Casanova found himself particularly attracted to strong and unorthodox women. One such woman was Henriette, a French ‘adventuress’ whom he first encountered dressed as a soldier and who became his greatest love. Their affair was to last three months. He was twenty-three and she was significantly older, perhaps by up to ten years. At the time, Casanova’s behaviour in Venice had brought upon him the unwanted attentions of the Venetian inquisition and so he had decided to make himself scarce. In January 1748, he had left Venice to tour northern Italy. Henriette’s background was, and remains, somewhat mysterious. She was an aristocrat and highly educated who, when Casanova encountered her, was fleeing to Parma from an unhappy marriage. She described her husband and father-in-law as ‘monsters’. Many years after the affair they were to make contact with each other again (although they would not meet face-to-face) and regularly corresponded. Unfortunately, the forty letters that she sent to him, referred to by Casanova in his autobiography and which would have undoubtedly revealed much more of her story, have not been located. His relationship with Henriette was to follow a fairly typical, but by no means universal, pattern: Casanova comes across a woman in trouble; he helps her out; she is grateful to him; they become lovers; they have a short affair; his passion satisfied, he loses interest and moves on. In the case of Henriette, however, it is she who finishes the relationship and moves on.
Casanova came across Henriette at Cesena, a small town north of Rimini and south of Ravenna, in a boarding house. One morning, several days into his stay at Cesena and shortly before he was about to travel on to Naples (where he was hoping to be reunited with Teresa Lanti – see Bellino article) there was some commotion in the corridor close to his room.
I see a troop of ‘sbirri’ at the door of a chamber, and in that chamber, sitting up in bed, a fine-looking man who was making himself hoarse by screaming in Latin against that rabble, the plague of Italy, and against the inn-keeper who had been rascally enough to open the door.
(Casanova’s memoirs, Venetian Years, Chapter XXII)
The inn-keeper, along with several sbirri (police) under the authority of the local bishop, were making their way into a room occupied by a Hungarian military officer and his companion who also purported to be a military officer. Local regulations forbade any man to sleep with a woman who was not his wife, and the inn-keeper was pretty sure that the companion was neither a man nor his wife. Casanova quickly discovered that the actions of the inn-keeper and the police, however, were not so much motivated by religious scruple but the opportunity to extort money. For a few sequins, the inn-keeper would have a word with the chief of police and the matter would be resolved.
Indignant at this stitch-up of a foreigner and having an ingrained dislike of sbirri, coupled with his love for a good drama (especially one which offered him the possibility of indulging in a bit of intrigue of his own) Casanova allied himself with the Hungarian. Advising the officer to stay put, he set off to see the bishop, not so much to resolve the matter but to be so unpleasant as to stoke the fires further. Having, as planned, been rebuffed by the bishop, the next morning he visited one General Spada, whose acquaintance he had recently made. Casanova, with a certain amount of embellishment, recounted the tale of how disgracefully the Hungarian officer had been set up and how the bishop had refused to intervene.
I told him that, unless he settled the matter himself, the Hungarian captain was determined to send an express to the cardinal [Cardinal Alexander of Rome] immediately. But my eloquence was unnecessary, for the general liked to see priests attend to the business of Heaven, but he could not bear them to meddle in temporal affairs.
(Casanova’s memoirs, Venetian Years, Chapter XXII)
In short order, the matter was resolved. The bishop apologised and agreed to pay damages for the way the officer had been so grossly insulted, while the inn-keeper and the sbirri had to beg for pardon on their knees.
There was, however, another motive behind Casanova’s interest in the affair. He had become intrigued by the Hungarian captain’s bedfellow. What kind of adventuress was this woman (and very quickly he had realised that it was, indeed, a woman) who was prepared to pass herself of as a man in order keep the company of a military officer? She was taking huge risks, particularly if the Inquisition got wind of it. In the middle of all his activity, Casanova had taken the opportunity to return to the Hungarian’s room to find out some more:
“From what country,” I asked him, “is your travelling companion?”
“From France, and he only speaks his native language.”
“Then you speak French?”
“Not one word.”
“That is amusing! Then you converse in pantomime?”
“I pity you, for it is a difficult language.”
“Yes, to express the various shades of thought, but in the material part of our intercourse we understand each other quite well.”
“May I invite myself to breakfast with you?”
“Ask my friend whether he has any objection.”
“Amiable companion of the captain,” I said in French, “will you kindly accept me as a third guest at the breakfast-table?”
At these words I saw coming out of the bed-clothes a lovely head, with dishevelled hair, and a blooming, laughing face which, although it was crowned with a man’s cap, left no doubt that the captain’s friend belonged to that sex without which man would be the most miserable animal on earth.
(Casanova’s memoirs, Venetian Years, Chapter XXII)
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.
(Casanova’s memoirs, Venetian Years, Chapter XXII)
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.
(Casanova’s memoirs, Venetian Years, Chapter XXIII)
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!”
(Casanova’s memoirs, Venetian Years, Chapter XXIII)
After some more desperate pleading, however, Henriette finally agreed to become his mistress.
In a skilfully constructed narrative, Casanova records the three months they spent together in Parma. The story he depicts is of two soulmates whose sublime love was doomed by destiny and the harsh realities of life (although it’s questionable whether Henriette saw the relationship in quite the same way that Casanova did). It should not be a surprise if there are echoes of Ancient Greek tragedy woven into his account; Casanova had, after all, translated Homer’s ‘Iliad’. You can struggle against your fate, possibly even delay it for a while but, eventually, you will succumb. A typical characteristic of the working out of fate in Greek tragedy is irony: frequently, it is the decisions and actions of the protagonists that brings about the very fate they are trying to avoid. And we see that in Casanova’s portrayal of events. Also, in keeping with a form that revolves around the concerns of Gods and heroes, the nature of their love acquires, on Casanova’s telling, an almost epic grandeur thus heightening the drama and pathos of its end (already in the initial declaration of his love en route to Parma, he had equated Henriette’s decision over whether or not to become his mistress to a matter of life and death). The theme of star-crossed love is communicated to the reader in a number of different ways. There is, first of all, the mystery of Henriette herself, in flight from some unresolved predicament. Never a good sign. The revelation, once they were settled in Parma, that she had been escaping from her father-in-law (who ‘intended to bury me in a convent’) and an unhappy marriage only deepens the reader’s apprehension. Then there is the social mismatch: Casanova born into poverty and, to make matters worse, a family of performers; Henriette a French noblewoman. Henriette has decided to make her way, as Casanova points out, to the most Frenchified city in Italy; not the place to be if you don’t want to be spotted by your relatives or any of their associates in the small world of the European aristocracy. In a foreshadowing of events, Casanova records Henriette’s concern about being seen in public. Then there was the issue of money. On their first day in Parma, dialogue between the two makes it clear that, despite all his show, extravagance and reassurance, Henriette was shrewd enough to realise that he didn’t possess an endless supply (when she leaves, she slips him 500 sequins). Another bad omen. For much of their stay in Parma they remained cocooned together, the future pushed aside, their love an amulet that would protect them as long as it was not exposed to the outside world. Casanova observes, ‘the next three months were spent by us in an intoxication of delight’. But, meanwhile, the reader understands that fate is busily at work and there is only going to be one outcome.
Arriving in Parma, they set up at D’Andremorit’s hotel where Casanova passed Henriette off as his wife. He then busied himself hiring various servants, a tutor to teach Henriette Italian, a shoemaker, a milliner, and a dressmaker to put together a wardrobe (Henriette had nothing apart from her military uniform). Once they are established in their apartments, repeatedly Casanova extols the immensity of his happiness and his love for Henriette, often triggered by the tiniest event, in the case below a ‘controversy’ between Henriette and her millner on the topic of politeness:
Those who do not believe that a woman can make a man happy through the twenty-four hours of the day have never possessed a woman like Henriette. The happiness which filled me, if I can express it in that manner, was much greater when I conversed with her even than when I held her in my arms. She had read much, she had great tact, and her taste was naturally excellent; her judgment was sane, and, without being learned, she could argue like a mathematician, easily and without pretension, and in everything she had that natural grace which is so charming. She never tried to be witty when she said something of importance, but accompanied her words with a smile which imparted to them an appearance of trifling, and brought them within the understanding of all. In that way she would give intelligence even to those who had none, and she won every heart. Beauty without wit offers love nothing but the material enjoyment of its physical charms, whilst witty ugliness captivates by the charms of the mind, and at last fulfils all the desires of the man it has captivated.
Then what was my position during all the time that I possessed my beautiful and witty Henriette? That of a man so supremely happy that I could scarcely realize my felicity!
(Casanova’s memoirs, To Paris and Prison, Chapter I)
At the opening of Chapter II (Episode 6 – Paris) if the reader had any doubts about the direction of travel, Casanova puts it firmly to rest: ‘The happiness I was enjoying was too complete to last long. I was fated to lose it, but I must not anticipate events’. It is now that the outside world impinges on their love: ‘Madame de France, wife of the Infante Don Philip, having arrived in Parma, the opera house was opened, and I engaged a private box, telling Henriette that I intended to take her to the theatre every night’. There are a couple of nice little touches of situational irony here which, as the reader already knows that their love is doomed, adds to the poignancy of the story. Henriette expresses her reservations about leaving the apartments then Casanova introduces an ‘if only’ moment:
“I am passionately fond of music, darling, but I cannot help trembling at the idea of going out.”
“If you tremble, I must shudder, but we ought to go to the opera or leave Parma. Let us go to London or to any other place. Give your orders, I am ready to do anything you like.”
(Casanova’s memoirs, To Paris and Prison, Chapter II)
According to Casanova, the key figure in their eventual undoing is a man called Dubois-Chateleraux, a skilful engraver and ‘witty hunchback’ whose acquaintance Casanova had made in a bookshop. Their visits to the opera itself take place without incident but they do lead the pair increasingly to keep the company of Dubois from whom Casanova had ordered a pair of opera glasses. Dubois invites them to an entertainment where they can meet the two principal singers. Initially, Henriette refuses but then changes her mind (another ‘if only’ moment, possibly). At the supper, populated with Spanish and French nobility, Henriette becomes something of a star when she performs on the viol de gamba, much to Casanova’s amazement as he had no inkling that she was so musically gifted (in fact, he was moved to tears). From the reader’s perspective, the opera and dinner turn out to be false alarms (Casanova, no doubt, deliberately playing with his audience). It was involving an encounter with Dubois a month after the supper when things began to unravel.
One day as we were driving outside the Gate of Colorno, we met the duke and duchess who were returning to Parma. Immediately after their carriage another vehicle drove along, in which was Dubois with a nobleman unknown to us. Our carriage had only gone a few yards from theirs when one of our horses broke down. The companion of Dubois immediately ordered his coachman to stop in order to send to our assistance. Whilst the horse was raised again, he came politely to our carriage, and paid some civil compliment to Henriette. M. Dubois, always a shrewd courtier and anxious to shew off at the expense of others, lost no time in introducing him as M. Dutillot, the French ambassador. My sweetheart gave the conventional bow. The horse being all right again, we proceeded on our road after thanking the gentlemen for their courtesy. Such an every-day occurrence could not be expected to have any serious consequences, but alas! the most important events are often the result of very trifling circumstances!
(Casanova’s memoirs, To Paris and Prison, Chapter II)
Thus it was that ‘that fatal Dubois’, destiny’s cats-paw if we are to believe Casanova, was to set off the events which were to lead to the end of their affair. Shortly after meeting the French ambassador, Henriette received a visit from a Monsier d’Antoine who was to serve as an intermediary with regards to, as Henriette put it, ‘the honour of two families’, the details of which were kept secret from Casanova. After some sort of negotiation arrangements were put in place (no doubt ones that were far more preferable to being buried in a convent). Once the deal was done, Henriette and Casanova spent two weeks in Milan before returning to Parma from where he accompanied her to Geneva and they made their final farewell. The break was to be absolute. There was not to be any contact afterwards (although many years later they did, in fact, write to each other). Henriette made this clear: “Once we are parted by fate, my best and only friend, never enquire after me, and, should chance throw you in my way, do not appear to know me.”
Henriette made her way towards Lyon, Casanova due to leave Geneva the following day. While alone in his room he saw that she had scratched the words ‘You will forget Henriette’ into one of the panes of glass with the point of a diamond he had bought for her, an inscription which was still there eighty years later.
While there is little reason to question the events that took place as described by Casanova, there are some aspects of his depiction which seem unconvincing to a modern reader. In recreating what were perhaps the happiest months of his life, and in his desire to construct a story of a tragic love in tune with the sort of literary conventions and ideals that would have appealed to him, he has shied away from addressing issues that might cast some doubt on the motivations underpinning their romance. References to fate and irony are a much more satisfactory way of explaining events, leaving the purity of their love unsullied by baser interests. For example, Henriette’s determination to travel to the most French city in Italy makes little sense unless she was intending to be found. It makes even less sense to stay there if she didn’t want to endanger her relationship with her new-found love. Both she and Casanova were far too astute to imagine there could be any other outcome. And even then, once they had been spotted, there was nothing to stop them leaving. If fate was at play, they certainly didn’t put up much of a struggle against it. Casanova’s histrionics ring distinctly hollow:
“Ah!” I exclaimed, “this is the beginning of the end! What a dreadful thought! I am near the end of a felicity which was too great to last! Wretch that I have been! Why did I tarry so long in Parma? What fatal blindness! Of all the cities in the whole world, except France, Parma was the only one I had to fear, and it is here that I have brought you, when I could have taken you anywhere else, for you had no will but mine! I am all the more guilty in that you never concealed your fears from me. Why did I introduce that fatal Dubois here? Ought I not to have guessed that his curiosity would sooner or later prove injurious to us? And yet I cannot condemn that curiosity, for it is, alas! a natural feeling. I can only accuse all the perfections which Heaven has bestowed upon you!—perfections which have caused my happiness, and which will plunge me in an abyss of despair, for, alas! I foresee a future of fearful misery.”
(Casanova’s memoirs, To Paris and Prison, Chapter III)
Moreover, Casanova (and Henriette) knew he was running out of funds (‘…my purse was getting very light. When we came back to Parma I had only three or four hundred sequins.’).
There are, however, different ways of reading Casanova’s account. It may be that he has idealised the nature of his relationship with Henriette in order to illustrate a deeper truth. It has been convincingly argued that Casanova’s memoirs were as much a philosophical project as a straight-forward personal history; one in which he explored the question of whether it was possible to attain genuine happiness through libertinism. It is worth bearing in mind that the conception of love that existed when Casanova was in his pomp in the mid-eighteenth century was different to that of today and was being contested in the late-eighteenth century when he was writing his autobiography. Love was regarded as inherently unstable and transitory, rooted in passion rather than reason. It was not something upon which to establish a lasting relationship. A successful marriage was arranged on the basis of economics and politics, not love. ‘Marriage is the tomb of love,’ Casanova observed. His relationship with Henriette might be Casanova’s case study of how love can only exist as a temporary state of happiness based upon unsustainable passion. If their relationship had been diluted by more worldly concerns from the very start then the argument that love itself was intrinsically unstable would not be quite so fool-proof. It is also worth asking to what extent Casanova’s older self is endorsing or satirising the sentiments of his younger self. We shouldn’t always assume that when the older Casanova records the speech and thought of the younger, with all its histrionics, pomposity, arrogance and vanity, that he is doing so uncritically. At one point he refers to the ‘hackneyed but energetic exclamations’ of Henriette and his younger self. When we read utterances such as ‘an abyss of despair’ and ‘future of fearful misery’ is that simply conforming to the norms of the literary conventions of his day, is it intended to convey a genuine speaking voice or is the narrator using this melodramatic display as a way of mocking the character and sentiments of the speaker?
About Henriette, Ian Kelly (‘Casanova: Actor, Spy, Lover, Priest’) notes:
She was waiting for some sort of rapprochement with her in-laws or her husband, perhaps the granting of an official separation or the right to see her children [she may have left small children in France] without bringing further scandal on the family. Now she had happened upon a wild young adventurer who shared her outlook on life and love, but could not, realistically, share her future.
If fate did indeed have a hand in the ending of their love it was more likely to be the fate of their respective births and the social gulf between them.
Note: references to Casanova’s memoirs relate to the revised unabridged Arthur Machen English translation (Gutenberg project)
Dave Thompson (2018)