Phenix on Samuels (2020)

Samuels, Maurice. The Betrayal of the Duchess: The Scandal that Unmade the Bourbon Monarchy and Made France Modern. Basic Books, 2020, pp. 398, ISBN 978-1-5416-4545-5

The subject of Maurice Samuels’s latest book beggars belief: one could be forgiven for mistaking the story of the betrayal of Maria Carolina, duchesse de Berry for a boulevard melodrama. The plot features a plucky protagonist, a cholera epidemic, an out-of-wedlock pregnancy, secret messages written in invisible ink, and a villain of Biblical proportions—at least that is how the contemporary anti-Semitic press put it. Adding to the drama is the fact that the traitor in question, Simon Deutz, was the son of Emmanuel Deutz, the highest-ranking Jewish authority in France from 1826 to 1842. With this book, Samuels builds on his previous work about Jews in nineteenth-century France while covering new ground, positioning Deutz as “the missing link between Judas and Dreyfus” in the history of French anti-Semitism (5). Deutz’s birth in 1802 coincided with the era of emancipation of France’s Jews; Deutz’s betrayal marked the moment that anti-Semitic sentiments coalesced into theories about the racial alterity of Jews. These ideologies formed the philosophical foundation out of which eventually grew Vichy’s genocidal policies in the twentieth century. Samuels argues that if we want to understand what happened in 1942, we must first look to 1832.

At the time of the duchess’s attempted coup, the question of how France would be governed was hardly settled. The fits and starts of democracy had given way to Napoleon’s Empire, the Bourbon Restoration, and then the constitutional monarchy of Louis-Philippe. The citizen king’s pursuit of the juste milieu made him the target of invective from both the left and the right. The confluence of political turbulence and pestilence convinced the duchess to act; she saw the cholera epidemic of the early 1830s as proof of God’s displeasure with constant revolution. In order to restore peace to France, she sought to claim the throne for her son Henri, the so-called “miracle child” who was born eight months after his father’s assassination. What followed was a months-long attempt to garner both domestic and foreign support for her (ultimately, lost) cause. She made most of her surreptitious expedition on foot disguised as a boy, eventually landing at 3, rue Haute-du-Chateau in Nantes—the place of her eventual capture. 

The end of the duchess’s escapade was as dramatic as the rest of her journey. After hiding in a secret compartment behind a fireplace for hours, the duchess was literally smoked out of her cachette by French soldiers after they lit pages of the legitimist journal La Quotidienne to keep warm. In one of the book’s many witty observations, Samuels remarks that “[n]ewspaper generates hot air in more ways than one,” (223) and that La Quotidienne, which had long entertained the duchess with its detailing of Louis-Philippe’s ineptitude, “now became the source of her torment” (223). The man responsible for the duchess’s apprehension was, of course, Simon Deutz. After his conversion to Catholicism and a series of unlikely introductions, Deutz became familiar with the duchess, eventually serving as her plenipotentiary in foreign courts while she was in hiding. Deutz ultimately proved himself to be a consummate political weathervane: the failure of the duchess’s military efforts in France pushed him to switch sides and broker a deal with Louis-Philippe’s minister Adolphe Thiers in which he would receive 500,000 francs for revealing her whereabouts. When Deutz finally obtained an audience with the duchess, he secured her capture using his greatest talent—reading the room. He drew a map of her cachette for government officials and, with her arrest, foreclosed the hope of a Bourbon restoration.  

In Deutz, we see a man who is willing to change everything—his name, his religion, his political affiliation—to enrich himself. Samuels is rightly skeptical of Deutz’s claim that he only betrayed the duchess to spare France another civil war; nothing in his machinations suggest that he was motivated by anything but self-interest. What Samuels so convincingly shows is that the true tragedy of Deutz’s betrayal is not the duchess’s political failure, but rather the vicious anti-Semitic backlash that laid the groundwork for Edouard Drumont’s hateful screed La France juive (1886) which, in turn, served as a model for Hitler’s Mein Kampf (1925). The episode took on mythic dimensions as a struggle between good and evil: the duchess’s political allies and adversaries unanimously decried Deutz’s treachery. For those who sympathized with the duchess, Deutz and his Jewishness represented everything insidious that modernity had supposedly ushered in: venality, irreligiosity, and infidelity to the Old Regime values of honor and self-sacrifice. In the press, the duchess’s Frenchness was solidified in opposition to Deutz’s Jewishness—never mind that the duchess herself, who, like her great aunt Marie Antoinette, was foreign born, spoke French with an accent, and had ceased to be French when she married an Italian noble in an attempt to legitimize her pregnancy. The duchess’s comment upon learning of Deutz’s betrayal—that at least it was not a Frenchman who gave her up—exemplified the kind of hateful ideology that would eventually crystallize into modern theories of Jewish racial difference. 

The Betrayal of the Duchess could hardly be timelier, considering the duchess’s circumstances were so much like our own—a time of political upheaval, worldwide pandemic, and resurging anti-Semitism. Fortunately, Samuels’s insights are accessible to a broad audience: his rigorous research and profound insights are communicated in clear, elegant prose. This book is essential reading for students of nineteenth-century France and, generally, anyone who wants to better understand the mechanisms of hate. At the end of the book, Samuels considers the ethics of rehearsing Deutz’s betrayal because of its potential to inflame anti-Semitic sentiment. He calls it a “calculated risk” and makes the case that granting Deutz—however unsavory his actions—the full spectrum of humanity is the most intellectually honest and ethical thing a student of history can do (322). As for the duchess, though she failed to win the throne for her son, what she does succeed in doing, thanks to Samuels’s masterful book, is reclaiming an integral role in France’s evolution in modernity.