Crime and Scandal

Henriette Desportes Leaves the Scandals of Paris for a Stockbridge Minister

By the time she died in 1875, people knew Henriette Desportes as a minister’s wife in Stockbridge, Mass. But behind that staid image was the story of a scandal that helped topple the King of France.

Henriette Desportes was a French girl, born illegitimately in 1813. By 1840 she had been educated at French boarding schools, developed a talent for art and traveled to Britain where she worked as a governess before returning to France.

henriette-desportes

L to r, clockwise: Henry Field, Charles Theobold, Fanny Theobold, Henriette Desportes.

Henriette Desportes, Nanny

At age 27, in 1841, she found work with the family of a French duke, Charles Laure Hugues Théobald. Her job was to be nanny to the duke’s children. But the duke’s wife, Françoise Altarice Rosalba Sebastiani, thought more was going on.

Fanny and Theo had nine children. They ran through a string of nannies until Henriette  Desportes arrived. She would last six years at the job. But Fanny accused her of alienating the children from their mother. What’s worse, she believed Theo and Henriette were having an affair.

Descriptions of their marriage tend to flatter one at the expense of the other depending on the teller of the tale. Supporters of Theo paint him as a harassed figure, putting up with a wife with an explosive temper. He endured her pepperings of long letters that alternated between complaining and apologizing.

Supporters of Fanny describe Theo as distant, uncaring and unfaithful to his wife. Fanny put up with much of his misbehavior, they say, until the affair between Theo and Henriette became public knowledge. This so scandalized her, she had no choice but to force Theo to fire Henriette the nanny.

The evidence of an affair between Theo and Henriette Desportes is circumstantial. She wrote long, emotional letters to him after being fired.  And he did pay for her rent for a time after her separation. But the letters reveal no smoking gun, and he urged her to move on and meet people.

Murder

All this might have gone into the history books as just another tumultuous marriage among the aristocracy, but for the events of August 17, 1847.

Duke Theo and Duchess Fanny had traveled to their Paris home. On that morning, the servants awoke to sounds of a struggle, and they discovered Fanny dead. Someone had stabbed and bludgeoned her. The logical suspect: her husband. The duke was in the house, armed with a pistol.

He said that an intruder came into the home and attacked his wife. He tried to repel the prowler. Theo showed signs of a fight, but could not explain anything more about the assailant. A servant said she witnessed the duke washing blood from his hands.

The police arrested the duke, and he awaited trial in a special court that handled matters involving royalty. Henriette Desportes, meanwhile, got swept up in the affair. Police arrested her and charged her with some sort of involvement in the crime.

Theo faced limited choices. He could confess, he could stand by his story or he could blame Henriette. Instead, he chose option 4: Suicide. He went to the grave declaring his innocence. With no husband to prosecute and no evidence against Henriette Desportes, the police dropped the case.

Abdication

France, in 1847, was in the midst of a financial crisis. Wealth had accumulated at the top of society for decades, while poverty was rampant. This double standard, the critics said, extended beyond money and into the justice system. Some suggested the duke had been allowed to swallow poison to avoid disgrace to the royal families of France. Still others insisted that he hadn’t died at all. Authorities let him fake his death and slip away, they said.

In 1848, France’s King Louis Philippe I faced a full-on revolt. Aware of the precedent for the French citizenry dealing roughly with its royal class, Louis quickly abdicated his throne – handing it to his nine-year-old grandson. The boy, showing he had as many brains as his grandfather, fled the country as well, setting the stage for the rise of Napoleon III.

Louis Philippe

All This and Heaven

But what of the nanny Henriette Desportes? She moved to the United States and met a young minister from Stockbridge, Mass.

Henry Martyn Field was nine years younger than Henriette. He came from an accomplished family of four brothers, all of whom would distinguish themselves in law or business. Henry was also a writer and editor, as well as a respected minister.

He took a liking to Henriette Desportes. Henry had travelled in France in 1847 and 1848, and was delighted by the country. After Henriette migrated to New York, in the wake of the scandal, she went to work as a school teacher.

Henry and Henriette married in 1851. They divided their time between New York and East Springfield and Stockbridge, Mass. By all accounts they had a happy marriage and a respected place in society.

Henry remarried following Henriette’s death in 1875. And the story of Henriette’s harrowing Paris life might have faded into history, but for Henry’s great niece, Rachel Field.

The Story Lives On

Rachel was a writer. She wrote successful children’s books and plays, as well as adult fiction. She loved New England, and her first novel, Time Out of Mind, told the story of a Maine village wrestling with decline as the age of sail gave way to modern shipping.

For the second novel, in 1938, she chose to update and retell Henriette’s tale under the title, All This and Heaven, Too. The novel was a best seller and established Rachel as a national author. Though airing the family’s dirty laundry raised some eyebrows, it paved the way for her continued writing success.

In 1940, All This and Heaven, Too was made into a film starring Bette Davis. It was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, but lost. Critics faulted it for being over-long at 141 minutes. Today the film has an 83 percent positive rating at movie rating site Rotten Tomatoes.

This story about Henriette Desportes was updated in 2019.

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