Many of you will recall that the first plot point of Downton Abbey was the daughter Mary Crawley’s sleeping with the Turkish diplomat and doing such a bang up job of it that the poor fellow keeled over with a heart attack. Those family and staff in the know must all must be silent lest she be ruined by the scandal, and soap opera being what it is, every episode must involve threats to destroy that silence and schemes to ensure it.
Well, it may have been the sort of thing to bring down members of the upper-crust, but the reverse, Bad Behaviour boosting one’s reputation, maybe not so much. Reality tells at least one happier story.
That is, after a fashion and some twists and turns.
Marguerite Steinheil was an adventuress of the higher sort. Born to a good deal of manufacturing money, she married the painter Adolphe Steinheil. An open marriage, which seemed to suit the both of them. In her spare time, she oversaw a salon that included some of the top creative men of 19th century Paris (Gounod, Massenet, Ferdinand de Lesseps – that sort of fellow).
And at least one politician. Félix Faure, president of France, her closest friend who, according to her at least, was in the habit of discussing matters of state both foreign and domestic. He confided in her his frustration at being fed lies about the Dreyfus Affair, and discussed his private talks with the likes of Count Witte. She tells us she pleaded with le President not to precipitate a war with – England?
He also gave her a pearl necklace, a token of his “warm friendship”, though apparently freighted with mysterious significance that could ruin him if it ever came out. A year later, she was visiting him in the private quarters when servants heard a scream from inside. The president with clothing not fully on and Mme Steinheil ruffled and her hair very askew. She says that he had confessed to taking “that drug…which I ought never to touch”. Others jumped to the conclusion that he had died as a result of the opposite of rest.
France being France, it probably improved his reputation (or perhaps not- what kind of Frenchman dies in such circumstances?) but it seemed to have had no serious stain on her record. The French – they like that sort of thing. (Truth be told, there are serious historians who doubt the more salacious aspects of the story – but try telling that to the gossips of 1909. Or even of today.)
More dubious was some skullduggery involving the presidential memoirs and that damned pearl necklace. A mysterious German agent now appeared on the scene and claimed that he wanted the pearls and some papers he knew she had taken from the presidential palace and would make serious trouble if he did not get what he wanted. The pearls her husband sold to him bit by bit. Some papers also made their way out. The whole affair was quite murky, even to her.
Pretty bad in any event, but what really put her back on the front page was the 1907 double murder of her husband and step-mother, the husband suffocated, the mother strangled and choking on her false teeth. Marguerite was found the next morning gagged and bound to her bed and full of a story of four intruders, three men, one woman, allegedly in search of more pearls and the secret presidential papers (The Secret History of the Third French Republic) that Faure allegedly left with her.
The police were inclined to let it rest as just too complicated, but she swore to find the killers, and even faked some evidence to provoke an arrest of an innocent or two, and eventually found herself indicted on a double murder charge, bringing another sensational trial to an eager public.
She was acquitted in 1909, though not everyone was convinced of her innocence, least of all the judge who said publicly her story was a tissue of lies. Certainly the mysterious quartet in black was never found.
Soon after the acquittal, she moved to London where in 1912, she wrote published her memoirs (which are not without interest for those into the pre-war period, just so long as you bear in mind the judge’s comments).
Which gets us back to Downton Abbey and the question of class drift.
For our heroine, five years after her memoirs came out, eight after her having gotten a questionable acquittal, re-married, this time to Robert Brooke Campbell Scarlett, 6th Baron Abinger (1876 – 1927). There is even cinematic footage of the event.
Well, there was a war on, and a pretty nasty one at that. Presumably nothing in her background could matter much when compared to the horrors of the western front.
At least she wasn’t an actress.