Losing Henriette

The last of four blogs on Casanova’s greatest love.

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)

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 Lyons, 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)

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.


‘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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