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  • Victorian Urban Legends: the Lady of the Key November 10, 2017

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback


    A woman with a key around her neck haunts the French saloons. What is her story? Beach is always looking for Victorian urban legends (this one is 1870) and particularly sexual ones. Ask yourself this. Would this tale have appeared in a British newspaper if it had been set in London rather than Paris? The very fact that it is French means that some extra latitude is given:

    One of the Paris journalists announces the death, at Versailles, of a Russian lady who appeared in the drawing rooms of Paris in 1848 and 1849, and was nicknamed the Dame à la Clef [Lady of the Key]. She died, aged forty-five, in the most complete solitude. It is said that her husband, who was much older than she, came to see her for a week or two every six months, and went away again no one knew whither. All was mysterious about the Lady of the Key. Last month the husband did not return as usual, but a letter came announcing his death. The widow survived him only a few days, and it is a supposed she allowed herself to die of hunger.

    And how to explain the key?

    Whether true or not, this was the story that was whispered about her when she appeared in Paris, young and beautiful, more than twenty years ago. It is said that her husband surprised her in a little country house which he possessed near Moscow at the moment she was hastily shutting up somebody up in a wardrobe. A servant had betrayed her. The Muscovite Othello turned the key twice in the wardrobe took it out, and then told his wife to follow him. A travelling britzaka [?] stood a few paces from the villa. More dead than alive, the unhappy woman obeyed. When the husband had placed her in the carriage, and given an order in a low voice to the coachman, ‘Keep this key,’ he said to his wife, ‘I have forgotten something and will return’ and then went back to the house. He returned according to his promise, but as the carriage descended the hill the poor woman saw the flames issuing from the windows of the country house and taking full possession of it. She fainted away, and on regaining her senses perceived that a gold chain was riveted round her neck, to which the little key of the wardrobe was attached. She wished to kill herself, but her husband threatened her that if she committed suicide he would reveal her misconduct and cover her and her family with dishonour. She was, therefore, condemned do live, and her strange necklace excited much curiosity in Paris. At last her tyrant allowed her to retire into a quiet retreat, on the express stipulation that she would not attempt to destroy herself during his lifetime. His death released her from this condition; but she had languished for more than twenty years, having the witness of her guilt always before her eyes. It is curious story; we wonder whether it is true.

    For a British reader the mix of France (decadent) and Russia (cruel) is a heady one…Other versions of this tale: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com And while Beach does not believe the wardrobe story for a second he’d love to know whether there really was a disconsolate Russian with a key around her neck.

    West Briton (24 Mar 1870), 12

    Lisa L writes in, 30 Nov, In case you haven’t seen it, here’s another telling of that delightfully morbid legend.  In this version, however, the story is turned into the 1890s equivalent of internet pranking.

    Lisa L kindly sends in the text, 30 Dec 2017: