Sunday, April 30, 2017

The Child in the Temple: the Fate of Marie-Antoinette's Son

The fate of Marie-Antoinette's second son fascinates. The heir to the French throne upon his brother's earlier death, the Dauphin, Louis-Charles was only eight-years old when in 1792, his entire family was imprisoned in the Temple prison of Paris. Then began his torment, abuse and neglect until three years later, he died - a fate that no mother would wish for her child. 

That the child who perished on 8 June 1795 was indeed Louis-Charles and not another, was only confirmed seventeen years ago following DNA analysis of his preserved heart. The scientific findings put to rest 200 years of rumours that he may have escaped or exchanged places with another. 

While the enigma surrounding Louis-Charles' death vanished, his last years were rendered all the more tragic now that their certainty had been established. Two years after these DNA findings, French Legion of Honor recipient and author, Françoise Chandernagor, published a disturbing and moving account of Louis-Charles' journey through imprisonment and death. Titled La Chambre (The Bedroom) her novel often embraces a child's point of view in an attempt to recreate the fear, distress and emotional pain the young boy - King of France - may have experienced from 1794 to 1795. La Chambre also presents a poignant psychosocial analysis of what it meant to be a jailer of Louis-Charles in a time of Terror, where suspicion and miserliness were rife, and how Louis-Charles' neglect arose not so much from malice and royalist hatred but rather from both fear of arrest and a dysfunctional system. 
La Chambre could be seen as reckoning, a way to cast national guilt aside, and deal with the horrors inflicted on this child. It remains a well-researched and haunting account.

The long agony of Louis Charles' imprisonment haunted me to such a degree that I wanted to give voice to this child's crushed spirit. A child that was forgotten, who by all accounts, was once told by his father, Louis XVI to never seek revenge - yet what if he had?  What if his revenge manifested as a haunting?  In occult belief, there is an understanding that spirits cannot rest when they have suffered a great violence or injustice, and that they or some energy they have left behind, will remain forever to roam the place of their torment. What if Louis-Charles had returned to his austere prison tower? 
This is the premise I play with in my latest novel, Julien's Terror.

Yet this haunting could not have lasted long, because today, nothing remains of the Temple prison or of the surrounding Temple buildings. All were demolished by 1811. When Napoleon was crowned emperor in 1804, he was all too aware of the royalists' disfavor. In March 1808 at which time the Temple no longer served as a prison, royalist pilgrimages to the Temple had increased.  Not wanting to arouse the royalists' fever, Napoleon ordered the Temple's demolition. On 7 October 1808, Robert Morel purchased the temple prison under the condition that he would carry out Napoleon's orders - removing every stone until nothing was left. Robert Morel, or rather my fictional rendition of this historical figure, is featured in Julien's Terror. He is presented as a profiteer, intent on delaying the Temple's deconstruction to raise as much profit as possible from pilgrimages and from the sale of every object having belonged to the royal family. 

Door to the large Temple tower - preserved in Vincennes

Writing about a hypothetical haunting is one thing, but how does one write about a structure or building that no longer exists? At least when I wrote about the construction of the 15th century Forbidden Palace in Beijing for my first novel, The Ming Storytellers, I was aided by a real-life visit to the somewhat changed yet still standing palace. But in modern Paris, nothing remains of Le Temple. Nothing. Napoleon got his wish.  

With some research and thanks to several sources, not excluding Chandernagor's La Chambre, I was able to piece out the logistics of this tower, notably how the second and third floors of the temple prison would have been laid out at the time of Louis-Charles' imprisonment. 

 Temple prison floors - August 1792 to December 1795 
with my English lettering added

The second floor (shaded purple, left) had been the residence of Louis XVI prior to his execution in January 1793.  The King's bedroom (directly below the Queen's bedroom shown in the red-shaded floor) eventually became Louis-Charles' bedroom a year later. Since July 1793, the boy had been taken away from his mother and submitted to the injurious care of Antoine Simon, a cobbler. Now they would remove him from Simon's care. This could only be better for the poor nine-year old. One would think. Alas, no. 
Contrary to what is shown in the above floor layout, from January 1794 the King's bedroom was no longer accessible from the antechamber. The wall between the antechamber and the bedroom was sealed and a compartment, housing a heating stove was constructed in its place. This permitted heating but had the effect of immuring the child so that entry to his room was only accessible after having crossed into the valet's room (Clery's bedroom), across right and down the corridor. This made his isolation complete. 

And from 1794 to the end of the Terror in July, this room is all Louis-Charles ever saw. He was in solitary confinement for over six months. No toys. No books. No images. Little light. Love? Hugs? The voice of his mother? He did not even know what had become of her. No one had told him. Was he being punished? His imagination being that of a nine-year old's, might have interpreted his isolation as punishment. He was no longer cherished, no longer loved, it was clear. That could only mean he had done something wrong. 

Putting aside the lack of light, the longing for any comfort in a darkness that children so fear, putting aside the absence of books, toys - one can only imagine the psychological torment that solitary confinement would have had on any child who had once known complete adoration and been lavished with care. A time of pain and sorrow is only more vivid when we have known joy, and so Louis-Charles' long-lost carefree days only exacerbated the destitution that he now found in this miserly room with its lurid yellow wallpaper.

His meals were pushed through an opening and no one cared whether he ate or not. In fact Louis-Charles, after he had surmounted fear, distress and sadness, descended into such a neglected state that he began to not care at all about his own person.  His degradation is made all too clear in La Chambre. He lived in filth - excrement piling up in every corner of the room, lice and bed bugs infesting his bed and crawling upon his skin. He developed tuberculosis. 


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