When most people think of the ladies of Marie Antoinette’s court, they think of a pampered, indolent, frivolous, probably rather stupid women covered in patches, with towering white hair, sumptuously gorgeous dresses and a spoiled pug dog under their arm. A bit like Paris Hilton at Halloween, except every day.
Of course, for the main part, the reality was very different but it has to be said that the Princesse de Guéménée, governess to the royal children was every bit the epitome of the aristocratic grande dame and every bit as flamboyant, exquisite and extravagant as our fevered imaginings could possibly conceive of.
Madame la Princesse was born Victoire Armande Josèphe de Rohan at the gorgeous Hôtel de Soubise at 60 Rue des Francs Bourgeois in the Marais district of Paris on the 28th of December 1743. Her father was Charles de Rohan, Prince de Soubise and her mother, his second wife, Anne Thérèse de Savoie (daughter of Victor Amadeus, Prince de Carignan). Thanks to her father, she was a member of the powerful, disgustingly wealthy and influential Rohan clan, while her mother, who was a cousin of Louis XV, the Princesse de Lamballe, the Comtesse de Provence and the Comtesse d’Artois. bestowed upon her a link to the ruling house of Sicily.
Sadly, the Princesse de Soubise was to die in childbirth at the Hôtel de Soubise on the 5th of April 1745 at the age of twenty seven, leaving Victoire motherless at the age of less than two. Her father soon married again, this time to a seventeen year old German princess, the Landgravine Anna Victoria of Hesse-Rotenburg. The marriage was to be childless and also exceedingly unhappy as both spouses cheated on each other. Finally, in 1757, Victoria ran away from Paris with her lover, Monsieur de Laval-Montmorency, which would have been scandalous enough had she not funded this elopement with 900,000 livres worth of jewels that she had stolen from her husband.
The errant pair were arrested at Tournai by order of Louis XV and Victoria was sent packing back to her parents in Germany. We can only wonder what effect all of this had on her young step daughters, Victoire and her elder sister from her father’s first marriage to Anne Marie Louise de la Tour d’Auvergne (a granddaughter of Louis XIV’s first great love, Marie Mancini), Charlotte Élisabeth.
Of course, Charlotte was already married by the time her father’s third marriage had begun to flounder. Thanks to her mother, she was a great heiress with titles in her own right and at the age of sixteen, on the 3rd of May 1753, she was married to Louis Joseph de Bourbon, Prince de Condé, a great grandson of Louis XIV and Athénaïs de Montespan. Their wedding was held in the chapel at Versailles before all of the court and the young bride brought an enormous dowry of 20 million livres to her husband. Sadly, Charlotte was to die on the 4th of March 1760, aged just twenty two.
The younger girl, Victoire was to be married at seventeen, on the 15th January 1761 to a second cousin, another Rohan, Henri Louis, Duc de Montbazon and Prince de Guéménée, who was two years younger than his bride. The good looking, fabulously wealthy young couple subsequently took up residence in the Hôtel de Rohan-Guéménée at 6 Place des Vosges.
The new Princesse was lively, clever, extravagant and rather too fond of gambling, which of course that she got on famously at Louis XV’s court when she was presented at Versailles after her wedding. With the Rohan millions at her disposal, she dressed in fabulously gorgeous clothes, gave in to every whim no matter how expensive and lost thousands at the card table. She became famous for her amazing balls and also, less amazingly, her gambling parties where genuine croupiers from the casinos of Paris would deal the cards.
Madame la Princesse was not above courting scandal either as she offended Louis XV by getting up and walking away when his mistress Madame du Barry sat next to her at Marly. The King, who saw an insult to Madame du Barry as an insult to himself, was incensed and sent the Princesse away from court for a while to teach her a lesson.
She did not neglect her matrimonial duties in the midst of all this hedonistic pleasure seeking and presented her husband with five children: Charlotte Victoire (17th November 1761), Charles Alain (18th January 1764), Marie Louise (13th April 1765), Louis Victor (20th July 1766) and Jules Armand (20th October 1768).
In 1775, after the coronation of Louis XVI both of the couple were promoted to official appointments at court with Henri Louis becoming Grand Chamberlain of France, while Victoire was appointed to the post of Governess to the Royal Children after her aunt, the Comtesse de Marsan, decided to retire after her favourite pupil, Princess Clotilde had got married. At this point, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette had not yet had any children, so Victoire’s sole charge was the young Princess Élisabeth.
Lillian C. Smythe wrote: ‘The Royal Governess was the Princesse de Guemenee, who received this appointment by virtue of her relationship to Madame de Marsan, the function of instruction being considered vested in the family of de Rohan. There was no doubt that the Princesse de Guemenee was capable of instructing upon many matters. She was a great lover of little dogs, and invariably appeared surrounded by a multitude of them. “She offered to them a species of worship, and pretended, through their medium, to hold communication with the world of spirits.” She had been convicted of cheating at cards on several occasions. She was distinguished for the urbanity of her manner towards the ladies honoured by her husband’s preference, paying the most delicate attentions to each in turn ; thus she compelled admiration for her exemplary fulfilment of a wife’s highest duty. She entertained magnificently, royally, outshone the whole Court by her dress, and paved the way for the greatest bankruptcy known in France— the failure that affected all classes of society and plunged France into ruin; for all, from dukes to poor Breton sailors, had invested their moneys in the house of de Guemenee. “Only a King or a Rohan could have made such a failure,” was the consoling sentiment of the Princesse, as she contemplated her bootmaker’s bill of 60,000 livres [£2,400], or the amount of 16,000 livres [£640] owed to her paper- hanger. And the ruin of the Rohans hastened the Revolution.’
The princess was rather dismayed by the change in governesses. Madame de Marsan had been strict and rather unpleasant and Élisabeth had heartily disliked her but Victoire, Duchesse de Montbazon was a whole different kettle of fish. This may not have been the best choice, considering Élisabeth’s peaceful, virtuous nature and way of shrinking from any court intrigue that may come near her as the Princesse was a typical Rohan drama queen, prone to having messy love affairs, squandering a fortune on fripperies, leaving a trail of debts and was also rather too fond of gambling. The shy princess who had a very strong sense of morality would have been well aware of her new governess’ wayward reputation and extravagant behaviour and must have braced herself for the worst.
In the end they seem to have got along fairly well. Victoire seems to have had an affectionate, fun loving nature which young people really responded to. For her part, Madame la Princesse thought that her aunt, Madame de Marsan had been too strict with her charges and that Madame Élisabeth was too unassuming, pious and serious minded. What she needed, the rakish Princesse decided, was to have more fun and so she encouraged the girl to attend her parties and balls in an attempt to make her more sophisticated and frivolous. It didn’t really work as Élisabeth was also exceedingly stubborn.
One happy thing about the new arrangement was that Victoire often took Élisabeth to her new house at Montreuil, close to Versailles. The princess, who preferred a simpler style of life to the ostentation of Versailles was enchanted with the chåteau and fell madly in love with it.
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.’
There were more changes in 1778, when Victoire took charge of the new baby princess, Madame Royale, the first child of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, while the detestable and rapacious Comtesse Diane de Polignac took charge of Élisabeth. To be in charge of Madame Royale and her subsequent siblings was a great honour and we are told that after the Queen had given birth, Victoire, proudly beaming as though she herself had given birth to the royal infant would be carried in a chair from Marie Antoinette’s bedchamber to the royal nurseries on the ground floor of Versailles, the baby on her lap while all of Versailles paid homage.
In private though, things were not quite so rosy. Victoire had fallen in love with one of Marie Antoinette’s best male friends, Auguste Gabriel de Franquetot, Comte de Coigny, who had been widowed in 1775 and left with a six year old daughter, Aimée who Victoire was raising alongside her own children and who would later become the Duchesse de Fleury and brief muse of André Chénier. Victoire and Augustin became lovers and were apparently devoted to each other. Meanwhile, her husband had fallen in love with one of Marie Antoinette’s circle, the lovely Thérèse Lucy de Dillon, Comtesse de Dillon, who was mother to the future Madame de la Tour du Pin.
Sadly Thérèse Lucy was to die in 1782 at the age of thirty leaving all who knew her devastated and shortly afterwards the Prince de Guéménée declared himself bankrupt, with debts of over 33 million livres. It was to be an enormous scandal. The extravagance of the royal family and those close to them was already under some scrutiny and was beginning to be more loudly criticised so to have two key members of their household be in so much debt was considered shocking and also a justification of the criticisms of frivolity and wastefulness that were leveled at the court of Versailles.
Let’s not forget that it wasn’t just the Guéménée couple who were ruined but also countless tradesmen and others who were left with unpaid bills and vast sums of money owed to them that they might now never see. The ripples caused by the Prince’s bankruptcy were to be widespread and devastating.
Marie Antoinette, who had spent many many ruinous hours gambling at the Princesse’s notorious card parties where it was said that the young people didn’t emerge for days on end, did her best to help the couple. She and the Princesse had never been best friends – Victoire was older than Marie Antoinette and rather too sophisticated for her tastes – but they got along well enough for her to want to help in some way, which she did by securing a loan for the Prince and also arranging for Louis XVI to buy their estate at Montreuil for Princesse Élisabeth.
The couple were to remain at the fringes of court life for the rest of the 1780s until the Revolution began in 1789 and they fled with their children to Austria after the fall of the Bastille. The Guéménée family eventually settled at Sychrov Castle in Bohemia, where their family remained although Victoire was to die in Paris on the 20th September 1807 at the age of sixty three.