EDITOR’S NOTE: In the wake of stories about a sperm whale exploding on the streets of Taiwan, we reincarnate this Florence King delight–the September 2, 1996 edition of “The Misanthrope’s Corner.” Here, our favorite columnist, curmudgeonly or not, finds common ground with Hillary, explores the royal roots of flossing, recalls a famous English murder trial, and recounts an embalming malfunction in Versailles.
We promise: you will laugh out loud.
But then that typically happens when one reads La Donna Firenza.
Of course, this column, and all of Miss King’s back-page oeuvre for National Review, can be found, and enjoyed, in STET, Damnit, The Misanthrope’s Corner, 1991 to 2002, which is available only from NR. Order it securely here.
At last Hillary has done something I can identify with. Before you swoon, let me say that an interest in psychic phenomena is not incompatible with conservatism. That old rip of the Old Right, novelist Taylor Caldwell, believed in reincarnation. Shortly before she died she wrote a book describing her former life as a kitchen maid in the home of George Eliot.
My main objection to Hillary’s psychic quest is her taste in ghosts. Why would anyone want to talk to Eleanor Roosevelt and Mahatma Gandhi? Unless the spirit world has turned them in the direction of rational thought and logical discourse–not something a spirit world is likely to do–they must make even less sense now than they did when they were alive.
Moreover, they’re too new. People I can remember, who were on the earth during my own sojourn, just don’t seem metaphysically respectable. That’s the difference between liberal necromancers and conservative necromancers; the former will commune with anybody but the latter snub arriviste ghosts.
Hillary and I also have different reasons for conjuring. She does it for guidance but all I want is information. For example, I would love to ask Eleanor of Aquitaine if she invented flossing. This is a theory of mine that I’ve taken up with several dentists, all of whom seemed to think I was a little odd. Nonetheless, I believe I have a point.
Consider: Living to the age of 82 was amazing enough in the 12th century, but Eleanor (1122-1204) kept almost all of her teeth as well. I believe she accidentally discovered flossing while embroidering. Medieval women embroidered miles of tapestries so we can be sure they developed the bad habit common to all women who sew: biting the thread when they couldn’t find their scissors.
One day in the bower, Eleanor got the thread caught between her teeth and couldn’t get it out. A crisis ensued, with lots of ladies hovering in trepidation as Eleanor worked the thread up and down and around until it came out. When she saw specks of rotting food clinging to it, a good habit was born.
I’d welcome anyone who attended the funeral of the Duchesse de Montpensier in 1693. I’ve read about it in Saint-Simon’s memoirs and biographies of Louis XIV, but no mere printed page can do justice to this story. It’s the kind of story that people dine out on, the kind of story that makes those privy to it friends for life, the kind of story accompanied by a fond shaking of the head and a nostalgic sigh, “I’ll never forget the time. . . .” I think of it whenever I see the beer commercial with the “old times, old friends” motif. It’s that kind of story.
The Duchesse de Montpensier was the daughter of Louis XIII’s younger brother, and thus first cousin to Louis XIV. As the oldest female of royal blood at court, she was called “Grande Mademoiselle.” According to the custom of the time, when she died her heart was entombed in a chapel, while her entrails went into a sealed urn that was placed on a sideboard in the mourning room at Versailles, where pairs of noblewomen chosen by the king took turns watching over it round the clock. It was all done with exquisite taste; from the solemn major domo to the susurrating murmur of the nuns at prayer, the occasion exemplified punctilious court etiquette and stoic neoclassical grief.
Malheureusement, Grande Mademoiselle’s badly embalmed entrails had fermented, producing enough gases to turn the sealed urn into a bomb. Suddenly there was a deafening explosion, followed by a hideous stench. Pandemonium erupted; ladies screamed, chevaliers fought each other to reach the doors, fleeing priests trampled doddering old marquises as, gasping for air, the mourners poured onto the lawns in abject panic.
When they found out what had happened they reverted to type. “All was perfumed and restored,” writes Saint-Simon, “and the commotion was made light of.” It was that kind of story, and I’d love to hear it.
My welcome mat is always out for Adelaide Bartlett, she of Regina v. Bartlett (1886), one of the great English murder cases.
Edward Bartlett was a prosperous wholesale grocer with some very advanced ideas. Hankering presumably for a threesome, he introduced his wife, Adelaide, to a wispy young clergyman named George Dyson and encouraged them to spend time together while he was away at business. As a maid later testified, they spent a great deal of time together, none of it wasted.
That winter, Edward got sick. Adelaide nursed him, relying on Dyson to run errands to the chemist. When Edward died suddenly, his father, who had always hated Adelaide, told the police she had poisoned him. An autopsy was ordered. When the doctors opened the body, they nearly passed out from the fumes it gave off: Edward’s stomach was awash in liquid chloroform.
The police soon discovered that Dyson had bought two bottles of chloroform from the chemist. When questioned, Adelaide explained that Edward was afflicted with satyriasis, and that to escape his ravenous lust she sometimes had to knock him out with a chloroform-soaked handkerchief held to his face. As to how it got into his stomach, she said he must have mistaken it for his medicine and drunk it.
Many more lurid sexual tidbits came out at her trial, but the defense focused on the core issue: whether it was possible to cajole or force someone to drink such a large quantity of a liquid as volatile as chloroform, which would vaporize during the struggle. A parade of forensic witnesses testified that she simply couldn’t have gotten it down Edward’s throat. The jury concluded that he had somehow drunk it on his own, and Adelaide was acquitted.
I’m not alone in wanting to talk to her. Afterwards, a member of the Royal College of Surgeons said, “I think that in the interests of science, she ought to tell us how she did it.”