Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Diamond Necklace Affair

by Liza Perrat

Jeanne de Valois-Saint-Rémy, Comtesse de la Motte
How did Frenchwoman, Jeanne de Valois –– orchestrator of the “Affair of the Diamond Necklace” –– turn up in England? Did the Comtesse de la Motte then fall from her London balcony, dying from her injuries? And if so, was it an accident, or, as some claim, was she pushed? Perhaps Jeanne did not fall at all, but rather escaped custody once again, living on happily for many more years. And if the latter is true, who then, is buried in Jeanne’s grave in St Mary’s churchyard in the London Borough of Lambeth?

The endlessly fascinating “Affair of the Diamond Necklace” of 1785 –– theft that rocked the world and raised French hatred of Queen Marie Antoinette to fever pitch –– is a long, complex and sordid tale, of which there are many versions. But the trial, and the memoirs Jeanne de Valois wrote during her refuge in London, are credited by many historians as the kindling that fanned the flames of the French Revolution.

I first became interested in this necklace scandal while writing my historical novel, Spirit of Lost Angels. My heroine, Victoire Charpentier, found herself locked up in France’s most terrifying asylum, La Salpêtrière. And this is where I first encountered Jeanne de Valois, enigmatic conwoman behind the “Affair of the Diamond Necklace”, for she too, was imprisoned in La Salpêtrière.

So, who was Jeanne de Valois? Born in 1756 to a poor family near the town of Bar-Sur-Aube, in France, Jeanne de Valois-Saint-Rémy was a descendant of the Valois royal family through an illegitimate son of King Henry II. Her family lived in poverty, in the rundown Château de Fontette. Well aware though, that Valois blood flowed through her veins, the beautiful and unscrupulous young Jeanne yearned for more in life.

In 1780, she married Marc Antoine-Nicolas de la Motte, an officer of the gendarmes. The de la Motte family’s claim to nobility was dubious, but that did not stop husband and wife from assuming the title of count and countess.

Jeanne aspired to an extravagant lifestyle, but her husband was unable to meet his wife’s desires. So, on the grounds of her royal blood, Jeanne visited Versailles frequently, in the hope of asking Queen Marie Antoinette for a more generous pension. But it seems the queen was aware of Jeanne’s questionable lifestyle, and continually refused to meet her.


Cardinal Prince Louis de Rohan:
Around 1783, Jeanne met the bishop of Strasbourg, Cardinal Prince Louis de Rohan. The cardinal had been the envoy to Austria, where his personal letters were intercepted in which he bragged that he had “bedded half the Austrian court” and that Marie Antoinette’s own mother, the Empress, had “begged” him for her turn. The cardinal now aspired to become Prime Minister of France, which meant that he was desperate to gain Marie Antoinette’s favour, as the position was by royal appointment. But the queen thwarted his progress at every turn.

Jeanne became aware of the cardinal’s desire to win the Queen’s approval, so she set about becoming his mistress and confidante. Her small pension supplemented by the cardinal, Jeanne prospered, and even convinced him she could arrange for his reconciliation with the Queen.

Replica of the Diamond Necklace
Sometime in 1784, word reached Jeanne about a diamond necklace originally made by the jewellers Boehmer and Bassenger for King Louis XV’s extravagant mistress, Madame du Barry. But upon the former king’s death, there was no longer a buyer for this necklace.

The jewellers knew that only the present king could afford such an item, but Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette continually refused to purchase the necklace. Teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, the jewellers asked Jeanne, who openly boasted about how close she was to the Queen, to persuade Marie Antoinette to buy the necklace. This was the Countess de la Motte’s cue to hatch her ingenious scheme.

Jeanne took the matter to the cardinal who, thinking it would endear him to the queen, readily agreed to be guarantor of the purchase from the jewellers. In a murky stream of lies, deceit and forgery, the cardinal and the desperate jewellers became convinced that the Queen had agreed to purchase the necklace, and it was delivered to a “trusted” servant of the Queen. Then the diamond necklace simply vanished, never to be seen again!

The scam eventually came to light and Jeanne, the cardinal and several other characters were arrested. It was assumed her husband, Nicolas, fled to London to sell the diamonds.

In a trial that became the scandal of the century, the monarchy’s enemies seized upon this chance to attack the queen, implying that Marie Antoinette’s bad reputation had made the whole débâcle possible. The cardinal was acquitted and Marie Antoinette was suspected of having masterminded the whole plot; a terrible blow for her already tarnished reputation. So much so that Napoléon once stated: “The Queen’s death must be dated from the Diamond Necklace Trial.”

Jeanne de Valois was found guilty and sentenced to be whipped, and branded on her breast with a hot iron, with the V sign (voleur) for a thief. She was condemned to life imprisonment in France’s most pitiless asylum: La Salpêtrière.

No prisoner, before or after Jeanne de Valois, ever escaped La Salpêtrière, however the cunning and resourceful countess managed to find a way out, apparently disguised as a boy.


La Salpêtrière asylum, Paris.


At this time, London was the destination of those expelled from France beneath royal displeasure. It was also regarded as the destination of choice, and there was a large French population in the English capital, and, amongst them, many criminals on the run.

Even before the Revolutionary emigration, London was crawling with French police agents, informers, spies and bounty hunters. And it was to this pre-French Revolution London that Jeanne de Valois, along with her maid, escaped from La Salpêtrière.

Once safely in London, Jeanne began exacting her revenge by continuously insulting the Queen and protesting her own innocence. She circulated tales that she truly was the Queen’s lesbian lover; that Marie Antoinette was insatiable in her desires and the necklace and the affair was all for her amusement. In 1789 Jeanne published her memoirs entitled Memoires Justificatifs de La Comtesse de Valois de La Motte, which attempted to justify her actions while casting blame upon Marie Antoinette. Jeanne’s current lover, the exiled former French Finance Minister, the Marquis de Calonne, apparently assisted her. As incredulous as her story was, it circulated widely, and Jeanne became something of a sensation.

It was even claimed that Louis XVI sent money to Jeanne, via the Princesse de Lamballe and the Duchesse de Polignac, to prevent the publication of yet more libels against the Queen.

Then, in August of 1791, Jeanne fell from her London window. The Times stated that she was found “terribly mangled, her left eye cut out - one of her arms and both her legs broken.” She died from her injuries a few days later.

Some claimed Jeanne had been killed by royalists. Others said she panicked, thinking those knocking at her door were debt collectors, tried to hide and accidentally fell from the window.

In any case, on August 26th, 1791, both The Courier and The Chronicle of London carried the death notices of: Jeanne de Saint-Rémy de Valois, Countess de la Motte, on Tuesday, August 23rd, 1791 at eleven o’clock in the evening...”

Jeanne was buried in an unmarked grave in St Mary’s churchyard, in Lambeth, and the parish register of Saint Mary’s records the burial of “Jean St. Rymer de Valois” on August 26th, 1791.

Many found it hard to believe that the bold, conniving and enterprising Jeanne de Valois was dead. But was she really gone? And why was there no inscription on her grave?

Some claim that Jeanne was never buried there, or that it was someone else’s body. And many English and American historians believe that the grave was left unmarked for fear of people digging up the body to see if it really was Jeanne.

One of the many rumours following her “death” stated that Jeanne really did fall from her window, trying to evade French spies. Realising she was no longer safe in London, she fled to Hamburg, and then lived near the shore in the Crimea for several years. A little boy would come to her cottage to visit, and Jeanne amused the child by dangling an enormous diamond on a thread before his eyes.

Another tale claimed that Jeanne returned to Paris towards the end of her life, where she lived as the Comtesse Jeanne de Gachet, in seclusion and luxury, despite the fact that many Parisians knew exactly who she was. On her death, it was said that an awful scar was found on her breast, in the shape of a V.

Whichever version of this mysterious tale you believe; however this beguiling tale has been embellished by falsehood, exaggeration and legend, like Jeanne de Valois herself, the drama of the life and death of the Comtesse de la Motte still enchants and fascinates, two hundred years later.

Reference: Frances Mossiker’s book, The Queen’s Necklace is a series of fascinating first-person accounts of how the necklace swindle occurred and the trial that followed it.

If you are interested in learning more about the conditions at La Salpêtrière asylum during this period, please refer to my blog post here.

The Affair of the Necklace is an entertaining, but not very historically accurate movie of 2002, in which Jeanne de Valois is portrayed by Hilary Swank.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Liza Perrat grew up in Wollongong, Australia, where she worked as a general nurse and midwife for fifteen years. When she met her French husband on a Bangkok bus, she moved to France, where she has been living with her husband and three children for twenty years. She works part-time as a French-English medical translator. Several of her short stories have won awards, notably the Writers Bureau annual competition of 2004 and her stories have been published widely in anthologies and small press magazines. Her articles on French culture and tradition have been published in international magazines such as France Magazine and France Today. She has completed four novels and one short-story collection, and is represented by Judith Murdoch of the Judith Murdoch Literary Agency.

She is a co-founder and member of the author collective: Triskele Books and reviews books for
Words with Jam magazine and the Historical Novel Society.

Under the Triskele Books label, Liza has published the first two novels of L’Auberge des Anges historical series set against a backdrop of rural France: Spirit of Lost Angels and Wolfsangel. She is currently working on the final book in the series –– Midwife Héloïse – Blood Rose Angel –– which is set in the same French village, during the 14th century Black Plague years.

For more information on Liza and her writing, please refer to her website and blog. Visit the
Triskele Books Website and blog for information on writing and publishing.


Spirit of Lost Angels is available in paperback and e-Book at all Amazon stores and as an e-Book at
Smashwords.

Wolfsangel is available in paperback and e-Book at all Amazon stores and as an e-Book at Smash words and Kobo.



Friends, Family and Other Strangers From Downunder (a collection of humorous, horrific and entertaining short stories set in Australia) is available as an e-book at all Amazon stores
.

4 comments:

  1. How fascinating - years ago on holiday in France, I went to an exhibition of the recreated French regalia - even though all the jewels were paste, it still made a tremendous impression - I remember thinking how superb some of the parures were - and this post has brought all that back - thank you.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I really enjoyed reading this fascinating piece of history.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Oh My! What a treasure trove of history. The most chilling sentence in your essay, Liza? "She died a few days later . . ." Conspiracies and mysteries! oh my! Brought to your blog by Lenora Rogers. Congratulations on your success.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Great post; great subject matter. I'd love to hear more on the role of Count Cagliostro in this affair.

    Also, I must point out that a story can't be 'incredulous'. I think you meant 'incredible.'

    ReplyDelete