This month occasions the 245th anniversary of a major event.
The Marquis de Lafayette and Adrienne de Noailles married Monday, April 11, 1774. One of the great partnerships of all time, it was a near miss.
Lafayette’s father died when Lafayette was two, sliced in half by an English cannonball. His mother died when Lafayette was twelve. He became heir to a fortune that made him among the wealthiest men in all Europe.
The Duc d’Ayen de Noailles needed husbands for his five daughters. The second of his daughters Adrienne, he thought, would be an ideal match for Lafayette. Lafayette was fourteen. Adrienne was twelve. The Duc proposed the arrangement to his wife. She was a no-nonsense matriarch with strong opinions. Her opinion was that Lafayette was too young, had not completed his education, and likely spoiled and conceited given his wealth and isolation as an orphan. She was opposed. The riff was volcanic; they even lived apart on this account for a time. The daughters were aware of this parental discord, but unaware of its cause.
Finally, the Duc proposed a compromise. Sign the marriage contract, but delay the marriage for a couple years. This would at once remove Lafayette from the clutches of other suitors, and provide a period of parole such that the Duchesse could determine whether his mettle measured up. The Duc and Duchesse formally agreed on September 21, 1772; Adrienne was not yet thirteen and Lafayette had just turned fifteen. Neither one had cast an eye on the other.
Marriage in those times was not about affection. It was about business and who brought what to the table.
Lafayette’s negotiator was the conscientious, capable lawyer Jean Gerard. Abbe Murat, Lafayette’s uncle, hovered over details and always on the lookout for duplicity.
The Duc promised a dowry of 400,000 livres. Abbe Murat did not believe the Duchesse had the cash, as the dowry was to come out of her accounts. He demanded financials. The accounting showed the Duchesse worth 2,000,000 livres on her own, with another 1,500,000 livres in the offing from her inheritance. Abbe Murat was delighted, and incidentally admitted he had not seen Adrienne, but was given to understand she had a pretty face.
The letter of intent was signed in October, 1772. Only then was Lafayette informed. Adrienne knew nothing.
The formal wedding contract was signed, February 15, 1773. Adrienne had still not been told.
Lafayette moved into the Hotel de Noailles at Versailles. Although under the same roof, he and Adrienne had separate quarters and he saw her only from the distance of a window or in the presence of her mother. Adrienne had no idea as to why an orphan was living with them.
The Duchesse was on high alert for character fault, some reason to break the marriage contract. She came to know a young man who was sensitive, his temperament ill-suited to dissolute court life. Raised on stories of courage and valor, Lafayette wanted to be somebody. He wanted his life to matter. Unlike someofhis fellow courtiers, he was unfazed if not unaware of his wealth. The Duchesse liked what she came to know. So did Adrienne, though still none the wiser.
In the winter of 1773 the Duchesse finally told Adrienne of the arrangement; told her of her own reservations now overcome; and told her of the contractual intrigues. Adrienne was delighted.
They were married in Paris at 235 Rue St. Honore, the Hotel de Noailles, Monday, April 11, 1774.
Lafayette’s story, in which Adrienne plays a major role, lifts you off the ground. Adventure, disappointment, sacrifice, and purpose are all rolled into one life.
This month 245 years ago marks the anniversary of the contract committing Lafayette and Adrienne to marriage. It is part of the legacy LaGrange may claim as its own. It is a legacy worth discovering and learning about and by creative means visual, audible, tactile, olfactory, and otherwise. The grand scheme is to talk the story with its subscripts of philosophy, history and literature.
One thing more.
The work of figuring out how to present Lafayette’s story is in itself means of discovery and learning. Audiences are different in terms of how they take to story. Its colorblind cast creates community cohesion. It is a challenge that has the potential to craft a distinct unity of spirit.
Lafayette is a portal to a noble civic enterprise. Richard L. Ingram Lafayette Alliance