La Grande Therese by Hilary Spurling

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La Grande Thérèse by Hilary Spurling

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Category: Biography
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: A slim volume telling the story of a financial scandal which rocked French Society at the end of the nineteenth century makes a riveting read. Highly recommended here at Bookbag.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 144 Date: September 2006
Publisher: Profile Books Ltd
ISBN: 1861978545

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What was to become a confidence trick of massive proportions, the swindle of the century, began almost innocently. Thérèse Daurignac used her story-telling skills to amuse the younger children in the family. The next step was to persuade all her school friends to pool their jewellery so that she would look as though she had a lot of jewels if she was always changing them. After that it was tales of an inheritance on the strength of which she got credit.

Thérèse and her brother married the Humbert brother and sister. The wedding was pure extravagance. As Thérèse left for her honeymoon she arranged to pay for the wedding at the station. Unfortunately her creditor found himself paying for her taxi to the station and being told to add the fare to the bill - which was never paid. With the connivance of both families Thérèse's 'stories' were expanded until they achieved a fabulous standard of living in Paris. The method was relatively simple and legally elegant. In a strongbox were kept four key documents. The first was a will which purported to leave a substantial fortune to Thérèse. The next was a will from the same person and dated the same day, leaving the fortune to Thérèse's sister and two unrelated nephews of the deceased. A further document covered the agreement of the nephews to allow Thérèse to keep the fortune until the matter had been settled, with Thérèse and her family living on a part of the income. The final document was the nephews' agreement to waive the claim on certain conditions.

So, on the face of it, Thérèse was entitled to a very substantial inheritance but was unable to touch the capital until such time as the legalities were finalised. In the circumstances people fell over themselves to extend credit to the family. There was only one problem: it was all make-believe, but the appeals and counter-appeals were to go on in the courts for years.

Hilary Spurling originally came across the story of Thérèse Humbert when she was researching her book 'Matisse the Master' and felt that the story was so amazing that she had to give it a book of its own. Matisse's parents-in-law were ruined by the scandal. It's a slim volume of only 144 pages, double-spaced and with plenty of interesting line drawings and contemporary cartoons, but it's absolutely riveting. The research has been meticulous and the financial shenanigans are explained lucidly. This is no mean achievement given that they'd been designed to cloud the issue.

The story might read like a novella, but it's all fact. Even the dialogue is taken from contemporary sources, all of which are listed in the book. Given the magnitude of the scandal - the collapse caused a substantial number of suicides and the ruin of an incalculable number of careers and even lives - it's surprising that it's not better remembered. It's extreme to say that there was a cover-up, but coming not many years after the Dreyfus affair the political administration had little stomach for another scandal which would do to the judiciary what Dreyfus had done for the army. Thérèse was consigned to history and following five years solitary confinement with hard labour she was never heard of again.

The book is a witty morality tale. A French peasant girl possessed only of imagination and cunning took in just about the whole of French Society. The back cover of the book says that Thérèse died penniless and disgraced, but given her talents I wonder if this was really the case.

If this book appeals to you then you might enjoy Julian Barnes Arthur and George. It's an altogether bigger read but just as enjoyable.

La Grande Thérèse was kindly sent to The Bookbag by the publishers, Profile Books Ltd.

Booklists.jpg La Grande Therese by Hilary Spurling is in the Top Ten Books To Read In One Sitting.

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Jill said:

I thought this sounded like it'd be good. One of those books you'd be surprised to get for Christmas, but end up glad you did.

Sue said:

Yes! It would be ideal as a stockingfiller or good if you were sending the book by post. In a padded bag the postage is only 62p! (Or it was - in 2006...)