Author Archives: Alex Fairfax-Cholmeley

COMING SOON: The Elbeuf Letters in Translation

A quick update on the progress of one significant part of this project: making translated extracts from the duchess’s Letters publicly available (and for free) via a fully searchable database. All translation work is now complete, and the Team are now working with the University of Exeter’s Digital Humanities Lab on the final stages of the database and website design.

The public launch date is mid-August 2021, and it will be accessed through the same address as this blog: http://revolutionaryduchess.exeter.ac.uk. Subscribe to this blog to get an alert, or simply check back at this address again from the second half of August.

The database, ‘Revolutionary Duchess: The Elbeuf Letters, 1788-1794’, will give unprecedented access to this remarkable source, translated into English for the first time. Features include:

-Extracts from 23 Letters and 8 shorter note entries, written between December 1788 and January 1794 and totaling over 12,000 words

-For the first time in English, access to a unique voice on key events in the French Revolution including: the Fall of the Bastille; the Great Fear; the Flight to Varennes; the fall of the monarchy on 10 August 1792; the September Massacres; and the executions of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette.

-Detail on the everyday, lived experience of Revolution, both in Paris and in the countryside, including: popular violence; Revolutionary political culture; emigration; conspiracy fears; and the infrastructure and impact of the Terror.

-The database is fully searchable, with embedded links in each extract giving the reader information about who and what the duchess is writing about

-The duchess’s writing can be accessed chronologically or browsed by theme. The material is also listed via the people, places and organisations mentioned in each extract.

Please keep an eye out for the launch announcement in mid-August 2021. We are looking forward to sharing this exciting new resource with you all!

Visualising the world of the duchess: a group portrait by Élisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun

Fig. 1: Élisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun, The Marquise de Pezay, and the Marquise de Rougé with Her Sons Alexis and Adrien, 1787. Oil on canvas, 123.4 x 155.9 cm. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, 1964.11.1.

Simon Macdonald writes:

Previous blog entries here have noted that no portrait picture survives depicting the duchess of Elbeuf, and indeed that we have little clue about what happened to her art collection as a whole — or even if she had one at all. Fortunately, one remarkable visual entry point into the duchess’s world is available to us. For, a couple of years before the French Revolution, a number of her closest relations sat to have their group portrait painted by one of France’s leading artists in this line of work, Élisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun. The painting survives, and is now owned by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, where it is displayed under the title The Marquise de Pezay, and the Marquise de Rougé with Her Sons Alexis and Adrien (fig. 1 above).

On this medium- to large-sized canvas (a rectangle of 155.9 x 123.4 cm, or roughly 5 x 4 feet), we are shown two elegant young women, one of them being embraced by her two young sons. Our group is depicted seated on a neoclassical terrace, hinting at a country-house setting. Much of the paint surface of the image is taken up with women’s voguish and elaborate headdresses, billowing glossy robes, and other expensive adornments. At first glance, we seem to have stumbled into some kind of high-society fashion show where the wealthy and beautiful parade their assets and their estates. Blooming roses peek out in the corner of the image, renewing the sense of youth, beauty and showy luxury.

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Decipher the duchess. Part 2c

Now for the full transcription and English translation of the start of the duchess’ letter from her country estate in Moreuil. It is the end of August 1790 and it seems that her family retreat is no longer a sanctuary from the revolutionary turmoil she has been reporting on from Paris and elsewhere across the country…

Line 1: A Moreuil ce lundi 30 aoust 1790

Line 2: Je voûlois vous cacher [[inserted interline word]Mde] l’insurrection que j ai eu honneur d’avoir enfin icy,

Line 3: mais Mde Rougé Mortemart en ayant été effrayé pour ses enfans les à menés à Paris

Line 4: pour les faires passer à Heydelberet [Heidelberg] , et durant les huit iours qu elle à été en cette

Line 5: ville, elle l à dit à de mes amis, qui en ont fait grand bruit.

Words in [bold] are editorial comment.

Translation:

Moreuil. Monday 30 August 1790

I wanted to conceal from you, Madame, the insurrection which I had the honour of finally hosting here, but it made Madame Rougé Mortemart so terrified for her children that she took them to Paris in a bid to get them to Heidelberg, and while she was in the city for eight days she told my friends about it and this created something of a sensation.

Madame Rougé Mortemart was Victurienne-Delphine-Natalie de Rougé, marquise de Rougé. She was a relation of the duchess (the wife of her deceased first cousin once removed), and Simon will be writing a post shortly about Elisabath Vigée Le Brun’s celebrated portrait featuring Madame Rougé and her children (two boys). She is not mentioned previously in the Moreuil section of the Letters so it is unclear how long she has been staying there, but we know that the duchess took a close interest in this part of her extended family — not least because, in the absence of any children herself, Madame Rougé’s eldest son stood to inherit the major part of the duchess’ property.

The ‘insurrection’ which had so terrified Madame Rougé (but apparently not the defiant duchess) took place earlier in August. It had begun with attacks on the wooden posts used to Continue reading

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’.

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