Fact and Fiction in All This, and Heaven Too: The 1938 Novel and 1940 Film

All This, and Heaven Too 1940 film

When it was freshly published in 1938, Rachel Field’s bestselling novel All This, and Heaven Too kept company on the shelf with other contemporary novels titled with allusions to Christianity but preoccupied with romance. Here we’ll be taking a look at the 1940 film All This, and Heaven Too  in the context of the novel that it was based on. 

Consider E.M. Delafield’s Thank Heaven Fasting (1932), in which the touch of Captain Lane’s hand has Monica muse: “This, surely, was love—the most wonderful thing in life.” Or Janie’s relationships and search for fulfillment in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). Or, soon after, the complicated social expectations in the courtship depicted in Gwethalyn Graham’s Earth and High Heaven (1944).

Indeed, the opening shots of the Warner Bros. film are of the sky—a heavenward if not beatific gaze. It’s a winter sky, presumably—as filming began February 8, 1940—with treetops caught in a tumultuous wind, and only a few leaves clinging to branches.

This scene suits the complex, fascinating story of Henriette Deluzy-Desportes (1813–1875). The film—and the first half of Rachel Field’s novel—focuses on six years in Paris, beginning in 1841, when Henriette was in the employ of the Duc and Duchesse de Praslin. Henriette’s position ended abruptly, shadowed by scandal; rumors persisted about her involvement with the family—the Duc, in particular—in the absence of the Duchesse.

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Henriette Deluzy-Desports & the Duc & Duchess Praslin

The real cast of characters in the Praslin scandal: Helen Deluzy-Desportes,
and the Duc and Duchesse de Praslin
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Real-Life Murders Retold in Fiction

Her story also could have nestled on bookshelves with F. Tennyson Jesse’s novel, A Pin to See the Peepshow (1934), which fictionalizes the Thompson-Bywaters murder case of 1922. The story tells of a couple accused and convicted of murdering the woman’s husband. In Field’s novel, soon after Henriette’s employment with the de Praslin family ends, the Duchesse is murdered. The Duc dies a few days later, having poisoned himself with arsenic, all the while maintaining his innocence.

An additional layer of complication exists for Field’s work, however, for as with Daphne du Maurier’s fictionalized version of her ancestor’s life in Mary Anne (1954), Rachel Field is telling her great-aunt’s story in All This, and Heaven Too. After the murder-suicide scandal, both in the fictionalized version and in real life, Henriette Deluzy-Desportes became Henriette Desportes Field in 1851, when she married Rachel Field’s great-uncle.

Thus, Field had a vested interest in Henriette’s perspective and the novel opens with an imagined letter to her long-departed great-aunt: “My forefinger has grown none the less curious in the thirty more years that I have been tracing your legend [via the letters carved into a tombstone].”

Her influences are both personal and cultural, however. Alison L. McKee considers All This, and Heaven Too “a reformulation of Jane Eyre, in which a governess falls in love with a man married to a madwoman, a man who may occupy a superior position in society but whose moral character is inferior to that of the governess.” (From McKee’s 1995 essay: “’L’affaire Praslin’ and All This, and Heaven Too: gender, genre, and history in the 1940s woman’s film.”)

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A scene from All this, and Heaven Too - 1940
A scene from the 1940 film starring Bette Davis and Charles Boyer
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Reformulating Jane Eyre; Reconstructing Historical Events

The governess lives to tell the tale, and her court testimony is in the historical record—the Duc’s perspective is also publicized and excerpts from the Duchesse’s letters are published. Field is also concerned with what has been left unsaid, what is outside of the narrative frame. This sense is also captured in the film, wherein Henriette’s version is presented as a story-within-a-story, once she resumes teaching and is compelled to offer her students an explanation:

“Perhaps I am wrong in telling it to you,” Henriette says, “but in a few years you will be women of an age to love and suffer … so perhaps it will not hurt you to learn that life is not always the pretty picture we might wish it to be.”

Field’s perspective is that there was enough suffering to go around. The Duchesse writes passionate and desperate letters to the Duc, but after an argument with her, the Duc tells Henriette: “I hope you will never understand what it is to be slowly smothered by a love which has become insufferable!”

McKee elaborates on the advantages that fiction offered Field: “The conventions of the historical romance allow Field to supply what has been missing: the emotional, affective register of Henriette’s experiences in the Choiseul-Praslin household which are elided from official accounts and misrepresented, she feels, in the gossip rags and mainstream press alike.”

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All This and Heaven Too film poster

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Bette Davis and Her Stardom Secured

As Henriette Deluzy-Desportes in the film adaptation of All This and Heaven, Too (directed by Anatole Litvak) Bette Davis appears in her forty-second film. In her autobiography, The Lonely Life (1962), Davis summarizes her career at that juncture: “In the year 1939, I secured my career and my stardom forever. I made five pictures in twelve months and every one of them was successful.”

Davis had successfully renegotiated her contract in the months immediately preceding this film’s production and Ed Sikov’s biography of her reports that she was making $4,500 a week while filming ATAHT. That’s how the studio referred to the film, mimicking the success of GWTW the preceding year; in fact, until Gone with the Wind premiered on December 20, 1939, Bette Davis had been expected to win the Best Actress Oscar for Dark Victory.

Warner Bros. was determined to outdo the epic David O. Selznick film with ATAHT with a budget of $1,075,000 (costs ultimately surpassed $2,500,000). Larry Swindell’s biography of Charles Boyer, who plays the Duc, also notes that ATAHT had sixty-seven sets, whereas GWTW had only fifty-three; and rivaled its lengthy run time.

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All this and Heaven Too by Rachel Field
All This, and Heaven Too (the 1938 novel)
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A Studio Success and the Career of an Actress

In the context of Bette Davis’s work, All This, and Heaven Too remains significant. Producer David Lewis wanted Greta Garbo to play Henriette, whereas others advocated for Helen Hayes, but Davis was well-suited for the role. She had experience with characters who occupied what Cathy Klaprat calls “constraining” environments, notably, the southern culture in her film Jezebel and the American southwest in The Petrified Forest.

In All This, and Heaven Too, Henriette is also constrained by her poverty, rumors of impropriety surrounding her parentage, her grandfather’s disapproval of her accepting a post in a family with different religious and political opinions than his, and her difficulty balancing loyalty towards all members of the household.

Klaprat also observes Davis’ previous roles in love triangles, including Dangerous, Cabin in the Cotton, and Of Human Bondage. (All this from her 1985 essay “The Star as Market Strategy: Bette Davis in Another Light.”) Romance is not Henriette’s priority in Field’s telling, however, but the children of the house. Fictionalized, Henriette is unequivocally loyal:

“…I loved them and I devoted my whole self to them. Their pleasures were my pleasures; their pain was my pain. Six years I watched over them by day and by night. They loved me with all the enthusiasm of their years, and I returned their love. I was without family ties, without friends, and all my feelings were bound up in my duties, which were so congenial and pleasant.”

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All this and heaven too starring bette davis

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A Loyal Governess Navigates the Household Hierarchy

Her great-aunt’s feelings, Field believed, were confined to her charges. The governess only admired the Duc’s dedication to his family and his allowance for her service to their needs.

“She had expected … to find him formal and detached as became the head of one of the oldest and most influential families of France, and here he was full of concern for his children and eager to put her at her ease.”

The Duchesse, on the other hand, stymied her: “She’s beyond my comprehension—roused like a tigress and then forgetful of what provoked her anger. No, she could never make the Duchesse out. Whenever she tried to, her efforts ended in a baffled shrug of the shoulders.”

When Field describes Henriette’s disdain, it’s directed not towards the Duchesse but towards the children’s former governess, who retained a position in the service of the Duchesse:

“She knew this type too well—colorless, bitter-lipped, and ambiguous; one who would be overbearing with servants and those she considered inferior and would overdo her meeching and humility with superiors. Such a woman resented her position, yet had not the cleverness or good sense to take advantage of the possibilities it offered.”

Even here, Field depicts Henriette’s view as revolving around the children; if her concern was only for their welfare, she could not have been implicated either in a love relationship with the Duc or with a crime against the children’s mother. In Sikov’s biography of Bette Davis, he explains that “Field, Robinson [the screenwriter], and Litvak all believed in Henriette’s innocence.”

Sikov notes, in contrast, that Davis’s autobiography states that she believed Henriette and the Duc “must have been lovers. It was impossible for me to believe that they were not.”

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All-This-and-Heaven-Too-1940 starring charles boyer and bette davis

See the official trailer of All This, and Heaven Too
Stream the 1940 film adaptation on Amazon*
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Bette Davis Radiates in a Role

When it came to acting, Davis prioritized understanding over immersion in a role, as Lucy Fischer observes in “Bette Davis Worker and Queen.” She quotes her autobiography too, as evidence of Davis’s conviction that the actor should go “out of himself not in. He pretends to be this other human being” because a performance has “nothing to do with self-involvement but rather radiation.”

Davis radiates her understanding of Henriette’s position and conveys deep devotion and passion, with glances and gestures, even when the script remains dedicated to the concept of her purity.

One thing that all agree on: this is Henriette’s story, and all the others are bit parts. As McKee observes: “By the time she has finished her story at the end of the film, Henriette has even managed to position herself as a historical subject whose significance in history surpasses that of the king of France, whom she has banished to the margins of her own tale.”

Beyond the context of either novel or film, the Praslin affair was historically significant. It played an integral role in inflaming public opinion against the king, with this prominent family’s scandalous crime given their support of the monarchy. The official record is extensive, cataloged in the National Archives in Paris as CC 808-12 and AE V 243-94, and it was inventoried officially in 1847.

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Rachel field, American author
Learn more about Rachel Field,
the author of All This, and Heaven Too 

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An Archival Mystery in the Praslin Papers

McKee’s research resulted in her undertaking an inventory in 1991, which revealed that “several letters and other documents written by different people (including the Duchesse) and listed in the inventory taken by the Cours des Pairs are missing.” Other scholars had noted previously their absence in the record and her consultations with archivists “indicated that the missing materials had not been officially removed or relocated.”

Field was correct in her belief that there were aspects of this story that would remain unknown. Other novelists have also found inspiration in the story, and have used fiction to explore complexities and contradictions in the situation: English author Marjorie Bowen’s Forget-Me-Not (1932) changes the names to retell the story, Nathaniel Hawthorne based Miriam in The Marble Faun (1860) on Henriette, and Nicaraguan author Gioconda Belli’s Las Fiebres de la Memoria (2018) explores the theory that the Duc survived and lived out the remainder of his life in Nicaragua.

Ruth Ozeki’s observation about writing, and the complex relationship between fact and fiction, fits here: “I think all characters are facets of the writer. In a way, they have to be if you’re going to write them convincingly.” Rachel Field’s fictionalized biography of her great-aunt was a resounding success—not because we are convinced of either her guilt or innocence, but because either of these possibilities could be true.

Contributed by Marcie McCauley, a graduate of the University of Western Ontario and the Humber College Creative Writing Program. She writes and reads (mostly women writers!) in Toronto, Canada. And she chats about it on Buried In Print and @buriedinprint

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