By ADRIAN TAHOURDIN
The French don’t have an aristocracy, right? It was bloodily consigned to history, along with the French monarchy, during the Revolution, wasn’t it? Well, not quite. Leaving aside the fact that Napoleon declared himself Emperor in 1804 – was the Revolution really intended to lead to that? – the Restoration of the Bourbons and the Bourbon-Orleans monarchy in 1814 took things up to 1848 and as if that wasn’t enough Louis Napoleon’s Second Empire lasted from 1852 to 1870. Only in that year did France embark on its succession of Republics, interrupted by the Second World War, Marshal Pétain and Vichy.
There certainly was a cull of the nobility, and those who survived lost certain rights and privileges; some went abroad, leaving their estates in capable hands, and returned when conditions were more propitious. Others adapted to the changed circumstances. Think of Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, who served under the ancien régime, was President of the National Assembly during the Revolution and held various senior diplomatic posts under the Directoire, the Empire, Restoration, July Monarchy. Others still retreated to their chateaux and kept their heads down.
To take one prominent public figure today, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, centre-right President of France from 1974 to 1981, and now one of the forty “Immortals” in the Académie française, comes from minor nobility – the “d’” in his name was clearly no hindrance to his getting elected.
Valentine de Ganay doesn’t go into details of her family’s history in her entertaining book Aristo?, which her publishers JC Lattès characterize as “un essai de sociologie subjective”, but it appears to originate from Burgundy in the 14th century. Ganay claims that the aristocracy in France is “no longer a social class”. She’s certainly irreverent about those with social pretensions today, referring to people as Machin de Machin (Thingummy of Thingummy). It’s not her fault that her mother’s full name is Philippine de Noailles de Mouchy de Poix de Ganay – a name she has been known to use, such as when she broke down on the autoroute and gave her name to the breakdown man: “C’est français, ça?!” was his reply.
Philippine would have liked to spend time on yachts or in Venice, but she married a gentleman farmer who preferred to spend the second half of August in Scotland shooting grouse (and who once took Valentine to Patagonia to try to teach her to shoot deer). They have a chateau, Courances, 70 km south of Paris near Fontainebleau, where Valentine stages events and whose grounds are open to the public.
Valentine, much the youngest of four sisters, came as a disappointment to her father, who was hoping for an heir. But Valentine, as well as being a trapeze artist, horticulturalist and mother, is clearly the most independent-minded of the four: when, in answer to a question from her father, she reveals that she voted for Giscard’s successor François Mitterrand in 1981 (her first opportunity to exercise her democratic right), he is physically sick, and dismisses her from his presence. Later Mitterrand requests an invitation to Courances, where Valentine’s father greets him in a strictly official capacity (in his role as mayor): “Mitterrand and he will never be pals”. She lets slip that they never received a thank-you letter from the Elysée Palace.
Another public figure who dropped in was Prince Charles - “’Guess who’s invited himself to stay?’ our mother asks us.” Ganay reveals that he asked for his breakfast to be brought up to his room.
When Valentine breaks the news to her parents of her engagement she receives the following reaction (from her mother): “Je vous avouerais que je m’attendais à un comportement moins conventionnel de votre part” (I have to admit that I was expecting less conventional behaviour from you) – notice the formal vouvoiement from mother to daughter – at what point in their relationship, one wonders, did the mother switch from “tu” to “vous”.
Her father has an office that overlooks the National Assembly and the Place de la Concorde, in a building that once housed “the prestigious Club de la Pomme de Terre”. Ganay tells us that a painting that represents several members of that club has recently been acquired by the Musée d’Orsay; it includes two members of the Ganay family as well as Charles Haas, one of the models for Proust’s Charles Swann.
Proust’s novel is of course awash with aristocrats: Mme de Villeparisis, M. and Mme de Guermantes (duke and duchess) and M. de Charlus (baron) among many others; the narrator Marcel is at the same time fascinated by a cast to which he will never belong, its rituals, traditions and eccentricities, and contemptuous of its philistinism and its unthinking callousness to outsiders. And they provide rich material for comedy, as in the scene in Du côté de chez Swann at a musical soirée at the marquise (mais bien sûr) de Saint-Euverte, where Marcel compares the style of monocle worn by the various aristos, all doubtless members of the Jockey Club – “le Jockey”.
I find the little snippets Ganay dispenses fascinating: when her sister organizes weekend parties at her chateau in the Vendée, she insists on the announcement “La comtesse est servie” whereas her mother prefers “Le déjeuner est servi”. She points out that her mother doesn’t particularly want to be laid out on a silver salver with parsley sticking out of her ears.
And when Valentine confesses to her parents that she has had an affair with “L’Autre” shortly before the day of her wedding, which is to be lavishly celebrated at Courances, her father tells her that she has “les moeurs d’une femme de chambre” (as it happens, Le journal d’une femme de chambre by Octave Mirbeau is one of her favourite novels). The wedding to German artist Franck goes ahead, and the union appears to have endured.
Ganay concludes by saying that “some aristos will reproach me with having overdone it . . .”, but the rest of us should be thankful to her for so revealingly, and stylishly, opening a window onto her world.