When the Marquis de Lafayette made his debut at Versailles, he was universally mocked for his red hair, his awkward manners and his rubbish dancing and he would never, ever forgive the young Marie Antoinette and her coterie of friends for giggling at him from behind their glittering fans.
It was clear that military success alone was not enough to achieve popularity at court and so the young Marquis decided that what he needed was a mistress, who should be as lovely and popular and of perfect aristocratic breeding. In short she should be what we would, in modern parliance, refer to as an It Girl. His eye fell upon the very beautiful Aglaé de Puget de Barnatane, Comtesse de Hunolstein, whose husband Philippe-Antoine was Colonel of the Duc de Chartres personal regiment, while she was lady in waiting to his wife, the Duchesse (the lovely Adélaïde de Pénthievre that I have written about before).
The charismatic young Duc de Chartres seems to have been fond of making his home life as complicated as possible as he was well known to be madly in love with Aglaé and it was rumoured that she returned his feelings. Certainly, she formed part of his very intimate circle, which was known to be one of the most dissolute in aristocratic circles. The Duc was very fond of driving around Paris incognito, dressed as a postillion with his wife and her sister in law, the Princesse de Lamballe in the carriage and pretty little Aglaé scandalously dressed as a groom, perched at the back.
It isn’t really surprising that Aglaé knocked Lafayette back when he tried to seduce her. She had the most powerful nobleman in France at her feet after all. Lafayette perservered however and Aglaé was to write to one of her friends that:
‘Say what you will, he has had no thought in mind but personal glory, and to suspect anything else is to tarnish his good name. To think me the object of his endeavours would be to do me too much honour. The highest reward of doing something fine is the pleasure of knowing it well done.’
However, it was only in 1780, after he had become a celebrity thanks to his actions in the American War of Independence that Aglaé finally unbent and became Lafayette’s mistress behind the back of his faithful, intellectual wife Adrienne de Noailles. Aglaé’s husband was the epirome of the complacent husband and made no objection to his beautiful wife’s peccadillos but her own family were far less forgiving and made their rather unfashionable disapproval plain.
Their love affair was not to be a happy one. The gossip mill of Versailles ripped the young couple to shreds – fanned by Lafayette’s unpopularity at court, the Queen’s willingness to listen to gossip about him and also the disapproval of his wife’s powerful Noailles relatives and, more crucially, the annoyance of Aglaé’s old lover, the Duc de Chartres, who seems to have really had it in for both of them.
Matters finally reached a head in 1783 and Aglaé implored with him to break with her, resulting in this heart rending letter, dated March 27th of that year:
‘You are too cruel, my dear Aglae. You know the torments of my heart: you know that it is wrenched in two by love and duty, and now you ask me to come to a decision In the matter of this wretched resolution. You have so often seen me coming to a decision and then finding myself incapable of abiding by it.
A hundred times I have thought it all out and made myself a hundred promises . . . and a hundred times, as soon as I have seen you and touched you, I have realized how weak I am . . .
When I came back from America, my charming friend, was it you or was it I who preached a solemn sermon about this way of our being together? Remember my insistence, your refusals, our disputes. I accused you of having an aversion to me: you accused me of showing a lack of delicacy. Our lovers’ quarrels ended as such quarrels always do, but, though carried away by passion, I was constantly recalling both the reproaches of your relatives and the efforts I was making to break down your resistance. Each day brought renewed resistance, and consequently a renewal of remorse ! All the same, I was happy, that I must admit, but you were not, and it is you who run all the risks, while I have almost all the enjoyment … At every moment you risk ruin for my sake, and, the better to make me realize it, you deliberately refuse to participate in my feelings. Can you still insist that it is I who must decide? You know only too well my passion, my transports, my complete surrender …
For over a year now you have been trying to break the bonds that hold us . With every day that passes, your efforts are redoubled . . . Now you are taking the last and cruellest step, but the only one that has a chance of success. All that remains now is to know whether I am an honourable man. You have placed your peace of mind and your safety in my hands, and what is more, you know it. I say nothing of your family.
You are well aware of the extent of the sacrifice. You have often seen me grow pale merely at the idea of a reconciliation. But for the last year I have seen that it is now only a question of my happiness. I will silence my heart. As you in your wisdom have foreseen, I am more master of myself in a letter than in a conversation. It would have been kinder to spare me the misery of taking the decision, but since that is what you wish, you may set your mind at rest, my dear . . . What must be, must be … It took me a long time to make up my mind to write, but this is what you want, what your family wants, and for you everything depends upon it. Why should you stand in need of my opinion?
Could a man of honour advise you to ruin yourself? No, my friend, whatever the cost to myself, I counsel you to follow what reason dictates, and what honour imposes on me … So be at rest, since duty forbids us to be happy together … After a year of struggle, you are where you wished to be !
As to the stupid things you are being told, I would not deprive your family of those ineffectual weapons . . . But at least my heart is my own, dear Aglae : all that you are, all that I owe you, justifies my love, and nothing, not even you, can keep me from adoring you.’
Heart wrenching stuff, but let’s not forget that not only did Lafayette have a devoted wife in the wings but he was also caught up with the society beauty, Diane-Adélaïde de Damas d’Antigny, Comtesse de Simiane (pictured below), who was ready and waiting to comfort him after his split from Aglaé. Lafayette spent his time after his break from Aglaé hanging about with his society friends and trying to curry favour at Versailles, apparently unaware that she was now a persona non grata in aristocratic circles and was no longer received anywhere.
The reason for this is that a rumour spread through Versailles that Aglaé was mother to not one but two love children, one the child of Lafayette and the other, the offspring of one of her footmen. It was also whispered that in her depravity, she had taken to hanging about the Palais Royale at night and selling herself alongside the prostitutes, like a latter day Messalina. It was all nonsense of course and almost certainly the product of the Duc de Chartres hurt pride and malicious tongue, but the damage was done and Aglaé was shamed to the extent that her own mother was determined to have her shut away in a convent (like the unfortunate Comtesse de Stainville) and wrote to the Duchesse de Chartres to warn her that her daughter’s reputation was now so damaged that she could not possibly have her as a lady in waiting any more. What a horrible woman!
In the end, it all became too much for Aglaé and she ended up selling all of her jewels and worldly goods and voluntarily retreating to a convent before her family could shut her up in one. Her husband could not prevent her from going and so decided to make her a generous annual allowance, which she mostly spent on alms and charity works.