French diplomat Auguste-Charles-Joseph de Flahaut de La Billarderie, comte de Flahaut had the characteristics of a Don Juan and those of a courageous soldier in equal parts. With his charm and tact, he must have been a popular visitor to Brighton. It is not entirely clear whether the same can be said of his wife.
Portrait of Charles de Flahaut c. 1864 Source: commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Portrait_de_Charles_de_Flahaut.JPG”>MOSSOT
Charles de Flahaut could boast an impressive CV: aide-de-camp for Napoleon I; lieutenant-general at Waterloo in 1815; first equerry to Orleonist king, Louis-Philippe in 1830; diplomat in the court of Napoleon III in the 1860s. But its main interest of this CV lies in the fact that it was one of the factors which brought him so often to Brighton. Once the Chain Pier had been built in 1824, Brighton was the ideal place from which to sail to France. Shuttling between the two countries as he did, Charles could spend time in the comfort of his own home en route (one of several homes, of course).
His background was fascinating if complex:
- His “natural” father was the great Talleyrand.
- His “official” father, Flahaut, was guillotined in October 1794 during The Terror.
- His wife was the wealthy Scottish heiress Lady Keith (Margaret Mercer Elphinstone).
- His father-in law was Admiral George Elphinstone who had fought so long and hard against the French in the Napoleonic wars.
- His step-mother-in-law was author, Hester Thrale, who had lived for several years in West Street, Brighton.
- His long-term lover (amongst oh! so many) was ex-Queen Hortense of Holland who was both daughter of Napoleon’s Joséphine and mother of the future Napoleon II.
- His illegitimate son with Hortense was the Duc de Morny, thus, half-brother to Emperor Napoleon III.
Both Charles and Margaret de Flahaut appear to have spent time in Brighton before their marriage in 1817: she as a holiday visitor from at least 1814, possibly with the hope of being invited to the Royal Pavilion by the Prince Regent; he as a Napoleonic proscrit [exile] in 1816 as a result of the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy.
By 1830 he, or more likely his wife Margaret, owned 26 Brunswick Terrace in Hove.
They sold the property in 1837. The following ten years were spent mainly in France but between 1848 and the mid-1850s the family was again making frequent visits to Brighton. For the first few years they went as guests to West Cliff House, now demolished, which stood at the bottom of Oriental Place. Their hosts were Lord and Lady Willoughby d’Eresby who themselves did not own the property but who rented it for the Brighton season (November to March). At that time, West Cliff House appears in street directories merely as a “furnished house” – anyone wealthy enough could rent it, as the Willoughby d’Eresbys frequently did.
The best glimpse we have of the family is in the 1851 census when they were staying at West Cliff House. Two of their 5 daughters had died as teenagers; their eldest had recently married the Marquis of Lansdowne. Their youngest daughter was not with them at the time, but third daughter Georgina, aged 26, had joined them to enjoy spring in Brighton. By then, Charles was 65 and Margaret, 61. They had with them a modest retinue of servants which comprised a housekeeper, two lady’s maids, a valet and a footman. As West Cliff House was a rented property, history does not tell us if these servants “came with the house” or whether they were brought from the family’s London home.
In 1860 Charles de Flahaut finally achieved his (and Margaret’s) ambition: he became French Ambassador to the Court of St James. By 1861, The Flahauts’ London home at 106 Piccadilly boasted 13 male servants and nine female servants – but then, an ambassador does have to keep up appearances. At least the couple had already sold their home on the Champs-Elysées in 1853. Tulliallan Castle in Scotland they did not part with.
Occasionally one or both of the Flahauts stayed at the Bedford Hotel in the late 1850s, but it seems that their visits stopped after that. Margaret died in 1867, Charles in 1870.
Whereas Charles was at home in many countries, the same could not necessarily be said of his wife. Margaret de Flahaut was ambitious for her husband. It is not known if she was popular at Brighton, but she certainly did not always endear herself on her visits to her husband’s homeland. An ambassador to France expressed himself quite strongly in 1830:
Mme de Flahaut, née lady Keith, une véritable tricoteuse, a sauté de plaisir au reçu de la nouvelle de la révolution. Elle est devenue insupportable, même à son mari qui s’en plaint à Mme Potocka. [Mme de Flahaut, née Lady Keith, a veritable devotee of the guillotine, jumped for joy when she heard of the revolution. Her attitude has become intolerable, even to her husband, who has complained about it to Mme Potocka.] Well, what husband doesn’t complain about his wife to his mistress?
When the Flahaut’s sold their mansion in Paris it was with the intention of settling in England as they were “not over pleased with the Tuilleries folk” [the French Royal family]. The feeling may well have been mutual.
But Margaret’s sins extended beyond being vindictive. She wore the wrong clothes at court: despite being so friendly with the Orleanist royal family, in Paris she would insist on wearing “English dress” [should we here read “Scottish dress”?] to court balls, she was “haughty, ambitious &etc., and could well be spared from the fashionable circles of this courteous capital.” Indeed the French court threatened not to receive her if she continued to show such disrespect.
Of these two colourful characters who had periodically enlivened Brighton for nearly half a century it was probably Margaret who was the more interesting. The recent book by Diane Scarisbrick will tell you more.