In 1911, Two Senior Oxford Academics Claimed to Have Traveled Back in Time. 50 Years Later, We Know What Really Happened

For decades, the story of Charlotte Moberly and Eleanor Jourdain served as fuel for popular imagination.

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In 1911, Elizabeth Morison and Frances Lamont published a short book detailing their visit to Le Petit Trianon, a small chateau near Versailles in France. The book beautifully recounted their train ride, their walk through the building, and their escapade in the gardens. However, the day took an unexpected turn.

All of a sudden, they started to feel a “melancholy atmosphere,” a “dreamy haziness,” which they also describe as “eerie and unpleasant.” That left them disoriented. As they tried to find their way out, they encountered people with unfamiliar faces and attire. They crossed bridges, strolled through gardens, and came upon a seated girl in a garish and outdated costume, who looked at them in astonishment.

When they returned to Le Petit Trianon the next day, they found that nothing they had seen matched reality. The gardens, paths, and even the people were different from what they had experienced, leaving them wondering about the mysterious events of their previous visit.

Traveling through time. In their book An Adventure, the authors described what they’d experienced in great detail and concluded that time travel was the only explanation. That wasn’t a hasty conclusion: The trip they described had taken place 10 years earlier, on August 10, 1901.

As it happens, they thoroughly investigated the changes in the château and its gardens over that decade. They concluded that they had not only traveled more than a century into the past but also encountered the former Queen of France Marie Antoinette herself, depicted as a seated girl with a striking costume and a surprised expression.

A bestseller and a surprise. The book became a true bestseller and went through numerous editions. However, as Chris Wheatley wrote in Atlas Obscura, the most incredible part of the story wasn’t even that. It was that Morison and Lamont didn’t exist. The real authors were Eleanor Jourdain and Charlotte Moberly, principal and vice-principal of St. Hugh’s College at the University of Oxford, arguably the most prestigious “women’s college” in the world.

Moberly, in fact, was the first principal of the college, overcoming numerous obstacles and problems. Although she never had any formal studies, she was highly respected in academic circles. Jourdain, on the other hand, had advanced scientific training and was destined to succeed Moberly.

In other words, the Parisian adventure wasn’t exactly an occurrence. It was something more.

No plausible explanation. What we know today is that the two Oxford professors were deeply affected by what happened at Le Petit Trianon. Unable to find an answer, they reached out to the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), an institution dedicated to investigating “human experiences that challenge contemporary scientific models.” These researchers focused on paranormal phenomena in a rapidly advancing world of science and technology.

The SPR noted that stories of time travel were common, but the so-called “Moberly-Jourdain incident” was particularly rare and complex. While many people were enthusiastic about it, others remained skeptical. In the early 20th century, some SPR members suggested that it might have been a psychotic break.

What if they were lying? Many people, now and then, aren’t convinced by the hypothesis that they were simply lying. Even though the book was published under a pseudonym, they did discuss it at the university and among their friends, exposing themselves (a lot) to the risk that their professional careers would collapse.

Even though their professional careers weren't impacted and the two women were able to continue with their lives, the doubt about what happened is still very much alive.

What could have happened? In his 1965 biography of the poet Robert de Montesquiou, Philippe Jullian suggested a hypothesis: That Moberly and Jourdain had unwittingly walked into a costume party. According to Jullian, around the same time as the trip to Le Petit Trianon, Montesquiou was holding large “period” gatherings in the palace gardens, which included complete scenes and classical furnishings. Even changes in the structure of the gardens were made.

There are additional explanations, from hallucinatory experiences to a simple mistake, but Jullian’s hypothesis seems the most solid in the eyes of experts. Regardless, the story had an enormous impact on the public imagination for half a century.

Image | Emiliano García Page

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