Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Madame Élisabeth - images of a princess

Portrait of 1787 by Adélaïde Labille-Guiard,
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Ironically, the bid to secure Madame Élisabeth's beatification has cut across the efforts of historians in recent years to create a more three-dimensional and human view of the princess. 

In 2013 restoration work was finally completed on   Madame Élisabeth's former residence at Montreuil, acquired by Conseil Général of the Department of Yvelines in 1984. The occasion was marked by a major exhibition curated by Juliette Trey,  which brought together portraits and personal artefacts relating to life at Montreuil in the pre-Revolutionary years;  the accompanying catalogue offered a series of themed reappraisals  by leading historians.

 2010 and 2013  saw two major new biographies, by Jean Viguerie and Anne Bernet, both of which  offered new insights based largely on Élisabeth's own voice in her letters.  Anne Bernet is a Catholic writer, close to legitimist circles, but she sought explicitly to rescue Madame Élisabeth from her colourless, pious image.  In 2014 she popularised her findings on Franck Ferrand's, Au cœur de l’histoire ;  Élisabeth  was, she says, "a young woman who was decisive and intelligent, with a strong character, clear thinking with a sure political sense".

Here are some of the main points to arise from this new work:


Elisabeth was intelligent and well-educated.
  • Madame de Marsan, who was charge of the education of the two princesses Madame Clothilde and Madame Élisabeth, to the age of fourteen, did not subscribe to the fashionable view that girls should not be taught "serious" subjects; rather she harped back to the more austere tradition of the Dames de Saint-Cyr who sought to form good Christians who were also cultivated women.  She engaged the services as sous-governantes, of Mlle d'Aumale and Mme de Mackau, both former pupils of the convent. The princesses learned maths, science, history and languages.  Their reading included not only Montaigne, Descartes and Corneille, but also  English writers such as Bacon, Pope and John Locke. The marquise de La Ferté-Imbault, daughter of madame Geoffrin, supplied a basic grounding in philosophy, mainly Plutarch, Seneca and Cicero, who were looked upon as moral exemplars.
  • Anne Bernet's first major revelation, is the degree to which Elisabeth continued her intellectual pursuits; she was "remarkably intelligent, scientique to a high level".  She studied mathematics to the age of eighteen or nineteen,  first under Guillaume Leblond, then Antoine-René Maudit of the Collège de France, one of the foremost mathematicians in France. Among her possessions were beautifully crafted mathematical instruments.  In 1791 she offered a set of her own calculations to François Callet, of the Collège de Vannes, to add to his published set of logarithm tables. See Callet's letter: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=MCAo2FA8E4UC&vq=Callet&pg=PA96
  • The 2013 exhibition contained a number of books from Madame Élisabeth's library at Montreuil, bound and stamped with her arms. Only a few volumes now survive, but there is an inventory made in October 1792:  See:  Life and letters of Madame Élisabeth de France, 1901, Appendix 1 The library contained 2075 volumes;  a remarkable collection for that period, with a wide outlook in history, memoirs, biography, and essays on the political condition of France.   Of history, there were 406 volumes, among them Hume's England,  Robertson's Scotland,  Gibbon's Roman Empire, histories of all the countries of Europe,  of Constantinople,  Japan, the Ottoman Empire,  Arabia, Siam, etc.   Of memoirs and biography, 203 volumes.  These were chiefly French,  beginning with Villehardouin and coming down to Mme. de Staal-Delaunay and the Letters of Mme. de Pompadour. There were many classics, chiefly translated;   the Bible in 31 volumes;  all the great poems (among them "Le Paradis Perdu") and the chief French dramatists;  also 42 volumes of Fairy tales;  the Arabian Kights, Robinson Crusoe, and a small, a very small sprinkling of novels.  https://archive.org/stream/lifelettersofma00li#page/310/mode/2up

Religious convictions

The new appraisals do not contradict the view of Madame Élisabeth as deeply religious, but they see her beliefs as compatible with scientific interests and a life in the world. (Even Jean de Viguerie, who emphasises Elisabeth's piety, admits that she was no ascetic - as she admitted she "liked to eat"; however, he emphasises that she exercised self-restraint, and would criticise herself for being "too distracted".)  Her religious views were profoundly conservative.  From an early age she absorbed the conventional piety of the Court and, with it, a deep sense of  the religious duty of the Crown.  Her confessor until March 1791 was the former Jesuit the abbé Madier.  Elisabeth was deeply attached to the Jesuit-sponsored devotion to the Sacred Heart, which had found favour with Marie Lszcsynska, and later became so heavily identified with the Counter-Revolution.  
See: Raymond Jonas, France and the cult of the Sacred Heart (2000), p.94

Ex-voto sent to to Chartres Cathedral by Elisabeth in 1790, consisting of two hearts cast as one.  
The piece opens to reveal manuscript dedications to 
"The King and the Royal Family" and "The Church of France"

 Life at Montreuil 

The domain of Montreuil, the former property of the princesse de Guéménée, was given by Louis XVI to the 19-year-old Élisabeth in spring of 1783.  The estate consisted of seventeen acres, near the barrier on the outskirts of Paris, a mile or so from Château of Versailles. Starting in 1788 the house and its grounds were extensively remodelled by Jean-Jacques Huvé, with circular chapel and landscaped garden featuring fanciful grottoes.  On the ground floor was a boudoir, library, music and games rooms, with twenty-two rooms on the upper storey

The exhibition of 2013 raised the question of Montreuil to the Petit Trianon, and, by implication, of Élisabeth's relationship to the queen.  Was Montreuil another Trianon, or was it perhaps an "anti-Trianon"?  [Marie-Antoinette herself had made the comparison;  the story is that she drove Elisabeth out to surprise her with the gift, remarking "Sister, you are in your own house. This is to be your Trianon"(Life and letters, p.19).  Élisabeth confirmed:  "The queen calls Montreuil 'my little Trianon'" (Letter to the marquise de Bombelles, 25th June 1787)]

  • Despite its informality, Montreuil evidently did not replicate the risqué atmosphere of the Petit Trianon. Élisabeth might not have had the inclination, but nor did she have the freedom.  As a royal princess and a minor, she led a tightly regulated existence. Louis XVI stipulated that she was not to spend the night at Montreuil or to allow a man in her entourage until she reached twenty-five.  Although she had her own household, she was not allowed free rein over its composition.  In 1789 there were sixteen ladies-in-waiting, presided over by Diane de Polignac.  Certain of them, the marquise de Lastic and the marquise de Bombelles, were close companions, but Elisabeth often relied on her correspondance to keep in touch with her female friends, particularly after their marriages.   The 2013 exhibition at Montreuil gave a good sense of this gilded but constrained world. Much of Élisabeth's time was necessarily taken up with innocent entertainments - hunting, botanising, trips to Fontainbleau and Compiègne, balls, theatre, reading and writing in the quiet of Montreuil.
  • Stylistically, on the other hand,  Élisabeth was very much under the shadow of Marie-Antoinette.  The surviving furnishings reflect little of her personality beyond her desire for suitable royal trappings. In time this might have changed.  In a PhD thesis, which is available online, Maria Spencer Wendeln discusses the public portraits of Madame Élisabeth.  In the 1783 salon Élisabeth Vigée-Le Brun exhibited her portrait of  the princess in straw hat with her arms full of flowers, a companion piece to the notorious Marie-Antoinette en gaulle.  The highly coloured canvas and informal pose suggested a slightly blousey shepherdess, bordering on the coquettish.  However, the portrait which appeared in the 1787 salon, this time by Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, shows  Élisabeth moving towards an independent image, having herself depicted as a femme savante, with the "attributes of the sciences".

Portrait by Adélaïde Labille-Guiard exhibited in the Salon of 1787. 
Private collection [Picture from Wikimedia]

A "good woman"?

Madame Élisabeth's charitable activities at Montreuil were made much of during the Restoration - for instance, Fleury Richard's striking painting of her distributing milk  was commissioned by the comte d'Artois from the artist and exhibited in the salon of 1817.

It is hard to say how far her reputation for virtue and good works was established at the time. According to Anne Bernet, she gave to the poor a full fifth of her income, some 4,000 livres  (though to put this in perspective she also spent 5,000 livres on a ballgown for the marquise de Bombelles). Her personal attention to charitable works was sincere if sentimental.   As was the fashion, she had a pleasure dairy built in the grounds of the house, one of twenty builty on various royal estates in the 1770s and '80s. She did indeed distributed milk to orphans at the nearby church, and gave a portion of the estate's produce to the local poor.  In the terrible winter of 1783 she had the royal physician Louis Lemonnier, set up a dispensary on the ground floor of the house and here she also occasionally assisted. ( Her skill at bandaging did her no favours at her trial when she was accused of tending the wounded guardsmen on the 10th August.)

 Fleury Richard, Madame Élisabeth de France, soeur du roi. 1817;  Oil, 134cm x 175cm,
 Musée National des Châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon

A religious vocation?

Portrait of Mme Louise, c.1772 
by Anne-Baptiste Nivelon, 
Versailles collections
According to Anne Bernet the idea that Madame Élisabeth had a frustrated religious vocation is a 19th-century myth.  She remained unmarried through lack of a suitable husband, although a match with Joseph II was mooted on several occasions.  In December 1782, Louis XVI offered her the position of coadjutor of the Abbey of Remiremont, in succession to their aunt Christine of Saxe, which she refused.  Rumours that she was about to enter the religious life were encouraged by her attachment to her aunt Madame Louise, Louis XV's youngest daughter, who was abbess of the Carmelite convent attached to the Basilica of Saint-Denis.  Élisabeth was allowed the privilege of entering the cloister and visited her regularly, as she did her several friends who had entered the Augustinian convent of Saint-Cyr

Élisabeth's attitude towards religious vocations is illuminated by her correspondance with Louise and Marie de Causans, the daughters of her lady-in-waiting,  who were encouraged by their mother to enter the Congregation of the Chanoinesses de Saint-Louis at Metz in order to avoid the expense of marriage.  Writing to Marie de Causans, on 1st March 1786, she counsels against  becoming a nun merely through indifference to secular society ("Religious life repels me, but the world occupies me too little").  Élisabeth subsequently provided a dowry for Louise de Causans, later the marquise de Raigecourt, going so far as to ask Louis XVI an advance on her allowance to cover the 200,000 livres required.

A frustrated love affair?

 So it would seem  ...... Another of Anne Bernet's revelations, is that Elisabeth had an "ami de coeur", her doctor Dassy, whom she refers to regularly in her letters from 1780 onwards as "cet homme qui est si beau".  According to Anne Bernet, the evidence is clear in the correspondence, but was suppressed in the 19th century, when the idea of a frustrated religious vocation took hold.  Dassy was Lemonnier's assistant at Montreuil, where the couple, who shared a passion for the sciences, got to know each other in the course of herbalising.  "We must call the thing by its name, even if they took a great deal of care to hide it, they fell in love" (Bernet, p.136-7).  Hopelessly divided by social status, they were forced to restrict themselves to a Platonic relationship, "la comédie mutuelle de bonne amitié(p.138)
 It is a nice romantic scenario, but  I am not wholly convinced.....

Anne Bernet has studied the sources, but it is always difficult to judge relationships in the 18th-century, where notions of friendship and conventions of discourse were so different. I am not sure there is enough evidence to identify Dassy as more than a devoted courtier.  He is documented:  his  full name was Augustin Dassy-Darpagean, he contributed to several learned medical tomes, and died in  March 1795 aged 51 years.  This would have made him fully twenty years older than Madame Élisabeth. He was also married  (his wife's name was Charlotte-Catherine Regnaudin.)
  • Élisabeth makes  several references to Dassy in letters to Marie de Causans, Mme de Mauléon.  At the end of November 1785  she writes that she pleased her friend approves of the doctor; "pour moi, je ne me contente pas de l'aimer, c'est une folie" (what does this actually mean? I'm not sure)  In March 1786, she rebukes Marie for mocking Dassy's pendantry in his diagnosis of Mme de Raigecourt's measles. A note in the correspondence tells us that Madame Élisabeth sent him her portrait and a book of prayers: "I know, that you are not a devot, but accept this book for love of me".  She thanked  him for curing her friend and assured him she would recommend him as Lemonnier's successor. [Correspondance, p.58 note 4]
  • Dassy crops up again in 1787 in connection with a property in Fontainebleau, which she asked him to acquire for her (or in some versions, make her a gift of).  According to one 19th century biography she had even started to design details - a corniche, dining room settings, a coat of arms for the well - but in 1789 with the start of the Revolution, she was obliged to abandon the project through lack of funds. In official documents, the property, the hôtel Guérin in Fontainbleau, is entirely in Dassy's name; he bought the land in 1785, built the house from 1787 onwards.  The estate passed to his widow on his death and was sold in 1810.  See Ernest Bourges, Recherches sur Fontainebleau, 1896, p.15-16 http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k56800635/f52.item.r=Dassy
  • During late 1789 and through most of 1790 Dassy acted as a go-between, carrying Elisabeth's encrypted  messages from the Tuileries. We learn that he urged her to follow the example of her aunts and flee abroad.  On 24 October 1790 she reported to Louise de Raigecourt that he was ill, afflicted with numbness in his legs, and in December she secured him a position in the household of the comte de Provence; she reassured Louise that she was well, even though "cet homme qui est si beau" was no longer there to tend her. (letters dated 1st and 16th December 1790).  
  • It is not recorded what became of Dassy during the Terror;at the time of his death he was styled "doctor to the Court and to the civil and military hospitals of Fontainebleau". He was reported to have witnessed Madame Élisabeth on her way to execution;  according to his wife he was so distressed that he took to his bed and died shortly afterwards.  Dassy's date of death is given as 3rd March 1795; he was "buried in the park of his hôtel [in Fontainebleau], exhumed in 1814 and reinterred in the town cemetery".

The love affair, fact or fiction, makes for a good story and in  May 2017 les éditions Albin Michel published a novel based on it,  La soeur du roi  by the screenwriter and novelist, Alexandra de Broca.
RESUMÉ:  She is a princess of the blood.  Withdrawn from the Court of Versailles, she has vowed to remain single and devote herself to charitable works.
He is a commoner.  A brilliant botanist in the royal gardens jardin, he is an adherent of the Enlightenment.
Everything is against Madame Élisabeth, the young sister of Louis XVI, and François Dassy.  However, when they meet by chance in the forest of Fontainebleau, they are drawn to each other by an irresistable attraction.  But the storm of Revolution is gathering and threatens this clandestine love affair...Will Élisabeth follow the new ideas that are overturning France?   And put royalty in danger?  Is Dassy he an honest man or an imposter?

It is an attractive and thought-provoking plot for a romance, but it does seem that the boundaries between imagination and reality have become blurred.  The book met with a frosty reception from Anne Bernet, who felt the author misunderstood Élisabeth's Christian self-sacrifice.  However, Franck Ferrand, in a second broadcast, which was even more adulatory than the first, preferred to invite Alexandra de Broca as his guest.

Élisabeth's view of the Revolution

The final aspect of Anne Bernet's revisionist view can be gathered from the subtitle of her book, the sister "who ought to have been king".  Élisabeth, says Anne Bernet, was "decisive, intelligent, with a strong character, lucidity, a political sense superior to that of her brother and sister-in-law"; she was certain from the start of the Revolution that Louis XVI "did not take the necessary measures".This assessment, of course, depends on your political bias.
  • Élisabeth took a wholly negative view of the Revolution and was forthright in pointing out affronts to royal sovereignty, at a time when Louis still hoped hoped to achieve compromise. In October 1789 she wrote that the Royal family were prisoners in the Tuileries; "my brother does not believe it but time will show him".  On 4th February 1790 when Louis appeared before the Constituent Assembly and swore allegience to the Constitution, in her analysis he "lost whatever crown was still upon his head." (To Mme de Bombelles, 1st March 1790)
  • Unlike Louis, she was prepared to countenance military intervention:  I consider civil war as necessary....Anarchy can never end without it; the longer it is delayed, the more blood will be shed.  That is my principle; and if I were king it would be my guide; and perhaps it would avert great evil. (To Mme de Bombelles, 1st March 1790)
  • She kept up a secret correspondance with the émigrés. According to Louis XVI's biographer, John Hardman,  she was "the soul of counter revolution in the Tuileries, egging on the comte d'Artois to open confrontation".  Her  approach certainly made the invidious position of the royal couple more difficult.  On 31st October 1791, Marie-Antoinette reported to Fersen that their life in the Tuileries was  a "living hell"; Élisabeth was "so indiscreet, surrounded by intriguers, and, above all, dominated by her brothers outside (France), that it is impossible for us to speak to one another, or we would quarrel all day".  See: 
    Marie-Antoinette et le comte de Fersen: La correspondance secrète, ed. Evelyn Farr, 2016.               

Pierre Bouillon, The devotion of Mme Elisabeth on the journée of 20th June 1792.  In this counter-Revolutionary print Elisabeth shows her heroism by impersonating Marie-Antoinette to the mob.   http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b6948702p.item

  • As the Revolution progressed, Élisabeth turned increasingly to religion as the only hope of succour. In July 1789 she created an association dedicated to the two hearts of Mary and Jesus. The members devoted themselves to acts of charity and despite distance – many emigrated – remained a community in prayer.  One year later, at the time of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy,  she made a solemn vow “to the immaculate heart of Mary to obtain the conservation of the Church in France”; the ex voto preserved in Chartres Cathedral dates from this time.  By the beginning of 1791 she seems to have lost hope for the recovery of royal authority short of divine intercession, writing to Mme de Raigecourt in Luxembourg,"You are right to put all your confidence in God, who alone can save us".  After June 1792 her influence  reinforced Louis's view that he no longer had credible political options and confirmed his preoccupation with spiritual matters.


" Madame Élisabeth ou l’histoire d’une longue marche vers la béatification" PSB Lyon 12.11.2017
[Interview with Madame Élisabeth's biographer, Jean de Viguerie.]

Anne Bernet,  Madame Élisabeth. Soeur de Louis XVI, celle qui aurait dû être roi (Poche 2016)

Maria Spencer Wendeln, "Princess on the margins: toward a new portrait of Madame Élisabeth de France", PhD. Wayne State University, 2015

Europe 1 radio, Au cœur de l’histoire with Franck Ferrand 
25.04.2013, with Hélène Becquet, Anne Bernet, and Alain Schmitz, Président du Conseil général des Yvelines

28.08.2017 With Alexandra de Broca and Clémentine Portier-Kaltenbach.

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