The Duchess of Berry bathing in Dieppe around 1824 is sometimes presented as the inventor of sea bathing in France, even though the activity had existed there since the mid-18th century. This story demonstrates the power of advertising to promote a practice that was still elitist in the early 19th century.
Dieppe when the Duchess of Berry arrived
Sea bathing was not a new activity in Dieppe at the beginning of the 19th century. People had been coming to the town for medical bathing since the 14th century, mainly for the treatment of rabies (Rogère, 1973).
In the early 1820s, when the Duchess of Berry arrived, the city of Dieppe already had a sea bathing establishment, created in 1812 by the Dieppe resident Jean-Baptiste de Paris. But the local elites did not find it prestigious enough. They decided to replace it, creating the Société Anonyme des Bains de Mer de Dieppe in 1822. The Count of Brancas, sub-prefect of the city, campaigned for royal personalities to come stay in Dieppe (Bertho-Lavenir, 1999: p. 29) and, two years after the opening of the new establishment, the Duchess of Berry honoured the town with her presence. There is some confusion in historical accounts between the creation of this establishment and the first visit of the Duchess.
Exploiting a celebrity presence
This bathing establishment, now patronised by Marie-Caroline de Bourbon, Duchess of Berry, was named Les Bains Caroline. This was not a first. In La Rochelle in 1827, a bathing establishment was created and named Les Bains Marie-Thérèse, after the Duchess of Angoulême, Dauphine of France at the time, or Les Bains du Mail, after its geographical location (Augeron and Mahé, 2012). But unlike Dieppe, the royal personality did not deign to come to La Rochelle.
The Duchess stayed in Dieppe for about 6 weeks every year from 1824 to 1829.
The presence of a royal personality brought several advantages. The Duchess of Berry was accompanied by members of the Court and their domestic staff. Marie-Caroline de Bourbon-Siciles, Duchess of Berry after marrying the second son of King Charles X, was the mother of the legitimist pretender to the throne (Henri d’Artois, future “Henri V”, who would never reign). Thus, for a few weeks each year, Dieppe became one of the places to be in order to get close to powerful people.
The presence of the Duchess of Berry also helped to improve the facilities at the seaside resort town. The Duchess had a boat on-site, the Furet, a State cutter provided for her highness’s private use. In 1826, a theatre was built in honour of the Duchess (Taillandier, 2009), whose presence encouraged the Vaudeville troupe (one of the Parisian troupes competing with the Comédie Française), to perform there in the month of August according to the Figaro of August 17, 1826. The newspapers reported on the vitality brought by the members of the royal family.
“The town of Dieppe has undergone a happy metamorphosis. We are approaching the time when, enlivened and revitalised by the presence of Madame the Duchess of Berry, and perhaps of her august family, Dieppe will become even more cheerful and will look like a brand new town.”
Le Corsaire, June 30, 1829
In 1829, she also presided over the inauguration of the Bérigny harbour, and the erection of an obelisk commemorating a victory of Henri IV in a nearby village.
Finally, the Duchess of Berry was a figure that the media of the time loved to write about. Using a celebrity as a marketing strategy supposedly began in the 1970s according to marketing experts (Danglade, 2013), but in reality, it dates back much earlier. A similar approach was used in Biarritz with Emperor Napoleon III and Empress Eugénie, but Dieppe stands out for its early use of a celebrity to promote the tourist destination. Marie-Caroline de Bourbon did not underestimate the power of her public image and even donated her portrait painted by Dubois-Drahonet during one of her stays to the Dieppe town hall.
Dieppe after the Duchess of Berry
After the July Revolution of 1830, a new regime, the July Monarchy headed by the House of Orléans (1830-1848) replaced the Bourbons in France. Consequently, the duchess no longer visited Dieppe. In 1832, she led a rebellion against the new regime, but it failed. She was arrested and exiled abroad, where she died in 1870.
The local authorities of Dieppe were then worried about the uncertain future of the seaside resort (Taillandier, 2009), especially since the new regime preferred other destinations, such as Le Tréport and Trouville-sur-Mer. Nonetheless, public baths were established in 1834 by Colette Quenouille to attract a new, less wealthy clientèle, much to the dismay of the administrators of Les Bains Caroline, who were slow to change the name of the establishment, despite the insistence of the town (Collective, 2007: p. 4). The presence of the duchess had a real impact on Dieppe’s socio-economic development, even if she was not the originator of the seaside activity.
But this confusion between reality and “legend” has led to errors in interpreting the history of sea bathing (e.g., Tréguer, 2003: p. 77, and Hébert, 2014, among others; see Vincent, 2018). This legend that the Duchess took the very first sea bath in France apparently derives from Madame de Moigne’s memoirs alone (Bonneau, 1977: p. 13). As a result, some authors have had to shift the emergence of seaside bathing in France to fit the legend. For instance, Françoise Deherly (2020) believes that the beginnings of seaside activity in France truly occurred around 1860. This confusion enabled Dieppe to claim to be the very first seaside holiday town in France quite early on.
This legend is also perpetuated by regional tourism actors to this day, such as Seine-Maritime Tourisme on their website in 2022.
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