Claude Villiaume Marriage Broker Extraordinaire in the Time of Napoleon

 

“Off for the Honeymoon” by Fred Morgan. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Claude Villiaume marriage broker extraordinaire established a marriage brokering monopoly in Paris in the early 1800s. Born in 1780, Villiaume’s early years did not indicate that matchmaking was in his future. That was because his first job was as a soldier. Moreover, soon after, he became a soldier he became involved in an assassination attempt against the First Consul Napoleon.

Villiaume’s assassination attempt against Napoleon failed. In fact, it landed Villiaume in the lunatic asylum of Charenton. It was an asylum that had been founded in 1645 by the Frères de la Charité or Brothers of Charity, and it was while incarcerated there, that Villiaume developed the idea of arranging marriages:

Book detailing Claude Villiaume’s experience as a prisoner. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

“[P]oor Villiaume was sent to Charenton (Bedlam); but his ruling passion was strong in madness; and one of his first projects on arriving there was to marry all the lunatics to each other. His plan was never to make ill-assorted matches. He, therefore, carefully inquired of each crazy inmate, what was his rank in society and the state of his fortune; and he was delighted to find that he was in the very cream of society. There were a couple of emperors, five kings, princes, dukes, marquises, counts, barons, and generals in abundance. They all possessed most splendid fortunes. Villiaume entered every item in a book, and each signed the document that concerned him … and in another book they signed an engagement to Villiaume to pay him a handsome percentage on the fortunes of the ladies they might marry. In the meantime, he found means to get a message sent to the female ward, requesting the ladies to state their rank, ages, fortunes, &c. Answers came from them all in the same style as the men; and Villiaume anticipated a golden harvest, in the firm persuasion that all the accounts furnished were accurate and unquestionable. — Unfortunately, a few ice poultices on M. Villiaume’s head dissipated the splendid dream.”[1]

Although Villiaume may have not initially been successful at Charenton, it did not deter him from pursuing a career as a marriage broker in Paris. Villiaume saw Paris as the perfect city to establish a marriage brokering business and stated as much in a letter to a newspaper editor dated 3 January 1812:

“Paris … is the city with the most single people … London has fewer of them because the English don’t share our biases on this point and perhaps because they have a newspaper solely dedicated to this speciality.”[2]

Villiaume began by running ads in a daily newspaper that primarily published classified ads. This paper was called the Petites Affiches. According to historians, the newspaper had, on the eve of the revolution in 1789, a readership of “between twelve and thirty thousand,”[3] and, furthermore, less than two years later, Petites Affiches was perhaps the only French paper dedicated solely and exclusively to publishing personal ads.

Villiaume’s ads in the Petites affiches proved so effective he soon came to represent the idea of marriage brokering. He also turned marriage brokering into a fad with Parisians. Villiaume became so well-known in the business that playwrights began to satirize Villiaume.  For instance, his marriage brokering duties were demonstrated in the play La matrimoniomanie written by the Baron de Rougemont.

Playwrights alleged that women were the people most likely to embrace Villiaume’s marriage schemes and they focused on the type of women they thought used Villiaume’s brokering services. They depicted the women as “unrestrained” or “irrational.” These women were also often claimed to be so desperate that they would break down a marriage broker’s door to obtain the perfect match. Because of theses theatrical characterizations and bad press, Villiaume wrote to the Petites Affiches stating:

“I have been discussed in so many different ways, so many anecdotes about me have been invented … As a result, I am honored to send you an excerpt of the brochure that I published about my agency and my marriages. Please have it inserted in your paper … Perhaps some will say that I am trying to create a fuss [faire du bruit], but if this fuss does not harm anyone, then why not?”[4]

In truth, it was not women patronizing Villiaume or other marriage brokers. The majority of patrons seeking assistance in relation to marriage were military personnel. That was because when a soldier’s military service ended, the soldier usually did not want to return home, and many military personnel ended up in Paris where life was exciting but where they knew no one. Thus, military personnel were the ones turning to marriage brokers hoping that they could help them navigate Paris’s social scene and make a good match.

In 1811, Villiaume had established his business called Agence Générale et Centrale pour Pais et l’Empire on Rue Neuve-Saint-Eustache. One newspaper noted of Villiaume and his abilities that he was “constantly engaged in establishing a vast number of young ladies, ladies and gentlemen, of all ranks and conditions. Those who apply to him may be assured of a prompt and satisfactory result.”[5] However, apparently, Villiaume was not just in the business of arranging marriages because the newspaper also added this tidbit, “He also procures and arranges employments, partnerships, loans of money, places, pensions, and information of all descriptions.”[6]

Although critics may have complained about Villiaume and dismissed any benefits that Villiaume claimed to provide, Villiaume proved to be a successful marriage broker. He also seemed to care about making appropriate matches and successful marriages. Of course, the Petites Affiches was in part responsible for ensuring Villiaume’s success. They congratulated him often and did so in such a way as to appear impartial even though their real purpose was to praise Villiaume and obtain even more business for him.

Clever ads were also another way that Villiaume was able to create a successful business. He did this by making it appear as if there was high demand for his services and then fulfilled the increased demand of those who clamored to him hoping that he could help them. This was a similar tactic used by the famous wax sculptress Madame Tussaud when she toured with her waxwork show. She would publish ads stating an imminent departure hoping to get those viewers who been delaying their visit to hurry in and see her wax figures. If the ad increased business, she would often delay her departure, thereby making it seem as if there was high demand to visit her show.

Over the years, Villiaume’s popularity as a marriage broker increased, but he also gained notoriety for his marriage brokering services. Some critics declared he was little more than a charlatan or a con artist. Critics also accused him of creating “rampant adultery” with his marrying business.

Joseph Etienne de Jouy. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

One critic who attacked Villiaume was the French dramatist and successful literary writer Joseph Etienne de Jouy. In fact, the two men developed such a contentious relationship Villiaume once demanded a retraction by de Jouy after de Jouy referred to Villiaume as “ridiculous.” However, de Jouy was just as unhappy with Villiaume and eventually challenged him to a duel.

De Jouy wrote a column for the Gazette de France. It was the first weekly magazine published in France, and de Jouy regularly criticized Villiaume in it. De Jouy considered Villiaume’s marriage brokering business nonsense. He also scoffed at Villiaume’s posters that he claimed were plastered everywhere throughout Paris and he laughed at Villiaume’s brash newspaper advertising. Yet, above all, de Jouy disliked Villiaume’s inflated ego and his constant self-promotion:

“This matrimonial agent wants to attract attention to himself at all costs, but then he gets angry when we talk about him.”[7]

Charles Joseph Colnet. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

De Jouy was not alone in criticizing Villiaume’s skills and ubiquitous advertisements. A French satirical journalist, bookseller, and writer named Charles Joseph Colnet, wrote a satirical article titled, “Marriage by the Petites-Affiches.” It was published in the Journal des Dames et des Modes in August of 1812. In the article Colnet skewered Villiaume:

“If he [Villiaume] had put his mind to it, twenty years ago, he would have married the Grand Turk to the republic of Venice! Every morning, the Petites Affiches attest his success.”[8]

Critiques of Villiaume and constant complaints from critics that he was driven by monetary reasons rather than ethical or moral reasons, made Villiaume feel compelled to defend himself. He wrote that he served “as a commercial conduit for the individuals who pursued love anonymously.”[9] Moreover, he maintained that although he too initially had “reservations” about the success of marriage brokering, he discovered it served as a legitimate way for people to find their soul mate:

“At first, I found it unimaginable that you could use these foreign methods to marry. But now that I have seen and especially observed many … I strongly believe that marriages made in this manner are just as valid as matches made in society.”[10]

In 1812, when Villiaume’s success was announced in a British newspaper, Villiaume himself declared that he had succeeded in accomplishing “206 marriages … within two years.”[11] He also reported that he thought of his marriage brokering agency as something beneficial to France and claimed he did it for the public good. Moreover, because there were lax regulations regarding the marriage broker profession, Villiaume was free to make all types of unfounded claims and brag about his success.

In an attempt to show his marriage brokering business was beneficial to France and for the public good, Villiaume claimed that he increased France’s population because brokered marriages resulted in a future stock of children. These children were beneficial to the idea of Levée en masse, and Levée en masse (mass conscription) was used by Napoleon to form his Grande Armée that then allowed him to dominate Europe by overwhelming the professional European armies that numbered only into the low tens of thousands.

Ultimately, Villiaume was successful with his marriage brokering business and he became one of the most celebrated marriage brokers in Paris by 1812. He also developed a marriage brokering monopoly in France and expanded his business beyond France’s borders. One historian summed up Villiaume’s amazing success stating:

”[He achieved] his goal of becoming an imperial matchmaker. Parallel to Napoleon’s expansion and consolidation of his empire, the broker envisioned his bureau reaching beyond the borders of France to encompass an entire retinue of foreign customers. By 1818 he claimed to have clients from all corners of the world from Europe to Norther Africa to America.”[12]

Villiaume’s success at marriage brokering was also touted in 1829 by a Belfast paper that stated:

“M. Villiaume of Paris … has been most actively and successfully employed for the last four and twenty years; during which period so extensive have been the connexions which he has formed amongst all classes of society, that it is quite sufficient for him to know that a lady is of a marriageable age, and immediately she is proposed for and wedded, without the slightest external appearance of any intervention from the indefatigable agent of Hymen. In every country of the world he assures he has emissaries of the most insinuating address, attractive person, and polished manners; and in the course of his extended practice, he has been the means, in the hands of Providence, of uniting Americans with Europeans; English, Dutch, Swedes, Russians, Italians, Poles, and Germans, with persons of every nation and of every clime!”[13]

References:

  • [1] Devizes Wiltshire Gazette, “Match Making,” August 17, 1826, p. 2.
  • [2] Andrea Mansker, Marriages by the Petites Affiches: Advertising Love, Marital Choice, and Commercial Matchmaking in Napoléon’s Paris 41 (Duke University Press, 2018); French Historical Studies, p. 6.
  • [3] Ibid., p. 4.
  • [4] Ibid., p. 2.
  • [5] Southern Reporter and Cork Commercial Courier, “Marriages,” December 9, 1823, p. 4.
  • [6] Ibid.
  • [7] Mansker, Marriages by the Petites Affiches, p. 11.
  • [8] Journal des dames et des modes v. 6 (Paris, 1812), p. 349.
  • [9] Mansker, Marriages by the Petites Affiches, p. 7.
  • [10] Ibid.
  • [11] Cheltenham Chronicle, “Sunday and Tuesday’s Posts,” December 24, 1812, p. 2.
  • [12] Mansker, Marriages by the Petites Affiches, p. 26.
  • [13] Belfast Commercial Chronicle, “Matrimonial Brokers,” September 14, 1829, p. 1.

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