“A vile business clumsily done”

In 1847, the year that Charlotte Brontë published Jane Eyre, Paris society was riveted by a similar triangle –a wealthy and prominent man, his unbalanced wife, and a young governess. Their story, however, had a very different ending.

In August of that year, the Duc de Praslin murdered his wife and shortly thereafter committed suicide. The governess (that’s her in the photograph), who like Jane Eyre was a nearly friendless orphan, was imprisoned and questioned about her role in the murder and her relationship with the Duc. Were they lovers? Had she pushed him to kill his wife? Just what was her position in this strange household?

But I am getting ahead of my story. Let’s start at the beginning.

In 1824, Théobald de Praslin, aged 19, married Fanny Sébastiani, aged 17. The wedding caused something of a sensation because these two young people, both descended from aristocratic and wealthy families, actually appeared to be in love.

They started a family immediately. In retrospect, perhaps this wasn’t such a good idea. Over the next fifteen years, Fanny gave birth to nine surviving children, and suffered a few miscarriages as well. By the time she was 32, the willowy girl had become an obese and unhealthy matron whose husband had lost interest in her. Yet she still loved him passionately, and the more she tried to cling to him, the more he distanced himself.

She poured out her heart in letters and diaries, sometimes writing to her husband several times a day with entreaties, recriminations, apologies, demands, and expressions of longing for him. As the rest of the household slept, she sat at her desk, scribbling these cris de coeur. Even though they lived under the same roof, she had a footman deliver notes to her husband, sometimes several a day. One can only imagine what she would have done if she’d had access to e-mail.

Her frequent emotional outbursts unnerved Théobald and the children, yet much of the household staff was devoted to her, and she still moved in society. The aristocratic show must go on – there may be screams and scenes behind closed doors, but appearances are to be kept up. She was no Mrs. Rochester in the attic; she was a public figure.

Théobald also had little in common with Jane Eyre’s Mr. Rochester. He was a quiet man, cold and somewhat inert, and his usual reactions to his wife’s outbursts were silence and withdrawal, with occasional bursts of icy rage. He was wealthy and idle and had little to occupy him until the death of his father in 1841 made him the duke. He immediately set about restoring the family seat, today known as Vaux-le-Vicomte – the huge chateau that had once made Louis XIV so jealous that he created Versailles to rival it.

In that same year, the family hired Henriette Deluzy, the latest in a series of governesses. Did she know what she was getting into? Before she arrived, Théobald had insisted that his wife sign a paper stating that she would not see her children unless someone else (such as a governess) were present. It is not clear whether he considered his wife an actual threat to them or simply a bad influence.

And Henriette Deluzy arrived at the family’s house on the rue du Faubourg St-Honoré (the Hôtel Sébastiani, shown in the picture) with her own baggage. She was an orphan – worse still, illegitimate – and dependent on her grandfather, who resented her very existence. She had once studied art seriously in the studio of Pierre Claude François Delorme, a historical painter, but had become a governess when her mother died and she needed to earn a living.

Henriette seems to have impressed many of those who met her with her charm and intelligence, but she was no Jane Eyre – she was more vivacious and outgoing, and at times bossy in her new position (the other servants never warmed to her).

In the six years she was with the family, the growing distance between the husband and wife, and the Duc’s obvious preference for spending time with his children and their governess led to inevitable speculation. The gossip increased when the family (minus the Duchesse) travelled to Italy. Big mistake. By then, all society agreed that the Duke and the governess were lovers.

For the record, it probably wasn’t true. Henriette may have been in love with her employer, but her employer doesn’t seem to have returned the feeling, although he was fond of her in his rather distant way.

Nevertheless, the duchess believed the rumours and started divorce proceedings, planning to take the children from their father. She probably would have succeeded. Although it was common for men to have mistresses, keeping them within the household and giving them charge of one’s children was simply not done.

In June 1847 she dismissed Henriette, who was distraught at being separated from the charges she had grown to love. Henriette found a position in a girls’ school, but wrote some unwise letters to the family she had left, pouring out her misery and loneliness at the separation. Another mistake.

Nobody knows what really happened in those weeks after Henriette left the household, but the Duc seems to have snapped. On an August night when the family was in Paris between returning from Vaux-le-Vicomte and embarking on the family’s annual trip to Dieppe, he tried to cut his wife’s throat while she lay in bed. He didn’t kill her immediately. She woke up and struggled with him. He then tried to bludgeon her, first with the butt of a pistol, then with a candlestick. Her screams awoke the household before she collapsed. Meanwhile, the duke retreated to his rooms and attempted to burn his blood-stained clothing in the fireplace.

It was an inept murder. The police investigator who entered the Duchess’s bedroom and saw the blood and damage said immediately, “This is not the work of a professional thief or murderer. It is a vile business clumsily done. It is the work of a gentleman.”

After her murder, the papers printed details of the condition of the house, including a lurid diagram of the scene of the crime with the location of bloodstains carefully noted. I will spare you that, but show you the floor plan of the vanished Hôtel Sébastiani, published in the Illustrated London News. It’s an odd L-shape, and the Duc and Duchesse occupied rooms on the ground floor (hers was right next to the main salon).

The duke was placed under surveillance. He couldn’t be taken into custody right away because he was a French peer, and his arrest could only be arranged with the agreement of his fellow peers. Despite the close watch, he managed to swallow arsenic. It took him six days to die. He was questioned repeatedly, at home and after being taken to the Luxembourg prison, but he did not confess.

Henriette was also arrested, and kept in solitary confinement, so she would not obtain any outside information about the investigation. She did not learn of the duke’s suicide until three weeks after his death. She was repeatedly questioned, and her thoughtless letters to the family were scrutinized, but she was never charged and was eventually released. She went to the United States and married a clergyman.

The story is interesting in itself, but this was more than just an appalling domestic tragedy. The affair was the last in a string of scandals that undermined public confidence in the court of King Louis-Philippe and it contributed to the revolution of 1848, which brought the Louis-Philippe’s reign to an end.

Today, Vaux-le-Vicomte still stands, lovely as ever, but the site of the murder has been erased completely. In the 1840s, it stood at 55, rue du Faubourg St-Honoré (now the address of the French President). It was demolished in the early 1850s and the rue de l’Elysée (shown in the photo) was cut through its gardens. I wonder – does the ghost of the murdered Duchesse haunt the street by the President’s residence?

Further reading: The best book on the subject is Stanley Loomis’s Crime of Passion (1967). But well before he did his meticulous research in the official records, a popular novelist, Marjorie Bowen, used the same story for a fictional account called Forget-Me-Not (1932). Then Henriette’s great-niece, Rachel Field, wrote a 1938 novel about the murder called All This and Heaven Too, made into a 1940 movie with Bette Davis in the role of the governess. There’s just something about governesses that spells drama and passion.

Text copyright Philippa Campsie

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About Parisian Fields

Parisian Fields is the blog of two Toronto writers who love Paris. When we can't be there, we can write about it. We're interested in everything from its history and architecture to its graffiti and street furniture. We welcome comments, suggestions, corrections, and musings from all readers.
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26 Responses to “A vile business clumsily done”

  1. Adam says:

    Very interesting, and a story I wasn’t aware of at all.

    • Dear Adam,

      I happened across Stanley Loomis’s book in a library, and I highly recommend it. Although it is out of print, it is easy to find through any online second-hand book dealer. Like you, before reading the book, I had never heard about this important episode. Here’s a personal sidelight: an ancestor of mine was in Paris on business in 1848, staying at the Hotel Warwick, and I have some of his pencilled notes in a tiny daybook that he had at the time. Amazing to think he was right there when all these upheavals were taking place!

      Philippa

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  3. classiq says:

    Very interesting article. And “All This and Heaven Too” is a great movie. Bette Davis is in my opinion the best actress of all times.

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  5. Nancy Yos says:

    So the property where the murder took place is no more. I’m disappointed. I did like to think of the Duchesse’s ghost roaming through the halls of today’s Presidential palace, her old home.

    Incidentally, one of the nice bits about the movie is the quality of the child actors in it. So often child actors ruin things, and in this movie there are four of them and they are all important. And they are all good. I think the tiny boy who plays Reynald — he can’t be more than three years old — is the best of the lot.

    • Dear Nancy, At first I thought it was the same house, too, because it had the street number that now belongs to the Elysee Palace, but then I found out that the house had been demolished. The President probably has enough to do with the ghost of Madame de Pompadour, who lived in the palace in the 18th century. Philippa

  6. American Choiseul says:

    Like in some recent movies, there is an alternative ending to the “official” story… Many in France doubted that Mr. Choiseul did actually die, partly because he apparently was buried in an unmarked grave and nobody knew where his body was interred. The thought was that the Duke, related to Louis Philippe, had been helped to fake his death. (Six days to die of arsenic poisoning???). Apparently, there are American descendants of the Duke, who, far from dying in France, made his way from London to New York, then to New Orleans and, on his way to “the end of the world”, California, decided to join some German settlers in the northern hills of Nicaragua… In America, before the Panama Canal was built, the Nicaraguan route through the San Juan river, Cocibolca lake and a short carriage ride to San Juan del Sur was the only viable link from the Atlantic to the Pacific. According to local historians, the duke lived in several different cities in Nicaragua and one of his residences, “La Gran Francia” (named so because of its most celebrated one-time owner) was recently renovated and it stands today in the city of Granada. Check it out: http://www.lagranfrancia.com/historia.htm. The duke is currently interred in a cemetery in the city of Dario, in Nicaragua. His Nicaraguan-born children’s and grandchildren’s tombs are quite well marked and can be found in the cemetery of the city of Matagalpa. According to the stories handed down by ancestors, he denied having murdered his French wife until his death, in 1882. According to manfut.org, some Americans who visited the north of Nicaragua in the 1850’s reported having met two French men in Matagalpa, on of them a man who went by the name of Choiseul Praslin.

  7. Mayra Picado Praslin says:

    Mayra Picado Praslin, que historia tan trajica, pero sino hubiera sido que nuestro antepasado,El Duque de Praslin no hubiese cometido ese crimen nuestra familia no existiria,lo siento mucho por la familia de la Duquesa en Francia

    Translation: [I am] Mayra Picado Praslin. What a tragic story, but if our ancestor, the Duc de Praslin, had not committed that crime, our family would not exist. I am sorry for the family of the Duchess in France.

  8. Kat says:

    I’ve always been fascinated by this story, since reading Field’s novel and seeing the movie many years ago, but it’s so hard to find information about it all! I got Loomis’ book a few years ago and it filled in a number of details but of course we always want to know more, more, more… I’d be interested in finding out more about the house; Wikipedia says that the Presidential Palace at 55 rue du F St H was built in the 1700s; this doesn’t allow for it to have been built on the same site of the now-demolished Hotel Sebastiani. Could it be possible that the 55 address, back in the 1840s, referred to a whole group of buildings, all built in the 1700s, and one of which is now destroyed? Or is there more to all this? I’d love to hear any ideas/research!

    • I think the street must have been renumbered at some point, which accounts for the confusion. The Presidential Palace was once the home of Madame de Pompadour, and stands in its own grounds. A map from 1855 shows the Elysee Palace with no street beside it to the east; that is where the Sebastiani house stood. It had a garden and its own grounds, so I don’t think it was part of a group. If I find out more, I will let you know.

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  12. I too am fascinated by this case, after reading an old book of my aunt’s(the Stanley Loomis one)I am currently working on some paintings inspired by the case, maybe this will cure my obssession with the story.
    FlorenceBlood

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  14. Joanna says:

    If the Duc escaped then he was a cowardly jerk to the end. Reading about the case HD was only human, in her early 30’s, single and who wouldn’t have fallen in love with this handsome Duc. HD was obviously an exceptional person and it must have galled her to serve under this hysterical woman but I blame the Duc more than the wife. If he really hated her so much he should have consented to the divorce like a real man but he was a greedy coward who apparently considered murder more appropriate than a divorce. I wouldn’t be proud of such a relative.

    • Paul says:

      Actually, the Duc moved to Central America, where he tended to the sick. He was well loved and on his deathbed, he is reported to have said repeatedly to his wife Margarita: Margarita, I did not kill her.

  15. So in the Loomis book he says both the Duc and Duchesse were buried in the Vaux Praslin crypt. Who knows if they are there? I’m tempted to write Vaux-le-Vicomte to find out.
    Also, I was at first thinking the escape of the Duc was another myth, like that of poor Louis Charles, Marie Antoinette’s son in 1795…but now it starts to somewhat make sense. According to Loomis he was given no funeral. Just tossed into a wooden box and buried in a cemetery in Montmartre. Not sure if I buy that… And why on Earth would the name Praslin show up in Nicaragua? That’s no accident! The Nicaraguan family should do DNA testing of his corpse to see if it matches those of the French side..like his children or grandchildren or their descendants.

    • I guess DNA testing would be one way to settle the matter for good, but I doubt anyone would do it now. The Praslin family (the descendants of all those children) would not welcome such an intrusion. I was told by a friend of the Loomis family that when Stanley Loomis was in Paris doing research in the 1960s, he was invited to a dinner at which he sat next to a very aristocratic lady from an old French family. She may even have been related to the Praslins. When he told her what he was working on, she was appalled, since it seemed to her like muckraking. The family in France would certainly prefer to maintain the story that the Duke died in France.

  16. Wow, really? Another reason why Vaux-le-Vicomte doesn’t even mention anything about it on their tour of the chateau… interesting!

  17. Justin says:

    Humm, if the duke asked Mme Sebastiani to sign a paper forbidding her to be with her own kids unless another person was there, could it be that he felt she was insane and perhaps mad enough to bring harm upon them? The sheer disorganized manner of the murder, almost too clumsy, would bear further study… If Mme Sebastiani was mad enough, could she have planned her own death to ensure her husband’s infidelities would be punished? An alternative opinion was that he could have been framed to hurt Louis Phillippe, since the Duc was the king’s nephew… The murder seems to have accelerated the fall of the monarchy, so who knows?

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