Saturday 27 April 2013

La Belle Sultane by Louisa Young

La Belle Sultane: Aimée Dubucq de Rivery

The Rose:

Gallica, Aka: Violacea
Origin: France, early 1800s
Size of flower: 6cm
Scent: Light
Flowerings: Once only
Height: 1.75m
Spread: 1.5m

La Belle Sultane is a gallica rose, single, with a few extra petals when well grown. The centre and backs of the petals are crimson, darkening almost to black around the edges. Long, vivid gold stamens emerge from a white centre patch, which occasionally sends little streaks of white into the dark petals. The effect is rather brilliant. The bush is wiry and economic; the leaves small and dark with a purple outline, the stems slender and thornless. They have instead dark bristles, which smell of resin if you rub them off, rather like the moss of a moss rose.

La Belle Sultane: Aimée Dubucq de Rivery

The Lady:

Aimée Dubucq de Rivery was a character you could not invent, so fraught is she with bodice-ripping romance, oriental cliché and cultural imperialism. She was born in 1763, at Pointe Royale in Martinique, to an old French Creole family. Within six years she was an orphan, but her family was large and well-established: she was adopted by Monsieur Dubucq de Sainte Preuve and raised by a loving mulatto, as they called it then, nurse. Nearby lived her cousins the Tascher de la Pagerie family. One was much of an age with her: Marie-Josephe Rose, known as Josephine.

A semi-documented legend tells how the two young girls decided to visit a fortune teller who lived in a shack near Trois Islets, fifteen miles from Pointe Royale. The woman, Eufemia David, told Josephine that she would marry twice, have two children, survive a revolution, be widowed; that her second husband though apparently insignificant would turn out to be a mighty conqueror before whom nations bowed, that she would be a queen but would die unhappy and rejected.

To Aimée (according to Josephine's friend, the famous fortune-teller Mlle Lenormand) she said: 'You will be sent to Europe to complete your schooling. Your ship will be seized by Corsairs. You will be taken captive and placed in a Seraglio. There you will give birth to a son. This son will reign gloriously, but the steps of his throne will be stained with the blood of his predecessor… you will never taste the outward honours of court, but you will live in a great and splendid palace where you will reign supreme. At the very hour when you know your happiness is won, that happiness will fade like a dream, and a lingering illness will carry you to the tomb.'

And so, in the traditonal way of prophecies viewed with hindsight, it came to pass. Josephine became Napoleon's Empress - but hers is another story. Aimée is our subject here.

In 1776, at the age of 13, she set sail for France, for the convent of the Dames de la Visitation at Nantes, to receive a proper French Catholic girl's education. The war between France and England, which broke out in 1778, kept her there much longer than was initially planned, and it was not until she was 21, in 1784, that she was able to leave Nantes to return to Martinique.

A few days out, in the Bay of Biscay, a terrific storm blew up. Aimée's ship was not as strong as it should have been, and was listing and ready to sink by the time a Spanish trader, heading for the Balearics, appeared to rescue the fearful, sodden crew and passengers. Grateful for the safety, Aimée was carried towards Palma de Majorca. They were in sight of its spires when the Spanish rescuers were borne down upon by another peril of the sea - Algerian corsairs. The pirates took the ship easily - that year their leader, Baba Mohammed ben Osman, had defeated a fleet of 300 Spanish men-o'-war with his pirate flotilla. It was to Baba Mohammed, in Algiers, that Aimée was taken. In the five minutes it took them to capture her, she had ceased to be a young woman returning home, and been rendered nothing more or less than rare, prize booty. The daughter of a slave-owner, she was now a slave.

The pirates knew the value of this wellbred and beautiful European virgin. Baba Mohammed locked her up out of harm's way, treated her with respect, draped her head to foot in jewels and veils and shipped her to Constantinople as a luxurious gift for the Caliph of the Faithful, Padishar of the Barbary States, Shadow of the Prophet upon the Earth, the Sultan Abdul Hamid the First of the mighty Turkish Empire. His Royal Palace on the Bosphorous already held 20,000 slaves and soldiers, politicians and concubines, stable boys and torturers, nightingale-keepers and circumcisers, dwarves and clowns, turban-winders and astronomers, gardeners and cooks, imams and prisoners, eunuchs and envoys and the Keeper of the Pedigree of the Prophet's Descendents…. she was just one more.

Aimée entered through the Gate of Felicity, and was greeted by Son Altesse Noir, the Chief Black Eunuch, the Kizlar Aga. Apparently she fainted. But how can we know? Only glimpses of her life behind the veil, within the harem, emerge. What is well known is the nature of the court itself - the luxuriance and corruption, the jealousies and violence, the beauty and the intrigues.

All the concubines had to attend the Academie d l'Amour, and candidates for the Imperial Alcove had to pass an exam in voluptuary skills, which was presided over by the Sultan's mother, the Sultan Valideh, Crown of the Veiled Heads of the Empire, a woman of great power and honour. Among the women there were three levels of preferred concubine: the Guzdehs (who had caught the Sultan's eye); the Ikbals (who had enjoyed his attentions) and the Kadines (the mothers of his children). The Kadines spent most of their time, traditionally, trying to to murder each other's sons (and prevent their own sons being murdered), so that they in turn could become Sultan Valideh.

Even among all these specially trained and selected love slaves, Aimée was given the name Naksh - the Beautiful One. She was singled out for being a Giaour (a northerner), for her fairness, her education, her lateness in arrival at the grand age of 21. It was not long before she became an object of plotting and intrigue, between on the one hand the Janissaries - a reactionary and peculiar band of soldiers, kidnapped as Christian children and converted to Islam, who took their titles from the names of kitchen servants and banged on kettles when fomenting insurrection - and on the other the reformist factions, who looked to western Europe for civilisation, and claimed her as their own.

She did little to avoid being singled out. A description of her came through: fair hair to her waist, strung with diamonds on invisible golden chains, dressed a la Turque with many layers and jewels, hennaed hands and feet, and a little jewelled pillbox hat. When her turn came - as it soon did - to be led along the Golden Path, down which each night's chosen odalisque would be taken to the Sultan's chamber, she resisted, yelling and screaming and trying to run away. It was unheard of. Everyone thought she was mad to object to such an honour.

The woman who talked her through it was the Circassian Kadine, mother of Selim, Abdul Hamid's young nephew and current heir to the throne. She spoke of reform, of safety in alliances, of the impossibility of escape, and the need for a new Favourite to take the place of the mother of the Sultan's son Mustapha. Aimée took heed, and became ally to the Circassian Kadine, true friend to Selim, and Abdul Hamid's new Favourite.

Her son Mahmoud was born July 1785 - only the Sultan's second son despite his five hundred wives - and Aimée became a Kadine. A pavilion of spun sugar was built to celebrate, and a tulip festival arranged, with the flowers shown off in illuminated booths, among glass globes of coloured water and coloured lights.

Aimée spoke French to Mahmoud, and raised him with French influences alongside his Turkish duty. (One rumour says she converted the Sultan to Catholicism, which is very unlikely.) She encouraged Selim, who was of an age with her, to love the baby, and he did. In 1786, when Aimée had been two years in the Seraglio, Selim wrote a letter to Louis XVI. This was astonishing - there had never been any regular diplomatic relations between France and Turkey, there was no Turkish ambassador in Paris. Selim expressed friendly intent towards France. The French were too astounded to respond significantly. (The same messenger carried a letter to Aimée's uncle - there is no record of any response from him at all. Or any of her family. Ever.) This was the first of many pro-French moves made by Turkish rulers close to Aimée, a manifestation of her influence over the princes and of her yearning for her country, which in the end was to turn dramatically sour.

In 1789, that important year, Sultan Abdul Hamid died and the mild and elegant Selim succeeded him, age 27. He set about creating a new army, along French lines, employed French engineers and officers for training, and sanctioned a French newspaper to be published in Constantinople. To please Aimée he acquired a Montgolfier balloon and himself went up in it, to the shock and pandemonium of his loyal subjects. By 1797 there was a permanent Turkish ambassador to France.

The Janissaries hated all this for rotten reformist anti-Turkish conniving, and plotted.

Turkey's relationship with Napoleon was not easy. In 1798, Napoleon took an army of 30,000 to Egypt, then part of Turkey's empire. In 1801 a brief peace emerged with Napoleon acknowledging that Egypt was Turkey's, and Turkey agreeing to favour French interests. When in 1805 the Circassian Kadine, Selim's mother, died, Napoleon sent the dashing Sebastiani (known as 'le Cupidon de l'Empire', because he had 'the kind of allure that causes insurrection in salons and boudoirs'), as a special envoy to support Selim. Mustapha, Selim's heir, was enraged by all this French support. Within a month of Sebastiani leaving Turkey, after the sudden death of his beloved wife Fanny, the Janissaries launched their attack on Selim and deposed him. They put Mustapha in Selim's place, leaving Aimée unprotected and Selim and Mahmoud imprisoned in the Princes' Cage.

Napoleon and Alexander of Russia each privately decided they would take advantage of the situation to conquer Turkey and wrest its Empire from the Sultan's hands. Baraiktar, Pasha of Rustchuk, a Bulgarian satrap of the rank of Three-Tailed Bashaw, may have been a lesser power but he was dutiful, and felt obliged to go to Selim's rescue. Mustapha's mother was still trying to kill Selim and Mahmoud, and Baraiktar was only partly in time: Selim was killed saving Mahmoud, who escaped up a chimney.

So Aimée's son, now in his early twenties, finally became Sultan, and Aimée thus Sultan Valideh. Mahmoud was even more Frenchified than Selim had been - he learnt counterpoint from Donizetti's brother, and used a knife and fork, and introduced a western tax system, and quarantine. Aimée had a Louis XVI salon, with toile de jouy and swagged mirrors - out of date, but how would she know? She had a beautiful kiosk on the Bosphorus, she planned gardens, enjoyed music, continued to protect her son and promote western ideas. She still drank champagne, as did her son. (After Mahmoud's death, his widow threw his entire cellar into the Bosphorus, like unfaithful odalisques - thousands of bottles of the best French wines.)

There is no record whether even now in her glory days Aimée and Josephine ever corresponded - but Aimée sent presents to her cousin the Empress: diamond aigrettes, pearls and 100 cachemires. And when, on December 16 1809 Napoleon rejected Josephine in order to marry Marie Louise (qv), overnight Mahmoud in turn rejected Napoleon. By 1811 a Foreign Office despatch read: 'The CREDIT of the French at Constantinople absolutely GONE.' A month after Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812, trusting to the Turkish army to keep half the Russian army occupied in the south, Mahmoud suddenly made peace, liberating the Russian army to concentrate on - and ultimately defeat - Napoleon. Was this another gift from Aimée to Josephine? Vengeance for her spurned cousin? Who knows?

La Belle Sultane died in 1817, three years after Josephine, and seven years after the rose which bears her name was recorded. It's not clear how the rose became associated with Aimée, but who could resist the idea that Josephine herself, the great rose-lover, gave the name as a token for the cousin she had not seen since childhood, echoes of whose loyalty shimmered out every now and again from behind the jewelled veil of the Seraglio? Only a churl.

At least three novels have been written about Aimée, including Sultana, by Prince Michael of Greece. This was adapted for the screen in 1989 under the title The Favourite, and retitled Intimate Power a year later. The tagline was 'He stole her innocence. She stole his heart… and his empire!' It starred Amber O'Shea and F Murray Abraham and does not seem to have been very good.

The liveliest account of her life is definitely that in The Wilder Shores of Love, Lesley Blanche's fabulously grandiloquent multi-biography of four European women who in various ways ended up as romantic queens of the Orient.


Sue Purkiss said...

What a fantastic story! Thanks, Louisa.

Jane Borodale said...

Such a stunning rose, and such a great example of how so much history-as-we-know-it hangs on personal whim - if Mahmoud hadn't been stung into revenge via the Russians, would Napoleon's fate have been different and Europe too... Great to be reminded of how the past was ever as fluid and subject to chaos theory as the present.

(WISH I could have seen that tulip festival)

adele said...

Coming late to this but it's completely fascinating.