THE WOULD-BE COMMONER by Jeffrey S. Ravel

THE WOULD-BE COMMONER

A Tale of Deception, Murder, and Justice in Seventeenth-Century France
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KIRKUS REVIEW

Ravel (History/MIT) grapples skillfully with a slippery cause célèbre involving imposture and bigamy in the closing years of Louis XIV’s reign.

Why would an aristocrat abandon his noble status, his well-heeled wife and all they afforded him in 17th-century France to marry an innkeeper’s daughter and pass himself off as a commoner? Examining the curious case of Louis de la Pivardière, aka Dubouchet, Ravel delves into the creaking structure of aristocratic privilege, identity and jurisprudence in a period of theological and intellectual uncertainty. Born in Berry, the youngest son of a nobleman, Louis was “essentially disinherited” and joined the army; in 1687 he married Marguerite Chauvelin, a landowning widow with six children. For eight years they lived on her rural estate, though Louis was frequently absent to seek a commissioned post in the army. During the spring of 1695, while staying in Auxerre, he met the teenage Marie Pillard and married her, subsequently siring several children. When Louis made a visit to Marguerite in 1697, news of his bigamy had reached her. They quarreled, and he repeated rumors that she was carrying on with the head of the local priory. Louis disappeared the same night, and maidservants who saw or overheard something claimed that Marguerite had killed him. However, no body was found, and a man who seemed to be Louis was later hauled before the Palais de Justice. Ravel wades through a dizzying array of testimony about the putative murder and parses Parisian magistrates’ exhaustive attempts to ascertain whether the prisoner before them was indeed Louis and Marguerite should be exonerated. In the end, Attorney General Henri-François d’Aguesseau disentangled the threads sufficiently to allow the court to reach a verdict, though not to allay all doubts. Spinoff stage plays ensured that the scandal attained the status of legend. Ravel enlists similar cases (e.g., Martin Guerre) to enrich his engrossing comparative study.

A surprisingly light-footed look at fundamental questions of authority and identity.

Pub Date: July 10th, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-618-19731-6
Page count: 240pp
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1st, 2008