Celebrated Crimes: Marquise de Brinvilliers by Alexandre Dumas

“She accused herself of incendiarism.”

Well I discovered what it means to ‘put someone to the question.’ Now I’m ready for a career in Guantanamo or in some other exotic location.

The torture in the book Celebrated Crimes: The Marquise de Brinvilliers takes place in the 17th Century, the time of these particular crimes committed by this cold-blooded aristocratic serial killer. I’d intended to read the Celebrated Crime series (18 essays in 8 volumes) by Dumas for some time. They are currently out-of-print, but they are available used, through Project Gutenberg and print-on-demand. I read my version on my Kindle (free).

Reading Celebrated Crimes: The Marquise de Brinvilliers reminds me once again what a damn entertaining writer Dumas is. Here he takes the facts of the mysterious Brinvilliers case and brings to life this tale of adultery, greed, and murder. The book reads with the gusto and zest of a tabloid tale, and yet this is all fact. Dumas dug into the court documents (and the detailed observations of the torture) when writing this tale, and then added his own sometimes flamboyant elaborations. Consequently this reads like fiction, but it isn’t.

The book begins in the year 1665 with the arrest of the young, dashing Chevalier Gaudin de Sainte-Croix. Carried off to the Bastille, Sainte-Croix’s murky background includes various tales of his origins, but at the time of his arrest he was Captain of the Tracy regiment. About 5 years earlier, Sainte-Croix met the Marquis de Brinvilliers, the maitre-de-camp of the Normandy Regiment:

“Their age was much the same, and so was their manner of life: their virtues and their vices were similar, and thus it happened that a mere acquaintance grew into a friendship, and on his return from the field the marquis introduced Sainte-Croix to his wife, and he became an intimate of the house.”

This, as it turns out, was a big mistake….

When Sainte-Croix became the lover of Madame de Brinvilliers, she was 28 years old. The Marquise, whose name was Marie-Madeleine, was a wealthy woman and she had expectations of becoming even wealthier. Her father was M. de Dreux d’Aubray, civil lieutenant at the Chatelet de Paris, and the Marquise also had a sister (a nun) and two brothers. Here’s a rather colourful slightly dramatic passage from Dumas describing the Marquise:

“At the age of twenty-eight the Marquise was at the height of her beauty; her figure was small but perfectly proportioned; her rounded face was charmingly pretty; her features, so regular that no emotion seemed to alter their beauty suggested the lines of a statue miraculously endowed with life; it was easy enough to mistake for the repose of a happy conscience the cold, cruel calm which served as a mask to cover remorse.”

The Marquise soon left her husband and began consorting publicly with Sainte-Croix. Her behaviour was ignored by her husband who “merrily pursued the road to ruin,” but her father “procured a warrant for the arrest of Sainte-Croix” (I’m not sure on what grounds). And it’s at this point that Sainte-Croix was carted off to the Bastille and thrown into the same cell as “the Italian Exili.” Dumas relates this ominous meeting with a strong sense of drama. Sainte-Croix howls “like the roaring of a wild beast,” and he first sees Exili as some sort of “supernatural being.” But hyperbole aside, Exili, according to the text, had been kicked out of Rome “charged with many poisonings.” I can’t help but wonder who Exili really was. The name Exili, is that a real name or could it be a derivative of Exile?

Exili is an “artist in poisons, comparable to the Medici or the Borgias. For him murder was a fine art, and he had reduced it to fixed and rigid rule.” A great cellmate in other words for the lover of a married woman. The next thing you know both Sainte-Croix and Exili are free and running around Paris with undetectable poisons.

This really is a great tale, and I had to keep reminding myself that this stuff was true. Basically Sainte-Croix and the Marquise de Brinvilliers start bumping people off with an assortment of poison potions. Of course, not everything is smooth sailing. The murderous lovers have to experiment and how better to experiment than with the sick and impoverished. The Marquise, playing the Lady Bountiful role, visits the ill….

Dumas doesn’t spare details here while at times he also seems to wallow in the histrionics, the sheer deviousness and cackling evil of this murderous pair. The contents of the closet of Sainte-Croix are listed with meticulous detail, for example, as are experiments with poisons on animals, details of the trial and torture of the valet Lachausee and the torture of the Marquise de Brinvilliers.

Given the facts behind the case of the Marquise de Brinvilliers, it’s not too surprising that she became the subject of a number of books. I’ve been curious to read a bit more for some time, and then recently she appeared offstage in the Hoffman novella Mademoiselle de Scuderi. I have a soft spot for Dumas after discovering just what an entertaining writer he is some years ago, and in Celebrated Crimes, he applies his talent for creating historical adventures towards this case of  the 17th century murderess. The author’s imagination runs a little wild at times when it comes to the concept of evil, and he compares Madame de Brinvilliers to Locusta and Messalina at one point while stressing that her face offered no clue to the evil within.

The story takes a dramatic and even more fascinating turn when the Marquise is finally arrested. Dumas had access to the Marquise’s confession, and indeed this document becomes a seminal part of her trial–whether or not her confession–intended to be read upon her death–could be admissible as evidence. Legal precedents are included in the trial. Dumas details quite a bit of the legalities here and I found it all quite fascinating. It’s peculiar how the 17th century court fussed and agonized over admitting the confession as evidence when they had no ethical or legal problem torturing those associated with the case to get confessions.

There’s also some fascinating up-close glimpses of the Marquise following the trial and the torture. And here we get a look at some of her patterns of thought. While some officials are so moved by their own arguments that they break down, Madame de Brinvilliers stays calm and collected. Acting with grace and dignity, nonetheless shards of her innermost thoughts appear with some interestingly twisted logic.

What I particular enjoyed so much is the 19th century perspective of Dumas. If this were written today for example, we’d probably have the story written with an emphasis on the crimes as the result of the Marquise being a female with limited rights. I assume she had an arranged marriage, and then again her father did try to squash her relationship with Sainte-Croix. Dumas, firmly in the 19th century, does not see the Marquise de Brinvilliers as a victim of her sex, and he portrays her as a fascinating yet evil woman. With an absence of the normal moral restrictions that govern behaviour, she doesn’t hesitate to commit the most heinous crimes without an ounce of pity for the agony of her victims:

“The Marquise had often said that there are means to get rid of people one dislikes, and they can easily be put an end to in a bowl of soup.”



Filed under Celebrated Crimes, Dumas Alexandre

7 responses to “Celebrated Crimes: Marquise de Brinvilliers by Alexandre Dumas

  1. Fascinating indeed. I would never have heard of this without reading your post. “merrily pursuing the road to ruin” – ah yes, such a pleasurable way to go – but not in his case perhaps., the ruin falling to his errant wife.

    • That quote is a good example of the embellishments Dumas makes. He just adds the odd colourful word here and there, and the result is a great read. Others in the series that I especially want to read are The Cenci, the Man in the Iron Mask (the essay not the novel) and the Borgias. I’m really looking forward to these.

      The Marquis of Brinvilliers somehow or another managed to ignore what he his wife was up too; they lived apart so it wasn’t that difficult, but it seems he didn’t care about the scandal. A healthy attitude as it happens….

  2. prisrob

    well, that title brought back days if yore!
    well done.

  3. Wonderful stuff. Dumas really is huge fun, isn’t he? A tremendous writer. I’ve only read Three Musketeers (much darker than people tend to think) and Twenty Years After so far (makes Three Musketeers look positively cheery).

    A good point for the benefits of the Kindle too, if one is fine with the Gutenberg translations (which are often good if old fashioned) then there’s a wealth of remarkable books out there.

    I had wondered if this was the background to the Scuderi. Looking forward to your reaching the Borgias.

  4. I forgot, on the legal side it’s interesting what different cultures consider acceptable.

    Have you read Robert Van Gulik’s wonderful Judge Dee mysteries? Set in Ancient China, judicial torture is permissible but if the victim dies then the judge has committed a serious crime. In Republican Rome, a slave’s testimony was only admissible if produced under torture. The marvellous Icelandic Saga of Burnt Njal features a court case heavily – complete with jury selection and following problems with enforcement of judgement axe-driven alternative dispute resolution.

    Most legal fiction now is pretty bad, but it wasn’t always that way.

  5. Yes this was the Scuderi connection. Brinvilliers is mentioned in the Hoffman book as a way of explaining the paranoia in Paris at the time. This was a reminder to me to read the Dumas tale.

    I read quite a bit of Dumas a few years back. I like to think of him as the Stephen King of his time. I’ve no idea if that is true or not. It’s just how I see him.

    I’m also looking forward to the Man in the Iron Mask (the crime not the novel).

    No, I haven’t read any of the Judge Dee mysteries, but it sounds a bit like the ‘putting someone to the question’ thing. This was done both before and after the trial in some cases.

    Here’s a quote:

    “There were two kinds of question, one before and one after the sentence was passed. In the first the accused person would endure frightful torture in the hope of saving his life, and so would often confess nothing. In the second there was no hope, and therefore it was not worth while to suffer additional pains.”

    Another great feature of the kindle–I can put in a word and it finds the quote for you.

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