The Queen’s Necklace, by Frances Mossiker

Queen s Necklace Mossiker

Queen s Necklace 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.

Queen s Necklace

Queen s Necklace

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.

Cardinal de Rohan

Cardinal de Rohan

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.

Marie-Antoinette-pearl-necklace-by-Vigee-Lebrun

Marie-Antoinette with a pearl necklace, by Vigee-Lebrun

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.

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28 Comments to “The Queen’s Necklace, by Frances Mossiker”

  1. Judith says:

    Oooh, I love the scandal! I can’t wait to get my hands on this book, it seems like just the kind I love! Brilliant post!
    xoxox
    Judith~

  2. Penny says:

    thank you for posting this. I think it was aimed at Antoinette. she was a bigger fish in the pond as we say in English. when I read it in Antonia Fraser’s book, she played it down but now I am interested in it again.

  3. Catherine Delors says:

    Thank you, Judith! A fascinating mystery indeed. Note, however, that this is not a novel. Frances Mossiker simply gathered a considerable amount of primary material about the case.

  4. Catherine Delors says:

    I can’t figure out why Antonia Fraser would play it down, Penny. Whatever one thinks of the true solution, the importance of the case in shaping public perception of Marie-Antoinette cannot be overstated.

  5. Lucy says:

    Terrific post, Catherine. Sounds like a real page-turner; yet it isn’t a novel. Would you say this is more of an historical read with disputable facts? I always enjoy books that test my ability to discern what really happened in history. As for MA, I believe this was the scandal that strengthened and sealed the people’s misconstrued perception of her. How sad.

  6. Thank you, Catherine, for this helpful review. I have always thought that Madame de la Motte and even the Cardinal were hapless tools in a larger plot to smear the Church and especially the monarchy, with the Queen as the intended victim. While they were certainly not innocent, the magnitude of the event and the vast implications were beyond anything the La Mottes and the Cardinal could have masterminded by themselves.

  7. Penny says:

    I have to make a correction, yes, Fraser plays it down, but does mention that it shaped public opinion. then she states she is surprised because the queen was exonerated.

  8. Catherine Delors says:

    Lucy – Indeed it is a real page-turner. Surprising for a non-fiction book of this bulk, but the presentation is excellent, and the story filled with valuable period detail. I think the credit goes to the author’s thorough research and deliberately neutral standpoint.

    Elena – I would have to reread it a couple of times with a notepad in hand to try to figure out the solution, but I do believe it would be something along these lines. In any case, this is a fascinating read.

  9. Catherine Delors says:

    Penny – She is surprised because the Queen was exonerated? What I find surprising is the Cardinal’s acquittal, but so many people had a hand in it.

  10. Fascinating post, Catherine. This subject would make a wonderful novel!

  11. Hi Catherine, I’m glad that you had a chance to pick up Frances Mossiker’s book. It was very helpful to me when I wrote my own post on the Affair of the Necklace. I was amazed at how little space both Antonia Fraser and Carolly Erickson devote to the Affair in their biographies. It was such a turning point in the life of Marie Antoinette. Any hope she had of convincing the populace that she was not a frivolous woman ended with the Affair. It was interesting to read the actual words and testimony of the major players. While the Cardinal was a brilliant man, I think he was blinded by his ambition and his need to have Marie Antoinette acknowledge him. And I think Jeanne de la Motte was cleverer than you give her credit for.

  12. Catherine Delors says:

    Oh, Elizabeth, I don’t think Jeanne lacked cleverness at all, but she too was blinded by her glorious ancestry on the wrong side of the blanket. My impression was that she didn’t have the skill and means to put together something of this scope, and that she was in turn taken in by someone else, more clever and more worldly than she.

    But it remains a question of one’s personal interpretation of a very complex story. I loved your post on it, btw. It is probably what prompted me to read Mossiker. Here’s the link:

    http://scandalouswoman.blogspot.com/2008/11/marie-antoinette-and-affair-of-necklace.html

    I agree that the Affair of the Necklace deserves far more space than MA’s biographers usually grant it. Instead it is dismissed as a footnote. Tabloid fodder, certainly, but crucial in determining the Queen’s image.

  13. Nancy Jane says:

    I love this review. As I was reading it, I started getting the idea that maybe England was behind it – revenge for France supporting Americans in their quest for independence from England. Think about it: The Battle of Yorktown was in 1781 – the affair of the necklace was in 1786. That would give somebody five years to lay the groundwork for this covert operation and bring it to fruition. Once he knew he had lost the American colonies, George III could have ordered it. The operatives would have had plenty of possible accomplices – any of the many enemies of either the Queen or the Cardinal. I suspect if it was a covert plot to undermine the French monarchy, that the queen would have been the target; as a foreigner she was more vulnerable; distrusted by the French, it would have played into the French xenophobia. Perhaps someday, if I’m right, evidence will be found in some old archived file to this effect.

  14. Catherine Delors says:

    Wouldn’t it, Julianne?

  15. Elisa says:

    The whole affair was damaging to everyone involved.

  16. Catherine Delors says:

    I think it even went further, Elisa. It was devastating.

  17. Sooooooooooo tempted to rush out and buy this book. Nothing like a good thriller and an 18th century one at that!
    YUM & thanks

  18. Catherine Delors says:

    Give in to temptation, Carol!
    Perfect winter read, with a cup of hot chocolate.

  19. Penny says:

    Was the jeweler Jewish, and would that have created new anti- semetism? I think Fraser mentions that he was but then drops it and it made me wonder if that was of any importance?

  20. Catherine Delors says:

    Yes, Penny, both Boehmer and Bassenge were Jewish. I am not aware of anti-semitism as the result of the Affair. It wouldn’t have made any sense because the jewelers were so obviously the victims here: they delivered the necklace, and were not paid for it. They faced bankruptcy afterwards. Popular sentiment blamed the Queen only, and everyone else was considered a victim of her schemes.

    Mossiker mentions a letter mentioning that the Rohan family ultimately paid them, but did that really happen?

  21. Penny says:

    I just started reading it. I totally agree with you. just like a thriller. it is also interesting that Mossiker does NOT mention religion but Fraser feels compelled to do so. this has so much more background for all the characters. and other things goin on in court. thank you again for posting. I still can’t believe i have to wait a Whole YEAR for the next Catherine Delors’ book. my best male freind told me he read it in 3 days. he thought Gabrielle was a real character so we are rooting for you for one of your own and i am still waiting for autograph etc

  22. Penny says:

    This is a thriller. i feel like i am on a roller coaster. some little scam turns into a big heist of expensive but ugly necklace. at one point impoverished nobles use the court coach.and EVERYONE has a motive.except the jewelers. they are the only ones who lost money.

  23. Catherine Delors says:

    Absolutely, Penny. The jewellers are the only ones whose innocence cannot be doubted in this murky tale of greed and politics.

  24. Isthar says:

    Un gusto saludar y decir que Jeanne era la legítima propietaria de Fontette heredado de Nicole de Savigni, y que Louis XVI sin existir transacción alguna cerró fuertemente su mano y no le devolvió sus tierras.Si se busca en la red, verá que Jeanne figura como antigua propietaria de Fontette.Si el rey hubiera devuelto lo que no le pertenecía, el caso del collar no se hubiera dado.Aunque la revolución nadie hubiera podido detener. Una monarquía absoluta, y un pueblo olvidado, hambre e injusticia.Jeanne fue una aventurera,pero reclamaba lo suyo y la monarquía gastaba el patrimonio del país. un cordial saludo Isthar

  25. Elise says:

    Bonsoir Catherine,

    Je n’ai malheureusement rien trouvé sur le collier représenté sur le portrait de Tatiana Youssoupov, mais je vais chercher encore car la ressemblance est étonnante.

  26. Merci d’avoir essaye, et de continuer a chercher!

  27. Paznokcie żelowe says:

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  28. JennyR says:

    Oh the things I have only heard hints of…I am fascinated with your books and your blog. Spending a whole day getting acquainted with it and reading bits and pieces to my children (ages 12-21).