A tale of two Women

Sharon James
Sharon James Author and speaker Sharon James studied history at Cambridge, theology at Toronto Baptist Seminary and has a doctorate from the University of Wales. Sharon works for The Christian Institute.
01 December, 2006 3 min read

Both women lived in the eighteenth century. Both were highly gifted. Both had marriages arranged for them at a young age. But there the resemblance ends.

Georgiana Spencer, Duchess of Devonshire (1757-1806), was acclaimed for her beauty, style, wit, intelligence and strength of character. One of the top ten celebrities in the nation, she was admired and imitated.

When she changed her hairstyle, women in Paris and Vienna immediately copied her. A snippet of gossip about her boosted any newspaper’s circulation, and journalists watched her every move.

Her husband was one of the wealthiest dukes in Britain, with vast tracts of land and beautiful homes – including Chatsworth House in Derbyshire and Devonshire House in London. Georgiana knew the leading politicians, playwrights, painters, actors and musicians of the time. And yet she was an unhappy woman.

Having everything

When she married at the age of seventeen, she little realised that her older husband relied on his male friends and dogs for companionship, and on his long-term mistress for affection and sex. He only married her in order to produce a legitimate heir. He never fulfilled her need for affection.

She spent her life desperately looking for love and security but ended up living in a hideous threesome with her husband and his mistress – who also happened to be her best friend.

Georgiana’s mother tried to point her towards God, but she became addicted to drink, drugs, gambling and overeating as she tried to fill the void in her life. Bouts of binge drinking and eating would be followed by desperate efforts to regain self-control.

Once considered to be one of the most beautiful women in Europe, she was a physical wreck by the age of forty. She had everything, but she had nothing.

Having nothing

Marie Durand (1711-1776) was from a poor Protestant (Huguenot) family, and lived in France during the viciously intolerant Catholic ancien regime. When the authorities arrested her father in 1728, he hastily arranged a marriage for his young daughter to a man twenty-five years her senior – in the vain hope that this man would be able to protect her.

But two years later Marie and her husband were arrested. Male Huguenots were killed; females were imprisoned. At the age of eighteen Marie was incarcerated in the notorious Tower of Constance – knowing that if she recanted her faith she could be released at any time.

But Marie refused to recant, and remained in that tower for thirty-eight years. She endured nearly four decades in the dark – on the first floor of a tower with stone walls twenty feet thick and tiny slits for windows.

She found herself among about thirty other women, some of them criminals and others imprisoned for their biblical faith. Despite her youth, Marie encouraged women older than herself to remain faithful.

She led them in singing hymns, and became the light and hope of that pitiful group. She nursed the sick, wrote letters for the illiterate, composed petitions against their ill treatment, and never wavered in her faith in Christ.

Having nothing yet everything

Her eloquent written appeals to central government were seen by the philosophers Voltaire and Rousseau. As a result, the women were given a copy of the Psalms and were allowed out on the roof to get fresh air.

Marie read Psalms aloud each evening to the prisoners. Even the roughest criminals respected her, and she was a blessing to everyone. She remained strong in her faith and joyful in her eternal hope.

In 1768 the governor of Languedoc was so sickened by conditions in the tower that he ordered the release of all the women. So, thirty-eight long years after being taken prisoner, Marie returned home. A Dutch church ensured that she was provided for. She died in 1776, eight years after her release.

I remember being taken as a teenager to see the Tower of Constance. It was almost overwhelming to visualise those girls and women, imprisoned in such conditions – who could have walked free at any time by denying their faith in Christ and their confidence in salvation by grace alone.

The word ‘register’ was engraved in the Tower, probably by Marie herself. It is the local dialect for ‘resister’ – French for ‘resist!’ That single word sums up her spiritual resolve, her huge courage and her great faith.

Because she feared God she knew no other fear. She had nothing, but she had everything

Sharon James
Author and speaker Sharon James studied history at Cambridge, theology at Toronto Baptist Seminary and has a doctorate from the University of Wales. Sharon works for The Christian Institute.
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