As it is near All Hallow’s Eve, and thoughtful bloggers are producing ghost stories all about, it is up to me to come up with something. I meant to produce another ghost story or ‘tale of terror’ but the prosaic demands of getting my novel centred about the Peterloo Massacre out have put paid to that- so I must do the next best thing and recount an old one.
There is the story about ‘The Ghosts of Versailles’. I have always liked that one. In it, two intellectual late Victorian women visited Versailles and the Grand Trianon, and on their way to Marie Antoinette’s notorious retreat the Petit Trianon, they saw inexplicable sights and heard equally incongruous noises.
The two women ran St. Hughes college in Oxford, a ‘ladies college’ together. Anne Moberly was the daughter of the Bishop of Salisbury, and the principal. Eleanor Jourdain was the daughter of the Vicar of Ashbourne. They were both, then, from indisputably orthodox religious backgrounds.
Before Eleanor Jourdain took up her post as vice-principal of the college, it was proposed that the two women get to know each other better. They stayed together in Paris, took a trip to Versailles on 10 August 1902, and had a strange encounter with a series of seemingly ghostly figures and surroundings.
They were disappointed at Versailles, and so set out for the Petit Trianon, but became lost after coming on the Grand Trianon, which was closed to the public. They went along a lane, passing the Petit Trianon without realising it. Moberley noticed a woman shaking a cloth out of a window, and Jourdain noticed an old farmhouse with an antiquated plough outside.
They were overcome by a feeling of oppression. They came on some dignified looking men in three cornered hats and long greyish green coats. They assumed they were officials, and asked the way and were told to go straight on.
Jourdain noticed a cottage with a girl and woman standing in the doorway. They appeared to be unnaturally still, the woman holding out a jug to the girl.
According to Wickipedia:
Jourdain described it as a “tableau vivant“, a living picture, much like Madame Tussaud’s waxworks. Moberly did not observe the cottage, but felt the atmosphere change. She wrote: “Everything suddenly looked unnatural, therefore unpleasant; even the trees seemed to become flat and lifeless, like wood worked in tapestry. There were no effects of light and shade, and no wind stirred the trees. ” They reached the edge of a wood, close to the Temple de L’amour and came across a man seated beside a garden kiosk, wearing a cloak and large shady hat. According to Moberly, his appearance was “most repulsive… its expression odious. His complexion was dark and rough.” Jourdain noted “The man slowly turned his face, which was marked bysmallpox. His complexion was very dark. The expression was evil and yet unseeing, and though I did not feel that he was looking particularly at us, I felt a repugnance to going past him.A man later described as “tall… with large dark eyes, and crisp curling black hair under a large sombrero hat” came up to them, and showed them the way to the Petit Trianon.
‘After crossing a bridge, they reached the gardens in front of the palace, and Moberly noticed a lady sketching on the grass who looked at them. She later described what she saw in great detail: the lady was wearing a light summer dress, on her head was a shady white hat, and she had lots of fair hair. Moberly thought she was a tourist at first, but the dress appeared to be old-fashioned. Moberly came to believe that the lady was Marie Antoinette. Jourdain, however, did not see the lady.
After this, they were directed round to the entrance and joined a party of other visitors. After touring the house, they had tea at the Hotel des Reservoirs before returning to Jourdain’s apartment.’
Other events happened, including a figure dressed as a footman appearing at a gateway and calling a warning to the sketching woman.
They did not speak of their experience for some days, but then compared notes and decided to write up separate accounts. It was then that they found that on 10 August 1792 with the besieging of the Tuelleries Palace in Paris, the events unfolded that led to the overthrow of the monarchy six weeks later.
They were subsequently to publish their experiences in a book called ‘An Adventure’ (1911). Unfortunately, the genuine nature of these experiences were queried in a review by a representative of The Society for Psychical Research.
Later, the writer Phillipe Julien in his biography of the decadent Robert de Montesquiou commented that he often used to throw parties in the grounds of Versailles where the guests, often cross dressers, would wear period costume and re-enact just such tableaux as witnessed by the women.
The story of what became of the two women professionally after their experience is long and complicated. It ends on a dying fall, with Jourdain, who had succeeded as the college principal, dying when undergoing an investigation into her fitness for the academic post.
For my own part, I would wonder why a sort of time slip should be sparked by the events in Paris of 10 August 1792 rather than, say, the events of 5 October 1789 at Versailles itself. On this day, the market women of Paris raised a crowd of thousands to march on Versailles (about seventeen miles; people were far more accustomed to walking long distances in those days, particularly when driven by hunger and desperation) and forced the monarchy to accompany them back to the capital.
In fact, when I saw the television film version of the story back in 1981, the later date was used, and it seems that the women later came to think that the events that they believed that they had witnessed probably happened at the time of the march on Versailles.
The story is now considered to be disproved. I wonder if this is not a little glib. Can it all be explained away as a masque, the antique buildings and plough included? The women were accused of subsequently embroidering what they saw.
However, I have a footnote of sorts, though even more inconclusive.
When I went with my daughter to Paris, and to Versailles, just over three years ago, it was also a hot day in August, though in fact, round the end of the month (I have forgotten the exact date and would have to check on my passport).
We also wished to escape the crowds at the main palace, set out to find the Petit Trianon, and depsite our map, also lost our way.
It was very hot and still. I suddenly became aware of a feeling of heightened awareness, a strange sort of nervousness, and I had that highly prosaic symptom of mild nausea which I always have, when about to have what is known as ‘a psychic experience’ (I am glad to say that I don’t have them very often).
Remembering the details of the story of the ‘Ghosts of Versailles’ I muttered, ‘It’s here…It’s happening…’
My daughter (who previously has shared strange experiences with me, particularly at the old house in Denbighshire where my family once lived before it was demolished) was unaffected. She said briskly, “What?”
Then the sensation went. I saw nothing exceptional, and that is all I have to report.
A sceptic might say that I created those sensations myself, through some need to believe in the story. Yet, I do not subscribe to the conventional, sentimentalised view of the role of Marie Antoinette in the French Revolution, and I have no romantic illusions about the surface glamour of Versailles. When I went it was as a visitor with a detached disapproval of the monstrous injustice of the Ancien Regime as symbolised by the cut off, luxurious lifestyle of the inhabitants of Versailles.
Taking in account all the rational explanations, I would still say that some element of the mysterious, where times may well occasionally merge, lingers in the grounds between the Grand and the Petit Trianon…