Friday 20 July 2012

To Catch the Moon with your Teeth: The Great Condé by A L Berridge

It’s always a mistake to fall in love with the dead. It’s even sillier when the object of your affection lived in the 17th century and would undoubtedly have been both dentally challenged and smelly. But there are a handful of historical figures whose greatness owes as much to personality as actual achievements, and when a writer seeks to understand them it’s all too easy to become sucked in.

Ladies, gentlemen, and fellow History Girls, I’m ashamed to present my first historical crush: Louis II de Bourbon, Prince de Condé, known to history simply as ‘The Great Condé’.

Undoubtedly smelly
His story is simply told. As son and heir to Condé, First Prince of the Blood, the young Duc d’Enghien was forced to abandon the woman he loved and marry a thirteen year old niece of Cardinal Richelieu.  Deeply embittered, he ignored and abused his wife, and took every opportunity to flee to the army and the one life he felt at home. 

But it paid off. In 1643 and at the age of just 21, he won a spectacular victory over Spain at the crucial Battle of Rocroi, and overnight became a popular hero. The victories of Freiburg and Nordlingen followed, and later the vital Battle of Lens which effectively ended the Thirty Years War.  

His downfall came with the two civil wars known as the Frondes. In the first he loyally fought to repress the rebellion, but he soon succumbed to hubris and began to issue demands against the Queen and her hated First Minister Mazarin. His imprisonment sparked the second Fronde, and when a frightened Mazarin was compelled to release him the new Prince of Condé led an army against Paris itself. When peace was finally negotiated, an isolated Condé defected to Spain and led its armies against his own country. Finally defeated at the Battle of the Dunes, he was pardoned on account of previous good service, and lived out the rest of his life in loyal retirement.

And there you have him. He was an arrogant, treacherous adulterer who meddled in politics and was forgiven everything because he happened to be a great soldier. He would seem, as Emily Bronte once memorably described a pile of dead rabbits, a ‘strange choice of favourites’.

But we’re writers here, and our loves are not the same as those of saner people.  It’s the flawed characters who get to us and break our hearts – and they didn’t come much more flawed than Condé. In my opinion he's possibly the greatest tragic figure Shakespeare never wrote.

He certainly has the stature, and France is full of paintings and sculptures to commemorate his deeds. There’s even a jewel named after him, the pink 9 carat Condé diamond presented to him by the young Louis XIV.

His name also carries the supernatural aura of legend, as when the dying Louis XIII told the elder Condé that he dreamed his son had won a great victory – just three days before the totally unexpected Battle of Rocroi. In some districts he might almost have been canonised, as in the église Notre-Dame de Saulges, where Christ is at the top, Saint Paul on the left – and on the right is Louis II de Bourbon, Prince de Condé.

He was certainly no saint, and his behaviour with the ladies made him what we’d call a ‘bad boy’ today, but that somehow doesn’t detract from his status. Everything about him was larger than life, right down to his savagely beaked nose – and well, we know what they say about men with big noses...  

And on the battlefield he was a giant. Napoleon considered him an inferior strategist to his contemporary rival Turenne, but few have equalled him in his inspirational ability to lead men.  Rocroi was his first battle as commander, but he disdained the traditional helmet in favour of a simple hat with a white plume – and it was that hat that turned the tide.  Here and everywhere, always where the danger was thickest, that plume was the one constant symbol in the whole seething chaos of a losing battle, and the broken French rallied to it, followed it to victory. I remember crying when I first read the eyewitness accounts of it, and again when I wrote the scene for ‘In the Name of the King'.

Condé at Rocroi
He led from the front, the middle, the flanks, anywhere he was needed, and he did it with a heroic passion that was the stuff of legend. At the battle of Freiburg he was apparently so incensed at his troops’ reluctance to advance that he threw his own marshal’s baton into the Bavarian lines – at which, of course, his whole army rushed to reclaim it. His speeches were full of honour and victory, but it was the simplest one his men remembered best: ‘Qui m’aime me suive’ – which translates roughly as ‘If you love me, follow me.’ They did both.

He was, in fact, a good old-fashioned hero, and one who could give Indiana Jones a run for his money. He had horses shot from under him and musket balls whizzing through his clothing, but always he turned up again, ragged and filthy but eager for more. During the Second Fronde he was known for certain to be a fugitive a hundred and twenty leagues away, but when a previously moribund army suddenly launched a daring attack at Bleaneau, Turenne exclaimed at once ‘Ah! The Prince of Condé must be come!’
He was a master of the impossible, and the poet Voiture was only half-joking when he wrote ‘I think if you had undertaken it, you would catch the moon with your teeth.’

Battle of Faubourg St-Antoine outside Paris
It's an appropriate image for this man. We’re rarely aware of the bodies of historical figures but Condé's physical presence dominates everything he does. The hand with which he made a ‘threatening gesture’ at the Councillor Quatre-Sous in the Parlement, the foot which Mazarin embraced in his desperate attempt to ingratiate himself, the arm that was drenched in blood up to the elbow after a day at the Siege of Mardyck. This is a man who breathed and bled and sweated – so much so that at the Battle of the Faubourg St-Antoine he stripped off his armour and rolled naked in the grass to cool himself down. 

Grande in every sense
 Women certainly felt it, among them the Grande Mademoiselle herself. She was the only daughter of the King’s brother, but there was something about Condé that reduced her to a schoolgirlish flutter. Her account of their meeting during the Battle of Faubourg St-Antoine dwells with loving detail on the dust and sweat on his face, the blood on his collar, the dishevelled state of his hair. When he burst into tears to lament the death of his friends on the field, it was that manly heaving bosom that inspired her to the act that ensured her own place in the history books – ordering the guns of the Bastille to turn inward on the city in order to allow Condé’s army to enter.

 So what went wrong?

Much the same thing that went wrong with Coriolanus and indeed Othello. Condé was a great soldier, but he was a rotten politician. Arrogantly assured of his own importance, he never suspected the intrigues that might be conducted against him, and the scene in which the wily Cardinal Mazarin induced him unwittingly to compose and sign the order for his own arrest is one Shakespeare would love to have written.

It wasn’t that he was stupid – he was fluent in both Latin and Greek – but that was part of his tragedy. He knew he was being manipulated, and he knew how it would end. When his sister and brother finally persuaded him to take up arms against his King, the Duchesse de Nemours recalled his words: ‘You have engaged me in a strange plot, but I foretell that you will weary of it sooner than I, and that in the end you will forsake me.’ He was right. Being once persuaded that the honourable path was to fight Mazarin, he refused to change sides simply because it had become politically expedient to do so.

He was in the wrong world. The enduring image I have of him is almost of a child, a grubby boy-soldier who never quite grew up. While other aristocrats vyed to be seen in the latest fashions, he was careless with his clothes and usually filthy from his latest scrap. He laughed like a child and enjoyed life like a child, even (or perhaps especially) when it was most dangerous. When he was on the run from the King’s forces he disguised himself as a humble courier, but to the despair of his companions he insisted on trying to cook his own omelette at an inn, just for the fun of it. The inevitable disaster with the hot pan and consequent loud swearing let the cat well and truly out of the bag, but as his desperate attendants dragged him back out and into the road ‘Monsieur le Prince was laughing.’

To me he's a tragic hero, and to research his story is to wish it ended differently. Maybe it could have done, and I remember falling prey to that peculiarly female weakness of believing ‘I would have understood him, I would have helped’. I couldn’t, of course, and a snob like Condé would have had nothing to say to me anyway. It’s always a mistake to give your heart to an unreliable, arrogant, womanizing aristocrat.

Especially when they’ve been dead for more than three hundred years...

Condé appears in A.L. Berridge's novel, 'In the Name of the King'.
More about his world can be found at the Chevalier Series website.
Rude messages can be left for A.L. Berridge at her own website here.


bnachison said...

Condé was certainly an unreliable, arrogant, womanizing aristocrat (one should also add, obnoxious, sarcastic, and notoriously unkempt & dirty in an age that did not prize hygiene) but you're right - he's a deeply fascinating man, brilliant and complex and flawed.

And unlike most tragic heroes, he did get a pretty good second act. The King gave him armies again, after all, and would have kept him in the field if he hadn't insisted on retiring. With Gourville's help he put his finances in order and was soon the richest man in France again. And he spent it well. He had Chantilly rebuilt as a paradise (the fountains Le Notre engineered were apparently astonishing, a now-lost wonder of the age). He kept a court there nearly as lavish as the king's, only full of clever people rather than bureaucrats and butt-lickers: he surrounded himself with the best poets and scholars and artists and conversation in France. Not a bad life for an old rebel.

(One does wonder what happened to all the former womanizing, though. The sources grow remarkably quiet on that point after his return to France. Old mistresses keep turning up, but apparently no longer in that function. It would probably have been a little awkward even for him to carry on sleeping with his son's mother-in-law. He'd also outlived or quarreled with most of his male lovers. So... 20 years of celibacy? It hardly seems likely.)

H.M. Castor said...

What a fantastic post! I knew nothing about Conde before reading this but your account is mightily persuasive. The courage, the cast iron sense of self, the joie de vivre... and that omelette! Thank you, Louise. Just brilliant.

Caroline Lawrence said...

Speaking as the superficial person that I am: I LOVE the silky hair! I can see why you have an author crush. ;-)

alberridge said...

Beth - a huge thank you for your comment. There is so much more to say about this man, and you've really helped round out the picture. We need at least 5,000 more words!

But what's really needed, of course, is a proper biography, and I do hope someone will get round to it soon. How about it, Beth? I'm thinking of all those unpublished papers you saw at Chantilly...

alberridge said...

Harriet, thank you for making me feel less of an idiot! You're right, it's the omelette that does the damage. I was doing a stalwart's job of resisting the charm until I read that.

And thanks so much, Caroline. You're kinder than I am about the hair, because with 17th century men I'm always afraid it would be seriously greasy...

Ann Turnbull said...

I love the hair too! And apparently if you stop washing your hair (and I'm sure Conde never started) it gradually settles down and becomes naturally clean and non-smelly. I know someone who has achieved this and her hair is beautiful - and clean!

adele said...

That thing about the hair....I never have the nerve to try it myself but I believe it is true. Too addicted to what hairdressers call PRODUCT, myself. But thanks, Louise for terrific post about a very fascinating person about whom I knew very little indeed. Marvellous.

alberridge said...

Thank you both so much, Ann and Adele, for the sisterly support! I've heard about the hair thing and am trying very hard it believe it about Condé, but have a nasty feeling that the 17th century equivalent of brylcreem (aka bear's grease) probably featured in there somewhere.

And actually I don't mind. I don't think he was especially good-looking, and one of his amours even (allegedly) claimed he was a better soldier than a lover.

What fascinates me is a man so intelligent and self-defensive he made up witty epigrams about his own failures, so sensitive he used to cry at the theatre, so kind he 'talked down' his own butler from suicide the night the King came and there wasn't enough fish for dinner,so fearless he went into battle less protected than his own soldiers - and so much a fool that he let even the stupidest courtiers play him like a harp.

Brave fool. Wise fool. When his mother first recalled him from the battlefield to play a role in the Fronde, a friend found him singing a song of his own composition, which began 'Oh, la folle enterprise du Prince de Condé!'

It's that. And I wish I were enough of a writer to say what 'that' really is. :(

bnachison said...

He definitely had *that*, whatever it is. Even on paper he's got it. When he's in the room he's *always* the center of attention no matter what he's doing or who else is there. (Which is probably one of the reasons the king didn't object to his almost never showing his face at court - quite the attention hog, Louis XIV.)

Re the hair - yeah, he had great hair when he bothered. Mme de Sévigné practically swoons over it when he got himself done up for his nephew's wedding in 1682 -- it was all still there, thick & brown & natural, not a wig, & he'd let them get it all primped & curled & she thought he looked *really fine* that day. Plus - wonder of wonders, it was the talk of the town - he'd also shaved for the occasion Unheard of!

Unfortunately, that was just for special occasions. When Primi Visconti called on him at Chantilly, as all distinguished foreigners did, he describes the Prince as having "the air of a brigand" - unkempt exterior, greasy hair, unshaven face, tobacco in his beard, crippled by gout - but also knowledgeable about everything, refined in his speech, with brilliant eyes and the features of an eagle.

He'd had the best education money could buy, remained intensely curious about pretty nearly everything, supported many scholars & scientists, protected Huguenots, & retained a love of vigorous debate his whole life. After one particularly heated conversation Boileau remarked to a friend, Henceforward I will always be of Monsieur le Prince's persuasion, particularly when he's wrong.

If I were still an academic, writing his biography would definitely be a project of my heart. There's been none in English since 1915 (by Evangeline Godley, who did quite a good job actually) so *somebody* should tackle it. There have been some decent ones in French, the best probably the 1995 one by Bernard Pujo. The archive at Chantilly is incredibly rich -- it has what seems like nearly every letter he received his whole life, plus some that he sent (his own handwriting is incredibly hard to read, he obviously wrote very, very fast) & a great deal more documentation besides.

alberridge said...

Beth, that's a really brilliant contribution - thank you so much. I didn't know the Primi Visconti anecdote at all (my main research is so far very vague after 1652)and it's *very* revealing.

I've also been thinking about your comment on his 'second act'. You're right, of course, but to me it feels more like a 'sixth act' - a life going on when a tragic hero's would normally have ended. He seems to have been contented enough, but looking at the 17th century in retrospect I think he was really 'the Last Hero' - the last man who lived by the old ideals of chivalry. He outlived his own age and his own kind, and by the end he feels almost like a kind of Lonesome George.

Except for the celibacy! Like you, I have considerable triuble believing in that...

bnachison said...

I basically agree with you, Louise, he's very much the Last Hero -- a perfect exemplar of an aristocratic mindset & ideology that was already in its death throes by the 1640s, completely moribund after 1660. (Even in terms of military leadership, he & Turenne were dinosaurs by 1675 -- Louis XIV & Louvois together pushed a policy of strategy-by-committee and by royal fiat that left field commanders little to no freedom, & is probably responsible for the dismal performance of French armies after 1680. Together Condé & Turenne had the experience & prestige to push back more or less effectively, but after Turenne died & his own bad health forced him into retirement Condé pretty much washed his hands of it & let the bureaucrats have it their way.)

Lonesome George is right (except without the Lonesome).

There's an interesting book on the subject, if you're not familiar with it: Mark Bannister, Condé in Context: Ideological Change in Seventeenth-Century France (Legenda 2000) - it's not a biography, but a look at how Condé's public image was used & interpreted in radically different ways throughout his life to reflect the various cultural & political models of the day.

alberridge said...

I think you're spot on, Beth.

And I love the Bannister 'Condé in Context'. If I remember rightly, he includes a list of all the qualities expected of the 17th century honnete homme who is also a hero - including pieté, magnanimité, charité etc. If I'd had more room in the post I'd like to have added that - not the famous prayer after Rocroi (of which I admit to being highly sceptical!) but the magnanimity during the battle when he spared the tercio of Alberquerque. For me, it's actually his best moment on the battlefield.

But we still need a proper biography. And scholarship aside, I really think there should be a film!

bnachison said...

Absolutely there should be a film! Or a mini-series. There's enough colorful Stuff there to run at least a couple of seasons on HBO... :)

Mark Burgess said...

Great post, Louise. Sounds a wonderful character, and I heartily agree there should be books and a film.

ediFanoB said...

Louise, Louise,
what an impressive post. So rich in content and emotional.

It gave me a new point of view to your irresistible Chevalier series.

Of course a visualisation in form of a film would be amazing.

With your TV experience and your exquisite writing you are more than predestined to deliver a script.

Am I wrong when I assume that there is the first draft of the script in the second from below drawer on the left side of your desk ;-)

alberridge said...

Thanks so much, Mark. It was beginning to worry me that I seem to have 'sold' him only to women, when in reality men fell under his spell just as willingly.

And Edi, thank you - as always, you are far too kind. I wish I could say you're right about the script, but unfortunately I have no gifts whatsoever in that line. As a script editor I worked with some of the most amazingly talented screen writers in the world, and know only too well that I'm not in that league.

But Beth, you could be onto something with that mini-series idea. Maybe we should get our heads together and come up with a 'treatment'...?

bnachison said...

I know nothing of the world of scripts & treatments, but this story could practically write itself - so sure, I'm game!

Leslie Wilson said...

Maybe it's too late to comment, but I was away when this went up and I have been looking forward to it. I enjoyed it greatly, both the blog and the fascinating correspondance afterwards. Thanks!

alberridge said...

Never too late to comment, Leslie, and it's very much appreciated. I wish I'd had more space to go into the 'bad boy' element, but the thingh is horrendously long as it is!

p.d.r. lindsay the author said...

Your hero might have had his hair de-greased, Louise.

In the 19th C women de-greased their hair with fuller's earth. You simply brushed it through and combed it out.

I don't know about earlier use but fuller's earth was available.

In the 17thC there was herbal vinegar to comb through - a delouse and degrease!

And doesn't one of the herbals, - Culpepper's? - mention certain herbal preparations for keeping hair glossy?