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The Mystery of the Versailles Time Slip

PART ONE – The Original Time Slip of 1901

It is only in the last two years that I became familiar with what is usually referred to as the Moberly-Jourdain incident, or the Ghosts of the Trianon, thanks to my friend Patrick Bernauw. In August of 1901, two highly educated English women, women of impeccable reputation, Charlotte Moberly and Eleanor Jourdain, were visiting the gardens of Versailles. Moberly was the president of St Hugh’s College in Oxford, and Jourdain was her assistant at the time (who also went on to an esteemed academic career).

Here is a highly abridged version of what happened to Moberly and Jourdain. I will follow it with my own, very different yet potentially related, experience:

Charlotte Anne Moberly

Charlotte Anne Moberly

On 10 August 1901, Moberly and Jourdain toured the palace of Versailles, which apparently neither of them were really impressed with (this becomes potentially important later as a theme) but they got lost along the way to the smaller Trianon Palace(s) in the gardens. Now, this is not hard to do, and whereas I have personally been to Versailles many times, I still get lost in the miles – yes, miles – of gardens. The tree lined avenues are long and confusing in the way they intersect and lead to different areas of the main and smaller palaces. And there is a strange, disconcerting feeling to the gardens at certain times of the day which I cannot fully explain. But I will say that I have had emotional – to the point of erratic – overload while walking those avenues myself, so I think that naturally sensitive people are prone to the inherent mysteries of Versailles.

Back to 1901, the Englishwomen missed the turn for the main avenue after discovering that the Grand Trianon was closed. They went in search of the Petite Trianon (most famously known as Marie Antoinette’s private little palace) and found themselves off track and on a smaller lane. Charlotte Moberly saw a woman shaking a white cloth out of the window of a small stone cottage and Jourdain noticed what appeared to be a deserted farmhouse, where an old plow or wheelbarrow and some farming equipment lay. At this point they claimed that they were both suddenly overwhelmed with a feeling of “oppression and dreariness.”

Eleanor Jourdain

Eleanor Jourdain

They kept walking and came upon some men who they thought were palace gardeners. Moberly later described the men as “very dignified officials, dressed in long grayish-green coats with small three-cornered hats.” Eleanor Jourdain reported passing a cottage with a woman and a girl standing in a doorway; the woman was holding out a jug to the girl and the girl was reaching up for it – and yet somehow they appeared to be frozen in time. Jourdain described it as a “tableau vivant”, a living picture, which has been compared to a type of modern wax work. Moberly said that she did not observe the cottage, but strongly felt the atmosphere change. She wrote: “Everything suddenly looked unnatural, therefore unpleasant; even the trees seemed to become flat and lifeless, like wood worked in tapestry. There were no effects of light and shade, and no wind stirred the trees.”

They reached a place close to Marie Antoinette’s Temple of Love and came across a man sitting in the garden, who again appeared to be in period dress, wearing a cloak and large “shade” hat. But this man was foreboding. In the words of Miss Moberly, his appearance was “Most repulsive… its expression odious. His complexion was dark and rough.” Jourdain stated that “The man slowly turned his face, which was marked by smallpox; his complexion was very dark. His expression was evil and yet unseeing, and though I did not feel that he was looking particularly at us, I felt a repugnance to going past him.” A few moments later, another man who was described as “tall, with large dark eyes, and crisp curling black hair under a large sombrero hat” approached them, and showed them the way to the Petit Trianon. (I am unclear here as to what may have been happening in terms of language, but I assume this all took place in French and that the women spoke French. The quote I have found says that he spoke “in a strange accent.” I have just started reading the official Moberly and Jourdain book from 1911 recounting the experience so will provide those details when I reach them).

The women then crossed a bridge on their way to the Petit Trianon. When they reached the gardens in front of the palace, Miss Moberly witnessed an elegant lady, elaborately dressed, who appeared to be sketching. Moberly remembered, “The lady was wearing a light summer dress, on her head was a shady white hat, and she had lots of fair hair.” Moberly was confused and thought the woman was a tourist who had come to sketch the gardens, however she was dressed in what again appeared to be period costume. Moberly would later say that she absolutely believed that the woman was Marie Antoinette after viewing a specific portrait of the Queen and recognizing her. Miss Jourdain did not see this woman, however.

Marie Antoinette and two of her children

Marie Antoinette and two of her children

Neither woman could get the strangeness of the day out of their minds after leaving Versailles. Although skeptics criticize the fact that they admitted that neither of them mentioned the episode until they were back in England a week later, I think this is understandable. Both women were deeply affected by the experience – and both were academics from conservative English families in the early dawn of the 20th century. As they would discover later, talking about this experience would be controversial, even scandalous. When they finally did discuss it, they decided to write separate accounts of what they had experienced and then compare notes. Both became utterly obsessed with the event. Over the years that followed, they returned to France and visited the gardens on several occasions, but many of the landmarks they remembered distinctly no longer existed the bridge was missing, a garden “kiosk” – and the grounds were filled with tourists every time (and anyone who has been to Versailles can attest to that!)

They thought, perhaps, they had been there on a day when there was a private party or some kind of historical event that involved recreation, but research proved that not to be the case.

Comte de Vaudreuil

Comte de Vaudreuil

As they looked at paintings from the era, they discovered that the man they saw in the gardens had a shocking resemblance to the Comte de Vaudreuil, the lover of Marie Antoinette’s best friend and himself a close companion of the queen. The only difference was that the man they witnessed had dark skin. This, for me, is a highly important piece of information. Whereas the painting (below) does not depict a man of dark complexion, that was the art style and fashion of the era. However, the count himself was born in the West Indies and had a Creole mother – and a dark complexion. Neither of the women would have known that when they first discovered the painting. As a similar example, Napoleon’s beautiful Queen Josephine is depicted with milky white skin in all of her portraits, and yet she was also the daughter of an islander of African descent and had a dark complexion.

Moberly and Jourdain published a book about their experience called An Adventure (in 1911), but worried about the controversy, they used the pseudonyms of Elizabeth Morrison and Frances Lamont. Because they claimed that the woman they had seen that day in the gardens was none other than Marie Antoinette, the book was indeed controversial. Skeptical organizations have attempted to discredit their account and chalk the event up to some kind of female hysteria (one explanation was that it was brought about by some sort of shared psychosis that was transferred through lesbian relationships! Note to all my gay friends: please let me know if you are experiencing time travel within your relationship. Thank you.) But others – including artists as diverse as JRR Tolkien and Jean Cocteau – were profoundly influenced by the event and considered it utterly authentic and highly important. I am told that Cocteau called it “the most important event in history” but am awaiting the French copy of the book so we can translate the quote exactly.

In an interesting follow up, both Moberly and Jourdain had paranormal experiences before and after the adventure in Versailles. Charlotte Moberly seems to have enjoyed the experience and thrived on it more; she claimed to have seen an apparition of the Roman emperor Constantine in the Louvre (readers of my book, The Expected One, will remember that I also had a paranormal experience in the Louvre). Eleanor Jourdain, who succeeded Moberly as the principal of St. Hugh’s College in Oxford, was less fortunate and appears to have been haunted by the event for the rest of her life. Her behavior became increasingly erratic and she died suddenly in 1924 under somewhat mysterious circumstances.

Coming: Part II, my time slip experience in Versailles and elsewhere.

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