Friday 19 June 2015

The Haunting of La Clarion

I am thrilled to welcome Chris Woodyard to the salon today for the first of three spooky Georgian tales!


Today’s story of ghostly obsession  is related by Claire-Josephe Clairon, one of France’s greatest tragic actresses [1723-1803] in one of her memoirs. It has  been suggested that this book, which glosses over some of the irregularities of her life, is a shade over-dramatic. There does seem to be a lot of insensibility and swooning going on, as one might expect from a book titled Mémoires d'Hippolyte Clairon et reflexions sur l'art dramatique. (1799) If you care to read the original, you’ll find it here, beginning on page one.

La clarion

One of La Clarion’s rivals, Elizabeth, Baroness Craven, who knew a thing or two about scandal, writes of La Clarion by way of preface to the story above: “She contrived, however, during the early part of her life, to have three lovers at a time constantly in her train—one whom she deceived; one whom she received à la dérobée; and one who lived on sighs.” [Memoirs of the Margravine of Anspach, Written by Herself, Elizabeth, Baroness Craven, London, 1826] The lady obviously had many strings to her beaux.

One of her beaux, in the year 1743, was the son of a merchant of Brittany, Monsieur de S___., “whose attachment appears to have been of the most devoted kind.” La Clarion was willing to consider him as a suitor, but when she found that he had sold his properties to “ape a rank above his own” and, in addition, that he had a melancholy and misanthropic temperament, she reconsidered their relationship. Young M. de S__ also seems to have been obsessed with La Clarion like one of those celebrity stalkers who fantasize about a movie star being in love with them. “His project was to see no one but myself, and to carry me off where I should see only him. That, as may be supposed, did not suit me at all. I was willing to be guided by a flowery band, but not to be fettered with chains. From that moment, I saw the necessity of destroying entirely the hopes he nourished, and of changing his assiduities of every day to occasional visits, few and far between.

This caused him a severe illness, during which I nursed him with every possible care. But my constant refusals aggravated the case… Finally, he recovered his property, but not his health; and, desiring for his own sake to keep him at a distance from me, I steadily refused both his letters and his visits…He sent, in his last moments, to beg that I would grant him the happiness of seeing me once more; but my friends hindered me from doing so. He died, having no one near him but his servants and an old lady, who for some time had been his only society.

Clarion as Medea
Clarion as Medea
"That evening my mother and several other friends were supping with me… The supper was gay. I had just been singing to them, and they applauding me, when, as eleven o'clock struck, a piercing cry was heard. Its heart-rending tone and the length of time it continued struck everyone with astonishment. I fainted, and remained for a quarter of an hour totally unconscious." ..."When I recovered, I begged them to remain with me part of the night. We reasoned much in regard to this strange cry; and it was agreed to have spies set in the street, so that, in case of its repetition, we might detect its cause and its author. "

"Every succeeding night, always at the same hour, the same cry was repeated, sounding immediately beneath my windows, and appearing to issue from the vacant air. My people, my guests, my neighbours, the police, all heard it alike. …"

"One evening the President de B__, with whom I had been supping, escorted me home, and, at the moment he bade me good night at the door of my apartment, the cry exploded between him and myself. He was quite familiar with the story, for all Paris knew it; yet he was carried to his carriage more dead than alive. "

The phantom screamer followed La Clarion even to Versailles:

"The theatre had been ordered to Versailles, on occasion of the marriage of the Dauphin. We were to remain there three days.… as my maid was undressing, to sleep beside me, I said to her, ‘Here we are at the end of the world, and with such frightful weather! I think it would puzzle the ghost to find us out here.’ The same cry, on the instant! Madame Grandval thought that hell itself was let loose in the room. In her night-dress she rushed down stairs, from the top to the bottom. Not a soul in the house slept another wink that night. This was, however, the last time I ever heard it. "

 There seem to be a great many witnesses to the piercing cries: a kind of banshee after the fact: reminding the lady of her lover’s death, rather than predicting it.

As if having banshee-like shrieks coming out of nowhere wasn’t bad enough, Mademoiselle Clarion found herself the victim of an even more threatening type of mystery assault. 

“Seven or eight days afterwards, while chatting with my ordinary circle of friends, the stroke of eleven o'clock was followed by a musket-shot, as if fired at one of my windows. Every one of us heard the report, every one of us saw the flash; but the window had received no injury. We concluded that it was an attempt on my life, that for this time it had failed, but that precautions must be taken for the future. The Intendent hastened to M. de Marville, the Lieutenant of Police, and a personal friend of his. Officers were instantly sent to examine the houses opposite mine. Throughout the following days they were guarded from top to bottom. My own house, also, was thoroughly examined. The street was filled with spies. But, in spite of all these precautions, for three entire months, every evening, at the same hour, the same musket-shot, directed against the same pane of glass, was heard to explode, was seen; and yet no one was ever able to discover whence it proceeded. This fact is attested by its official record on the registers of the police. "

"Next day nothing happened. The day after, having received an invitation from Mademoiselle Dumesnil to attend a nocturnal fete at her house, near the Barriere Blanche, I got into a hackney-coach, with my maid, at eleven o'clock. It was bright moonlight, and our road was along the Boulevards, which were then beginning to be built up. We were looking out at the houses they were building, when my maid said to me, 'Was it not somewhere near here that Monsieur de S__ died. ‘From what they told me,’ I replied, ‘it must have been in one of these two houses in front of us,’ pointing to them at the same time. At that moment the same musket-shot that had been pursuing me was fired from one of the houses, and passed through our carriage. The coachman set off at full gallop, thinking he was attacked by robbers; and we, when we arrived at our destination, had scarcely recovered our senses. For my own part, I confess to a degree of terror which it was long before I could shake off. But this exploit was the last of its kind. I never again heard any discharge of fire-arms.”

Although the phantom visitations had ceased, one day the actress received a caller, an elderly lady.

"’I was, mademoiselle,’ said the lady, 'the best friend of Monsieur de S__; indeed, the only one he was willing to see during the last year of his life. The hours, the days of that year were spent by us in talking of you, sometimes setting you down as an angel, sometimes as a devil. As for me, I urged him constantly to endeavour to forget you, while he protested that he would continue to love you even beyond the tomb. You weep,’ she continued, after a pause; ‘and perhaps you will allow me to ask you why you made him so unhappy, and why, with your upright and affectionate character, you refused him, in his last moments, the consolation of seeing you once more.’

"’Our affections,’ I replied, ‘are not within our own control. Monsieur de S__ had many meritorious and estimable qualities; but his character was sombre, misanthropic, despotic, so that he caused me to fear alike his society, his friendship, and his love. To make him happy I should have had to renounce all human intercourse, even the talent I exercise…The friendship I entertained for him caused me to try every means to bring him back to sentiments more calm and reasonable. Failing in this, and convinced that his obstinate resolve was due less to the extremity of his passion than to the violence of his character, I adopted, and adhered to, the resolution to separate from him for ever. I refused to see him on his death-bed, because the sight of his distress would have made me miserable, to no good end. Besides, I might have been placed in the dilemma of refusing what he might ask me, with seeming barbarity, or acceding to it with certain prospect of future unhappiness. These, madam, were the motives which actuated me. I trust you will not consider them deserving of censure.'

"‘It would be unjust,’ she replied, ‘to condemn you. …[although] your refusal to see him hastened his last moments. He counted the minutes until half-past ten, when his servant returned with the message that most certainly you would not come. After a moment of silence, he took my hand, and, in a state of despair which terrified me, he exclaimed, "Barbarous creature! But she shall gain nothing by it. I will pursue her as long after my death as she has pursued me during my life." ... I tried to calm him. He was already a corpse.' "

Footfalls on the Boundary of Another World. From the 10th Amer. ed., with Robert Dale Owen, 1860

The phantom gun attacks, like the shrieks, were a stunning auditory phenomenon and, in addition, fall into the well-known phantom sniper pattern as related by Charles Fort and Loren Coleman.  It is strange how particular types of paranormal phenomena recur over the course of centuries.  As Mademoiselle Clarion might have said, if she had lived long enough to hear the expression coined, plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

About the Author

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

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This post copyright © Chris Woodyard, 2015.


Sarah said...

I groaned over 'many strings to her beaux'. Very good.
I have to say, I half expected Eustacie de Vauban to pop out of the 'Talisman Ring' with a shriek and a French exclamation that La Clarion could have averted such haunting had she only ridden ventre a terre to his deathbed.

Catherine Curzon said...

I loved this story, and so well told... it would make a wonderful ghostly tale for Halloween!