Succès de Scandale
By Sheryl Flatow
It sounds like a plot dreamed up by a novelist with a vivid imagination. Two sisters in 17th-century Europe leave their aristocratic husbands—one a Roman prince and the other a French religious zealot—and abandon their families. They spend their lives traveling, trying to develop a network that will help sustain them. Along the way, there are kidnapping plots, stalking, and other forms of danger.
But it’s all true. Hortense and Marie Mancini are the central figures in a book currently being written by Elizabeth Goldsmith, professor of French and academic affairs director at International Programs. Goldsmith first wrote about the sisters in 2001 in Publishing Women’s Life Stories in France, 1642–1720, which examines the memoirs of six 17th-century women—three religious, three secular—and how they came to be published.
“I was particularly intrigued by the secular women, who became notorious because they left their families and traveled,” she says. “They wrote to defend their reputations. I started looking more into Hortense and Marie Mancini, trying to figure out how they traveled, how they got around.”
The Mancini sisters had been brought up in the court of Louis XIV—Marie was the Sun King’s first mistress—and for different reasons and at different times, both walked out on unhappy marriages, even though it meant leaving behind their children. “I’m interested in how women’s travel relates to the idea of taking risks and the usefulness of taking risks,” says Goldsmith. “I also wanted to know why women on the road were so fascinating to everybody. The Mancini sisters were early media figures. Their travels were documented in news gazettes and in correspondence, in addition to their own memoirs.”
Eager to learn more about their experiences, Goldsmith searched the family archives of Prince Colonna, Marie’s husband, in Subiaco, Italy. There, she says, “I found an incredible number of letters and documents that tracked her movements and the movements of her sister.”
Prior to researching Life Stories, she was unsure how the women got from place to place. Goldsmith’s work reveals that the sisters’ seemingly arbitrary paths were the result of an early and often imperfect form of public transportation—the postal system. “In the late 17th century, there were regularly scheduled carriages that carried mail all over Europe,” Goldsmith says, “and that’s what made it possible for the women to travel the way they did. When I first traced their travels, their routes didn’t make any sense to me. Then I realized they were connecting with postal coaches, and they weren’t necessarily sure where the coaches would lead them.”
Goldsmith finds the stories of these women invigorating. “People tend to assume that women from this period weren’t able to operate freely at all,” she says. “And despite the fact that these women had a very difficult time on the road, there’s a kind of exuberance to their stories that I find fascinating and uplifting. They really made something of their lives and their educations in deciding to write about themselves and defend themselves and go public with their stories.”
She hopes that historical figures like the Mancinis can help readers see the eddies and whirls in history’s flow. “People are surprised to learn that progress in the area of women’s independence does not move steadily from this dark period of the past toward this bright and open period of modernity. There are different moments in history when you see examples of women being able to defy convention in interesting ways.”