Johns Hopkins Magazine - April 1994 Issue

Professor Françoise Velde in the Case of the Duplicitous Duchess

By Sue De Pasquale

Professor Velde's stomach gave a little lurch when he saw something tucked inside: a yellowed letter, written in French, in scrawling longhand. It was addressed to 'Monsieur le Marquis,' and there was something very strange, very conspiratorial about its tone.

François Velde took a final sip of espresso, then reached down to heft a heavy tome of yellowed newspapers up onto his desk. The 28-year-old was doing research for his latest book on the economics of the French Revolution, and today he needed to track down an article on an obscure piece of forestry legislation. Resolutely, he opened the leather-bound volume and began scanning the original pages of the French government's newspaper of record, Le Moniteur Universel. This volume held all the issues published during the first half of 1799.

Velde flipped through the pages, marveling at how well preserved they were, and admiring the fine rag of the centuries-old paper. After a few moments he came to the March 12 edition, the pages he needed.

But they were stuck together.

Odd, thought Velde.

Not wanting to damage the fragile pages (they hadn't been opened at least since the 1930s, when Hopkins's MSE Library acquired the 160-volume set), he hesitated for a moment. Then, ever so gently, he slid his finger along the edges of the pages until he reached the corners, which appeared to have been joined with spots of glue. Carefully, he loosened the glue on each corner and worked the pages apart.

His stomach gave a little lurch when he saw something tucked inside: a yellowed letter, written in French, in scrawling longhand.

Velde's pulse quickened. Someone had obviously gone to great pains to keep the letter hidden. What could have prompted such secrecy? By now the forestry legislation was long forgotten. The French-born Velde removed the brief, one-page letter and quickly scanned it.

It was addressed to "Monsieur le Marquis," and there was something very strange, very conspiratorial, about the missive's tone. One phrase in particular jumped out at him: "Je compte toujours sur l'assurance de votre devouement a la cause qui occupe tous mes moments comme mere et comme française." (I rely on the assurance of your devotion to the cause that occupies all my moments as a mother and a French woman.) The letter was signed only M.C., and there was no date on it. Who was this woman? What exactly was her "cause"? Who was this marquis?

The mystery couldn't have fallen into the hands of a better equipped academic detective than François Velde, whose passion for French history had begun when he was a schoolboy in Paris. He'd been particularly fascinated by the autographs of famous Frenchmen, and had spent his Saturday afternoons browsing in the Parisian shops, or attending auctions where such historical letters are bought and sold. Though most were too expensive for him to purchase, young Velde developed an appreciation for the papers they were written on, as well as an ability to distinguish one style of handwriting from another. He'd also been intrigued by genealogies, and had passed many an evening poring over the intricate family histories.

Now, with the mysterious letter before him, he began mulling over the few clues it provided.Velde knew that such political talk by a woman was most unusual unless she belonged to a prominent, if not royal, family. Moreover, he surmised that the letter was probably written during the early part of the 19th century, when the title "Marquis" was commonly used.

Velde began running through the royal ladies of the period. Marie-Antoinette? No, wrong initials. How about Napoleon's wife, Marie-Louise? Again, the initials didn't match up. Then he remembered a French history book he'd read just a few months before, about the 1830 revolution that expelled conservative King Charles X.

As Velde recalled, Charles's daughter-in-law tried to get her young son installed on the vacant throne several years after that revolution. Bingo! Velde was sure he had his woman: the duchesse de Berry. Try as he might to remember the duchess's first name, it eluded him.

After a while he gave up, resolving to consult his books once he got home. For now, he'd have to put his sleuthing aside; he would soon be late for his class on Monetary Analysis.

It took François Velde only a few minutes of reading that evening to confirm his hunch. The duchesse de Berry's first name was Marie-Caroline: M.C. Virtually certain now that he knew who had penned the mysterious letter, he settled back in his armchair to find out more about her. The portrait that gradually emerged was that of a headstrong Italian adventuress: a woman of willful passion and childlike charm, whose rashness ultimately led to her downfall.

Marie-Caroline was educated at the court of her grandfather, Ferdinand, the king of Naples, an unpretentious man who was as comfortable entertaining peasants as he was visiting royalty. So, early on, Marie-Caroline developed an ease of relating to people of all walks of life.

"She was certainly not pretty," wrote one biographer, "but there was in her something seductive and captivating. The vivacity of her manner, her spontaneous conversation, her ardor, her animation, her youth, gave her charm." Enough charm, in fact, to attract the duc de Berry, Charles's second oldest son. Soon after the two married, she gave birth to a daughter.

Charles did not ascend the throne as king of France until 1824, when Marie-Caroline was 25 years old. By that time she was already a widow; her husband, the duke, had been assassinated three years earlier, when it had seemed briefly that the family line would die out. Charles's oldest son and his wife, who would become the dauphin and dauphiness, were childless. But Marie-Caroline learned shortly after her husband's assassination that she was pregnant. She gave birth to a son, Henri, who was widely hailed as the "child of miracle."

Once her father-in-law succeeded his brother, Louis XVIII, the young widow and mother of two adapted happily to life in France's royal palace in Paris. She became known as the queen of elegance, and she set Parisian styles for fashion and furniture. The duchess refused to be confined within the walls of the palace; she preferred to take long, unescorted walks around the city, engaging everyone she met in conversation: "If she visited a studio, she congratulated the artist; in a shop she made many purchases and talked with the merchants with a grace more charming to them, perhaps, than even her extreme liberality. If she went to a theatre, she enjoyed herself like a child," wrote biographer Imbert de Saint-Amand in 1892.

The duchess also gave money freely to those in need: hungry families, struggling university students, hospitals, convents. (She gave so freely, in fact, that her promises of aid sometimes outstripped her actual revenue.)

Charles disapproved of the duchess's activities and of the company she kept. "The King did not recognize in his daughter-in-law nearly the solidity that she had," noted the Comte de Mesnard, her elderly advisor. "He believed her to be light-minded, and only looked upon her as a great child, though he loved her much and her gaiety pleased him beyond measure."

Charles X's reign, however, was to be a brief one--just six years long. The staunchly conservative Charles had fled France at the height of the revolution when he was 22, and he remained in exile for 26 years. He returned to a very different nation, one whose citizens had come to prize its constitution and the principles of democracy. But while France had fundamentally changed, Charles had not. Not wishing to be a constitutional monarch, in July 1830 he implemented a series of reactionary policies that effectively dissolved Parliament, muzzled the press, and changed electoral laws to favor his party.

Three days of rioting ensued, until on August 2, Charles X abdicated the throne in favor of his 10-year-old grandson, Henri. Charles's thinking was that unlike the dauphin, Henri was young; perhaps the French people would eventually accept him as a plausible candidate to the throne. Until then, the family would go into exile.

From that moment on, the duchesse de Berry devoted herself to a single cause: seeing her son assume his "rightful" seat on the throne.

"Royalty is disappearing," she lamented to a supporter. "My great-grandfather built palaces, my grandfather built houses, my father built huts, and my brother will no doubt build rats' nests. But God willing, my son, when it comes to his turn, shall build palaces again."

Velde closed his book and stretched, pleased that his evening's reading had been so fruitful; he now knew the counterrevolutionary "cause" to which the duchess had devoted herself so completely.

But other questions still nagged: To whom had the letter been addressed? And why had it been hidden in the March 12, 1799, issue of Le Moniteur? Perhaps the placement of the letter was significant. Tomorrow he would read those newspaper pages carefully to see if they provided any clues.

Then, gradually, another idea began to take shape in his mind. Suppose the letter he discovered wasn't the only one that had been hidden? Suppose there were others?

The next morning, Velde slowly worked his way through the 1799 volume, page by crackling page. And within a few minutes he found another pair of pages glued together. And then another pair. And another. And another. And another....In all there were dozens of pages unexplainedly stuck together!

Velde took a few deep breaths to steady himself, then set about trying to unstick the pages to get at the letters he just knew were hidden inside.

A few sets came unglued easily, each revealing a single page of the yellowed letters (some several pages long) he had expected to find. But some of the newspaper pages were more obstinately joined. Fearing that further efforts would damage the brittle pages, Velde picked up his phone and called Carolyn Smith in Special Collections.

As he had hoped, Smith was thrilled, and she immediately turned the volume over to Martha Jackson, a book and paper conservator in the Preservation Department. Give the project top priority, Jackson was told.

Initially unaware that she'd been pulled into solving a mystery, Jackson lugged the leatherbound volume back to the conservation laboratory in Krieger Hall and set to work. From her 20 years of experience, she could tell at a glance that the glue used to seal the pages was made of animal hide--probably rabbit or cowhide. In some cases, the letters themselves had been lightly glued to the newspaper pages so they wouldn't slip around. Jackson also ascertained that Le Moniteur had been printed on paper that was handmade and very thin. Though the paper was in fairly stable condition, she would have to be very gentle.

After slipping on her white labcoat and a pair of plastic gloves, Jackson carted the volume over to her long work table. She needed a moist environment to dissolve the aged glue, so, with blotting paper in one hand and a tiny metal spatula (less than the width of her little finger) in the other, she carefully dabbed lukewarm water onto one of the glue spots. She waited a bit, then pried gently at the pages.

The glue wouldn't loosen.

Jackson paused. It looked like she'd have to take stronger measures. Hmmm.... Heat might help. But what could she use as a heat source? Glancing around the lab, her eye settled on a metal desk lamp equipped with an extension arm. Perfect. The 60-watt bulb wouldn't be strong enough to damage the ink on the manuscript pages.

After rigging up the lamp next to her work area, Jackson sandwiched one of the glued areas between sheets of transparent film known as Mylar. Once she added water and placed the moistened "sandwich" near the lamp, tiny beads of condensation began to form.

After several moments, the glue began to loosen.

Jackson picked up her microspatula and, with painstaking precision, pried the letter away from the brittle newspaper page. Then she gently scraped off any residual glue and repeated the delicate procedure, again and again and again. Three hours later, she had freed all the pages of the letters that Professor Velde had been unable to free on his own.

Judging from the wide variety of watermarks, she concluded that the letters had been written on different types of paper-- all in the acidic range, with pH levels ranging from 4.5 to 6. The ink on some letters had begun to degrade; on others it was more stable.

By now, Jackson's initial matter-of-factness had turned to curiosity. Though she had grown used to handling and preserving the library's rarest collections--Audubon prints, say--she'd never before been privy to anything so secretive. Perhaps these were love letters, but why were they so secret? If only she could read French!

Then she remembered that a student intern at the lab had taken several courses in the French Department. When the intern came in to work a few minutes later, Jackson asked her to translate several paragraphs aloud.

References to "secret societies" and "uprising in the West" quickly tipped them off it was political conspiracy, not illicit love, that was behind all the secrecy.

Thrilled to have played a part in such an intriguing case, Jackson hurriedly packed up the letters and headed back to the library to give them to Carolyn Smith.

The following afternoon found Professor Velde in his office once again, all 13 of the letters (some many pages long) spread out across his desk.

Velde saw at a glance that only one was written in the same handwriting as the original letter he had discovered. Jumping to the bottom of the page, he felt a flush of satisfaction, for this letter was signed in full: "Marie-Caroline."

He'd been right! Like the first letter, this one was addressed to "Monsieur le Marquis." But this one was dated: August 2, 1834, four years after Charles's secession.

The other 11 letters proved much more puzzling. Two were identical in their penmanship, addressed to the duchesse de Berry and signed "Sophie." The other nine were unsigned, written in a precise handwriting that Velde assumed to be that of a secretary. Probably these nine were copies the secretary had made of his employer's original letters, which would explain why they were not signed. Several were addressed to the duchess, two were memoranda to Charles, and the remainder had no addressee.

Velde was convinced that all 11 letters were from the same correspondent--the mysterious marquis to whom Marie-Caroline had addressed her letters. "Sophie" was probably a code name the marquis had used to protect his identity, Velde theorized. Because of the conspiratorial nature of the correspondence, the marquis had probably hidden them away in his collection of old newspapers.

Figuring out the identity of the marquis wouldn't be easy. Velde would have to transcribe all the letters, then comb them carefully for clues. It would mean putting his economics research on the backburner, at least for a few weeks.

But Velde didn't hesitate. By now, solving this historical jigsaw puzzle had become a mild obsession. Of course, he knew he could call up one of his French history colleagues and ask for help. But he wanted to crack the case himself.

More than two weeks passed, during which time François Velde devoted every free moment to transcribing the letters.

Now he sat staring at the set of clues he had gleaned from the letters, written out 1-9 on the page before him. He turned the clues over and over in his mind, sure that they held the key to the marquis's identity:

Armed with his list of clues, Velde set out once again for Hopkins's library and its shelves of genealogies. Each time he came across a likely candidate, Velde would carefully construct a family tree, filling in whatever information he could find on each brother, father, wife, and child. He had completed more than a dozen of these boxlike charts to no avail, when, all at once, he knew he had found his man:

The marquis de Clermont-Tonnere, who had served as secretary of war under Charles X, had been born in 1779, so he was 53 years old in 1832. His father did not die until 1841. His wife's first names were MŽlanie-Charlotte, and he had at least four male children, who were born between 1812 and 1827. The marquis had never emigrated. And after retiring from politics in 1830, he had settled in the family castle at Glisolles, three miles east of Conches in the Eure.

Velde was exhilarated. AimŽ-Marie- Gaspard, the marquis de Clermont-Tonnere, just had to be the mystery man. And the professor knew he'd have an airtight case if he could find evidence that the marquis had used the code name "Sophie." Hmm....

Suddenly, he knew how to find out. Ever since finding the first letter, Velde had been trading E-mail messages about them with his mother, a professor of geology at the University of Paris. She was as intrigued as he and had offered to help in any way. Now he would take her up on the offer. Back at Mergenthaler Hall, he typed a brief message onto his computer screen, bringing her up to date and asking her to pay a visit to the National Archives of France. The holdings of the prominent Clermont-Tonnere family would almost certainly be found there. Perhaps Danielle Velde could find other letters in which the marquis had used the name "Sophie."

The elder Velde was happy to get in on the case, as the professor learned from the message that appeared on his computer screen. His mother would start sleuthing right away. Several weeks later she would indeed report finding several letters in which Clermont-Tonnere referred to himself as "Sophie."

In the meantime, Velde went back to his history books. Now that he knew the identity of the marquis, he could figure out just how the mysterious letters fit into history.

Soon after King Charles X's abdication in 1830, the duchesse de Berry learned with dismay that he had not appointed her the regent (legal guardian) of young Henri. Instead Charles had chosen his cousin, Louis-Philippe d'OrlŽans, who soon after seized the throne for himself by getting both houses of the French Parliament to proclaim him king. Later, Charles would appoint himself regent.

The duchess would never again have a hand in raising her son.

For the ambitious mother, so eager to see her son assume the throne, this turn of events was difficult to swallow. In addition to feeling insulted, the duchess disagreed with her father-in-law as to strategy. Marie-Caroline passionately believed there was no time to waste in organizing a rebellion. Charles contended that such an effort would be foolhardy, because there wasn't enough royalist support at that point.

The headstrong duchess was not to be dissuaded. While the former king and his grandson remained in exile in Scotland, the duchesse de Berry traveled around Europe throughout the summer of 1831, plotting a revolt. On April 29, 1832, she actually landed near Marseille to lead an insurrection. But it was put down within hours: at 4 a.m., the time set as the start of the uprising, only 60 men had gathered. They were easily routed by government forces.

Undaunted, the duchesse de Berry made plans to travel on to the VendŽe, historically a hotbed of royalist support in the western part of France. There she reportedly disguised herself in the blue trousers and black jacket of a male VendŽan peasant and, moving from hideout to hideout, went about contacting VendŽan leaders.

One of the prominent royalists to whom she turned for advice and support around this time was AimŽ-Marie-Gaspard, the marquis de Clermont-Tonnere.

The well-connected marquis was something of a Henry Kissinger of his day, having served as advisor in several different administrations (secretary of navy to Louis XVIII, secretary of war to Charles X). Now retired at the family castle in Eure, the marquis was an essential ally for any attempt to regain the throne.

Unfortunately for the duchess, the marquis opposed her plans. In two lengthy May letters to the duchess, the marquis (a.k.a. "Sophie") described the duchess's attempt at Marseille as "disastrous" because it exposed how weak the royal party really was. What's more, he wrote, her actions had only succeeded in making royalism appear as the aggressor, taking advantage of difficult times to further its own interests rather than those of France. Further attempts to organize a rebellion in the VendŽe would be bloody, useless, and hopeless, he advised. Rather than expose herself to a humiliating capture, the duchess should leave France and wait for the right opportunity.

Instead the duchess, after much fumbling, settled on May 24 as the date for a rebellion in the VendŽe; she later changed that date to June 3. But some troups never received word of the change, and so started fighting on the original date. Once again, the charge sputtered and the rebellion was put down by June 6.

Many Vendean royalists who fought did so half-heartedly, out of honor rather than out of confidence that the uprising would be successful. As one participant said, wryly alluding to the duchess's romantic illusions: "If things do not go well for Madame, one must die, and that will be the end of it, and thenÉgo hang Walter Scott, for it is he who is the true culprit."

Nonplussed, the duchess was escorted--still in disguise--to Nantes, a small town 125 miles southwest of Paris. There she planned to stay and wait for a better turn of events.

Throughout the month of September, the marquis (a.k.a. "Collineau") kept sending her letters, detailing the negative consequences of the failed VendŽe uprising and advising her to leave the area: he informed her that the government had plans to arrest her, try her, condemn her, and then pardon her. The marquis provided a detailed plan of escape, in which the duchess could travel to the Clermont-Tonnere family castle and leave from there to go abroad.

The duchess responded in an undated one-page letter--the first one that Professor Velde had happened upon--that she would consider his offer. But on November 7, 1832, she was apprehended and taken to the fortress of Blaye, near Bordeaux.

Once she was in captivity, it soon became obvious that the young widow was pregnant. Her followers were at first disbelieving, then furious. "She has cuckolded her own cause," was the bitter assessment of famed literary figure Chateaubriand, a one-time supporter. The duchess named an Italian aristocrat, the count Lucchesi-Palli, as the father of the daughter to whom she gave birth on May 9, 1833. Much later, a marriage certificate, antedated December 14, 1831, was produced. There were many who believed the count was not the true father, but simply a convenient stand-in.

The damage could not be undone; the duchesse de Berry was completely discredited by the pregnancy. No longer a political threat, she was freed and expelled from France. She left for Sicily to join her new husband. It was clear, even to Marie-Caroline, that her political role was over.

However, she did continue to fight with Charles to regain control over her son's education--a subject of grave concern to the marquis as well, judging from his letters to the former king.

Clermont-Tonnere was among the very vocal royalists who believed Henri was the only one who could make a clean break with Charles's errors and provide a credible "pretender." But the former king was unapologetic about his views. "I rejected every attempt to limit kingly authority," he told Chateau- briand in 1833. "I shall never concede where my principles are concerned. I want to leave to my grandson a throne more secure than mine." While living in exile, Charles thus effectively made sure that Henri was schooled as if the French Revolution had never taken place. The boy never had a chance to become familiar with the political, economic, and social institutions of 19th-century France.

The marquis repeatedly advised Charles that this was a big mistake. In a memorandum to the former king dated February-March 1836, the marquis notes that it is time for the 16-year-old Henri to start traveling through Europe to complete his education and make himself known to the courts of Europe. (" arrive par consequent a l'age ou il devient indispensable qu'il profite du temps en exil pour voyager, voir des troupes, visiter des champs de bataille, entrer en relation avec les souverains et leurs enfants.")

If Charles had heeded the marquis's advice as spelled out in the letters, the course of French history might have unfolded quite differently: France's citizens might today be living under a monarch.... This was François Velde's train of thought as he sat staring into space, the pile of transcripts spread before him on his desk.

For Velde the history buff knew that Henri eventually did get his chance at the crown--in the year 1873, at the age of 53. The rule of Napoleon III had just ended, and prominent royalists

finally sought out Henri to take the throne. But France's citizens wanted a constitutional monarch, not an authoritarian king. As a litmus test, all parties demanded that Henri let the tri-color flag of 1789 remain the national emblem.

Henri refused. He would assume the throne, he huffed, only if the pre-revolutionary white flag of France flew over the country.

The terms were unacceptable, and the crown slipped though Henri's fingers. After several years of political upheaval, France returned a republican government to power. The country would never again live under a monarchy.

Professor Velde sat back in his chair and smiled with satisfaction.The letters had ended up revealing more than he could ever have hoped. After weeks of reading and research, and many late nights spent puzzling over their curious clues, he had solved The Case of the Duplicitous Duchess--and shed some light on a rather interesting period of French history.

Well, he thought, stretching. Time to return to his economics research on the French Revolution--news sure to please his department head.

Though sorry to say goodbye to the project, Velde knew he could never forget the characters who, for a few brief weeks, had seemed to come alive to him: the passionate duchesse de Berry, the wise and level-headed marquis de Clermont-Tonnere, the obstinate abdicating King Charles X, the ill-fated young pretender, Henri.

Besides, thought Velde, a grin slowly forming. There were still 158 volumes of Le Moniteur stored away in Gilman Hall. Who knows what mysteries are tucked away in them?

Sue De Pasquale is the magazine's managing editor.

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