Friday, July 31, 2009

Oui, comme mon mari disait à Louis XIV

In the mid-1970s a friend of mine was taken to visit the widowed English grandmother of a university friend of his somewhere in Shropshire, and was warned beforehand that the old lady’s preferred conversational gambit upon sitting down to lunch was to turn to her next door neighbor and commence with something like: “As the Dalai Lama said to me…” Sure enough, this was what actually happened, and my friend got the giggles.

Presumably by disclosing in this manner an easy acquaintanceship with persons famous, exotic, or deeply unexpected, this stratagem may achieve an immediate effect of heightened drama—and enable you to conduct the rest of your conversation entirely unimpeded.

Lately I have been accumulating a charming array of other examples of this ingenious practise, the vast majority of which were used by ladies either rich in experience, or very old indeed.

In her memoirs, for example, Princess Marie Louise recalled being told by a French diplomat, M. de Fleuriau, that as a young man he had been granted an audience with the Empress Eugénie (who died in 1920, aged 94, and was buried at Farnborough in England). This took place in the late 1850s at the Tuileries. During the audience the Empress told him that her previous caller, a
very elderly lady, had tossed into the conversation as casually as possible a remark that began «Oui, comme mon mari disait à Louis XIV… » (“Yes, as my husband used to say to Louis XIV...”)

According to M. de Fleuriau, this was the dowager duchesse de Richelieu, who as a very young girl in 1780 married Louis-François-Armand du Plessis, second duc de Richelieu (1696–1788), marshal of France, and a great-nephew of the eponymous cardinal. By then the duc was eighty-four years old and she was his third wife. Somewhat taken aback by this astonishing span of years, the Empress expressed much interest and some surprise, and it duly emerged that in about 1704 or 1705, aged eight or nine, the duc had served as a page to the Sun King at Versailles. Louis XIV died in 1715. 

In this case, if we accept the facts, the combined lifespan of husband and wife was at least 165 years, possibly much more. Certainly this outstrips by a considerable margin the celebrated case of General W. A. Johnson (born 1777) and the youngest of his nine children, Mrs. Margaret Martin-Atkins (who died in November 1944, aged 94)—yielding a double lifespan of 167 years, for which see Notes and Queries, June 5, 1943, p. 343, and February 10, 1945, pp. 56–57. 

The only snag is that (a) Princess Marie Louise and/or M. de Fleuriau were badly mistaken; or (b) the Empress Eugénie was in a frightful muddle; or (c) much given to exaggeration; (d) fibs, or else (e) a combination of two or more of these, because Jeanne Cathérine Josèphe de Lavaulx, a daughter of the comte and comtesse Gabriel de Lavaulx (a nobleman of Lorraine) was born in 1741. She married, first, on March 6, 1764, the chevalier Edmond de Rothe, a gentilhomme of Irish descent, who died at Mauritius in 1772, by which time she had produced four children. 

Some years later, as a result of an accident on the Pont-Neuf in which her carriage overturned, Mme. de Rothe, by now a widow of thirty-nine, met the elderly but spry duc de Richelieu, or, rather, he met her, and soon afterwards proposed marriage. Their wedding took place on February 13, 1780. The reason why the Empress Eugénie cannot have heard the remark «Oui, comme mon mari disait à Louis XIV… » at the Tuileries or anywhere else, at least not from this particular pair of lips, is because this duchesse de Richelieu died in 1815, aged seventy-four, more than ten years before the Empress was born. Or perhaps it was a subsequent duchesse de Richelieu who was clearly endowed with a fertile imagination. I shall certainly check.

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