Monday, August 4, 2014
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.
“THE QUEEN”S NECKLACE” by Frances Mossiker (first published 1961)
It’s very odd for me to say on this blog that I once read a book which changed my attitude to life and history. It will seem even odder if I admit that the book in question was a bestseller written by a journalist and book reviewer (an accursed breed, as you will know by now) who had no particular reputation as an historian, and whose approach might raise eyebrows among academic historians.
Frances Mossiker (1906-85) was an American journalist and reviewer who took to writing novels in middle age, but whose most popular book was this work of non-fiction, published just over half a century ago. The Queen’s Necklace relates the story of a famous French scandal which took place just a few years before the French Revolution, and which was widely credited with having helped to damage the reputation of the French royal family and hastening the revolution along. Mossiker’stechnique is not to tell the story as a straightforward narrative. The Queen’s Necklace is an assemblage of primary documents, written by various participants and leading figures in the scandal, translated from the French by Mossiker and linked by Mossiker’s commentary.
In outline, I summarise thus the scandal which this bulky book records:
The necklace in question was an elaborate piece, worth the equivalent of 1,600,000 francs. It had been designed by a firm of Parisian jewellers for Louis XV’s mistress, Madame du Barry, but Louis XV died before it was purchased. The jewellers were anxious to sell it to the new queen Marie Antoinette, but she repeatedly declined to buy it, remarking on one occasion that a warship could be bought for the price.
Cardinal Louis de Rohan, Grand Almoner and the chief prince of the Catholic Church in France, had fallen out of favour with the Queen after incidents arising from his ambassadorial service in Austria, the Queen’s native country. The cardinal was at once a very worldly and a very credulous man. He frequented the “Egyptian” Masonic club of the great charlatan Cagliostro. He was anxious to regain high government office and to heal his breach with the queen. But she had not spoken to him for more than ten years.
Madame Jeanne de la Motte was a member of the impoverished lower nobility, whose claims to be a descendant of the Valois line were recognised officially and who thus drew a (very modest) royal pension. She styled herself “Countess de la Motte-Valois”, though the title was of her own devising and of dubious legality. Apparently she was very attractive. Madame de la Motte managed to persuade the gullible cardinal that she was an intimate of the Queen and that she could restore him to her favour. She did this partly through letters forged in the Queen’s hand by one of her [Madame de la Motte’s] lovers, Retaux de Villette. Her biggest coup came in 1784 when she arranged a meeting between the cardinal and the “Queen” (at dead of night) in the Grove of Venus garden at Versailles. With the minimum of talk the “Queen” gave the cardinal a rose, the cardinal threw himself at her feet and reconciliation seemed complete. In fact this was a charade (though to his dying day the cardinal believed he had met the Queen that night). The “Queen” was played by an artless prostitute Mlle. Leguay (“Baroness”) D’Oliva, whom Madame de la Motte had roped in for the purpose.
With further forgeries, Madame de la Motte gave the cardinal the “Queen’s” authorization to purchase the necklace for her, on time payment, in return for public reconciliation at court, and on the promise of ultimate repayment. The cardinal (and the jewellers) complied. The cardinal paid the first hefty instalment; the necklace was handed over to the Queen’s “messenger” – one of Madame de la Motte’s confederates – thence it was spirited away to London by Madame de la Motte’s fat-headed husband “Count” de la Motte, who had it broken up into its many individual jewels which were sold for fabulous sums. For some months in 1785, the de la Mottes lived royally.
Unfortunately, the cardinal ceased paying instalments when his promised reception at court was not forthcoming. The jewellers (equally convinced that they had the Queen’s patronage) went and complained to Marie Antoinette herself. And so the affair at last exploded into a public scandal. Both the cardinal and Madame de la Motte were arrested (as well as Cagliostro and others) and placed in the Bastille pending trial. Rumour ran riot throughout late 1785, especially as, under the surprisingly indulgent laws of the ancien regime, trial briefs of the various partisans were allowed to be printed and distributed before a case was heard. Madame de la Motte, playing on the prejudices of the nobility who felt they were excluded from power under an absolute monarchy, claimed in her brief that she was the victim of an elaborate scheme by the Queen to ruin the cardinal, and that the Queen was privy to the whole affair. This claim was widely believed by critics of the monarchy. The cardinal (who genuinely thought that he was protecting the Queen’s good name) claimed he was the innocent victim of a hoax, and found plenty of witnesses (including Mlle d’Oliva, who had played the part of the “Queen”) to support his view. “Count” de la Motte avoided arrest by fleeing to England (there was a bungled attempt to kidnap him back).
To clear his name publicly, the cardinal chose to be tried by the aristocratic court the Parlement de Paris (rather than in private hearings before the king). This introduced a complicating factor. The aristocratic members of the Parlement were always seeking to wrest power from the royal court, and therefore were always willing to play up and dwell upon the juiciest testimony. At the same time, the royal family favoured neither defendant, for if Madame de la Motte was guilty of theft, forgery and fraud, then (in the Queen’s eyes), Cardinal de Rohan was guilty of lese-majeste. His behaviour towards the supposed “Queen” – didn’t it reinforce the public view of the real Queen as a frivolous and devious creature? Especially the “Grove of Venus” episode?
Judgement (and remember, it was made by a court essentially hostile to the royal family) was passed in 1786. The cardinal was acquitted with a stern warning about his credulity. He never regained royal favour and he died in 1803, an émigré from the French Revolution. Pope Pius VI, who was no fool, suspended Cardinal de Rohan from all his official functions as soon as the scandal broke, and the cardinal had long since ceased to be head of the church in France. Also acquitted were Mlle d’Oliva and Cagliostro (who died in an Inquisition jail in Rome in 1795, convicted of a Freemasonic conspiracy).
Madame de la Motte was convicted on all charges. She was publicly branded (shouting accusations against the Queen) and then jailed at the Salpetriere. She was not sentenced to execution. Perhaps the strangest part of the story is that she escaped (after serving only a fraction of her sentence), probably with the help of some influential person, and made her way to London. There she wrote her scurrilous and self-justifying memoirs, going to far as to claim a lesbian relationship with the Queen. Came the revolution and she began to bask in the reputation of being an innocent victim of royal tyranny, revelling in the humiliation of the royal family. She died in 1791 after one of those suspicious falls from a window that pop up every so often in criminal history. This might have been during a conspiracy hatched by the Orleanists (rival claimants to the French monarchy) to take her back to Paris to testify at the trial of the Queen.
I have summarised this whole story as I interpret it. Frances Mossiker’s book links, with commentary, the memoirs and testimonies of the participants – Madame de la Motte, the histrionic Cagliostro, Retaux de Villette, the lawyers for Mlle d’Oliva, Count Beugnot (a level-headed and duly sceptical acquaintance of the de la Mottes) and Abbe Georgel (a convinced partisan of the cardinal). Each gives a different slant and perspective and much remains unresolved.
Nevertheless, whatever the Queen’s real shortcomings, I believe she had nothing to do with this absurd affair. An adept con-woman and a forger managed to play upon the cardinal and the jewellers – simply because the cardinal and the jewellers were so desperate for the Queen’s favour. Don’t con-people know that the easiest marks are ‘worldly’ people (like the cardinal) who desperately want something? That is the guts of the affair.
The historical significance of all this lies not in the details of the case itself, but in the way people at large reacted to it. That so many readers and rumour-mongers were so willing to believe the worst of the royal court (that the cardinal was the Queen’s lover; that the Queen really was present at the “Grove of Venus” episode; that there had been a big royal cover-up) shows vividly the disrepute into which the court was falling – at least among opinion-makers. Equally significant is the fact that many of the most virulent critics of the court were themselves aristocrats, such as members of the Parlement de Paris, and the king’s former Finance Minister Calonne, who helped Madame de la Motte write her fictitious memoirs in London. Absolute monarchy was becoming petty factionalism.
This pattern of decadence is seen too in Cardinal Louis de Rohan – power-seeking, sensual and yet a dupe for all his obvious culture. That this aristocratic man-of-the-world could be so receptive to the Masonic theatricals of Cagliostro proves only how much the pre-revolutionary French Catholic hierarchy had been corrupted by the advancement of aristocrats into key positions, largely because of their social status. Cardinal de Rohan was, after all, the highest cleric in the church in France. It took the revolution to galvanise and, inadvertently, to re-invigorate the Catholic Church in France.
Conversely, there is the eagerness with which Madame de la Motte (with her “poor-little-me” memoirs) was accepted as a bona fide “daughter of the people” once the revolution began. By that time, all sorts of pornographic libels against Marie-Antoinette were pouring off the presses and were devoured eagerly by a large readership. De la Motte may have set the pace. The irony is that once the revolution had rolled away, this very ordinary queen was elevated by royalists into some sort of martyr. When you are countering extreme libels, it is hard not to go to the other extreme. There may still be some uninformed people who believe that Marie Antoinette ever said “Let them eat cake” in response to hungry rioters, but no serious historian believes this. (This particular fiction has been traced to a political satire, drawing on a folk-tale about a cruel queen, that was already in circulation fifty or more years before the revolution.) The portrait that emerges of her in Mossiker’s The Queen’s Necklace is of somebody slightly frivolous but often quite level-headed and steely in protecting her own interests - and certainly not interested in buying necklaces that were worth the price of a warship.
Napoleon is said to have dated the beginning of the revolution from “l’affaire du collier”. He may have had a point. If such a piffling fraud could damage so badly the prestige of the monarchy; and if the chief perpetrator of the fraud could get such a sympathetic hearing; then the monarchy was tottering on the edge of ruin.
Now how, you are asking, did this book change my attitude to life and history, as I said it did in the opening sentence of this review?
I first read The Queen’s Necklace in my early twenties, when I hadn’t yet given much thought to the matter of historical evidence. Up to that point, whenever I read history book, I hardly ever looked at the footnotes or queried the author’s use of sources. But The Queen’s Necklace, with its gathering of conflicting and often contradictory testimony, forced me to see how the same events could be reported and interpreted in completely different ways by different witnesses, even by eyewitnesses whose separate and conflicting accounts were equally plausible. This was an excellent lesson in how history is written, from separate sources. But it also caused the ground to shift a little beneath my feet and a kind of abyss to open up. After all, if there can be so many and such contradictory interpretations of events among the genuine primary sources, then how much can we trust even the best sources to bring us to the truth? I already knew that books written by historians – even the best of them and excluding the obvious third-hand rip-offs – were filled with opinion and interpretation. But now I realised that there are some questions in history for which we can formulate no definitive answers. The study of history no longer seemed – and still does not seem to me – the study of certain things.
Necessary Footnote: The “Queen’s Necklace Affair” has been the subject of innumerable books and articles and dramatisations in France in the last two centuries. It figures in the preliminary chapters to many books on the French Revolution. As with many notorious historical events, however, it is better known to many people through fictionalised accounts, all of which contain gross historical inaccuracies. The best known is probably Alexander Dumas’ novel Le collier de la reine (The Queen’s Necklace) published in 1848. Most of the events involving historical characters in Dumas’ novel are reasonably accurate, but his novel is one in a series of four (beginning with Joseph Balsamo), which interpret the whole French Revolution as the outcome of sinister Freemason conspiracy. In Le collier de la reine, Dumas has the whole necklace affair instigated by Cagliostro, which is certainly untrue. It was partly Dumas’ approach (conspiracy theories about how major events in history are caused), which Umberto Eco was ridiculing in his messy novel The Prague Cemetery [look it up on the index at right].
One final point. The necklace scandal was the subject of an appallingly bad American film The Affair of the Necklace, released in 2001. That is not just my opinion. It was a box office bomb and if you look up the inestimable “Rotten Tomatoes” site, which tracks the consensus of film reviews, you will find that it was universally panned. Quite apart from its artistic failure, the film’s way with history is erratic at least, and its portrayal of the con-woman de la Motte seems to have been drawn from her own unreliable memoirs, presenting her as an innocent victim getting retribution for wrongs done to her.