Archive for the ‘The Incredible Journey of Victor Hugo’s Dog’ category

Lieutenant John Loftus Otway Mansergh, Royal Warwickshires, killed in action at the Battle of Loos

November 12th, 2018

Royal_Warwickshire_Regiment_Cap_Badge.jpg (419×464)

My family emerged relatively unscathed from the Great War. My grandfathers were too young to serve, my great-grandfathers too old, apart from one, Major Cyril Mumby, who survived the war, despite being severely wounded on the Western Front.

The war was, literally, a shattering experience for Cyril and was to alter the course of his life, but the same could also be said of his sister, Isabel (born in 1882).

The Mumbys were well-heeled mineral-water manufacturers, whose life before 1914 had been extremely easy and pleasant. Isabel had been adequately educated at a boarding-school in Bournemouth before embarking on a life of obvious idleness, as befitted an affluent young lady. The family regularly holidayed at Montreux, the intensely social, intensely romantic resort on Lake Leman, where, partying among Europe’s fashionable elite, Cyril met and fell in love with his future wife, a young French girl called Nicole de Faletans.

On another family holiday at Montreux in the late 1890s, Isabel had met a good-looking young man, fresh from Haileybury College, called Loftus Mansergh. His father was a major in the Warwickshires, and the Manserghs were a prominent and wealthy Anglo-Irish family. A newspaper cutting refers to a ‘Mr Mansergh’ who appeared as a Hussar at the Annual International Ball at the Kursaal, Montreux’s casino, in January 1899. It may have been around this time that he encountered Isabel.

Commissioned in December 1899 into the Royal Irish Regiment, Loftus had served in the Boer War until 1902. He had kept in touch with Isabel, sending her photographs of himself at bivouacs on the weld, which she pasted into her album. Later he had proposed to her and been accepted.

With no intention of forming a connection with trade (even if holders of a Royal Warrant), his stuffy parents had refused their consent. He had headed off to Africa instead, serving as an Assistant District Commissioner in Kenya. Isabel had eventually settled with her mother and sister at Udimore Cottage, Otterbourne (near Winchester), resigned to spinsterhood.

However, on Loftus’s return to England in May 1914, he had renewed his proposal. With a hastily-procured licence, the couple had been married at Otterbourne. A daughter, Elisabeth, was born nine months later, in April 1915.

Loftus had been recalled as a lieutenant in June 1914. On 4 August, he went out with the 2nd Battalion of the Warwickshires to France. Before embarking he had telephoned his sister-in-law, Nicole, and asked her to dine with him, as Isabel was too upset to see him off. He was killed in action at the Battle of Loos on 25 September 1915. No remains were ever recovered.

Condemned to a long widowhood, Isabel died at Otterbourne in 1959. At this hundredth anniversary of the Armistice, these memories of Cyril, Isabel and Loftus have been foremost in my mind.

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The Flight of La Vouivre from Dole to Vadans: Reflections on the House of Poitiers-Valentinois

August 1st, 2017

Continuing my quest for the serpent-fairies of France, whom I have traced from Lusignan in the Poitou (via the Starbucks logo) to Sassenage in the Dauphiné. Now I track down a monstrous specimen in the Franche-Comté …

The domed clock-tower of the Collégiale at Dole, completed in 1596, is one of the landmarks of the Jura, visible from miles around. When one squints at it from a distance, it often appears to be crooked. The folklore of the region offers a ready explanation: that La Vouivre, the serpent-woman of local legend, has carelessly knocked it with her wing. She prefers to train her single, luminous eye on the ground below, scouring it for evidence of buried treasure.

In mortal life, she was a lady of the house of Poitiers, lords of Vadans on the far side of the mighty Forêt de Chaux, whose name she had tainted with her avarice. The ‘Noblesse de Poitiers’ was proverbial in Franche-Comté, and indeed was the family’s adage, a sort of secondary motto. In those days, great people were expected to be generous with their hospitality. At the Château de Menthon, in neighbouring Savoy, passing pilgrims were regaled at a massive board (which still exists) in the so-called Salle des Pèlerins. At cheerless Vadans, alms were refused to the needy, and none was made welcome by Madame de Poitiers, for which she was condemned by the good fairies to take this terrible shape. Vouivre is a corruption of the Latin word, vipera, for a serpent.

Every Christmas, at midnight, she passes Dole on her flight from Mont Roland to the circular donjon of Vadans, pausing at the village of Falletans to drink and bathe in the stream. A true franc-comtoise, la Vouivre is a good housekeeper, careful to remove her monstrous eye and to conceal it in the undergrowth before dipping her head. If only one could catch her at this moment and take possession of the eye, it would be the key to great riches, yet she always manages to slip away, usually tipping her would-be abductor into the icy stream with a flick of her tail. (Livre d’Or de Falletans 1950.)

The Poitiers of Vadans were a cadet branch of the comtes de Valentinois in Provence, whose line stretches back to the twelfth century (Europaïsche Stammtafeln, III/4, t.740-43). They are thought to have taken their name from Peytieux, near Châteauneuf-de-Bordette, and in early Latin documents are called ‘Pictavinus’. Though the family was unconnected with the town of Poitiers in the Poitou, ‘Poitiers’ and ‘Peytieux’ are etymologically the same, both places formerly inhabited by branches of a wandering Celtic tribe known variously as the Pictavii or Pictones.

Vadans was the dowry (and favourite residence) of Marguerite de Vergy, wife of Comte Louis, who died in 1345, and was inherited by his nephew Philippe. Also lord of Arcis-sur-Aube, near Troyes, Philippe de Poitiers was killed at the Battle of Agincourt, and is one of the 500 out of the 6,000 French casualties whose names are known to us. Among those 500 are representatives from all the northerly regions of France, though the Seigneur d’Andelot, from Pesmes, is the only other franc-comtois to be listed (

Diane de Poitiers - unabashed nudist (by François Clouet)

The line of Philippe’s grandson Charles, Baron de Vadans, was soon thoroughly assimilated into the noblesse of the Franche-Comté, intermarrying with local families like that of the Chancellor Jean Carondelet, who is commemorated by an impressive tomb in the Collégiale, and whose daughter married Charles’s son. The Poitiers of Vadans died out in 1717, but have left numerous female-line descendants. They include, for example, the seigneurs de Faletans, whose connection with the illustrious Poitiers was recited in the letters-patent on 1712 that elevated them to the rank of marquis. Their seat at Falletans was hard by the stream that la Vouivre is said to haunt annually on her Christmas migration.

An elder brother of the Philippe who died at Agincourt, Louis de Poitiers, succeeded their father as lord of Saint Vallier (on the River Rhône, 19 miles north of Valence). Louis’s son, Charles, was one of the companions-in-arms of Joan of Arc, and played a leading role in the assault of occupied Paris in 1429. The last of the Saint Vallier line was Charles’s great-granddaughter, Diane de Poitiers, the charming mistress of King Henry II, a woman schooled in Latin and Greek, a natural athlete and an unabashed nudist, as her several portraits suggest.

As for Vadans, the forty-metre-high keep alone attests to the former strength and importance of the castle, which overlooks the old Roman road from the site of a Roman encampment. A handsome residence of 1667 occupies the grounds.

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Notre-Dame de Paris: 1482: How Victor Hugo Failed to Save the Medieval City

October 29th, 2016

Quasimodo rescues La Esmeralda, a painting that belonged to Hugo himself. He deplored the misleading title given to many English editions of his book - 'The Hunchback of Notre-Dame'

Victor Hugo’s strange, brilliant, early novel, Notre-Dame de Paris: 1482 (published in 1831), is a literary curiosity, in which sensational melodrama is combined with searing polemic. Hugo’s target is the prevailing opinion that scorned the remaining monuments of Gothic architecture and readily acquiesced in their destruction.

The carved figure above - by Viollet-le-Duc - is more like the sinister Frollo of the novel than the real-life Canon Guillot de Montjoye of the painting

The ‘eye of the novel’, the Cathedral of Notre-Dame itself, was in a pitiful state of neglect; Robert Louis Stevenson described it as an ‘old church thrust away into a corner’ (Familiar Studies of Men and Books, London, 1917, pp.11-12). It was certainly not appreciated as a Gothic masterpiece. ‘In the minds of progressive Parisians,’ writes Hugo’s biographer, ‘it was a shabby relic of the barbarian past.’ (Graham Robb, Victor Hugo, London, 1998, p.158) The style of the book is as ‘Gothic’ as the architecture it praises, ‘a style that had long been under a cloud in France, from which it took Romanticism to save it … The novel is thus meant in part as a redemption of an architecture in eclipse’ (John Sturrock, introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Notre-Dame de Paris, London, 2004, pp.16, 17).

The strength of Hugo’s feeling is best expressed in a fiery pamphlet from about that time entitled War on Demolishers!, in which he deplores the plan of a municipal council – that of Laon – to demolish one of its landmarks, a medieval tower: ‘It took the nineteenth century, the marvels of progress! A goose quill, drawn more or less at random across a sheet of paper by a few infinitely insignificant men! The miserable quill of a fifth-rate town council! A quill that haltingly draws up the idiotic dictates of a peasant divan! The imperceptible quill of the Lilliputian senate! A quill that makes mistakes in French! …’ (trans. Sturrock, introduction to Notre-Dame de Paris, p.19). As the historian of Basingstoke, I am myself keenly aware of the devastation that can be wrought on a community and a landscape by the arbitrary decisions of pygmies and philistines, especially when justified in the name of ‘progress’. The famous tower of Laon, like the historic heart of Basingstoke, was inevitably reduced to a pile of rubble.

Fragment of the 'famous slab of marble' from which the king dined and on which plays were performed

Poor Hugo was subsequently forced in his long life to witness the almost wholesale destruction of the medieval fabric of Paris, and a restoration of his beloved Notre-Dame (by Lassus and Viollet-le-Duc) that veers on pastiche. Yet the lost city is to some extent preserved in his novel, in which he so convincingly evokes the ‘inextricable web of bizarrely twisted streets’ and the life that went on in them.

What, then, remains of medieval Paris and the locations of Hugo’s novel? The vast Grande Salle of the Royal Palace, scene of the novel’s energetic opening chapter, has disappeared, but the equally vast lower hall beneath it, the Salle des Gens d’Armes, is preserved intact as the bowels of the Conciergerie, a place haunted by its associations with the Revolution. Also preserved are the two impressive towers that guard the entrance to the building. It is in the Grande Salle that Pierre Gringoire is to stage his play on ‘the famous slab of marble’ at one end of the room (p.35), that served the king as a table dormant. A fragment of this, strewn with fleurs-de-lys, hangs on the wall of the Salle des Gens d’Armes.

The Hôtel de Sens

The medieval layout, and a few medieval buildings, are to be found across the river in the Marais. In the rue du Fauconnier, one can visit the Hôtel de Sens, newly constructed in 1482. During his harrowing childhood on the streets of Paris, the porch of this building was the resort of the homeless, shoeless, orphaned Gringoire, who would huddle under it and attempt to warm himself in the winter sun (trans. Sturrock, p.120).

Nearby, only the imprint remains of the ‘immense, multiform enclosure of the miraculous Hôtel de St Pol, where the King of France had the wherewithal to lodge in great splendour twenty-two princes of the rank of the dauphin or the Duke of Burgundy, together with their domestics and retinues’ (trans. Sturrock, p.142). Unimaginatively redeveloped in the 1970s, it is a curious complex – deserted, forlorn, atmospheric – marked by such oddities as a shop purveying antique erotica.

The old city walls, with tower

Just across the rue des Jardins, however, a significant portion of the city walls of Philip Augustus – already redundant in 1482, and falling into ruin – forms the boundary to a school yard, with, at one end, the scant remains of one of the ‘huge old towers of the ancient walls of Paris’, to which one of Hugo’s characters alludes:

‘My dear Colombe,’ put in Dame Aloïse, ‘do you mean the hotel that belonged to Monsieur de Bacqueville, in King Charles VI’s days? There are indeed some magnificent high-warp tapestries there’ (trans. Sturrock, p.249).

Further north, on the rue des Francs Bourgeois, one encounters a real curiosity, not strictly medieval but dating from within a few decades of Hugo’s story – the tall, turreted Hôtel Hérouet, on the corner with the rue Vieille-du-Temple, built for the royal treasurer Jean Hérouet in the early 1500s. There is now a draper’s shop on the ground floor, and original features such as fireplaces are not visible.

The Hôtel Hérouet

Most evocative to me is the gatehouse to the Hôtel de Clisson in the rue des Archives, built in the 1380s for the Constable Olivier de Clisson, companion in arms of Bertrand du Guesclin (and later, as the Hôtel de Guise, home to the mother of Mary, Queen of Scots).

It is to the Île de la Cité, the historic and actual heart of Paris, that one must always return. To the pioneering heralds of the reign of Philip Augustus, the island resembled a great ship that had somehow been stranded in the middle of the Seine, with its stern to the east and its prow to the west. Moreover, its five bridges (each of them lined with houses) seemed to moor this vessel to the two opposing banks. The great cathedral church of Notre Dame, the true heroine of Hugo’s story, was at the stern end of the ship.

The Hôtel de Clisson

Hence – as Hugo points out, the inclusion of a ship in the city’s coat of arms – Gules, on waves of the sea in base a ship in full sail argent, a chief azure semé-de-lys or (illustrated here on a public building in the 5th arrondissement). ‘For those who can decipher it,’ he writes, ‘blazonry is an algebra, a language. The whole history of the second half of the Middle Ages in written in blazonry’ (trans. Sturrock, p.136). Incidentally, the last bridge to be lined with houses, one of which plays a significant part in the story, was sadly felled in Hugo’s lifetime.

What Became of Madame Kolychko (née Princess Varvara Sergeevna Obolenskaya)?

June 26th, 2014

View of the Villa Monney, Montreux, from Lindsay Hall's third-floor bedroom at the Hotel Suisse. His friends, the Faletans, would try to lure him down from their balcony

At 8 o’clock on 1 January 1897, a merry, cosmopolitan party of fourteen adults and children sat down to dinner. The gathering took place at the Villa Monney, Montreux, overlooking the Lake of Geneva.

Gorgeously set against a mountain backdrop, Montreux at that time was a favourite resort of Europe’s élite. Alexandre Dumas père had called it ‘an international playground snipped off from France, Germany and Italy’. It had a casino – the Kursaal – a public park, numerous grand hotels, a railway station and a quay from which steamers regularly plied to various points around the lake. The romantic Château de Chillon nearby had been celebrated by Byron in one of his most famous poems.

In the heart of the town, the Villa Monney was the temporary base of a noble French family, consisting of the Marquis Nicolas de Faletans, a splendid, blond, moustachioed giant from the Franche-Comté; his petite Russian wife, Olga; and their pretty, teenaged daughters, Nicole and Simone.

Madame Kolychko, Villa Monney, 1897

The family had forsaken their other homes, including the Château de Faletans, near Dole, for reasons of economy. The extravagant Marquis seemed to lurch from one financial crisis to another – and Switzerland was a remarkably cheap country in which to live in those days.

The hospitable Faletans had invited their close friend, Madame Kolychko, to spend that winter with them at the villa. Born Princess Varvara Sergeevna Obolenskaya in 1862 or 3, she was amicably separated, after twelve years of marriage, from Iosif Iosifovich Kolychko. Her father’s estate in Russia, Mindukino, had been sold, her mother (re-married to an Italian, Albert Rey) lived in Milan, and Madame Kolychko herself divided her time between various European cities, including St Petersburg, always accompanied by her nine-year-old son, Boris, and his governess.

An enchanting woman, with the sort of looks that caused people to stop and stare in the streets, Madame Kolychko dressed beautifully, was graceful in her every step and movement, had a splendid voice and liked to sing Russian folksongs, accompanying herself on the guitar. She also had a very sweet nature. In the privacy of the villa, she was wont to release her long, fair curls and, in such a state of undress, even consented to be photographed, grinning shyly into the camera.

It is fortunate that the Marquis was a keen amateur photographer. Such informal photographs are very rare from this period. I rescued this one from the damp attic of a country house in France. Despite the damage, it conveys a clear idea of Madame Kolychko’s exceptional looks and personality.

Lindsay Hall

A solitary Englishman was present at dinner that evening. With his distinctive white beard and black velvet coat, Lindsay Hall was a familiar and much-loved figure in Montreux. A retired cotton-broker from Liverpool, Hall resided permanently at the Hôtel Suisse, one of Montreux’s foremost hotels, which towered over the rear of the Villa Monney and had a garden stretching down to the lake.

The Faletans had befriended Hall on his first arriving at Montreux, in March 1896, they themselves having been in residence since the previous September. The Marquis had attempted to photograph his daily ritual which was to feed the birds, a frantic flurry of squawking seagulls and swans, from the garden wall of the lake. Hall would happily entertain young Nicole and Simone and Boris for hours in the garden. Luckily, the foreigners all spoke good English, as Hall himself was no linguist.

Hall had embarked at Montreux on a most delightful new life. He had discovered, apparently for the first time, that he had a remarkable gift for friendship. Owing to some indefinable quality, this slight, unassuming old man was simply adored by men and women of every age and nationality.

He seems to have been a joyous companion, endlessly fascinated by other people, concerned for their well-being and determined to bring happiness to their lives. They universally responded with affection and even utter devotion.

Detail from one of Hall's letters to his daughter-in-law Elsie

The Faletans, who were a kind and unstuffy family, had taken him under their wing and introduced him to all the élite of Montreux. He spent most of every day with them, escorting them to the daily concerts at the Kursaal and then to afternoon tea at the Tennis Club in Territet, and, on summer evenings, sitting up late with them in the hotel garden.

Hall was virtually a pauper, yet he lived in great comfort at the hotel, for the cost of living in Switzerland in those days was, indeed, remarkably low. Lindsay Hall, who survived on ‘less than £100 a year’, hardly exaggerated when he said it was about a tenth of what it was in England.

He had a bright little bedroom on the un-electrified third floor, looking directly onto the Villa Monney. Often he would see his friends the Faletans on the balcony, beckoning to him to come down, or pointing to the lake if an excursion was planned.

He was somewhat torn between his devotion to Olga and to Madame Kolychko, whom he called ‘the princess’. The ladies seem to have competed good-humouredly for his time and affection. At that memorable New Year’s dinner party, he was favourably seated between them. They courteously spoke only in English, whilst he ‘amused them at times to screaming laughter by my attempts at French humour, but they say I am much improving’. Among the other guests were Jeanne Daudet – the adored granddaughter of Victor Hugo, daughter-in-law of the novelist Alphonse Daudet and ex-wife of the journalist Léon (to whom Proust was to dedicate Le Côté de Guermantes) – and Jeannine d’Hauterive, daughter of Alexandre Dumas fils. Hall observed the ‘different ways & manners’ with fascination.

Through a fog of cigar smoke, the Marquis told the men of his work in Belgium, which accounted for his frequent absences. He was an inventor, specialising in armaments, He had already secured a significant contract to modify the rifles of the Russian army, and was now looking for similar contracts elsewhere. He travelled all over Europe and was often in Russia, where he had held a post at the Embassy.

Hall, who struggled to keep up with conversations of this sort, had a merry time instead with the women. Young Nicole, excitedly and in stuttering English, embarked on some elaborate story about a dog. Apparently it had belonged to Madame Daudet’s grandfather, Victor Hugo. It was a poodle – not a toy poodle, a proper one, bred for hunting – and had become a nuisance to its master, requiring constant attention. On a whim, he had given the dog to Nicole’s Papa, who had taken it with him to Russia, but one day the dog had vanished and then a month later had turned up in Paris in a terrible state, barking feebly at its master’s door. No one could explain how it had made such a journey in so short a time, or how it had found its way. Madame Daudet had smiled and nodded in verification of the tale. She had known the dog and had grown up with it in her grandfather’s house on Guernsey, for Hugo had been deeply moved by its devotion and had sworn never to be parted from it again.

Neither Madame de Faletans nor Madame Kolychko could have predicted how involved they would both become with Lindsay Hall. Was he in love with them, and why did they find him so appealing? I suspect that both women, neglected by their husbands, were flattered by his attention, his willingness to listen to them and notice them, without ever feeling challenged sexually (Hall was in his late sixties and a very proper Victorian). Hall may have wished it were otherwise, but a barrier of formality seems always to have been maintained, apart from some mild flirting.

The picture reproduced here is marked in pencil on the back: ‘Madame Kolychko, Villa Monney, 1897’. I am unable to identify her positively in any other photograph. According to the Obolensky family genealogy, she survived Lindsay Hall by 46 years, dying on 18 March 1956, aged 93. I have no further information about her long life, nor do I know what became of her son, Boris Iosifovich Kolychko. One hopes that he survived the twin calamities of the Great War and the Russian Revolution. It would be sad to think that nothing of Madame Kolychko, who made such an impression on contemporaries, had outlived her, not even a memory. I hope that I, in telling her story, have provided a fitting memorial.

[See Nicolas Ikonnikov, La Noblesse de Russie, Tome K.2 (Paris, 1960), ‘Les princes Obolensky’, no.261. Comments and further information will be gratefully received at]

A Montreux group. Madame de Faletans is second from right at the back. Her daughter Nicole is next to her, whilst Simone is seated at the front, third from left. Madame Kolychko may be the woman seated next to her, fourth from left

Alexandre Dumas fils Introduces his Mistress, Nadezhda Naryshkina, to George Sand at Nohant

June 16th, 2014

Since their meeting in 1852, Alexandre Dumas fils had formed a close friendship with George Sand, whom he addressed as his ‘Mama’. In the summer of 1861, he spent a restorative month with her, alone, at the Château de Nohant, her home in the Berry. There was much discussion of his mistress, the beautiful Nadezhda Naryshkina. She had long since abandoned her aristocratic husband in Russia, but his inability to marry her had driven Dumas mad with frustration. Sand, an advocate of free love, scarred by her own unhappy marriage, had heard bad reports of Nadezhda and would have thought him unwise, but had done her best to encourage him and cheer him up.

Dumas fils by Edouard Dubufe

A few weeks later, Nadezhda had been persuaded to accompany Dumas on a return visit to Nohant, invited by Sand to view one of the famous performances in her private theatre. Dumas wrote on 20 September, asking if Nadezhda’s teenage daughter, Olga, might join them. ‘She can sleep in her mother’s room on a sofa. She, as a young Muscovite traveller, will love that!’ He had also begged to be allowed to bring his burly painter friend, Charles Marchal, known as ‘the Mastodon’, who ‘can sleep anywhere, under a tree, under the well’.

Sand had written separately to Dumas and to Nadezhda at Villeroy, assuring them that all would be welcome. Surprisingly in awe of Sand, and expecting to feel inadequate, Nadezhda had been putting off a meeting and had hoped to leave after a day. The socialist Sand, who at fifty-seven was fixed in her ways, had been somewhat apprehensive, too. The ‘princess’ might be shocked by the ‘democratic’ spirit of Nohant, by having to sit side by side with the hairdresser, the cloth merchant, the vet and other lesser beings, for all were received there on equal terms. Even at the last minute she had fussed over the arrangements, concerned that the presence at the table of a young actress, Marie Lambert, might offend.

George Sand by Nadar

The Dumas party had arrived at the gracious, comfortable little château, set in its paradise of a park, late in the evening of 25 September. It had been a gruelling journey from Paris: eight hours in the train to Châteauroux, then three hours along a bumpy road in a diligence. Théophile Gautier, visiting for the first time in 1862, felt that he had been dumped in the middle of nowhere. ‘They pushed my trunk through a bush. I entered by way of the farm. There were dogs on all sides that frightened the life out of me.’

The guests had been led up the grand staircase to their rooms on the first floor, or, in Marchal’s case, the attic, where he was to sleep on a camp bed. Under the light of her Venetian chandelier, the mannish, cigar-smoking Sand and her son Maurice had awaited them in the opulent salon, with its Louis XVI armchairs and harp and the piano that Chopin (a former lover) used to play, Sand’s own famous portrait by Charpentier and those of her illustrious ancestors, including Maurice de Saxe, natural son of the King of Poland. Marie Lambert had been there, along with Léon Brothier, who had arrived by the morning train. Sand had noted of Marchal, as big and boisterous as her Newfoundland dogs, that he had ‘a nice face’. Dumas had brought depressing news, a mutual friend having suddenly died, and the party had gradually dispersed, sad and exhausted, to bed.

George Sand imposed strict rules on her guests. Breakfast was at ten, followed by bowls in the garden and chat. Certain fixed hours of the day and night were set aside for working, a sacred ritual. At other times she could be found in the salon. For Dumas’s visit, she had dedicated three evenings for performances in her little theatre, with Marie Lambert in a leading role. The one-time library, off the entrance hall, was permanently fitted with a stage, backdrops and curtains. There was an alcove on one side where Maurice gave his spirited puppet shows. Sand had wanted to try out her latest work, a ‘fantastical piece in three acts, a bewildering fantasy’ called Le Drac, and was eager for her friends’ expert opinion. As for her bucolic neighbours who would make up the bulk of the audience, ‘they may not understand a single word, but we won’t care. We don’t want them thinking that this is just for their amusement.’

She had promised a series of demanding performances lasting well into the night and guaranteed to make her audience sweat. Whether Nadezhda and Olga had been able to make sense of Le Drac is unclear, but Sand later reported that it had ‘greatly pleased Dumas fils and other competent observers’. It was perhaps with some relief that the Russian ladies had left on 30 September, to be followed by Dumas on 9 October. The rascally Marchal, an unabashed, unsubtle womaniser who never failed to amuse, had stayed on till 22 November, having charmed his way into his ageing hostess’s bed.

Marchal had soon proved unreliable, but at least Sand seems to have taken a favourable view of ‘the two Russias’ (as Dumas called them), and to have been impressed by their exotic pedigree. Always remembering them to Dumas in her letters, she referred to them as ‘the châtelaines of Villeroy’ or ‘our princesses’, whilst Olga is variously ‘the young autocratess Gachetscowa I’ or ‘the fair young Czarine’. Olga was destined to make an impression, having grown into the image of her mother, with the same delicate features, Roman nose and auburn hair. George Sand was thenceforth to be notably solicitous for her welfare.

The Origins of the Naryshkin or Narischkine family of Muscovy

May 29th, 2014

At a recent family gathering, it was noticed that five of us were wearing the same signet ring, inherited from our Russian great-great-grandmother or, in one case, great-grandmother. Olga Aleksandrovna Naryshkina (or Narischkine, as it was usually spelt in the West) was born at Paris in 1847, and died at Southsea, Hampshire, in 1927. There was some discussion about what the arms represented. Alternative explanations were offered, but here is mine.

Olga Aleksandrovna Naryshkina, Marquise de Faletans (1847-1927)

The Naryshkins had been a relatively obscure gentry family until the late seventeenth century, when a certain Natalya Kirilovna Naryshkina had caught the eye of the ‘Most Gentle’ Tsar, Aleksey Mikhailovich. As a child Natalya had been sent to Moscow from the remote province of Torussa, to be brought up there by her godmother, a Scotswoman called Madam Matveeva. This lady, whose maiden name was Hamilton, was married to the Boyar Artemon Matveev, the Tsar’s close friend and adviser. At a time when foreign influences were generally abhorred and when women were shut away from the world in separate quarters, the Matveevs were open to the progressive ideas, habits and customs of the West, which were imbibed by Natalya herself as she grew up. The widowed Aleksey, an occasional visitor to the Matveev house, was charmed by their young ward and, on 22 January 1671, they were married. The following year, Natalya gave birth to a son who was the future Tsar and Emperor Peter the Great.

Natalya Kirilovna Naryshkina, mother of Peter the Great

Natalya’s father and a throng of brothers, uncles and cousins had immediately descended on the court to receive patronage from the uxurious Aleksey. The status of the family was transformed, almost overnight. They were received into the Duma of Boyars and were loaded with lesser titles, as well as gifts of land and serfs. Quick to conceal their undistinguished origins behind a mythical version of their genealogy, they cultivated social pretensions to match. In 1686, when the then joint Tsars, Ivan and Peter, created the famous Velvet Book in which the pedigrees of the nobility were to be inscribed, the Naryshkins entered one that took them back to ancient times. It was claimed that they descended from the Naristi, a Germanic tribe mentioned by Tacitus. As the Naristi were thought to have inhabited the north-west corner of Bohemia, the Naryshkins took as their arms those of the capital of that region, the imperial city of Eger (modern Cheb in the Czech Republic). The arms adopted by the family thus consisted of an imperial eagle with the lower part of its body covered by a grille, alluding to the fact that the incomes of the city had once been placed in pawn by the Emperor. It was further claimed that, as their ancestors had reigned over Eger, the Naryshkins had inherited princely rank, a privilege that in Russia was traditionally reserved for the male-line offspring of former ruling houses (those of Kiev, Lithuania, Tatary and a few others). However, among the Naryshkins, it was a point of honour that the title of prince should never be used. They maintained that their surname was dignity enough.

Ivan Aleksandrovich Naryshkin, Olgas's great-great-grandfather

Tsar Aleksey had died in 1676, to be succeeded by Fedor, the son of his first marriage. After Fedor’s death in 1682, the Naryshkins had hoped to promote Peter to the throne, but had been thwarted by his half-sister Sofya, who, on seizing power, had purged the court of Naryshkin influence, brutally putting leading members of the family to death. Seven years later, they had had their revenge, deposing Sofya in a coup (she was shut away in a convent) and inaugurating the sole reign of Peter, although his mother became the de facto ruler of Russia until her death in 1694. Since that date, the Naryshkin family had never ceased to occupy a position of prominence in the Romanov court.

Given the uncertainties of his early life, it is not surprising that Peter grew up to be remarkably ignorant and uncouth, but it seems he owed all his most remarkable qualities to his mother’s side. The first Romanovs had all been feeble, either in body or mind. Peter was a giant of just under seven feet. When he walked, his officials had to run along beside him in order to keep up. He was naturally athletic, and so dexterous that he could twist a silver platter into a scroll, and cut a piece of cloth with his knife in mid-air. His manners were appalling. On one occasion, when a guest was boring him at dinner, he spat full in his face. The Russian upper classes were not noted in that period for their refinement. Yet it was from Natalya that Peter had inherited the nervous energy which enabled him to modernise and transform his country. His mental agility, his enquiring mind and his admiration for the West were further legacies from his mother. Physically, he is said to have resembled one of her brothers, Fedor Naryshkin.

Ekaterina Aleksandrovna Naryshkina (born Stroganova), wife of Ivan, by Jean Voile

Olga Naryshkin was descended from one of Natalya’s great-uncles, Ivan Ivanovich. All her ancestors since Ivan had held office at the imperial court. Her great-great-grandfather, Aleksandr Ivanovich (1735 – 82), Chamberlain and Privy Councillor in the reign of Catherine the Great, had married the Princess Anna Nikitishna Trubetskaya, daughter of Prince Nikita Trubetskoy, Procurator-General of the Senate, from the old Lithuanian royal line. Their son, the Senator and Ober-Tseremoniymeister Ivan Aleksandrovich Naryshkin, had in turn married in Catherine’s presence into the fabulously rich Stroganov family, though he had been sentimentally attached to a certain Mademoiselle Vertel, a Frenchwoman who kept a shop in St Petersburg. The Baroness Ekaterina Aleksandrovna Stroganova had nevertheless borne him three sons, Aleksandr, Grigory and Aleksey, and two daughters, Elisaveta and Varvara. Aleksandr was an officer in the Life Guards who had died pointlessly in a duel, having been rash enough to challenge Count Fedor Ivanovich Tolstoy, the most famous duellist of the day. Grigory, the elder surviving son, became a Colonel in the Semenovsky Guards’ Regiment, died in Sorrento in 1835, and was the father of Aleksandr Naryshkin, Olga’s father.

A gathering of Naryshkin descendants, May 2014 (photo by Paul Spillane)

Constant de Thierry des Estivaux, Marquis de Faletans – inventeur du taille-crayon

September 17th, 2013

Constant, Marquis de Thierry de Faletans

L’invention du crayon «de plomb» est créditée aux Anglais en 1564. L’inventeur du taille-crayon était un Français, Thierry des Estivaux. À Paris en 1847, il fait breveter sa conception du tube classique équipé d’un cône qui rétrécit et d’une lame. Il s’agissait d’une invention qui a sauvé les doigts de générations d’écoliers, qui auraient dû tailler la pointe de leurs crayons avec leurs canifs. Il s’agit d’un objet qui est universel et pris pour acquis.

Constant de Thierry des Estivaux était un vaillant officier et patriote. Celui-ci  est né à Paris en 1797, le fils aîné du colonel Gaspard de Thierry, baron des Estivaux en Lorraine, le commandant fringant des 9e hussards pendant les guerres de la Révolution, et sa belle épouse Romarine, comtesse de Faletans et Digoine, une franc-comtoise.

En 1814, alors qu’il était encore écolier, Constant participait à la défense de Besançon, et en 1815, âgé de 17 ans, combattait aux côtés de son père à la bataille de Waterloo,  d’où cinq blessures. Il servit ensuite dans les dragons de Besançon et, à partir de 1822, dans l’armée russe, en tant qu’aide-de-camp personnel de son «oncle», le général comte de Langeron. L’un des grands hommes de son âge, Langeron avait sauvé la vie du duc d’York, le «grand vieux», combattit les Turcs sous Potemkine et commandait une division à Austerlitz. Un parent éloigné, il traitait Constant comme son propre fils.

Constant quittait la Russie après la mort de Langeron en 1831, avec l’intention de s’installer à Paris. Il est arrêté à Briançon, à la frontière française, apparemment sur ​​les ordres d’Adolphe Thiers, le ministre de l’Intérieur. Ses bagages, contenant des documents volumineux de Langeron, ont été saisis. Les documents sont éventuellement placés au ministère des Affaires étrangères à Paris, et dont diverses parties ont depuis été éditées et publiées. Sans toujours l’avouer, Thiers tire pleinement d’eux dans son Histoire de l’Empire (publié dès 1845), duquel, à son tour, son livre fournissait Tolstoï avec beaucoup de son matériel de base pour la Guerre et la Paix (publié dès 1868). Le récit de Langeron du briefing de Weyrother avant la bataille d’Austerlitz constitue la base d’une scène particulièrement mémorable (Livre III, chapitre XI). Tolstoï le fait jouer avec une tabatière en or, tandis qu’il écoute les inanités de Weyrother, un sourire ironique sur son visage alors qu’il tente de piquer sa vanité. Langeron, que Byron avait déjà évoqué flatteusement en vers dans Don Juan, n’aurait pas été mécontent.

Le Château d’Abbans-Dessus (Doubs)

Autant que l’on sache, Constant ne devait plus jamais être officiellement employé. Au lieu de cela, il a essayé sa main comme inventeur. Il  brevetait une de ses inventions en Angleterre en 1839, et, pour aucune raison particulière  utilisait le pseudonyme de «Morillon». Le 21 Avril 1846, il brevetait, cette fois-ci en France, sa conception d’un «propulseur palmipède propre à la navigation maritime et fluviale». Sa tentative d’améliorer la propulsion nous fait penser au  «pyroscaphe», le bateau pionnier avec des rames équipées de lames rotatives propulsé à la vapeur, inventé par son parent âgé, le marquis de Jouffroy d’Abbans, et testé sur le Doubs à Beaume-les-Dames en 1776. À la retraite au château d’Abbans-Dessus (Doubs) dès 1816 Jouffroy d’Abbans était un proche voisin des Faletans (ces derniers s’étaient retirés pendant les périodes troublées dans leur propre château de Busy); transférait-il, peut-être sa passion pour l’ingénierie au jeune Constant. Jouffroy d’Abbans avaient reçu peu de récompense ou de reconnaissance pour son invention, et décédait comme retraité nécessiteux dans l’Hôtel des Invalides, en Juillet 1832. Si Constant ne s’est pas ruiné positivement par ses efforts, de même, ils ne lui ont guère enrichi.

Le Château de Faletans (Jura)

Constant de Thierry des Estivaux a été autorisé à ajouter à son patronyme celui de sa mère, de Faletans, par décret en 1851, et en 1863, après s’être installé au Château de Faletans (Jura) a été créé marquis de Faletans en tant que représentant de la famille marquisale de Faletans, dès lors éteinte. Il était mon arrière-arrière-arrière-grand-père. Jusqu’à tout récemment, je n’avais aucune idée qu’il était l’inventeur du taille-crayon. C’était surement sa plus belle  réussite, mais, malheureusement, celle-ci n’est pas la base d’une fortune familiale. La production en masse de crayons date de la fin du 19e siècle. La demande énorme et continue des crayons, pour les écoles et les bureaux, a décollé dans les années 1900. Constant, lui, est mort en 1871. Il mérite d’être mieux connu.

Mon histoire de la famille, The Incredible Journey of Victor Hugo’s Dog, est en préparation:

(This blog was originally published in English in July 2011: see

Charles Mumby & Co., Gosport and Portsmouth: Memories Evoked by the Isle of Wight Steam Railway

July 18th, 2013

A Mumby descendant at Wootton Station

To travel on the Isle of Wight Steam Railway is to step back in time. I love the waiting room at Havenstreet with the piles of leather suitcases. The redundant station at Wootton has been reconstructed and looks like a typical country terminus of a hundred years ago.

The station building itself is an authentic recreation of the pre-1920s one at Havenstreet, based on a photograph from 1905. The building is festooned with the same notices and advertisements as in the photograph, the most prominent being one for ‘Mumby’s Table Water and Home Brewed Ginger Beer, Portsmouth, as Supplied to the Queen’. I feel a flush of pride, as this was my grandmother’s family firm.

It was founded by Charles Mumby (1823-1895) from Chatteris in Cambridgeshire, a pharmaceutical chemist, who settled at Gosport in 1844. An ancient sea-port that juts into Portsmouth Harbour, Gosport was a ‘well-built, handsome town’ with flourishing, thrice-weekly markets and a railway terminus, contained by ramparts and a moat dating from the 1750s.

A remarkably personable and impressive young man, rather short, but muscular and very good-looking with his wavy blond hair, Charles went into business on his own in 1849, at 47 High Street. He was keen to diversify and, applying his skill with concoctions, soon set himself up as a manufacturer of mineral waters. To ensure the necessary supply of water, he sank a large bore-hole or artesian well in the large yard at the back of his shop, which had a rear access from North Street. At 384 feet, the well was deep enough to reach the aquifers in the chalk subsoil, for Gosport is almost surrounded by the sea, and penetrated by a number of salty creeks.

His next step was to instal elaborate machinery to increase the output of manufactured ice. The fame of Charles’s soda water, ginger beer and lemonade spread rapidly across the south of England and within a few years he was supplying large quantities to both the army and the navy, which were traditionally victualled from Gosport. His crowning glory was to receive a Royal Warrant from Queen Victoria, Mumby’s being one of only four brands of mineral-water that were served at her table.

Charles Mumby was a classic Victorian entrepreneur, a Nonconformist, as many of them were, commended for his ‘marvellous activity and energy, admirable business talent, sterling honesty and genuineness of purpose’. By then a rich and influential man, he became in 1864 a member of the Board of Trustees that governed the town. He was to serve for thirteen years (from 1881 to 1894) as Chairman of the Board, overseeing a vast improvement in the borough. Streets were widened, the old fortifications removed. Areas of open ground were acquired for recreational purposes, and a Free Library was created.

Colonel Charles Mumby

Charles became a Poor Law Guardian, a magistrate, a County Councillor for Hampshire, and sat on innumerable public and social committees. The manufacture of mineral waters continued at his original premises in the High Street, and an office was opened up at Portsmouth, first at 71 St George’s Square, then, from the late 1870s, at 34 The Hard. Charles was a founder member of the National Liberal Club (where he rubbed shoulders with Gladstone) and Colonel of his local territorial unit, the Third Hampshires.

Charles Mumby retired from the active management of his business in 1885. The chemist’s shop, reduced by this time to a sideline, was given up. His eldest son, Everitt, was appointed managing-director of the mineral-water company, from which he derived a good living, though he had neither the capacity nor the inclination for a career in business. It was Everitt who oversaw the public flotation of the company in 1898, an event which greatly enriched the family, and further allowed him to indulge his penchant for travel.

Display of Mumby bottles in Gosport Library

Everitt Mumby died in 1906, leaving a third of his majority holding in the company to his only son, Cyril, although the young man would have preferred a career in the army and held the rank of Captain in a militia regiment. When Cyril Mumby was appointed managing-director in 1907, the firm employed about a hundred hands (manual and clerical) in its two factories and had capital of £45,000. He installed himself in the finest house in Gosport, Stanley House (later known as ‘The Hall), next to Holy Trinity Church, on the edge of Portsmouth Harbour, and was the owner of an expensive motor-car and a yacht.

Cyril’s good fortune ended in 1914. Serving with the First Battalion the Lincolnshire Regiment, he was severely wounded at the Nonne Bosschen. After the war, he was to make a new life on the Continent, resigning his directorship of the company in 1924. He died in 1938, by which time the company had been sold out of the family, though it continued until the 1960s to trade under the Mumby name. My mother recalls seeing its advertisements at the cinema in her youth.

The prosperous, elegant Gosport that the family had helped to create was destroyed by a combination of the Luftwaffe and post-war planners. Nothing remains of the firm’s headquarters at 47 High Street, nor of its offices on Portsmouth Hard. Stanley House, my grandmother’s childhood home, was demolished in 1965 by a philistine local authority, which had already razed most of the surrounding area to the ground. The site is now an open space, hedged by two hideous tower blocks that are familiar landmarks to anyone passing in or out of Portsmouth Harbour.

(See The Isle of Wight County Press, 25 May 2012. The full story of the Mumbys is in my forthcoming book, The Incredible Journey of Victor Hugo’s Dog.)

Constant de Thierry des Estivaux, Marquis de Faletans – Inventor of the Pencil Sharpener

July 20th, 2011

The invention of the ‘lead’ pencil is credited to the English in 1564. The inventor of the pencil sharpener was a Frenchman, Thierry des Estivaux. At Paris in 1847, he patented his design of the classic tube fitted with a narrowing cone and a blade. It was an invention that saved the fingers of generations of schoolchildren, who would otherwise have had to whittle the points of their pencils with their pocket-knives. It is an object that is universal and taken for granted.

Constant de Thierry des Estivaux was a gallant officer and patriot. He was born at Paris in 1797, the eldest son of Colonel Gaspard de Thierry, Baron des Estivaux in Lorraine, the dashing commander of the 9th Hussars during the Wars of the Revolution, and his beautiful wife Romarine, Comtesse de Faletans et Digoine, a franc-comtoise.

In 1814, while still a schoolboy, Constant took part in the defence of Besançon, and in 1815, aged 17, fought beside his father at the Battle of Waterloo, where he five times wounded. He served in the Besançon Dragoons and, from 1822, in the Russian army, as personal aide-de-camp to his ‘uncle’, the General Comte de Langeron. One of the great men of his age, Langeron had saved the life of the ‘grand old’ Duke of York, fought the Turks under Potemkin and commanded a division at Austerlitz. A distant relative, he treated Constant as his own son.

Constant left Russia after Langeron’s death in 1831, intending to settle in Paris. At Briançon, on the French border, he was arrested, apparently on the orders of Adolphe Thiers, the Minister of the Interior. Constant’s baggage, containing Langeron’s voluminous papers, was seized. The documents eventually found their way into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Paris, and various parts of them have since been edited and published. Without always acknowledging it, Thiers makes full use of them in his Histoire de l’Empire (published from 1845), which in turn was to provide Tolstoy with much of his background material for War and Peace (published from 1868). Langeron’s account of Weyrother’s briefing before the Battle of Austerlitz forms the basis of a particularly memorable scene (Book III, Chapter XI). Tolstoy has him toying with a gold snuffbox whilst he listens to Weyrother’s nonsense, an ironical smile on his face as he attempts to sting his vanity. Langeron, to whom Byron had already referred flatteringly in verse in Don Juan, would not have been displeased.

As far as is known, Constant was never again to be formally employed. Instead, he tried his hand as an inventor. In 1839 he took out a patent in England for one of his inventions, for some reason using the pseudonym ‘Morillon’. On 21 April 1846 he took out another patent, this time in France, for his design of a ‘palmiped propeller suitable for coastal and inland navigation’. His attempt at improved propulsion recalls the ‘pyroscaphe’, the pioneering steam-powered paddle propeller invented by his older relative, the Marquis de Jouffroy d’Abbans, and tested on the Doubs at Beaume-les-Dames in 1776. In retirement at the Château d’Abbans-Dessus (Doubs) – pictured left – from 1816, Jouffroy d’Abbans had been a near neighbour of the Faletans (who had retreated during troubled times to their own château at Busy), perhaps passing on his passion for engineering to the young Constant. Jouffroy d’Abbans had received little reward or recognition for his invention, and had died, a needy pensioner in the Hôtel des Invalides, in July 1832. If not positively ruined by his efforts, Constant, likewise, was hardly enriched by them.

Constant de Thierry des Estivaux adopted the surname ‘de Thierry de Faletans’ in 1848 and in 1860, having settled at the Château de Faletans (Jura) – pictured left – was recognised as Marquis de Faletans, a title inherited from his uncle. He was my great-great-great-grandfather. Until recently, I had no idea that he had invented the pencil sharpener. This was surely Constant’s proudest achievement but, unfortunately, is not the basis of any family fortune. The mass production of pencils dates from the later 19th century. The huge and continuing demand for pencil sharpeners, for use in schools and offices, took off in the early 1900s. Constant had died in 1871. He deserves to be better known.