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
Update (2015): The comments have yielded a lively correspondence about what happened to Théobald, who may not have died of poisoning after all, but may have been smuggled out of the country. According to some accounts, he fetched up in Central America. A reader has contributed the following photograph of him in later life. Will we ever know the truth about what happened on that night in August 1847?