17 JUNE 1955, Page 10

What Happened at

Versailles? J.

'La distance n'y fait rien : it n'y a que le premier pas qui cotite.' (The Marquise du De/Jand in a letter to D'Alembert, Z July, 1763.) IN August. 1901, two English ladies paid a visit to Versailles. These ladies were both intelligent and respected : one, Miss C. A. E. Moberly, was at the time Principal of St. Hugh's; and the other, Miss E. F. Jourdain, later succeeded to the same position. In 1911 they published, under two pseudo- nyms and the title An Adventure, their accounts of this joint visit; together with accounts of later visits and various papers about, and arising from, the prolonged historical researches which led them to the conclusion that they had then been in retrospective telepathic contact with Marie Antoinette. 'We had entered within the working of the Queen's memory when she was still alive . . . quite mechanically we must have seen it [Trianon] as it appeared to her more than a hundred years ago, and have heard sounds familiar, and even something of words spoken, to her then.' (Fifth Edition, p. 89; Faber, 1955, 12s. 6d.) Miss Moberly's story begins prosaically enough : 'After some days of sightseeing in Paris . . . Miss Jourdain and 1 went to Versailles' (p. 31). 'Looking at Baedeker's map we saw the sort of direction and that there were two Trianons. and set off' (p. 32). 'There were three paths in front of us, and as we saw two men a little ahead on the centre one, we followed it and asked them the way. Afterwards we spoke of them as gardeners, because we remembered a wheelbarrow of some kind close by and the look of a pointed spade, but they were really very dignified officials, dressed in long greyish-green coats with small three-cornered hats' (pp. 32-3). 'We walked briskly for- ward, . . . but from the moment we left the lane an extra- ordinary depression had come over me. . . . Everything sud- denly looked unnatural . . . even the trees behind the building seemed to have become flat and lifeless, like a wood worked in tapestry' (p. 33 : italics hers). They saw a bridge and a kiosk which they later came to think could not be those there in 1901 : but could be identified with their predecessors. Near the kiosk sat a man 'who had on a cloak and a large shady hat' (p. 33): later they thought he must have been the Comte de Vandreuil, well known at the court of Marie Antoinette. After this a running man caught them up: at the time they took him for one of the gardeners coming after them to put them right: but afterwards they thought he was a messenger coming to warn Marie Antoinette of the approach of the mob. Miss Jourdain notes that he 'ran olf with a curious smile on his face' (p. 41). Miss Moberly, but not Miss Jourdain, records seeing next a lady apparently sketching : 'I thought she was a tourist . . . I looked straight at her; but some indescribable feeling made me turn away annoyed at her being there' (p. 33). This lady they later identified with Marie Antoinette. Finally 'a young man' who 'had the jaunty manner of a footman, but no livery . . . offered to show us the way round. He looked inquisitively amused. . . (p. 36). They thought he came from a door which they later identified as that of a disused chapel. For years it had not had there any door that could be opened.

To assess this eerie story it is essential to distinguish three sorts of questions : first, those about what visual and other experiences the ladies did in fact have at Versailles on August 10, 1901; second, those about what there was to be perceived normally there then; and third, those about what there had been to be perceived normally there in the period of the French Revolution. Now Miss Moberly and Miss Jourdain over many years devoted enormous pains to research about Versailles in the times of Marie Antoinette, and also took some trouble— albeit rather belatedly—to find out what was going on there on the day of the adventure. Attention has thus been distracted from the question which should come first: Just what is the evidence that the ladies actually did have on that day exactly the experiences which they later came to believe they had had? It is only insofar as the actual experiences fail to fit the scene of 1901 and yet square with that of an earlier period that any special problem arises at all.

The earliest records that we have were made a considerable time after the event : Miss Moberly's (Al) ) is dated 25 Novem- ber-107 days after; while Miss Jourdain dated hers (A2) 28 November-110 days after—adding a note that she had written before seeing her companion's version. In the first edition (p. 11) there is a reference to a 'descriptive letter' written by Miss Moberly in the first week after the incident : but this is not available. Yet even these first documents are not those on which the case has usually been judged : they were included only in the second (1913) edition, and do not appear in the first (1911), third (1924), fourth (1931), or even in the new fifth (1955) edition. According to a statement made by Miss Moberly to the Research Officer of the Society for Psychical Research in April, 1911, Al and A2 were 'written to each other, who knew every detail of the scenery'.

The two documents included in all editions, B1 by Miss Moberly and B2 by Miss Jourdain, were certainly written later than Al and A2: (and hence, incidentally, were most emphatic- ally not independent accounts). Dr. Joan Evans in her Editor's Preface to the fifth edition simply asserts of these : 'Later in November and early in December, they wrote fuller accounts for their friends' (p. 19); and then proceeds to print them both with the same date 'November, 1901' without comment (p. 19 and p. 43). But there are reasons to doubt whether B1 and B2 were anything like as early as this: these reasons Dr. Evans does not even mention, much less attempt to meet; though she does refer, in another connection, to the paper in which W. H. Salter deploys them (p. 19n : the paper, to which anyone wishing to follow up this subject should refer, appeared in the S.P.R. Journal, Vol. XXXV, Nto. 656). When in October, 1902, the authors tried to interest the S.P.R. in the case, they produced only Al and A2; it can surely be assumed that had B1 and B2 then existed they would have produced these fuller accounts 'of a more descriptive character . . . and written for those who had not seen the place' (Preface to Second Edition); especially when the S.P.R., in the person of Mrs. Henry Sidgwick, had concluded that there was not enough in Al and A2 to serve as a basis for investigation. Furthermore the authors, who had neglected to provide any external corroboration for their dating of any of the documents in the case, themselves destroyed the originals of B1 and B2, which may have contained internal evidence of date. This extraordinarily unscholarly behaviour they attempted to justify by curiously confused reasoning : 'It was not until 1904, on discovering the changed aspect of the grounds, that we attached any importance to Bl, B2. They were copied (with introductory sentences) into an MS book in 1906, and then destroyed' (Preface to Second Edition: it is most re- grettable that Dr. Evans, though reprinting the Author's Pre- face to the First and Third Editions in her Fifth Edition, has not seen fit to include this).

This fuss about the dates of BI and 132 is not just a piece of donnishness. Though the authors doubtless intended in these merely to give fuller accounts 'for those who had not seen the place', in fact they went far beyond that. For in B1 or B2, or often in both, there are substantial differences in the accounts of all the people met with : and all these emendations are such as to make them more difficult to fit into the Versailles of 1901. Thus, for example : in Al Miss Moberly in her account of the incident of the running man 'could not follow the words he said'; but by the time she wrote B1 she had remembered four teen words and—no doubt assisted by Miss Jourdain's remarks about this in A2—something about the accent in which these had been spoken. Again : two men 'who appeared to be gar- deners' in Al become in B1 'really very dignified officials'. Then the man by the kiosk, identified as the Comte de Vandreuil (who had had smallpox), had in Al simply a 'most repulsive' face while in A2 'his expression was very evil' : but by B1 'his complexion was very dark and rough' while B2 was able to add that 'his face . . was marked by smallpox'. The young man comes out of the building near the Petit Trianon 'banging the, door behind him' in B1, and in B2 '1 still have the sound in my ears of his slamming it behind him': but in Al and A2, which alone were certainly written before the authors knew of the long-disused door, nothing is said about banging or slam- ming. Where A2 mentions a woman and a girl seen together without describing their dress, in B2 the author 'particularly noticed their unusual dress' and proceeds to describe it. And so on. The same fatal tendency for the mystery to grow with every telling can be seen at work even between the written and the printed versions of B2: Dr. Evans in her Preface speaks of only 'insignificant divergencies' (p. 20); yet she notes in the text what is surely a very significant divergence, that while in the MS Miss Jourdain 'could not remember the dress' of the man later identified as the messenger, the printed version has added that 'the man wore buckled shoes' (p. 41 and n). These may seem trivial details. But it is precisely on the accumulation of individually small details of this sort, which it would be hard to square with the Versailles scene of 1901 but which fit the Versailles of the Revolution, that the whole case rests.

Until and unless there is much more impressive evidence to show that Miss Moberly and Miss Jourdain actually had on August 10, 1901, the experiences which by the time of writing B1 and B2 they had come to believe that they had had, it will remain completely beside the point to argue whether these alleged experiences square better with the Versailles of 1901 or with that of the Revolution. It is therefore very much to be deplored that Dr. Evans and her publishers have missed their opportunity to provide a critical edition of the documents print- ing the texts side by side for comparison. It is all very well to remark piously : 'The reader must make up his own mind. I hope I may have simplified his task by the production of this edition' (p. 22). But without the essential background informa- tion and without the chance of comparing the successive docu- ments, even the new edition, for all its supplementary maps and illustrations and character sketches of the authors, can serve only to bemuse.