Friday 10 December 2010

December 9th, 1793: The Death of Gabrielle de Polignac

'Who is this? And what is here?
And in the lighted palace near
Died the sound of royal cheer;
And they crossed themselves for fear,
All the Knights at Camelot;
But Lancelot mused a little space
He said, "She has a lovely face;
God in His mercy lend her grace,
The Lady of Shalott."'
- Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Illustration above: An anonymous royalist pamphlet from 1793, showing the Angel of Death inscribing a monument to the Duchesse de Polignac


On December 9th, 1793, one of the last and the most exquisite of the ancien régime's socialites, Gabrielle, Duchesse de Polignac, died in exile in Vienna, less than two months after the execution of her friend and patroness, Queen Marie-Antoinette. She had been ailing for some time, although what precisely caused her death is still something of a mystery. In his 1974 biography Louis and Antoinette, Vincent Cronin wrote "Gabrielle de Polignac contracted a sudden illness in December 1793 and was dead within twelve hours". It may be that the duchess's death was hastened by a sudden infection caught in the depths of the Austrian winter, but it seems clear to me from my own research that for quite a few years prior to her death, Madame de Polignac had not been in good health. Her young and pretty daughter wrote in a letter to one of her mother's many English friends that since the news of the Queen's execution in October it had been possible to see Death written all over Gabrielle's face. The former court painter, Madame Le Brun, living nearby, wrote that in the final months of her life Gabrielle's "still lovely" face had been drained of its colour by the combined effects of sorrow and illness. Lady Antonia Fraser, author of Marie Antoinette: The Journey surmises that the cause of La Belle Gabrielle's death may therefore have been terminal cancer, exacerbated by suffering. At the time, others suggested it may have been consumption (tuberculosis.)

Having written Gabrielle in as one of the major characters in my play The Audacity of Ideas, set at Versailles on the eve of the Revolution of 1789, I have grappled with what killed her. I would like to quote from my author's note for that play and also show the scene in which Gabrielle is informed by the court physician, Dr. Lassonne, about her condition - four years prior to her death. No disclaimer is needed for the educated, but it is always worth bearing in mind that the scene between the duchess and the doctor is, of course, fictional.

At the time of her death, Gabrielle was survived by her husband, Jules, her daughter and her three sons - Jules (the future Prime Minister of France), Armand and Camille. Today, Gabrielle's descendants sit on the throne of Monaco.

Extract from the Author's Note of The Audacity of Ideas by Gareth Russell©

Of course, as in any work of historically based drama or fiction, there must be inaccuracies... the disease which ended Gabrielle de Polignac’s life in December of 1793 may not have been consumption. In fact, it probably wasn’t, but for the purposes of the play it suited the narrative better and, in fairness, there is a faint possibility that is what it was. She kept the details of her suffering so tightly guarded that even her own family don’t seem to have been certain of what it was which actually killed her in the end. On her tombstone, they simply said that she had died as a result of suffering – a ruling that was both diplomatic and elegant. Writing in 1974, Vincent Cronin concluded that she had simply contracted a sudden illness whilst in exile and, within twelve hours, was dead. It is possible that the last few hours saw a very rapid decline which gave this appearance, but it is clear that as far back as 1789 she was not a well woman. Antonia Fraser concludes that it was probably cancer and that the sheer stress of that last five years of her life exacerbated it. Whether it was consumption, cancer, depression or all three, Gabrielle’s desire to maintain her beauty was granted – even in the final, no doubt horrifying, stages of her illness, her daughter Agläié made a point of mentioning her mother’s ‘charming face … [although] one could see death written there.’

I have chosen to present her condition as consumption primarily because the dramatic potential is too great to be missed – the final iconic beauty of the ancien régime destroyed by an internal illness which left her flawless on the exterior. Indeed, I had every reason bar artistic predilection to stick to the theory that what eventually killed her was cancer. Gabrielle’s desire to look good despite her disease and the two scenes in which, by a veritable triumph of self-discipline she regains control of herself, are based not only on what I think the real duchess would have done but also as a sort of homage to my late grandmother, Mary Ann Russell (née McIlwaine.) After a too long battle with cancer, her final Christmas with us was ruined when she collapsed in her bathroom and had to be put to bed for the rest of the holidays. Finally, shortly into the New Year she rose to go into hospital and spent hours dressing herself with her customary exactitude – make-up, hair, long coat, dress, pearls, gloves and handbag. She left her home for what proved to be the last time and went to the hospital in Belfast where she passed away on January 17th. By general but not exclusive agreement within the family, my grandmother was not an easy woman and yet I, one of the dissenting voices, can say with absolute certainty that I loved her very much and admired her immensely. The one complaint that she ever uttered in the course of her time with cancer was as a half-joke to God, when she reminded Him that she was not Job. So, much of what I remember of her at that time has been put into Gabrielle’s story.

The Character Description of Gabrielle, Duchesse de Polignac from The Audacity of Ideas

YOLANDE-MARTINE-GABRIELLE DE POLASTRON, DUCHESSE DE POLIGNAC is the queen’s confidante and dearest friend. She is always known by the third of her three Christian names. The daughter of an impoverished aristocrat of ancient lineage, she spent most of her childhood as a pupil in a well-respected convent school. Married at a young age to an amiable but unremarkable man, her career only began in earnest when she was presented as a debutante at Versailles and made a dazzling impression with her presence and appearance. Since attracting the queen’s friendship, she has become extremely well-off and has ensured similar good fortune for her family and dependents. She occupies an ostentatious and sumptuous set of apartments, boasting thirteen rooms, all decorated with commendable taste. She has a perpetually youthful appearance. Naturally gorgeous, she does not use much make-up, preferring a look of ‘utter naturalness.’ Even her enemies frequently compare her looks to that of a Raphaelite Madonna or an Angel. Almost preternaturally calm by nature, her gentle but selective indifference is fascinating, although it masks self-centredness on a large scale. She is a mistress of exquisite effrontery, delivering perfectly-timed observations when it suits her. Her beauty is mesmerising and almost ethereal; her skin is exquisitely pure, her long, shiny brunette hair is wonderfully-kept, her lilac eyes sparkle delicately and she speaks with an almost musical grace. Her poise is perfect and her movements effortlessly flawless.

Extract from Act I, Scene VI of Gareth Russell's The Audacity of Ideas©

Setting: The Salon of the Duchesse de Polignac, later in the same evening of June 1789

The Duchesse de Polignac sits, smiling politely at DR. LASSONNE (52) who stands opposite her. He is a frank and efficient court doctor with a long but un-jading experience with the world of Versailles. He is a deeply humanitarian man, but with the ability to deliver devastating news with the cool detachment so typical of doctors. 

GABRIELLE. And you are quite sure?

LASSONNE. Yes, Your Excellency. I am sorry.

GABRIELLE. There seems little cause for an apology on your part, doctor.

LASSONNE. I only wish I had better news.

GABRIELLE. But you do not.


GABRIELLE. Do you have time to answer a few questions on my condition? I will quite understand if you do not. I shouldn’t like to detain you.

LASSONNE. I have time.

GABRIELLE. Won’t you please sit?

LASSONNE. Thank you, yes.

The doctor sits

GABRIELLE. Can I fetch you anything? I am sorry there are no refreshments. I did not want the maids to overhear too much of this conversation.

LASSONNE. I am content, Excellency.

GABRIELLE. Now, obviously, from experience, I am aware that this disease is usually fatal.

LASSONNE. Invariably fatal, Your Excellency.

GABRIELLE. Invariably; yes. I have seen it in others and I should like to know if there are variables which can affect one’s progress and, if so, what they are.

LASSONNE. There are many, Excellency.


LASSONNE. Family history, diet, daily routine, race…

GABRIELLE. And class?

The doctor nods, hesitantly

GABRIELLE. Consumption took some of the peasant children who lived on my aunt’s estate at Claye. As a girl, I spent most of my time at the Benedictine abbaye d’Acris in Norgent-le-Retrou, so I could not comment on the progression of their disease with any degree of exactitude, but every time I returned to the estates I did notice a drastic reduction in their well-being. It took some of them years to die. By the end, they hardly seemed human.

LASSONNE. Yes, that can be the case, especially when the disease attacks children, particularly those who were hitherto healthy. It can be a long and excruciating demise.



LASSONNE. However, that need not be the case. The principle reason why the disease takes longer to end the life of a peasant is that their constitutions are already hardy. They live active and outdoor lives, which often keep them in peak physical condition. Unfortunately, this means that the disease has more to work against; more to consume.

GABRIELLE. I had hoped it might be otherwise for the nobility, due to the natural differences in our respective constitutions?

She looks serenely confident in her belief that there is a genetic difference between the nobility and the peasantry. Lassonne answers diplomatically.

LASSONNE. Perhaps that is why, Excellency. It must be said that ladies, especially a very certain type of lady, succumb to the consumption with astonishing speed.


LASSONNE. The ladies known as les papillons des fer are unfortunately the most easily felled.

GABRIELLE. Are we? Are they?

LASSONNE. Les papillons des fer, the great ladies of our Society, may look exquisite, indeed they undoubtedly are, but the cost to one’s health could not be greater. You, they, live on a diet that is almost non-existent, you are routinely corseted beyond what is healthy and your daily routine is punishing, despite its appearance of leisure.


LASSONNE. If a lady with consumption was to persist with this lifestyle, as the late Marquise de Pompadour did against all advice, it is likely the sickness would carry her off within two or three years. Four, at the very most.

GABRIELLE. And the effects?

LASSONNE. The usual chest pains and coughing up of blood, which are followed by night sweats, panic attacks, fainting fits, weight loss, pallor and a tendency towards exhaustion. The first few months, as the body accustoms itself to the attack would be amongst the most painful; the initial onslaught would be followed by a slow, less obvious decline, before the death-throws commenced.

For a moment, Gabrielle sees her future play before her eyes. With a blink, she dismisses it and focuses resolutely on the practicalities

GABRIELLE. No, I meant the tendency towards the skeletal. When does that occur?

LASSONNE. In the final stages; perhaps after five or six years of the condition.

GABRIELLE. So, it would not affect me?

LASSONNE. Excellency, I…

GABRIELLE. Please, there is no need for manners, doctor. You are a physician; your vocation all but entitles you to rudeness. I beg you, employ the prerogative.

LASSONNE. No, Excellency, it would not affect you if your current regime is maintained, but it would mean losing ten, perhaps fifteen, years of your life. Your Excellency is a wealthy woman; laudanum and other opiates could be purchased to numb the physical pain and you could still enjoy a relatively high standard of living until the final six or seven months.

GABRIELLE. But my beauty would be destroyed.

LASSONNE. Yes. In return for life, however, it seems a small price to pay.

GABRIELLE. Does it? (Pause; she rises and offers her hand. He kisses it) Thank you, doctor. I am so grateful for your kind advice.

LASSONNE. Your servant, Excellency.

The doctor bows and exits the salon. Gabrielle moves around, blowing out the candles. Now only the bright, silver, brilliant moonlight shines upon her. Her bejewelled necklace glistens in the night-light, as she sits slowly, elegantly and contemplates her fate.

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