A Ghostly Duchess at Darmstadt: c. 1805

Princess Dorothea of Courland, Duchesse de Dino

Princess Dorothea of Courland, Duchesse de Dino

In a letter headed London, July 31, 1834, the Duchesse de Dino wrote of a royal ghost story:

In our drawing-room the conversation turned on the talent of certain people for telling ghost stories. This reminded me of the interest with which two years ago at Kew I heard from the Duchess of Cumberland the story of an apparition seen by herself, the remembrance of which seemed to cause her much emotion. The impression she produced on us was the deeper as the hour was late and a terrifying thunderstorm was raging outside the house. The story is as follows.

The Duchess of Cumberland, then Princess Louise of Prussia, had gone to visit her mother’s relatives at Darmstadt. She was lodged in a state apartment in a part of the castle which was rarely used, the furniture of which, though magnificent, had not been changed for three generations. Wearied with her journey she quickly fell asleep but all the same soon felt on her face a breath which awakened her. She opened her eyes and saw the face of an old lady who was leaning over her own face.

Terrified by the sight she immediately drew the bed-clothes over her eyes and remained motionless for several moments. Want of air, however, made her change her position and impelled by curiosity she again opened her eyes and saw the same venerable face, pale and gentle, still staring at her. She then screamed loudly and the nurse of Prince Frederick of Prussia who slept with the child in the neighbouring room, the door of communication being open, rushed in and, finding her mistress bathed in a cold sweat, remained with her for the rest of the night.

Next day the Princess related what had happened, and urgently requested that her room might be changed, which was done. No one was surprised for it was said in the family that whenever any descendant of the old Duchess of Darmstadt, who had occupied this apartment, slept there, this venerable ancestress would come and pay her posterity a visit. The Duke of Weimar and several other princes were cited as examples proving the truth of this story.

Many years later the Duchess of Cumberland, then Princess Solms, and established at Frankfort, was invited by her cousin, the Grand Duke of Hesse Darmstadt, to a great festivity which he was preparing. The Princess went, intending to return to Frankfort the same night. Supper over she went to a room where her travelling dress had been laid out and was followed by the young Grand Duchess then recently married. The latter asked the Princess Solms whether the story of the ghost was true and asked that it might be told her in detail. She wished to discover whether the impression left had been strong enough to make the Princess remember the features of their venerable ancestress. The Princess was sure that it was so.

“Very well,” said the Grand Duchess “her portrait is in this very room with two others of the same period. Take the light and tell me which you think represents the spectre, I shall see if you are right.” The Princess with some repugnance approached the portraits and had just recognised that of the old grandmother when the picture and its frame crashed to the ground with a terrible noise and, had the ladies not immediately fled, they would have been crushed by its weight.

I do not say that this story is particularly good in itself. I only know that it made a deep impression on me because it was very well told, and because, when in this style of narrative you hear some one say “I saw, I heard,” it is impossible not to treat the matter seriously. The Duchess was perfectly serious and her emotion strong, so that I have never doubted the truth of what she told us.

Memoirs of the Duchesse de Dino (afterwards Duchesse de Talleyrand et de Dorothée Dino (duchesse de), 1909

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: The heroine of the story above, the Duchess of Cumberland [1778-1841] was a younger sister of the sainted Queen Louise of Prussia. Her Christian name was Frederica Louise, rather than Louise. En seconds noces she became Princess Solms. En troisièmes noces (possibly aided by poison) she became the Duchess of Cumberland. Kew was the Cumberland’s residence.

The young Grand Duchess of Hesse Darmstadt was Wilhelmina of Baden, who had married her much-older cousin, Ludwig II, Grand Duke of Hesse Darmstadt in 1804.

The narrator, the Duchesse de Dino, also known as Dorothée de Talleyrand-Périgord, left a litter of broken hearts as she cut a swath through the embassies and literary salons of Europe. Ladies, we are told, did not find her so congenial. She was the constant companion (and perhaps lover) of the great diplomat Talleyrand, whose nephew Edmond she married and divorced. The Duchess kept up a lively correspondence with intellectuals across Europe. She seems to have captivated a wide assortment of delegates to the Congress of Vienna. Mrs Daffodil will not make the expected and vulgar joke about “congress in Vienna.”

 

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes.

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