Robinson, David Michael. 2001. “The Abominable Madame de Murat’” in Merrick, Jeffrey & Michael Sibalis, eds. Homosexuality in French History and Culture. Harrington Park Press, New York. ISBN 1-56023-263-3
Robinson, David Michael. 2001. “The Abominable Madame de Murat”
I first encountered Madame de Murat and here rather sordid escapades in another of Jeffrey Merrick’s projects, but this article fills in more of the details of her life. Extensive quotations from the police report can be found in: Merrick, Jeffrey & Bryant T. Ragan, Jr. 2001. Homosexuality in Early Modern France: A Documentary Collection. Oxford University Press, New York. ISBN 0-19-510257-6.
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Right at the turn of the 18th century (ca 1700), a Parisian police official collected a series of reports on the scandalous behavior of Henriette de Castelnau, countess de Murat. The official noted that it was particularly shameful for a noblewoman to have engaged in such actions. While a number of offences were detailed, the core accusation was her sexual relations with other women. In addition to “a monstrous attachment to persons of her sex,” the reported noted profanity, singing dissolute songs at all hours, pissing out her window into the street after a drunken carouse, and a blasphemous conversation with a vicar. The sexual relationships included an ongoing tempestuous affair with one Madame de Nantiat, and a violent attack on Murat’s portrait by a jealous ex-girlfriend.
The point of this report was a request that the king either exile her from Paris or put her in prison. (Though one wonders whether a man of similar rank singing drunken songs, pissing out a window, or blaspheming to a churchman would have been similarly harassed, absent sexual crimes.)
Setting aside the extremely negative tone of the references to lesbianism, the reports are intriguing for the details of the relationships and the difficulty the police had in obtaining testimony from witnesses.
In literature of the time, such as Nicolas Chorier’s Académie des dames, Delarivier Manley’s The New Atalantis, or Antoine Hamilton’s Memoirs of the Count de Gramont, the attitude toward lesbian sex is more one of amused condescension. Authors and their audiences were quite aware of lesbian possibilities, but give the appearance of considering it as of little importance. Something to mock, but not to be concerned over.
In contrast to both the horrified reaction of the police official and the mockery of libertine literature, there were also texts that treated lesbian encounters almost neutrally, such as Madame de Villedieu’s novel Memoirs of the Life of Henriette-Sylvie de Molière, in which the queen mother takes the protagonist under her protection, noting that she “loved passionately beautiful women” and had befriended her in order to be able to kiss her regularly. Robinson also cites Aphra Behn’s “To the Fair Clorinda” as a positive expression of female erotic desire.
But possibly Madame de Murat has left us another such positive text, to contrast with her police record. Her presumably autobiographical novel, The Memoirs of Madame the Countess de M—,” while primarily focusing on refuting alleged heterosexual misconduct [which we note is not mentioned in the police report], include an episode where an enemy of hers wrote letters accusing Madame de Murat ad her friend Mademoiselle Laval (in somewhat vague but significant terms) of “horrible things,” bringing them to the attention of both women’s husbands as well as the queen. While the nature of the “horrible things” is not specified, the language and context strongly implies sexual improprieties. The parallels in language and the desired punishment (imprisonment through royal intervention) with the police report (which was written several years later) are noteworthy. [Note: Mademoiselle Laval is not one of the women named in the police report as one of de Murat’s lovers, instead listing Madame de Nantiat, though the vengeful ex-lover is not named.]
In de Murat’s Memoirs the two women thus accused are advised to retreat temporarily to a convent until the accusations can be settled. But in the police report, when the possibility of confinement in a convent is raised, the official advises that he is doubtful of the morals of any convent willing to take her on, alluding to the contradictory reputation of convents both as a place of chastity, and as a hotbed [ahem] of lesbian desire, as reflected in pornographic literature of the time. [Note: lesbian encounters by secular women staying in convents are noted in the biographies of women such as Hortense Mancini and Julie d’Aubigny.]
De Murat and de Nantiat were eventually placed under house arrest in separate chateaus as a result of the accusations, though de Murat is reported as continuing her former behavior there and corresponding freely with all her existing acquaintances.
Robinson suggests that the brief episode in de Murat’s memoirs—when combined with the more detailed and explicit accusation in the police report, as well as the larger social context of how lesbian activity was discussed, and the reputation of convents—is a lightly veiled in-joke, acknowledging the (likely) truth of the relationship with Laval and using it as an excuse for a temporary retreat to an all-female space where the relationship could be continued. This suggests a new context in which positive depictions of lesbianism might be found, if they can be decoded.
The article concludes with a discussion of the problems of reading “closeted texts” as Robinson suggests this to be, and the asymmetric effects of dismissing authorial intent when interpreting texts when the author may be constrained to speak obliquely. These effects create particular problems for queer history and the erasure of neutral or positive depictions of queer sexuality when historians insist on taking texts only at face value.