Could two female English academics have stumbled into the midst of a period costume party at Versailles and mistake it for a time travel trip?
It seems unlikely that such learned women would let their imaginations run away with them thus. We are all human, but skeptics easily dismiss tales that have a ring of truth to them, and if women, especially single women are the witnesses it seems they are more easily shrugged off. Maybe there’s still a hint of sexism involved!
Where did this all begin?
On 10 August 1901 Miss Anne Moberly, headmistress of St Hugh’s College for girls in Oxford visited the grounds of the Palace of Versailles with her friend and soon-to-be deputy, Miss Eleanor Jourdain.
Intending to visit the Grand Trianon but finding it closed to the public that day, they wandered through the gardens looking for the Petit Trianon but became disorientated. They found themselves in a deserted lane.
They reached the edge of a wood near the Temple de l’Amour. Then two men dressed in “long greyish-green coats with small three-cornered hats” passed them. The two ladies asked them the way to the Petit Trianon and the men told them to take a path directly ahead of them.
They passed a cottage where Miss Moberly saw a woman shaking a white cloth from an upstairs window.
Miss Jourdain didn’t recall that but noticed a woman standing holding a jug out to a small girl. She also saw an old plough alongside the lane in front of it. The images they saw appeared unreal, like scenes in a tapestry.
A sense of oppression and heaviness descended on them. They described the air as unnaturally still and the trees as flat and lifeless. This is how Miss Moberly described it:
“Everything suddenly looked unnatural, therefore unpleasant; even the trees seemed to become flat and lifeless, like wood worked in tapestry. There were no effects of light and shade, and no wind stirred the trees.”
Next they spotted a disagreeable-looking man sitting beside a tree-shaded gazebo. Miss Moberly described his appearance thus:
“his appearance was “most repulsive… its expression odious. His complexion was dark and rough.”
Miss Jourdain’s impression:
“The man slowly turned his face, which was marked by smallpox; his complexion was very dark. The expression was evil and yet unseeing, and though I did not feel that he was looking particularly at us, I felt a repugnance to going past him.”
Someone now came rushing up to tell them they were going the wrong way. He said they should cross a small bridge, which they did.
Finally they spotted the Petit Trianon in front of them. Miss Moberly noticed a woman on the lawn, sitting on a stool and sketching. She was wearing a light summer dress with a pale green scarf, and a large shady hat perched on a mass of fair hair. Miss Moberly thought she may be a tourist but the dress was too old-fashioned. Miss Jourdain didn’t recall seeing her.
Later Miss Moberly identified her as none other than Marie Antoinette, dressed just like the way she appeared to her, in a painting by Adolf Ulrik Wertmuller:
A footman came dashing out from a nearby building, telling them that the entrance to the Petit Trianon was on the opposite side. They described him rather theatrically as “tall with large eyes and crisp curling hair under a large sombrero hat”.
The two teachers walked around to the main entrance and everything returned to normal as they joined other tourists. They stopped for tea at the Hotel des Reservoirs before catching a train back to Miss Jourdain’s flat in Paris.
It seems incredible to us in our age of instant Facebook sharing that they maintained an almost monastic silence and only spoke to one another about these events a week later. Miss Moberly was writing a letter to her sister and broke off to ask Eleanor if she thought the Petit Trianon was haunted, to which she replied yes.
During November in Oxford they decided to write separate accounts of their experiences and compare them later. They also began researching the Revolutionary period.
Eleanor revisited Versailles in January 1902 and both of them in July 1904. They couldn’t find any of the landmarks they recalled from their earlier trip, such as the bridge or the garden gazebo. The landscape seemed quite changed from how they remembered it.
They learned that the Tuileries Palace in Paris was besieged exactly 109 years before their strange encounter. The Swiss guards were killed in view of Louis XIV and Marie Antoinette.
Six weeks later the monarchy was overthrown.
The ladies came to the conclusion that they may have stumbled across some of Marie Antoinette’s dark memories of her final weeks as Queen which remained in this spot.
Some of their discoveries:
- In 1903 they unearthed a map showing the particular bridge they crossed, which they couldn’t locate on any contemporary maps;
- The men in green were in the uniform of Marie Antoinette’s Swiss Guards;
- There had been an old plough on display in the grounds in 1789;
- The sinister, pockmarked man at the gazebo, exactly matched the description of the Comte de Vaudreuil, an enemy of Marie Antoinette’s.
- The footman who rushed from the building, emerged from a door which had been kept locked and bolted for many years prior to their visit to Versailles.
Ten years after their trip they wrote a book about the events. This was simply called An Adventure and they used the pen names Elizabeth Morison and Frances Lamont. This book had a greatly mixed reception but several thousand copies were sold.
It was only after their deaths that their true identities were revealed to the world. The fact that they were eminent academics attracted renewed interest in the case.
Alternative theories to Ghosts or Time Slips
There were those who alleged that Miss Moberly and Eleanor had a type of shared delusion. Both women seem to have been sensitive to the paranormal and on several occasions they saw something others didn’t.
In 1955 Philippe Jullian published a biography of the poet and artist Robert de Montesquiou. Apparently he and his circle of gay, avant-garde friends liked to dress up in period costume. At the time of the teachers’ experience he near Versailles. He had a deep love for Versailles and regularly held such parties. It was suggested one of the drag artists could have been “Marie Antoinette.”
Jullian’s conclusion is that the ladies sincerely believed what they saw was real but had mistaken one of the poet’s flamboyant tableaux for the real thing. This is a fairly generally accepted theory.
There was never any evidence that one of his costume parties was held on the day the ladies were there.
It doesn’t explain the feeling of oppression and unreality which they felt. Perhaps they simply felt depressed at losing their way but sadness doesn’t usually involve seeing things which aren’t there.
It doesn’t account for the buildings which they couldn’t later find but which were located on maps from the late 18th century.
Jean Cocteau implicitly believed the ladies’ account and wrote the preface to a 1960 French edition of An Adventure.
They may well have unwittingly embellished their basic story over the years to make their book a little thicker and give it some “body” but they clearly had a very unusual encounter on that lovely summer’s day in Versailles.
Who were Miss Moberly and Miss Jourdain?
Miss Charlotte Anne Moberly was born in 1846, daughter of a headmaster who later became Bishop of Salisbury. She died in 1937.
Slightly younger, Miss Eleanor Jourdain was born in 1863, the daughter of a vicar. She authored a number of academic textbooks and ran a school of her own. In 1901 she was living in Paris and tutoring English children. After the Versailles trip she joined St Hugh’s as assistant head under Miss Moberly. After Miss Moberley retired she became the principal.
Among her numerous siblings were Margaret, an illustrious art historian, and Philip, an eminent mathematician. She died in 1924.
Their academic credentials are therefore excellent. They declined to reveal their identity when they wrote their book as they didn’t want to be discredited. Neither would they gain anything by making up something which never happened.
Numerous people have reported “time slips” which share similar characteristics. They usually involve a feeling of unreality, where the air is still and the landscape and people seem to be flat and dreamlike.
They don’t usually last long, although I recall reading of a couple who spent a night in a hotel from the past, and were surprised by how old-fashioned their room was and how low their bill was the next morning! A subsequent visit to the town showed no sign of this hotel.