dauphine by insulting her mother. He’d been trying to win back the Queen’s favor ever since (unsuccessfully). This is “the past” that Rohan wished her to forget–keep in mind that he thought he was talking to the Queen herself. Nicole’s comment implies that she was confused by the Cardinal’s words and wasn’t sure how to answer him without breaking character as it were.

Continue reading

The Interrogation of Nicole d’Oliva part 1

In 1785, it was discovered that a diamond necklace was missing. The Royal Jewelers said they had handed it over to the Queenand that she owed them for it. The Queen said she

The Palais-Royal, where Nicole d’Oliva met Nicolas de La Motte.

had never made such a purchase, in fact had turned down this very necklace because it was too expensive, and had no idea where the jewelers’ necklace had gone. That summer, an adventuress made Jeanne de La Motee-Valois was arrested, followed shortly by various of her associates, including Nicole d’Oliva. Nicole had been friends with Jeanne, and in fact had taken part in a peculiar midnight meeting in the parks of Versailles. Nicole was in Brussels with her amour when she was arrested for having taken part (however unwittingly) in Jeanne’s schemes. She was clapped in the Bastille, where she gave birth to a son, and then was moved to the Conciergerie. Below is a translation of a transcript I happened across during a Google Book search. As I mention in this post, I really don’t know French, but I made a go at translating this because I wanted to know whether there was any new information to be mined. The answer is no, not really. It makes interesting reading, anyway.

This is part 1, perhaps the more interesting of the two parts (part 2 will come shortly), as it concerns the Grove of Venus scene. Parts quoted in French were impossible for me to decipher properly. Anything in brackets in my input. If you aren’t familiar with the Affair of the Diamond Necklace, I suggest starting with The Short Story; this might not make sense otherwise. I took some small liberties with wording. I apologize that it’s somewhat stilted; I attempted as literal a translation as possible. I was tripped up in a few places. Maybe there is someone out there with a better command of French who can help with those phrases.

From Thursday, January 19, 1786

Before us, Jean Baptiste Pierre Maximilien Titon, advisor to the King in Parlement, in the halls of the government of the castle of the Bastille, has been led by M. Losme, major adjoint,  Marie-Nicole Leguay d’Oliva or Designy.

We asked her name and nicknames, age, station [ie social position], and residence. She said she was named Marie Nicole Leguay d’Oliva or “Designy”, thirty-four [sic–she was 22-23] years old, bourgeois, from Paris, residing on the Rue Thiroux, Chaussée [Carriageway] d’Antin.

We asked if she did not know of a woman named Madame de La Motte-Valois. She said yes. Continue reading

Naming Names: The Trial of the Affair of the Diamond Necklace

I’ve been humming along on several random projects, a few of them related in some tangential way to the topic of this blog. I’m working on a historical novel set in the mid-1850’s in the South. I’ve struggled with it immensely, but I’m invested in the story and will see it trough to the end if it kills me. I’ve also been working on a much shorter-term project, one a little more related to the Affair of the Diamond Necklace: I love Gainsborough, so I am working on a recreation of “Mr. and Mrs. William Hallett” in colored graphite. It’s one of my favorite paintings of his. I will at some point regale you all with my artistic endeavors. But not today.

I recently found “Marie-Antoinette et le procès du collier d’après la procédure instreite devant le parlement de Paris” through Google Books. It’s (obviously) in French, published in 1863. I haven’t been able to decipher some parts of it (and some parts don’t interest me, to be honest), but it includes the transcripts of several of the interrogations that took place during the Affair of the Diamond Necklace trial. This is thrilling for me, because thus far I’ve only had bits and pieces of those interrogations. Unfortunately, it’s all in French, and my French is woefully lacking. Google Translate, my knowledge of Spanish (similar root words and syntax), and my mad skillz allowed me to get a decent translation of Nicole d’Oliva‘s interrogation. There was nothing surprising in it; most of it was discussed by Frances Mossiker in The Queen’s Necklace.

My translation still needs to be cleaned up to be presentable, but I thought I would bring up this amusing little piece, which I highlighted because it made me laugh out loud:

The respondent was asked whether she ever saw at Madame de La Motte’s home a certain Monsieur Ogeard or Augeard, or another individual sometimes called Marsilly, a sometimes-counselor [lawyer?]. She responded that she did not intend to name names here.

I can almost hear the derisive sniff in Nicole’s voice.

The humor is in the irony, not because Nicole d’Oliva ever named any names, but because others did so. When she was arrested, Jeanne de La Motte was selective in whom she named and didn’t name. It appears she didn’t want to give the names of the attractive young men she liked (for instance, her old friend Jacques-Claude Beugnot, later Comte Beugnot, who was never implicated in the Affair even though he clearly had some knowledge of it).

One of those who “sang like a canary” was Retaux de Villette, Jeanne’s “personal secretary” (a bit of a euphemism). In my own novel about the Affair, Nicole (who is the narrator) says the following:

In April, the news was brought to me that Retaux de Villette had been captured in Switzerland and had signed the Bastille registry. Almost as soon as he was given leave to open his mouth, he spilled out the contents of his black heart. If the Comtesse had hoped to count upon him, then she had misjudged her lover.

I will work along diligently at making my translation of Nicole’s interrogation readable, and will move on at some point to Retaux de Veillette’s testimony. That, I think, will be juicy.

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.

Continue reading