Marquise d’Urfé

I have an aunt who enjoys a great reputation for her skill in the occult sciences, especially in alchemy. She is a woman of wit, very rich, and sole mistress of her fortune; in short, knowing her will do you no harm. She longs to see you, for she pretends to know you, and says that you are not what you seem. She has entreated me to take you to dine with her, and I hope you will accept the invitation. Her name is the Marchioness d’Urfé.
(Casanova’s Memoirs, The Eternal Quest, Chapter III)

So it was that in 1757, through the Count de la Tour d’Auvergne, Casanova made the acquaintance of one of the richest and most eccentric women in France.

While ‘Casanova in Paris’ has aimed to work with and around the historical facts of the time, we decided to go for quite a dramatic re-imagining of the character of the Marquise d’Urfé.  We have depicted her as a savvy entrepreneur coining it from a highly profitable gay sex trade for frustrated aristocratic women who have ended up in loveless marriages.  In our story, we suggest that the bizarre figure that has come down to us through the historical record was fabricated by the Marquise and Casanova as a cover to hide her lucrative business venture.

Jeanne Camus de Pontcarré, Marquise d’Urfé (1705-1775) was the daughter of nobility who, in 1724, married the immensely rich Marquis de Langeac et Urfé.  She bore three children before, in 1734, the Marquis died and she inherited his estate.  She was 29-years-old, highly educated and with the freedom and money to do and have whatever she wanted, an exceptionally unusual position for a woman in eighteenth-century France.  The only hitch was that what she wanted was eternal youth.  However, in what may strike the modern reader as a classic case of Hammer-horror craziness, it is worth putting the Marquise’s beliefs and behaviours into context.

During this Age of Enlightenment old certainties and superstitions jostled alongside new radical insights and attitudes to create an intoxicating brew.  Who knew what was out there waiting to be revealed? For untold generations stretching back to the ancient Greeks and beyond it was understood that numinous forces  were sewn into the fabric of existence and played themselves out in the here and now whether through the agency of God or gods.  Very few questioned otherwise.  Wasn’t the king of France himself divinely chosen and, what’s more, imbued with special healing powers?  How could you distinguish between the natural and the supernatural, what was discoverable or undiscoverable, the physical and the metaphysical?  If Isaac Newton could uncover invisible forces that underpinned the order of the cosmos why couldn’t other forces similarly be uncovered?  If the natural could be harnessed by man’s potent art why not the supernatural?  Casanova certainly thought so and had developed a reputation as an occultist and master of the cabbalistic arts.  Partly, of course, he used these arts for the purpose of defrauding others but there is also no doubt that his interest in the cabbala reflected beliefs that he genuinely held.

Although, unquestionably, the Marquise was the object of cynical exploitation and preposterous quackery (taken to its extreme, unsurprisingly, by Casanova himself) nonetheless there would have been those who genuinely believed in the prospects of unearthing miraculous powers.  Just as today many otherwise perfectly sane people hold beliefs stretching from homeopathy to alien abduction or from Scientology to parallel universes which many other equally sane people deride so in the early eighteenth century there would have been a continuum of belief.  Those who would have found the Marquise’s quest for eternal life a ridiculous and vain ambition would have been equally incredulous to learn of the sort of advances that are a commonplace in the twenty-first century (interestingly, of course, for any budding d’Urfés who are around today, discoveries in modern science are beginning to cast doubt on the inevitability of the aging process).  D’Urfé may have been vain and self-indulgent but that did not make her a mad-woman.

D’Urfé surrounded herself with card readers, chemists, hypnotists and occultists of various kinds.  She had her own laboratory that she used to conduct experiments in alchemy and had amassed a huge collection of books.  Apart from Casanova himself, one of the most remarkable characters that D’Urfé kept company with was the multi-talented adventurer Conte de Saint-Germain.  Saint-Germain was a linguist, philosopher, chemist, occultist and gifted musician.  He was also a spy and a diplomat in the employ of Louis XV until, rather disgracefully, Louis XV disowned him and left him out to dry.  Casanova gives us something of a flavour of him:

This extraordinary man, intended by nature to be the king of impostors and quacks, would say in an easy, assured manner that he was three hundred years old, that he knew the secret of the Universal Medicine, that he possessed a mastery over nature, that he could melt diamonds, professing himself capable of forming, out of ten or twelve small diamonds, one large one of the finest water without any loss of weight. All this, he said, was a mere trifle to him. Notwithstanding his boastings, his bare-faced lies, and his manifold eccentricities, I cannot say I thought him offensive. In spite of my knowledge of what he was and in spite of my own feelings, I thought him an astonishing man as he was always astonishing me.

… St. Germain often dined with the best society in the capital, but he never ate anything, saying that he was kept alive by mysterious food known only to himself. One soon got used to his eccentricities, but not to his wonderful flow of words which made him the soul of whatever company he was in.
(Casanova’s Memoirs, The Eternal Quest, Chapter III)

Then there was Franz Mesmer, a physician and skilled hypnotist who believed that a natural transfer of energy occurred between all animated and inanimate objects, and the Conte di Cagliostro, an alchemist who, at the cost to d’Urfé of several hundred thousand francs, attempted to summon up the spirits of Paracelsus and Moïtomut.  Abbé de Berni was also a frequenter of d’Urfé’s salons along with various society women and ladies-in-waiting such as Madame de Boufflers.

Even before his second visit to Paris, Casanova already had something of a reputation for his skills as a cabbalistic healer.  In 1750, he had successfully treated the Duchesse de Chartre for acne.  When he arrived in Paris in 1757, the first man to have escaped from the prison of the Venetian Inquisition, he was an even more interesting proposition.  Later in the year, in an episode that combined more theatrics and mumbo jumbo than medical understanding, Casanova cured d’Urfé’s nephew, Tour d’Auvergne, of a bout of sciatica.  Marquise d’Urfé, of course, had to meet the man who carried out this ‘miracle’, as d’Auvergne had described it, and it was not long before Casanova had the Marquise in his thrall:

By this time I had fathomed all the depths of Madame d’Urfe’s character. She firmly believed me to be an adept of the first order, making use of another name for purposes of my own; and five or six weeks later she was confirmed in this wild idea on her asking me if I had diciphered the manuscript which pretended to explain the Magnum Opus.
“Yes,” said I, “I have deciphered it, and consequently read it, and I now beg to return it you with my word of honour that I have not made a copy; in fact, I found nothing in it that I did not know before.”
“Without the key you mean, but of course you could never find out that.”
“Shall I tell you the key?”
“Pray do so.”
I gave her the word, which belonged to no language that I know of, and the marchioness was quite thunderstruck.
“This is too amazing,” said she; “I thought myself the sole possessor of that mysterious word—for I had never written it down, laying it up in my memory—and I am sure I have never told anyone of it.”
I might have informed her that the calculation which enabled me to decipher the manuscript furnished me also with the key, but the whim took me to tell her that a spirit had revealed it to me.
(Casanova’s Memoirs, The Eternal Quest, Chapter III)

Casanova’s part in founding the Paris lottery made him a fortune. It was soon depleted, however, by his lavish spending and so increasingly he looked to d’Urfé to supplement his income.  He would do this not by asking for cash directly but by asking her to furnish him with the materials, such as precious jewels, that he needed to carry out his experiments to help him to connect with the astral powers.  For several years he swindled the Marquise, culminating in his Great Work:

…an attempt to transmute her soul into a boy-child born of a union between himself and a virgin, conceived and born in her presence.
(Ian Kelly, ‘Casanova: ‘Actor, Spy, Lover, Priest’)

His swindles continued into the 1760s becoming more and more elaborate and complex, culminating in a reincarnation ceremony which involved Casanova impregnating the Marquise in order for her to deliver a child that would carry her soul.  Needless to say the attempt, involving one real and two faked orgasms on Casanova’s part, failed.  D’Urfé had shown remarkable faith in Casanova but eventually even she came to understand that he did not possess the powers that he had claimed and the two parted company.

Note: references to Casanova’s memoirs relate to the unabridged London edition of 1894 (Gutenberg project)

Dave Thompson (2017) 

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