The reckless and hedonistic lifestyle of Madame la Princesse de Guémenée and her husband was to lead to their inevitable downfall when they became bankrupt at the end of 1781, shortly after the birth of the Dauphin. The Guémenée couple sold as much as they could then fled the court, rarely to be seen again.
Eager both to help her disgraced friends and also to please her sister in law, Marie Antoinette suggested to her husband, Louis that they should buy Madame de Guémenée’s charming country estate at Montreuil near to Versailles.
Always delighted to offer a surprise to someone that she loved, Marie Antoinette revealed the news in a typically playful manner by suggesting to Élisabeth that they drive out to Montreuil together to say goodbye now that it had been sold off then revealing the delightful truth as soon as they had arrived.
Margaret Trouncer described it: ‘The house, built in 1776, was a white, semi-circular, two-storied building, with the stables on one side and the kitchen offices on the other, quite far away from the dining room. On the ground floor, a circular chapel occupied the centre. The principal rooms were the boudoir, with wainscoting and a cupboard decorated with arabesques, the library with bookcases paned in clear glass, the buffet warming room paved in white marble, the dining room, the billiard room, the music room, the drawing room and some ante-chambers. Some of the old floors in small parquet squares were still there. Upstairs, twenty one panelled rooms. On the other side, French windows looked on to a park. One could walk straight out of the drawing room into the garden. On the right hand side was the alley of lime trees on the top of the terrace, whose wall separated the estate from the Avenue de Paris. On the left, hidden by trees and quite a distance away, an orangery, a dairy, cow sheds, farm buildings and the gardener’s cottage. There were also kitchen gardens and hot houses.’
‘In 1781, Montreuil was a poor, lost little hamlet with a population of nursery farmers, chateau servants and paupers. Now there are fairly good roads and streets; in those days, the lanes were so muddy and the lanes so full of ruts, that Élisabeth had to walk to the parish church instead of going in her carriage. The church of St. Symphorien is exactly the same, built on classical lines, and the bell calling the villagers to Mass was Élisabeth’s own gift.’
Élisabeth was delighted with her new abode, even though her brother stipulated that she was not allowed to sleep there until she reached the age of twenty five. In the meantime she was encouraged to go there first thing in the morning and then return at dusk, which must have been a delightful freedom for a girl who hated the ostentation of Versailles.
Typically for Élisabeth she immediately shared her good fortune with friends, first of all giving Madame de Mackau a small house on the estate, which had a door that led directly into the gardens. Her friend, the botanist Le Monnier also lived on the estate and was encouraged to help her create the most exquisite gardens. Her passion for horticulture was so deep and sincere that after the Revolution, her page Adalbert de Chamisot, was able to give lessons in botany thanks to the hours spent listening to Le Monnier and Élisabeth converse at Montreuil.
As well as concentrating on the gardens, Élisabeth also began to redecorate her house in a manner that was both tasteful and also classically severe. She loved the things that surrounded her to be both beautiful and also simple.
Margaret Trouncer: ‘Immediately after Mass on festal days, Élisabeth would get into her sedan chair, go to her suite overlooking the Orangery, and change into simple country clothes or into her riding habit. But on ordinary days, when she would hear a low Mass early, perhaps at the altar of the Sacred Heart, she would not need to wear court clothes, and would go straight from the chapel to her coach, waiting outside.’
Élisabeth’s life at Montreuil was marked with its simplicity and goodness. She loved to spend time with her friends, either picnicking in the grounds, gardening, working her printing press, doing embroidery or doing good works in the neighbourhood, where she was hailed as a saint by the local people who all had reason to be grateful to her charitable ways and sweet natured friendliness. Élisabeth was naturally very thrifty and would often refuse to buy things because she reasoned that the money could be better spent on helping the poor.
Margaret Trouncer: ‘The morning at Montreuil was spent in a multitude of tasks. Hubert at the porter’s lodge had orders never to turn away any poor persons. Élisabeth and Le Monnier used to concoct herb ointments and lotions for sores, and she would distribute vegetables from her garden and milk from her dairy. Even before the Swiss cows came in 1788, the quality of that milk was so good that the only children who survived the severe winter of 1783 were those who had drunk it.’
Of course, Versailles could not be kept away entirely and Élisabeth’s much disliked lady in waiting Diane de Polignac was a hovering presence at Montreuil, often accompanied by other rakish ladies of the court such as Madame de Polastron and Madame de Canillac, both of whom had been mistresses of Élisabeth’s adored brother, the Comte d’Artois. Their visits disrupted the sweet harmony and serenity of the country estate as their loud aristocratic voices discussed the latest scurrilous court gossip, much to their hostess’ discomfort.
It was at this time that Madame d’Oberkirch had a conversation with Élisabeth when they were sitting together at supper at the Petit Trianon, which she afterwards wrote down in her diary: ‘There was a supper of three tables with 100 places at each. I had the honour of being placed near Madame Élisabeth and to look at this saintly princess at my leisure. She was in the full glow of youth and beauty, and refused all marriage proposals in order to stay with her family. ‘I can only marry a king’s son,’ she said, ‘and a king’s son must reign in his father’s states; I would no longer be a Frenchwoman, I don’t want to cease being one. Better to stay here at the foot of my brother’s throne, than to ascend another.’