Aristocratic Identity Erasure in the Private Library Catalogue of Madame la duchesse de La Vallière, ca. 1787

The private manuscript library catalogue of Anne-Julie-Françoise de Crussol d’Uzès, duchesse de La Vallière (1713-1797?) documents a fairly typical eighteenth-century French aristocratic library, composed of mainly contemporary literature in small formats on a wide range of topics (history, travel, novels, etc.). The catalogue does, however, bear one curious feature that has interested me since I first noticed it on the Grolier Club’s shelves.

Within the title-page of the catalogue, the words “La Duchesse” have been carefully crossed out in ink cross-hatching. Although I have no direct evidence, I suspect the removal of her title should be seen in the context of the iconoclasm of the French Revolution.

LEFT: Catalogue des livres de Madame la duchesse de La Vallière. Manuscript on paper, ca. 1787. Title-page. The Grolier Club of New York. Call no. \*08.35\L395\1789\Folio

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Anne-Julie-Françoise de Crussol d’Uzès was born in 1713 to an extremely high-ranking aristocratic family. Her father, the 7th duc d’Uzès, was the first Pair de France, ranking just below the Princes of the Blood. In 1732, she married the bibliophile, Louis-César de la Baume Le Blanc, duc de La Vallière (1708-1780), who would become one of the greatest book collectors of all time (although her library catalogue shows that the duchesse was collecting in her own right as well.)

RIGHT: Jean-Marc Nattier (1685-1766). Madame la duchesse de La Vallière. Oil on canvas. Collection of Jacques de Crussol, 17thducd’ Uzès. 

The duc and duchesse were leading members of ancien régime society, hosting literary figures, diplomats, and sovereigns from all over Enlightenment Europe. Madame de La Vallière was repeatedly praised for her extreme beauty (she has been called one of the most beautiful women of the eighteenth century), charm, and graceful manners. At the onset of the Revolution, the duchesse, by then a widow, attempted to stay at her country estate near Paris, the Château de Wideville (presently the home of the designer, Valentino), but was encouraged by friends to move to the city for greater safety. Due to her age and infirmities, she managed to escape imprisonment and was instead allowed to remain under house arrest. Her daughter and granddaughter were less fortunate: both were imprisoned for a time but eventually released. Her granddaughter, the Princesse de Tarente, had been a lady-in-waiting to Marie-Antoinette and was present when the National Guard stormed the royal palace in August 1792. Remarkably, Madame de La Vallière managed to keep possession of her properties in Paris and Wideville throughout the ordeal.

Catalogue des livres de Madame la duchesse de La Vallière. Manuscript on paper, ca. 1787. Title-page, detail. The Grolier Club of New York. Call no. \*08.35\L395\1789\Folio

The duchesse’s library catalogue was produced around 1787, on the cusp of the Revolution. Was the crossing-out of “La Duchesse” on the title-page done a few years later as a concession to the new Revolutionary regime? The cross-hatching is executed carefully and deliberately, in a manner that evokes controlled erasure rather than an act of violence. It gives the appearance of a kind of self-inflicted “Damnatio memoriae,” the erasure of a person (or, in this case, a title) from historical memory via the physical removal of his or her name. We know that symbols of the ancien régime were targeted for destruction during the Revolution. An order of 4 July 1793 ordered all royal marks to be removed from public monuments, and Kristian Jensen observed how this mandate threatened books with aristocratic pedigrees:

“Unlike genealogical charters, its books [i.e. those belonging to the Bibliothèque nationale] were not to be burnt, but the decree still had significant consequences. It would have meant removing the royal coat of arms from bindings made for the Bibliothèque du roi, as well as the arms of past noble owners from historic bindings. It would equally have meant the destruction of feudal symbols within books, whether book-plates or Renaissance decorated title pages which so often incorporated the arms of their noble owners … It was not the texts which were to be controlled or repressed, but the political allegiance attributed to the books as objects, conveyed by symbols which were seen to appropriate them for specific ideological purposes.” (Jensen, Revolution and the Antiquarian Book, p. 34-35).

Thankfully, this programmatic defacement was not undertaken against the books in the Bibliothèque nationale, but the sentiment remained in force. Madame de La Vallière was not a friend to the Revolution, but perhaps she consented to this removal of her aristocratic identity as part of a strategy to survive the horrors that surrounded her.

By Meghan Constantinou

*I mentioned this catalogue when I was interviewed for Fine Books Magazine’s “Bright Young Librarians” series in October 2013. At the time, I thought the duchesse had been arrested during the Terror, but my research has since shown this to be incorrect.

References

Comte Hector de Galard. Wideville: Histoire et Description. Paris: J. Claye, 1874, esp. p. 54-74.

Kristian Jensen. Revolution and the Antiquarian Book. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

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