Now this is history. Keep, for the moment, kings and battles and social movements. Give me a hideous murder among the very hautest of the haute monde of Paris, on the morning of August 18th, 1847, and give it to me in the word-painting of a professional type who seems to have vanished from today's bookshelves. Stanley Loomis begins: "Only forty years separated the reign of Louis-Philippe from the ancien regime. There were many men, therefore, ... who amid the plush-covered furniture, the tasselled hangings, and the wallpaper of the 1830s could recall the fragile futilities of that other age and in their mind's eye still see that simpler furniture upon which the shepherdesses of Trianon had once disposed themselves ...."
The story of the Praslin murder was laid out for me, first, in the great old movie All This and Heaven Too. Bette Davis' diction has never been more perfect than in that film; the little-known Barbara O'Neil earned an Oscar nomination as Madame la Duchesse, a role the polar opposite of her previous work as Scarlett O'Hara's saintly mother; Charles Boyer, as Monsieur le Duc, delivers one of those lines that you want to save up and use yourself in real life. Guilty and cagey, but pure in his love for a servant, he squints into the middle distance above his rigidly set jaw and hisses at a nosy fellow aristocrat, "You make me ashemed dhat I know you."
The movie was based on Rachel Field's 1938 novel of the same name. Stanley Loomis' book was published another generation after both, but follows the course of the film surprisingly closely. Someone -- novelist, filmmakers, historian, or all -- has done his homework.
The story is simply dreadfully unhappy at its core. The Duc and Duchesse de Choiseul-Praslin were married young, for love, and had many children. By middle age, however, things had gone hellishly wrong. The duchesse became suffocating in her worship and jealousy of her husband. He stopped sleeping with her. (The movie copes with this very adroitly. We forget that people had sex and liked it before the 1960s.) She wrote him endless letters. There was something wrong between her and the children -- ill-feeling, certainly, but the duchesse also wrote of "corruption." The family ran through a string of governesses before hiring their last, Mademoiselle Henriette Deluzy. Even before she arrived, the Duc and Duchesse had actually signed an agreement that the Duchesse would not go near her own children, and that the future governess, whoever she was, would have all authority over the brood.
Mademoiselle Deluzy proved loving, competent, "fascinating." Society quickly assumed she was the duc's mistress, and even if she was not, the fact that she accompanied the father and children on trips while Madame la Duchesse stayed home certainly looked bad.
Six years on, in midsummer of 1847, Madame initiated divorce proceedings against Monsieur. The situation in the household looked so scandalous that the duchesse would certainly have been given custody of the children, which in divorce cases "in that civilization run by men" was not normal. (A glance at Anna Karenina will explain why. It was assumed that a divorcing woman would set up a new home with a new man and her illegitimate new family, although this would not have been the duchesse's case. But the fictional Karenin -- all men -- feared for a legitimate son's education as an orphan in some hovel with a common-law stepfather.) In that same summer, Mademoiselle Deluzy was abruptly discharged.
A month later, the duc murdered the duchesse, with hideous violence, on an August dawn at their Paris mansion, 55 rue du Faubourg St. Honore. This is currently the address of the Elysee Palace, official residence of the President of France, a building that has stood on the spot since the early 1700s. Can one number stand for two buildings? Or does official business go on in the very rooms where Madame once ran shrieking and bloodied from door to door, fending off her husband's knife?
He swallowed arsenic later that afternoon after a round of police questioning, and died the following week. Mademoiselle Deluzy was imprisoned on suspicion of complicity for three months. No less a figure than Victor Hugo wrote about it in the daily papers. The mobs were inflamed. In November, the governess was released for lack of evidence.
She moved to the United States, became a teacher in an exclusive New York girls' school, and then married a member of the Field family, of transatlantic-cable laying (Cyrus) fame. And of literary fame: Rachel Field, novelist, was a great-niece by marriage of the Henry Field who married the notorious "Mademoiselle D." The novel has fun with the second half of her life. The new and exciting Mrs. Field stands out among her good neighbors in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. She serves coffee on a tray before the fireplace. She helps a young girl curl her hair, to cheer her while she is sick in bed, and the young girl gawps at her and exclaims, " 'Why, you are frivolous!' "
And the movie has fun with politics, or so I once thought. When Bette Davis finishes telling her salivating young American pupils the story of the poor governess who longs only for calm and anonymity now, she says, " 'And so the people of France fought the Revolution of 1848. For the king of France and the Peers to let this wicked woman go was the last straw....' " I used to think that Hollywood was making this up, in order to give a soap opera a more serious tone. It seems Hollywood was not. A great Peer and intimate of the royal family conveniently escaping public trial for murder, albeit escaping through a painful death himself, does seem to have had something to do with what history books -- and Wikipedia -- call the Fall of the July Monarchy.
Loomis writes that there is one eternal mystery to the Praslin murder, and that is simply why he did it. It was both premeditated -- the duc bolted doors and windows, and fetched arsenic days in advance -- and wildly violent. A "crime of passion." Neither he nor Mademoiselle ever admitted adultery or planned murder, and while surviving letters overflow with intense emotions and good writing, none clarify motive. None define "corruption." One of Loomis' themes is that something mawkish in the Romantic era itself turned people's heads, especially among the Parisian aristocracy who had come far from their eighteenth-century forbears' "discipline and ceremony" and now had little to do but brood, read novels, and take opium. The duchesse's copy of Mrs. Armytage or Female Domination, new but bloodstained, lies still among her things in the Paris National Archives. Or it did, in 1967.
And Mrs. Field, having lived to a fairly decent old age, died and lies buried in a dignified spot in a cemetery in dignified Stockbridge. "Dear Great-Aunt Henriette, Although I never knew you in life, as a child I often cracked butternuts on your tombstone," Rachel Field introduces her novel. For my part, I intend to turn again to the excellently entertaining Stanley Loomis, whose Paris in the Terror stands on my bookshelves, and whose Madame du Barry: a Biography is on order for me at the local library.