Saturday, 11 August 2018

An Unpleasant Mistress

Due to the infamous memoirs of the Duc de Saint-Simon we are left with an image of the Princesse d'Harcourt as an ugly and mean creature. As is usually the case with such memoirs they are biased by the author - and there was no love lost between the Princesse and the Duc. However, one thing mentioned in Saint-Simon's memoirs concerning the Princesse appears to have a greater ring of truth: her treatment of her servants.

It is hardly a surprise that life as a servant was tough enough as it was - long days, hard work and occasionally unpleasant masters. According to Saint-Simon the Princesse d'Harcourt was in a habit of beating her servants; he describes one servant girl who was "slapped and boxed on the ears". This accusation is backed up by Madame (Élizabeth Charlotte of the Palatinate) whose apartments bordered those of the Princesse. The gilded walls were not very thick and as a consequence Madame Palatine could often her the Princesse chasing her staff, beating them with sticks and shouting abuse at them.
Madame de Caylus also testified to the mistreatment servants suffered at the hands of the Princesse d'Harcourt.

As if daily slaps and verbal abuse was not enough the job security was extremely low in the household of the Princesse. Apparently, she had a habit of changing her staff on a very frequent basis.  Those who remained in her employ were not guaranteed a fair wage either. Not only was the Princesse notorious for underpaying her servants but some were not always paid.

The work itself could be exhausting enough as it was but could be rather disgusting as well. Unfortunately for those around her - servants and aristocrats alike - the Princesse d'Harcourt appears to have retained the habits of early Versailles of people relieving themselves wereever convenient. Perhaps this was due to health problems but her generally poor hygiene could be a sign that she simply did not consider it an issue. However, her servants undoubtedly thought differently when they cleaned up her "droppings" or washed her linens.


Relateret billede
Princesse d'Harcourt


If Saint-Simon is to be believed the servants were not always willing to simply take the abuse - and who could blame them? He mentions several times when her staff simply abandoned her while she was running an errand leaving her to make her own way home. One such instance happened on the Pont Neuf where she found herself addressed in a manner far from the demanded respect and then ditched. Apparently, this happened more than once. Madame de Saint-Simon reported that she had witnessed the Princesse d'Harcourt trudging through Paris in full court dress with her train over her arm - quite abandoned by her domestics. 

On occasion, the vengeance could be more physical. Again we must look to Saint-Simon for this particular anecdote of a peasant woman who had recently come into the employ of the Princesse d'Harcourt. Within days of her arrival she was beaten but did not intent to merely accept it. Instead, she one day retaliated in a quite spectacular way.  She approached her mistress in the latter's chamber and quietly locked the door. Knowing her new mistress' temper she spoke to her in a way sure to "bring down a punishment" and when the first slaps were administered the chambermaid pounced. Allegedly, she beat, kicked and "mauled her from head to feet" and eventually left the undoubted shocked Princesse all disheveled on the floor. It says something that none of her other servants came to her rescue.

Such a case of self-administered justice was bound to have severe consequences. Not only would it be considered violence but another factor must be kept in mind: the social hierarchy. It was seen as common for masters (and their female counterparts) to once in a while use physical punishments on their servants. But if the violence went the other way it was almost unnatural. Society at the time was deeply rooted in social castes and the lines were sharply drawn; such a rebellion could be seen as an attempt to go against the norms of the day. Little wonder that the chambermaid fled.

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