The ghosts of Versailles

Versailles Mar 14 06 439

After some days of sight-seeing in Paris, to which we were almost strangers, on an August afternoon, 1901, Miss Lamont and I went to Versailles. We had very hazy ideas as to where it was or what there was to be seen. Both of us thought it might prove to be a dull expedition. We went by train, and walked through the rooms and galleries of the Palace with interest, though we constantly regretted our inability through ignorance to feel properly the charm of the place. My knowledge of French history was limited to the very little I had learnt in the schoolroom, historical novels, and the first volume of Justin McCarthy’s French Revolution. Over thirty years before my brother had written a prize poem on Marie Antoinette, for whom at the time I had felt much enthusiasm. But the German occupation was chiefly in our minds, and Miss Lamont and I thought and spoke of it several times. We sat down in the Salle des Glaces, where a very sweet air was blowing in at the open windows over the flower-beds below, and finding that there was time to spare, I suggested our going to the Petit Trianon.

So begins a book originally published in 1911, recording events which transpired on this day in 1901. An Adventure was credited to Elizabeth Morison and Frances Lamont, but its actual authors were Charlotte Anne Moberly and Eleanor Jourdain.

Their real identities are the least of the mysteries raised by the book. For what they claim to have witnessed once they made it to the Petit Trianon was nothing less than a time slip, a temporal slide to the ancien régime. The Petit Trianon, you may recall, was the modestly-proportioned mansion in the vast grounds of Versailles where Marie Antoinette played at being a bonne bourgeoise (when she wasn’t yukking it up as a milkmaid in her own private village).

Petit Trianon

Here the two English ladies claim to have seen courtly goings on, costumed cavortings as one might have witnessed there in the late 18th century, encountering, among others, a man and a woman whose descriptions match those of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Ghost sightings, especially in such places of rich historical association as Versailles, are far from rare. What distinguished the “Moberly-Jourdain Incident” (as it became known) was that two people claimed to have witnessed the very same thing, and not just anyone, but Oxford academics with – it was presumed – little motivation to fantasise.

Astute readers noticed that the telling became slightly more embellished with each new edition of the book, which bore at least the trappings of scholastic rigour in the form of footnotes and appended maps. But the story retained its grip on the popular imagination and was examined from every angle, most thoroughly in Lucille Iremonger’s 1957 book The Ghosts of Versailles. Iremonger effectively outs the two (long-dead) women, neatly delineating their butch-femme roles (Moberly and Jourdain, respectively). Having deposited them beyond the bounds of prevailing morality of the time, it was no great stretch to characterise their experience as some kind of mutual hysteria.

Jean Cocteau wrote the preface to a 1960 French edition of An Adventure, hyping the story as “the greatest of all time” while lamenting the rational sciences’ resistance to the magic of such phenomena. The episode spoke to his wilful belief in the persistence of a poetic reality impervious to the illusions of the material world. The same year he produced his patchy, self-indulgent film Le Testament d’Orphée. Here the theme of time travel and the heavy, dream-like atmosphere of An Adventure which so captivated Cocteau are made manifest. Early in the film, Cocteau casts himself as a pre-revolutionary nobleman who slips through time to encounter a scientist at various stages in his life.

Testament

But what actually happened on August 10, 1901? The most astonishing part of the story is that the Misses Moberly and Jourdain may not, in fact, have invented their testimony, that they in all likelihood saw exactly what they claimed to have seen. Only, it wasn’t a previous age they had stumbled across, but a kind of retro drag fête galante, starring another French poet and frequent guest to Strange Flowers. The mystery, which endured for over half a century, was solved by Philippe Jullian in 1965:

[Robert de] Montesquiou and [Gabriel de] Yturri spent their days in the Trianon gardens, enticing elegant ladies and poets to listen to [Pierre de] Nolhac and Montesquiou himself; Mme [Élisabeth] Greffuhle organised a costumed charity fête in the Dairy. They were truly at home here and so they might represent an explanation for the singular encounter made in the gardens of the Petit Trianon by two extremely sensible Englishwomen, teachers at an Oxford college. Under the title An Adventure, these ladies published an account of apparitions and personalities in strange costumes, mysterious music to which they were both witness. Perhaps these people, whom they took to be Marie-Antoinette and her courtesans, were simply Madam Greffuhle dressed as a shepherdess, rehearsing a divertissement with her two friends. Or maybe Mme [Marquise] d’Hervey de Saint-Denis, of whom Robert owned numerous photographs showing her dressed as Marie-Antoinette.

Montesquiou’s penchant for dressing up and his nostalgia for pre-revolutionary France are well documented (one of his homes was based on the Petit Trianon’s big sister, the Grand Trianon). Marie Antoinette, according to Jullian’s explanation, was if not the French queen at least a French queen, most likely one of Montesquiou’s friends in drag.

Terry Castle deals extensively with the case in her 1995 book The Female Thermometer: Eighteenth-Century Culture and the Invention of the Uncanny. She is dismissive of Jullian’s theory, saying “it was alleged that Montesquiou had at one time lived in a house at Versailles and held fancy-dress parties there”. Had she researched further she would have discovered that Montesquiou had most definitely lived in Versailles (in the “Pavillon Montesquiou”), but that at the time of the Moberly-Jourdain Incident he was living in nearby Neuilly. While essentially returning an open verdict, Castle’s closest guess is remarkably close to Iremonger’s pseudo-psychoanalytical conclusion that the ghosts of Versailles which Moberly and Jourdain witnessed were the result of a “folie à deux“.

Since 1921, Montesquiou has himself been a ghost of Versailles, buried there next to his lover Yturri.

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Robert de Montesquiou

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17 comments

  1. Weiterboy

    Wonderful posts and extremely well-researched. I have a tendency to agree with Philippe Jullian about the two Englishwomen having witnessed a costume party. Besides, one thing which one should mention is that the first edition of An Adventure did not appear until several years after the alleged incident, which afforded the authors to dwelve into archives and gather information for their own purposes. As a little aside, one of the two women (I forget which one) ended up committing suicide years later. Remorse?
    Kudos from Berlin to you and your endlessly fascinating posts which are a delight to even the most curious and esoteric of us.

    • Many thanks for your kind comments und viele Grüße aus Neukölln!

      • weiterboy

        In a little game of six degrees of separation, I offer you a little tantalizing connection: when I lived in Paris I had a close friend (born in 1917, now deceased) from a grand family who had known Elisabeth de Greffulhe as an old lady (she only died in the 1950’s). La Comtesse de Greffulhe was, of course, Robert de Montesquiou’s cousin. My friend remembered her well, and fondly, and said even in old age she was still a beautiful woman.

      • I love these personal connections – fascinating!

  2. Linda Hollander

    It might interest you to know that Montesquiou is not buried next to Yturri. They are buried in the same grave, and Montesquiou’s name is nowhere to be found.

    My affection for Montesquiou knows no bounds, so the last time I was in Paris, I determined to follow from the church where his service was on to the cemetery in Versailles. The porter and I looked in vain for his name, so I mentioned “The Angel of Silence, the (to fans) infamous statue they bought, and voila, we found that Yturri and deM. are indeed buried together. Off we went to the grave, I with flowers and barely contained excitement. What a day!

  3. Anna Karras

    Arthur Conan Doyle spurred the ghost-spotting rage; dandies playing dress up notwithstanding.

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  8. Carl Grove

    It is worth emphasizing that the buildings and landscape that the two ladies observed differed significantly from the contemporary 1901 scene. To take just one example, during their walk they crossed a small bridge next to which a trickle of water ran down the rocks. When they visited Versailles in its “proper” time, the bridge and water feature had gone, but subsequently they found physical evidence that a structure had been at that spot, and a piece of pipework where it would have been needed to create the feature. A family living next to the gardens for two years in1907-8, often saw different features and buildings, and the “sketching lady” seen by the ladies. In fact after moving away and returning for a visit they realised that they had never actually seen the contemporary scene while they lived there. Definitely a significant location for time slip phenomena.

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  10. In the 1890s Robert de Montesquiou was living in Versailles with his Argentinian secretary/boyfriend, Gabriel de Yturri. Montesquiou’s house had a gate to the park of the Petit Trianon, and the Conservator, Pierre de Nolhac, with whom he was friendly, let him have a private key. They and their intellectual, aristocratic friends spent whole days in the gardens of the Trianon, holding poetry readings, fêtes, tableaux-vivants etc., often in 18th century costume.

    The Montesquiou explanation for Miss Moberly and Miss Jourdain’s “adventure” on 10th August 1901 is problematic for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that Montesquiou and Yturri had ceased to live at Versailles several years prior to 1901. By 1896 at latest they were living in the Rue de l’Université, Paris. (The late researcher Andrew MacKenzie obtained this information from the Conservator of the University of Paris’s Bibliothèque Littéraire Jacques Doucet.)

    Philippe Jullian suggested that the mysterious lady whom Miss Moberly saw sitting below the terrace, apparently sketching, as the two ladies approached the north façade of the Petit Trianon, but who was invisible to Miss Jourdain, and who Miss Moberly later thought might be Marie Antoinette, was perhaps Madame de Greffulhe. She certainly was not, since it is known that on that day Madame de Greffulhe was staying with her daughter at the Carlton Hotel in London. (See: Joan Evans, “An End to An Adventure”, Encounter Magazine, October 1976.)

    Jean Senelier, in his book on the Adventure case, observes:

    “In fact the events in Robert de Montesquiou’s life which relate to the period when he was frequenting the gardens of the Petit Trianon with his friends are recounted in Chapter XII of Philippe Jullian’s book, and they are placed during the years 1890 to 1893; those of the years 1894-1897 are described in the following chapter; and Chapter XIV covers Montesquiou’s life between 1898 and 1900. So we have to reach Chapter XV before the years 1900-1901 are dealt with, and by that period his days of hanging around the Trianon are over. It should be added that the social world frequented by Robert de Montesquiou would have been nowhere near Paris or Versailles in August, and that Mme Greffulhe was in London on 10th August 1901.”
    – JEAN SENELIER, « Le mystère du Petit Trianon » (pp. 25 – 26). Cazilhac, Bélisane, 1997
    (Translation mine)

    The Montesquiou explanation also fails to account for the ladies’ visions of scenery in the Petit Trianon gardens which had ceased to exist well over a century before.

  11. Carl Grove

    To this we might also add the observation that Miss Jourdain and Miss Moberly were not the only witnesses to the time slip phenomena at Versailles. An English family who lived for two years in an apartment overlooking the gardens observed similar happenings throughout their residence and when they returned later for a visit it became evident that they had never seen the modern (early 20th C.) Versailles while they were living there. They also observed the painting lady while in the gardens, and she pulled her canvas away when the son of the family (himself an artist) tried to get a closer view.

  12. Carl Grove

    Another postscript: There is evidence that these phenomena are linked to earth energy in some way, and the dowser Sig Lonegren claims that there are two major energy lines in Versailles, although he doesn’t note the connection.

  13. Frances G

    An interesting story!

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