The following is an excerpt from Sisters Abroad: The Traveling Lives of Katherine and Martha Wilmot, a biography tracing the true story of of two Irish siblings journeying through Napoleonic Europe between 1801-1807.
On the first of May, Katherine awoke to the smell of freshly cut flowers laying on the pillow beside her head, a tradition to celebrate the blooming season. Her host, Madame de Pescheloche, did everything that she could to give her guest a genuinely French experience. She took Katherine along to the baths every morning in Versailles for a morning dip, strolling her around the town, all the while speaking incessantly in the French that Katherine was struggling to absorb.
It was important for Katherine to get her money’s worth, as it was her own that she was spending. The sum was borrowed out of the small inheritance which had allowed her to accompany the Mount Cashells abroad in the first place. The money was dwindling fast. In Versailles, she paid for her room and board, unlike at the Hotel de Rome, where she was lavished with treats by Margaret, the room adjoined to hers at no cost. Writing to Martha, she addressed her sister by her long-running alias: “I am to pay thru the nose for my stay here. But Oliver- do you see- I must run my luck and no one but me knows what torture it is to be as I have been about French.”
It had been hard to slip away from Margaret and her entourage. The two had grown incredibly close over the months spent together, practically inseparable, but the constant proximity to one another had made some of their differences more pronounced. Margaret’s seemingly endless wealth, one of the few benefits of her marriage, and the social power that it afforded her were foreign to Katherine, though the latter so often benefitted from her position. While the inequity of their friendship did not drive a wedge between them, it did motivate Katherine to take some time apart from the group, exploring Versailles independently.
Imagining her sister’s confusion at her separation from the traveling party, she wrote, “But says you ‘what do the Mount Cashells think of your elopement?’ Why, they went through all the different gradations of surprise- and now they are perpetually familiaris’d to the idea.” Surely Margaret and her husband had guaranteed the Wilmot family to keep a close eye on Katherine while abroad, but Margaret wanted to let her friend roam free and do what she needed. Luckily for Margaret, Katherine had found a charming young man to entertain her, saving her from spending too much time alone with Lord M. “I have left her under the protection of Young Parnell- who is suited to her taste- in every respect- He will supply my absence. – and had he not been in Paris I’d not have quitted her. For I heartily love her.”
The Pescheloches were a military family with no children. Katherine felt that she had never been in the presence of a happier married couple, a true example of “the genius of domestic life”- a feeling perhaps inflated by the past few months spent with the Mount Cashells. Monsieur de Pescheloche was Chef d’Escadron in the Cavalry, a handsome man with good manners, but a strange habit of sneaking into her room to leave treats by her bedside. “What was my consternation,” she wrote, “at seeing Monsieur de Pescheloche, in full Regimentals dress’d for Parade, quietly stealing into my Room with my Bason of Coffee in his hand.” Katherine was disturbed by the overzealous hospitality but assumed the differences were cultural: “I mention these little circumstances to mark the difference of manners.” Madame de Pescheloche was equally attractive and well bred, though Katherine found them reserved and distant, a result, perhaps, of the economic arrangement that had brought her into their path. The Pescheloches, like Katherine, had money on their minds. Monsieur Pescheloche had lost almost everything in the Revolution aside from his military post. They had been forced to exchange “the superfluity of wealth” as Katherine wrote to her father, for “all the stamina of wisdom, with all the beauty of its moderation.”
Despite the awkward dynamics of being a paying guest, Katherine respected the couple and enjoyed their comfortable yet unpretentious home. It was surrounded by white flower blossoms and situated the comforting distance of a three hour carriage ride from Paris, far from the pressures of constant social mingling. “I am glad too at quitting Paris at present for manifold reasons!” she wrote to Martha, relieved to be staying “in the midst of fields, perfumes, country scenes and balmy air, after so many months privation.”
Katherine, like many British travelers in France during the brief window of peace, experienced the events of the recent Revolution as a kind of gruesome touristic fodder. In choosing Versailles as the place where she would finally get to grips with the French language, Katherine had deliberately picked a location that placed her close to the high drama of the war. She often walked on sunny afternoons to the Petit Trianon, Mary Antoinette’s retreat on the palace grounds, and sat under the cherry trees and honeysuckle, imagining the Queen’s escape attempts. Her hosts took her to Château of Madame du Berry, the King’s former mistress who was led to the guillotine, the lovely, grand house fallen into decay. Katherine found these locations “preternaturally animated by their associations of past story,” imbued with a stimulating energy that she wanted to be near.
Across the road from the Pescheloche household was a tennis court which had been the makeshift setting of the first French National Assembly meeting in 1789. Le Jeu de Paume had commemorative plaques mounted on the outside, “registering the oath, which bound the members to eternal fidelity, relative to every observance of liberty, equality, indivisibility.” Staring at the abandoned façades of these once-great and worshipped sites of the country’s history, Katherine mockingly questioned the current state of the Revolutionary project, writing that the tennis court “remains a mouldering monument, the expense of playing ‘Le Jeu de Paume’ being too great for the Messieurs of the present day.”
Katherine’s musings on France’s past were suddenly interrupted by an encounter with the present: Margaret, Lord M. and the young Mr. Parnell arrived at Versailles, whisking her back to Paris for an audience with Madame Bonaparte. Margaret was appeased by her handsome escort but couldn’t bear to be without the company of her friend for very long. The women slipped away from their male traveling companions when they arrived in Paris and headed to the assemblage. They surely shared confidences in the carriage, laughing raucously over the spectacle of Monsieur Pescheloche tiptoeing into Katherine’s room to leave freshly baked treats at her bedside. It was confidences like these that had prompted Margaret to bring Katherine along, and Katherine, though cherishing her temporary escape to Versailles, didn’t want to leave Margaret feeling abandoned.
Together they crowded with countless other ladies into the enormous halls of the Tuileries to be presented. Arm in arm the two strode around the room, Margaret glancing at people from her tall vantage point, Katherine stretching her neck to get a better view. Katherine wrote in her diary that Napoleon’s wife was “that sort of looking woman, that if chance had not placed her on such a pinnacle, would escape minute observation.” She had an easy nature and was fairly unpretentious. After Madame Bonaparte had taken fifteen minutes to accept the curtsy of every woman in attendance, she quickly slipped out of the room. “This ended the business and this incense to Royalty,” Katherine wrote, herself slipping back out of Paris and into the countryside.
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