(Mis)carriage of justice: the strange case of Lieutenant de la Roncière & Marie de Morell
In this post I will be straying slightly from my customary field of imperial history: I have chanced across an extraordinary story. In a recent piece, I wrote about a minor but amusing diplomatic spat in Tahiti in 1865; the temperamental counterparty to the British consul in that tale was the French governor of the Pacific island, Comte Émile de la Roncière. In looking into his background, I discovered that – as a young cavalry officer three decades previously – he had been the cause of a famous scandal.
“…we have, fortunately, scandalous topics enough to interest us…”
In July 1835, The Morning Post brought a somewhat breathless report from across the English Channel:
The trial of M. de la Roncière, for the perpetration of deeds too horrible to be described, upon the person of Mademoiselle de Morell, commenced yesterday at the Paris Assizes... Few criminal cases have presented circumstances so atrocious and mysterious. The refined perverseness of the perpetrator of the crime, the infamy of his motives and deed… all has tended to attract public attention towards the Palais de Justice…
The Morning Post, July 2nd 1835
The court heard a strange story, which began in 1833 as Lieutenant de la Roncière was posted to the cavalry school in Saumur, then commanded by General Baron de Morell. Early in 1834, Baron de Morell was joined in Saumur by his wife and their sixteen-year-old daughter Marie, along with a young English governess, Miss Allen. As was usual, the house of the commanding officer was a social focus for the officers at the school, and it was doubtless at an event there that de la Roncière met Miss Allen. Although the court did not learn this fact, de la Roncière – widely reputed for his success with women – soon made her his mistress.
Marie de Morell, anonymous letters, and a serious allegation
Lieutenant de la Roncière naturally also met Marie de Morell during this period, sitting next to her at a dinner not long after her arrival in Saumur. Although the evidence does not allow for certainty, it seems that he somehow offended her on this occasion, perhaps through comparing her looks unfavourably with those of her famously beautiful mother.
Whatever passed between the two that evening, it marked the beginning of a bizarre campaign of letter writing: over the following months, dozens of purportedly anonymous letters (though sometimes signed ‘E. de la R.’) were sent to Madame de Morell, Miss Allen, Marie herself, and others. They made a variety of salacious claims of intimacy with Marie, other strange and unfounded assertions, and assorted threats and insults. The letters were on occasion posted from Saumur, but sometimes were found already inside the Morell household, left prominently on furniture or mantelpieces. We now know that these letters were written by Marie de Morell herself, in a clumsy assault on the reputation of Lieutenant de la Roncière, but even despite the obvious questions of authorship that the strange letters raised, they caused Baron de Morell to ban de la Roncière from his house, and led to a duel between de la Roncière and another officer.
However, the salient event leading to the trial was the serious allegation levelled by Marie de Morell about the night of September 23rd 1834, which had led to the arrest of de la Roncière and to his being charged with attempted rape. Marie told the court that de la Roncière entered her bedroom by smashing the window, tore off her camisole, and then tied a handkerchief around her neck and a rope around her waist. She said that he struck and bit her, before finally disappearing back through the window as Miss Allen tried to force the door. De la Roncière was found guilty of attempted rape and assault, and was sentenced to ten years in prison with hard labour.
Concern over miscarriage of justice
Immediately after the trial, significant concern was raised about a miscarriage of justice. The authoritative London journal The Law Magazine, though careful to note that more evidence was needed, raised numerous problems with both the evidence and the verdict in their extensive coverage. It identified profound flaws in the trial proceedings, including an excessive concern for sparing Marie de Morell’s feelings, and numerous unexamined contradictions in the accounts given by Marie and Miss Allen. It notes evidence that the window in question was broken from inside the room, and the absence of any sign of a ladder or other implement being used to scale the house. With legalistic care, the journal offered a partial opinion:
On the whole we think that few juries would have ventured to convict on the evidence of Mlle. de Morell and her governess, unsupported as it is in various material points, without the additional proof derived from the anonymous letters.
The Law Magazine, Vol XV, May 1836
It then goes on to make it clear that it considers the letters as of unconfirmed authorship, given the evidence available. Though it carefully avoids coming to any conclusion unwarranted by the facts, The Law Magazine is very clear that a miscarriage of justice may have occurred.
De la Roncière freed & Marie becomes an example
It was not alone. Growing voices of concern led eventually to de la Roncière being freed, after serving eight years of his sentence; though he had to wait until after the 1848 Revolution for full restoration of his position, he was then officially rehabilitated. He went on to a distinguished career in the colonial service, culminating in the position of Imperial Commissioner & Governor of Tahiti that brought him to my attention.
The case became a famous example of miscarriage of justice, and for decades was used to illustrate the supposed dangers of testimony given by women – and especially young women – who were often dismissed as ‘hysterical’. Several accounts of the trial in the early twentieth century continued this presentation of Marie de Morell as being of flawed and unreliable character, and unfairly advantaged in the trial because of her innocent appearance and fragile bearing. Retrospectively, she was made into a vengeful hysteric who nearly succeeded in destroying the life of an innocent young officer.
The scandalous story had all the right elements to keep it alive in the popular imagination – glamorous French aristocrats, sexual jealousy, gross injustice, final redress – and it retained its notoriety for decades after all concerned were dead. It even found its way into John Fowles’ 1969 book The French Lieutenant’s Woman (and the 1981 film version starring Meryl Streep), in which the fictional characters discuss and write about the actual historical case.
Extraordinary information comes to light
However, in a quite extraordinary development, new information was brought to light by the renowned French lawyer, René Floriot. In his 1968 book Les Erreurs Judiciare (translated into English as When Justice Falters, 1972), Floriot reveals a confession made by Émile de la Roncière, which was included in an obscure book by Gaston Delayen, published (though evidently not very successfully) in 1925. Delayen had, early in his career worked for the famous advocate Maître Carré, who was by then very aged. Carré had, when himself a young lawyer, met de la Roncière, who had told him the full story. After the verdict was announced in 1835, de la Roncière had requested to meet with the trial judge in private, and revealed what had in fact happened on the night in question.
De la Roncière had been out drinking in Saumur with fellow officers, including oneLieutenant Ambert. Conversation turned, not surprisingly, to the famous ‘anonymous’ letters that had caused General de Morell to cast de la Roncière from his house. Clearly irritated by Marie de Morell, who he blamed for his problems, de la Roncière offered a wager to his friends that he would make the young woman his lover. Some companions tried to talk him out of it, but Lieutenant Ambert accepted the bet of one thousand crowns (a sum which the typically broke de la Roncière did not actually have).
Late that night, still drunk, de la Roncière went to visit his mistress Miss Allen in the Morell house. Her room was separated from Marie’s chamber only by a single door; knowing this, the officer entered the girl’s room, slipping the bolt behind him to prevent Miss Allen interrupting his plan. Evidently, de la Roncière did not in fact intend on rape or seduction – perhaps due to his relationship with the girl’s governess – but had come to acquire a personal trophy that he hoped would be sufficient proof to satisfy his friends regarding the bet. Finding Marie standing in her room (roused from sleep, presumably, by the intrusion), he swiftly tipped her onto the bed, lifted her shift and, using a pair of scissors brought for the purpose, snipped off a lock of her pubic hair before departing the way he had come. On hearing this confession, the trial judge had said that he would do nothing further, since de la Roncière had in any case been sentenced.
Reinterpretation of events
This bizarre revelation radically transforms our understanding of the story. De la Roncière committed a serious indecent assault, so he was guilty, even if not precisely in the way that the court determined. Moreover, this important information resolves a number of curious points in the evidence. The most convincing interpretation of events is that, following de la Roncière’s strange assault on Marie, she and Miss Allen worked to fabricate a cover story that would expose de la Roncière while protecting Miss Allen. Her involvement in a relationship with him would assuredly lead to her dismissal and – in those days – undoubtedly mean a permanent loss of reputation that would make future employment difficult. It is also quite likely that Marie de Morell sought to avoid the ridicule that would follow upon public knowledge of the frankly weird pubic theft. This version of events makes sense of the evidence that the window was smashed from inside, and of the absence of any sign of the house being scaled (as well as other details omitted here).
Transformative facts are not always transformative
What is in a sense most shocking, however, is the way that this transformative fact does not change the way some analysts of the case view it, and specifically the way they view Marie de Morell. Even the knowledge that she was the victim of a violent assault does not alter the general tendency to see this case as a miscarriage of justice. Floriot, for example, recognises that de la Roncière committed a crime (‘indecent assault with violence’) but only rather grudgingly concedes that ‘the miscarriage of justice was thus far from being as complete as was thought…’ He admits that ‘the original verdict is partly upheld by these new elements’, but insists on focusing on the lies that Marie and Miss Allen concocted in their cover story. In a similarly begrudging spirit, John Fowles will only allow that de la Roncière ‘at least partly deserved the hysterical Mlle de Morell’s revenge on him…’
These responses seem to suggest that ingrained prejudices can make it well-nigh impossible for some people to accept a change in the prevailing interpretation, even when the facts have changed radically...
Hysteria, Sexual Assault, and the Military: The Trial of Émile de La Roncière and The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Ellen Shields, Mosaic, Vol 28 No 3, September 1995
When Justice Falters, René Floriot (tr. Rayner Heppenstall), 1968/1972