La Grande Thérèse (1999) was one of those impulse purchases I sometimes make in Oxford’s £2 bookshop – the Matisse painting on the cover; the fact that Hilary Spurling wrote it; the subtitle ‘The Greatest Swindle of the Century’; its brevity. I was sold. And the book was sold. To me.
La Grande Thérèse tells the true (amazingly!) story of Thérèse Daurignac, born into a fairly poor family, with no rich connections or impressive prospects, but who managed to become Madame Humbert, one of the most successful society women in fin-de-siècle Paris, with all the major players of the day visiting her home and paying her homage. Three Frence presidents and at least five British prime ministers were amongst her friends.
How did she manage this? By what talent or good fortune?
Somehow, simply through deceit, ‘her ingenuous air and her adorable lisp’, and a ruthless selfishness, Thérèse elevated herself and her family to the highest ranks of society. Spurling’s short book tells the story of her rise – and, in 1902, her catastrophic fall. She started with small fry – in Toulouse she managed to outwit dressmakers and hairdressers with promises of an inheritance soon to be given her. This was just small scale for what she would eventually do. Thérèse married Frédéric Humbert, a shy man with a sharp legal brain, and together the plot continued apace. Wherever she went, Thérèse spoke of a legacy that would be hers – over the years it escalated, until it was in the millions. A strongbox, purportedly containing the legal papers of this legacy, was kept in its own locked room, occasionally shown to an important visitor. Thérèse expertly built up a mystique around her fortune – and on the back of it bought an enormous home on the avenue de la Grande Armée. She rarely paid for anything at all, and her family (including a rather violent – possibly, Spurling suggests, murderously so – brother) wangled loans of staggering amounts from people up and down the country. Such were their powers of persuasion.
All her life Thérèse treated money as an illusion: a confidence or conjuring trick that had to be mastered.
Spurling goes through Thérèse’s family in a little more depth, exploring the characters of various siblings and children (and especially develops the nature of one relative by marriage, an avant-garde artist called… Henri Matisse!) but the outline is there – and, such is the brevity of La Grande Thérèse, that the outline isn’t expanded a huge amount. It is astonishing that this trickster got so far – but, of course, it couldn’t last. With hundreds of creditors wanting their money, it turned out to be a relatively minor court order (for the address of her mysterious American benefactor) which brought the whole house of cards down. The family disappeared. The nation was in outcry. A lengthy trial eventually… but, no. Although this is not a novel, I shall not spoil the ending.
The most curious thing about Spurling’s book is that such a thing could happen without everybody knowing about to this day. She discusses, in an epilogue, the various reasons why this scandal has been covered up – ‘if the Dreyfus affair had knocked the stuffing out of the right wing and the army, the Humbert affair seemed likely to do the same for the Left and its civil administration’ – but it still seems extraordinary that such a shocking tale could be all but forgotten. The second most curious thing about Spurling’s book is the writing style she adopts. From beginning to end, it is written almost as though it were a fairy tale. Here is how it opens:
Thérèse Daurignac was born in 1856 in the far southwest of France in the province of the Languedoc, once celebrated for its troubadours and their romances. Life for Thérèse in the little village of Aussonne, just outside Toulouse, was anything but romantic. She was the eldest child in a poor family: a stocky, bright-eyed little girl, not particularly good-looking, with nothing special about her except the power of her imagination. Thérèse told stories. In an age without television, in a countryside where most people still could not read, she transformed the narrow, drab, familiar world of the village children into something rich and strange.
Our sympathies even seem to be nudged towards Thérèse and her family, admiring the audacity of her financial conjuring tricks. In a fairy tale, perhaps she would be a heroine – because consequences in a fairy tale are not really consequences. Yet her selfish ambition destroyed many, many lives – thousands of people were left ruined; a substantial number killed themselves. They are not quite forgotten by Spurling, but this extraordinary tale could easily have been given a more tragic structure, rather than the they-do-it-with-mirrors account Spurling prioritises.
There are no footnotes in The Grande Thérèse, or even sourcing – no proper bibliography or indication where Spurling got individual facts and quotations from (although the illustrations are referenced properly.) As I rather suspected, Spurling wrote The Grande Thérèse as a tangent while researching a book on Matisse, and perhaps she simply wanted a holiday from academic writing. I was perfectly happy to be swept along by the bizarre facts Spurling presents – perhaps they suit this sort of storytelling, rather than a chunky, footnoted biography – but it does leave me with many unanswered questions, not least about Thérèse’s psyche and conscience. But those are questions for the novelist, not the writer of non-fiction and The Grande Thérèse is far more striking as non-fiction than it could be as fiction. If you fancy being shocked and surprised, and don’t mind being left a touch bewildered, then go and find this extraordinary little book.