Versailles in August. This is what they call a dead season: Not a soul. We are at another late XVIII century painted park. Parc Balbi has a grotto, a pond, a path meandering among trees, all built, dug and planted following some painter’s brush in a pattern characteristic of the Chinese Gardens. What is it about still water full of sinking dead leaves? I climb over the old wall. Come along! It’s worth it.
The park is within a five-minute walk from Chateau Versailles and is separated from the King’s kitchen garden by a wall; Parc Balbi has been built by Louis XVI’s brother, Count of Provence and is named after the Count’s mistress, Madam Balbi, who served as a lady-in- waiting to his wife, Marie-Josephine. Madam Balbi was renown for her wit and not a great friend of Marie-Josephine; the Princess, on the eve of the revolution, sunk into depression and took to the bottle.
Why Louis-Stanislas took Madam Balbi as a mistress remains a mystery; the woman gave birth to twins a year after they had separated; as for the Prince’s wife, she has probably remained a virgin till the day she died. Strange park. Interesting people. I like their story. The story begins in 1783 with the arrival of another woman, Madam Gourbillon, whose job is to read to the Princess; not that the Princess does not know how to read, the story I am about to tell comes from the letters of Marie-Josephine to Madam Gourbillon; but it is like this observation point in the park, a flat rock in the grass for one person only: Imagine, there had been such a position at the Court, and so they found someone to read to the alcoholic princess.
Madame Gourbillon must have been a perfect reader; but something about these readings made Louis-Stanislas build this melancholy park and even take a mistress. His brother, Louis-Augustus, also got upset; but, being a king, he had to keep it cool and find some evidence before accusing anyone of anything unnatural or sinful; therefore, by order of the King, an investigation, or rather spying through a secret spider-web-camouflaged hole, was began; and over a course of a few weeks this investigation has provided His Majesty with enough reading material to send Madam Goudrillon back home. This royal decision produced an outpouring of letters from Mari-Josephine, some of which we may examine leisurely after taking a seat on one of these benches.
“My face has changed, the skin has turned all yellow and the cheeks have sunken. The hair is falling out by handfuls. The nights became longer without any sleep. I think of you and cry.”Further down she describes what happens in the family, Louis-Stanislas does not talk to Marie-Josephine anymore…. She bought herself a brief in which she carries her correspondence, she keeps it on her person at all times, she even takes it to bed and this makes her night-time reading…. Actually Marie-Josephine does it because she cannot trust her ladies-in-waiting anymore: in the middle of the night the Princess had caught one of them looking through the papers left on the desk. “She had found nothing, or too much, I have put my foot in her butt, but in the morning this spy came back as if nothing happened.”
The diplomatic pressure is applied to Capet brothers on behalf of Marie-Josephine: the king of Savoy does not understand why his daughter has lost her sleep; but Louis XVI does not want to hear about it, he is too busy with the General Estates. Marie-Josephine is even hoping to plea her case to the new Assembly…. The Revolution comes to Versailles with thousands of Parisian women running for the Queen’s apartment past the wing where resides Marie-Josephine and now the entire royal household is forced to move to Paris. This is a positive change in the life of the princess: in her letters she suggests to Madam Goudrillon the Park of Boulogne for their secret meetings. She knows that she is being followed, the Parisian pamphleteers take great interest in her Saphic exploits, but whatever!
On seeing all that, the husband gives in; there is no room for moralizing in the times of great social cataclysms: in times like that every loyal servant is worth her weight in gold, and he does not doubt the loyalty of Madam Goudrillon to his wife. What is even more interesting, we have here a letter where Marie-Josephine acknowledges the role of Madam Balbi in convincing him. How do the two women make the Count go against the will of his elder brother? Louis-Stanislas must have lived a few frightening moments. The National Guard does not protect him. Revolutions are not made with the rose water. Spies are everywhere. La Fayette has his woman at the Luxembourg Palace, the Parisian residence of the Count and Countess of Provence. Whom can he trust? Our Prince chooses to trust Madam Goudrillon.
It is not by accident that we see the return of both Fersen and Goudrillon in the lives of Marie-Antoinette and Marie-Josephine: They become the key persons in the royal conspiratory organization, and while Louis-Augustus does not let Fersen ride with Marie-Antoinette in the same carriage, Louis-Stanislas lets Madam Goudrillon spring Marie-Josephine out of the revolutionary Paris; the night of the escape is telling: the King and the Queen are arrested at Varenes, but Marie-Josephine and Madam Goudrillon make it to Brussels. The Count of Provence, the future Louis XVIII, travels on horseback in the same general direction.