“Possibly a more obstinate legal contest was never waged, on both sides, but especially by those who lost it.”
The Countess de Saint-Geran is one of Alexandre Dumas Celebrated Crimes series–18 essays in all, of varied length and now out of print but available used, POD, and also, as it happens, on my Kindle. A few months ago I read The Marquise de Brinvilliers and enjoyed it for its good sense of time and place through the details of trials and sicko torture. I suppose I’d expected the same sort of thing in The Countess de Saint-Geran which I selected at random from the Celebrated Crimes (written between 1839-1841). I knew nothing about the Countess de Saint-Geran before I started reading, and now after reading the story, I feel as though I only know slightly more.
Here’s the gist of the story:
The Countess of Saint-Geran and her husband had long given up the idea of ever producing an heir, and so, given the greed that overcomes people when faced with wills, inheritances, heirs and what-have-you, the Count’s sister, the Marchioness de Bouille– more-or-less expects to get the entire bundle when her brother and sister-in-law die, presumably childless. The Marchioness was originally married off to a man old enough to be her grandfather, but:
“The Marchioness de Bouille quarrelled with her old husband, the Marquis, separated from him after a scandalous divorce, and came to live at the château of Saint-Geran, quite at ease as to her brother’s marriage, seeing that in default of heirs all his property would revert to her.”
So this is a woman with expectations.
“Such is the state of affairs when the Marquis of Saint-Maixent arrived at the château. He was young, handsome, very cunning, and very successful with women.” The Marquis of Saint-Maixent is a wastrel relative of the Count’s. He’s also a fugitive (more of that later), whose “own fortune is much impaired by his extravagance and by the exactions of the law, or rather in plain words, he had lost it all.” He arrives at the castle and gets cosy with the Marchioness de Bouille, seeing, of course, the possibilities of a rich, single woman who will inherit everything. But the plans go down the toilet when it’s announced that the Countess, after years of marriage, is finally pregnant. At this point Saint-Maixent employs a shady midwife to dispose of the baby at birth.
So that’s the basic information. The Countess de Saint-Geran morphs into the criminal case about the abducted baby, the contested will, and the various claimants to the fortune.
Unfortunately The Countess de Saint-Geran lacks the clarity of the The Marquise de Brinvilliers, and this is due to several problems. In The Marquise de Brinvilliers, Dumas gave us a sense of exactly who this woman was, her appeal, her social dilemmas, and also her uncanny ability to control and manipulate people. This level of characterisation is missing from The Countess de Saint-Geran, and the main characters–wicked people acting against the innocent, remain two-dimensional. There’s little detail beyond their names and the facts and figures of the case. We are told, for example, that the Marchioness was married off to a 70-year-old, but that the marriage ended in a scandalous divorce. A divorce in the early 17th century must have been a rare event, and that means that the Marchioness must have been a rare woman. There’s no information about who got the divorce or why. Was the Marchioness the plaintive or was her husband? I wanted to know these details as a little more information about the Marchioness would have added considerable interest to the story. Was the Marchioness a woman who married her elderly husband with expectations that he’s die and leave her free and wealthy? If so what went wrong with that plan? Did he outlive her patience? When the Marchioness moved back to the Saint-Gerans’ chateau and expected to inherit a fortune from her brother and sister-in-law was there resentment against them that she’d be married off to some old git? Was this a woman who spent her life waiting for others to die so she’d inherit wealth and become, in essence, ‘free’? Dumas tells us only that the Marchioness was:
“married to a man who, it was said, gave her great cause for complaint, the greatest being his threescore years and ten.”
Another huge problem with The Countess de Saint Geran is that the story begins in 1639 with the “young nobleman” the Marquis de Saint-Maixent a “consummate rascal” arrested for a series of crimes. A large contingent of armed guards along with their innocent looking prisoner stop for the night to rest at an inn. Here the crafty Marquis pays for enough wine to get everyone drunk, manipulates an innkeeper’s daughter to help him escape, and then the Marquis dashes to the Bourbonnais castle of his relative the Count of Saint-Geran t0 seek sanctuary. Of course once there he begins scheming to get his hands on the fortune.
This earlier story of the Marquis of Saint-Maixent is never solved, never explored and yet here’s a man who is:
“accused, and indeed convicted, of coining and magic.”
“convicted of incest.”
“convicted of having strangled his wife to marry another, whose husband he had first stabbed.”
No small list of crimes, and since he was convicted there must have been a trial. No details are given here–instead Dumas gives us the Marquis in action as he escapes and heads for his unsuspecting relatives, the Count and the Countess de Saint-Geran. The Marquis’ backstory is of considerable interest, and as it turns out is much more interesting that the Saint-Geran story, but it’s never explored even though Dumas structures his story with the initial focus on the wickedness of Saint-Maixant.
There were some additional problems in the story regarding the birth of the baby. How could a woman give birth and then be told she imagined it? Wouldn’t there be some virulent arguments there?
Much of the story bogs down in the details of the various court cases that evolve over the years. While it’s perfectly understandable why such a story would capture the imagination, it’s ultimately unsatisfying. In spite of the occasional tendency to wander into grandstanding through the dramatic turns in events that rival the most tawdry soap opera, the story lacks life–although it was interesting to note that the lower-classes involved in the plot were assigned to torture while the upper-class instigators were handled quite differently.