Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 195 - Madame de Murat: Author of Fairy Tales, Lover of Women - transcript
(Originally aired 2021/02/20 - listen here)
In the Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog, I’ve regularly discussed how the French salons of the 17th and 18th centuries were the focus of a woman-led intellectual culture rife with possibilities for authors of historical fiction. The salonnières—mostly, though not exclusively, aristocrats—directed the attendance and topics of their salons with an autocratic hand and could elevate or banish the cultural and intellectual pop stars of their day from their lively and intimate gatherings.
At the end of the 17th century, the salons served as a counter-balance to the regimented and hierarchical life of the court of King Louis XIV at Versailles. If you’ve watched the tv series Versailles, you’ve seen the culture they were reacting to (though in a Hollywood version). While the glittering, over-the-top world of Versailles was coming into being far from the city, the salonnières of Paris were inviting the top philosophers, writers, scientists, and artists of the day to gather in their bedrooms—literally!—to discuss and celebrate ideas in a subculture that promulgated the ideal (if not always the reality) of a social equality of the mind.
The gender dynamics of the salons were not always predictable from those principles. The salon movement had its roots in the exclusion of women from public intellectual life. Often given a rather minimal education, and excluded from universities and academies, aristocratic women with curious minds began the salons as a program of self-education, inviting learned men to present lectures and act as private tutors. From these beginnings, they grew into an elaborate social structure in which women vied with each other to attract the most interesting and prestigious guests, as well as mentoring younger women who would go on to found their own salons.
But gender relations had another influence in later 17th century France as well. Among the aristocracy, during that era, marriage was overwhelmingly a matter of economic and alliance contracts between families. The personal interests of the spouses were of little account—both for men and women—and as a consequence there was a thriving culture of extramarital relations and little expectation of affection between husband and wife. This culture of libertinism embraced same-sex as well as opposite-sex relations, despite legal condemnation of the former. It was understood that some people had a preferred taste for their own gender, though the concept of orientation, as such, was not well developed.
One additional strand of this story arises from the fraught marital relations of the upper classes. Have you ever noticed how traditional fairy tales lean heavily on forced marriages, runaway brides, the thwarting of true lovers, and often cruelly repressive relationships between parents and their eligible children? The genre of literary French fairy tales arose in the mid 17th century as something of a game within the salons where writers—and especially female writers—would re-work traditional tales into elaborate, convoluted, multi-layered imaginative tales that were infused with criticism of the culture of the day. These aristocratic women whose own marriages had, often as not, been imposed on them willy-nilly, found themselves imprisoned, not always in literal towers, but in lifelong social contracts. In fairy tales they could feature clever, persistent heroines who endured grinding hardships but won through to true love in the end. Or who failed in heartbreak and tragedy. In stories, they could critique the forces that they were often powerless to oppose in their own lives.
At this point, let us turn our tale to one particular writer of fairy tales. Henriette-Julie de Castelnau, Comtesse de Murat was born around 1668 or 1670 (accounts differ), possibly in Brittany, possibly in Paris, possibly elsewhere (accounts differ), to an aristocratic family. She was possibly the daughter of the marquis Michel de Castelnau, but the details are not certain. She may have inherited the marquisate of Castelnau at age two when her father died, which might well have made her a considerable heiress. She married Nicholas de Murat, Count de Gilbertez possibly in 1691 at age 23, or possibly in 1686 at age 16 (accounts differ). Many of the details of her early life come from a collection of legends about her written a century after her death. And some of the details in that work are easily falsified. Hence the uncertainty.
I can find no clear references to her husband’s age (and evidently the later legendary history adds confusion from a second Nicholas de Murat), but if the marriage followed usual aristocratic patterns at the time, he was likely significantly older, and tangential evidence suggests perhaps 40-ish. And—following usual aristocratic patterns at the time—the marriage was not an affectionate one. Indeed, there are suggestions that it was an openly hostile one on both sides. Madame de Murat is later quoted as claiming that her husband made no complaints about her conduct and therefore it was no one else’s business, however a police report—have I mentioned that most details of her personal life are taken from her police record?—a police report includes the assessment that, “Her poor husband…only remains quiet in order not to expose himself to the rage of a woman who has considered killing him two or three times.”
But we’ll get to that later.
Around the time of her marriage, she became a regular participant in the Parisian salons of the Marquise de Lambert and became part of the fairy tale writing set that included Marie Catherine d’Aulnoy (who invented the term “contes des fees” or “fairy tales”) and Catherine Bernard. De Murat began writing fairy tales of her own in the 1690s, but her earliest surviving published work in 1697 was in another genre entirely.
One strand contributing to the development of the novel as a literary form was the fictitious memoir. Presented as a work of fiction, this genre provided a certain plausible deniability to the content when authors either detailed events of their own lives or criticized the lives of their contemporaries. Names were obscured by the transparent fiction of using only an initial or a nickname. But within this fictional costume, authors were able to openly discuss their own lives and experiences—an opportunity particularly embraced by female authors.
De Murat’s first published work, Memoirs of the Countess of M***, was written in heated conversation with an earlier fictitious memoir Memoirs of the Life of Count D**** before his Retirement, by Charles de Marguetel de Saint-Denis, seigneur de Saint-Evremond. Saint-Evremond’s work was openly misogynistic, depicting women as incapable of virtue and honesty. De Murat’s counter tells the story of a young wife subject to physical and emotional abuse due to her husband’s jealousy, who attempts to escape the marriage but is pressured by her family to return. How closely the tale marches with her own experiences is impossible to know, but the general shape is plausible. One version of her biography indicates that having presented her husband with a son the year after they married, she separated from him due to his mistreatment. Evremond’s memoir appears to have been forgettable, but de Murat’s was a best-seller.
Though the memoir was her first published work, it wasn’t the first splash she made through her writing. That would be her History of the Courtesan Rhodope, evidently written in 1694 but not published until 1708. This work was a not-particularly-veiled satire on Madame de Maintenon, the favorite mistress—and by then, wife—of King Louis XIV. Madame de Maintenon was not happy about it, and when she was not happy, the king was not happy. Some sources indicate that this work was the primary reason Murat was banished from court. Keep this in mind as we trace Madame de Murat’s life.
Let us recap: Madame de Murat marries roughly around age 20, plus/minus, and in the next half-dozen years, bears a son, leaves her abusive husband, begins hanging out in salons, writes a biting political satire, writes a best-selling feminist memoir, and begins publishing her collections of fairy tales.
This genre of salon fairy tales were not pretty romantic pieces of fluff. They were typically packed full of abusive suitors, coerced marriages, petty persecutions, cruel supernatural beings, and deeply cynical takes on human (and fairy) nature. The versions that are presented to us today are greatly softened and tidied up. These are the tales where Beauty’s Beast is a genuinely terrifying monster, where Cinderella’s sisters cut off pieces of their feet to try to fit the glass slipper and then Cinderella’s songbird companions peck their eyes out during her wedding. So in thinking of Madame de Murat as an author of fairy tales, let us think of her as a woman who has Seen Things and packs hard truths into her convoluted plots.
As I mentioned earlier, one consequence of aristocratic arranged marriages of the time was the normalization of extramarital relationships. It was expected that everyone would have lovers, the only question was how discreet they would be about it. Once she had separated from her husband, Madame de Murat was in a somewhat precarious position. As she herself wrote, “As soon as a woman lives separated from her husband, she provides weapons against her, and no one thinks she should feel insulted if they suspect her behavior.” De Murat perhaps provided them with a higher caliber of weapon than was wise.
In 1698, during the height of her literary success, and for the following four years, a Lieutenant General of the Paris Police was instructed—evidently by King Louis himself—to take note of Madame de Murat’s activities and warn her to reform her behavior under threat of banishment from Paris or even imprisonment. What were those activities? The police records begin with references to general “immorality and scandal” occurring during regular social gatherings at her house. She was accused of cursing and blasphemy, of singing lewd songs at all hours of the night to the disturbance of her neighbors, of pissing out a window during an evening of debauchery and—now we come to the specific reason for discussing her in this podcast—of “a monstrous attachment for persons of her own sex.”
Offered in evidence of this was an extended relationship with one Madame de Nantiat. Madame de Nantiat is first mentioned in a police report of 1700, when the Lieutenant General is describing, “A portrait [of Madame de Murat] perforated by several thrusts of a knife because of the jealousy of a woman she loved and left a few months ago to attach herself to Madame de Nantiat, another woman of the worst immorality, known less for the fines levied against her for gambling than for the disorderliness of her morals. This woman, living with Murat, is the object of her continual adoration, even in front of the valets and several pawnbrokers.” And there are continued references to Madame de Nantiat in de Murat’s life throughout her police records covering the next several years.
Who is Madame de Nantiat? We can assume that she, too, was a member of the French aristocracy. Nantiat is a town located near Limoges. Google-searches turn up a genealogy from the relevant time period for a Gaspard Chauvet, baron de Nantiat, a page to Queen Marie-Thérèse. (I should note that random genealogies on the internet should be taken with a large grain of salt, but with that information I was able to find more reliable references.) In 1681 the baron de Nantiat married Diane-Marie de Pontcharraud who was born in 1667, so she would have been very close in age to Madame de Murat and—if the dates are to be believed—married at age 14. Ah! And a further entry in that genealogy does identify her as the Madame de Nantiat who was the lover of Madame de Murat. It even lists the relationship among her spouses. Now, as I say, internet genealogies are tricky to rely on, but it’s just possible we’ve located our second protagonist. She outlived her first husband, as well as de Murat, married again, and lived to the ripe old age of 89.
Maybe it’s her, maybe not, but whoever Madame de Nantiat was, Madame de Murat was enamored of her and they were understood to have a sexual relationship—one that provoked violent jealousy in at least one of de Murat’s other female lovers.
De Murat was scarcely the only woman among the salonnières who loved her own sex. The Duchess d’Aiguillon, a niece of Cardinal Richelieu, was paired romantically with Madame du Vigean. Others for whom there is less evidence for a physical relationship left romantic correspondence with their female intimates. Such relationships might be considered scandalous, but they were accepted as within the normal range of behavior. Which raises the question of why de Murat came in for special persecution.
The police were trying to obtain sufficient evidence to arrest de Murat, but ran into a few practical problems. Her actual crimes--and lesbian sex was, in fact, a crime in France at the time, though not typically pursued against aristocratic women—her crimes took place in private spaces. Her neighbors were said to be intimidated by her and afraid to testify against her. But they are also quoted as considering it beneath their dignity to turn informant to the police. Her husband claimed he was in fear for his life if he tried to control her which, given that legal and social power was on his side suggests either that he was looking for excuses or she was truly formidable.
After the affair of the slashed portrait, de Murat claimed she was thinking of rusticating for a while and this seems to have mollified official interest somewhat. She pleads that she had only delayed leaving the city due to destitution. She needed to pay her debts before leaving and had no money for travel expenses or to make provision for her seven-year-old son. She has been surviving on loans and the profits of card-playing. The police report sounds genuinely sympathetic to her.
We hear nothing for more than a year and a half. One source suggests she may have spent the year in the Limousin region staying with Madame de Nantiat, based on information in her journals. Then there is another police report: Madame de Murat “has returned to Paris after a week’s absence…she has made up with Madame de Nantiat, and the horrors and abominations of their mutual affection rightly make all their neighbors shudder.”
King Louis XIV wanted her imprisoned, but she had friends in high places to run interference, presumably not just her fellow salonnières. De Murat also claimed at this time to be pregnant, which must have been a bit awkward as a get-out-of-jail-free card, given that she was not on intimate terms with her husband. A later note refers to her “pretending to be pregnant” to avoid imprisonment and there is no record of a child, though given the scantiness of solid records of her life this isn’t definitive evidence. The police make reference to leaving it up to her “closest relatives” to determine where she should be confined, perhaps suggesting that her husband had entirely washed his hands of her.
Within a week of her returning to Paris, in December 1701, someone sent the police a letter “regarding the abominable conduct of Mesdames de Murat and Nantiat.” The police strongly suspect that the author of the letter is a discarded lover “who formerly reigned over [the heart] of Madame de Murat” (perhaps she of the portrait-slashing?) and who was seeking revenge for the reconciliation of Murat and Nantiat. This ulterior motive doesn’t seem to have bothered the police much, for they noted, “the blasphemies, obscenities, and drunkenness with which they are reproached are not less true because of it.”
Two months later, Madame de Nantiat left for the provinces, just barely ahead of a warrant for her arrest, while Madame de Murat remained in Paris. Consequences are closing in on her. One option is to confine her in a convent, but the report notes that “she reckons that no religious community will be found bold enough to take her in. Indeed, I do not think there is a single one, and I could not have a good opinion of those that would be willing to take the risk.”
Imprisoning wayward female relatives in convents was a fairly common practice in 17th century France, but as the police noted, it wasn’t necessarily a guarantee of virtue. Especially when sapphic relationships were at issue. When Hortense Mancini, Duchess Mazarine was packed off to a convent by her jealous husband, she was accompanied by her girlfriend Sidonie de Courcelles and they simply carried on as before. When Julie d’Aubigny’s girlfriend was sent to a convent by her disapproving parents, Julie infiltrated the establishment to break her out by simply pretending to be interested in taking in the veil herself.
In this context, there’s an interesting episode in Madame de Murat’s fictionalized memoir, in which an anonymous letter accuses the Countess de M—and her friend Mademoiselle Laval of doing “horrible things” together and demanding that the police imprison her. In the memoirs, the two women are advised to retreat temporarily to a convent together which, of course, would hardly prevent them from continuing to do whatever things they might have been doing together.
One might think that this episode in the memoir was directly lifted from the events detailed in the police report, except that the memoir was published two years before the first police blotter item. The parallels, in whichever direction, certainly lend credence to a certain truth underlying both.
Two months after de Nantiat left Paris, Madame de Murat was sent to be confined in the chateau of Loches. It seems to have been a fairly light imprisonment. She corresponded regularly with her family and her friends in Paris and evidently entertained visitors regularly—though whether this consisted of recreating the philosophical salons of her youth or of the wild debauchery her enemies accused her of is open to speculation. But she kept scheming to escape. She forged a letter from her husband asking for her release. She staged a daring escape, dressed in men’s clothing, but was caught and then held in two other locations before being brought back to Chateau de Loches. She wrote an extensive journal of her captivity, framed as letters to her cousin Mademoiselle de Menou, which incorporated several more fairy tales.
Finally in 1709—seven years after her initial imprisonment—she was paroled by the intervention of her friend the Countess d’Argenton, on the condition that she stay with her aunt Mademoiselle de Dampierre in Limousin. During that period, she wrote her final novel, which some consider her best work. She was not allowed to return to Paris until King Louis’s death in 1715—a fact that strongly suggests that it was the king’s personal animosity toward her that underlay her persecution, rather than the specifics of her sexuality. By the time of her return to Paris, she was in poor health and only survived for one year more. She died in 1716 at age 46 (or 48, accounts differ).
Henriette-Julie de Castelnau, Countess de Murat lived multiple lives: unhappy wife, literary hostess, fairy-tale author and satirist, passionate lover, victim of royal persecution, stubborn rebel against her fate. In none of these was she unusual or exceptional for her day and age. But combined together they present a picture of a complex, intriguing, and very human character whose life would make excellent material for fiction or the screen. She fictionalized her own life and lived the real version of her fictions. She loved passionately, if not wisely. Remember her.
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