The second of four blogs on Casanova’s greatest love.
It’s not difficult to see why Casanova was so attracted to Henriette nor why, over the coming months, his feelings for her were to become so intense. There was, of course, the excitement surrounding their first meeting and the opportunity it had given him to play the hero, which had set everything up so nicely. There was her beauty. There was the challenge of seducing her. She was on the run, like Casanova himself. She was clearly a free-thinker as far as sex was concerned. She was a risk-taker, like Casanova, willing to transgress social and sexual taboos, which, in a woman, given the dire consequences at stake, was something that always filled him with admiration (his greatest love, up to that point, had been for Teresa Lanti, aka Bellino, another woman whom he’d first encountered disguised as a man). Over the coming days and weeks, he was also to discover her wit and intelligence and the fact that she was of noble blood. Henriette’s status and sophistication meant that he was faced with a woman who was less easily impressed than many of the women he had known hitherto. Ian Kelly, historian, notes: ‘From the start, she treated him as if he were an infatuated boy’. In fact, when he initially declared his love for her, she laughed at him. To someone of Casanova’s huge vanity and ego this was, on the one hand, somewhat unnerving while, on the other, something which served to increase his determination to win her over.
Henriette was one of the few women Casanova allowed to laugh at him, to know his essential neediness, and to enter into a liaison with him as an equal…he handed her the power in their relationship, to begin it and therefore to end it…
(Ian Kelly, ‘Casanova: Actor, Spy, Lover, Priest’)
The day after meeting Henriette and the Hungarian captain the three were invited by General Spada to dine with him.
I left my friends alone to get dressed, and to attend to my own toilet, as I dined with them at the general’s. An hour afterwards I found them ready in their military costumes. The uniform of the Frenchwoman was of course a fancy one, but very elegant. The moment I saw her, I gave up all idea of Naples, and decided upon accompanying the two friends to Parma. The beauty of the lovely Frenchwoman had already captivated me. The captain was certainly on the threshold of sixty, and, as a matter of course, I thought such a union very badly assorted. I imagined that the affair which I was already concocting in my brain could be arranged amicably.
If there was any doubt in Casanova’s mind over whether to go ahead and supplant the Hungarian as her lover this disappeared when Henriette demonstrated her wit in the company of General Spada’s dinner guests. It transpired that Henriette and the Hungarian didn’t possess a common language through which to communicate with each other (Casanova spoke to Henriette in French and to the captain in Latin). This, unsurprisingly, became a talking point:
“It seems strange,” remarked Madame Querini, “that you and the captain should live together without ever speaking to each other.”
“Why, madam? We understand one another perfectly, for speech is of very little consequence in the kind of business we do together.”
That answer, given with graceful liveliness, made everybody laugh, except Madame Querini-Juliette, who, foolishly assuming the air of a prude, thought that its meaning was too clearly expressed.
“I do not know any kind of business,” she said, “that can be transacted without the assistance of the voice or the pen.”
“Excuse me, madam, there are some: playing at cards, for instance, is a business of that sort.”
“Are you always playing?”
“We do nothing else. We play the game of the Pharaoh (faro), and I hold the bank.”
Everybody, understanding the shrewdness of this evasive answer, laughed again, and Juliette herself could not help joining in the general merriment.
“But tell me,” said Count Spada, “does the bank receive much?”
“As for the deposits, they are of so little importance, that they are hardly worth mentioning.”
No one ventured upon translating that sentence for the benefit of the worthy captain.
Ditching his plans to go to Naples, Casanova spoke to the Hungarian officer and offered to take them to Parma in his very own carriage, which he assured them would be far more comfortable than a public coach. The captain agreed. Casanova, however, didn’t own a carriage; a detail which, by the end of the day, he’d resolved by going into Cesena and buying a particularly luxurious one. Before they left he’d manage to confirm with Henriette that the captain wasn’t her husband or her father and was growing increasingly confident that she would be prepared to exchange her elderly lover for himself (‘I was perfection from a physical point of view, and I appeared to be wealthy,’ he observed). As he’d intended, he was able to use the journey to get to know Henriette better and to find out more about her relationship with the Hungarian. It turned out that the captain had a six-month sabbatical and was visiting Italy partly for pleasure and partly on business. He came across Henriette in Civita-Vecchia, where, in military costume and in the company of an elderly officer, she happened to be staying at the same inn as himself. It was clear to the captain, as it seemed to have been clear to everyone, that the young officer was a woman. Interested in her, through an intermediary they arranged to meet in Rome, the Hungarian offering her ten sequins for her company. Henriette refused the money, instead asking him to take her with him to Parma where she claimed to have some business. That was all he knew.
It was at this point in the journey, during a stopover at Bologna, that Henriette made it clear to the Hungarian, via Casanova, that once they had arrived at Parma they were to go their separate ways. The following morning Casanova made his move. First of all, he spoke to the Hungarian to receive his blessing in attempting to obtain Henriette as his mistress; the captain had, after all, throughout everything that had happened, demonstrated himself to be a decent, honourable man. What’s more, he and Henriette seem to have developed a genuine fondness for each other. The captain agreed and Casanova went away to declare his undying love. He didn’t quite make the impression he had hoped for, however, ending his proposal, as he did, rather too imperiously:
“…Now, be kind enough to decide before the return of the captain. He knows all, for I have told him what I feel.”
“And what did he answer?”
“That he would be happy to see you under my protection. But what is the meaning of that smile playing on your lips?”
“Pray, allow me to laugh, for I have never in my life realized the idea of a furious declaration of love. Do you understand what it is to say to a woman in a declaration which ought to be passionate, but at the same time tender and gentle, the following terrible words:
“‘Madam, make your choice, either one or the other, and decide instantly!’ Ha! ha! ha!”
After some more desperate pleading, however, Henriette finally agreed to become his mistress.
‘Casanova in Paris: The Shadows of the King’ is now freely available here.
27 long form articles on Casanova’s life and times are freely available here.
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