Dawes, Sophia (DNB00)

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DAWES or DAW, SOPHIA, Baronne de Feuchères (1790–1840), was the daughter of Richard Daw, a fisherman at St. Helen's, Isle of Wight, her mother's maiden name being Jane Callaway. She was one of ten children, of whom but four grew up. Her father is said to have been addicted to drink, and in 1796 the whole family became inmates of Newport workhouse. After passing nine years there, Sophia was for two years servant to a farmer in the neighbourhood. She next seems to have gone up to London, was seduced, and fell into extreme poverty, but a military officer made her his mistress, and on severing the connection settled 50l. a year on her. This annuity she sold, and, either from love of study or ambition for a higher station, placed herself (1809) in a school at Chelsea. She is alleged to have been servant in a house in Piccadilly frequented by rich profligates, when the Duke of Bourbon's valet, accompanying his master thither, called his attention to her beauty. The duke took a house for her and her mother in Gloucester Street, Queen Square (1811). Here she diligently prosecuted her studies, not only attaining proficiency in modern languages, but as her exercise books, still preserved, show, thoroughly mastering Xenophon and Plutarch. After the fall of Napoleon the duke, until the death of his father, the Prince of Condé, in 1818, lived as much in London as in his own country. He took Sophia over to Paris, and, apparently in order to qualify her for admission to court, secured her marriage to Baron Adrien Victor de Feuchères, an officer in the royal guard. In 1818 they were married in London with both protestant and Roman catholic rites, the duke settling 72,000 francs on them. St. Helen's register containing no record of her baptism, Sophia had in the previous year received adult baptism, when she represented herself as three years younger than she really was, while in the marriage licence she described herself as a widow, and in the marriage contract declared herself daughter of a Richard Clark, and widow of a William Dawes, falsehoods destined to give her heirs great trouble. Feuchères became aide-de-camp to the duke, and for two years had no suspicion of the relations between his wife and his master. Even then her assurance that she was a natural daughter of the duke, which the latter corroborated, dispelled his uneasiness. In 1822, however, he discovered the real facts, parted from his wife (a judicial separation ensued five years later), and divulged the story to Louis XVIII (d. 1824), who forbade Sophia's further appearance at court. She thereupon made indirect overtures to the wife of the Duke of Berry, the king's nephew, offering in return for the removal of the interdict to make her daughter the Duke of Bourbon's heiress. Disdainfully repulsed she next sounded the Duke of Orleans (the future Louis Philippe), whose delicacy was not proof against the prospect of a rich inheritance for one of his sons. The Duke of Bourbon's wife, who died about this time, was Orleans's aunt, but there had been no intimacy between the two families. There is ample evidence that Bourbon had a great repugnance to any closer relations, but Sophia first wheedled him into being godfather to Louis-Philippe's fourth son, the Duke of Aumale, concerted with the Orleans family a scheme for making the godson an adoptive son, which, however, failed, and ultimately, on 30 Aug. 1829, morally coerced Bourbon into signing a will which, after leaving two million francs and estates worth about eight millions to herself, bequeathed the bulk of the remainder to Aumale. Charles X, who succeeded his brother Louis XVIII in 1824, had favoured this bequest, and in February 1830 readmitted Sophia to court, without requiring her proffered cessation of public cohabitation with Bourbon. The ‘queen of Chantilly,’ as she was ironically styled, was now at her zenith. Talleyrand frequently dined with her, and his nephew, the Marquis of Chabannes, married her niece, Matilda Dawes, while her nephew, James, held a post in the Bourbon household, and had been created Baron de Flassons, from a domain of that name presented him by his master. Sophia herself won admiration in annual amateur theatricals at St. Leu, and was loaded with attentions by the Duke of Orleans, his wife, and sister. The revolution of 1830 arrived. Bourbon, now aged 74, anxious both to escape his mistress's tyranny and to avoid the recognition of the new dynasty pressed on him by Queen Amélie, appears to have contemplated a surreptitious flight from France, in which case he would certainly have revoked the will, while Sophia also made preparations for departure for England, and had drawn a bill for half a million francs on London. On 27 Aug. the duke was found dead in his bedroom at St. Leu, suspended by two cravats from the window handle. In a long judicial inquiry some of the duke's servants imputed the grossest profligacy as well as crime to Sophia, who, according to M. Billault, audaciously denied such manifest facts, that, but for express injunctions from the king, she would have been placed under arrest. On 21 June 1831 the judges decided, however, that there was no ground for a prosecution, and the Rohans were equally unsuccessful (22 Feb. 1832) in disputing the will on the ground of undue influence. In the interval between the two decisions James Dawes, returning with his aunt from London, died very suddenly at Calais, and heated imaginations attributed to her a second crime. She became estranged from the Orleans family on their disregarding Bourbon's bequest of Ecouen for a charitable institution for the descendants of the Coblentz and Vendée soldiers, and although entitled for life to a wing of the Palais Bourbon, besides being owner of St. Leu, she could not have found residence in France very agreeable, for legitimists and republicans had a political interest in vilifying her. She accordingly purchased an estate in Hampshire, as well as a house in Hyde Park Square, and gradually disposed of most of her French property. In 1840, suffering from dropsy, she settled in London for medical advice. Her mother, who like herself had entered the Roman catholic church, and was for a time in the Carmelite nunnery, Paris, had died at Hammersmith, and had been described on the register as a spinster. Sophia died in December 1840. A London French paper states that her last moments were peaceful. A London solicitor had prepared a will for her, but she died without executing it. She left, however, a French memorandum, by which, after four thousand francs to each nephew and niece, and a few other legacies, she named as residuary legatee Sophie Thanaron, daughter of her sister Charlotte and of a retired French officer. Sophie was about ten years of age, and had lived almost from infancy with her aunt. The memorandum implored the Duke of Aumale, in return for her zeal for his interests, to carry out his benefactor's last wish, the Ecouen bequest. A complicated litigation followed. The three French lawyers appointed as Sophie's guardians maintained the validity of the memorandum; the Paris hospitals, to whom Baron de Feuchères had assigned his interest, claimed the entire property on the plea that the deceased was illegitimate, and a surviving brother and sister claimed as next of kin to an intestate. A compromise was effected. The hospitals received 13,000l., the brother and sister (Mary Ann Clark) 70,000l. each, and Sophie Thanaron the large residue. Sir H. Jenner Fust, in granting letters of administration, spoke of the deceased as a person of very extraordinary talents, and of her history as the greatest romance of real life within his knowledge.

[Billault de Gérainville's Histoire de Louis Philippe; Louis Blanc's Histoire de Dix Ans, Times, 17 Jan. and 8 July 1843.]

J. G. A.