On March 16, 1914, Henriette Caillaux the second wife of former premier and Radical party leader Joseph Caillaux, one of the ablest, most flamboyant, and most controversial political figures of the Third Republic, entered the office of Gaston Calmette, editor of the conservative newspaper LE FIGARO. For months Calmette had engaged in a campaign of libel and character assassination against the Radical politician that finally culminated in the publication of a thirteen-year-old personal letter to his then mistress and later first wife Berthe Gueydan that was embarrassingly intimate and politically damaging. Publication of this correspondence was generally regarded as an affront to the honor of both Joseph and Henriette, since it indirectly drew attention to their own adulterous pasts. Following a brief verbal exchange, Madame Caillaux fatally wounded Calmette with six shots from a Browning automatic. Formally charged with murder soon after, Henriette Caillaux awaited her trial, which began on July 20 and ended eight days later with her acquittal.
Historian Edward Berenson uses chapters devoted to the lies, attitudes, and when applicable, testimony of the four aforementioned characters and the trial judge as a springboard for a fascinating analysis of a variety of cultural attitudes and practices which ultimately determined the decision of the jurors. In the end, conservative attitudes toward proper gender roles, toward divorce, and toward the aristocratic concept of honor and its satisfaction through the duel, accompanied by a highly popular and sensationalist newspaper press, vindicated Madame Caillaux but temporarily aborted her husband’s meteoric political career and contributed to his wartime and postwar disgrace and imprisonment.
In a scholarly but highly readable work the author has not only analyzed a significant trial but also illuminated those deep-seated cultural and psychological origins of the 1914-1918 war that are usually ignored or minimized in traditional accounts of its causes.