Author Archives: Alex Fairfax-Cholmeley

Decipher the duchess. Part 2b

Here is some more help for those of you attempting to transcribe this next section from the Letters, which sees the duchess face a new revolutionary threat in her previously safe country retreat at Moreuil in Picardy.

Line 1: A Moreuil ce lundi 30 aoust 1790

Line 2: Je voûlois vous cacher [[inserted interline word]Mde] l’insurrection…

Line 3: mais Mde Rougé Mortemart en ayant été effrayé…

Line 4: pour les faires passer à Heydelberet [Heidelberg]…

Line 5: ville, elle l à dit à de mes amis…

Words in [bold] are editorial comment.

Can you now work through the rest of lines 2-5? The Project Team will provide the full transcription and a translation in the next post in this series.

Decipher the duchess. Part 2a

Here is another opportunity to work with the original manuscript and test yourself against the Duchess’ handwriting, as part of our ‘Decipher the duchess’ series.

As we saw in her letter of 16 July 1789, the duchess was in Paris for the fall of the Bastille. The new political conditions signalled by this event set off a first wave of emigration by disenchanted and apprehensive noblewomen and men, including the King’s brother the comte d’Artois. The duchess herself left Paris on 27 July, but she did not leave the country; instead, she travelled eighty miles north to her country estate at Moreuil in Picardy (now in the Somme department). She remained there until March 1791, making only one visit back to the capital early in 1790. The duchess clearly regarded Moreuil as a sanctuary from the revolutionary turmoil in Paris and elsewhere, but the letter we are going to work on describes the moment when this protective bubble was finally pierced. Here is the opening paragraph of her account (click on the image to enlarge it):

There are five lines to work through. Here are some clues to help you get started:

Line 1: Provides the letter’s location and date

Line 2: Begins: Je voûlois vous…

Line 3:

Line 4: Begins: pour les faires passer…

Line 5:

More clues will be provided next week, and a full transcription and translation will follow.

Good luck and enjoy the challenge!

Recording of discussion on the Duchess and the Terror

The recording of last November’s Roundtable, ‘The French Revolutionary Terror from the Margins: The Letters of the duchesse d’Elbeuf‘, is now available online. This event was organised as part of the Modern French History Seminar series at the Institute of Historical Research in London (IHR). It was chaired by Dr Sanja Perovic (KCL).

The Roundtable is in four parts. It begins with a presentation by Dr Richard Taws (UCL), co-curator of an ongoing exhibition at UCL Art Gallery which featured the duchess, ‘Witnessing Terror: French Revolutionary Prints, 1792-4’ (see the blog post from 18 February 2020 for further details on this). From 10m40s in the recording, Colin Jones takes over to give an overview of the Letters and of the life and character of the Duchess herself. Next, at 26m08s, Simon Macdonald takes over to address how the Letters were handled by the revolutionary authorities after the Duchess was denounced and arrested in January 1794. Finally, from 32m50s, Alex Fairfax-Cholmeley introduces the translation work which forms another part of the project, and provides the audience with further highlights from the Letters that offer insight into the content and style of the Duchess’ writing.

The IHR Modern French History seminar has recordings of many other events and discussions available via the French History Network Blog (linked to The Society for the Study of French History).

The Duchess and the Police

Colin Jones writes:

The British have long held a very negative view of Parisian policing in the eighteenth century. The episode in which the duchess of Elbeuf lost her freedom (and indeed the correspondence notebooks at the centre of this project) when she was denounced to her neighbourhood’s surveillance committee at the height of the Terror in early 1794, seems to endorse this opinion. Even before counter-revolutionary propaganda during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars had painted the Paris police in grimly lurid colours –  later popularised in literary offerings such as Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities and baroness d’Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel – it had long attracted vociferous British criticism. Parisian police spies, censors, lettres de cachet, and all the rest caused shudders in preening ‘Free-Born Englishmen’. Some even doubted that the ‘police’ was a bona fide word in English: it was, Dr Johnson’s dictionary sagaciously observed, ‘a French term’.

One of the striking effects of the exhibition, ‘La Police des Lumières: ordre et désordre dans les villes au XVIIIe siècle’(‘The Police during the Enlightenment movement: urban order and disorder during the eighteenth century’), is to complicate and revise this simplistic vision. Continue reading

UPCOMING EVENT: Roundtable at the IHR, Monday 2 November 2020

The project team will be participating in a roundtable discussion about the duchess on Monday 2 November at 5.30-7.00pm UK time. The event is titled ‘The French Revolutionary Terror from the Margins: The Letters of the duchesse d’Elbeuf‘. This is part of the online Modern French History seminar series at the Institute of Historical Research (University of London).

We will be joined by Dr Richard Taws (UCL), co-curator of an ongoing exhibition at UCL Art Gallery which featured the duchess, ‘Witnessing Terror: French Revolutionary Prints, 1792-4’ (see the blog post from 18 February 2020 for further details on this). The session will be chaired by Dr Sanja Perovic (KCL).

To attend the roundtable you must book here via the IHR website. Members can also currently book an appointment to visit the exhibition during UCL Wednesdays. Please register your interest at UCL Art Museum’s booking site. Despite the notice non-UCL visitors are permitted. Contact the Curator Andrea Fredericksen at a.fredericksen@ucl.ac.uk with any queries.

Please email the co-convenors if you have any issues. The full programme for this first semester of the Modern French History seminar is available here.

Decipher the duchess. Part 1c

In this ‘Decipher the duchess’ series of posts we are working through the entry for 16 July 1789, in which the duchess provides a description of conditions in Paris in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Bastille two days earlier. Here is the relevant section of the manuscript again, with lines added for guidance:

And below is our own completed transcription. Remember, [square brackets] indicate a questionable or assumed reading of the manuscript by the Project team.

Line 1: A Paris ce 16 juillet 1789.

Line 2: J’[essai] Mde que ce petit Papier vous passe. On juge qu’il y à dans notre Peuple [300000] hom.

Line 3: armées. je ne sai point encore, de vos Amis tués. Le courage me soutient fort, je me porte

Line 4: bien, mais je ne sais si nous sommes Anglois, ou Turcs, car on porte les tettes dans les rues,

Line 5: mais je sais que tout noble est enfermé à Paris. demandé pour nous une bonne fin! je vous

Line 6: ecrirai si le seigr m’en procure un jour le Moyen.

We are also translating a substantial part of the Letters as part of the project (there will be an update about this on the blog in the near future). Here is our English version of this entry:

Paris 16 July 1789

I am trying to get this note to you, Madame. They estimate that there are 300000 armed men in amongst the people of the city. I still have no news about your friends who have been killed. Courage sustains me greatly. I myself am well, but I do not know if we have all turned into the English or the Turks, given that heads are being carried through the streets. What I do know is that anyone who is a noble is trapped in Paris. Pray we get a happy ending! I will write to you if one day the Lord grants me the means to do so. Continue reading

GUEST POST: The duchess as ‘foreign princess’

by Dr Jonathan Spangler

Jonathan Spangler is Senior Lecturer in Early Modern European History at Manchester Metropolitan University and senior editor of The Court Historian, the journal of the Society for Court Studies. He is a specialist in the court and high aristocracy of France in the early modern period, with a particular interest in borders and trans-national exchanges. His next book, tentatively entitled Monsieur: Always Coming in Second, will be a wide-ranging study of the role of second sons in the French monarchy. He writes:

When Innocente-Catherine de Rougé married her second husband, Prince Emmanuel-Maurice de Lorraine, in 1747, she anticipated a rank with great privileges at the French court, that of duchess, as her new husband’s older brother had no children. A duchess took precedence over most other women and enjoyed specific honours such as the right to be seated in the presence of the queen. But even before her husband succeeded his brother as duke of Elbeuf in 1748, the new princess of Lorraine enjoyed even greater privileges, restricted to a very small number of families at the French court, those given to the princes étrangers, or ‘foreign princes’.

Continue reading

What happened to the duchess of Elbeuf’s pictures?

Simon Macdonald writes:

A previous blog entry here noted that we don’t have any portrait of the duchess of Elbeuf, and we don’t even know for sure whether she had an art collection as such. Maybe she just didn’t much like paintings? Eighteenth-century France was full of art-historically significant names — Jean Siméon Chardin’s still lifes, Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun’s portraits, Jacques-Louis David’s history paintings. But that doesn’t mean that everyone at the time was enamoured of the fruits of the palette.

Still, we know she had a huge house in central Paris (see below). And, with so much wall space to fill, it seems unlikely that she had absolutely no pictures on them. In fact, we know quite a lot about the things she owned at the time of her death because more or less all her property then passed into the hands of the government.

The principal elevation of the duchess’ Paris residence, the hôtel d’Elbeuf (AN N/III/Seine/850)

Property confiscated by the revolutionary state, or which passed to the state by other kinds of forfeiture or sequestration, was carefully documented, with a view to finding items of value. That ‘value’ could come in the form of information. For example, a diary such as the kept by the duchess might hold secrets which could be politically useful to the regime. For that reason, officials felt it was worth reading — and worth retaining in the state archives. But mostly ‘value’ meant monetizable assets. This included real estate, investments, furniture, and indeed just about any kind of bric-a-brac which might attract a buyer at auction. Occasionally, particularly rare or valuable artefacts might be deemed sufficiently important to be turned into museum items — today’s Louvre Museum, for instance, is full of things like this — or to be placed in public libraries.

Continue reading

GUEST POST: The Duchess and the Engraver’s Daughter

by Professor Siân Reynolds

Siân Reynolds is former Professor of French at the University of Stirling, and the author of Marriage and Revolution: Monsieur and Madame Roland (0xford University Press, 2012). Her current research is on the children of the revolutionaries. She is also a member of the Advisory Board for this project. She writes:

Eighteenth-century manuscripts come in all kinds of handwriting, spelling and syntax, from the easily readable to the very challenging. If you have looked at the sample posted on this website, you will know that the duchess of Elbeuf’s Letters come towards the challenging end of the spectrum. The transcript being prepared by the Project Team will be a gift for future readers, but even this modern version of the text (we members of the Advisory Board have seen an early draft) will call for some ingenuity in interpreting it.

Prompted by this first glance at the transcript, I wondered what kind of upbringing and education Innocente-Catherine de Rougé received in the early years of the eighteenth century.  She was born in Brittany in 1707, in a family with a string of noble connections, and her two marriages made her very rich. But it looks as if her education was haphazard, to say the least. She expresses herself fluently, but on the page it reads phonetically. (Perhaps she was surrounded by Breton-speaking servants in her childhood, about which we know nothing yet.) She certainly did not receive the kind of formal training a boy born into a similar family might have had at that time.

This suggested a comparison with another female witness to the French Revolution, Marie-Jeanne Phlipon, who was the daughter of an engraver from the Île de la Cité in central Paris.

A drawing of Mme Roland in prison before her execution in 1793. Available via Gallica, the digital hub for the Bibliothèque nationale de France

Despite her much lower station in life, the woman later known as Madame Roland was considerably better educated, thanks to help from literate relatives, a brief spell in a convent and self-schooling. Her famous prison memoirs tell a story, retrospectively and with attitude, but we also have her letters recording day-to-day events and opinions. Perhaps surprisingly, there are some points in common between the reactions of these two strong-minded women, of different status, generation, and above all views of the Revolution.

Continue reading

Decipher the duchess. Part 1b

Here are some more clues to help you work out what the duchess was writing on 16 July 1789, during a significant phase of the early Revolution in the capital. Go to part 1 in the blog below for an introduction to this entry.

Line 1 begins: A Paris…

Line 2: J’[essai] Mde que ce petit papier vous passe…

Line 3: armées. Je ne sai point encore, de vos amis tués…

Line 4: bien, mais je ne sais si nous sommes…

Line 5: mais je sais que tout noble…

Line 6: ecrirai si le seigr

[Square brackets] indicate a questionable or assumed reading of the manuscript by the Project team.

This should give you more of an idea of the shape of the duchess’ handwriting. Use this as a template for unpicking other sections of the entry. We will provide a full transcription and English translation next week. In the meantime, happy deciphering!