The Best of All Possible Worlds

May 1717.
The gateway of the Bastille gawped at me like a big mouth. I resisted slightly as two gallant gentlemen of the Paris Guard hauled me from the closed carriage. I had been arrested at my lodgings, at the Taverne du Panier-Vert.
‘Surely, my friends, you should be at your Pentecostal prayers?’ I tried to maintain the dignity to which my Jesuitical education had trained me. They merely frowned and pushed me on all the harder. We crossed the drawbridge and through the arch, and the portcullis clattered down on iron chains.
‘I protest, gentlemen, such force is unnecessary, I shall be overjoyed to enter this august establishment, as long as I can adhere to my strict milk diet…if in eight days I’m offered release, then I swear that I shall beg for it to be fifteen, so that I may be undisturbed…ah, how well I remember these fine portals, having come here so often to pay my respects to my dear friend the Duc de Richelieu! I never realised I’d be obliged to take up residence here myself.’
They ignored me. In the guardroom, I emptied my pockets, protesting my innocence. A fair amount of money, a lorgnette, a small pair of scissors, some letters; a notebook; they kept the money and the letters, even the one from Olympe Dunoyer.
‘Francois Arouet. You’re detained for circulating vile and treasonous verses against our Regent, his Royal Highness, the Duc d’Orleans, and his daughter, her Royal Highness, the Dowager Duchesse de Berri.’
‘But I assure you of my most profound respect for these august personages.’ That incestuous pair, I thought. ‘There surely can be no evidence to the contrary?’
‘That’s unimportant. His Majesty the King has signed an order for your detention. You’ll remain here, unless we receive an order for your release.’
So, my freedom was at the disposal of a seven year old boy. And his uncle, the Regent, of course. I entered a tiny cell, only one floor above the cachots, where men rotted until they died. A thin beam of light came from a barred window high in the wall, and made a faint glimmer on the pallet bed where I sat, wondering if I would be able to write. My old life was finished.
All is for the best, I thought, reflecting back.
XIR370265It’s Christmas Eve, 1713. I’ve returned, closely supervised, from the Hague. Outside, Paris is frozen white with snow, and in here, Papa’s white with rage. He’s at his desk, beside the portrait of Mama, that was painted just in time. She’s trying not to laugh, well-fed and well-bedded, the noble wife of a wealthy lawyer, wearing indigo velvet, and scarlet damask, and gold embroidery. He’s lived like a Penitent Friar since she died. Now I stand before them, a little boy once more. On the desk is a paper with a red wax seal.
‘I’ve obtained a lettre de cachet. I’ll have you locked up until you develop some sense.’ His fingers drum upon it.
I beg and plead, send me into exile, anything, not that. Tears form in my eyes. But now Papa’s in full flow. He stands up, leaning on stiff arms, fists on the desk, declaiming as if in court.
‘I’ve disinherited you. I’m disappointed, embarrassed, brokenhearted. You’re a complete failure. I can’t keep finding you these posts. Do you know how hard I’ve worked, using my connections, my influence, to advance you? I found you respectable employment with a notary, and all you did in his office was write poems!’ Papa thumps the desk.
I mumble some sort of apology, trying to look contrite. It had been the most tedious employment in the world.
‘Do you know what I’ve had to do, to get you that post with the ambassador? Châteauneuf didn’t want to take you to the Hague. Even though he’s your godfather’s brother, I’ve had to do his legal work for nothing, for the last six months. I thought you’d have a chance to get away from the idlers you keep company with here. Now you’ve ruined it. What were you thinking of?’
‘I’m in love! She loves me, too.’ Olympe’s adorably misspelt letter (‘A Dieu, mon haimable anfan…’) was in my breast pocket.
‘With a Huguenot? Exiled from France? Are you insane? Châteauneuf’s written to me, and I quote: “I have no more hope of your son. He has shown himself twice a fool, in love and in poetry.” Love! Poetry! You could have advanced yourself in the diplomatic service. Why? There must be a reason for your behaviour?’
‘I want no life but that of a man of letters.’
Papa sinks back into his chair, and cradles his temples in his hands. ‘What kind of life is that? It’s the life of a dreamer, and a penniless one!’ He looks up at me mournfully. ‘When you were little, you were such a promising, clever child. But now, you’re dragging our name through the mire. Look at me. I started out as a notary. I’ve worked my way up to a senior post in the government. Treasurer of the Chambre des Comptes. We’ve a fine house in the Île de la Cité. You went to school with the sons of the nobility. Just one more step up, and we could ourselves be ennobled.’
‘But I’m already in favour with the aristocracy, I’ve made so many connections through my writing. I’ve every hope of success.’
‘You’re a court jester, when you could be noblesse du robe in your own right. There’s a difference, believe me.’
I tell Papa that, in any case, I just have to write. I have to be a writer. And he asks me the dreaded question.
‘So, what have you written so far?’Voltaire Bastille2Three and a half years later, imprisoned, I considered my literary achievements. Perhaps Papa had known, after all. He’d known that I spent most of the day staring at a blank page, words blurred in my mind by last night’s wine, waiting for the next distraction.
My love letters to Olympe Dunoyer went unanswered; I suspected her mother had got hold of them. My drama, ‘Oedipe’, was rejected by the Comédie Française. I’d composed a grand tragedy about incest, famine, plague, and parricide, with mournful narration from a Greek chorus and the doom-laden chantings of a high priest. But the actors complained. Where was the love interest that the audience wanted, the romance? I’d resubmitted it with a new story thread, which tangled badly with the old. ‘We’ll let you know’, they’d said.
My satirical poems found favour with the Duchesse du Maine. I’d been invited to her literary evenings and theatrical entertainments at Sceaux, where she made herself the ‘Queen Bee’. At these events, the theme was really that the Duc du Maine should have been the Regent instead of the Duc d’Orleans. She even spoke of getting the King of Spain to ‘reclaim what was rightfully his’. Although Orleans was permissive to the point of obscene degeneracy, it seemed to me of dubious merit to replace him with a dull king and queen, and a court where they prayed ten times a day, and never went out. And unfortunately, my satires also drew the attention of the authorities. Even when I wasn’t officially in exile, it was usually best to avoid Paris.
So, at Saint-Ange I’d started to compose the Henriade, an epic poem. It was still unfinished. But, I was fortunate enough to discover a large nail in the corner of my cell, and started to scratch some verses into the stone wall. It was rather inconvenient, but a writer has to write. It was important, I felt, to remain optimistic.Bastille ParisUnder interrogation, I said I’d been staying at Saint-Ange, and only returned after Easter. I had no associates at the Panier-Vert. D’Argenson, the chief of police, glowered at me.
‘Here’s a verse in Latin.’ He had piercing dark eyes under heavy eyebrows, in a frighteningly ugly face. ‘Puero Regnante. Can you construe it?’
‘Let me see,’ I said, my hand trembling as I took the paper he passed me. ‘It’s a while since I was at Louis-le-Grand.’ Both his sons had gone to my school.
‘Do your best,’ he growled.
‘A boy reigning,’ I muttered. ‘And a famously incestuous poisoner, administers ignorant and ramshackle policy, a destabilised religion, an exhausted treasury. Public faith is violated, and in peril of imminent general sedition, he iniquitously anticipates to inherit the crown. Land of our fathers sacrificed, France is about to perish.’
‘I believe you to be the author of this treason’.
I shook my head. ‘It grieves me profoundly,’ I said, ‘to be suspected of such horrors. For a long time, every abomination in verse and prose circulating through Paris has been credited to my name. Anyone who knew me would swear that I’m incapable of such crimes.’
‘Yet, when Monsieur de Beauregard asked you if the Puero Regnante had not been written by a Jesuit priest, you replied,’ D’Argenson consulted his papers, “the Jesuits are like the jay of the fable, who borrow the peacock’s feathers to preen themselves.” What did you mean by that?’
Beauregard! If only I’d realised that Beauregard, a semi-literate with a sudden interest in Latin poetry, was likely to be a police informer. But I rallied myself. ‘The poem’s an antiquity, written during the Regency of Catherine de Medici.’
‘And when Beauregard mentioned this poem, you smiled, and asked if he’d enjoyed reading it’.
I said I really couldn’t remember, but thought not.
‘And have you written any other insolent and calumnious verses concerning the first prince and first princess of the realm?’
I said I couldn’t quite remember. That it was true that Beauregard had formed the view that I was the author of such poems. It was even possible that I might have spoken in such a way as to support this idea, but as I hadn’t actually written them at all, in fact I detested them, I didn’t have any enthusiasm that this view should be preserved. I believed myself obliged to point out that Beauregard did not know verse from prose, and was ignorant of the belles-lettres.
D’Argenson glowered again. ‘You told Beauregard that he was mistaken to believe that you were not the author of these verses, and of several others, as you’d been able to compose them during your stay at Saint-Ange.’
I replied that there was nothing in the world so false.
‘And when he asked you what the Duc d’Orleans had done to you, to deserve such calumnies, you sprang up in a rage and said, I quote,’ he referred again to his informer’s report, “how did you not know what that…”
‘Bugger?’ I said, helpfully.
“- did to me? He exiled me from Paris, because I made it public that his Messalina of a daughter was a whore.” Then you said to Beauregard that Her Royal Highness had fled to her country estates to conceal a pregnancy.’
I said that this was the most unparalleled slander I’d ever heard.
D’Argenson made a note in my file. ‘We have searched your papers,’ he said, ‘and the room where you were staying, but found nothing. Where have you hidden the remainder of your seditious writings?’
I mentioned, at that point, that I might have dropped some papers into the latrines at the Panier-Vert. But nothing important. Merely some correspondence, I said, letters from females, with which I had cleaned myself.
He sent me back to my lonely cell, to dream of a lost romance.Muaritshuis It’s November 1713, seven months after the Treaty of Utrecht ended a long, costly war. At the end of its Golden Age, the Hague’s in mourning, and people talk sadly of how they lived thirty years ago, and look hungrily at their still-life paintings of food. Yet the merchants are more important than the landed aristocracy, who scratch a living in the mud of their farms. I’m there, secretary, page, and factotum to the French Ambassador.
People think I’ve seduced Olympe Dunoyer; but it’s I who am enchanted by my first love. I’m only nineteen, and she’s twenty-one, rosy-cheeked and delicious, and betrothed to Jean Cavalier, the young hero of the Cevennes insurgents. Luckily he’s in Ireland, founding a Huguenot community in a Catholic country; I wish him joy. Olympe, left behind, is too pretty to lack male company. She must enjoy variety, for I’m not a military type. I’m too scrawny, my nose is too big, and my elbows stick out at odd angles. But I can always make her laugh. What amuses her the most is carrying out an intrigue beneath the nose of her domineering Mama.
Madame Dunoyer prides herself on her success as a writer. ‘Lettres Historiques et Galantes’ is merely scandalous and titillating gossip about the French Court, none of it true of course; and given the freedom of the Press in the Hague, and the ease with which such material crosses borders, it’s better for the French to pay for the suppression of certain items. She earns more, I imagine, by this route, than she does from her book sales. So I’m the go-between from the Ambassador’s office.
Our Embassy on the Prinsessengracht overlooks a little canal, and some fields. It’s the most delightful of all possible situations. I stand with Olympe on a small bridge, holding her hand, looking down at our two faces mirrored in the still water. Sometimes after a kiss our reflections are still intact; other times a ruffle of breeze or the paddling of a duck, even an insect landing in the water, blurs our faces away.
And she murmurs to me, breathless with excitement, ‘I think I’m going to be in trouble with my mother. But don’t worry, dear child, I shall come and see you, nonetheless, at the Embassy. I’ll be dressed as a boy.’
She’s unforgettable in her disguise, a beautiful, strangely maternal youth. I swear to elope with her, to risk my life for her, to love her forever.
‘One day,’ I promise, ‘we shall be happy together.’D'Argenson
Imprisoned in the Bastille, I started to forget the days. I had no visitors. The streets of Paris seemed far distant, and as I scratched words on the wall, I started to learn this new world of obdurate stone. I was a tiny being, lost and forgotten in the intricate mazes of a fortress, with no hope of release.
D’Argenson came to my cell, with a turnkey standing in the half-open doorway.
‘I wanted to see if you were still alive,’ he said. I reassured him that I was indeed still breathing, though stifled by captivity and by the lack of means with which to write.
He gave me a dark smile. ‘There have been rumours.’ Apparently, I’d been transported to the fearsome Pierre-Encise fortress at Lyons; I’d been hung at the Arsenal; and an unknown young poet had been punished by a secret death within the Bastille itself. D’Argenson lowered his heavy brows. ‘I must ensure that no such fate befalls you without a signed order from the King.’
I expressed a hope that his Majesty’s clemency and enlightened judgment would soon permit my release.
‘Unfortunately, you described him as a boy reigning, under the administration of an incestuous poisoner.’
I assured him that those were not my words.
He lowered his voice and drew closer to me. ‘And what do you know of imminent, general sedition?’
I hesitated.
‘Your answer might make the difference between the death of an obscure poet, forgotten in a distant fortress, and a life of freedom and fame.’ He lifted a black eyebrow.
‘Well, I might possibly mention that the poem scans better in Spanish than in Latin. And that a queen bee may attract a nest of vipers.’
He turned away from me, his ugly face questing for the faint beam of light from the high window. ‘They should be better watched,’ he muttered.
‘If I might be allowed a writing desk, sir, and pens and paper, then…’
‘No more arse-wipes.’ He was glowering again. ‘Ysabeau, the commissaire for the Cité, sent a report, regarding his search of the latrines at the Panier-Vert. The cesspit, which was nearly full, had to be sealed up again at the orders of the landlord. The terrible stench spoiled the beer in the cellar where the opening had been made. No-one found any papers, and Ysabeau thought that your admission of throwing letters in there had been made maliciously, to create fruitless work.’
I was trying not to laugh.
D’Argenson glared at me. ‘He presumed that any letters would have floated on the water which surmounted the crude matter, however if anything further was required in the investigation, it would be impossible without completely emptying the pit. And he awaited further orders.’
With calm innocence, I showed him my wall of poetry. ‘No arse-wipes. I’m composing the ‘Henriade’, an epic poem of Henri IV, the model for our beloved Regent. I hope to establish my reputation as a poet and historian. And to make a new name: Arouet de Voltaire.’
After that, my imprisonment became less harsh. I was moved to a better cell, and dined at the governor’s table. They gave me pens and paper, and a rickety desk. It was the best of all possible worlds.olympeAs I sat down to write, I thought of all the letters I’d written to Olympe, begging her to follow me to Paris. She wrote only once to me. Our reflections had disappeared from the canal, and my face faded from her mind. Back then, I truly believed that I should always search for Olympe in my heart, but a year later I heard that she’d married an adventurer, the so-called Baron von Winterfeldt. I reflected that if I ever saw her again, she’d probably be bad-tempered, and atrociously ugly. There’s a reason for everything, I thought.

© 2014 Maybelle Wallis

41 thoughts on “The Best of All Possible Worlds

  1. Excellent short story although you should explore a bit more Arouet’s critique of Berri’s debauchery.
    Having lost all semblance of restraint after the deaths of her husband and of Louis XIV, the young duchess had been delivered of an illegitimate daughter in January 1716 and was again in a state of advanced pregnancy in May 1717 when she received the visit of the Czar Peter the Great at the Luxembourg palace. This is the time when Arouet talked to Beauregard about Berri’s clandestine maternity (she had retired to her castle of La Muette waiting for the time of her delivery and only left her retreat to welcome the Czar and this in spite of her advanced condition – she gave birth of a daughter in July 1717).
    Berri attended the premiere of Arouet’s “Oedipus” in November 1718 and went to see some more performances of the play, thus openly defying the public opinion since she was once more expecting a child and could not fully conceal her advanced pregnancy. Her delivery was very dangerous and troublesome. She never recovered from it and died in July 1719. Her autopsy showed she had gotten pregnant again just over a month after her difficult childbirth. She was probably not incestuous but was beyond any doubt very promiscuous (as mentioned even by Saint-Simon).
    Arouet’s critique of Berri was thus very mild and only hinted at the reality of the debauchery which characterized the short and scandalous life of this royal princess.

    1. Thanks Anton, for your very well informed comments. I am fascinated by this period in history and it is as you mention well documented through memoirs and letters, including those of Elisabeth of Orleans, Saint-Simon, Madame de Stael, the duc de Richelieu etc, as well as a small portion of Voltaire’s own letters. I had a 3000 word limit for this story, but there are many potential story threads at this period, and I had sketched out a plan for a novel, including the relationships and death of the Duchesse de Berri, the Cellamare conspiracy and the stockmarket bubble (in which Voltaire made a great deal of money). I’ve put it aside for the time being, but will one day return to work on it.
      – Giselle

  2. Dear Giselle, wonderful. Your short story shows how well you use the historical sources ! Usually people interested in the Ancien Regime focus on Marie-Antoinette’s time or the Sun King but I find the Regency a much more fascinating time period. If only because it’s a time of experiments, freedom and relative peace. There are many potential threads such as Cellamare conspiracy, Law’s experience, etc. Some have already been exploited repeatedly, fopr example by Dumas in The Regent’s Daughter and The Chevalier d’Harmental.
    Berri is a fascinating character but unfortunately she’s been the victim of 19th century misogyny being turned into a monster-like symbol of boulimia, debauchery and nymphomania, the slave of her passions and of her “ugly” paramour, Riom.
    You also had attempts to turn her into some kind of romantic heroin, a woman in love and thus willing to forsake her rank in order to marry the man she loved i.e. Riom
    In recent French historical novels she’s often turned into a real grotesque character, usually extremely obese and drunk, thus very much still a female-monster although this time without all the religious arguments formerly associated with her vilification (also her early death is still somewhat seen as the predictable – and deserved- end of an arch-sinner). She is still very often presented as incestuous (eg. “”Nous serons comme des dieux” by Eve de Castro)… If we read Saint-Simon carefully and interpret what he writes about her well, Berri doesn’t seem so odd… She married early and very quickly came in conflict with the rigid court etiquette. Saint-Simon alludes clearly to her tempestuous sex life (as he puts it she had numerous “fancies”). The irony is that she was a “failure” in her married life since her 3 pregnancies all ended bad (she thus produced no viable offspring for the royal lineage) and then once a widow provoked a series of scandals because of her repeated illegitimate pregnancies, which ultimately killed her ! Sad end for a young and lively princess !
    Best Regards. Anton

  3. Yes, she was a complex character, I think. I like to draw parallels between history and modern times, and I believe that human nature remains broadly similar despite social change. I sense a similarity between the Duchesse and some of our modern day ‘princesses’, young celebrities who can’t cope with their lives and the party lifestyle, and end up addicted to drugs/alcohol, or with partners who are in some way ‘unsuitable’. (I think there is evidence that the Duchesse was a heavy drinker). We are less judgmental, perhaps (? I question myself), about these young women, than people were in the 18th century, but otherwise nothing much has changed, I feel.
    – Giselle

  4. Dear Giselle, I fully agree with what you are writing. I am not so sure we are less judgmental, although we are very far away from the rigid morals of the Court at the end of the reign of the Sun King. Also we should not forget that Berri was only 18 years old when she became a widow ! I agree it seems quite clear indeed that she was a heavy drinker. According to Saint-Simon her wine drinking and her taste for strong liquors well late in her pregnancy explain why she experienced such a harrowing childbirth in 1719
    But then there are also some major differences between her “intense” lifestyle and what could experience a young and pretty celebrity nowadays : first of all the absence of any form of contraception, so that her “sexual freedom” made her experience a series of clearly undesired pregnancies, then of course you had the very archaic state of obstetrics which pretty much account for her death – her delivery so dangerous and difficult that she could not recover from it and then Chirac’s doings which did kill her !
    She is a complex character if only because she alternated her revelries with periods of retreat in the Carmelite convent, also because she really became the First lady of France in 1715 once she moved into the Luxembourg palace but then she also became “the slave” of Riom, a lieutenant of herr guard, who according to Saint-Simon was not the handsomest paramour (although according to the Palatine he was very well endowed by nature and thus quite popular among libertine girls) and overtly cheated on Berri with her friend the Mouchy. The fact is Berri hardly concealed her pregnancies, or never entirely, so that they were always a public secret, whether in 1716, 1717 or 1719. By sleeping around, getting repeatedly drunk and bearing illegitimate “poupons” of very uncertain parenthood she really acted as if she were just an opera girl and not a princess of Royal Blood.
    On the other hand I find rather sad if not sickening the way the young Duchesse is depicted in some recent historical novels, for example in “Les fetes galantes” by Michel Peyramaure who has her on 28 March 1719, heavily pregnant and being carried away from a night of debauchery, more drunk than usual, suddenly eized with labor pains so that she’s quickly agonizing and calling for the succor of a priest ! The vocabulary used for describing the unfortunate princess and the scenes of her demise are just so incredibly negative and downgrading that they really anger me ! She’s often characterized as a monster of obesity, one author merely repeating another one… and this although it’s quite clear that the mentions of her “obesity” often have to do with her pregnancies. Madame de Maintenaon memoirs for example mention quite clearly that Berry gained weight enormously whenever she had gotten pregnant for example at the end of 1713, toward the beginning of her third maternity… Similarly the Gazette de la Regence makes mention of her being “stout as a tower” when she welcomed the Czar in May 1717, a time she was clearly very pregnant.

    I am sure you’d write a very well documented and arresting story about Berri’s short and fascinating life. Voltaire must have had some very ambivalent feelings about her, if only because although he had made such devastating verses about her and his Oedipus play was clearly seen by the public as a veiled critique of her alleged incestuous relation with her father, she did come to attend the performances, repeatedly, and this although she was once more bearing a child and unable to fully hide her very “shameful” condition…. not to mention that she came surrounded by her court, her guards, etc. To see her come watch his play must have been quite a sight for the poet who had been jailed because of calling the First lady of France a Messalina !
    All the best and all my congratulations on your splendid writing !

  5. Dear Giselle, it will soon be the 300th anniversary of the start of the Regency. This is probably a good opportunity to write about this not so well known period of French history. You write very vividly about Arouet and I feel confident you’d produce a very arresting novel about this period, although for the Duchesse de Berri you do have a problem of very sketchy sources which in fact tell very little about her (except for her arrogance, her degrading affair with Riom and her “fatal” pregnancy). And then writing about someone who’s characterised as “un modele de tous les vices” (Saint-Simon) is rather difficult when one wants to avoid repeating the existing stereotypes (very limited in the topics covered anyway). Eve de Castro turns her into a key protagonist of her novel with a focus on her incestuous affair with her father, but I think she fails because she can not avoid the pitfalls of previous misogynical portraits of the “Messaline de Berri”, so that in the end her Duchess is largely devoid of any depth and of any real psychology… which is really a pitty because regardless of her precocious and sad end I believe she does deserve much better than being doomed to remaining this rather flat and shallow embodiment of all the “evils” and decadence associated with the Regency….
    Regards. Anton

  6. Dear Anton,
    The Duchesse du Berri is indeed a complex character. I would characterise her relationship with Riom as an abusive one; he seems to have had a great deal of control over her. Dumas writes a scene where Riom is advised by his uncle the duc de Lauzun to treat the Duchesse cruelly, but it seems more likely that this was in his nature.
    I think one cannot exclude incest having occurred; Berri was certainly very close to her father and someone (de Richelieu?) wrote of her being present at dinners at the Palais Royal at which at a certain point in the evening, the lights were extinguished and the servants withdrew. Of course, de Richelieu is a thoroughly unreliable (and scurrilous) narrator, but weren’t they all?
    I believe that she was strongly driven by her desire for royal status. She maybe had an insecurity about this? She alienated people by obtaining the Luxembourg as her residence, by closing the gardens to the public, by driving around in her carriage with an over-large escort, and behaving in an imperious manner. The accoutrements she obtained were those of royalty, whereas she was of ducal status. The quest for aristocratic status in France at that time seems to me very like the modern quest for celebrity and fame. And maybe, like celebrity in the modern age, people could be drawn to it and be damaged by it, as moths to the flame.
    What I got stuck on while thinking how to write this, was trying to design the overall structure of the novel, and decide whose story it was and whose viewpoints to use. It’s a shame from a novelistic viewpoint that the John Law bubble occurred after Berri’s death, as the two story threads have a similar pattern of rise and fall. The Duchesse as a narrator would have a limited point of view and not see anything going on outside her little world, and then she dies. Law might have been a good narrator, and during his glory days had the aristocrats’ favour. Voltaire has a lovely voice which one can pick up from his letters, and his story in those years is one of a rise to fame and fortune, but he wouldn’t be able to narrate the Duchesse’s story as they had no social connection. I wondered about using the duc de Richelieu as a narrator; his memoirs (if they are written by him) show him as an insider in Court circles, he had been a school friend of Voltaire’s, and of course he was involved in the Cellamare conspiracy, but then one would end up with all his love affairs, which I can’t be bothered to write about! Any ideas?

  7. Dear Giselle,
    The way it’s described by Saint-Simon Berri’s relationship with Riom is clearly abusive and he seems indeed to have total control over her while loving Madame de Mouchi. Saint-Simon does mention however that Berri’s enslavement to Riom doesn’t the Duchesse from still having adventures now and then. But he also mentions quite clearly that it’s only after her dangerous confinement at the Luxembourg and the conflict it provoked with the inflexible Languet that she marries her paramour and wants this marriage to become public.

    Michelet really believed in incest and wrote very vividly about Berri’s fatal pregnancy, tracing it back to a private orgy at the feasts of Saint-Cloud in July 1718. On the other hand and as Philippe Erlanger put it quite sensibly how could one imagine that the Regent would then have his own daughter-lover play an active role in his private suppers and orgies, together with his roues, and being the consenting witness to her sexual bulimia, watching his mistress get possessed by some of his guests or sometimes or by some of the most vigorous servants present at these revelries, the Mirebalais ?

    It is quite clear that she was strongly driven by her desire for royal status. Probqbly even the more so since none of children she had in her husband’s lifetime had survived. I thin she could be just as unsure of her status as the Regent who had violated Louis XIV testament ! Her immense pride did alienate her many people and probably even more so since her haughtiness contrasted with her very loose morals. She closed the Luxembourg gardens in 1716, but it seems after getting almost gang-banged during an evening stroll (together with some ladies of her court, including the Mouchi) by a group of young clercks who had taken them for women of ill-virtue because of their very coarse conversation ! Berri and her friends had to yell for the guards in order to escape their violent “suitors”. I guess it’s probably just a scurrilous a tale but which expresses vividly I think the contradictions of Berri’s character, her pride coexisting with her “low” style with dangerous consequences.

    Which viewpoint to use in your novel is of course the keymost question. Her story only matches part of John Law bubble’s story occurred after Berri’s death,
    And indeed the two story threads have a similar pattern of rise and fall. A parallelism which should not be lost on the reader. As a narrator Berri would indeed have a very limited point of view. Also it would be difficult to turn her into the radical critique of her time ! Although regardless of her pride, her vanity, her promiscuity, her alcoholism and her ill-fortunate pregnancies, I think she pretty strikes me as a rebel, someone ready not only to have lovers while recently married but even eager to elope with one of them to Holland ! Someone who at the same time sees herself entitled to royal honors but then also mingles with the lowest characters and sleeps around regardless of status, caste or class… Thus someone who really turns the Court system and its elaborate etiquette upside down, a young and brash rebel, acting out all of her unbridled passions and cravings, regardless of the costs.

    The duc de Richelieu is interesting if only because he was Berri’s lover at some point (or so it is said) and is thus not only an insider in Court circles, but is also privy to Berri’s love affairs ! Otherwise the only person who knows about Berri’s intimate life is Saint-Simon and we know how unwilling he was to talk about it ! I don’t know ! Could you imagine having the story told by Madame de Mouchi ? Who else, unless you totally invent a key witness, who can narrate Berri’s story and also knows what’s really going out in the politics of the Regency at the same time. Eve de Castro had her story told by Berri’s sister the abbesse de Chelles but her novel is very unconvincing, although it includes Cellamare, Law’s bubble etc.

    But then why not have Voltaire tell the story : he did contribute to what we know about the Duchesse’s story and was a key actor in her public life contributing to her scandalous reputation and was also contemporary to all episodes of her short life during the Regency.. They had no social connection but he was very much kept informed of all her doings through the Duchesse de Maine and other masters of gossip. Except for Saint-Simon most of what we know about Berri is through gossip and all the satirical songs about her. Why try to sort out facts from fiction, since we’ll never get to find out about the “real” details of Berri’s life why not use the gossip ? I mean you could stage Voltaire as main narrator and tell her story through him, through the gossips being told to him, what happens to him and the few times she comes to watch his Oedipus play. I think there should be a feminine voice telling this story or a very sensitive voice….. like “your” Voltaire.

    You could start from the beginning of the Regency, soon after the death of Louis XIV when Berry starts enjoying her full freedom : with the Sun King gone she no longer has to respect the decency that characterised the court. She moves into the Luxembourg and rapidly forms her own court. Her raucous behavior soon scandalizes the old court. Still officially in mourning she flouts the public morals by authorizing card games in her place. She is pregnant, maybe by her lover La Haye, but instead of secluding herself until her delivery further provokes public morals by participating in the newly established carnival balls, early January 1716. She gives birth at the end of January 1716 in the Luxembourg. The baby, a girl dies three days later… Officially she’s been suffering from bad cold but the public is well informed and this clandestine birth triggers once nore former rumors of incest … this is when Arouet first comes into Berri’s story, turning her scandalous maternity into satirical verses… and there you can proceed through Voltaire : because of Berri he’s first exiled, then jailed in 1717 and you go on teling the story through his eyes… until Oedipus performance, his first“face to face” meetings with the Duchesse… and you can evoke Law’s bubble at the end of your story as a kind of epilogue. The bubble ended in the same violent and brutal way that poor Berri did. The bubble was a bold affair and it collapsed. Death of the rebel princess and sad end of Law’s bubble.
    Sorry if I don’t make much sense but I am trying to write as fast as I can because I have to go pick up my kids from summer school…
    But you know frankly I am very much impressed with your writing and your full grasp of this long forgotten episode of French history… I hope you will find my remarks and comments helpful… I very much like your writing !

  8. Dear Anton, I really appreciate this, it’s rare to find someone who is familiar with that period in history.
    If the story of the Duchesse is to be told in gossip, then some of it could be done as flashback or reminiscence, or gossip after she has died, and then that might enable a paralleling with the Law bubble. She would not have been quickly forgotten. Glamorous and tragic women do become icons of their times, Marilyn Monroe and Amy Winehouse perhaps could be considered modern parallels.
    Another potential narrator might be the adventurer, Baron von Pollnitz. Two years older than Voltaire, he travelled Europe at around this time, visiting many of the Courts. I would love to have him meet Voltaire in a tavern on the Ile de la Cite. And I have a possible third story thread, from a few years after Law, which is that of the Countess Anna Orzelska, one of the many illegitimate offspring of August the Strong, king of Poland, who was ‘found’ in obscurity in Paris (city of a million residents) by her half-brother – it seems no one knows how he located her. She had a very ‘colourful’ life, and von Pollnitz wrote about encountering her at Dresden.
    Kind regards

  9. Dear Giselle,
    Telling the story also through reminiscences and flash-backs seems a good idea to me ,or maybe combining different time periods, eg. 1749 and the Regency years
    although most readers don’t know about this time period and have thus to be really informed about it (French readers would be maybe less ignorant about the Regence but then judging from recent historical novels that knowledge is replete with stereotypes and misogynic images, especially about Berri).
    I don’t mean that you should tell Berri’s story just on the base of gossip, although let’s face it most of what we have about her short life is mostly gossip and satirical songs.
    Voltaire has the advantage of being fully contemporary with Berri’s short life. It’s because of what he wrote about her that he got exiled in 1716, then again because of her he got jailed the following year. He partly owed the success of his Oedipus play to the widespread rumors of incest that circulated around the time of the premiere and then he also bvenefited from the presence of the Regent and of Berri herself at the performance. And Berri/Jocasta did not attend the play just once but repeatedly, and also in February 1719 at the Louvre, together with the infant Louis XV. According to Dangeau diary she fainted during the Louvre performance, allegedly because of the extreme heat although everyone present certainly knew she was by then well advanced into her pregnancy.

    Voltaire must have been surprised by Berri’s presence at the performances and also impressed by her defiant attitude. He then probably learned first-hand about the events surrounding her childbirth at the Luxembourg and the way she bravely defied the curate of Saint-Sulpice while deep in the pangs of labor… I imagine that Voltaire must have somehow gained some form of respect for a woman “sinner” who so openly defied the morals of the church and of society and did not yield to the threats of the angry cleric.

    When I say telling the story through gossip I mean that you could tell it through Voltaire’s “collection” of gossips, which circulated widely during Berri’s lifetime, especially among the circles of the opposition to the Regent, the Duchesse de Maine, etc. thus people that Voltaire had regular dealings with. Not just gossip about Berri’s sexual life and illegitimate pregnancies but qll kinds of gossip qbvout her dqily life, gossip describing the ways she usurpated honors seen onlyh fit for crowned heads, etc. and then also quoting official news such as the Mercure Galant or the diary of Dangeau which do provide us with the official version of the events alluded to in gossips. And then of course he could also have his friend the duc de Richelieu boast at length about his affair with Berri (not just once since later when Riom had become her official paramour he did have again a fling with her by arousing her jealousy about Riom’s relationship with Madame de Mouchi.

    Berri’s gossip could inspire Voltaire with real culturally meaningful thoughts about Gender, Power, Court Life, Bigotry, etc. He would be the ideal mouhtpiece not only for telling the story of the Regency and of her emblematic female figure but for telling it in a way that the novel will not just amount to some Regency styled tabloid story….

    If only because of his personal involvement with Berri’s story Voltaire would give a much more straightforward and much more of an insider story than someone like Pollnitz ever could. He would be the one collecting facts about the proud princess whose life he got legally involved with and because of whom he has at the same time acquired some degree of fame but also served time in prison, thus someone he who should inspire him real ambivalent feelings…

    I can’t retrieve the exact reference right now but i know that later in life Voltaire did write a very critical review of some author (maybe the chevalier de Piossens) who had published a Memoir of the Regency and if I remember correctly Voltaire made fun of some anecdote reported by the author about the Duchesse and her marriage to Riom, showing clearly that he was still interested in that story which he remembered vividly and had been very knowledgeable about…. I don’t know but I have the feeling that if Berry had lived longer or had met Voltaire in other circumstances at some other time, their relation would have been markedly different. For after all she was a free spirit, not just a drunken and slutish brat, always quarrelsome about etiquette but drinking herself into a stupor every night…. Berri was also a book collector (she did have a very large library). Living at the Luxembourg with the splendid collection of works by Rubens and also having Watteau decorate her chateau de la muette (where she died) the young princess must have been also an art lover. i wonder if Voltaire remembered Berri’s tragic demise when his dear friend the marquise du Châtelet died, soon after giving birth in 1749, 30 years after the Regent’s daughter who had somewhat unwillingly been one of the tools of his rise to social and litterary fame..

    I know that the ambassador of Prussia in Paris was collecting gossip about the Regent and his daughter and reporting them regularly to the King of Prussia who was an avid reader of court gossip. He tells a story about Berri’s childbirth that’s markedly different from Saint-Simon : according to him it’s after a night of revelry with her father that the Duchesse fell down from her carriage upon returning to the Luxembourg and instantly went into labour, the travail being so difficult that the baby had to be extracted in pieces, the afterbirth remaining in her womb and making her dangerously sick…. Dumas reports a somewhat similar story about a fall late in her pregnancy which caused the death of her baby…. These are just some of the numerous rumors associated with these events that authors generally evoke merely by rephrasing (or just plagiating) Saint-Simon. i think Voltaire would be the perfect cultural critique to report and analyse these culturally meaningful facts, about Berri, and her times.

    Dumas wrote quite a bit about the Regency, not only a very well documented Histoire de la Regence, but also novels The Regent’s daughter and The chevalier d’Harmental, and the much lesser known Memoires d’une aveugle ( the memoirs of Madame du Deffand). His novels are still read and I think your novel should really adopt other approaches and point of views.

    You do have a very interesting and little known novel by Eugenie Foa “La juive : histoire du temps de la Regence” publshed in 1835 and in open access on Gallica or
    But Foa turns Berri into a real romantic period heroin and the historical basis of her narrative is of course Saint-Simon. Worth reading though I think, if only because Berri is not the usual arch-mad, nymphomaniac, etc. as in many other works of fiction. Some years ago I had somewhat convinced an editor to publish a critical edition of this forgotten novel by a very arresting nineteenth century Jewish woman writer but unfortunately the publishing house went bankrupt before the project could be materialized and I didn’t have time nor opportunities for further tries.

    I don’t know if you’re familiar with the Voltaire detective stories (Série Voltaire mène l’enquête) by Frédéric Lenormand (eg. La baronne meurt à cinq heures, Paris). I think they are a good example of how to use Voltaire in historical novels that are not only very unfaithful to Voltaire’s works but merely use him as a stoog for rather sloppy historical novel writing…. But well, I do feel that it’s also useful to read “bad” novels if only to see clearly what one should avoid in this type of creative writing.

    Again, I do very much enjoy your writing.

  10. Dear Giselle, I forgot to mention that I fully agree about Berri being some kind of a cultural icon and thus not easily forgotten although I afraid that she was mostly remembered as embodiment of carnal pleasure, thus in the spirit of the satirical songs that characterize her as a French Messalina or as a modern Venus, the goddess of love, with her Luxembourg palace depicted as the sanctuary where she personally officiates in her orgiastic cult. Thus for example she is quoted in the “Catéchisme libertin à l’usage des filles de joie et des jeunes demoiselles qui se décident à embrasser cette profession”, a revolutionary pamphlet edited by Theroigne de Mericourt in 1792. You find Berri “in good company” page 42 in the” Litanies des filles de joie” : “Bienheureuse duchesse de Berry, vous qui foutiez avec vos gardes, faites que nous en puissions faire autant.”…. But I think a novel should really go beyond this curious iconisation of Berri’s “short and good” life….

  11. Dear Giselle, talking about gossip. I think you should absolutely visit Henri Duranton’s website on French 18th century satirical poems. He lists most of the satirical texts from the time of the Regency, including those on Berri. For each single text he identified the variants and the existing archival sources. Some texts mentioning Berri are very well known, others much less so. I think it’s a very valuable resource for the time period

  12. Dear Anton,
    You have given me so much to think about! Thank you!
    Of course by the time of Michelet etc, the history of France had been adjusted in accordance with republican beliefs, and those who had been part of the Ancien Regime were long dead. As a result the depiction of Berri as a ‘Messalina’ is inevitably one-dimensional. (It is argued that the characterisation of Messalina herself as a whore was in fact propaganda; history is written by the victorious). Thank you for the link to La Juive, which seems to be written in a classic Gothic style, on reading the first few pages. I think the 18th century style is lighter, after all, it seems that in those days, to be boring or ignorant was a far greater sin than to be promiscuous! I would aim to be different from those who have gone before me by capturing that voice and attitude.

    I am glad to hear that The Duchesse had a large library (like Marilyn Monroe). I like the idea of her as a fashion icon, with all the weakness and charm that entails. She’s referred to in Elisabeth of Orleans’ letters, who makes some typical grandma comment about her wearing too much make up, too many beauty spots, and painting her veins – it was apparently the fashion to paint over the outlines of one’s veins as this made the arms look slimmer and more interesting. It’s disapproving but also affectionate.

    Maybe you’re right about Voltaire as a narrator – I do enjoy his voice. But you can see the problem in terms of story structure, because his career goes on and on and on, through a number of completely different phases, and then people will say ‘why didn’t you write about Voltaire in London, the funeral of Adrienne Lecouvreur, Emilie du Chatelet, Frederick the Great and Sans Souci, the campaign for Jean Calas, the last performance at the Comedie Francaise etc etc…’

    And thank you for the link to the satirical verses. It amuses me that although there was royal censorship of all printed material (I have a 1778 volume of Moliere printed ‘Avec Approbation, & Privilege du Roi), vast amounts of banned material found its way into France from the Low Countries and Switzerland, consisting of pornography (naturally), political and philosophical works, and scurrilous verses and broadsheets. It’s great to see these ephemera preserved. I think France is more advanced than England in its digital archives, and have found a wealth of material on
    Kind regards,

    1. Dear Giselle, I am glad you find the references interesting. I also find Anna Orzelska’s story very fascinating. I didn’t know at all about her and Polish wikipedia doesn’t say more about her than the English version. But well she could only report the gossip about Berri even if she was living in Paris throughout the Regency period.

      Madame du Deffand could be another source, at least in terms of reminiscences.

      Yes you are right Berri is very interesting as a fashion icon and she definitely was a model of fashion in her times. I remember that Erlanger had some nice description of her displaying the sack-back gowns she put in fashion because they somptuously displayed her youthful beauty… and maybe also because as other sources mention (eg. Soulavie) they helped her conceal her ungainly shapes when she got pregnant.
      She was so much associated with this new fasion that when she died she was referred to as “la vache aux paniers” (“elle est morte la vache aux paniers, il n’en faut plus parler”) : “la vache” as a slang word for a whore and paniers pointing at the hoop skirts she was fond of…
      The Palatine was verry fond of Berri, and expresses her worries for her grand-daughter’s health quite strongly when she alludes to her 1719 delivery and the long and fatal illness that followed.

      If you focus on Arouet, picking up the story at the very start of the Regency and then ending it with Berri’s death or in 1720 with Law’s financial crash, then I think you wouldn’t have the problem of having to tell his whole lifestory. Or maybe it could start later in time but then be restricted to a series of flash-backs focusing on the Regency period.

      I don’t know about Michelet but reading over what he writes about Berri I always had mixed feelings since at the same time he depicts her as a mental case but then also describes her and her plight with rather sensual words, making the reader feel sympahty for her…. Or I don’t know maybe it’s just my reading of him. But I think especially when he writes about the Luxembourg scandal and what he considers to be a clearly incestuous birth, he really makes you feel sorry for her sufferings…

      Yes, France is definitely more open than the anglo-saxon world in terms of making such verses available to the general public, although even in France you still have many writers who are really embarassed with someone like Berri, espcially if they are fond of celebrities and royal families, so that they will try hard to “redeem” her of all her sins eg. by having her marry Riom right at the start of the Regence, or having her perish because of her boulimia, etc.

      You are right about Messalina, two books just came out the Messalina myth but so far I haven’t had time to read them yet… That’s also why I am saying you should work on the base of all the gossip or reports about Berri, because to me whether false or true, they are all culturally meaningful, as long as they really date from the time period….

      Well, it’s late and I must wake up early to bring the kids to school. Sorry if I don’t have time available to read myself over…. Bye

  13. Dear Giselle,

    Among the various protagonists of Berri’s story you also have another key pamphleteer and it’s L’Abbé Prévost, author of Les avantures de Pomponius chevalier romain, ou l’histoire de notre tems (Rome, 1728). A “Libertine novel” he first published in 1724 (not in Rome as printed on the book title page but in Amsterdam) under the pen name of Labadie.
    Berri appears briefly in the novel as the princess Jerdreb. The novel openly talks about her incestuous relationship with her father, also of her affair and marriage with Riom. The beautiful princess is said to die after a very violent childbirth, provoked by her father who during an altercation with her lover accidentally kicks her in the belly. The princess Jerdreb then gives birth to two children, one from her husband and the other one from her father !
    In the 1728 edition right after the “Adventures of Pomponius” you find a “recueil de pièces touchant la Régence” containing the Noëls satiriques de 1717 a very notorious satirical Christmas song which was thus already circulated in print right right after the Regency. It’s in this scurrilous Christmas Carol that you find these very funny verses about the heavily pregnant Duchesse, kneeling down before the boy Jesus and pledging him to become a bit more “virtuous” .

    Grosse à pleine ceinture,
    La féconde Berry,
    Dit en humble posture,
    Et le cœur tout contrit,
    Seigneur, je n’aurai plus de mœurs aussi gaillardes.
    Je ne veux que Riom, don don
    quelques fois le [papa], la la
    Par ci, par là mes gardes.

    This Carol refers to events that had taken place in 1717 and the quoted passage about the “ féconde Berry” thus certainly alludes to the pregnancy she concealed in her castle of La Muette in Spring 1717. A “clandestine pregnancy” which had probably soon become public knowledge as evidenced by Arouet’s comment to Beauregard !

    Here’s the references to the two books recently published about the Messalina myth, both very well documented and given a very broad historical view ot this very recurring emblematic image of the female monarch of very loose sexual morals. They even include 1970s fumetti and sexploitation movies in their approach, also analyse of course the Marie-Antoinette story but don’t mention Berri at all, not even as a footnote…. You have thus
    Messaline, la putain impériale (2015) by Jean-Noël Castorio
    Messaline, impératice et putain – généalogie d’un mythe sexuel (2014)
    by Antonio Dominguez Leiva
    I hope I’ll manage reading them by the end of the summer !

    I guess you’re familiar with the novels of Chantal Thomas, the 18th century historian who edited with Denis Raynaud a very good collection of texts about the Regent and his myth : “Le Régent : Entre fable et Histoire” (2003), a very useful and very well documented book but which doesn’t really cover the Berri story or describe adequately her emblematic figure and the myths attached to it…

    Chantal Thomas’ most recent novel is I believe L’échange des princesses (2014) which takes place after Berri’s death and the crash of Law’s bank. I have not read any of her novels so far.

    Wishing you an excellent sunny day !

  14. Dear Giselle,
    I just came across a very interesting article avbout the visit of Peter the Great to France in 1717 by Michel Mervaud “Pierre le Grand en France : les recits de Voltaire” published in the Revue des etudes slaves, LXXXIII/2-3, 2012, pp. 847-870 (you can download a PDF version of the article

    At the beginning of the article (pp. 849-850) Mervaud (quoting the Memoires du cardinal Dubois) mentions rumors of a Bacchanalia like all night party between the Czar, the Regent and Berri “bacchanales au cours desquelles le tsar offensait grossierement le regent qui sortait de ses gonds au point, dit-on, de le menacer de la Bastille. La duchesse de Berry, fille du regent, faisait fermer les portes et ne permettait a personne de sortir avant qu’il [le Tsar] n’ait cuve son vin.”

    This anecdote based on Dubois seems rather odd considering that Berri was at the time some 7 months pregnant and waiting for the time of her delivery at La Muette, it seems she only came out of her retreat to receive the Czar in her palace on 21 May, then returned to La Muette and stayed there until giving birth some time in June…. Although we know from Berri’s activities in 1716 and 1719 that her pregnancies never kept her away from evening and night parties… But well, I would guess it’s just another gossip, just another scurrilous mention to be found in Dubois’ Memoirs… In any case to me this spicy anecdote seems worth considering since it must somehow reflect gossip that circulated at the time of Peter’s visit…

    But anyway Mervaud’s very informative article then proceeds with a detailed agenda of Peter the Great’s visit including his coming to the Luxembourg palace and giving details about the artworks that the Czar was interested in (sorry but I just cut and pasted this fragment from the PDF which explains the funny typography and the lack of accents) :
    ■21 mai. va marchander un manchon chez un fourreur du Palais royal (Buvat,
    Gazette, 176-177). apres-diner (a 6 h du soir, Buchet, 200), palais du Luxembourg,
    visite a la duchesse de Berry (BuChEt, 200 ; Buvat, Journal, 268 ; DaNgEau, 93 ;
    SaINt-SImoN, 357 ; ≪ remarques ≫, fo 251 r). admire le David du guide [le David
    vainqueur de Goliath de guido reni, cf. Christophe henry, p. 17], la venus de van
    Dyck, qui demande des armes a vulcain pour Enee [aujourd’hui au Louvre], et qu’il
    contemple pres d’un quart d’heure. Il a un grand gout pour la peinture (BuChEt, 200-
    201). une ≪ apotheose du baroque ≫, avec les tableaux de Rubens consacres a l’histoire de marie de medicis et de henri Iv.”

    I think the visit of the Czar to Paris should be one of the key events in any story about the Regency and Berri’s times

    Well, I’ll soon go to the beach with the kids… and will maybe get back to you some time later if I get some new ideas about Berri’s story


    1. Dear Anton, what an exciting wealth of material and references! Half the fun is deciding how much of it to believe, isn’t it? After all, most of what we read in the press about today’s celebrities is probably inaccurate and based around their public image. I don’t know if you remember Denis Thatcher, the husband of the former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher? In the 1980s the satirical magazine ‘Private Eye’ ran a regular column about him.

      I quote from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography:

      “Early in life Denis Thatcher had taken to heart a favourite saying of his father’s: ‘it is better to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool than open it and remove all doubt’. As he felt his way into the role of male prime ministerial consort—unprecedented in Britain and a novelty anywhere—he consistently followed that advice, refusing interviews and making only occasional speeches, anodyne and brief. He deeply regretted a single lapse, when in December 1979 at a dinner of the London Society of Rugby Football Union Referees (of which he was treasurer, having refereed at a club level for many years) he made remarks criticizing the sporting boycott of South Africa. He felt the consequent controversy was at his wife’s expense.

      Paradoxically a policy of silence worked well for him partly because other people started speaking for him. After May 1979 the satirical magazine Private Eye began publishing ‘Dear Bill’, a regular spoof letter to a golfing chum, gifting him the comic persona of a gin-soaked buffoon, married to a workaholic dominatrix who happened to run the country. Denis saw the advantages of playing along with ‘Dear Bill’ (he had little choice), and grew into the part. Did he have a drink problem, he was once asked? ‘Yes, Madam, I can never get enough.’ What did he do with his time at number 10? ‘Well, when I’m not pissed, I play a lot of golf.’”

      I’m by no means a Thatcherite, but this impressed me as an example of how a public persona can develop from satire, and then be adopted by the satirised person. And I love to draw parallels between different times in history!

      So anyway, in reading all this satire and innuendo, where is the real person? Somewhere in there, hiding in a sack back dress, or indeed, in the habit of a nun as I have seen her in one painting.

      And Peter the Great – well, his state visit was a scream, wasn’t it? I have read accounts describing him and his retinue as semi savage, drinking enormous amounts of alcohol and behaving in the most outlandish ways with complete disregard of Court etiquette. Apparently he visited Madame de Maintenon (I can’t find the reference so this is from memory) in her convent, she had not yet got up, he marched into her room, pulled back the bed curtain, stared at her, and then turned and left the room without a word. All wonderful stuff!

      This story really has been stored away in the virtual attic for a while. I was going to write it as a novel in 2013, but then got sidetracked by a Creative Writing course into writing something else (about a 19th century coroner) and I’m on the second draft of a novel based on that at present, and am determined to finish. But it’s quite uncanny how you’ve divined the other main story thread; half of it was Voltaire’s rise to wealth and glory, and the other half was Berri’s decline and death. I’ve put a screenshot For Anton! of the original story plan up for you to see.

  15. Dear Giselle,
    “Voltaire’s rise to wealth and glory, and the other half was Berri’s decline and death” I think that’s a wonderful thread, and actually after reading your short story and first comments that’s how I understood your vision of Voltaire and Berri’s story and it really struck me as a brilliant idea ! Which would really break (I hope once and for all) the usual stereotypes associated with Berri. Because sure she’s always or almost always part of any Regence historical novel, but always under the same old misogynical trappings ! I think she deserves much better and it’s not a matter of turning her into a “decent, nice and pretty royal princess” but into a real complex character, with real psychological depth…

    Yes I know that portrait of Berri, supposedly depicting her early in her widowhood. I have it here reproduced on a postcard, in Black and White. It comes from Versailles museum and was painted by Louis de Silvestre, who by the way also painted a portrait of Anna Orzelska in 1724. But lately the identification of that portrait of Berri seems to have been revised (I don’t know on what grounds) and it’s now identified as representing Louise-Francoise de Bourbon (1673-1743) Mademoiselle de Nantes i.e. Berri’s maternal aunt !

    But then on a group portrait dy Silvestre depicting the reception by Louis XIV. of the prince elector of Saxony, and future king of Poland, August III you find the Palatine and to the right a younger woman who’s been generally identified as Berry and looks very much like the young widow represented alone by Silvestre
    So, I wonder what to think of it…

    Anyway, there’s really a problem with existing portraits of Berri. For example a portrait by Nicolas de Largillière in the Rijkmuseum supposedly represents her as Flora but the woman depicted on this portrait seems rather dull, boring and austere and then her facial features don’t match at all other portraits of Berri that seem better identitified and documented !
    First there is an engraving by Desrochers in the collections of Versailles museum
    This portrait seems to match a painting by Nicolas de Largilliere in the Frost Museum (Miami)
    Another version of the same painting was auctioned in Paris in 2011
    Both versions of the painting show a woman with round features, a sensual mouth and the same malicious look as the Duchesse portrayed on Desrochers’ engraving.
    Like the engraving both paintings probably depict the Duchesse in the later part of her life, in 1717 or 1718, before her fatal pregnancy. She is rather plump but seems to radiate an inner joy of life, or so it seems to me…
    Ironically you find the same mischievous look, the same intelligent gaze, on an engraving showing the Duchesse before her marriage, when she was only known as mademoiselle d’Orléans

    In Versailles collections you find three more prints representing Berri
    then one in colour, probably showing her soon after her marriage to Charles de Berri
    Like in the first one she looks very young and slender suggesting they were drawn toward the beginning of her marriage with the Duke.

    And then in the same databank you find a portrait of her on horseback and in hunting costume. Berri was known to be extremely fond of hunting and only avoided this favourite leisure of hers when she was well advanced into her pregnancy in Spring 1717.
    The memoirs of Madame de Maintenon mention Berri steadfastly following the royal hunt on horseback at the end of 1714 (Maintenon maliciously remarks that Berri seemed to be unusually “stout” at the time… Dangeau mentions that Berri felt severely indisposed on one of these hunting days and soon after that became “ill” in the middle of a royal supper, having to be carried away to her appartments).

    Well, I will leave it here. And I’m getting carried away…

  16. Dear Anton,
    The picture in the Frost collection seems the most likely one to me. It’s hard to believe that that one and ‘Flora’ are the same woman painted by the same artist. Could ‘Flora’ be Louise-Adelaide, who became Mademoiselle d’Orleans after her sister became Duchesse de Berri:
    I once met an old lady in the Dordogne who told me that widows are an object of attraction to Frenchmen and that she was absolutely besieged by her male neighbours after her husband died, one even chased her around her sitting room. There could be more in the lushness of that fur-trimmed widow’s gown than meets the eye…

  17. Dear Giselle,
    Yes I think we agree on the identity of the woman depicted on the Frost museum painting who does look strikingly similar to Berri on Desrochers’ engraving. Maybe not as beautiful as one would expect for someone who was at times depicted as the „Vénus du Luxembourg » and who’s said to have at least once impersonated the goddess of Love herself in some « tableau-vivant » enacted for the pleasure of her father ands his « roués »… But then she must be then toward the end of her life, a rather fleshy woman, who’s lost her petulant beauty as a consequence of her life of excess. But then there’s still something quite sensual about her, especially in her gaze that leads me to think the identification should be correct. Interesting is that there’s another version of that very same portrait in the Chantilly museum where it used to be seen as an idealized portrait of the Palatine ! Louise-Adelaide became abbess of Chelles around the time Berri gave birth in 1719. As I mentioned she’s the narrator in Eve de Castro’s novel „Nous serons comme des dieux”.

    I think Berri was very popular among men, before and after the death of her husband. Even more so I guess once her father became Regent of France. Many men, not just Riom, must have thought she was the perfect gateway to power and wealth so she could certainly pick her lovers easily. Although it’s been mentioned now and then that different candidates were considered for remarrying her, or so it seems at the beginning of the Regency. James, the Old Pretender seems to have been one of them, but the collapse of the Jacobite rising probably severely tarnished his credit with Berri… Apparently the Duchesse soon made it quite clear that she wanted to enjoy her newly gained freedom and her prominent position as France first Lady (or just about). Interesting also how the men identified as her « standing » lovers were all men of rather low status, implying that she no longer wanted to just become the wife of any royal prince or crowned head.

    Anyway, how could anyone (even back then) imagine that a 18 years old girl who suddenly became widow would remain chaste… especially after loosing her child for a third time just one month after the death of her rightful husband, considered by law the father of that child whose real progenitor could very well have been one of her lovers… We know Berri started having lovers soon after marrying the duke. Sure, I guess the story would have been quite different if that baby born on 16 June 1714 had turned out to be male and had survived… then Berri could have been rightfully much closer to total power ! She’d have been the mother of a likely candidate to the Throne of France or at least could have established her court at the Luxembourg with much more ease arousing less jealous protests from other princes claiming topmost ceremonialism. She would probably have been much closer to Louis XIV than she really was during the short time period between the death of her husdand the duke and the death of the Sun King. In any case Louis XIV showed her much interest in the last year or so of his reign, and seems to have been unsually flexible and tolerant with her, even turning a blind eye to her fleeting love relationships – although she seems to have been rather discrete back then. It’s during that period that both paintings by Silvestre were done and as you mention they are not fully “innocent”

    You see … your “anachronic” approach does inspire me, enticing me to reconsider all that everyday gossip associated with this seductive widow….



  18. Dear Giselle,
    As you know by now I easily get carried away by Berri’s story. How should I put it but the fact is that her memory pretty much imposed itself on me. I think it was after devouring Erlanger’s well-written biography of the Regent that I first read about her and felt somewhat moved by her tragic story and then again years later when reading through Michelet’s story of the Regence. During a trip to Munich I was also surprised and delighted to find a portrait of her by Pierre Gobert as parrt of the gallery of beauties commissioned for the prince elector Maximilian Emanuel of Bavaria. A portrait on which she looks very much like the widow painted by Silvestre and that must have been painted I guess before 1715 since she is not dressed in mourning. Unfortunately that painting is almost absent on the net and this amateur snapshot is just about the best reproduction you can get of this painting which you can only look at from a distance and sideways, with the spotlights reflecting on the painting’s varnish (

    Another portrait of Berri by Gobert is to be found in the collections of Versailles palace. This painting of Berri in Versailles not reproduced on the Net but I obtained a Black and White picture of it from the RMN data bank some 15 years ago, and copies were made in the 18th century as evidenced by this auction page on Artnet

    I also happened to find in a second-hand bookstore the 1935 book by Jacques Roujon La fille du régent (“Berri” as a widow is reproduced on the cover), then another biography of her by Lieutenant Colonel Henri Carré : Mademoiselle fille du Régent, Duchesse du Berry – 1695-1719 published in 1936 (with Gobert’s portrait from Versailles’ collection on the book cover). Both authors base much of their narrative on Saint-Simon and 19th century authors, producing a largely negative and misogynic portrait of Berri. But well, I still remember vividly how thrilled I felt finding successively these very old fashioned and moralistic biographies of her !

    I thus progressively started collecting pieces of stories, now and then, without any clear agenda nor much order though ! University libraries and inter-library loans did help quite a bit in this disorderly « quest » for her story. And then came the Internet, google books and gallica…

    Right now  I am still collecting odds and ends on her although clearly not documenting any future novel about Berri and her times ! I thought of writing some scientific paper on her, but such writing takes an awful lot of time and isn’t always too much fun ! In Haiti or Brazil you get possessed by the spirits of long dead individuals some of them clear historical characters others of a more mythical nature… An old friend of mine who pretty much witnessed the different stages of my possession by Berri’s memory used to poke fun at me saying I had just inscribed myself on Berri’s notoriously long list of lovers… I see it more as part of the old sympathy I always tend to feel for primitive rebels and bandits and in this case for someone who defied the morals of her time and challenged the status-quo, by her constant breaching of the very elaborate Court etiquette and ceremonials… even if as that old friend of mine put it : she probably was also a very spoiled brat !

    As a High School senior I read quite a lot of Sade’s novels being especially found of his Philosophy in the Bedroom and of Juliette. But well, Berri was certainly not a true libertine heroine like Juliette… even less so considering her enslavement to Riom and the way that „fruitful Berri” never managed to avoid the „shameful” consequences of her sexual freedom, just forced to bear one fruit after another, plus probable miscarriages in between her more or less documented series of „legitimate” and „shameful” births, thus as Michelet put it, getting “exterminated” by her pregnancies. Not a dangerous woman like Juliettte and not a virtuous victim like Justine either…

    But, well going back to your last comments I do like the Denis Thatcher anecdote I feel that indeed contemporary disgressions can be very fruitful and inspiring. I don’t believe in any single true story that’s somewhere to be found in some old Memoirs or long neglected documents waiting to be discovered. I rather like to collect facts or pieces of facts and try to order them into meaningful patterns and scenarios. There is no official truth about Berri since she didn’t really have any single PR person taking care of her good name but on the other hand you do have a series of official or semi-official mouthpieces enabling us to piece together a narrative of her public life and oftentimes by combining these “official truths” with the gossips you get much clearer pictures of the different tableaux composing the story of her life.


  19. Nymphenburg, what a stunning place! I was there in 2013, and it inspired a little blog post about the nature of historical fiction.
    It was about how we approximate, and the details may end up being wrong, but the overall effect is right.

    You’ve probably assembled enough material to write a biography of Berri, why don’t you? If you have been, as it were, seduced by her spirit, you will have developed an understanding of how she would view her world, her family, and her future – she was perhaps not to know how short her life would be. You can imagine, can picture the scenes, could write it as if you were her lover, at her side at the Opera or the card-table (I hope you can play lansquenet), quailing under her grandmother’s disapproving eye, or irritating you by sitting affectionately on her Papa’s knee when she is clearly too old for that sort of behaviour. You could describe her joie de vivre, her humour and her intelligence, through the sympathetic eye of an intimate. She must have been fun to be with. You could try to answer the question of how we should view her, if we can get away from judging her by her sexual behaviour – as you say she she has been judged by misogynists – the same people who would perhaps regard the promiscuous Duc de Richelieu for example, as a ‘legend’, whose ‘amatory exploits far overshadowed other more worthy achievements’, to quote his biographer. If he had been female, he would have been considered a slut. There is always public interest in iconic, desirable and tragic / self-destructive women. For example Amanda Foreman’s biography of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire was made into a film. And perhaps the recent film about Amy Winehouse is a modern example.

    De Sade – I find much of his work too horrible to read, but it also is deeply characteristic of those times, and I think one cannot really grasp the spirit of that age without understanding what he wrote about. Yet, echoes of it linger on today. (Here I am drawing modern day parallels again!) In the UK, Dame Lowell Goddard has had to be brought from NZ to head a public inquiry into historic child sex abuse – it seems none of the ‘great and the good’ in this country were sufficiently untainted by Establishment connections to enjoy any credibility with the victims. And it is alleged that powerful men were implicated, that they were protected and sometimes helped by the police, and that children were even murdered by these people. Files have gone missing, evidence has been destroyed… It is chilling to consider, but that mindset is still there, and for all our pretensions we are no more civilised than we were 300 years ago.

    – Giselle

  20. Dear Giselle, your writing is beautiful and I very much enjoy your modern day parallels which I find very inspiring. There is so much in de Sade and I guess that’s what I liked about him, also that he stood up against the death penalty in these troubled times of revolution and mostly because he so much inspired the surrealists and many modern artists (there was a wonderful exhibit about him last Fall in Orsay Museum which quite showed the extent to which he’s to be considered one of key writers inspiring modern and contemporary art… But allow me to briefly go back to Berri…

    In contrast with the scandalous childbearing of Berri at the Luxembourg in 1719, so well documented thanks to Saint-Simon and various official and semi-official reports, we know very little about Berri’s pregnancy in 1717. I was mistaken when I wrote you the other day that after receiving the Czar in the Luxembourg the princess returned to La Muette where she remained until her delivery. I just retrieved in “Le Nouveau Mercure” a quite wonderful description of Berri’s part in the procession of the Holy Sacrament during the celebrations of Corpus Christi on 3 June 1717, pp. 76-79

    The text describes the itinerary of the parade from Saint-Sulpice church to the Luxembourg where the Duchesse and her court await the coming of the Holy parade. When it reaches the palace, Berri walks into the procession, joining it with her followers, accompanying it in its return to Saint-Sulpice. The princess walks right behind the Canopy held over the monstrance. Rion is walking just ahead of her, while the Marquis de la Rochefoucault, captain of her guard (and said to have been her lover before she fell for Riom) follows, right behind her ! Berri walks all the way to Saint-Sulpice church where she’s then administered the Holy Sacrament ! The text fully describes the event, identifying all the personalities present and naming the streets taken by the procession.

    But it’s only thanks to gossips that we get the full story and grasp the irony of the situation : Berri, very “big with child”, parades behind the sacred receptacle displaying the Holy body of Christ, escorted by her two lovers, the officers of her private guard. Riom who became her paramour a few months earlier might have fathered the child soon to be born. But la Rochefoucauld’s paternity can’t be entirely dismissed. Escorted by the two putative progenitors of the illegitimate offspring she carries in her womb the princess thus makes public display of her participation in one of the holiest Christian rituals, clearly subverting the morals of the Church and of society. Voltaire’s remark to Beauregard and gossip spread by satirical songs show that Berri’s pregnant condition was known by the public and yet nothing troubled the smooth order of the ritual, so that at least for History, Berri just perfectly played her part of prominent princess doing good deeds, demonstrating to the people of Paris her very pious and sincere devotion through the streets of her parish, from her palace to Saint-Sulpice church.

    Over a month later we read in the “Gazette de la Regence” (entry dated 9 July 1717 p.192) : “Mme la duchesse de Berry ne sort pas de la Muette, où elle est incommodée, devenant si puissante qu’il est à craindre qu’elle ne fournisse pas une longue carrière ici-bas.” An easy to understand allusion to Berri’s reaching the term of her pregnancy. This hypothesis is confirmed by the same Gazette in an entry dated 30 July informing us that a few days earlier the Duchesse was rumored to be in critical condition, bringing forth a child. In this instance, unlike in 1719, Berri’s PR worked so that we know very little about her childbearing in 1717. Few historical sources mention it : the Gazette de la Regence and Voltaire’s comments to Beauregard, plus of course the satirical poems and the Christmas Carol of 1717 (“Grosse a pleine ceinture, la feconde Berri….”). We must guess that in this case Berri’s delivery wasn’t troublesome. It also didn’t happen at the Luxembourg, unlike with her first illegitimate birth at the end of January 1716, which however also made very little waves since it happened deep in the wintertime, her “illness” being conveniently attributed to a severe cold. Berri’s first clandestine delivery also went rather smoothly it seems, except for the death of the baby girl just three days after birth.

    In this context also, the 1717 scurrilous Christmas Carol in which the Court proceeds to Bethlehem rendering homage to Jesus, headed by the Regent and his very pregnant daughter, the “feconde Berri”, seems to acquire new meaning and must have been understood at the time as an allusion to Berri’s “shameful” state when performing her “act of piety” six months earlier in the Corpus Christi parade… But well, sure, this is maybe just my tabloid interpretation of Berri’s Corpus act as described in the 1717 “Nouveau Mercure” report…

    and again thank you for writing me such beautiful and kind words

  21. Excellent! And it seems there were also present a throng of archbishops, abbots and the Who’s Who of the Parisian establishment. Rather charming that she made the procession on foot. She may have wondered what it would be like, walking to the altar with someone she loved – a choice which was barred to her by her rank, and her sisters fared no better.
    The tone of the whole publication is highly respectful – but then they could always be censored and thrown into the Bastille I suppose!

  22. Dear Giselle,
    Like Peter I love the internet, especially the ‘unexpected finds’ when using it for research. I very much like the way you characterise her as “iconic, desirable and tragic / self-destructive” and feel that you have such a wonderful understanding of that time period and real empathy for her without being judgemental.

    Yes, I believe that Berri must have been a fun person to be with, very malicious and witty. I also think that her sexual life certainly made her the victim of misogynic double standards. Actually it was put so, very clearly, in some French newspaper article of 1833 published once the duchess of Berry, Marie-Caroline, had given birth in Blaye. The author of that article, making a parallel between the sexual morals of the champion of Legitimism and the well known debauchery of the 18th century duchess characterised the later by comparing her with Henri IV, the Vert-Galant, meaning that he really blamed Berri for being sexually active with a degree of freedom that was only tolerable for crowned men ! I should try to retrieve this article because it made the point so clearly.

    If we look at it from this point of view then Berri’s “countless” love affairs and repeated “clandestine” pregnancies do make a lot of sense, just as much as her permanent quarrels over etiquette and Court ceremonialism which she constantly strove to turn topsy-turvy. I don’t know but I really start seeing some form of coherence in her, clear links between her “slutiness” and her acts of immense pride. I feel that there was a real continiuty between her performances in the bedroom and her actions on the stages of Court life… a continuity in terrms of transgressing borders, jumping barriers, provoke scandals and be willing to risk her health, her reputation and her life in the process…

    Yes, I am also very charmed by Berri’s participation in the Corpus procession and this regardless of the subversive aspects i like to see in it. Because if I’m not mistaken under Louis XIV Court ladies in general when they were with child, regardless of the advanced stage of their pregnancy (legitimate or not), still participated in all public events with but very little care taken of their condition.
    If I remember correctly some other “official” publication of 1717 describes the dress she wore on that day and which was I think quite splendid, turning her literally into a living idol.

    And then taking part in the procession and walking all the way to Church would be the best way to silence the gossip about her pregnancy since her “disgraceful corpulence”, by then very hard to disguise, could easily be attributed to her overindulgence in delicious foods ! Because after all she could easily take advantage of her proverbial “obesity” (la grosse Joufflotte) to disguise her “illicit” pregnancies and I suspect that’s what she did,

    The same way her grand-mother, the Palatine incriminated Berri’s boulimia and her obesity as the causes of her illness when she lay on her “sick-bed” at the Luxembourg. In a letter of 2 April 1719 (Lettres de la princesse Palatine (1672-1722), Paris, Mercure de France, 1985, p. 384) the Palatine mentions :
    « Notre duchesse de Berry est malade, elle a la fièvre, des vapeurs et des douleurs à la matrice… À l’instant on me dit qu’elle est très mal ; je suis bien inquiète : elle est si grasse et si grosse que j’ai peur qu’elle ne fasse une bien grave maladie… ». And as we know her beloved grand-daughter was indeed suffering from a very dangerous illness right then, causing her very severe pains in the matrix (Mutterweh in the German text of which unfortunately I don’t have a copy)…

    I fully agree with you believing that for all our pretensions we are no more civilised than we were 300 years ago, rather the opposite I think. We are the 10th of July, the 74th anniversary of Jedwabne’s pogrom (cf. the book by Jan Gross, that notorious massacre in East Poland done by local Poles at the beginning of the German invasion of the USSR… But that’s something I have always known, already when I was a child… although my parents always tried to “shelter” me from that knowledge of the very dark pages of our modern and civilised world…

  23. Dear Anton,
    Yes I think you are right, that she was a young woman who was prepared to rebel against the conventions, irrespective of the consequences, and in her privileged position and widowhood she was protected from the economic and social penalties which would have probably befallen most women of that age who dared to transgress.
    I have an English edition of a selection of “Liselotte”s letters, and I do enjoy reading them, there is something universal and very human about them, she is like any other middle aged /older woman anywhere in the world!
    Matrice is an old term for ‘womb’.

  24. Dear Giselle,
    I like the Palatine letters, unfortunately that French edition from which I quote her is only really a king of anthology ! I don’t know which English edition you have but if i remember correctly, they either edited out that letter written after her visit to Berri while in labor or certainly edited out the mention of “pains in the matrice”. The Palatine is invaluable for the description of Berri’s calvary after her delivery but I guess getting hold of the original German text would be necessary. I remember a point where she describes Berri being so much in pain that she cried like a woman in labor (in French it should have been translated “en mal d’enfant”), which was truend by the translator into “she cried like a child” !

    But well, such “errors” are not surprising and are really the product of censorship : leaving out shocking details.. Because after all she was a princess wasn’t see and her debauchery could be seen as a terrible stain for the whole Bourbon and Orleans genealogical trees !

    Actually my interpretation of Berri’s transgressive character also comes out I think of some short texte about her I had read in the “Souvenirs de la marquise de Créquy” for which there’s an English translation but which shows exactly the same type of tampering with the original French text as is the case with the Palatine’s letter. The text comes thus from Recollections of a French marchioness by M. Cousin, published in 2 volumes in London in 1846

    “This horrible woman was the plague-spot of our existence. She had burnt up her
    inside by the abuse of strong liquors till at last she fell ill…”

    Of course Berri’s childbirth is completely out of the picture, but that’s also the case in the original French text of Victoire de Froulay de Tessé, marquise de Créquy… Thus what can be seen as one the key events in Berri’s short life (for it did cause her death) is just not there, or rather voluntarily not named, her well-known and documented illegitimate motherhood ! As if such “abomination” should not be evoked at all! Imagine ! A princess of royal blood giving birth to a bastard child ! Who could have been fathered by the lieutenant of her guard as well as by her own father or by some other of her countless lovers ! Everyone knows that Berri was the Messalina daughter of the Regent ! But well, such debauchery shouldn’t be named ! Better not talk about such disorderly behavior ! Not proper, I guess ? She was a nutcase ? Drunk and irresponsible ? Don’t name the devil ! But well, I can still find examples of that attitude in recent books about the Regence, published recently… that just won’t mention Berri was giving birth…

    The narrative that follows seems pretty close to Saint-Simon, however leaving out Riom and turning Madame de Mouchy into “Madame de M” and with a focus on the refusal of the sacraments and the “council” between the Regent and the cardinal, etc.

    But in de Créquy’s text I quite like the way, Berri’s reaction is described when the princess learns she’s being refused the Sacraments unless she expells Riom and Mouchi from her palace, this while her palace has vainly tried putting pressure on Languet through the Cardinal de Noailles, who instead of helping the Regent convice Languet to turn a blind eye to the reality of Berri’s illness expresses him his full support in public :

    “But all this time the Duchesse was dying, and imperiously demanded to receive the unctions with the holy Viaticum ; their refusal maddened her to desperation — she broke or tore everything that came within her reach ! she bit her hands — and her pages, guards, and even her footmen at the other end of her apartments, heard her screams and imprecations of frantic rage and fury.

    I like Berri’s frantic rage and fury! She’s not helpless although she must by then be fully exhausted by her gruesome travail…

    A bit later in this short text about Berri’s illness and death, the translation leaves out the important “details” of Berri being found pregnant after her death ! But it doesn’t just leave out this “shocking” detail. It also leaves out full paragraphs as shows the comparison with the original French text, Souvenirs de la marquise de Crequy, tome 2 pp. 19-24 :

    First this interesting social interpretation of Berri’s horrible nature, and which comes right before the description of Berri’s illness :
    Cette horrible femme Berri] était pour nous comme une plaie hideuse et honteuse , tous les cœurs en étaient navrés et flétris , et l’on aurait dit qu’il y avait alors dans chaque famille honorable une proche parente qui se serait précipitée dans l’abjection. Je vous assure que ma mère et ma sœur et ma fille auraient été fouettées et marquées, que je n’en aurais pas souffert une douleur plus cuisante !

    And then also this paragraph which comes right after the description of Languet’s vigil at the door of Berri’s sickroom and which to me really endows Berri’s “bad behavior” with clear social-political meaning :

    Jugez donc quelle effroyable perturbation dans les choses et les pensées du monde car enfin, cette pierre de scandale et d’achoppement cette femme d’opprobre et d’anathème, était la petite-fille et ta veuve d’un fils de France Il y avait à peine quatre ans que Louis XIV avait cessé de régner! et c’était une personne royale, une fille de Saint-Louis, à qui le clergé de Paris était obligé de refuser sa communion pour les sacremens et les prières, ainsi qu’on aurait fait pour la Desmarres ou la Camargot [actresses/0pera girls] ! On a dit avec raison que la Régence avait été le premier coup de cloche de la révolution de quatre vingt treize.

    It seems that the Souvenirs d’une marquise aren’t reliable as historical source, however I do think that here they probably faithfully convey use they way Berri was seen by her “peers”, both right after the Regency, and then most important to me, how she was remembered by the old nobility after the overthrow of the Ancient Regime !


    1. Dear Anton, My copy is ‘Letters from Liselotte’, edited and translated by Maria Kroll (1998), but it does not include much mention of Berri’s pregnancies or final illness. There is one extract from 22nd June 1719:…’the poor creature is suffering quite dreadfully, it is pitiable. She is growing thin and weak, and I’m beginning to be afraid. I hadn’t seen her for a couple of days and found her very changed. Her life last year was extremely disorderly, and I told her that she would come to regret it. She wouldn’t listen and now she is sorry, but it’s too late.’ Doesn’t that sound exactly like a grandmother?
      I have started reading a text ‘Women in England 1760-1914: A social history’, by Susie Steinbach, and she makes a comment about historical sources which is quite pertinent here although from a different historical epoch: ‘Most memoirs are written many years after the fact and can be shaped by regret or discretion. Letters can be selectively edited for their intended readers. Even in diaries, writers explore different ways of understanding or presenting themselves. Another problem is that very few personal writings by women (or non-elite men) survive.’
      But thank you for the wealth of sources you have linked to in your comments – I shall be referring to this page in the future!

  25. Dear Giselle, I didn’t know about this edition of the Palatine’s letterr in English. I imagine Maria Kroll did her translation from the original letters. I’ll look for it.
    The passage you quote does indeed sound very real, written barely a month before Berri’s death and hinting at her misfortunes some weeks earlier.

    Arlette Farge published some real interesting books on social and cultural life in Paris during the 18th century. Yes, there’s not much written by women or commoners in general for that time period. Most of the time it seems it’s only through court archives you get into what the “real life” could be like, and then it’s very much filtered by the judiciary context. I am much interested in diaries, memoirs and testimonial literature but it’s all 20th century stuff I am really familiar with, mostly in relation to WW1, the Spanish Civil War, Shoah literature… the very destructive legacy of modernity…

    Charlotte Salomon’s work (Leben oder Theater) had a major impact on me when I first saw an exhibition of it back in the 1980s. It’s the apinted diary of a young woman, painting and narrating all her life while exiled in Southerrn France in 1940-1942, after the suicide of her grand-mother… and discovering that her mother also committed suicide when she was a child, and before her also her aunt… But it’s mostly a story about love, passion and telling her story in the presence of death…

    So in fact, Berri is real foreign to me… and in spite of her “bad” reputation and “low morals” she really seems as pretty exotic and seductive to me, llike some princess straight out of the 1001 Nights ! I am really not used to write about her as much as I did over the past week, but I liked your short story, like your style, appreciate your remarks and your kind words. I also thought that since you plan on writing a novel about that time period what I write you could possibly interest you or be somewhat useful for your historical fiction.


    1. Dear Anton
      Thank you for telling me about Charlotte Salomon. I had never heard of her but was quite moved by reading about her life on Wikipedia. The image of her painting with such intensity in a desperate ‘paint or die’ attempt is quite striking. I guess she must have realised her life would be foreshortened in one way or another.
      I am very grateful for your kind comments and all the sources and material you have assembled about Berri, she is indeed an amazing character and I do intend to return to this story in the future. There are a couple of other interesting women whose stories go on into the 1720s, I mentioned Orzelska earlier and there is also Adrienne Lecouvreur the actress. They were both exotic and seductive, and as for reputation, well, Adrienne was even denied a Christian burial.
      First I have to finish my present novel. It is about a young Victorian woman, abandoned by her lover, ostracised by her family, and with her infant son in the orphanage she is sent into domestic service. Her employer turns out to the the city’s coroner and as an uneasy attraction develops between them she persuades him to investigate and expose abuse in the local institutions and in his own extended family.

  26. Dear Giselle, sounds like a very arresting novel. I don’t think it was much fun to be a child in Victorian times, a society not very friendly to children, women, “lower classes” and “savages” in general. But well, since 19th century revolutions failed…
    Tomorrow I travel to Krakow see “the Experience of Auschwitz” , a somewhat controversial exhibition at the Museum of contemporary art.

    1. Dear Peter,
      Victorian society was more complex than it is often portrayed, and for every Dickensian factory owner exploiting the workforce there were those who tried to improve the conditions of the poor, some to the extent of building model villages, such as Bournville and Saltaire. There was a tension between the capitalists and the reformists in those days just as there is in modern days. In Birmingham where I live, class divisions between master and employees were less stark because the majority of production took place in small skilled workshops rather in mass production. As a result the English Reform movement was arguably born here and saw the working and middle classes campaigning together for universal male suffrage and perhaps even pulling England back from the brink of revolution. At the same time, the incorporation of the great Victorian towns like Birmingham, Manchester and Bolton enabled civic projects such as streetworks, water supplies, sewerage and public buildings. Philanthropy and social work was engaged in on a voluntary basis by a large proportion of Victorian ladies.
      You’re brave to go to the Auschwitz exhibition. When I was in Munich I could not go to see Dachau because I was too afraid of what I would see.

  27. Dear Giselle, I changed my plans and went straight to Auschwitz today. I’ve been there several times but I wanted to see the new Israeli permament exhibition in Block 27, rather minimalist but very well documented using a lot of videos and photos some of which I have never seen before, all in very-well thought installations that avoid too much text (always a problem in historical exhibits). There is a very arresting art installation toward the end of this new permanen exhibition : “Traces of Life” made of fragments of kid’s drawings carefuly reproduced with pencil on the white walls of that long empty room. It moved me a whole lot. Some of the drawings are typical of drawings by children in just any circumstances but others deal with mass deportation and killing… Children were especially marked for extermination… very few of them entered the camp, most were sent straight to the gas chambers… Hard to think about modernity and the heritage of Western civilisation when you are in such a place…

    I was also in Birkenau where unfortunately some of the lesser known sites (such as the ruins of the first gas chambers) are no longer accessible to the public. The huge number of visitors (Auschwitz has been having over 1 million visitors a year lately) is responsible for such changes since they don’t have enough security around.

    My late father was liberated by the US Army in Dachau on 29 April 45. I have been there a couple of times but you don’t really see anything since the camp was distmantled and “monumentalized” after being used to shelter refugees from Eastern Europe until the 1960s… Anyway even in Auschwitz you really don’t see much… and what you see has mostly to do with concentrationary life… extermination sites leave much less traces…

    In Warsaw we live not too far from Umschlagplatz, the place from which Jews where deported from the Warsaw ghetto in 1942… there also you need history and imagination to try to figure out what happened. Well, I’m going to the contemporary art exhibit this Wednesday and return to Warsaw in the evening.


    1. Dear Anton, just passing the gate of Dachau – I remember it being on a busy road near car showrooms and an automotive factory – filled me with horror. I have too much imagination. You have to possess the courage to go and see these things and survive afterwards. Did your father speak of his experiences? So many survive and cannot articulate their stories.
      Do you think text is a problem in historical exhibitions? I remember going to see the ‘Topography of Terror’ museum in Berlin, and studying what seemed just a long row of posters on the site of the ruined Gestapo headquarters, it was a blazing hot day and I felt faint, but I learned so much about the Nazis and what they did to people – the Jews, the Roma, the Communists, any political enemies, and – oh the sheer pity and sorrow of it – to people with epilepsy and learning disability. So much innocence destroyed.

  28. Dear Giselle, no my father didn’t like to talk about it. But as a child I could see and feel many things, like the scars on his arms, his sudden fits of devastating anger, or sometimes his nightmares… Surviving or not depended much on which category you were put in : as an aryan political prisoner you had much better chance to survive than if you were Jewish and communist, this right from 1933… My father was only sent to Dachau at the end of the war, after going through different prisons waiting for a trial that was always delayed and finally never took place and after which he would surely have been executed. He was arrested in France in 1942 as a spy i.e. a courrier for the Resistance. He was caught by the Abwehr, the military intelligence, and not by the S.D. (Gestapo) and they wanted to catch his entire underground organisation which is probably why the enquiry and the interrogations took a year before they deported him to Germany as Nacht und Nebel.
    There is a whole imaginary surrounding such topics but me as much as I can I try to distance myself from my emotions so that I can look at this period with some distance, because after all it really is a very morbid question that one can not deal with lightly…
    But well I’m sure most tourists going to Dachau or Auschwitz don’t think too much about that, they just visit these places of memory because they’re famous touristic places, places one should see….
    No, right now, I’d rather think about such trivia as the chronology of Berri’s lovers and illegitimate pregnancies…

    1. Dear Anton, my apologies for asking such a dark question. I don’t have any close personal connections with either WW1 or WW2, but even as a tourist I would find it hard to visit these places and not feel haunted.
      So, yes, the eighteenth century can be a wonderful refuge, with its elegance and scandal and wit. It’s modern enough for the historical parallels to be interesting, and distant enough to be an escape. And the French Court personalities at that time seem so extravagantly eccentric. Don’t you think Saint-Simon was a sour old snob? And then there was the Regent, highly educated and intelligent, but completely off the rails with drink and high living, and his mistresses; his wife whom he nicknamed ‘Madame Lucifer’ – one of Louis XIV’s bastards; then the Duc de Maine who seems a complete non-entity apart from his wife, the bitterly ambitious ‘Queen Bee’ – and her little court; you have all the goings on at the Palais de Luxembourg, to which we have already alluded; the duc de Richelieu’s little intrigues; the dreadful Abbe Dubois; d’Argenson and his army of secret police and informers; the boy king who would be crowned as Louis the ‘Well-Beloved’ and later be loathed for his debauchery. I found this photo album on Flickr which you might enjoy: ‘Le Declin du Soleil et la Regence

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