Love Letters: Duchess And Diplomat

I must be pretty high up there in search engines for this subject. An old post is attracting looks most days lately. This was just yesterday:


Visitors are headed to this about Rosalie de La Rochefoucauld and William Short, which I wrote in February 2014:

Falling Short In The Pursuit Of Happiness

Anyone who knows details about Thomas Jefferson’s years as an American envoy and then Minister to France from 1784-1789 has likely at least vaguely heard of their relationship. Since that 2014 post – for reasons that will become clearer soon enough – I have researched them more deeply. That post back then has a few minor (but generally unimportant) mistakes.

To update things. Who were they?

Rosalie de La Rochefoucauld (born Alexandrine Charlotte Louise de Rohan-Chabot in France in 1763, but friends and family called her Rosalie) was then the attractive young wife of a French liberal duke – Louis-Alexandre, Duke de La Rochefoucauld. The duke was a friend of America and close to Jefferson while Jefferson was in Paris in those years just before, and at the start, of the French Revolution. Love having little to do then with marriage in their strata, the duke and the young duchess were almost certainly married for “dynastic” reasons: his mother was her grandmother, and he (born probably in 1743, the same year as Jefferson) was also twenty years older than she was.

In comparison to the duke, William (born in Virginia in 1759), Jefferson’s private secretary from 1785 until Jefferson’s departure from France, was only four years older than Rosalie.

He was probably introduced to her alongside Jefferson at a public gathering possibly in 1785, but more likely in 1787; and probably with her husband standing right there. It seems that from William’s first encounter with her that she reduced him to, well, mush. From then on, when he wasn’t working, he seemed to spend a lot of his time contriving somehow to see her.

She definitely aided those efforts. He is regularly writing to others of having been to dinners at her home – dinners that must have included her husband and others. (Gouverneur Morris, who would officially succeed Jefferson as Minister to France in 1792, offers numerous wry asides in his diary that William has just left some meeting with him to dine at the La Rochefoucaulds – for the gazillionth time.) Or Rosalie is dispatching hurried messages inviting him to join “them” at the theatre. Or she’s firing off teasing notes afterwards as to how they look forward to seeing him again soon and she likes to think that he enjoys seeing her.

They were eventually spending so much time together – as “friends” – that naturally rumors began flying. From what we can discern, Jefferson didn’t much like their “friendship.” It is unclear what her husband thought. Extra-marital affairs were common in that social strata, but there is no evidence the duke “distrusted” William. It’s impossible to know what went on among them all privately.

William remained behind in Paris after Jefferson left for America because it had been thought Jefferson was only on leave and would sail back the following spring (of 1790). But Jefferson did not return, so William became America’s unofficial representative to France. His tenure in that position lasted nearly three years. Clearly he loved it: the post allowed him to remain in France near her.

Things “hotted up” between them after Jefferson returned to America. William was by accounts also quite a handsome guy, and she wasn’t the only woman who noticed him; but there is no evidence he was ever involved at all with anyone else. If there was some “intimacy,” chances are it started during 1791. But naturally we don’t really know what happened when they were alone except for what appears in their letters written when they were apart.

Her language to him is always proper and measured. She writes in French and he is always “vous” and “Monsieur Short.” His (few surviving letters from this period) to her are in French also; and he was, by then, fluent. Still a learned language is a learned language, and in one letter she writes sweetly of how wonderful his French is and how he even uses phrases that an educated Frenchman would find challenging – which, hearing from her, one suspects, must have made his month (or even his year).

Letters of Rosalie to William, and surviving Ines from him to her. [Photo by me, 2017]
Letters of Rosalie to William, and surviving ones from him to her. [Photo by me, 2017]

We know far more about their developing relationship through her words than we do through his. Nearly all of his early letters to her were burned during (probably) 1793. We know that because she wrote as much in a long, anguished late 1794 letter. By then he was U.S. envoy to Spain, and letters were all that they had. She says that she found out about the destruction afterwards and was beside herself. She adds that she is left with just three letters and tells him that she reads them over and over.

It is unclear who destroyed his letters, but it’s possible someone(s) in her household was trying to protect her during the “reign of terror.” One reason might have been that William may have been rather critical of the Revolution in some of them. By 1792-93, it had gotten around – Jefferson knew even in America, so it must have been common knowledge in Paris – that William had become mouthy about the French Revolution’s murderousness and cruelty mostly because of Rosalie’s sufferings. Jefferson sympathized (to a small extent), but he also wrote William not to turn against the Revolution just because of one family’s troubles.

And they were big troubles. Her husband, for example, was murdered in her presence in 1792. Evidently after that William didn’t really care what Jefferson thought as he sat safely in Philadelphia. But if William had been critical of the Revolution in those letters to her, they could well indeed have endangered her life if they’d fallen into the wrong hands. Again, though, we don’t know.

Unsurprisingly, William carefully preserved her letters to him. Thankfully for history she had a tendency to write citing what he had written to her, or what they had been doing, or reminiscing about what they had done sometime (sometimes years) before. From our jaded, let it all hang out, social media 21st century, it’s an innocent and touching correspondence. Jane Austen wrote nothing better.

Rosalie is recalling they had been out in the carriage for the day, or on a river excursion, or had lounged in sunshine in a meadow. Or she is remembering how the last time they had parted she had had to pull herself together quickly to leave him because she was late for an engagement at her grandmother’s and she hoped when she’d gotten there that no one had noticed the state she was in. (Cue the blushing.) That sort of thing is also a big help in trying to piece together what went on between them.

Sometimes we even read her writing the likes of this (in French):

Why is it, I asked myself, that my dearest friend had to journey to a country so far away from his own to fall in love, to encounter nothing but misery, and finally to be deprived of the one he loves so greatly in the most cruel way. Fate has now ordered matters in another way, but in saving me from the executioner it merely left me to lead an unhappy life far from him I love.

That is also far from innocent; it’s horrifying. Obviously they weren’t just pen pals. They adored each other.

I’m saying no more now because they will be in Conventions. I had planned initially to use them only for background research on the era. However, as I started writing, I thought: Why not include them in the story itself?

So “they” appear in the novel – based on their historical selves.

Have a good weekend, wherever you are in the world. 🙂

Posted by

Author: “Conventions: The Garden At Paris,” “Passports,” “Frontiers,” and “Distances.” British Airways frequent flier. Lover of the Catskill Mountains...and the 1700s. New novel of 1797-1805, "Tomorrow The Grace," due out in 2019.