The year was 1901, and a pair of friends, 55-year-old Anne Moberly and 38-year-old Eleanor Jourdain, were on holiday in France. They were both teachers at St. Hugh's College in Oxford. Moberly was in fact the Principal there, and Jourdain would become her successor fourteen years later. With a Baedeker's tourist guidebook in hand, the two set out to see the vast Palace of Versailles, the center of political power in France until the French Revolution in 1789. They turned to visit the Petit Trianon, a small chateau on the grounds given by Louis XVI to his 19-year-old wife, Marie Antoinette, as a private retreat for her personal use.
Moberly and Jourdain got a bit lost searching for the chateau, and it was during this interlude that they made history, even if only in some small way. They encountered several people in 1789 period attire, carrying out period activities, and passed a handful of structures that had not existed since 1789. Their unexpected visit to 112 years in the past culminated with an encounter with Marie Antoinette herself, sketching on the grounds of her chateau. It was only upon being snatched out of their reverie by a modern tour guide that Moberly and Jourdain suddenly found themselves once again in 1901.
Within months they'd published their account in a book called An Adventure, and as they were both respected academics who did not desire bizarre publicity, they published it under pseudonyms. Their experience became variously known as the Versailles Time Slip, the Ghosts of Trianon, or the Moberly-Jourdain Incident; and it has intrigued researchers, historians, and enthusiasts of the paranormal ever since.
My own interest in this tale was triggered by the evident reliability of the witnesses. In so many cases of strange and inexplicable phenomena being reported, we hear that the witness or witnesses were people of great character or scientific credibility, and so it's often considered implausible that they could be mistaken or making the story up. The Versailles Time Slip is clearly one such case. Must we accept that the event happened as reported, due to the credibility of Moberly and Jourdain? Whether you've heard of the story before or not, it's a good lesson in how we should best assess cases where the witnesses' credibility is offered as evidence that the event was factual.
They were not liars, and both ladies had nothing to gain by making up this story. In fact it could go a long way to ruining their reputation.
Frequently I'll hear something along the lines of "My Uncle Bob was a very trustworthy and honest man who would never make something up, therefore you should accept his ghost experience as a fact." Moberly and Jourdain's position as college teachers also gilds them with a cloak of authority, similar to that given to pilots or astronauts who see UFOs. Certainly a pilot's perception of a UFO cannot be mistaken, and certainly college teachers' perception of going back in time must have therefore happened as they thought. Well, not so much. It's not necessary to suggest that Reliable Uncle Bob must have been a liar for either his own perception to have been mistaken, or for the version of the story that finally made it down to you to have been altered. Neither is it necessary to cast doubt on Moberly and Jourdain's academic status to suggest that the story we have in the annals of urban legend does not reflect a literal time-travel event that must have happened exactly as reported. Human brains are fallible — including Uncle Bob, including pilots, and including academics.
Two basic explanations have been put forth by previous researchers, which by now have been watered down and popularized into the following: First, that they accidentally wandered into a historical reenactment; and second, that they had a sort of shared delusion. But to put these two explanations into proper perspective, we need to go back to see who originally proposed them and why, and what hidden details of the story prompted them. And this is the point at which the Versailles Time Slip goes from an interesting anecdote to an all-out strange-fest.
St. Hugh's College was founded in 1886 by Elizabeth Wordsworth as an all-women's college at Oxford, and the consensus among researchers suggests that Moberly and Jourdain's relationship was romantic as well as professional. They were at least roommates. One of the earliest and most popular critiques of An Adventure came in 1957 from their former student Lucille Iremonger in her prodigiously-entitled book Ghosts of Versailles: Miss Moberly and Miss Jourdain and Their Adventure: A Critical Study. Iremonger insinuated that both women even had frequent affairs with students of the college. She spent much time delving into the nature of their lesbian relationship, and basically concluded that their adventure was a folie a deux, a madness of two. They had, she suggested, been so distracted by their relationship that they had merely misinterpreted ordinary people and objects for things from 1789, and became so obsessed with proving their story that they'd even convinced themselves of the reality of what had happened. Iremonger's charge gradually became softened over the years into a "shared delusion".
A fourth edition of An Adventure was printed in 1955, this time with a preface written by art historian Joan Evans, who was Jourdain's literary executor, and like Iremonger, a former student. But unlike the hostile Iremonger, Evans tended to defend Moberly and Jourdain's account of what happened as a literal event. She felt compelled to deflect popular conjecture that they'd had some sort of strange lesbian romance-induced delusion. So Evans, in a 1976 article for Encounter magazine, put forth the suggestion that the two women had simply walked unknowingly into an historical recreation, in which actors were lounging about in period attire. Evans went so far as to research such recreations, but did not find such an event that would have coincided with the 1901 visit.
Evans turned to the 1965 biography of the French artist Robert de Montesquiou. Biographer Philippe Jullian noted that de Montesquiou had lived in a house at Versailles and was noted for his Tableaux Vivant performances, in which gay Parisian men performed the roles of both men and women; thus, the Marie Antoinette seen by Moberly and Jourdain was a transvestite. Though no evidence survives that indicates de Montesquiou may have actually thrown such an event in 1901, Jullian's suggestion was good enough for Evans; and ever since her article, the transvestite historical recreation has been reported and re-reported as one of the most likely explanations for the Versailles Time Slip. They say truth is stranger than fiction, but the rationales for fringe claims can often be even stranger.
As usual, the best way to get a handle on what probably actually happened is to brush aside all ex post facto conjecture — the lesbian madness and transvestite follies — and go back to the original sources. One thing I like to do, since I've never visited Versailles, is to pull it up on Google Earth and look at all the pictures of it I can find. The first thing one finds is that the grounds of Versailles are immense, about 3.5 kilometers from end to end. To get to the Petit Trianon, you have to cross whole square kilometers of gardens, lakes, little hamlets and chateaus. Part of Moberly and Jourdain's proof is that upon returning a few years later, they couldn't find some of the objects they'd witnessed, most notably a kiosk and a footbridge. When they sent their story to England's Society for Psychical Research, a sometimes-skeptical, sometimes-credulous association of enthusiasts of the paranormal, the Society was unimpressed. Part of what the Society noted was that Moberly and Jourdain had themselves stated that they'd been lost; and as footbridges and kiosks of various descriptions abound on the vast grounds of Versailles, there was almost nothing to go on and nothing surprising about their report.
In their published 1950 report of what they'd determined many years before, the Society noted a few other points that authors like Iremonger tore into like fresh meat. One was that when they reviewed the several editions of An Adventure, they found it had expanded notably each time. Moreover, it was three months after the incident before the women had even sat down to compare notes on what they'd witnessed; whereas at the time of their visit, neither woman had suspected anything unusual even took place! In the second edition of An Adventure, the women explained that a full three months after their visit to Versailles, Moberly happened to mention the sketching woman they saw. Jourdain didn't remember any such thing. As they talked, it turned out that Moberly didn't remember hardly anything that Jourdain did either. These were all minor details like a woman shaking out a cloth out a window, two green-jacketed gardeners at work, and a sinister-looking man sitting under a garden kiosk. It was only after much discussion, note-sharing, and historical research that Moberly and Jourdain came up with the time period as 1789 and assigned identities to a few of the characters they saw, including Marie Antoinette herself as the lady sketching on the lawn.
Upon reviewing the case as told in the women's own words, the Society for Psychical Research concluded that the evidence of anything unusual having actually happened was insufficient to justify further study. Their report's author, W.H. Salter, pointed out that the embellished versions of the tale published in later editions were written much later than the women had initially claimed, perhaps as long as five years later; and only after the women had made several return trips to Versailles to study the landmarks further.
The principal authors who have written about this story seem to agree that there was probably no conscious effort at deception by Moberly and Jourdain, only a firm belief in the reality of their perception and a desire to present their story in as convincing a way as possible. They even went so far as to include a chapter they called "A Rêverie", an imaginary account of Marie Antoinette's own meditations, in which she observed two strangers walk past while she was sitting there sketching, amidst all the other people and things they reported. This chapter jumps out as particularly bizarre, and moves An Adventure from the realm of reporting into that of fantasy fiction.
But it was probably firmly believed by both women. In paraphrasing Iremonger, author Terry Castle wrote:
...Both Moberly and Jourdain had had paranormal experiences before and after the Trianon visit, and that Moberly in particular was prone to aural and visual hallucinations. As a child she had heard the words "PINNACLED REALITY" as she stared at the spires of Winchester Cathedral; ...she had seen two strange birds with dazzling white feathers and immense wings fly over the cathedral into the west. In Cambridge in 1913 she saw a procession of medieval monks; and at the Louvre the following year, she saw a man "six or seven feet high" in a crown and togalike dress whom she at first took to be Charlemagne, but later decided was an apparition of the Roman emperor Constantine.
Respected academics they may well have been, and well-intentioned to boot. But no one is above being mistaken, or above susceptibility to preconceived notions and all manner of perceptual errors. I'm not, you're not, Uncle Bob is not, and Moberly and Jourdain were not. Honesty, integrity, credentials, and respect have nothing to do with the human brain's function of abstracting its perceptions into something that seems to make sense. There was never any need for authors to introduce lesbian madness and transvestite follies to explain their erroneous perception. Moberly and Jourdain were simply human; and that, in itself, is the most complex explanation of all.