On this day in 1846 occurred one of the most enigmatic episodes in the brief life of the Parisian courtesan Marie Duplessis – her marriage to Count Edouard de Perrégaux at the Kensington Register Office in London.
Marie had met Edouard a few years previously, at a masked ball at the Paris Opera House in the rue Le Peletier. Edouard’s grandfather was Jean Frédéric de Perrégaux, a financier who had been made a senator by Napoleon Bonaparte and who became the first regent of the Bank of France. His son, Charles Bernardin, was made a count during the Empire. Edouard had fought in Africa against Abd-el-Kader, the great opponent of France’s conquest of Algeria, and had acquitted himself very well. Afterwards, however, his conduct deteriorated. He contracted debts, which increased on his return to France. On the death of his father, he found himself with a very large fortune at his disposal. He proceeded to dispose of it as fast as he could, becoming involved in all the high life of Paris. On meeting Marie, Edouard rapidly dropped another courtesan, Alice Ozy, in order to take up with her, installing her in an apartment at 22 rue d’Antin.
As an amant de coeur, Edouard had to put up with his mistress having a roster of paying clients who took up most of her waking hours, with just a few hours at night reserved for him. Unsatisfied with this situation, wanting Marie to himself and to be with her all the time, Edouard rented a house for her in the countryside at Bougival with the intention of freeing her from this daily round of Paris – and from the exigencies of other men. Here for a few weeks the couple enjoyed a pastoral idyll, though they also made regular excursions into Paris to attend the Opéra and to eat at the Café Anglais or the Maison Dorée. Marie was flattered by Edouard’s exclusive passion for her and willing to reciprocate his love as far as she was able and for as long as he was able to continue supporting her. All he wanted to do was keep her happy, and he fell out with his family and friends as Marie continued to dissipate his fortune. It was around this time that Marie began to show signs of illness, coughing blood for the first time.
Then, on their return from a two-month stay in Baden, Edouard realised that he could no longer afford to keep on the house in Bougival. Marie felt she had been deceived as to the extent of Edouard’s fortune, and realised that she again needed to find other protectors to support her way of life. Or, as Romain Vienne puts it:
It was then that she noticed, by the sudden cooling of her sentiments, that she had loved him only superficially, in the intoxication of deceitful hopes; that she had been the dupe of lying appearances, and that she had built her projects on shifting sand.
Edouard did not make a complete break with Marie, but she returned to dispensing her charms elsewhere – including acquiring a wealthy new protector in the shape of the octogenarian Count Gustav Ernst von Stackelberg, a former Russian ambassador to Vienna, who set her up in style at 11 boulevard de la Madeleine.
And then, out of the blue, Marie and Edouard de Perrégaux were married in Kensington on 21 February 1846. Marie had obtained a passport from the Prefecture of Police on 25 January which described her as ‘Mlle Alphonsine Plessis, person of private means, living in Paris at 11, boulevard de la Madeleine’ and provided the following additional details:
22 years old, height one metre 65 centimetres, light brown hair, low forehead, light brown eyebrows, brown eyes, well-made nose, medium-sized mouth, round chin, oval face, ordinary complexion.
On 3 February Marie obtained a visa from the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, and she and Edouard set off for London. The address for both Edouard and Marie is given in the marriage register as 37 Brompton Row, Kensington.
Husband and wife never lived together after this mysterious marriage. It was perfectly regular according to English law, and Edouard could have made it valid for France by having it properly announced according to article 170 of the Civil Code. Instead he abandoned his wife immediately after the wedding and let her return alone to Paris. Marie kept the surname Duplessis but began to use the title of Countess for certain business matters. With the help of a specialist she designed her own coat of arms, using part of the arms of her husband, and had them emblazoned on her carriage, her linen and her silverware.
The rest of Marie Duplessis’s brief and eventful life is recounted in my book, Grandes Horizontales.