An Adventure (the Moberly-Jourdain incident)

February 3, 2014

In 1901, Charlotte Anne Moberly and Eleanor Jourdain, two British academics, visited Versailles. Ten years later they published An Adventure under the names Elizabeth Morison and Frances Lamont, purporting to be an account of that tour, a few later visits, and their correspondence and research about what took place there.

Moberly and Jourdain didn’t time travel, because that’s not a thing. But here’s how the story goes:

On their way to the Petit Trianon, Moberly and Jourdain lost their way. They encountered some gardeners in green livery who pointed them in the right direction. Before they reached the house they also saw a woman and child standing in the doorway of a house, a couple of guys in sombreros, one of whom had a pockmarked, evil face, and a woman sitting on a lawn, sketching. Or, that’s not quite right — only Jourdain saw the woman and girl in the doorway, and only Moberly saw the sketching woman. They also, somewhere in there, were both overcome with a feeling of depression and foreboding.

They didn’t talk about it immediately afterwards, but a week or so later Moberly wrote to Jourdain and asked if she thought the Petit Trianon was haunted. Jourdain replied that she did. They started comparing notes and researching what they remembered and (of course) finding a direct historical basis for everything they saw (the sketcher was Marie Antionette, obvs) all of which is detailed in their book. There are at least half a dozen separate written accounts of the first visit. About a quarter of the book is devoted to a fictional account of Marie Antoinette’s internal monologue on August 10th, 1792, basically setting forth the idea that she was probably thinking really intensely about a Fall day in 1789, and therefore it definitely makes sense that Moberly and Jourdain would have witnessed scenes from that same day in August 10th, 1901. My favorite part of the book is actually the FAQ: their “psychical gifts” are due to the fact that one is “of Huguenot stock,” while the other is the seventh daughter of a seventh son. Not that they’re into the occult, though: they want you to know that they’re totally not. And they’ve considered the possibility that they stumbled onto a movie set and concluded that they didn’t.

It’s easy to make fun of them, and impossible to know whether they were hallucinating, or making everything up, or what, but I kind of like An Adventure a lot. When I try to think of it as non-fiction, I find myself wanting to pick it apart, but as fiction it’s kind of great, with the differing accounts, and the multiple visits and the historical tidbits, and the framing of the whole thing as an attempt to figure out what they really saw. Only I wish they’d committed to it more thoroughly. I love timeslip books, and I wanted more time-slippery here. I mean, the picking apart of a few experiences and the ensuing research is great, but I wanted more interaction, possibly in a Key to the Treasure, scavenger hunt sort of way. I wanted them to use their experiences with the past to find stuff out in the present, instead of using stuff they found in the present to validate their experience of the past. I wanted more interaction.

I wanted a lot of things that you can’t ask for from non-fiction. But, although An Adventure isn’t fiction in the traditional sense, it’s not like it’s true, either. Whatever. Does anyone want to recommend me some good timeslip books?



  1. Well, I’m not of “Huguenot stock”—but I read that one
    about the girl with long blond hair going down a rabbit
    hole . . . ; – but maybe that’s placeslip?

  2. Why are there guys in sombreros at La Petit Trianon?

    • Apparently hats with wide brims were in fashion, and our turn-of-the-century ladies interpreted them as sombreros.

  3. I don’t think I’ve found a satisfactory adult timeslip novel yet; it was one of my favorite genres in children’s books, though.

    By Key to the Treasure do you mean the one by Peggy Parrish? Best book ever.

    • I do mean the one by Peggy Parrish! I don’t know if it’s the best book ever, but it is fantastic, and I need to reread it.

  4. Magic Elizabeth. It is a children’s book, but you don’t mind that, do you?

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