Tuesday, 20 August 2013

An account of the death of Adrienne

The story of the suffering, death and humiliating clandestine burial of Adrienne Lecouvreur highlights very effectively the peculiar combination of luxury, fine sentiment and pointless cruelty that so characterised 18th century French society. The following is translated from Pierre Germain's  Adrienne Lecouvreur: tragédienne (Paris 1983) a book which tries to capture not only the telling details but a little of the emotion of this sad episode.  (The text is freely available as an extract on Google Books, so I hope I'm not breaking any copyright rules!)


p. 7-12: The burial of Adrienne Lecouvreur 

In the night of the 22nd to 23rd March 1730, at a little after midnight, two carriages accompanied by a police escort, stop in front of a house in the narrow rue des Marais-Saint-Germain.

A figure dressed in a long dark cloak and wearing a tricorne hat alights from the first coach and knocks at the entrance to the building. Two other men get out of the second coach and wait, immobile and silent.

The door opens, a man appears and greets them.  It is La Roche, Adrienne Lecouvreur's servant.  He ushers in the man who has knocked, who is Voltaire's friend Monsieur de Labinière, and they go upstairs to the first floor. The others, the porters, follow them, trying to keep their heavy footsteps quiet.

On the landing in front of the bedroom door M. de Laubinière is greeted by the comte d'Argental.  Adrienne's devoted faithful and inseparable friend tells them what is expected of them. Then he leaves them and goes back upstairs.

Laubinière, followed by La Roche and the two men, go into the vast, richly furnished room, the walls adorned with red silk.

There on the great bed, with its cover of white cotton with red flowers, wrapped in ones of her dressing gowns, lies the body of the tragédienne.  Her emaciated face and sunken eyes testify to her final suffering, after repeated attacks of the chronic disease which has ruined her health over the past few years.

Antoinette Lenoir, the femme de chambre, gives Laubinière a sheet which she has chosen from the cupboard. With the help of La Roche, who cannot hold back his tears, he carefully wraps the body.  On his word, the porters lift the frail corpse and set about carrying it downstairs. They steady themselves with one hand on the wrought iron banister and reach the courtyard, followed by Laubinière and the servants.

They load their grim burden into the second carriage.  Laubinière gets into the first and, after a discreet farewell gesture to La Roche and Antoinette, indicates the route to follow.

While the porters steady the corpse on the bench inside the coach, the cortège moves away into the darkness of the night, jolting on the cobblestones, which echo under the horses hooves and the feet of the men who accompany the carriages.

They reach the quai de la Grenouillière, on the banks of the Seine.  Today this is the quai d'Orsay.

They look for a deserted sport in the vicinity and stop close to a piece of waste ground. Hastily the men dig a hole in the loose soil. They lower the body of Adrienne, sprinkle it with quicklime, cover it with earth.

Laubinière later remembers a moment when the dawn started to appear over Notre Dame, upstream of the river.

They get back in the carriages and travel off into the last of the deserted and foggy March night.

p. 12-19: The comte d'Argental recalls events,

While the grim task is completed and M de Laubinière returns to his lodgings, silence reigns once more in the house in the rue des Marais where Andrienne Lecouvreur has lived for twelve years. It is a three storey hôtel with a balcony on the second floor where you can see the trees, still bare, in the neighbouring gardens.

The comte d'Argental wanders about the house, prey to sad thoughts.  He goes through the apartment, the chamber occupied by Adrienne's sister, Marie-Marguérite, the rooms where he himself sometimes stayed and, on the first floor, the bedroom where his friend had died and which he watched over without entering all the time that her corpse had been inside.  It was here that Adrienne used to gather her friends around her, making of her bedroom a polite salon for conversation.

The trusted La Roche has opened the curtains to let in the pale light of this Thursday 23 March, the second day of spring. Then he has left to sort out other things in the house.

d'Argental is alone.  With a heavy heart, he reviews the week that has passed.  Adrienne died on the Monday at eleven o'clock.  Maurice de Saxe and Voltaire had been with her at her deathbed, as was the surgeon Faget.

Adrienne in the rôle of Racine's Monime
Oil by  François de Troy [c. 1723]

The previous Thursday, although she was exhausted, she had gone on stage as Jocasta in Voltaire's Oedipe.  She had not allowed her tiredness to show.  Failing though she was and weak through loss of blood, she had refused to give in to her friends pleas to interrupt the rest of the programme. They had continued with further plays by Le Florentin and La Fontaine .Without anyone realising her true state, the curtain had fallen on her final appearance.

[There follows some extracts from the correspondance of Mme Aissé giving further details of Adrienne's previous performances and the grim progress of her illness]

d'Argental, who did not leave her side, and Voltaire accompanied her home to the rue des Marais. The comte Maurice de Saxe soon joined them.

They put her in her room on the first floor.

Sylva was her doctor.  He paid a visit and diagnosed a "flux of the intestines".  Sylva was a very famous doctor who had been presented at Court, but it was later said that he had hastened Adrienne's end with his ill-considered prescriptions.

d'Argental sits down on the black Moroccan leather sofa in the corner of the room.  The great clock with its gilded bronze figures marks the hours as they slowly pass.  

Boucher, Woman on a day bed. 
 Frick Collection.
Surrounded by the crimson silk which covers the walls of the room he catches sight of his distorted reflection in pier glasses and gilt framed mirrors.  He glances at the Flanders tapestries with their tiny figures, the day bed à la duchesse where Adrienne, weary with illness and bedecked in one of her thirty two dressing gowns, used habitually to receive her closest friends. Louis XV, represented by a small engraving, bears silent witness to the comte's movements.

The rose-coloured upholstered chairs, with their gold and silver flowers, and green damask borders, are empty forever of their customary occupants.  d'Argental's mind wanders with emotion to the day when, with his advice, Adrienne had chosen the decorative silks from those presented to her by Pierre Fontaine, tapisseur, in the rue Sèvres.

It is the first time that he had gone back inside the room since Adrienne died there.  He had not wanted to see her dead, preferring to preserve in his mind the living image of her beloved face.

Those who were present at her final moments had sent word to him immediately.  He came on the afternoon of 20th March and went straight to the second floor.  From there he gave orders to La Roche and to the femme de chambre.  He told Jeanne Guillotin, who lived a few doors away and had been engaged to watch over the sick woman, that she was to leave the house that evening.  La Roche handed over to him a box containing Adrienne's papers and the keys to her furniture.  With his help he opened the cupboards and checked the linen and silverware - the same silverware that Adrienne had pawned with her jewels to help Maurice de Saxe in his unhappy ventures.

On the Monday morning he refused entry to Macque Carette, Adrienne's first cousin and her husband.  Adrienne's other relatives in Paris, Claude Bouly and her husband André Tramblin, he had not seen. On Monday evening at the request of Marie-Marguérite Couvreur, Adrienne's belongings were officially sealed and inventoried.  Charles Parent, commissaire of the Châtelet, was charged with this task. The long operation was painful for d'Argental; starting at five o'clock, it did not finish until eleven in the evening.  

Now the wardrobe is closed definitively on Adrienne's linen and dresses.  Her bookcase of scented wood is shut forever on the books she loved to read. The old clavichord is sealed, so too the epinette. Yesterday at three in the afternoon the will was read in the presence of various dignitaries and officials. 

[Details of the will follow, including Adrienne's bequest to the Filles de I'Instruction who had taught her as a child, and the 1,000 livres set aside for the poor of the parish of Saint-Sulpice.  d'Argental is named as the residual beneficiary.]

M. Languet de Gergy, curé of Saint-Sulpice

The succour of religion had been refused her. According to some versions M. Languet de Gergy, the curé of Saint-Sulpice "had exhorted Mlle Le Couvreur with the greatest zeal" and refused her Christian burial unless she repent "the scandal of her profession".  According to others, she had told the priest to rest easy since she had left provision in her will for the poor of the parish. Then, turning to a bust of Maurice de Saxe, she had cried out, "There is my universe, my hope and my gods".

Whether true of false, this final cry stands as an epitaph to this theatrical beauty. No such bust of her lover figured in the inventory of her room.  Maybe its presence was legendary, or maybe the comte himself made off with it, as he did so promptly with Adrienne's carriage and horses.

In reality, judging by her will, she expected to die as a Christian.  It would seem in fact, that after an earlier visit from a vicaire, M.Languet had arrived too late; Adrienne was already dead and beyond the consolations of religion. 

Adrienne's failure to reconcile herself with the Church was one thing, to refuse her burial in a Christian cemetery was altogether more shocking.

Without the intervention of the King or his government, her friends would have to resign themselves to a civil interment.  When the question was put to him by the Lieutenant de police Hérault, the comte de Maurepas replied that Cardinal Fleury did not intend to intervene and that they should refer themselves to the Archbishop of Paris and the curé of Saint-Sulpice.  If the latter persisted in refusing burial - as it seemed they would -  there was no choice but to take the body in the middle of the night and bury it with as little scandal as possible.

Since there was no time to deliver a coffin, the remains were simply wrapped in a sheet.

The day after her death, on Tuesday 21st March, the Comédie was closed. Notices were put up edged in black to announce the death of the theatre's idol.

The news broke in an atmosphere of suspicion and excited a great deal of emotion in Paris. There was open talk of poisoning in the face of what was believed to be a sudden death  This commotion persuaded Voltaire and his friends, who did not believe in any foul play, to demand an autopsy.  The thin corpse was "opened" and the report of the doctors immediately published. The text cannot now be found in the Archives, but it was said to confirm the opinion of Adrienne's immediate entourage;  the examination revealed only an inflammation of the intestines, consistent with longstanding and chronic disease.

p.19-20. Adrienne's final resting place

Deprived as she was of any funerary monument, destiny has decreed that the spot "occupied by the remains of Adrienne Lecouvreur remain more or less unknown"

In the eighteenth century, the area between the rue du Bac and the banks of the Seine, consisted only of alleyways. The area bordering the road was known as "La Grenouillère", probably after its owner.

Building was started here about 1708 and a quay begun which was called the quai d'Orsay, after the Prévost des Marchands.  In 1727 d'Argental had a house built there by Robert de Cotte, the King's Architect, on the spot which was later to become number 1 quai d'Orsay.  The hôtel next to it belonged to the comte de Belle-Isle.

There was general agreement that the place where Adrienne's remains were buried was at the corner of the rues de Grenelle and de Bourgogne, today number 115 rue de Grenelle.
D'Argental was 86 years old when, in the course of digging foundations for the hôtel of the marquis de Sommery, the remains of his friend were finally found.  Profoundly moved, the old man was taken there.  He had a marble plaque erected on which were engraved these mediocre but moving verses:

In this place, we offer homage to an admirable actress
In mind and in heart, equally lovable.
A true talent, sublime in her simplicity
Called in our prayers to immortality
The heartfelt effort of a sincere friendship
Has finally managed to gain for her this little corner of earth
And the just tribute of the purest sentiment
Honours at last this spot which has been unknown for so long.

[Note: The plaque is no longer there and Adrienne's grave has again been lost; perhaps she still lies somewhere beneath the pavement of the rue de Grenelle.]

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