I want, I shall have

Graham Robb

  • La Grand Thérèse or The Greatest Swindle of the Century by Hilary Spurling
    Profile, 128 pp, £7.99, September 1999, ISBN 1 86197 132 X

The role of Thérèse Humbert and her family in the life of Henri Matisse was one of the revelations of the first volume of Hilary Spurling’s pioneering biography: The Unknown Matisse. For more than twenty years, the Humberts were a major force in the social and political life of the Third Republic, until, in 1902, their legendary wealth was exposed as a hoax. The famous Humbert strongbox, which was supposed to contain a hundred million francs in bearer bonds, was found to be almost empty. Thousands of creditors and investors lost everything. The Humberts’ innocent steward, Armand Parayre, was arrested, along with the disgraced family. His son-in-law, ‘a dashing but penniless young artist’, was widely considered guilty by association, and ‘from 1905 onwards, Matisse’s work was regularly dismissed by the critics as an attempt to pull a fast one on the public’

Biographers are often buttonholed by interesting minor characters demanding more attention than the subject allows. Thérèse Humbert, the most skilful of the swindlers, was unusually tenacious. ‘When I came to write the first volume of my biography,’ Hilary Spurling says, ‘I had to fight so hard to relegate Thérèse to a minor role that, once it was finished, I felt I owed her a book of her own.’

The result is a thoroughly enjoyable and unedifying tale of greed and deception. The blurb accurately suggests that this might have been the plot of a novella by Balzac or Zola. In La Comédie humaine and Les Rougon-Macquart, sheer selfish determination can endow even the stupidest characters with a kind of genius. At the same time, their criminal success is an implicit criticism of the system that enables them to thrive. Balzac and Zola are still sometimes accused of cynical exaggeration: the story of ‘la Grande Thérèse’, whose motto was ‘Je veux, j’aurai!’, is a memorable vindication of them.

Thérèse Daurignac was born in 1856 in the village of Aussonne near Toulouse. Her mother ran a lingerie shop in the city and lived with her children and her elderly husband in a farmhouse in Aussonne. She died in 1871, leaving Thérèse to take care of her five younger brothers and sisters. Old M. Daurignac was practically useless. He studied alchemy and fantasised about noble ancestors and a lost inheritance. He was sometimes seen running across the fields during a thunderstorm, waving a magic wand to convince local farmers that he controlled the weather and could blight their crops. This energetic hocus-pocus produced nothing but the occasional placatory chicken or basket of eggs. He did, however, set his children a valuable example. It was M. Daurignac who first thought of fending off creditors by showing them a locked chest in which unspecified legal documents supposedly proved his imminent wealth.

The idea that his daughter Thérèse single-handedly perpetrated ‘the greatest swindle of the century’ was a later journalistic simplification. Most of the family seem to have been born deceivers. Zola might have identified a primitive survival mechanism that had evolved in prehistoric jungles and occasionally reappeared in modern human beings as a talent for deception. Spurling, who remains as resolutely generous as a defending counsel, traces this propensity in Thérèse to her lively imagination. She entertained her brothers and sisters with fairy tales in which her father was the Comte d’Aurignac and the family home a château. But if the fairy tales eventually came true, it was largely because the imaginative Daurignacs were also blessed with total indifference to the misery they caused.

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