The Queen’s Necklace, by Frances Mossiker
Before reading this book, I thought I had a fairly good knowledge of the infamous Affair of the Necklace. Here goes the story: the Cardinal Louis de Rohan, Grand Almoner of France, Prince of the House of Rohan, was one of the most prominent courtiers in Versailles. As Grand Almoner, he was in charge of many charities and had christened all of the royal children. Yet, as former Ambassador of France to Vienna, he had offended Marie-Antoinette’s mother, Empress Maria Theresa, and the Queen would have nothing to do with him, beyond what was strictly required by the étiquette.
Arrives an adventuress, Jeanne de Valois, false Countess de La Motte and true descendant of the former Valois reigning dynasty. She approaches the Cardinal with the assertion that she is a very intimate friend of the Queen, and can, provided that the price be right, reinstate the prelate into Marie-Antoinette’s good graces.
At first Jeanne is content with extorting substantial sums of money from the Cardinal, but soon she indicates that the Queen is extremely desirous of acquiring the Diamond Necklace, a jewel of monstrous proportions that the official Court jewelers, Messieurs Boehmer and Bassenge, have been trying to sell, first to Louis XVI, then to every other sovereign in Europe, for over a decade. The Queen, according to Madame de La Motte, had to decline the necklace, when it had been offered to her by the King, because of the overwhelming budget troubles faced by the kingdom, but in fact she cannot live without it. She absolutely wants it. The Cardinal, if he accepts to act as a “front” for the Queen in the purchase, will secure her eternal gratitude.
The Cardinal is supposed to have believed this unbelievable story: Jeanne de La Motte was never even presented at Court, but he, the consumate courtier, thinks she is the Queen’s most intimate confidante! And how would the Queen explain to the King, to the Court, to public opinion, her ownership of a necklace she is not supposed to have purchased?
The jewelers Boehmer and Bassenge, based on the Cardinal’s promise to pay for the necklace, give him the jewel and he in turn entrusts it to Madame de La Motte, supposedly to be delivered to the Queen. But in fact the necklace is taken apart by the “Countess” and her husband, and he goes to London, where he sells great quantities of loose diamonds. In the meantime, the first installment on the necklace comes due, the jewelers expect a payment from the Queen, and yet nothing is coming. What they find still stranger is that the Queen never wears the jewel she is supposed to have so coveted. Finally Monsieur Boehmer, facing bankruptcy, begs the Queen for the payment. “Payment for what?” she asks. The whole scheme unravels.
The King and Queen, furious, assume that the cash-strapped Cardinal has stolen the necklace himself to appropriate the diamonds. They have the prelate arrested in public at the threshold of the Royal Chapel in Versailles, just as he was ready to celebrate the Mass of the holiday of the Assumption of the Virgin in front of the assembled courtiers and visitors. Given the rank of the Cardinal, this is construed as an attack on the highest ranks of the nobility and the Church. Immediately the affair becomes a full-blown scandal. From Versailles it spreads to Paris, then to the entire kingdom and all of Europe. Things can only go dramatically wrong for all involved.
At least that is the generally accepted story. What Frances Mossiker has done in this hefty volume is gather the legal record of the trial and all available letters, statements and memoirs from eyewitnesses. Their recollections, needless to say, are entirely at odds with each other, but their juxtaposition is most illuminating. From this tangled skein of lies, one can at times catch a glimpse of the truth.
People come across as quite different from their usual depictions. Much to my surprise, I felt some pity for Jeanne de La Motte, liar, cheat, thief, adventuress, courtesan though she is. Oh sure, she was guilty, at least as an accomplice, but she is the victim of her own Valois delusions of grandeur. The Cardinal, far from being a paragon of imbecility, was a brilliant man, unlikely to fall for her harebrained schemes.
Interestingly, Ms. Mossiker chooses not to impart her own interpretation of the events. She passes no judgment on the characters, which I find extremely refreshing. The reader is left to draw her own conclusions.
What are mine? The generally accepted version, summarized above, can’t be true. Why didn’t Madame de La Motte try to leave France after the first installment on the necklace came due, while her husband was selling the diamonds piecemeal in London? Why didn’t she accompany him and enjoy a safe haven in England? She obviously felt assured of protection in very high places. Could she have been the mastermind?
She was a small-time crook, but she had neither the knowledge nor the material means of implementing a crime of this magnitude. Also why were two members of the government, Minister of Foreign Affairs Vergennes and Keeper of the Seals (Minister of Justice) Miromesnil so devoted to the Cardinal’s cause? They went so far as securing the extradition of witnesses for the defense, all to the detriment of the Crown’s case. What was the exact role of another Minister, the Baron de Breteuil? He was instrumental in engineering the spectacular arrest of the Cardinal, his sworn enemy, and apparently stole key pieces of evidence from the court records. Was the Cardinal only the victim of a daring swindler and his own gullibility, as he argued at trail? I find it hard to believe.
Was the case simply a giant swindle? I rather suspect a far-ranging political plot, with two possible intended victims: either Marie-Antoinette or the Cardinal de Rohan. The Queen had many enemies at Court, the Cardinal barely less. The result, however, is in no doubt. The Cardinal, though acquitted, had to resign the Grand Almonership and was exiled by the King. Jeanne de La Motte was sentenced to life in jail after a public flogging and branding on both shoulders. The Queen’s reputation was damaged beyond repair. Her favorite painter, Madame Vigée-Lebrun writes in her Memoirs that Marie-Antoinette would never wear a necklace again for fear of reminding people of the scandal.
I will never think of the affair of the Necklace in the same way after reading this book, and plan on returning to it. By the way, in spite of its length, it reads like the thriller it is.