A country on the brink of revolution, a gullible Catholic cardinal, a forger, a prostitute, a mysterious alchemist with a dark reputation, the Queen of France, a scheming femme fatale and a priceless diamond necklace… all the elements of a great thriller, but The Queen’s Necklace by Frances Mossiker is not a work of fiction. It’s the true story of how one woman’s greed and ambition destroyed everyone around her and resulted in an incident that became “…to the French Revolution what the Boston Tea Party was to our own.”
The woman at the heart of this tangled tale was one Jeanne de Saint-Remy de Valois, better known as the Countess de La Motte. Descended from the mistress of a French king, the Countess (well, she called herself a Countess) was proud but impoverished. Her determination to reclaim the wealth her family had lost through dissipation led to the infamous L’affaire du Collier, the Diamond Necklace Affair.
It all began with the Countess attending the court of King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette to request a monetary stipend. While there she heard about a magnificent diamond necklace. This one-of-a-kind treasure, comprised of 647 high-quality diamonds, was valued at almost two million French francs in the 1780s.
The Queen refused to purchase the elaborate piece citing its cost but the Countess conceived a cunning plan. She and her husband recruited a forger and created documents that duped her friend, Cardinal Prince Rohan, First Prelate of the Church of France, into believing that the Queen did want to buy the necklace. However, she wanted it done surreptitiously with the Cardinal acting as her go-between with the jeweler.
Cardinal Rohan, desperate to curry favor with the Queen for political reasons, fell for the scam hook, line and sinker. Also dragged into the convoluted scheme were the Count Cagliostro, a charlatan with professed psychic abilities, a prostitute who just happened to resemble the queen and the hapless jewelers who designed the diamond necklace. The outcome for all involved was grim, with the French royal family taking a particularly hard blow as their prestige and reputation were tarnished beyond repair.
All in all, it’s a remarkable tale told primarily through the first person documents of the people involved on the case. Many of the principals, including the Countess de La Motte, wrote memoirs, and there’s an interesting Rashomon effect in reading several different versions of the same incident.
Ms. Mossiker offers comments on the text, doing her best to sift the truth from the lies, but tries not to pass judgment or direct your opinion. The reader is allowed to make up their own mind as to who did what to whom and why. The book is long, 612 pages, and the writing style is formal, detailed and fairly scholarly, but don’t let that put you off. The story is engrossing and will be of interest to anyone who likes history and/or true crime.
Check the WRL catalog for The Queen’s Necklace.