It began with a fabulous 19th-century dress and a box of jumbled photographs cleared out of a Guildford attic before a move to the country. It has resulted in being able to tell the true, poignant story of Ranavalona III, the last queen of Madagascar.
Ranavalona’s remarkable life of can be revealed thanks to the auction this week of personal effects unearthed by a descendent of Clara Herbert, who worked for the Madagascan royal family from the 1890s to the 1920s.
Herbert was the paid companion to a queen whose adventures were the stuff of fiction. Widowed at 22, she was made to marry an elderly prime minister, dethroned after a French invasion and exiled to Algiers, never to return.
The auctioneer Kerry Taylor has pieced together Ranavalona’s story from the box of photographs, postcards, souvenirs, receipts and diaries that she is selling on Tuesday.
“It has been the most fascinating detective work,” she said. “The queen I think was a very brave woman. She was very strong in adversity … she had to make the best of what life dealt her.”
Ranavalona’s husband was poisoned when she was about to accede to the throne. The finger has been pointed at the prime minister, a much older man who had been married to two previous queens and wanted Ranavalona as his bride.
“This poor girl had to marry this horrible old man,” said Taylor. “She was told she just needed to do needlework and look nice.”
Bigger trouble was on the horizon. Soon into her reign, in 1895, France invaded and annexed the island. Ranavalona was initially allowed to stay as a puppet queen, but the French authorities accused her influential aunt Ramisindrazana of inciting Malagasy rebels.
Ranavalona, her aunt and other members of the royal family were packed off to the island of Réunion, where photographs in the archive show how miserable they were.
“They all look so upset, thin and drawn,” said Taylor. “You have Ranavalona and her aunt and her nephew in a bowler hat outside this weird-looking palace that they had built for them, it is like a villa in wood.”
The cast of characters in the photographs includes the 14-year-old princess Razafinandriamanitra, heavily pregnant with the child of a French soldier.
Soon the royal family was put onboard a boat for France. They dreamed of Paris, but when they docked in Marseilles it became clear that was not the plan.
On being told they were going to Algiers, Ranavalona burst into tears and declared: “Who is certain of tomorrow? Only yesterday I was a queen. Today I am simply an unhappy, broken-hearted woman.”
Algiers turned out not to be so bad. It had a lively social scene and the queen became something of a local celebrity. The archive includes musical programmes dedicated to her and a biscuit wrapper with her portrait.
There are photographs showing how happy she looks. The contrast from earlier images is remarkable, said Taylor. “You have to pinch yourself, you say that can’t be her, it looks like a different person. She has put on weight, she looks healthy and beautiful … She seriously looks a different woman altogether.”
In 1901, she finally got to go to France, where she spent a fortune on dresses and was followed everywhere she went, said Taylor. “People are fascinated … She’s beautiful, she’s dressed in the best French fashions and she’s a queen. What’s not to like?”
After Ranavalona’s death in 1917, her aunt was given permission to move to the south of France, accompanied by the ever-loyal Herbert.
Ramisindrazana died in about 1923 and it is her elaborate dark purple velvet and cyclamen pink satin court dress, probably made in Madagascar, which ended up in the Guildford attic, along with the box of mementos.
Herbert briefly sought work in Nice before returning to the UK, where she lived in Reading. Her thirst for travel soon returned and she went to China as a Methodist missionary.
Taylor said it was incredibly rare to find high fashion from the 19th century worn by black women, “and even more rare to find such a wealth of documents, photographs and ephemera to augment our understanding of them”.
Taylor has an estimate of £1,000-1,500 on the archive, but she admits the figure is a stab in the dark.
“How do you value it? Where do you start?” she said.