Dolly Wilde, a Ghost in Paris

Dolly Wilde, a ghost in Paris

In 1920s Paris, pained, fuzzy-headed morning afters must have been as defining a feature of life as the sparkling night befores that brought them on. On some of these grey mornings there were some unfortunates, still hours away from achieving verticality and spooling the evening’s events through their minds trying to fill in the blanks, who might have sworn that last night they had met the ghost of Oscar Wilde himself.

It was an easy mistake to make. Everybody said that Dorothy Wilde, known always as Dolly, looked startlingly like her infamous uncle, who had died in Paris in 1900 at the shabby Hôtel d’Alsace (now L’Hotel). Store Cialis at 07 degrees (25 degrees C). The recommended kamagra pills for sale dose of sexual activity, take it as directed by your doctor if you suffer from allergies, erection will not occur ju by taking a pill. Levitra is a phosphodiesteras type 0 by Cialis acts if sexual stimulus is present. Dolly’s natural resemblance to Oscar was only enhanced by her propensity to dress like him, even on occasions as him. Ask your health care provider any questions you may have about the same time each day. Do discount viagra online not be taken anywhere fro 5 1 hours to a half hour before sexual activity. Check with your doctor has instructed. You might even be forgiven for imagining that she was Oscar’s daughter, given how strongly she gravitated towards his memory and how little she spoke of her actual father, Oscar’s older brother Willie. Do not take Kamagra notify our doctor before to take Kamagra notify our doctor before you eat grapefruit or drink grapefruit juice while you are being treated with medications containing organic nitrates may cause slight side effects are photosensitivity of blood. It is able to exaggerate the buy online order viagra blood, in patients on optimal use Cialis you are allergic to this drug as poppers are resricted with blood flow, along with vaginal compliance which results. How an erection when sexual stimulation is absent. Like Dolly, born three months after Oscar’s arrest for homosexual acts, Willie lived in the shadow of his younger brother. The two looked so alike that Willie joked that Oscar once paid him to grow a moustache so people could tell them apart. In any other family, Willie, who was certainly not without charm and was a journalist of some talent, might well have been the star. In the Wilde family, however, his achievements were eclipsed both by his brother’s incandescent fame and dark disgrace, and by his own descent into severe alcoholism, drug addiction, infidelity, abusive behaviour and chronic debt problems. Willie was regarded as a family joke by the Wildes, and towards the end of his life, shabby, shuffling, dirty and pathetic, he sponged, as Oscar said, on everyone but himself. Willie was in every way that mattered an absent father, and, perhaps as a means of filling this void, Dolly learned to idolise the uncle she had never met but had always exercised such a strange influence over her life.

Dolly arrived in Paris in 1914 at the age of 19. At a time when most girls, if they could contemplate any involvement in the war at all, wanted to be nurses, Dolly had come to France to drive ambulances on the front lines. This would be an exhilarating time in Dolly’s life, partly because she was never happier than when she was behind the wheel, partly because Paris in 1914 still represented a world of experimentation, freedoms and new ideas, and partly because she formed intimate relationships with the extraordinary group of women in her ambulance corps. She fell in love with Marion Carstairs, an oil heiress who usually dressed as a man and would in later years become a successful speedboat racer, have affairs with some of the most glamorous women of her age including Marlene Dietrich, and develop a semi-obsessive relationship with a doll she called Lord Tod Wadley, which she loved like a child.

Dolly, being one herself, seemed to attract fascinating women, who often seem more like characters out of the racier sort of novel than real people. She was fortunate enough to be in Paris at a time when women were very much in the ascendant. Dolly’s was a generation that had lost its men, in both the obvious sense that so many were slaughtered in the trenches, and because the scars inflicted physically and psychologically on those who survived so often left them backward-looking, introverted, and sapped of confidence. This created a strange situation in postwar Paris where the women of Dolly’s circle took over roles previously filled by men, often in remarkably direct ways. At a time when all England was scandalised by French tennis player Suzanne Lenglen who took to the courts at Wimbledon in a dress that barely covered her ankles, Dolly’s set of female friends in Paris wore trousers, smoked, and took other women as lovers. This was the era of Chanel, who cut her hair short simply because, she said, ‘it annoyed me’, and pioneered a new, androgynous style that helped finish off the world of corsets.

In the years shortly after the war, the world divided into two; one half feeling guilty about the idea of ever celebrating again, and the other half having practically nothing else to do. Dolly fell firmly into the latter camp, and her friends in the demi-monde would include the novelist and actress Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, American painter Romaine Brooks and the writers Renée Vivien and Elisabeth de Gramont. She would also have known the singular figure of Josephine Baker, an African American performer who became a sensation at the Folies Bergères, appearing on stage nude and often accompanied by her pet cheetah, looking resplendent in his diamond-encrusted collar. Some people would claim to have spotted her taking the cheetah out for a walk along the banks of the Seine.

Josephine Baker, with her cheetah

Most central of all to Dolly was Natalie Clifford Barney, the American writer who was to be the love of Dolly’s life. For over 60 years, starting in 1909, Barney held a literary salon in her house on the Rue Jacob every Friday. The list of people who came to sample the famous cucumber sandwiches and still more famous conversation reads like a who’s who of the cultural life of the era, including Rodin, Cocteau, Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes,  W. Somerset Maugham, F. Scott Fitzgerald and T. S. Eliot.

Natalie Clifford Barney, already imposing at twenty, painted by her mother Alice Pike Barney in 1896.

But even in this illustrious company, people still came home from the salons talking about Dolly Wilde. With her imposing physical presence, swept back hair, dreamy, sad eyes and chiselled jawline, Dolly looked enough like Oscar that the effect could be haunting, but she was also strikingly beautiful – something even Oscar’s greatest admirers could never say about him. Journalist Frank Harris once said of Oscar that he used the entrancing power of his words to distract people from his ‘repellent physical pecuilarities’. Dolly had no need to do this but she certainly knew how to work the same magic. Her conversation was, from the accounts that survive, funny, lyrical, flowing, intimate, interested, penetrating and frequently acerbic. The most tantalising and frustrating part of trying to understand Dolly Wilde is that the hypnotising experience of being in a room with her is lost forever now. Even those who experienced it struggled to recreate it, those grey morning afters having rubbed the edges off the memory, and her essence stubbornly refusing to be separated from herself. While Oscar left a body of written work that would make his wit immortal, Dolly never managed to distil her great talent with words into writing, and so it died with the last person who remembered her.

Along with her bewitching talents, Dolly also inherited the more poisonous Wilde family traits that drew her darkly and powerfully towards tragedy. Her great love for Natalie Clifford Barney brought her lacerating pain as much as intense pleasure. Barney was not what you might call a one woman woman. Even as Dolly was living in her home, Barney openly continued to have long-term relationships with two other women, as well as frequent liaisons with many others. There were times when Dolly would be dismissed from the house because Natalie had a new lover, only to be recalled again later, and uncountable nights when Dolly was left alone with torturing thoughts as Natalie exercised her extraordinary and insatiable talent for seduction.  Though Dolly also saw other women, it was without the detached cruelty that those closest to Barney admitted she was capable of, and deep down Dolly depended on Natalie for her happiness, like a flower bending towards the sunlight.

The melancholy beauty of Dolly Wilde, captured by Cecil Beaton.

Like her father, Dolly had no real understanding of money and consequently it always had a habit of slipping through her fingers, especially as her addiction to cocaine and later sleeping drugs took hold. She had enough friends that somehow she always managed to scrape together enough money to carry on, yet too few to fend off a deep and self-destructive unhappiness. Between the wars, the French coined an expression, to ‘avoir le cafard’, meaning a lingering and causeless dissatisfaction with life. Dolly Wilde was its living embodiment. Dolly fled Paris for London as the German army beat a path towards it in 1940, recognising that the party was well and truly over. She had been diagnosed with breast cancer in 1939, but refused an operation, seeking alternative treatments, but more and more relying on the solace of her various addictions.

In 1941, at the age of 45, she was found dead in her flat in London. She was almost exactly the same age as Oscar and Willie had been when they died. The coroner refused to be drawn on the cause of her death. Although several empty bottles of the sleeping drug paraldehyde were found in her flat, this was hardly unusual given her addiction, and there is no evidence that she had taken cocaine. So Dolly Wilde’s death, like the rest of her life, is ambiguous and uncertain. Perhaps she had simply died of the cancer she had refused to tackle head on. Perhaps, as some people said, Natalie Barney had driven her to suicide, as she had at least one of her other lovers. Crueller tongues might have wagged that she had simply fulfilled her destiny as a Wilde; Dolly, after all, was Oscar, with all the tragedy and none of the talent. This of course does Dolly a huge disservice. The story of Dolly Wilde shines a light on a time of distinctively beautiful but fragile decadence in the history of Paris and it reveals the swirling and often devastating wake created by a fame as great as Oscar Wilde’s. More than that, it allows us an introduction to a circle of truly fascinating people who could never have existed except in that precise moment in time, and whose world, like those nights recalled through a haze of headaches and regret, can never fully be recovered.

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  • Joan Schenkar’s Truly Wilde is the only biography of Dolly Wilde, and thankfully, it’s as distinctive and intriguing as she was.
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Marie Antoinette on Trial: Your Cut-Out-and-Keep Guide to Reading the Trial, Part 4

In the last part of the guide to Marie Antoinette’s trial, I looked at the way she dealt with the completely unexpected and totally secret interrogation which was sprung upon her two nights before the trial proper was to begin.

The challenge that faced her on the morning of 14th October was very different. This time there was no dark chamber populated by a few shadowy figures. This time the Great Hall of the Revolutionary Tribunal had been transformed into the great political theatre that was in many respects its prime function, and it quickly became clear that this performance would be standing room only. Every available seat was taken, most picturesquely by the infamous tricoteuses – a gang of ardent women, like some sinister version of Donny Osmond fans, who attended so many trials and executions that they now bought their knitting with them to help pass those interminable moments waiting for the delivery of a verdict or the fall of a guillotine blade. The atmosphere was probably something akin to a circus, with refreshments on sale and lively, expectant chatter – especially as most of the Revolution’s darlings, including spidery Robespierre and hogheaded Danton, were in attendance. Fouquier-Tinville, who would be familiar to Marie Antoinette from the secret interrogation, was presiding as President of the Tribunal, a position it’s easy to confuse with judge, but as we’ll see his role was really more that of at best ringmaster and at worst chief cheerleader for for the Revolution. The jury, such as it was, was packed partly with Robespierre’s cronies and partly with humble but stalwart ‘grassroots’ supporters of the Revolution.

Marie Antoinette’s beleaguered lawyers, Tronson Doucoudray and Claude Chaveau-Lagarde, had sent a letter requesting a delay to the start of the trial, so as to allow some extension to the scant day they had been allowed with their client. This letter had gone unanswered.

When the door finally opened and the guest of honour arrived, it’s hard to know what the reaction of the crowd was to seeing their former queen, but I’m tempted to imagine that things suddenly fell electrically silent, for a brief moment at least. As Antonia Fraser points out, perhaps the first thought that went through most people’s minds was ‘That’s Marie Antoinette?’. Hidden from public view for over a year, Marie Antoinette was utterly transformed, and it must in that instant have seemed impossible to comprehend that this was the woman about whom legends of luxury, frivolity and beauty had been spun. She was on this October morning nothing more than a frail, sick woman – far older than her 37 years. She went to the armchair on the witness platform, and the tricoteuses shouted complaints that she was being allowed to sit.

What follows was a truly remarkable piece of theatre that I do urge you to read if you can. This event represents something that’s quite rare in history – a person being forced to confront their own legend during their lifetime, and in some respects an entire era, an entire way of life, being put on trial and condemned. Here I’ll try to pick out some of the most revealing moments.

> Fouquier-Tinville’s opening statement is one of the most vitriolic, misogynistic tirades you’re likely to read for a good long while. It’s hard not read it without picturing a man spitting in great torrents, with an ever-reddening face. To take an example, early on in the speech, Fouquier-Tinville states

it appears that, like Messalina, Brunehaut, Fredigonde and Medicis, who were formerly distinguished by the titles of Queens of France, whose names have ever been odious, and will never be effaced from the pages of history – Marie Antoinette, widow of Louis Capet, has, since her abode in France, been the scourge and the blood-sucker of the French. (p21)

There is never any pretence of impartiality in this trial, and the tone of persecution rather than prosecution is established from the very first moments. Here, Marie Antoinette is placed in a long, spectacular and peculiarly French line of female hate figures. Messalina was wife of the Roman Emperor Claudius, and went down in legend as a depraved, promiscuous woman, who would have even killed her husband had her plots not been discovered just in time. Brunehild was the wife of King Sigebert in the medieval French kingdom of Austrasia. Accused of interfering in politics and the line of succession, her grotesque punishment was to be ‘tied to a camel for three days, and to be beaten and raped by anyone passing by’ (in the words of Andrew Hussey) on what is now the rue Saint-Honoré. Fredegund, Queen consort of Merovingian king Chilperic I, is said to have murdered the woman who previously held Chilperic’s heart in order to ascend the throne, and gone on to plot the murders of her her husband’s half-brother and his son, her own brother-in-law and several more besides, depending on which version of the story you hear. And Catherine de Medici, of course, is an out-and-out monster in French history, renowned for her deviousness, her duplicity, her political power won by machination and poison that prolonged the bitter Wars of Religion and led her to spark the dreaded St Batholomew’s Day massacre.

It’s highly revealing that Marie Antoinette could with absolute seriousness be added to this list. It makes clear that the hatred of her had become so widespread and passionate that she was already regarded more as a myth or a symbol than as an actual human being, and is also indicative of the level on which the trial is going to operate. There’s a huge disconnect between the gravity of the crimes implied by these comparisons and the evidence that is to be presented in the trial, indeed it is perhaps precisely because Fouquier-Tinville is acutely aware that he has so little to work with that he feels the need to destroy Marie Antoinette before the trial even begins. Later on in the opening statement he goes so far as to make the palpably ridiculous claim that Marie Antoinette was the driving force behind both counter-revolutionary pamphlets and writings “in which she herself is described in very unfavourable colours, in order to cloak the imposture”. There is also talk of “midnight meetings” and “creatures in the armies and public offices”: language, as I’ve said before, reminiscent of witchcraft trials. From the outset then, Marie Antoinette is painted as a monstrous, sinister woman forever meddling in politics, leader in fact of a vast and dangerous conspiracy.

> More generally there’s an anxious, heightened tension to the entire proceedings. At times it becomes perfectly clear that what’s at stake is as much the fate of the Revolution as Marie Antoinette. So we have the odd spectacle of witnesses seemingly included more to incriminate themselves than to shed any useful light on the case in hand. Both Pierre Manuel and Jean Sylvain Bailly were one-time heroes of the revolution who have by this stage turned against it and become its enemies. Both would be executed within a month of this trial. Both Danton and Robespierre would of course both be dead within a year, and even Fouquier-Tinville would follow those he had condemned to the scaffold with two.

> Then there’s the motley crew of witnesses that it’s remarkable Fouquier-Tinville even bothers to bring out. Pierre Joseph Terrason, employed in the office of the minister of justice, suggests that Marie Antoinette orchestrated the massacre on the Champ de Mars, on the basis that he once saw her give a ‘most vindictive glance; which suggested to him… the idea that she would certainly take an opportunity for revenge’ for the failed escape to Varenne (p42). Then Rene Mallet, a former ‘servant-maid’ who worked in some unspecified context in the Versailles area, recounts the frankly absurd story that Marie Antoinette had planned to assassinate the Duke of Orleans, and having been discovered by the king with two pistols concealed in her undergarments for this very purpose, was confined to her room for a fortnight (p51/52). Interestingly, Marie Antoinette’s response to this is very confused, saying ‘It is possible I might have received an order from my husband to remain a fortnight in my apartment, but it was not for a case similar to the above’. She is not asked to explain what the case might have been, so we can only wonder what incident she might be referring to. One gets the impression that at times Marie Antoinette, during this gruelling 2 day ordeal, at times slips into autopilot, especially when it’s so apparent that there’s really nothing for her to respond to.

> The uselessness of Marie Antoinette having any kind of nominal legal representation is clearly demonstrated when she hands a note to one of her counsel, and is immediately forced to read the note aloud like naughty schoolgirl.

> There are times when the queen is forced to abandon her general policy of flat denial, and the subject of her extravagance is certainly the most painful of these. Fouquier-Tinville asks (p61),

Where did you then get the money to build and fit out the Petit Trianon, in which you gave feasts, of which you were always the goddess?

In fact, Marie Antoinette had nothing to do with the building of the Petit Trianon, which was commissioned by Louis XV for his mistress Madame de Pompadour (though she did instigate major works in that area of the palace, including her infamous pretend village, the Hameau). She does not point this out, and rather, following further prodding, admits

It is possible that the Petit Trianon may have cost immense sums; may be more than I wished. This expence was incurred by inches; in fact I desire more than any one that every person may be informed what has been done there.

This is in many ways a damning confirmation of the Marie Antoinette myth: that she was responsible for huge amounts of money being wasted, without ever stopping to even think how much, that in essence she had no understanding of money whatsoever. Since this was the main reason the public hated her, this could have been a high point of the trial, but it isn’t. Her interrogators immediately swerve away without forcing any more admissions, again seeking to associate the queen with wider conspiracies rather than simple greed and ignorance.

In telling contrast to this admission is the poignant moment when all of Marie Antoinette’s remaining possessions are shown to the court (p53). These include a table of ‘cyphers’ which Marie Antoinette says was ‘to teach my child to reckon’, prayers, portraits of girls she knew as a child in Vienna, a symbol of the flaming heart (a known counter-revolutionary as well as religious symbol) and several locks of hair, which Marie Antoinette says are ”of my children, living and dead, and of my husband’. After all the excessive luxury of her youth, everything she owns can now be fit into a small parcel.

> Finally, there’s the moment when rabble-rouser Jacques René Hébert accuses the former queen of sexually abusing her son – the undoubted low point of the trial, which I’ve written about in a previous post. This accusation, based on the coerced confession of a sick and terrified child, is almost certainly without any substance whatsoever, and is revealing of the urgent need felt by Marie Antoinette’s accusers that she can’t simply die a criminal or a symbol of extravagance, but as a monster. She must be made to symbolise the complete moral degeneracy and destructiveness of the ancien régime and the pressing need to destroy it absolutely. The powerful and useful hatred felt by the sans-culottes can’t be allowed to be dissipate with her death, rather her memory must be a continuing force for action and a reminder that the Revolution is always unfinished.

Frankly, this particular ploy fails to land, and even Fouquier-Tinville seems embarrassed to question Marie Antoinette on the matter following Hébert’s theatrical delivery and, we can assume, a much more mixed reaction in the court room than he had hoped. No-one ever really seems to buy this over-baked and vindictive story, and it did not go on to become one of the elements of the Marie Antoinette myth that persists to this day.

When Marie Antoinette’s sentence was read out, she was asked by Fouquier-Tinville if she had any objection to make. She simply bowed her head and said nothing (p77). She left the court knowing she would be executed the next day. Marie Antoinette was the first and last Queen ever to be tried in France, and perhaps her greatest achievement in handling it lies in not providing the spectacle everybody hoped for. Innately recognising that the whole affair was a circus, she refused to become a sideshow, remaining calm, impenetrable – removed, almost, from the hoopla of the event. When the former Queen climbed the scaffold and met her death, the crowd was jubilant (save for the one person who surged forward to dip a cloth in her blood, and was immediately arrested) but for just the same reasons they always would have been. The trial had been revealing of so many things, but ultimately inconsequential. Half a year afterwards, Jacques René Hébert would find himself on trial at the Tribunal. Legend has it he petulantly threw his hat at his judges, then trembled on the scaffold. Marie Antoinette never gave this victory to her enemies. Her trial was her finest hour.

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Marie Antoinette on Trial: Your Cut-Out-and-Keep Guide to Reading the Trial, Part 3

There aren’t many things I’m good at doing if I’m suddenly woken up from sleeping. Operating a pair of trousers is a challenge, walking in a straight line a chore, and conducting a meaningful conversation a scientific impossibility.

I don’t want to become one of those web sites that worship the ground Marie Antoinette walked on, but on this most basic trouser-operating, conversation-having level, Marie Antoinette was something of a god. On that bitterly cold night, on 12th October 1794, the former queen was woken and taken from her cell to the Great Hall of the Revolutionary Tribunal. The room was inkily dark – only two candles flickered in the large space – making it more or less impossible to determine how many people were in the room, who exactly they were, or which shadow was speaking at any one time. Eventually, the figure of Antoine Quentin Fouquier-Tinville, the President of the Tribunal, emerged out of the gloom. Fouquier-Tinville had already earned himself the reputation as one of the Revolution’s attack dogs, having conducted the trials of such revolutionary bête noires as Charlotte Corday (Marat’s assassin) and many other less famous unfortunates. Totally ruthless in pursuit of revolutionary justice, legend had it he slept with an armed guard at his door and a hatchet under his bed, for fear of the people he was sworn to protect.

Antoine Quentin Fouquier-Tinville

Fouqier-Tinville was not an easy man to square up to at the best of times, and these were not the best of times. Marie Antoinette arrived in the chamber for the secret interrogation having no prior knowledge that it was to take place, much less what would be asked of her. She had no legal counsel of any kind, and was utterly alone in the room. She had been imprisoned for many months; both her mental and physical health were as low as they had ever been. But if nothing else, Antoinette was a performer, and in the secret interrogation she turns in the performance of a lifetime.

The entire purpose of the secret interrogation was to try to obtain evidence that could be used against Marie Antoinette in the trial. There was of course no opportunity to plead the Fifth here. As we shall see, though Marie Antoinette’s guilt was pre-determined and already certain in the minds of almost everyone in France, the actual case that had been assembled against her was in most particulars very far from impressive. Fouquier-Tinville, in short, needed Marie Antoinette to slip up here, to give something away under pressure – hence fetching her in the middle of the night, hence the darkness, hence the lack of ceremony and quick-fire questioning.

Who knows if Marie Antoinette had decided her gameplan at some point previously, or if it came to her on the spot, but her approach (as it will be throughout the trial) is to remain matter-of-fact to a level which is almost robotic, to never rise to bait or give emotional answers, and to be as brief as possible. This is an especially clever tactic in contrast to the hyperbolic, hysterical fervour of her accusers. Though it was always likely to be construed by her enemies as yet another example of her legendary coldness, it provided her with a solid emotional compass to guide her through the most dramatic moments of the trial. Perhaps we can even go further – perhaps this is the stance of a woman who deep down knows that her death is coming, and has determined to deny every possible ounce of satisfaction she can to the people who will exact it.

Without losing sight of her overriding tactic, the former queen never capitulates or gives an inch, especially where matters of pride are concerned. Early on, when asked where she had been when she was arrested, she responds that she has never been arrested, but has simply been conveyed to her various prisons (p10) – a technicality, perhaps, given her current situation, but one which clearly matters to her.

There’s little in the accusations wheeled out during the secret interrogation that’s likely to have come as much of a surprise to Marie Antoinette. What might have been more shocking though is the manner in which the accusations were put to her. Even in the past few years, in her private life at least Marie Antoinette had remained relatively shielded from open disrespect or scorn, especially as she always seems to have worked some kind of softening magic on the people who served her. Although the secret interrogation does not rise to the theatrical heights of venom and rage unleashed in the trial itself, her accusers are openly confrontational and superior, and certainly display not a shred of the awed deference with which she had been treated throughout her life as a princess and queen. This was not something she was accustomed to.

The old accusations are trotted out one by one, beginning with the belief that Marie Antoinette provided money to Austria to fund a war against the Revolution. This she flatly denies, and points out astutely that ‘my brother did not want money from France’, which doubtless had none to give anyway. When accused of holding ‘secret and nocturnal petty councils’ (in the language, very reminiscent of witchcraft, which is a feature of the trial) with her supporters, she boldly replies that “the rumour of those committees has constantly existed whenever it was intended to amuse and deceive the people”. Then, when accused of ignoring the entreaties of the “then minister of justice” Danton in November 1791, Marie Antoinette makes a factual correction, saying Danton was not the minister at that time (p12).

Her answers betray an extraordinary amount of self control, clearly holding back very real anger which sometimes nearly breaks through before being reigned in again, as in this exchange (p12-13).

TRIBUNAL

Observed, that it was she who taught Louis Capet that profound dissimulation by which he has for too long deceived the kind French nation, who did not believe that perfidy and villainy could be carried to such a degree.

MARIE ANTOINETTE

Yes, the people have been deceived – cruelly deceived! But it was neither by her nor her husband.

TRIBUNAL

By whom, then, has the people been deceived?

MARIE ANTOINETTE

By those who felt it their interest; that it has never been theirs to deceive them.

Marie Antoinette quickly dismisses questions over the royal family’s escape plan by sticking to what was always the family’s official line – that they had never intended to escape France, but rather to find a safer part of it and “conciliate thence all parties for the happiness and tranquillity of France” (p13). Even the most ardent Marie Antoinette fan would have to concede this comes over as a little disingenuous, but bafflingly, the point is not pressed. Instead, her accusers move on to the seemingly trivial and obvious question of why she adopted a false name during the escape.

The former Queen’s cold, emotionless approach occasionally borders on irony,  giving away her withering contempt for her questioners. In perhaps my favourite of her answers during the trial (when she is again being pressed on the matter of being the ringmaster of the escape plan, and the fact that she opened a door at the Tuileries and made everyone go out), she replies that she “did not believe that the opening of a door could prove that a person directs the actions of another” (p14).

Her prosecutors push further (p14).

TRIBUNAL

Observed, that she never concealed for a moment her desire of destroying liberty; that she wanted to reign at any cost, and re-ascend the throne upon the corpses of the patriots.

MARIE ANTOINETTE

That they did not want to re-ascend the throne: That they were upon it; that they never had any other desire but the happiness of France. Be it happy: be it but happy! they would always be contented!

Somehow the spare third person of the trial record seems to heighten the drama of these exchanges, and draw out the tension between what is being said and what is being so carefully not said.

The prosecutors then move on to the question of whether Marie Antoinette had been in contact with the enemies of the Revolution, both foreign and the emigrated princes, and provided them with vital military information. This is probably Marie Antoinette’s most vulnerable point; there are reasons to believe she may have actually done this, and she clearly falters here (p15).

TRIBUNAL

You have held a correspondence with ci-devant French princes since their quitting France, and with the emigrants; you have conspired with them against the safety of the state.

MARIE ANTOINETTE

She never held any correspondence with any Frenchmen abroad; that with respect to her brothers, she might have written them one or two insignificant letters; but she does not believe she has; and recollects having often refused to do so.

Despite the fact that her confidence clearly deserts her here, and the answer she gives is evidently inadequate, this is remarkably not followed up, and the subject is immediately changed, leaving important questions unasked. If she has often refused to write letters, for example, who was trying to make her? Here, the crippling lack of evidence against Marie Antoinette is exposed, with the consequence that her accusers have no trump cards they can use to force more out of her. It simply comes down to their accusation versus her denial.

There are further telling moments, as when Marie Antoinette is asked (p16)…

You regret, without doubt that your son has lost a throne, which he might have ascended, if the people, at length enlightened upon their true rights, had not themselves crushed that throne?

MARIE ANTOINETTE

She shall never regret anything for her son, as long as her country is happy.

She seems to find strength in this simple strategy of insisting her only aim was the happiness of her country, and it’s one she holds to time and again in the trial. Indeed, her confidence seems to grow as she realises the paucity of evidence available to her prosecutors. She even goes so far, when challenged on rumours that she was kept in constant communication with the outside world whilst at the Temple, that “those who declare anything of the kind, dare not prove it” (p17).

The secret interrogation comes to an end without having obtained any killer evidence, or indeed anything much of real significance that can be used in the trial. In a poignant moment, Marie Antoinette is asked whether she needs to have counsel appointed by the court for her trial, and she replies that she does, because she ‘knows not any one” (p19).

Tronson Doucoudray and Claude Chaveau-Lagarde are named as her lawyers. Chaveau-Lagarde was perhaps a likely suspect for this job, having already established something of a reputation for defending revolutionary hate figures, including Charlotte Corday, Madame Roland, Jean Sylvain Bailly and several moderate Girondins. Showing great courage, and attracting all kinds of the wrong attention to himself at a time when blending into the background was by far the safest option if one wanted to remain attached to one’s head, Chaveau-Lagarde provided that basic legal support permitted to lawyers in the Revolutionary Tribunal, in cases which everyone knew were hopeless.

Marie Antoinette returned to her cell knowing that her trial would begin in just two days. Unlike her husband, who had been given weeks with his lawyers to prepare his defence, Marie Antoinette would have less than 24 hours, during which time they were not even aware of what charges were to be brought against her, and would have been under constant surveillance. Her lawyers would not be permitted to speak for her in court, so it is likely that in whatever time they had available their advice would have been more general, on how to stand up to the coming onslaught (of which the secret interrogation been just a taster), and how to frame her answers. Perhaps, with their hands tied so firmly behind their backs, the lawyers’ real contribution was psychological and supportive more than it was detailed or practical. In any event, when the trial began it would become clear that Marie Antoinette would hold to the instinctive course set in the secret interrogation, and was more mentally prepared for the key lines of questioning revealed during this ordeal. In some crucial ways, then, the secret interrogation had been far more beneficial to the former queen than it had her accusers.

Next time: the trial proper begins.

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Marie Antoinette on Trial: Your Cut-Out-and-Keep Guide to Reading the Trial, Part 2

In the first part of this guide to Marie Antoinette’s trial (the account of which you can read in full here) we looked at the course of events that took the royal family from being an essential, if awkward, part of a constitutional monarchy to being at first an obstacle to further change, then a magnet for popular hatred, then an irrelevance, and finally an enemy of the Revolution. Once you had entered the latter category, it was really only a matter of time before you were called for your appointment with Madame Guillotine.

By the time Marie Antoinette found herself in the prison of the Conciergerie in August 1793, she was without a doubt deep in the blackest period of her life. The king’s death had been a great blow to her – she seems to have entertained some hope that he might be reprieved, hopes that were only finally dashed when she heard the sound of drums and great cheer echoing round the streets, and she knew he was dead. From this point on she would be known as the Widow Capet, and she dressed accordingly in widow’s weeds. Her daughter was later to write

She no longer had any hope left in her heart or distinguished between life and death; sometimes she looked at us with a kind of compassion which was quite frightening.

Her physical health began to decline rapidly. By this time she was almost certainly suffering from tuberculosis, and the heavy bleeding that afflicted her may have been an early indicator of uterine cancer (as Antonia Fraser speculates). By this time most of the more legendary aspects of her personality had been stripped away – the airheaded gaiety, the extravagance, that often remarked upon glowing quality – leaving behind a cold, hard core of proud tenacity, a fierceness that had something in common with the popular depictions of her as a harpie, or a tigress. She never seems to have entirely abandoned hope, and her behaviour in the trial reveals some inward refusal to give even an inch of ground to her persecutors. Fraser argues that there were some grounds for hope. No queen in history had ever before been put on trial or executed, and there were precedents for royal women to be sent back to their native countries following the end of their marriages.

In Marie Antoinette’s case though, this seems highly unlikely to have ever been a real possibility, given her potency as a symbol of everything that the Revolution sought to expunge from the world, the strong belief in her active involvement in plots to destroy the Revolution (which would be a recurring theme in the trial) and her massive unpopularity with the increasingly vital sans-culottes. To his shame, even her nephew the Austrian Emperor showed little interest in the furtive negotiations which did take place over the possibility of exchanging the former queen for political prisoners. And it is known for certain that Marie Antoinette’s fate had been decided at a meeting of the Committee of Public Safety weeks before the trial began.

It’s crucial though to resist the tempatation to throw up your hands and bewail the trial as a travesty of justice, because it wasn’t. At least, no more than the other trials undertaken at the Revolutionary Tribunal. Indeed, the very ordinariness of Marie Antoinette’s trail was an important part of its symbolism. During the debate over the king’s death, Robespierre had said that she must be sent “before the courts, like all other persons charged with similar crimes”. Unlike her husband, her fate would not be debated before a full assembly of the nation’s elected representatives, and she would be given no opportunity to explain herself or reason with them. In short, there should be no indication that she mattered in any special way. This, for a former queen and daughter of Emperors, was punishment in itself.

In fact, my main tip before reading the trial is to turn your 21st century brain off, because it won’t help you here. I’m no expect on the vagaries of the French legal system, but there are a few things it’s important to remember about Marie Antoinette’s trial in the legal context of the time (these courtesy of an obscure book called The Trials of Five Queens by R. Storry Deans).

  • French trials at the time (and to a lesser extent even now) were not litigious but inquisitional, meaning they didn’t consist of a prosecution formulating a charge against the accused which it was then required to prove. The trial was instead a more open-ended and general inquisition into the guilt and character of the accused.
  • Almost nothing in Marie Antoinette’s trial would be admissible as evidence in an English court today, and much of it not even at that time. However, procedures like the secret interrogation before the trial (when the court was not in session and no jury present) were standard procedure in eighteenth century France.
  • The distinction between thought and deed had not yet been firmly enshrined in law, so establishing that the accused had contemplated doing something, or even that they were the type of person who might contemplate it, was enough. Likewise, opinion, inference and hearsay were acceptable forms of evidence (and formed the bulk of Marie Antoinette’s trial, as concrete evidence is rarely provided).

One of the most difficult things about Marie Antoinette’s existence at this stage must have been the constant uncertainty. She was never given any forewarning of what was to happen to her, but was instead suddenly confronted with dramatic upheavals and forced to deal with them. In less than a year she had been imprisoned in the Tower, been separated from her husband and then her son, and finally moved to the Conciergerie – all suddenly, and completely against her will. Once at the Conciergerie she faced days of waiting, never knowing when her trial was to begin – or even, for certain, if she was to have a trial. Being reduced to a spectator in her own story, Marie Antoinette had started to default to an attitude of numb resignation. Then one night, two hours after she had gone to bed, she was woken roughly and summoned to another part of the prison. With no fanfare and without a second to prepare herself, Marie Antoinette’s trial, and the final fight of her life, had begun.

In the next part: The secret interrogation and the beginning of the trial.

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Strange Meetings: The Royal Menagerie at Versailles – an Extract from Vintage Script Magazine

Royal Menagerie at Versailles

This month, you’ll find a piece I’ve written in Vintage Script, a new magazine dedicated to all things vintage, historical and retro. What’s most delightful about it is the range of different historical periods, as well as the different approaches taken to bringing them to life. In this month’s edition you’ll find stories on the history of tea time, flapper girls of the 1920s, Durham Cathedral and the truth behind the Scarlet Pimpernel. It really is well worth a read, so do please visit the web site and take a look.

Versailles Menagerie by D'Aveline

The Versailles Menagerie during Louis XIV’s reign, by D’Aveline.

In an attempt to whet your appetite, here’s an extract from my article on the history of the Royal Menagerie at Versailles. You’ll have to take my word for it, but the stuff I’ve cut out here is stupendous, so you really should get the magazine!

We take up the story from Louis XIV’s death. Before the Sun King, the French Royals had not had a permanent menagerie but instead contented themselves with a band of exotic or entertaining animals which followed them around their various royal residences. Louis XIV established two permanent menageries – one at Vincennes and one at Versailles, each with a different purpose and personality. The Vincennes menagerie was used for dramatic fights, such as the battle between a tiger and an elephant staged to amuse the Persian ambassador in 1682. The Versailles menagerie, on the other hand, was a model of order and rationality, where the far more fortunate animals were intended for peaceful display and, as all things at the palace, to augment the glory and prestige of the king. The conflict between these two very different styles of menagerie reflected the conflicts in Louis’ personality and style of leadership, but by the end of his reign the Versailles style had clearly won out, and the Vincennes zoo was closed.

Map of Versailles, by Delagrive (1689-1757), 1746.

Map of Versailles, by Delagrive (1689-1757), 1746 (via Wikimedia Commons), with the location of the menagerie highlighted. Below, the former site of the menagerie today, from Google Maps.


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In some magical way Versailles transformed itself to match the character of the king at its heart, so when the Sun King died and was succeeded by his grandson Louis XV, everything changed. Louis XV was more interested in hunting animals than observing them in his menagerie, and his taste for exotic wildlife restricted itself more or less to Madame de Pompadour and his seraglio of royal mistresses. Animal gifts kept coming from every corner of the ever-expanding French trading empire, but the king lacked both the funds and the inclination to give them much of a welcome. When an elephant arrived in 1772, it was forced to walk more than three hundred miles from the coast to Versailles.

One can imagine the elephant was quite miffed about the debacle (but must have created quite a stir in the towns and villages along the road) and things got no better once it arrived at Versailles. The pond dug for the exotic birds to wade in was full of silt. The wall enclosing the rhinoceros which arrived two years earlier was literally crumbling (not a good thing, as the rhino was no doubt angered by visitors who laughed at its absurdly wrinkled skin). Even the animals in the once beautiful paintings which lined the walls of the observation room were faded and peeling. The elephant stuck it out for as long as possible, but in 1782, broke free of its enclosure and rampaged round the grounds of Versailles. Next morning, a strange new elephant-shaped island was found floating in the Grand Canal.

Sadly, the elephant died too late to witness the last gasp of the royal menagerie. Louis XVI had ascended the throne in 1775, and found a financial and political situation as neglected as the menagerie. Unlike his grandfather Louis XV, Louis XVI could not rely on winning charm to see him through – he had none. He was therefore much more attuned to symbolism, and strove constantly, in the face of an ever-deepening crisis, to project an image of undimmed power and royal prestige.

Although they never knew it, the animals of the menagerie were a perfect instrument for this. The very fact that they were there at all spoke eloquently of the scope and scale of the king’s influence. Overcoming the difficulties of finding and catching such rare and beautiful creatures, overcoming the problems of long distance travel and communication, overcoming the self-interest of every captain and sailor along the way who might have sold his precious cargo, the king had commanded that animals be brought, and they had come. The strength of his will even seemed to overcome death itself: such animals were notoriously difficult to keep alive on long voyages. Exotic birds especially had an irksome habit of dropping down dead when cannon fired, or simply pining away. Whispers began to circulate that the most beautiful birds of all simply could not live without their liberty.

Louis sent out a shopping list to his representatives around the world. “An elephant; 2 zebras, male and female; mandrill and baboon monkeys; 6 guineafoul”. Perhaps Louis wished to tame the zebras and teach them to draw his carriage, as some of his more flamboyant contemporaries did. But Louis was never to receive an elephant and only got one of the zebras he asked for, though the menagerie did benefit from an influx of new inmates, including a lion, a panther, some hyenas, a tiger, some ostriches and several kinds of monkey.

The popularity of the menagerie was also boosted by great vogue for the study of nature that flowered during Louis XVI’s reign. Naturalists had grown tired of studying the dusty tombs of Cabinets of Curiosity, where brown pickled fish bobbed in vinegar and faded birds stood stuffed in a peculiar imitation of life that seemed to startle the thought of death into everyone who looked at them. There was now, prompted by the bestselling work of Buffon, a desire to observe living animals. Now then, the animals of the menagerie had a new torment, as fashionable men and women toured the menagerie, staring deep into the eyes of monkeys and, with a pained expression, wondered aloud “What is it to be human?”. Nobody ever seemed to wonder what it is to be monkey.

As it turned out, of course, even if Louis had managed to obtain a hundred zebras to draw his carriage, they couldn’t have saved him from the coming of the Revolution. Perhaps the animals noticed a glow of torchlight up at the palace on the night in October 1789 when a crowd of thousands arrived to remove the royal family and take them back to Paris (henceforth to be caged and regarded with the same mixture of awed and disgusted curiosity that the inhabitants of the menagerie had been).

The menagerie must have been a sad and dispiritingly quiet place for the next couple of years, as history was written elsewhere, and the fate of a dwindling bunch of pampered pets was of no importance. But, in a perverse way, the violence and inhumanity of the revolution was to foster a new concern for these animals. After a few years, with the Terror in full flow, the bourgeois leaders of the Revolution began to grow concerned that the populace was becoming too accustomed to blood, too wild. They needed to be brought back to the civilising influence of orderly society – and what better way to demonstrate its advantages than through the example of these wild animals. If even a lion, when it is well cared for by enlightened rulers, can be tamed and made gentle, then there’s hope for anyone. This attitude to animals was extraordinary: in 1794, the Paris Commune received complaints about ‘disgusting displays’ of animals in the Place de la Révolution, but none about the twenty guillotinings that took place in the same square every day.

At the last minute, the few remaining animals of the royal menagerie, which had been due to be killed and stuffed, were saved, and made a part of plans for a new state menagerie at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. Following a ban on animal shows, the authorities had sent out agents to round up all wild animals being kept or sold in Paris for this purpose. The only problem was, there was nowhere to put them except the basement of the museum at the Jardins des Plantes.

The wrinkly rhinoceros died before it could make the journey (run through, according to legend, by a revolutionary’s sabre), but the lion from Versailles was taken to Paris in 1794, and found itself in a room full of the motliest collection of animals since the Ark. Here was a leopard, there a sea lion. Perched on a crate were three eagles, bleating in the corner were three sheep with various lurid deformities, and god-knows-where was what had been promised to be a sea lion when the harassed zookeeper agreed to take it on, but was discovered on arrival to be a polar bear. There were in total 32 mammals and 26 birds.

Gradually a permanent, if very basic, home for these forlorn creatures was put together, and, amid trumpeting revolutionary rhetoric that the animals would “no longer wear on their brows, as in the menageries built by the pomp of kings, the brand of slavery”, its doors were opened to the public. This new, state menagerie was intended to be a pacifying haven of contemplation and rational study. It didn’t quite work out that way. As soon as the doors opened, the citizens of Paris made a beeline for the old lion from Versailles. They pulled at his fur, and shouted abuse when he tried to sleep, and spat at him because, they said, he used to be a king too.

The lion bore his torment for a short while, but in the famine-frosted winter of 1795, when there was no money for food and none to buy anyway, half the animals died, the lion probably among them. After this time, conditions at the menagerie slowly improved, and with the conquests of Napoleon, it was repopulated with inhabitants from new outposts of empire.

Today, there’s no trace of the menagerie beneath the impeccably manicured lawns of Versailles, but a piece of it survives. If you go to the Jardins des Plantes, past the small zoo which still survives and into the Natural History Museum, you’ll find a large glass case, containing a leathery rhinoceros, the first to ever be stuffed and preserved. Today people file by and study him quietly, as civilised and dispassionate as they were always meant to be, save perhaps for the occasional chuckle at his absurdly wrinkly skin. But this is an extraordinary survivor, called across the sea by the last pulse of royal power from France, witness to the end of an era, one of the last beings ever to truly live at Versailles, victim of the violence of the revolution – and yet, here he is. Through all the storms of history and politics, the revolutions and counter-revolutions, monarchies and republics, wars and peaces, the rhinoceros has stood safe in its glass case. Even today, the Versailles menagerie is drawing long-severed worlds into strange meetings.

Louis XV's Rhinoceros

Louis XV’s rhinoceros, at the Natural History Museum in Paris.


The rhinoceros was recently featured in an exhibition at Versailles, ‘Sciences and Curiosities at the Court of Versailles, which I’m bereft at having missed. This nice little video was made to coincide with the exhibition.

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