Scandalous and slanderous

Oh, dear.

When I sat down to make a start upon the second section of Gallantry Unmask’d; or, Women In Their Proper Colours, bound with that text but given its own title of The History Of The Mareschalless De La Ferté, I almost immediately came across a mention of someone called “Bussy” or “Russy” (the print is smeared) which seemed to be a reference to a real person. Chasing up that detail, I was immediately plunged into an open can of worms.

To begin at the end, it seems that the author of Gallantry Unmask’d was not writing straight fiction at all, but instead plundering a variety of scandalous memoirs published in France earlier in the century; and that in fact, most of his “characters” are real people.

In describing the “Mareschalless”, the author mentions her sister, of whom he says:

…the Countess d’Olonne, whom Bussy has endeavoured to render famous to his Abilities, tho’ he has very much fail’d in it. The Copy Falling so short of the Original.

“Bussy” (as it turned out to be) is Roger de Rabutin, Comte de Bussy, usually known as Bussy-Rabutin. He was a soldier (who spent time in the Bastille for neglecting his duties in favour of woman-chasing), and also a writer. He had a habit of libelling his enemies in dirty songs, which got him into trouble; although not as much as participating in a certain notorious orgy (which took place during Holy Week!), which saw him banished from court and exiled to his country estates. There he amused himself by writing Histoire Amoureuse des Gaules, a funny but spiteful series of character sketches of the ladies of the court of Louis XIV. The document ended up circulating a little wider than intended, and fell into the hands of Louis himself. Bussy-Rabutin had not spared the royal ladies any more than the rest, and this escapade landed him once more in the Bastille, this time for a full year.

One of the women targeted by Bussy-Rabutin was the Comtesse d’Olonne. Born Catherine-Henriette d’Angennes, the Comtesse was celebrated as the most beautiful woman in France, and immortalised as Diana by the artist, Jean Petitot. She was also notorious for her love affairs: so much so, she was made the subject of one volume of the series published some 250 years later by the art and literary historian, Émile Magne, entitled collectively La Galerie des Grandes Courtisanes.

The Comtesse d’Olonne did indeed have a sister, Madeleine (or Magdeleine), who married Henri de Senneterre, the Maréchal – later Duc – de la Ferté; and although she does not seem to have achieved her sister’s degree of, um, lasting fame, in her time she was equally notorious for her conduct.

(Both sisters appear as characters in a work of historical fiction, The Ivory Mischief by Arthur Meeker Jr, which is now on The List.)

The realisation that The History Of The Mareschalless de la Ferté was populated by real people made me wonder about Gallantry Unmask’d—and sure enough, that too is full of historical figures, which the author seems to have drawn from the works of Charles de Saint-Évremond. However, the ladies who dominate the text do not seem to have done so in real life, unlike the d’Angennes sisters; while the husbands and lovers who make such poor appearances were soldiers and statesmen: for instance, Hugues de Lionne was a diplomat who rose to be Louis’ Foreign Minister, while the Count de Fiesque became an ambassador to Spain.

Bizarrely enough, Madame Paula de Lionne seems at the time to have been famous less for her love affairs (although one source comments casually that both she and her husband were “well-known” for their respective extramarital adventures) than as the mother of Artus de Lionne, a priest and missionary who was one of the first Vicars Apostolic of Szechwan (Sichuan) – though he never went to Sichuan – and later Bishop of Rosalie in Turkey, who in China became embroiled in the so-called “Chinese Rites controversy”, a dispute over whether rituals performed by the Chinese to honour their ancestors were religious in nature, and therefore against Catholic doctrine. The Jesuits felt that the rites were secular and consequently tolerable, whereas the Dominicans and Franciscans opposed this view. Madame de Lionne herself entered the controversy, publishing Lettre de madame de Lionne aux Jesuites in 1701, which received support from Bernardino della Chiesa, the Bishop of Peking (Lettre à madame de Lionne, sur le libelle des Jesuites, contre M. l’évêque de Rosalie, son fils). In fact it seems that the alleged “persecution” of de Lionne by the Jesuits was largely a fabrication to weaken their position in the controversy, and strengthen his own; although despite this the Pope finally ruled on the side of the Jesuits.

(Interesting if irrelevant factoid: a later Madame de Lionne appears in the story, The Duel, by Joseph Conrad, which became the basis for Ridley Scott’s debut feature film, The Duellists. It is at her salon that the quarrel is initiated which results in two young French officers fighting an unresolved series of duels carried out over the following fifteen years.)

But to return to the point—

Though it turns out that there is a measure of truth within both Gallantry Unmask’d and The History Of The Mareschalless De La Ferté – and though the “one extreme to the other” nature of these discoveries is making my head spin – I don’t see any point in ceasing to treat these work as fiction. Clearly they were intended simply to titillate, with some slandering of the French thrown in for good [sic.] measure.
 

 
On the left, the title page of Paula de Lionne’s protest against the Jesuits’ supposed mistreatment of her son. On the right, the title page of the response from the (Franciscan) Bishop of Peking.

 

 
On the left, an unattributed, annotated portrait of the d’Angennes sisters. The text reads (roughly): “Magdelaine D’Angennes, Maréchale De Lafferte Seneterre. Beautiful, and of good intentions, but whose conduct made the care of a clever husband not unnecessary; Catherine D’Angennes, Comtesse D’Olonne, the most famous beauty of her time, but less famous for the use she made of it.” As we gather from Émile Magne’s book about her, on the right.

 

 

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4 Comments to “Scandalous and slanderous”

  1. Most beatuiful . . . wow, tastes change.

    I found a closeup portrait:

    • Or portraiture styles do.

      Yes, I have another version of that painting but in the end I went with Magne’s book instead. 😀

  2. Yeah, a portrait is “how the subject wants to be depicted” plus “what visual style sends that message”, and occasionally a really novel bit of artistry too (so that everyone wants their portrait done in this new style).

    I don’t suppose anyone asked the Heathen Chinee whether they wanted a Bishop of Peking. I rather picture them walking past and being amused by this weird foreigner who thinks he’s important.

    I suspect that some of the point of the portrayal of these husbands as helpless cuckolds is to puncture the dignity of the soldiers and statesmen. It’s no fun traducing a peasant husband, after all.

    • I find it interesting that the Jesuits and the Pope were pragmatic enough to understand that suppressing the local rituals wasn’t going to help their cause. 🙂

      The question to me is whether English readers knew they were reading about real people. It isn’t clear from the text – there’s no explication of who the characters are (obviously!) – with the focus wholly on “private lives” and not public reputation. So while there is generic mockery, there really isn’t any sense of, “Some statesman, he can’t even control his wife!”

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