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In How to Ruin a Queen, award-winning author Jonathan Beckman tells of political machinations and enormous extravagance; of kidnappings, prison breaks, and assassination attempts; of hapless French police in disguise, reams of lesbian pornography, and a duel fought with poisoned pigs. It is a detective story, a courtroom drama, a tragicomic farce, and a study of credulity and self-deception in the Age of Enlightenment.
Why, such have revolutionized this land
Red Cotton Night-Cap Country, Robert Browning
Madame, il est charmant votre projet. Je viens d’y réfléchir. Il rapproche tout, termine tout, embrasse tout.
The Marriage of Figaro,
Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais
Princess in Rags
FREUD OBSERVED THAT many children fantasise that their real mother and father are aristocrats – even royalty – and that they were ripped from their true family and implanted into a lowlier, adoptive one. It is part of the process of growing up when a child, comparing his parents to other adults, realises they are no longer ‘the only authority and the source of all belief’. But what if daydreams of a life among the nobility are not simply the wishful denial of your parents? What if they are coloured with regret at your belatedness, with disappointment and anger that your forebears squandered money and honours you deserved? What if you lived in a tumbledown castle and had been told from the moment you began to understand that one of your ancestors had been, long ago, the king of France?
Jeanne de Saint-Rémy was born on 22 July 1756 in the chateau of Fontette, a tiny village in Champagne about thirty miles to the west of Troyes.* Her father, Jacques, the baron de Saint-Rémy, was descended from Henri de Valois de Saint-Rémy, an illegitimate son of the priapic Henri II, the Valois king who ruled France from 1547 to 1559 (the Valois dynasty preceded the Bourbons, who reigned from 1589 until the French Revolution). Henri II left 30,000 écus to his natural son, and gave permission to the Saint-Rémy heirs to sport three gold fleur-de-lys – the emblem of the French kings – on their escutcheons.
But by the end of the seventeenth century the family’s wealth had been decimated. French inheritance law generally allowed each child to claim a portion of their parents’ estate, which meant that, without complex financial planning, a handsome patrimony could be pared down to slivers in less than a century. Despite protesting of her sole entitlement to her family’s lands, Jeanne was only descended from the sixth and final child of the second baron de Saint-Rémy. Her grandfather, Nicolas-René, had served in Louis XIV’s garde du corps for ten years but had moved back to Fontette to marry the daughter of a prominent local official in nearby Bar-sur-Seine. The Saint-Rémys had neither the inclination nor the money to buzz around Versailles in search of promotion and lucrative sinecures: local legend had it that, when Louis XIII asked one of Jeanne’s ancestors why he avoided the Court, he replied ‘Je n’y fait ce que je dois’, which means ‘I only do there what I ought to’ and ‘I only make there what I owe’ – he was later discovered illegally minting coins.
The family’s sullen and blocky chateau rose from within a tonsure of walnut trees, and was set among fields of oats and lucerne. In Champagne the Saint-Rémys lived as though their royal forebear had endowed them with limitless droits de seigneur, stealing from neighbours’ property and cowing the local authorities into inaction. But by the middle of the eighteenth century, they could barely squeeze a living from their land. The debilitating famines which afflicted France in 1725 and 1740 ate into their capital, and they were forced to sell off parts of their acreage and chateau piecemeal.
Their plight was not unusual, especially in Champagne, one of the country’s poorer provinces. While many members of the nobility had accrued vast fortunes, others needed to scrimp to maintain appearances. The most abject nobles were known as hobereaux (‘little hawks’): over 5,000 families existed on less than 1,000 livres a year, which left them dangerously susceptible to slipping into poverty. They poached, fished and hunted game; some indentured themselves to the wealthy; all hoped their situation would pass unnoticed and they would escape dérogance – being forcibly submerged into the ranks of commoners should they fail to uphold the dignity of their estate.
Jacques’s parents may have intended a respectable match for their son. They were certainly appalled when Jacques seduced or – more likely, given his general lassitude – was seduced by Marie Jossell, the family’s illiterate and alluring housekeeper. She had ‘fine blue eyes [that] appear[ed] through long silken lashes . . . her dark tresses [fell] in graceful profusion over her shoulder drawing out to the greatest advantage the natural whiteness of her skin’. Though Marie was evidently pregnant, Nicolas-René forbade their marriage. Jacques would not disobey his father but refused to abandon his lover. A son, also named Jacques, was born on 25 February 1755. Nicolas-René must have relented because the couple were married in Langres in July. Jeanne was born almost a year later; Marianne arrived in 1757; and Marguerite followed in 1759.
Jacques had a sweet temperament but, as a contemporary described him, he was ‘weak, indolent, a man who amounted to nothing’. He spent most of his time and money on drink. Like many impoverished noblemen, he became indistinguishable from the peasants he lived alongside. His lack of resolve deliquesced into self-destructive generosity: if a neighbour slaughtered a pig, he would exchange a copse or a field for a share. While Jacques indulged his children, Marie treated them sternly. Scarcely had they left their cribs than she forced them to work. Jeanne, feisty from an early age, was frequently beaten by her mother for refusing to herd the cows. Both parents utterly neglected their offsprings’ well-being. They were ‘brought up like savages’, wandering around naked and reliant for their food on charitable neighbours, who slipped them bowls of soup. What little money the family accrued was siphoned off by Marie for her relatives.
Between the prodigality of Jacques and the peculation of Marie, it was not long before the family was broke. 1759 was an especially hungry year. A poor harvest inflated food prices; money was already tight after tax obligations surged in 1756 to pay for what would become the Seven Years War against Britain and Prussia. By 1760 all the Saint-Rémys’ property had been sold or mortgaged – and Marie was expecting another baby. The family’s only option was to flee their creditors. Marianne, too young to travel and too heavy to be carried, was left hanging in a basket outside the window of the house of her godfather Durand, a sympathetic farmer who had quietly subsidised Jacques in the past. The family slipped out of the village by night and hurried down the road to Paris. Occasionally they were able to thumb a lift from a wagon, but Jeanne, still only four years old, trudged practically the entire distance – over two hundred kilometres – on foot. Adversity did not forge any familial solidarity: Marie beat Jeanne with a rod wreathed in nettles; when Jacques found out he pummelled his wife.
Migration was how the poor survived in eighteenth-century France. Some went in search of seasonal, agricultural work; others moved permanently from the country to town. Paris had swollen under the reigns of Louis XIV and Louis XV: by the middle of the eighteenth century, less than a quarter of its residents were native Parisians. A new city offered opportunities for reinvention. Vulpine cronies; debts like grenades fizzing towards explosion; even inveterate character traits – all could be abandoned. Jacques showed more application in the forced march north-west than he had ever done before. But well-advertised snares awaited newcomers to the metropolis: exploitation, robbery, and a life of beggary, prostitution and theft.
On arrival, the family split: the two Jacques took off together, while Jeanne remained with her mother. Marie had no desire to work if her perfectly healthy daughter could line her pockets, so Jeanne was sent out begging each morning (this was far from unusual – between a half and two-thirds of beggars in France at the time were children), her name supposed to inspire curiosity. She walked the streets, pipsqueaking ‘ladies and gentlemen, take compassion on a poor orphan, descended directly from Henry II, of Valois, King of France’, as Marie stood close by with an array of genealogical charts to further intrigue punters. Unfortunately the worldly citizens of Paris were sceptical of princesses in rags, and all Jeanne received for her pains were barrages of abuse and the occasional cuff round the ear.
Jacques had been planning to unearth legal support for the restitution of his lands but, his mind addled by drink, achieved nothing. The family moved to Boulogne where the parish priest, Abbé Henocque, agreed to help them petition the crown, yet the optimism did not last long, as Jacques was arrested by the police. The reasons for this are unclear, though it may have been because he bandied about his Valois title, which was believed to be extinct. Visiting her father in prison, Jeanne saw him ‘extended on a bed of straw, his body emaciated, his complexion sallow and pinched, his eyes languid and sunken, yet a faint and transient gleam seemed to speak the joy in his heart and welcome our approach’.
Henocque agitated for Jacques’s release, which finally occurred seven weeks after his arrest. By then, his constitution, already charred by alcohol, had crumbled under the strain of prison. He was taken to the Hôtel-Dieu, the paupers’ hospital adjoining Notre Dame. The prospect of recovery there was minimal: up to six people were crammed in each bed, the infectious jostling against the convalescent, clammy with each other’s sweat as the shudders of the dying sent tremors through the living. It did not take long for Jacques to expire, with Jeanne on hand to record his last words: ‘My dear child! I fear my conduct will cause you much misery in the future; but let me beg you, under every misfortune, to remember that you are a VALOIS! Cherish, throughout life, sentiments of that name and never forget your birth! – I tremble . . . I tremble at the thought of leaving you in the care of such a mother!’
It is extremely unlikely that Jacques de Saint-Rémy ever uttered these words, doused in unctuous sentimentality. He failed to protect his eldest daughter from the violence of her mother during his life and, from the little that can be extrapolated of his character, upholding the reputation of the Valois was not his principal motivation. That should not, however, obscure the harrowing effect of Jacques’s death on Jeanne and its reverberations over the course of her life. Her father may not have lived up to the family name, but Jeanne declaimed it every time she went out begging. From a young age, she would have marked the contrast between her lineage and the means to which she had been reduced to support her relatives. ‘[T]he noble blood of the Valois flowing within my veins oppos[ed], like an indignant torrent, such degradation,’ she recalled. Jeanne’s subsequent ambition can only be understood in the light of her wish to comport herself like a Valois.
In March 1762, three months after Jacques’s death, Marie and her children moved to Versailles. Jeanne resumed begging, but pre-empted official harassment by ingratiating herself with the family of the chief of police, Monsieur Deionice. His wife and daughter lavished her with food, toys and spare change, though her success probably relied more on Deionice’s regular visits to Marie’s bedroom – when Marie took up with Jean-Baptiste Ramond, a handsome Sardinian soldier, Jeanne found herself no longer welcome in the Deionice household. The couple married and settled in a dosshouse in Chaillot, just to the west of Paris. The newlyweds shared the bed; the children slept on the floor on straw pallets.
In Ramond, Marie had found a partner more suited to her taste for violence. Jeanne, bearing Marguerite on her back, was instructed to bring back ten sous each day – and twenty on Sundays and holidays. This was a formidable target. A lacemaker or woolspinner could not expect to make more than eight sous, and an agricultural labourer no more than ten. When Jeanne failed to collect enough money, she was ordered to sleep in the streets. If she tried to evade her mother and stepfather, Ramond would hunt her down and drag her home, where Marie beat her with a vinegar-soaked rod which tore her back with splinters.
Ramond moved to Paris with Jacques, so that the children’s profitability might be maximised. He appropriated the boy’s titles and styled himself the baron de Valois, but was repeatedly arrested for begging. On the third occasion, the authorities decided to employ a more effective deterrent: he was sentenced to the pillory for twenty-four hours, then banished from the city for five years. On hearing of her lover’s imminent exile, Marie hurried to join him for a final embrace, leaving her two young daughters with a bag of hazelnuts and a breezy promise that she would return within the week. They never saw her again.
It seems Marie eventually returned to Fontette, where she found no shortage of admirers prepared to buy her dinner. When her looks faded, she toiled in the vineyards. From the mid-1760s to the mid-1770s, harvests were lean. The freeing up of the trade in grain in 1763 and 1764 encouraged speculation and hoarding, exacerbating the scarcity and leading to a surge in food prices. At some point during these years, Marie ceased to be able to support herself. She left Fontette and wandered off the historical record – most likely working as a migrant labourer and intermittent prostitute until a penurious death.
There is more evidence, though less clarity, about the fate of the children. According to one account – written by a champenois who knew the family – the kindly priest Abbé Henocque took in Jeanne and her siblings and obtained the patronage of a wealthy noble family, who paid for their education in a convent. Jeanne’s own account arrives at a similar destination, though by a more picturesque route. After Marie’s disappearance, the little street rats scurried around as usual, badgering anyone they could find for a coin. Whatever trepidation they may have felt about their abandonment must have been alleviated by the disappearence of anyone likely to batter them with an improvised weapon at the slightest provocation.
Nearly a month had passed when a coach drew up beside a tiny, pale six-year-old girl, standing on the side of a country road and bellowing that she was the last relict of the Valois. The vehicle contained the marquis and marquise de Boulainvilliers, who asked Jeanne to explain herself. As she told her story the marquis’s face torqued itself incredulously, but his wife told Jeanne, ‘if you speak the truth, I will be a mother to you’. When the claims were corroborated by their neighbours and Henocque, Jeanne, Jacques and Marguerite were packed off to the Boulainvilliers’ chateau at Passy, where they were washed, dressed, given proper beds with crisp linen sheets, and introduced to the marquise’s daughters, whom they were told to regard as sisters.
Anne Gabriel Henri Bernard, marquis de Boulainvilliers, was a man of considerable distinction. He was prévôt of Paris, supervising the policing and legal administration of the city. Boulainvilliers’s grandfather was Henri, comte de Boulainvilliers – astrologer, admirer of Mohammed and, according to Voltaire, the ‘most scholarly man in the history of the kingdom’. In his historical works, the comte pined after a feudal age of seigneurial camaraderie, in which his caste was neither reduced to mummers in the spectacles of absolute monarchy, nor diluted by the admission of thousands of arrivistes who had purchased their rank. It was ironic, then, that his daughter – the marquis’s mother – should marry the son of Samuel Bernard who, though elevated as the comte de Coubert, had been raised in the stolidly bourgeois household of a Dutch painter of portrait miniatures. Bernard was the richest banker in Europe and underwrote the French government during the War of the Spanish Succession. The Boulainvilliers’ household combined staggering wealth with a pious, if hypocritical adulation of the old nobility – a combination that may have made them especially susceptible to the plight of the young Valois.
Jeanne herself had reasons to claim she had effectively been adopted by the Boulainvilliers, not just treated as a distant charitable project funded at the behest of a kindly old curate. Her entry into the family offered, as much as any official documentation, recognition of her deserts, and challenged the authorities to support her in comparable luxury. Though her story seems like a fairy tale, it has corroboration from other quarters. Jacques’s petition to Louis XVI in 1776 spoke of how the ‘Marquise de Boulainvilliers met them by chance on the road’; and Rose Bertin, Marie Antoinette’s dressmaker, knew the Boulainvilliers’ cook, who told her that the children had turned up at Passy with a little casket containing their title deeds.
The three siblings were sent off to boarding school. Jacques eventually joined the navy and Jeanne made ‘rapid progress in every branch of female education, particularly in writing’ – but Marguerite died during a smallpox outbreak. The Boulainvilliers fled Paris in fright and Jeanne would not see them again for another five years. Her schoolmistress, Madame le Clerc, took advantage of the marquise’s seclusion to force Jeanne into servitude: ‘I fetched water; I rubbed the chairs, made the beds; in short I did every menial office about the house . . . in the different occupations of washing, ironing, housekeeping, nursing.’ She was eventually rescued by the marquise but her wish to be enfolded within the family was not granted. Soon she was apprenticed to a number of professionals – first to a seamstress, then to a maker of mantuas (loose-fitting gowns). It is evident that the marquise wanted Jeanne to learn a trade so she could support herself independently and with dignity, and needlework was the most promising profession for women without wealth.
None of this was congenial to Jeanne. Mademoiselle la Marcha may have been ‘a mantua-maker of the highest reputation’, but ‘the urgency of her very extensive business was by no means suitable for a person of my condition’. She was moved elsewhere but chafed when taken on by a retired lady-in-waiting to the marquise de Narbonne, ‘compelled to carry water from the bottom of a house four storeys high, to prepare the bath which her indisposition obliged her to use’ and ‘reduced to the situation of servant to a servant!’.
During her teenage years, Jeanne frequently fell sick and returned to the Boulainvilliers. She claimed to suffer from ‘putrid fever’ – or typhus – but it’s easy to see how, in her misery, she might have developed a hypochondriac sensitivity to the smallest somatic fluctuations, or have feigned illness. Her dreams of being waited upon by others were only fulfilled by the nurses at her sickbed. An insight into these fantasies might be found in the library she later accumulated: among the multi-volume editions of Rousseau, Crébillon and the Hommes Illustres de Plutarque, was shelved an obscure play called L’Orphelin Anglais (The English Orphan) by Charles Henri de Longueil. The rest of Jeanne’s books seem to have been bought to furnish her rooms rather than her mind but, as there were no other individual play scripts in the inventory, L’Orphelin Anglais almost certainly held some specific sentimental value.
Set in medieval England, the play was first performed by the Comédie-Française in February 1769. Its two central characters, Thomas Frick and his son-in-law Thomas Spencer, are prosperous carpenters. The younger Thomas is admirably honest, fair and devoted to his wife and children. But one of their customers, Lady Lallin, seems determined that the family should spend a number of years travelling on the continent so that young Thomas can perfect his trade. First she offers to pay for their trip; when they refuse to go, she threatens to arrange for their expulsion from the kingdom. It soon transpires that Thomas was an orphan taken in by Frick. Lord Kitson, Lady Lallin’s brother, informs him that he is, in fact, the heir to the earldom of Gloucester. His father had relinquished him when he had fallen into disgrace with the queen; and Lady Lallin is eager for the family to take a lengthy voyage abroad because she was granted the earl’s confiscated property. Reclaiming the title, however, would mean the annulment of Thomas’s marriage to Molly, a commoner, a fate that looks increasingly likely when Kitson fails to extract an exemption from the king. Only when Molly tearfully collapses before the throne is the king’s decision reversed and the family saved.
At first glance there is little in common between the personalities of Jeanne and Thomas. He takes pride in craftsmanship, has no yearning for great wealth and refuses to sacrifice his marriage in exchange for an exalted rank. But this was probably not how Jeanne read the play. It fulfilled a number of hopes that her life with the Boulainvilliers failed to deliver. She saw an orphan who had been absorbed so fully into his adoptive family that he had married into it. She observed that the fate of the high-born is of great interest to kings, if only the opportunity could be found to arouse their pity. Most dramatically, the play offered a fantasy of instantaneous redemption – however tedious the endless prospect of life as a seamstress seemed, it could be escaped in the time it takes for a man with welcome news to walk through the door. Jeanne would grow to realise that intervention was required for fantasies to become real.
During the increasingly lengthy stretches of time Jeanne spent recuperating in the Boulainvilliers’ home, she began to attract the attention of the marquis. He was deeply concerned about the state of her body – more for carnal than medical reasons. In her autobiography, Jeanne records how the marquis would visit her alone, conduct a number of vital diagnostic tests and palliatives (taking her pulse, rubbing her temples, stroking her stomach), offer her money and diamond-encrusted jewellery, before telling her that she must not mention any of this to the servants. ‘Although I deemed this conduct very indelicate,’ she wrote, ‘yet, under the specious pretence that he disguised it, it would have appeared unreasonable to remonstrate.’ (It is questionable, given Jeanne’s pliancy towards powerful men throughout her life, whether Boulainvilliers’s approaches were entirely unwelcome or without encouragement.)
When the marquis’s daughters found out about these tête-à-têtes they understandably grew frosty towards Jeanne. The marquise concealed her in a hospital, ‘not wishing to expose my youth and innocence to such temptations as the Marquis, availing himself of his station and circumstance, perhaps might offer’, though Jeanne, finding that the accommodation lacked the plushness of the Boulainvilliers’ town house, bravely risked her chastity by returning home.
Despite Jeanne’s despondency about her prospects, the Boulainvilliers had been pressing her cause. Bernard Chérin, the royal genealogist, known to be ‘painstaking in his investigations and unbending in his judgements’, confirmed that Jacques and Jeanne were descended from Henri II. In December 1775, Jacques, now twenty, was presented to Louis XVI by the chief minister, the comte de Maurepas. No monarch takes pleasure in being reminded of the existence of the tenacious offshoots of a previous dynasty, but the king granted Jacques and his sisters pensions of 800 livres a year. Jacques was commissioned as a lieutenant in the navy and departed for Brest in April 1776.
The pension meant Jeanne was no longer reliant on the beneficence of the Boulainvilliers. Not that she was grateful. She dismissed the amount as ‘trifling’ (in a way, it was – the king’s brother the comte de Provence received 2.3 million livres from the crown each year, and in 1783 was given a separate grant of 7.65 million livres to pay off his gambling debts). The 800 livres would allow her to live modestly, but if she’d wanted to live modestly, she would have applied herself to needlework. The discontent at receiving such a derisory sum was sufficient to snap her brittle health: ‘I was frequently attacked by convulsions, probably brought on by the concealment of what was passing in my breast.’ Soon her new family would be in no position to help her any further.
In early December 1776, Jeanne, lying feverish in bed, was tormented by a sulphurous reek. She interrogated the servants about the smell – all of them replied evasively. But she was not the only person suffering; a crowd, beset by the stench and curious about its origin, had gathered outside the Boulainvilliers’ house, where it was ineffectually marshalled by a small detachment of police. It was soon established that the marquis had been running an illegal distillery in his cellars, and there had been insufficient ventilation to disperse the fermented gases unobtrusively. Though a secretary had attempted to flood the cellar, enough evidence remained to prove that the marquis had been illicitly manufacturing alcohol. This was not the kind of hobby expected of Paris’s chief legal officer. The Boulainvilliers retired to the country in disgrace, and Jeanne’s hopes of establishing herself at Versailles and increasing her pension were punctured.
A little consolation arrived when the marquise engineered a reunion between Jeanne and her sister Marianne, who had last seen each other fifteen years previously. The two girls moved briefly into a Benedictine convent before they were shuffled, in March 1778, to the Abbaye Royale at Longchamp, an entirely different sort of foundation. Longchamp served as an aristocratic finishing school. It had gained particular notoriety in the middle of the eighteenth century when the opera star Nicole Le Maure retired from the stage to become a novice there. Services were transformed into concerts as Le Maure sung with the backing of an orchestra. Thousands crammed in to hear her, and people began to note that the Mother Superior seemed to have recruited her choristers more for their coloratura than their religious calling.
By the time Jeanne arrived, Longchamp was no longer a permanent party and she bucked at its strictures. The abbey was not intended, she realised, to polish her up in preparation for breaching Court society with the Boulainvilliers at her back; it was, instead, the culmination of the marquise’s generosity, a place where she would be genteelly preserved. But Jeanne had little appetite to spend her life among the dog-eared memories of spinsters past marriageable age. When the abbess began to pressure her into taking the veil, she and Marianne planned their escape.
Praise for How to Ruin a Queen
"A murky story of the Ancien Regime including diamonds and sex, brilliantly told."Antonia Fraser, author of the bestselling Marie Antoinette
"How to Ruin a Queen is a fascinating and impeccably-researched account of one of the great scandals of the 18th century. Jonathan Beckman is a master storyteller whose consummate skills are evident on every page."Amanda Foreman, author of the bestselling Georgiana
"The narrative is like an ingenious chess game, a work of scholarship and imagination.... Jonathan Beckman is the new Wilkie Collins of biographical history."Michael Holroyd, award-winning biographer and former president of the Royal Society of Literature
"With its exuberant use of language and subtly ironic storytelling, it is almost as colorful as the scandal it unfolds."Sunday Times
"Jonathan Beckman skillfully unfolds the intricacies and absurdities of this extraordinary episode...[and] provides us with an engaging and finely-researched study of an affair that, despite having the plot of a frothy operetta, was of genuine historical significance."Literary Review
"A hell of a tale and Jonathan Beckman gives it all the verve and swagger it deserves."Spectator
- "A lively, engaging narrative...A dramatic tale of intrigue and suspense...Beckman's poetic imagery infuses historical detail with verve and depth, bringing new life to one of the most dramatic episodes in French history." —The Historian
- On Sale
- Sep 2, 2014
- Page Count
- 408 pages
- Da Capo Press