by Andrew K. Arnett

A turn of the century case of a “time slip” was the subject matter of a best selling book called An Adventure, written by Charlotte Moberly (1846–1937) and Eleanor Jourdain (1863–1924), published in 1911.

The book recounts how a visit to the famous Palace of Versailles in France turned into a tumble down the rabbit hole, sending the two authors to another century all together.

Both women were academics, serving in turn as Principal of St Hugh’s College, Oxford. Their adventure begins on August 10, 1901, in Paris. Whilst on holiday, the two boarded a train to Versailles.

They spent the hot afternoon traversing the grounds of the Palace of Versailles. They eventually made their way to the Petit Trianon, former residence of the likes of Louis XIV, Napoleon and Marie-Antoinette. Alas, the building was closed to the public.

Bummed out, the ladies consulted their guidebook and decided to go around it by way of Allée des Deux Trianons, a grand boulevard. Instead, they cut down another path. It was then that their surroundings took on a sinister dream-like patina.

Moberly took note of a a woman shaking a white cloth out a window, but it seemed to be in slow motion. Jourdain observed a deserted farmhouse, with an old fashioned plough parked in front. Two men stood nearby, dressed in long coats with tri-cornered hats, a fashion statement not seen since the previous century.

Further along, Jourdain saw a woman holding a jug in front of a cottage, describing it as a “tableau vivant,” a living picture, not unlike one of Madame Tousad’s wax figures.

Moberly described being overcome by a feeling of oppression, worsening with every step they took. Describing the atmosphere, Moberly wrote:

Everything suddenly looked unnatural, therefore unpleasant; even the trees seemed to become flat and lifeless, like wood worked in tapestry. There were no effects of light and shade, and no wind stirred the trees.

The two came upon a small forested area, near the Temple de l’Amour. They saw a man seated near a garden kiosk. He was dressed in a cloak with a large shady hat covering his face. As they approached, Jourdain noted:

The man slowly turned his face, which was marked by smallpox; his complexion was very dark. The expression was evil and yet unseeing, and though I did not feel that he was looking particularly at us, I felt a repugnance to going past him,” adding, “His appearance was most repulsive . . . its expression odious. His complexion was dark and rough.

They passed another man, this one not as hideous, in fact quite handsome, described as “tall with large dark eyes and crisp curling black hair under a large sombrero hat.” He directed the ladies to continue along the way, over a small bridge, towards the Petit Trianon.

Crossing over the bridge, Moberly saw a lady wearing an old fashioned dress and a shady white hat. She came to believe that this lady was Queen Marie Antionette, though the woman did not advise them to “eat cake.”

At the palace, the ladies were directed round to the entrance and joined a party of people inside. After spending some time touring the house, they made their way to the Hotel des Reservoirs for tea before returning to Paris.

At first, Jourdain and Moberly did not discuss their shared experience at Versailles, strange as it might have been. Perhaps their reticence was due to the queerness of it all. They must have even doubted their own senses.

Moberly first discussed the journey in a letter to her sister, after which she asked Jourdain wether she thought the Petit Trianon was haunted. Jourdain replied with a decisive, “yes.”

They decided to write down their account of the day then compare notes. After researching historical records, they concluded that they had in some miraculous way wandered into the events of August 10, 1792, the time of the French Revolution.

The pair were bent on finding an explanation, and decided to return to the scene of the incident. However, they were unable to locate the path they had turned on to on that faithful day. Some of the landmarks too, were missing, including the bridge and the garden kiosk. They inquired wether or not their was a private party booked the day of their visit. There was no such party.

The two proceeded to write a book about the event. An Adventure  (1911) was published under the pseudonyms of Frances Lamont and Elizabeth Morison. The book became a best seller but was also criticized as implausible, or a misinterpretation of normal events.

The story has since been made into a TV movie, Miss Morison’s Ghost (1981), and a BBC radio dramatization in 2004 and 2015.

Numerous attempts have been made over the years to interpret the strange goings on of the Moberly/Jourdain incident.

One interpretation is that Moberly and Jourdain were witness to cosplay at a party. Philippe Jullian proposed this explanation in his 1965 biography of the decadent French poet Robert de Montesquiou. He points out that Montesquiou, at the turn of the century, lived nearby to the Petit Trianon, and would often throw elaborate parties on the grounds.

The party-goers would have dressed in elaborate costumes. Marie Antionette may have been a cross dresser, and Montesquiou himself could have been the sinister pock marked man. Moberly and Jourdain, being strict academics from Victorian England, would have taken the gay fancy dress as a ghostly haunting.

Terry Castle, in a review of the incident, suggested that a psychological dynamic should be considered. Perhaps, he noted, the two were engaged in a “lesbian folie à deux,” and that a shared delusion could have sprung from their coupling.

Psychologist Leonard Zusne also claims that the two suffered from a “hallucinatory experience.”

Other attempts have been made to debunk the incident, but I’m inclined to think it falls into the category of a legit paranormal experience, along the lines of the Stone Tape Theory.

The Stone Tape Theory suggests hauntings and ghosts are similar to tape recordings, where impressions of traumatic and emotional events are recorded into solid materials, like rocks. Under the right circumstances, these “recordings” can be replayed.

This theory, first proposed by T. C. Lethbridge in his 1961 book Ghost and Ghoul, suggests that ghosts were not wandering spirits but rather, visions replayed as in a tape-loop.

Certain individuals are more sensitive to these scenes and certainly, the events surrounding the French Revolution would have been sufficiently traumatic to fulfill this premise.