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Henriette Desportes Leaves the Scandals of Paris for Stockbridge

By the time she died in 1875, Henriette Desportes was best known 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 travelled to Britain where she worked as a governess before returning to France.

henriette-desportesAt 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 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 who is telling it. Supporters of Theo paint him as a harassed figure, putting up with a wife with an explosive temper who routinely peppered him with long letters that alternated between complaining and apologizing.

Supporters of Fanny describe him as a man who was distant and 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 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 there is no smoking gun among the letters, and he urged her to move on and meet people.

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 travelled to their Paris home. On this morning, the staff awoke to sounds of a struggle and they discovered Fanny dead. The logical suspect was her husband. Fanny had been stabbed and bludgeoned. The duke was in the house, armed with a pistol.

His version of events was that an intruder came into the home, attacked his wife and he tried to repel him. He showed signs of a fight, but could not explain anything more about the intruder. 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, meanwhile, was swept up in the affair. Police arrested her and charged her with being involved in some way 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 is innocence. With no husband to prosecute and no evidence against Henriette, the police dropped the case.

France, in 1847, was in the midst of a financial crisis. Wealth had been accumulating 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. He had been allowed to slip away.

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

But what of the nanny Henriette? She 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 a writer and editor, as well as a respected minister.

He took a liking to Henriette. Henry had travelled in France in 1847 and 1848, and was delighted by the country. After Henriette migrated to New York, in wake of the scandal, she became a school teacher and the couple would marry 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.

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 that was 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.

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