Saturday, November 17, 2018

Madame de la Motte

I have never seen the above picture identified as Madame de la Motte, the adventuress who precipitated the Diamond Necklace Scandal. But the following article identifies it as being Jeanne de Valois-Saint-Rémy. If anyone knows differently, then please let me know. From Headstuff:
 Nobility in pre-Revolutionary France was something of a double-edged sword. Of course it came with great privilege, and the nobles of France were permitted behaviour that was unthinkable for those of lower orders. But it also came with obligations, and one of the most notable of these was that it was unthinkable for a noble to earn their living at a trade. As such there were many people who were rich in name but poor in cash, forced to rely on the charity of the more influential to provide them with official positions and largesse. In that atmosphere of desperation many were prepared to go to great lengths to get what they felt they were owed; but few went quite as far as Jeanne de la Motte.

She was born as Jeanne de Valois-Saint-Rémy in 1756, a name that was derived directly from her noble lineage. Her father Jacques was descended from King Henry II of France (of the House of Valois) and his mistress Nicole de Savigny. Even two hundred years old and from the “wrong side of the blanket”, royal blood was more than enough to grant one the status of nobility. Their illegitimate son had been granted the title of Comte de Saint-Rémy, a title Jacques still claimed. Jeanne’s mother Marie came from far less noble stock; she was a maidservant who Jacques got pregnant. This wasn’t uncommon; what was uncommon was that Jacques insisted on marrying her despite his father’s protestations. This argument delayed their marriage until 1755, by which time they had already had two children. Jeanne (born a year later) was their first legitimate child.

Though Jacques inherited an estate from his father near Bar-sur-Aubein the northeast of France, he did not really inherit enough money to maintain it; at least not combined with his constant drunkenness and Marie’s spendthrift nature. Jeanne would later in her autobiography blame her mother for squandering the inheritance, but this may have been to cover up how little there was to squander. Visitors to the estate noted how the children had to do farmyard chores, and do them barefoot. It was only thanks to the charity of the locals that they survived.

When Jeanne was young, Jacques decided to move the family to Paris where he hoped to find opportunities for a noble like himself. It was a vain hope, and he was reduced to literally begging on the street. He died in 1762, when Jeanne was only six years old. Her mother soon took on a new lover and abandoned her three surviving children into the care of a charitable local, the Marquise de Boulainvilliers.

This proved to be a fortunate occurrence for the children, as the Marquise’s wife took a liking to her new foster children. Jeanne would later describe her as her “true mother”. Luckily for them, one of the things that the nobles of France had and the rest of the country did not was a social safety net. Once Madame de Boulainvilliers was able to prove their royal lineage they were entitled to a small annual stipend from the crown; enough for Jeanne’s brother Jacques to go to a military academy and for Jeanne and her sister Marie-Anne to attend a boarding school. When they completed their schooling they were sent into a convent, but Jeanne turned out not to have “the monastic temperament”. In 1776 she ran away from the convent (taking her little sister with her) and returned back to her childhood home in Bar-sur-Aube.

There she was taken in by the Surmont family, landed gentry with their own distant link to the nobility. After four years in their household, she married a nephew of the household by the name of Nicolas de la Motte, an officer in the gendarmerie (a local militia that was a precursor to the police). It was a whirlwind romance, necessitated by the fact that Jeanne was heavily pregnant when she was married.

She herself gives very little details about how she and Nicolas came to get married; scandalous later rumours implied that she fell pregnant from a lover she could not marry and swiftly ensnared Nicholas as a marriageable prospect and convinced him the children were his. Why could she not marry her lover? Because, said the rumours, the father was actually the man who officiated at her wedding: the Bishop of Langres. Whether this was true or not is impossible to say; she gave birth to twins shortly after the wedding but they only survived a few days. Infant mortality like that was a cruel fact of life back in those days. (Read more.)

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