By Jeffrey S. Ravel, Houghton Mifflin Co., New York, N.Y. 288 pages, $25

When early 20th century geneticist J.B.S. Haldane wrote that “The universe is not only queerer than we imagine, it is queerer than we can imagine,” he was unlikely thinking of bigamist Louis de la Pivardiere or the intrigue that surrounded Pivardiere’s 17th-century existence. But he could have been.

MIT history professor Jeffrey S. Ravel’s fast-moving, compelling and bizarre chronicle of de la Pivardiere’s simultaneous marriages to Marguerite Chauvelin and Marie-Elizabeth Pillard is a rapt reminder that deception and game-playing are not solely the province of contemporary life. And it’s a doozy of a story.

It begins in 1687 when de la Pivardiere, one of approximately 170 titular noblemen in the French community of The Berry, chanced upon the widowed Marguerite Chauvelin living on a rural estate called Narbonne. Although Ravel reports that de la Pivardiere was initially interested in Chauvelin’s pubescent daughter, he eventually settled on Marguerite. “For him, the primary attraction was an opportunity to obtain title to a landed estate,” Ravel writes. “For both parties the decision to marry was driven by status and economics, not romantic interest.”

At the time Marguerite was rumored to be involved with the area’s Prior and wagging tongues assumed that she and the churchman were lovers.

Flash forward a few years and de la Pivardiere – perhaps bored by his lackluster marriage or seeking the adventure promised by military service – left Narbonne and became a lieutenant in the St. Hermines regiment. Along the way, he became distracted by the comely Marie-Elizabeth Pillard and in 1695 he went AWOL and married her. As far as Marie-Elizabeth knew, her knight in shining armor was a bachelor named Louis Dubouchet. He hid his noble origins and in a move that can only be described as downwardly mobile, passed himself off as a commoner.

Several years later, in the summer of 1697, de la Pivardiere’s interest in Pillard apparently flagged and he decided to return to Narbonne for the annual Feast of Our Lady, a celebratory, if prayerful, gathering. By this point Chauvelin had gotten wind of her husband’s two-timing and was less-than-thrilled by his return. Spectator accounts attest to tension between the pair, with each accusing the other of infidelity and betrayal.

Things now took a particularly weird turn. Maidservants Catherine Lemoyne and Marguerite Mercier allegedly told police that Chauvelin and the Prior had killed de la Pivardiere while he slept. Both suspected murderers were charged and incarcerated, as were the hired hands turned eyewitnesses.

Had a body been unearthed, the case would have been open and shut. Instead, Chauvelin and the Prior proclaimed their innocence and denied knowing where de la Pivardiere had gone. Then, in January 1698 – five months after he was supposedly killed – de la Pivardiere returned to The Berry. Was he the real de la Pivardiere, or an imposter?

So great was the tumult that the case was moved to Paris where it became the talk of the town. Underground tabloids – imagine a 17th century version of The National Enquirer – spouted rumor after rumor, mesmerizing readers and distracting them from wars and economic woes. A stage play, “The Husband Returns,” also captivated audiences.

At trial the maidservants – illiterate, young and impressionable – presented sordid details of Louis’ demise and their efforts at clean-up. But were these pronouncements accurate, or were the terrified teens so browbeaten by police that they fabricated a story to appease the officials? That they later recanted led court watchers to conclude that the story was phony.

For his part, Louis de la Pivardiere – or whoever he was – refused to testify unless the King gave him immunity from prosecution for bigamy. Once this was granted, he returned to The Berry and more than 100 people testified that he was, in fact, Louis de la Pivardiere. The stakes were high: imposture was considered a capital offense.

The courts eventually determined that de la Pivardiere needed to be examined anew by Parisian authorities and they seized him for interrogation. Handwriting experts were summoned to compare pre-and-post “death” penmanship, and Louis was brought before the judge repeatedly and badgered with questions meant to trip him up. “There was no chronological or thematic consistency to the topics covered; part of the interrogator’s art was to skip around the facts of the case, returning to issues raised earlier in an effort to catch inconsistencies,” Ravel writes.

The repeated queries led the judge, in late 1698, to declare Chauvelin and the Prior innocent. The only person penalized was Marguerite Mercier who was found guilty of giving false testimony and sentenced to kneel in front of a church, barefoot, with a rope around her neck. She was whipped, branded, and forced to pay a hefty fine to the Crown for her misdeed. Catherine Lemoyne escaped this fate by dying while imprisoned. Within 10 years, Marguerite Chauvelin was also dead; Louis de la Pivardiere’s fate is less certain but he is assumed to have died while a member of the Royal Army sometime in the 1730s. And Marie-Elizabeth Pillard? She fared best, marrying at least three more times and ultimately achieving economic stability.

‘The Would-Be Commoner” takes us deep into pre-Enlightenment France and offers a dazzling look at the era’s social mores. At the same time, it fails to fully explicate what it meant for a near-penniless noble to – even temporarily – attach himself to a lower class. Clearly, social status involves more than money, but how French society perceived de la Pivardiere’s descent remains cloudy. Still, by looking into a public scandal, Ravel gives us a revealing, if limited, glimpse into the intersection of gender, class and celebrity.

Eleanor J. Bader is a teacher, writer and activist whose work appears in The Brooklyn Rail, The L Magazine, Z, Library Journal, The Indypendent and other publications.