In 1911, life partners Charlotte Anne Moberly and Eleanor
Jourdain published the book An Adventure
where they claim that on August 10, 1901, they both briefly time traveled back
to the 18th century while on a trip to the Petit Trianon at the Palace of Versailles. The event came to be an international phenomenon known as
the Moberly-Jourdain incident and kicked off the contemporary fascination with
Marie Antoinette as a gay icon.
Charlotte Moberly (left) and Eleanor Jourdain (right). When An Adventure was first published, the two women used the pseudonyms Frances Lamont and Elizabeth Morrison (x).
Charlotte and Eleanor first met in 1886 when Charlotte was
appointed as the principal of a women’s residence hall at St. Hughs College and
Eleanor was tapped to be her assistant. The two women both came from families
with long histories in the education field and had much in common, and before
long they were living together in Eleanor’s apartment.
In 1901, Charlotte and Eleanor went on a series of day trips
to Paris. On August 10, their tourist adventures brought them to the famous
Palace of Versailles. While wandering around the miles of gardens the Palace
has to offer, the women got lost around the paths of the Petit Trianon, which is most well-known for being the tragic French queen, Marie Antoinette’s,
private home. According to the two, Charlotte and Eleanor became overwhelmed
with a sense of “oppression and dreariness” and came upon what appeared to be a
“living picture” of a 18th century farm scene; a woman shaking a
cloth outside of a window, a man with a faced marred by smallpox, and an “elegant
lady” sketching by the gardens all dressed in period clothes. It was the lady
who was sketching and was “wearing a light summer dress, on her head was a
shady white hat, and she had lots of fair hair” who they would later claim was
Marie Antoinette herself.
The Petit Trianon, where Charlotte and Eleanor supposedly time traveled to the 18th century, as it stands today (x).
Worried about the vitriol from critics, they did not
publicly discuss the event until their book An Adventure was
published in 1911. True to their predictions, the Moberly-Jourdain incident – as it
came to be called – became a scandal all of Europe was talking about. Charlotte
and Eleanor were often mocked and hardly believed, but among those believers
were authors J.R. Tolkien and Jean Cocteau. While the relationship between
Charlotte and Eleanor was received as something of a “Boston marriage” in its
day, many critics claimed that it was the psychosis caused by lesbianism
which had resulted in the two women’s shared “hallucination.” On the other end
of the social spectrum, it became widely believed in gay circles that Charlotte
and Eleanor’s encounter with the ghost of Marie Antoinette was confirmation
that the queen was a lesbian herself – a rumor that was hugely popular even during
Marie Antoinette’s lifetime. Whether you’re a believer or a disbeliever, you
have to admit the story of the Moberly-Jourdain incident is one of the more fascinating ones out of LGBT history.