Thursday, November 15, 2012

Cecilia's World

I'm pleased to present my newest heroine Lady Cecilia Compton St. James, Duchess of Stanhope. Quite a mouthful, eh? She is the center of my current work-in-progress A Scandalous Bargain. The novel opens in 1753 with a thirteen year old Cecilia being married off to Lord Aubrey St. James, the Earl of Stafford. Soon after the wedding, she is sent to Paris to be educated at the Abbaye Royale de Panthemont. So let us start off there.

 Abbaye Royale de Panthemont was a convent founded in 1217 that eventually developed into a high class finishing school for daughters of the aristocracy. The current buildings were begun in 1747 as a result of a re-building campaign undertaken by the abbess Marie-Catherine de Mezieres Bethozy (say that three times fast). Despite having several wealthy patrons, the construction stretched out for decades. The chapel was consecrated in 1756 and finished in 17663, while the convent was not completed until 1783, just in time for the revolution. Since Cecilia is a lodging student during the major construction period, I made sure to mention it. It is the abbess who informs her that she is to return to England after her husband inherits his father's dukedom. Cecilia is not totally ignorant of the ways of love and sex, and yet she notes that all is not sanctimonious at the convent. Indeed convents had a rather nasty reputation for being dens of sin and vice. Italy seems to be the worst offender when it comes to salacious activity, but France had its own stories. In fact, the Marquis de Sade wrote about the Abbaye in one of his books, Juliette. "The prettiest and most immoral girls in Paris come from the Panthemont convent."

Since de Sade was rather scandalous and maybe not entirely truthful, I chose to err on the side of caution when Cecilia muses about her experience in the convent:

The convent was not so sheltered that she did not understand what went on between a man and a woman. There were married aristocratic women lodging here who were free in their speech--and hatred for the demands their husbands had placed upon them. Then there was the occasional student or even novice nun who fell pregnant and Cecilia was sure that the conception of such children was not immaculate.

Despite the rumors, the convent had several wealthy and famous students grace its halls before it was disbanded by the Revolutionaries in 1790. The Countess de Polastron was educated there before becoming the lover of the Count d'Artois (so maybe the rumors were true). Josephine de Beauharnais allegedly stayed in the convent when she was attempting to separate from her husband. Thomas Jefferson's daughters Martha and Polly lodged there in the 1780s--but only after TJ had received assurances that they would not be converted from their protestant faith. Nonetheless, Martha still wanted to convert and Jefferson was forced remove her and her sister before they fled the country on the eve of the French Revolution.

You can still find the convent in the 7th arrondissement of Paris though it bears little resemblance to the original buildings that once occupied the site. Today it is a protestant church named the Reformed Church of Luxembourg-Pentemont.

That's all for now. What subjects do you most enjoy researching when you are working on a book?