Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1366
The Countess Jeanne de La Motte Valois, a descendant of the fallen royal house of Valois, aspired to return to favor in the court of Louis XVI. Suffering extreme poverty, she was honored by a visit from the queen, who gave her money and promised her assistance.
The queen was always a victim of intrigues by her enemies. Even on the night when she had, with the assistance of Andree de Taverney, made a charitable visit to the Countess de La Motte, one of her enemies had whispered into the king’s ear that her majesty had gone on a nocturnal mission of doubtful purpose. Her honesty and proud demeanor put the king to shame, however, and as a conciliatory gesture he offered her a fabulously expensive necklace, which she refused on the grounds that France needed a new battleship more than the queen needed jewels.
Andree’s brother, Philippe de Taverney, was favored by Marie Antoinette for his courtesy and grace. He promptly fell in love with her. At a court reception Philippe was thwarted in his love by perceiving that Count de Charny had won the queen’s favor. It was Andree’s fate to have fallen in love with de Charny also, and she jealously watched the queen’s innocent flirtation.
While Jeanne de La Motte was plotting to gain entrance to the royal court, Cardinal de Rohan, disliked by the queen because of his former disapproval of her marriage to King Louis, was also hoping to win a place at court. These two hopefuls decided to combine their talents and agreed to aid each other in their ambitious projects.
Count Cagliostro, a mystic and a malicious conspirator against the nobility of France, plotted to create a public scandal about the queen. To aid him he produced an unknown girl, Oliva, whose amazing resemblance to Marie Antoinette deceived even the queen’s closest friends. First, Count Cagliostro sent Oliva to the salon of Monsieur Mesmer, where she exploited her emotions publicly, drawing attention to herself. Her witnesses mistook her for the queen. Next Count Cagliostro brought the girl to a masquerade ball attended by many of the nobility in disguise but an affair beneath the dignity of the queen. Again it was said that Marie Antoinette had appeared in public in a most ungracious manner. At the salon and at the ball Jeanne de La Motte had seen the woman who was not really the queen at all. Cardinal de Rohan had been with Jeanne at the ball. Jeanne had perceived that he loved Marie Antoinette, whose disdain for him was well-known.
Widespread gossip about her conduct reached the queen, who, anxious to belie her accusers, brought Jeanne to the king and asked her to assure the monarch that the queen had not degraded herself in the salon of Monsieur Mesmer. The king loyally asserted that he needed no assurance from an outsider that his queen did not lie. The gossip about Marie Antoinette’s presence at the masquerade ball, however, was not so easily explained away. The queen denied having been there; Jeanne claimed that she had seen her. Others were called as witnesses. Both Philippe and de Charny said that they had recognized her when her mask dropped off. King Louis came to the queen’s rescue by vowing that he had been with her in her apartment on the night of the ball.
Jeanne, guided by her intuition, knew that the queen coveted the beautiful necklace that the king had wanted to purchase for her from the jewelers, Boehmer and Bossange. When Jeanne assured de Rohan that the queen would be pleased to own the necklace, he, hoping to buy her royal favor, arranged to purchase it by delivering a down payment of five hundred thousand francs. Jeanne, at Versailles, promptly told Marie Antoinette of de Rohan’s generous intention. Her reaction was to assume responsibility for the payment of the necklace herself; as queen, she could not accept so generous a favor from a subject. When de Rohan brought the necklace to her, she graciously dismissed the old enmity between them. Unfortunately, King Louis chose that time to be frugal and refused to grant the queen the sum of money she desired. With timely malice Count Cagliostro collected from de Rohan an old debt of five hundred thousand francs. Hearing of the transaction from Jeanne, the queen ordered her to take the necklace back to Boehmer and Bossange.
Jeanne, however, had her own plans. She forged a note from the jewelers to the queen acknowledging receipt of the necklace. Next she forged a note from the queen to the jewelers promising to pay the balance due them within three months. Meanwhile, Jeanne kept the jewels. To safeguard her theft, she had to prevent de Rohan, who assumed that the queen had kept the necklace, from meeting Marie Antoinette. He had been told by the deceived jewelers that the queen would pay for the necklace.
Count Cagliostro assisted Jeanne in her plan by taking Oliva to live in a house close to that of Jeanne. When the two women met, Jeanne knew at once that she was facing the woman who had compromised the queen by her conduct at Monsieur Mesmer’s salon and at the ball. She escorted Oliva to the park on three successive nights, and there de Rohan courted the woman he mistook for Marie Antoinette. De Charny, witnessing the amorous meeting, thought that he saw the queen. Angry and grieved, he reproached Marie Antoinette for her conduct. Again she realized that someone had been impersonating her.
When the day of payment for the necklace arrived, the jewelers petitioned the queen for their money. After an exchange of angry words, Marie Antoinette and the jewelers realized that they had been duped and that their respective notes were forgeries.
The scandal broke. De Rohan, believing that the queen was his mistress but wishing to conceal the fact for his own protection, still assumed that the queen would pay for the jewels. The jewelers thought that he would pay for them. The public thought that the queen retained the necklace so that de Rohan, for love of her, would be forced to pay, or that the king, to avert scandal, would satisfy the jewelers.
When de Charny came to offer the queen his money, she declared her intention to prove her innocence, and she placed de Charny in hiding while she conducted an interview with de Rohan. When the deceived cardinal discreetly hinted at their secret love affair, the queen was outraged and sent for the king. De Rohan had no proof of his accusation. Still believing that he had possessed the queen and that she had kept the necklace, he was sentenced to the Bastille.
De Charny emerged from hiding to throw himself at the queen’s feet just as the king returned. Marie Antoinette had to invent a lie to explain de Charny’s supplicating position. She said that he was begging for permission to marry Andree de Taverney, who had entered a convent.
Brought before the queen, Jeanne de La Motte refused to divulge any enlightening evidence and followed de Rohan to the Bastille. Jeanne knew, however, that she controlled the situation. If pressed too hard, she could intimate that the queen and de Rohan had a reason for charging her with the theft of the necklace. Then the police discovered Oliva. Seeing her, the queen understood the intrigue that had been worked against her, but Jeanne was still able to connive and to lie about her association with Oliva so that, in the end, no one was convinced of the queen’s innocence. The public, believing Marie Antoinette guilty of adultery and theft, assumed that the person known as Oliva had been invented to conceal the queen’s guilt.
After the trial, Cardinal de Rohan and Count Cagliostro, also arrested, were freed. Jeanne de La Motte was publicly branded. The queen was still suspected of being involved in a scandal. No one in the palace realized all involved in the affair were themselves on the threshold of the Bastille and that the Revolution was impending.
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