A Female Aristocrat Memoirist’s Account of the French Court’s Struggle for Survival (1789-1792)
In 1832, Pauline de Tourzel, countess of Béarn, composed her memoirs entitled Souvenirs de 40 ans (1789-1830): Récit d’une dame de Madame la dauphine (published in 1861), a major portion of which consists of an account of her life during the French Revolution. Her memoirs present a hitherto ignored yet fascinating source attesting to the unprecedented challenges faced by the French Court as its survival was threatened by the Revolution. The beginning of the Revolution created upheaval in a national context as well as a personal one for Pauline. A mark of this upheaval was the immediate immigration of some of the highest placed courtiers: one of whom was the duchesse de Polignac, the Royal Governess. Pauline’s mother, the marquise de Tourzel, was named her successor. Pauline, as the last unmarried daughter of the marquise, stuck by her mother’s side throughout the Revolution. This placed her in the most intimate circle of the royal family, at the heart of the counter-revolution.
In the summer of 1790, the royal family experienced a few months of freedom as the Revolution calmed down somewhat. As an employee’s daughter, Pauline was something of an outsider: her presence was tolerated but she did not have a real service to perform. She wrote that she typically ate alone because “I could not, according to the etiquette, be admitted to the King’s table”.[i] When holidaying at St Cloud with the royal family, her situation changed irrevocably. She wrote that “The king deigned to notice my absence, and, with that kindness he showed in every occasion, he thought to draw me out of my solitude.”[ii] With her use of the verb “deign”, which implies condescension and thus emphasises the inferiority of Pauline’s status according to Ancien Régime rules, coupled with a reminder of the existence of etiquette, Pauline highlighted how privileged she was to receive an invitation to the king’s table and how rare it was. This invitation to the dinner table, usually reserved to the princes of the blood, was an undeniable breach of etiquette and even more so as it re-occurred. According to Louis XVI, “such circumstances” justified his actions.[iii] He said “we will make an exception; she will be one of ours”, a sentence which revealed how unique Pauline’s position was and would remain.[iv] Furthermore, a game of billiards was played by the family after dinner every day. Upon hearing of her ignorance, the king exclaimed “I am in charge of your education, and I will give you lessons”.[v] The integration of Pauline to this family moment foregrounds that she was treated like a member of the family rather than like an employee’s daughter. The progression of etiquette from one form to another was initiated by the king, which suggests that he was adapting to the Revolution conditions. He showed a disdain for etiquette and preference for a more intimate life. While Pauline appreciated it, this change provoked tensions which bring to light a generational divide at Court. The evolution of the Revolution, accompanied by new anti-aristocracy measures, further worsened the divide.
Pauline wrote that “At court the etiquette was law”.[vi] This is why, in 1790, Pauline’s case was the object of many deliberations. She wrote that following the king’s invitation to her, the King and Queen agreed “that Mesdames would be consulted”.[vii] Mesdames, being the king’s aunts, still very much belonged to the court of their brother Louis XV. They were the embodiment of Ancien Régime etiquette, represented by Pauline as being the bastion of tradition and accustomed to their word being law. Unsurprisingly then, “there were serious objections; such a thing had never been done before, one feared to create a precedent of which other people in the future might take advantage of”.[viii] This accumulation of detailed objections underline how serious the breach in etiquette was. Mesdames were described as being outraged by the liberties allowed Pauline. Ultimately, the king decided to ignore Mesdames’ judgement. This is proof of a generational evolution in how the generations perceived etiquette: the older Court members were outraged while the younger ones welcomed the shift.
In September 1791, the Constitution was established.[ix] It proved to be a turning-point for the Court. It instituted that the wives of members of the Third Order could join the Court, meaning that the latter was no longer contained to aristocrats. In order to prevent this from happening, the king stopped presentations, through which aristocrats were officially welcomed to Court. His reaction emphasises that exceptions such as the one made for Pauline were allowed only for aristocrats. Additionally, the Constitution abolished privileges. Consequently, courtiers who had been loyal up until then finally resigned and emigrated. In the last days of the court in summer 1792, the number of remaining courtiers was down to three: the princesse de Lamballe, the marquise de Tourzel, and her daughter Pauline. While the latter was not even an employee, she was still there when everyone else had gone. Her presence in spite of this mass emigration attests to the growing intimacy and friendship between herself and the royal family made possible by the breakdown of etiquette initiated by the Revolution but also from within the court, in spite of the offence it caused older members. Ultimately, the Court came to an end in August 1792, when its three remaining members were arrested.
Thus, Pauline was by the royal family’s side throughout the entire Revolution, witnessing their trajectory from the throne to the scaffold. This enables scholars today to discover the behaviour and opinions of the Court as it underwent its metamorphosis and struggled to survive. The Revolution was a watershed but Louis XVI also brought about changes. As I have demonstrated, the unprecedented changes to which the Court was subjected were not welcomed by all: some refused them outright, while others accepted them for a while before eventually expressing their refusal by emigrating or resigning. Pauline, who weathered all the transitions brought about by the Revolution and who adapted to the several new realities, was an exception.
By Clémentine Garcenot, University of York, UK.
Clémentine is a third year PhD student in the Department of English and Related Literature at the University of York. Her thesis is entitled “Family, Court, Emigration: Depictions of the French Revolution in the Memoirs of French Women Aristocrats”. Her research focuses on life-writing, especially the memoir genre, women’s voices and the counter-revolution. This blog post is based on a thesis chapter dealing with Marie-Antoinette and how the breakdown of etiquette initiated by her as well as by the Revolution allowed her to foster intimacy and refashion her friendships.
[i] Comtesse de Béarn, Souvenirs de 40 ans (1789-1830): Récit d’une dame de Madame la dauphine (Paris, Jacques Lecoffre et Cie, 1861), p.61.
[ii] Comtesse de Béarn, Souvenirs, 61.
[iii] Comtesse de Béarn, Souvenirs, 62.
[iv] Comtesse de Béarn, Souvenirs, 62.
[v] Comtesse de Béarn, Souvenirs, 67.
[vi] Comtesse de Béarn, Souvenirs, 62.
[vii] Comtesse de Béarn, Souvenirs, 62.
[viii] Comtesse de Béarn, Souvenirs, 62.
[ix] Constitution de 1791, Conseil Constitutionnel https://www.conseil-constitutionnel.fr/les-constitutions-dans-l-histoire/constitution-de-1791 [accessed 15 September 2022].