Features March 2021
On French aristocrats at the twilight of the ancien régime.
France’s ancien régime ended in January 1793, when an executioner held up Louis XVI’s severed head to a jeering crowd. Not long before that cold day in Revolutionary Square, many aristocrats still hoped that orderly reforms were possible. “Liberty, property and equality,” wrote the comte Louis-Philippe de Ségur in his Mémoires, were “enthusiastically repeated by the same people who would later blame those words for their misfortune.” Seduced by Voltaire’s sparkling wit, Rousseau’s logic, and the infectious skepticism of the Encyclopédie, Ségur and his like-minded friends were sympathetic to political reform. These aristocrats saw themselves as contributing to a new and fairer France. Others, however, like Louis-Antoine Saint-Just, had a darker vision for them and the monarchy.
Before the Revolution started in 1789, the Ségurs and their friends lived in an aristocratic utopia. Their wealth and privilege financed astonishingly opulent lifestyles and distanced them from France’s social and economic problems. They lived on a different moral plane as well, particularly regarding sex. Yet, as Benedetta Craveri relates in her fascinating and wonderfully readable The Last Libertines, the comte de Ségur and his brother, vicomte Joseph-Alexandre, as well as les ducs de Lauzun and Brissac, the chevalier de Boufflers, and les comtes de Narbonne and Vaudreuil, were more than spendthrift Casanovas.1 She shows them holding a mix of Enlightenment and traditional values. Guided by reason, open to social change, and willing to question religious and political institutions, they were also loyal, duty-bound, and supremely charming and elegant. All of them were military men who served crown and country. During the ancien régime, their qualities secured them career advancement and romantic conquests. Afterwards, these same qualities helped them deal with the consequences of their fall.
The duc de Lauzun had everything: name, wealth, looks, charm, impeccable connections, and a superb education capped by fifteen days of délicieuses leçons from a lass who trained young aristocrats in advanced boudoir technique. He used his many talents to develop into a superb diplomat and officer, but his career was hindered at crucial points by court intrigues and royal caprice. The first hint of these involved his complicated heritage and occurred when he was still young.
Like that of several of Craveri’s subjects, Lauzun’s immediate ancestry was opaque. His father-of-record, the duc de Gontaut, was in fact incapable of procreation, and it was whispered that one of his former comrades-in-arms (who later became the duc de Choiseuil, Louis XV’s foreign minister) was Lauzun’s true father. As the commander of the Gardes Françaises, Gontaut’s loyalties lay solely with the king. Choiseuil, by contrast, protected his own dynastic interests. When Choiseuil, who had had his sister in mind for the role, publicly criticized the king’s choice of Madame du Barry as his royal mistress, Lauzun was swept up in the feud and joined the other Choiseuils banished from Versailles.
Lauzun had already served for years in the Gardes Françaises, the royal regiment. He saw action in Corsica against the separatist movement there and, as Craveri says, he was admired by his troops for his “ingenuity, sense of duty, and tactical intelligence.” Understanding that his possibilities for advancement were non-existent while Louis XV was alive, Lauzun traveled to England to acquaint himself with the traditional enemy. While there, he developed two new passions: horse racing, which he helped introduce to France, and Izabelle Czartoryska, a Polish princess deeply involved in her country’s politics. The affair won him over to Izabelle’s political causes but later backfired.
Returning to France, Lauzun first met Queen Marie Antoinette, and their acquaintance grew over two years into a deep friendship. Lauzun naively proposed that she support an Izabelle-inspired political alliance between Russia, Prussia, and Poland. This, however, was viewed as a far-from-acceptable mix of business and pleasure, particularly by Marie Antoinette’s mother, Maria Theresa of Austria. Maria Theresa viewed Poland as within Austria’s orbit and the proposed alliance as a threat. Lauzun apparently did not take the hint, for Maria Theresa’s ambassador then smeared Lauzun so effectively (not difficult given Lauzun’s zesty lifestyle) that he became persona non grata at court.
The final blow was delivered by the queen. It was well known that Gontaut’s command of the Gardes Françaises was to pass to Lauzun. On Gontaut’s death, however, Marie Antoinette allowed it to go to another—a crushing disappointment for Lauzun and one he never forgave. Lauzun later distinguished himself with other regiments during the American Revolution and won a crucial engagement at the Battle of Yorktown. He went on to capture Senegal from the British and consolidate France’s position in Africa, all to little praise at Versailles. His ideas for economically developing the desperately impoverished Senegal—and those for dealing with the English threat (including a brilliant scheme for bankrupting the Bank of England)—were all ignored. When Lauzun met the comtesse de Coigny, who, Craveri says, had her own reasons for detesting the Bourbons, his dislike turned to hatred. Lauzun participated in the Estates General, but his revenge against Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette was to ally himself with the duc d’Orléans, the king’s rivalrous cousin, who was trying to supplant him.
Similarly out of royal favor was the commander of Louis XVI’s royal bodyguard, the splendidly named Louis Hercule Timoléon de Cossé-Brissac. Unlike Lauzun, however, Brissac’s higher status and hereditary titles—one of which allowed him the privilege of taking orders from the king alone—protected his position at court. Another point of difference was that Brissac stoically accepted his reverses. “I do what I do out of obligation to the ancestors of the king, and to my own,” he explained.
Brissac’s sin was falling in love with Madame du Barry, in contention for the most polarizing figure of the ancien régime. The naive Marie Antoinette was shocked when she saw Barry at a royal supper and discovered the exact responsibilities of Louis XV’s royal mistress. Any hope of salvaging their relationship vanished when Barry laughed longer and louder than anyone at a joke about Marie Antoinette’s stuffy mother.
Barry’s name was synonymous with royal excess. The besotted Louis XV showered her with money and jewelry, antagonizing the court and the public. After he died of smallpox and his grandson Louis XVI ascended the throne, the new queen Marie Antoinette took revenge. Barry was arrested under a lettre de cachet and imprisoned in the Abbey du Pont-aux-Dames, near Meaux. Later released, she eventually returned to her house near Versailles. Though Barry kept out of the royal couple’s sight, her friends and intimates, such as Brissac, ran the risk of disfavor. In Craveri’s telling, Barry is more sinned against than sinning, and the author cites several contemporary accounts, some from future revolutionaries, describing Barry’s graciousness and kindness.
An unrepentant débauché (Craveri writes that Brissac’s “gaze lingered on the members of the fair sex even at his father’s burial”), Brissac was a philanthropist, patron of the arts, and would-be modernizer of France’s economy. Disappointed in not being selected for the Estates General, he noticed with trepidation that it was moving too slowly on “the real principle issues that France awaits.”
The chevalier de Boufflers (first name: Stanislas-Jean) also had a complicated parentage. He grew up at court in Lunéville, near Nancy, where his mother, a famous libertine, was lady-in-waiting to the wife of the exiled King of Poland, Stanisław Leszczyński. Over time, Boufflers increasingly resembled the old man at whose court his mother served, who provided for his education and interceded for him at various points.
Boufflers was cut from the same profligate cloth as his mother. Destined for the priesthood as a matter of family duty (“he didn’t need to believe in God in order to become a Prince of the Church,” his mother rationalized), Boufflers started at seminary but soon earned a reputation for improvising amusingly lewd verses. These, along with his picaresque story Aline, reine de Golconde, relating how Aline, his prostitute heroine, becomes queen while revealing her philosophy of life, got him the desired exeat from the seminary and entry into the army—just in time for peace.
With little wealth, no sponsors, and no hôtel in Paris, Boufflers lived by charm, wit, and street smarts. When one disappointed lady invited him over for a “reconciliation,” Boufflers was seized by the lady’s men, held down and thoroughly whipped. Released, Boufflers pointed a pair of pistols at the men and ordered them to whip the lady (“her satin skin [was] pitilessly tattered”), then each other. Departing, he gaily mentioned that he would be relating this “most amusing incident” to all and sundry. Panicked, the lady dismissed her men and begged Boufflers to stay for dinner, after which a different reconciliation occurred from that originally intended.
Over the years Boufflers rose high in the army’s ranks, eventually becoming governor to Senegal, where he was appalled by the behavior of the slave-trading Senegal Company. On his return to Paris, Boufflers “employed his vast network of social relationships and the brilliance of his conversation” to turn influential opinion against slavery. Madame de Staël, for one, listened, and for the rest of her life campaigned against the odious trade. Like Lauzun before him, Boufflers made a series of proposals designed to develop and improve Senegal, and like his predecessor’s they fell on deaf ears.
His long relationship with Madame de Sabran, the widow of a French naval hero, slowed, if not halted, his libertinism. His literary career (racy verses having given way to more serious stuff) got him elected to the Académie Française in 1788. That same year, he was thrilled by the calling of the Estates General, longing to play a part, though his enthusiasm was tempered by Madame de Sabran’s strict monarchism. In time, the couple saw the ominous direction of the Revolution and emigrated.
Of all Craveri’s subjects, Louis de Narbonne had the most privileged upbringing. Raised at Versailles—where his mother ministered to Louis XV’s daughters—Narbonne counted as playmates the future Louis XVI, Louis XVIII, and Charles X. Beautifully educated, he was tutored in diplomacy by the great Vergennes himself, Louis XV’s foreign minister.
The reason for all this favor was that Narbonne’s real father was the most glamorous of all. The boy’s nickname was “Demi-Louis” (half-louis—the coin on which Louis XV’s profile appeared) and the resemblance was unmistakable. Royal linkages notwithstanding, Narbonne realized after Louis XV’s death that his continued advancement depended on staying on the new king’s good side—a tall order given his rakishness, the other competitors for favor, and, most of all, Louis XVI’s family politics.
After Louis XV’s death, his daughters remained at Versailles, where they frequently and openly disparaged the frivolous Marie Antoinette. After hearing from her mother’s ambassador (the same who ran the smear campaign against Lauzun) that the daughters’ malice originated with Narbonne’s mother, the queen had her opening. When Madame Adélaïde, the older of the daughters, pushed for Narbonne to be granted a coveted ambassadorship to Russia, Marie Antoinette strangled the proposal. Narbonne, like Lauzun, was forced out of Versailles.
Establishing himself in Paris, Narbonne entertained the delightful Comédie Française actress Louise Contat, a seasoned bedroom veteran. He frequently met with others concerned about France’s governance: Talleyrand, Turgot, Mirabeau, Chamfort, and the three-time minister of finance Jacques Necker. Necker’s daughter, Germaine, fell for Narbonne hard, so hard in fact that she dropped three other lovers (her husband, the Count de Staël, having been previously shunted aside). Narbonne joined in with Madame de Staël’s reformist enthusiasm and began advocating for a constitutional monarchy, a position that further alienated him from Versailles. In the waning days of Louis XVI’s reign, however, he was appointed minister of war and oversaw the deployment of armies to France’s borders. The fall of the monarchy in October 1792 put paid to his idealism, and, in some of Libertines’ most vivid pages, Craveri describes how Madame de Staël saved the lives of Narbonne and other monarchists through acts of singular bravery.
Both Ségurs remained monarchists but supported the power-sharing aims of the Estates General. The happily married comte Louis-Philippe had a distinguished career. Dispatched with his regiment to support the American cause, his penetrating reports to his father, Louis XVI’s minister of war, so impressed Vergennes that on his return Vergennes secured the comte the ambassadorship sought by Narbonne. It was, as Craveri says, a fortunate choice, as the comte got along well with Catherine the Great. Among the comte’s duties was to accompany Catherine the Great on her remarkable journey to Crimea with Potemkin, the Prince de Ligne, and an enormous convoy of servants and retainers. Craveri’s account of the long journey is fascinating.
The comte remained in Russia until late 1789 and so could not participate in the Estates General. When Catherine heard the comte was leaving Russia, she tried to persuade him to stay, knowing his personal safety would be at risk on his return. During the Terror, the comte and his family escaped harm by hiding in a small village in the Loire. In the new century, the comte proved every bit as politically flexible as his friend Talleyrand, switching allegiances between Napoleon and Louis XVIII as circumstances required.
His bother, the vicomte Joseph-Alexandre, was always the livelier of the two. Amusingly indifferent about his bastardy, when asked whether he was related to a Monsieur de Ségur “who is something or other at Versailles,” he jauntily replied, “people will tell you that I’m his son, but I certainly don’t believe it.”
Craveri describes the vicomte’s first loves and his early writing career. His outré efforts included his Essay on the Means of Pleasing in Love—though he “abandoned his readers at the door of the boudoir.” As with Boufflers, the vicomte moved to less trivial subjects, composing proverbes (one-act plays) and other professionally staged theatricals with Narbonne’s lover Contat. He excelled at impromptu versification, a talent that landed him in hot water when the egotistical Marie Antoinette coyly requested a verse revealing “the truth about myself.” He found himself banished to Luzancy, well away from Versailles. There he met the author and subversive Choderlos de Laclos, another capable military man thwarted in his career. The vicomte introduced Laclos to the duc d’Orléans, himself itching to settle personal scores with his cousin the king.
Drawing on Émile Dard’s 1905 study, Craveri describes how Laclos used Orléans to plot a coup. The ineffectual Louis XVI would be replaced by Orléans as Lieutenant-General of France (a type of regency) as the step towards creating a constitutional monarchy, with Laclos as Orléans’ tutelary spirit throughout. With the fall of the monarchy in October 1789 and the rapid loss of governmental stability, Laclos’ plot foundered. When he and his backers—Abbé Sieyès, Talleyrand, Mirabeau, and others—disappeared into the weeds, Orléans was left to his destiny.
Libertines concludes with the fates of Craveri’s subjects after 1789. Facing their downfall and destruction by the Revolution, they show their mettle. While the comte de Ségur, Boufflers, and the comte de Vaudreuil survived, others were less fortunate, with some meeting dramatic ends.
Narbonne used all his charm and diplomatic guile to settle Louis XV’s daughters (Narbonne’s sisters, though not officially acknowledged as such) in Rome. He and Madame de Staël plotted a daring escape for the royal family but were thwarted by Louis XVI’s advisors, who regarded Narbonne and other constitutionalists as traitors. As Louis XVI’s minister of war, Narbonne was a marked man after the fall of the monarchy. Escaping the Tuileries, he reached Madame de Staël’s house, where for the next four days she and her chaplain hid him under the chapel altar. A young German doctor named Justus Bollman called on Madame de Staël one evening and met the couple. Moved by the pathos of the heavily pregnant de Staël and Narbonne’s infectious gaiety, Dr. Bollman helped spirit him out of France and across the Channel.
Characteristically, the vicomte de Ségur continued along seemingly oblivious to the Terror. Writing for the Feuillant du Jour, a nose-thumbing anti-Jacobin daily, he was arrested and jailed for anti-revolutionary sentiments and was joined by his father, the maréchal. The pair would surely have been guillotined save for a character right out of Baroness Orzcy—Charles de Bussière. A former actor, Bussière was a file clerk for the dictatorial Committee for Public Safety. While preparing trial dossiers for the Revolutionary Tribunal (the Committee’s kangaroo court), Bussière recognized certain theatrical names: the playwright Ségur, Mlle. Contat, and others in her Comédie Française troupe had been arrested for appearing in a politically incorrect play, Pamela. One by one, Bussière’s dossiers began disappearing into the Seine. He eventually saved hundreds of lives. Collot d’Herbois, the Committee member seeking the troupe’s execution, wrote to complain about the slowness of the process. An investigation was about to start when Robespierre and his associates were overthrown, ending the Terror. The Ségurs, Mlle. Contat, and her troupe were freed. A few weeks after, Craveri writes, the troupe was back at the Comédie to joyful applause.
There were no miracles for Lauzun or Brissac. Lauzun continued his army service during the Terror. He knew the stakes were high; one “must be prepared to lose [one’s] head on the scaffold as on the field of battle,” he wrote. Sent to the Vendée to quell the uprising there, his softly-softly approach earned him a denunciation for insufficient enthusiasm. Ordered back to Paris, he was tried and condemned. An aristocrat to the last, he spent his last hours financially providing for his lover and servants. When the executioner came to his cell, Lauzun greeted him with a glass of wine.
As for Brissac, he went down fighting. After being appointed head of Louis XVI’s new Constitutional Guard, Brissac took care to man it with soldiers loyal to the King. When the Guard was disbanded a few months later (with Louis XVI’s assent—one of his inexplicable decisions), Brissac was denounced and arrested for his “anti-revolutionary spirit.” When his prisoner convoy passed through an armed mob in Versailles during the September Massacres, his guards abandoned him to the mob, who killed him—though not without a ferocious fight. Craveri repeats the all-too-believable story that Brissac’s head was tossed into Madame du Barry’s garden. Months later, Madame du Barry herself was executed on suspicion of aiding émigrés. Unlike her aristocratic companions who politely allowed themselves to be guillotined, Barry went noisily. The portraitist Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun wrote that if others had shown as much fight, “the Terror would have ended far sooner than it did.”
Louis-Antoine Saint-Just did not share the aristocratic background of Craveri’s libertines, though he did have a taste for scandalous writing. Antoine Boulant’s engrossing and chilling new biography describes how a laissez-faire, anti–capital punishment, free press–supporting monarchist became, over his short but memorable career, the personification of the Terror.2
While imprisoned under his mother’s lettre de cachet for theft, Saint-Just wrote a two-volume poem, Organt, praising libertinism and attacking the Church, monarchy, and nobility in scabrous terms. Still too young in 1791 for national office, he published his politically precocious On the Spirit of Revolution and the French Constitution. As Boulant explains, though Saint-Just used his essay to lay out his radical ideas for the remaking of French society, he still contemplated a limited monarchy and even took a balanced view of Marie Antoinette.
Those benign views disappeared with the royals’ flight to Varennes in June 1791. Though he had accepted the new constitution the previous year, Louis XVI had been playing a double game while trying to drum up armed support abroad against the Revolution. The flight was disastrous for his family and for France. In August 1791, two months after the flight, Saint-Just was elected to the National Assembly. In his momentous maiden speech, Saint-Just demanded death for the king without trial. “Judge the king like a citizen!” he demanded. By attempting to enlist foreign support against the nation, Saint-Just argued, the king was guilty of treason, just like any other man. “Those who attach importance to the punishment of a King,” he continued, “will never found a republic.” Though a trial was eventually held, Saint-Just gave the Assembly the argument it needed to end the ancien régime.
A few months after the king’s execution in 1793, Saint-Just joined the Committee for Public Safety. Over the next year, he spent time away from Paris observing military action on the Committee’s behalf in Alsace and in Belgium and showed himself as a capable, if vindictive, overseer. As president of the Convention in 1794, Saint-Just persuaded the deputies that “the property of enemies of the revolution must be seized for the benefit of the republic” and enacted the confiscatory Ventôse Decrees. But as the Committee became more authoritarian and dictatorial, its real work was seeking anyone with suspect origins and opinions. In June 1794, the Convention ordered mass executions and the space of killing speeded up. Until Saint-Just’s (and Robespierre’s) fall on the ninth of Thermidor, the Committee and the Revolutionary Tribunal were responsible for thousands of deaths. “We must not only punish traitors,” Saint-Just said, “but all people who are indifferent.” He was not alone, of course. Men like Fouché, Carrier, and Tallien had even bloodier hands from their repressions outside Paris.
Boulant quotes several descriptions of Saint-Just’s eerie personality. “Philanthropist and executioner, chaste and libertine, utopian and pragmatic, often brilliant and often mad,” said one. Others mentioned his coldness, his anger, and his “immeasurable self-esteem.” Once against capital punishment, he became convinced of “the need for bloodshed to establish liberty” by “detestable and bloody means.”
By mid-1794 though, Saint-Just knew the end was near. At the end of July, his former ally Bertrand Barère, who once demanded that “terror be the order of the day,” delivered his “Report on the Conspiracy of Robespierre and his Accomplices” to the Convention. Following an uproarious meeting, Robespierre, Saint-Just, and others lost their power, their seats, and, the next evening, their heads. While it was a source of annoyance to Saint-Just that his Ventôse Decrees were seldom enforced, Boulant notes with grim humor that when he and his co-defendants were sentenced, the Tribunal ordered that their own properties be “acquis à la République.”
Both of these books capture the spirit of their subjects well. Boulant allows the facts about Saint-Just’s bleak life to speak for themselves. His measured recitation of these, and his use of quotations from Saint-Just’s speeches and writings, create a chilling impression, oddly enhanced by the praise for Saint-Just by supportive scholars. Saint-Just’s rapid rise to power and the efficiency with which he convinced others to carry out his heartless ideas seem to have affected a terrible personality change. There can be no other explanation for the cold certainty of his claim that “a nation can only be regenerated on a pile of corpses”—a sentiment faithfully followed by subsequent visionaries.
By contrast, The Last Libertines provides a warmer picture of Craveri’s flawed but engaging subjects. Among its great charms are the quality and quantity of its gossipy anecdotes and the colorful portraits of its many incidental characters, including Joseph de Sabran who, running out of cannonballs in a naval battle against the British, packed his last gun with his table silver and blasted away. Throughout, Craveri quotes from her subjects’ witty writings—evidence of extraordinarily agile and imaginative minds, and largely representative of their class. This, along with their battle-tested courage leads one to wonder the question never really addressed by Craveri: how could men like them have lost to men like Saint-Just?
1 The Last Libertines, by Benedetta Craveri; New York Review Books, 616 pages, $39.95.
2 Saint-Just: L’Archange de la Révolution, by Antoine Boulant; Passés/Composés, 352 pages, €22.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 39 Number 7, on page 17
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