The Women of the French Salons
Amelia Gere Mason

Part 5 out of 5

child she had excelled in music, dancing, drawing, and other
feminine accomplishments, though one feels always that her
distinctive talent does not lie in these things. She is more at
home with her thoughts. There was a touch of poetry, too, in her
nature, that under different circumstances might have lent it a
softer and more graceful coloring. She had a natural love for
the woods and the flowers. The single relief to her somber life
at La Platiere, after her marriage, was in the long and lonely
rambles in the country, whose endless variations of hill and vale
and sky and color she has so tenderly and so vividly noted. In
her last days a piano and a few flowers lighted the darkness of
her prison walls, and out of these her imagination reared a world
of its own, peopled with dreams and fancies that contrasted
strangely with the gloom of her surroundings. This poetic vein
was closely allied to the keen sensibility that tempered the
seriousness of her character. With the mental equipment of a
man, she combined the rich sympathy of a woman. Her devotion to
her mother was passionate in its intensity; her letters to Sophie
throb with warmth and sentiment. She is tender and loving, as
well as philosophic and thoughtful. Her emotional ardor was
doubtless partly the glow of youth and not altogether in the
texture of a mind so eminently rational; but there were rich
possibilities behind it. A shade of difference in the mental and
moral atmosphere, a trace more or less of sunshine and happiness
are important factors in the peculiar combination of qualities
that make up a human being. The marriage of Mme. Roland led her
into a world that had little color save what she brought into it.
Her husband did not smile upon her friends. Sympathy other than
that of the intellect she does not seem to have had. But her
story is best told in her own words, written in the last days of
her life.

"In considering only the happiness of my partner, I soon
perceived that something was wanting to my own. I had never, for
a single instant, ceased to see in my husband one of the most
estimable of men, to whom I felt it an honor to belong; but I
have often realized that there was a lack of equality between us,
that the ascendency of an overbearing character, added to that of
twenty years more of age, gave him too much superiority. If we
lived in solitude, I had many painful hours to pass; if we went
into the world, I was loved by men of whom I saw that some might
touch me too deeply. I plunged into work with my husband,
another excess which had its inconvenience; I gave him the habit
of not knowing how to do without me for anything in the world,
nor at any moment.

"I honor, I cherish my husband, as a sensible daughter adores a
virtuous father to whom she would sacrifice even her lover; but I
have found the man who might have been that lover, and remaining
faithful to my duties, my frankness has not known how to conceal
the feelings which I subjected to them. My husband, excessively
sensitive both in his affections and his self-love, could not
support the idea of the least change in his influence; his
imagination darkened, his jealousy irritated me; happiness fled;
he adored me, I sacrificed myself for him, and we were miserable.

"If I were free, I would follow him everywhere to soften his
griefs and console his old age; a soul like mine leaves no
sacrifices imperfect. But Roland was embittered by the thought
of sacrifice, and the knowledge once acquired that I mad made one
ruined his happiness; he suffered in accepting it, and could not
do without it."

The sequel to this tale is told in allusions and half
revelations, in her letters to Buzot, which glow with suppressed
feeling; in her touching farewell to one whom she dared not to
name, but whom she hoped to meet where it would not be a crime to
love; in those final words of her "Last Thoughts"--"Adieu. . . .
No, it is from thee alone that I do not separate; to leave the
earth is to approach each other."

Beneath this semi-transparent veil the heart-drama of her life is

For the sake of those who would be pained by this story, as well
as for her own, we would rather it had never been told. We
should like to believe that the woman who worked so nobly with
and for the man who died by his own hand five days after her
death, because he could stay no longer in a world where such
crimes were possible, had lived in the full perfection of
domestic sympathy. But, if she carried with her an incurable
wound, one cannot help regretting that her Spartan courage had
not led her to wear the mantle of silence to the end. Posterity
is curious rather than sympathetic, and the world is neither
wiser nor better for these needless soul-revelations. There is
always a certain malady of egotism behind them. But it is often
easier to scale the heights of human heroism than to still the
cry of a bruised spirit. Mme. Roland had moments of falling
short of her own ideals, and this was one of them. Pure, loyal,
self-sustained as she was, her strong sense of verity did not
permit the veil which would have best served the interests of the
larger truth. It is fair to say that she thought the malicious
gossip of her enemies rendered this statement necessary to the
protection of her fame. Perhaps, after all, she shows here her
most human and lovable if not her strongest side. We should like
Minerva better if she were not so faultlessly wise.

The outbreak of the Revolution found Mme. Roland at La Platiere,
where she shared her husband's philosophic and economic studies,
brought peace into a discordant family, attended to her household
duties and the training of her child, devoted many hours to
generous care for the sick and poor, and reserved a little
leisure for poetry and the solitary rambles she loved so well.
The first martial note struck a responsive chord in her heart.
Her opportunity had come. Embittered by class distinctions over
which she had long brooded, saturated with the sentiments of
Rousseau, and full of untried theories constructed in the closet,
with small knowledge of the wide and complex interests with which
it was necessary to deal, she centered all the hitherto latent
energies of her forceful nature upon the quixotic effort to
redress human wrongs. Her birth, her intellect, her character,
her temperament, her education, her associations--all led her
towards the role she played so heroically. She had a keen
appreciation for genuine values, but none whatever for factitious
ones. Her inborn hatred of artificial distinctions had grown
with her years and colored all her estimates of men and things.
When she came to Paris, she noted with a sort of indignation the
superior poise and courtesy of the men in the assembly who had
been reared in the habit of power. It added fuel to her enmity
towards institutions in which reason, knowledge, and integrity
paid homage to fine language and distinguished manners. She
found even Vergniaud too refined and fastidious in his dress for
a successful republican leader. Her old contempt for a
"philosopher with a feather" had in no wise abated. With such
principles ingrained and fostered, it is not difficult to
forecast the part Mme. Roland was destined to play in the coming
conflict of classes. Whatever we may think of the wisdom of her
attitude towards the Revolution, she represented at least its
most sincere side. As she stood white-robed and courageous at
the foot of the scaffold, facing the savage populace she had laid
down her life to befriend, perhaps her perspectives were truer.
Experience had given her an insight into the characters of men
which is not to be gained in the library, nor in the worship of
dead heroes. If it had not shaken her faith in human
perfectibility, it had taught her at least the value of tradition
in chaining brutal human passions.

The tragical fate of Mme. Roland has thrown a strong light upon
the modest little salon in which the unfortunate Girondists met
four times a week to discuss the grave problems that confronted
them. A salon in the old sense it certainly was not. It had
little in common with the famous centers of conversation and
esprit. It was simply the rallying point of a party. The only
woman present was Mme. Roland herself, but at first she assumed
no active leadership. She sat at a little table outside of the
circle, working with her needle, or writing letters, alive to
everything that was said, venturing sometimes a word of counsel
or a thoughtful suggestion, and often biting her lips to repress
some criticism that she feared might not be within her province.
She had left her quiet home in the country fired with a single
thought--the regeneration of France. The men who gathered about
her were in full accord with her generous aims. It was not to
such enthusiasms that the old salons lost themselves. They had
been often the centers of political intrigues, as in the days of
the Fronde; or of religious partisanship, as during the troubles
of Port Royal; they had ranged themselves for and against rival
candidates for literary or artistic honors; but they had
preserved, on the whole, a certain cosmopolitan character. All
shades of opinion were represented, and social brilliancy was the
end sought, not the triumph of special ideas. It is indeed true
that earnest convictions were, to some extent, stifled in the
salons, where charm and intelligence counted for so much, and the
sterling qualities of character for so little. But the
etiquette, the urbanity, the measure, which assured the outward
harmony of a society that courted distinction of every kind, were
quite foreign to the iconoclasts who were bent upon leveling all
distinctions. The Revolution which attacked the whole
superstructure of society, was antagonistic to its minor forms as
well, and it was the revolutionary party alone which was
represented in the salon of Mme. Roland. Brissot, Vergniaud,
Petion, Guadet, and Buzot were leaders there--men sincere and
ardent, though misguided, and unable to cope with the storm they
had raised, to be themselves swept away by its pitiless rage.
Robespierre, scheming and ambitious, came there, listened, said
little, appropriated for his own ends, and bided his time. Mme.
Roland had small taste for the light play of intellect and wit
that has no outcome beyond the meteoric display of the moment,
and she was impatient with the talk in which an evening was often
passed among these men without any definite results. As she
measured their strength, she became more outspoken. She
communicated to them a spark of her own energy. The most daring
moves were made at her bidding. She urged on her timid and
conservative husband, she drew up his memorials, she wrote his
letters, she was at once his stimulus, and his helper. Weak and
vacillating men yielded to her rapid insight, her vigor, her
earnestness, and her persuasive eloquence. This was probably the
period of her greatest influence. Many of the swift changes of
those first months may be traced to her salon. The moves which
were made in the Assembly were concocted there, the orators who
triumphed found their inspiration there. Still, in spite of her
energy, her strength, and her courage, she prides herself upon
maintaining always the reserve and decorum of her sex.

If she assumed the favorite role of the French woman for a short
time while her husband was in the ministry, it was in a sternly
republican fashion. She gave dinners twice a week to her
husband's political friends. The fifteen or twenty men who met
around her table at five o'clock were linked by political
interests only. The service was simple, with no other luxury
than a few flowers. There were no women to temper the
discussions or to lighten their seriousness. After dinner the
guests lingered for an hour or so in the drawing room, but by
nine o'clock it was deserted. She received on Friday, but what a
contrast to the Fridays of Mme. Necker in those same apartments!
It was no longer a brilliant company of wits, savants, and men of
letters, enlivened by women of beauty, esprit, rank, and fashion.
There was none of the diversity of taste and thought which lends
such a charm to social life. Mme. Roland tells us that she never
had an extended circle at any time, and that, while her husband
was in power, she made and received no visits, and invited no
women to her house. She saw only her husband's colleagues, or
those who were interested in his tastes and pursuits, which were
also her own. The world of society wearied her. She was
absorbed in a single purpose. If she needed recreation, she
sought it in serious studies.

It is always difficult to judge what a man or a woman might have
been under slightly altered conditions. But for some single
circumstance that converged and focused their talent, many a hero
would have died unknown and unsuspected. The key that unlocks
the treasure house of the soul is not always found, and its
wealth is often scattered on unseen shores. But it is clear that
the part of Mme. Roland could never have been a distinctively
social one. She lived at a time when great events brought out
great qualities. Her clear intellect, her positive convictions,
her boundless energy, and her ardent enthusiasm, gave her a
powerful influence in those early days of the Revolution, that
looked towards a world reconstructed but not plunged into the
dark depths of chaos, and it is through this that she has left a
name among the noted women of France. In more peaceful times her
peculiar talent would doubtless have led her towards literature.
In her best style she has rare vigor and simplicity. She has
moments of eloquent thought. There are flashes of it in her
early letters to Sophie, which she begs her friend not to burn,
though she does not hope to rival Mme. de Sevigne, whom she takes
for her model. She lacked the grace, the lightness, the wit, the
humor of this model, but she had an earnestness, a serious depth
of thought, that one does not find in Mme. de Sevigne. She had
also a vein of sentiment that was an underlying force in her
character, though it was always subject to her masculine
intellect. She confesses that she should like to be the annalist
of her country, and longs for the pen of Tacitus, for whom she
has a veritable passion. When one reads her sharp, incisive pen-
portraits, drawn with such profound insight and masterly skill,
one feels that her true vocation was in the world of letters. At
the close she verges a little upon the theatrical, as sometimes
in her young days. But when she wrote her final records she felt
her last hours slipping away. Life, with its large possibilities
undeveloped and its promises unfulfilled, was behind her.
Darkness was all around her, eternal silence before her. And
she had lived but thirty-nine years.

Mme. Roland does not really belong to the world of the salons,
though she has been included among them by some of her own
cotemporaries. She was of quite another genre. She represents a
social reaction in which old forms are adapted to new ideas and
lose their essential quality by the change. But she foreshadows
a type of woman that has had great influence since the salons
have lost their prestige. She relied neither upon the reflected
light of a coterie, the arts of the courtier,nor the subtle power
of personal attraction; but, firm in her convictions, clear in
her purpose, and unselfish in her aims, she laid down her
interests, and, in the end, her life, upon the altar of liberty
and humanity. She could hardly be regarded, however, as herself
a type. She was cast in a rare mold and lived under rare
conditions. She was individual, as were Hypatia, Joan of Arc,
and Charlotte Corday--a woman fitted for a special mission which
brought her little but a martyr's crown and a permanent fame.

Supremacy of Her Genius--Her Early Training--Her Sensibility --
a Mariage de Convenance--Her Salon--Anecdote of Benjamin
Constant--Her Exile--Life at Coppet--Secret Marriage--Close
of a Stormy Life.

The fame of all other French women is more or less overshadowed
by that of one who was not only supreme in her own world, but who
stands on a pinnacle so high that time and distance only serve to
throw into stronger relief the grand outlines of her many-sided
genius. Without the simplicity and naturalness of Mme. de
Sevigne, the poise and judgment of Mme. de Lafayette, or the calm
foresight and diplomacy of Mme. de Maintenon, Mme. de Stael had a
brilliancy of imagination, a force of passion, a grasp of
intellect, and a diversity of gifts that belonged to none of
these women. It is not possible within the limits of a brief
chapter to touch even lightly upon the various phases of a
character so complex and talents so versatile. One can only
gather a few scattered traits and indicate a few salient points
in a life of which the details are already familiar. As woman,
novelist, philosopher, litterateur, and conversationist, she has
marked, if not equal, claims upon our attention. To speak of her
as simply the leader of a salon is to merge the greater talent
into the less, but her brilliant social qualities in a measure
brought out and illuminated all the others. It was not the gift
of reconciling diverse elements, and of calling out the best
thoughts of those who came within her radius, that distinguished
her. Her personality was too dominant not to disturb sometimes
the measure and harmony which fashion had established. She did
not listen well, but her gift was that of the orator, and, taking
whatever subject was uppermost into her own hands, she talked
with an irresistible eloquence that held her auditors silent and
enchained. Living as she did in the world of wit and talent
which had so fascinated her mother, she ruled it as an autocrat.

The mental coloring of Mme. de Stael was not taken in the shade,
as that of Mme. Roland had been. She was reared in the
atmosphere of the great world. That which her eager mind
gathered in solitude was subject always to the modification which
contact with vigorous living minds is sure to give. The little
Germaine Necker who sat on a low stool at her mother's side,
charming the cleverest men of her time by her precocious wit; who
wrote extracts from the dramas she heard, and opinions upon the
authors she read; who made pen-portraits of her friends, and cut
out paper kings and queens to play in the tragedies she composed;
whose heart was always overflowing with love for those around
her, and who had supreme need for an outlet to her sensibilities,
was a fresh type in that age of keen analysis, cold skepticism,
and rigid forms. The serious utterances of her childhood were
always suffused with feeling. She loved that which made her
weep. Her sympathies were full and overflowing, and when her
vigorous and masculine intellect took the ascendency it directed
them, but only partly held them in check. It never dulled nor
subdued them. The source of her power, as also of her weakness,
lay perhaps in her vast capacity for love. It gave color and
force to her rich and versatile character. It animated all she
did and gave point to all she wrote. It found expression in the
eloquence of her conversation, in the exaltation and passionate
intensity of her affections, in the fervor of her patriotism, in
the self-forgetful generosity that brought her very near the
verge of the scaffold. Here was the source of that indefinable
quality we call genius--not genius of the sort which Buffon has
defined as patience, but the divine flame that crowns with life
the dead materials which patience has gathered.

It was impossible that a child so eager, so sympathetic, so full
of intellect and esprit, should not have developed rapidly in the
atmosphere of her mother's salon. Whether it was the best school
for a young girl may be a question, but a character like that of
Mme. de Stael is apt to go its own way in whatever circumstances
it finds itself. She was the despair of Mme. Necker, whose
educational theories were altogether upset by this precocious
daughter who refused to be cast in a mold. But she was
habituated to a high altitude of thought. Men like Marmontel, La
Harpe, Grimm, Thomas, and the Abbe Raynal delighted in calling
out her ready wit, her brilliant repartee, and her precocious
ideas. Surrounded thus from childhood with all the appointments
as well as the talent and esprit that made the life of the salons
so fascinating; inheriting the philosophic insight of her father,
the literary gifts of her mother, to which she added a genius all
her own; heir also to the spirit of conversation, the facility,
the enthusiasm, the love of pleasing which are the Gallic
birthright, she took her place in the social world as a queen by
virtue of her position, her gifts, and her heritage. Already,
before her marriage, she had changed the tone of her mother's
salon. She brought into it an element of freshness and
originality which the dignified and rather precise character of
Mme. Necker had failed to impart. She gave it also a strong
political coloring. This influence was more marked after she
became the wife of the Swedish ambassador, as she continued for
some time to pass her evenings in her mother's drawing room,
where she became more and more a central figure. Her temperament
and her tastes were of the world in which she lived, but her
reason and her expansive sympathies led her to ally herself with
the popular cause; hence she was, to some extent, a link between
two conflicting interests.

It was in 1786 that Mme. de Stael entered the world as a married
woman. This marriage was arranged for her after the fashion of
the time, and she accepted it as she would have accepted anything
tolerable that pleased her idolized father and revered mother.
When only ten years of age, she observed that they took great
pleasure in the society of Gibbon, and she gravely proposed to
marry him, that they might always have this happiness. The full
significance of this singular proposition is not apparent until
one remembers that the learned historian was not only rather old,
but so short and fat as to call out from one of his friends the
remark that when he needed a little exercise he had only to take
a turn of three times around M. Gibbon. The Baron de Stael had
an exalted position, fine manners, a good figure, and a handsome
face, but he lacked the one thing that Mme. de Stael most
considered, a commanding talent. She did not see him through the
prism of a strong affection which transfigures all things, even
the most commonplace. What this must have meant to a woman of
her genius and temperament whose ideal of happiness was a
sympathetic marriage, it is not difficult to divine. It may
account, in some degree, for her restlessness, her perpetual need
of movement, of excitement, of society. But, whatever her
domestic troubles may have been, they were of limited duration.
She was quietly separated from her husband in 1798. Four years
later she decided to return to Coppet with him, as he was unhappy
and longed to see his children. He died en route.

The period of this marriage was one of the most memorable of
France, the period when noble and generous spirits rallied in a
spontaneous movement for national regeneration. Mme. De Stael
was in the flush of hope and enthusiasm, fresh from the study of
Rousseau and her own dreams of human perfectibility; radiant,
too, with the reflection of her youthful fame. Among those who
surrounded her were the Montmorencys, Lafayette, and Count Louis
de Narbonne, whose brilliant intellect and charming manners
touched her perhaps too deeply for her peace of mind. There were
also Barnave, Chenier, Talleyrand, Mirabeau, Vergniaud, and many
others of the active leaders of the Revolution. A few woman
mingled in her more intimate circle, which was still of the old
society. Of these were the ill-fated Duchesse de Gramont, Mme.
de Lauzun, the Princesse de Poix, and the witty, lovable
Marechale de Beauvau. As a rule, though devoted to her friends
and kind to those who sought her aid, Mme. de Stael did not like
the society of women. Perhaps they did not always respond to her
elevated and swiftly flowing thoughts; or it may be that she
wounded the vanity of those who were cast into the shade by
talents so conspicuous and conversation so eloquent, and who felt
the lack of sympathetic rapport. Society is au fond republican,
and is apt to resent autocracy, even the autocracy of genius,
when it takes the form of monologue. It is contrary to the
social spirit. The salon of Mme. de Stael not only took its tone
from herself, but it was a reflection of herself. She was not
beautiful, and she dressed badly; indeed, she seems to have been
singularly free from that personal consciousness which leads
people to give themselves the advantages of an artistic setting,
even if the taste is not inborn. She was too intent upon what
she thought and felt, to give heed to minor details. But in her
conversation, which was a sort of improvisation, her eloquent
face was aglow, her dark eyes flashed with inspiration, her
superb form and finely poised head seemed to respond to the
rhythmic flow of thoughts that were emphasized by the graceful
gestures of an exquisitely molded hand, in which she usually held
a sprig of laurel. "If I were queen," said Mme. de Tesse, "I
would order Mme. de Stael to talk to me always."

But this center in which the more thoughtful spirits of the old
regime met the brilliant and active leaders of the new was broken
up by the storm which swept away so many of its leaders, and Mme.
de Stael, after lingering in the face of dangers to save her
friends, barely escaped with her life on the eve of the September
massacres of 1792. "She is an excellent woman," said one of her
contemporaries, "who drowns all her friends in order to have the
pleasure of angling for them."

Mme. de Stael resumed her place and organized her salon anew in
1795.l But it was her fate to live always in an atmosphere
surcharged with storms. She was too republican for the
aristocrats, and too aristocratic for the republicans.
Distrusted by both parties and feared by the Directoire, she
found it advisable after a few months to retire to Coppet. Less
than two years later she was again in Paris. Her friends were
then in power, notably Talleyrand. "If I remain here another year
I shall die," he had written her from America, and she had
generously secured the repeal of the decree that exiled him, a
kindness which he promptly forgot. Though her enthusiasm for the
republic was much moderated, and though she had been so far
dazzled by the genius of Napoleon as to hail him as a restorer of
order, her illusions regarding him were very short-lived. She
had no sympathy with his aims at personal power. Her drawing
room soon became the rallying point for his enemies and the
center of a powerful opposition. But she had a natural love for
all forms of intellectual distinction, and her genius and fame
still attracted a circle more or less cosmopolitan. Ministers of
state and editors of leading journals were among her guests.
Joseph and Lucien Bonaparte were her devoted friends. The small
remnant of the noblesse that had any inclination to return to a
world which had lost its charm for them found there a trace of
the old politeness. Mathieu de Montmorency, devout and
charitable; his brother Adrien, delicate in spirit and gentle in
manners; Narbonne, still devoted and diplomatic, and the
Chevalier de Boufflers, gay, witty, and brilliant, were of those
who brought into it something of the tone of the past regime.
There were also the men of the new generation, men who were
saturated with the principles of the Revolution though regretting
its methods. Among these were Chebnier, Regnault, and Benjamin

The influence of Mme. de Stael was at its height during this
period. Her talent, her liberal opinions, and her persuasive
eloquence gave her great power over the constitutional leaders.
The measures of the Government were freely discussed and
criticized in her salon, and men went out with positions well
defined and speeches well considered. The Duchesse d'Abrantes
relates an incident which aptly illustrates this power and its
reaction upon herself. Benjamin Constant had prepared a
brilliant address. The evening before it was to be delivered,
Mme. de Stael was surrounded by a large and distinguished
company. After tea was served he said to her:

"Your salon is filled with people who please you; if I speak
tomorrow, it will be deserted. Think of it."

"One must follow one's convictions," she replied, after a
moment's hesitation.

She admitted afterward that she would never have refused his
offer not to compromise her, if she could have foreseen all that
would follow.

The next day she invited her friends to celebrate his triumph.
At four o'clock a note of excuse; in an hour, ten. From this
time her fortunes waned. Many ceased to visit her salon. Even
Talleyrand, who owed her so much, came there no more.

In later years she confessed that the three men she had most
loved were Narbonne, Talleyrand, and Mathieu de Montmorency. Her
friendship for the first of these reached a passionate
exaltation, which had a profound and not altogether wholesome
influence upon her life. How completely she was disenchanted is
shown in a remark she made long afterward of a loyal and
distinguished man: "He has the manners of Narbonne and a heart."
It is a character in a sentence. Mathieu de Montmorency was a
man of pure motives, who proved a refuge of consolation in many
storms, but her regard for him was evidently a gentler flame that
never burned to extinction. Whatever illusions she may have had
as to Talleyrand--and they seem to have been little more than an
enthusiastic appreciation of his talent--were certainly broken
by his treacherous desertion in her hour of need. Not the least
among her many sorrows was the bitter taste of ingratitude.

But Napoleon, who, like Louis XIV, sought to draw all influences
and merge all power in himself, could not tolerate a woman whom
he felt to be in some sense a rival. He thought he detected her
hand in the address of Benjamin Constant which lost her so many
friends. He feared the wit that flashed in her salon, the satire
that wounded the criticism that measured his motives and his
actions. He recognized the power of a coterie of brilliant
intellects led by a genius so inspiring. His brothers, knowing
her vulnerable point and the will with which she had to deal,
gave her a word of caution. But the advice and intercession of
her friends were alike without avail. The blow which she so much
feared fell at last, and she found herself an exile and a
wanderer from the scenes she most loved.

We have many pleasant glimpses of her life at Coppet, but a
shadow always rests upon it. A few friends still cling to her
through the bitter and relentless persecutions that form one of
the most singular chapters in history, and offer the most
remarkable tribute to her genius and her power. We find here
Schlegel, Sismondi, Mathieu de Montmorency, Prince Augustus,
Monti, Mme. Recamier, and many other distinguished visitors of
various nationalities. The most prominent figure perhaps was
Benjamin Constant, brilliant, gifted, eloquent, passionate, vain,
and capricious, the torturing consolation and the stormy problem
of her saddest years. She revived the old literary diversions.
At eleven o'clock, we are told, the guests assembled at
breakfast, and the conversations took a high literary tone. They
were resumed at dinner, and continued often until midnight.
Here, as elsewhere, Mme. de Stael was queen, holding her guests
entranced by the magic of her words. "Life is for me like a ball
after the music has ceased," said Sismondi when her voice was
silent. She was a veritable Corinne in her esprit, her
sentiment, her gift of improvisation, and her underlying
melancholy. But in this choice company hers was not the only
voice, though it was heard above all the others. Thought and wit
flashed and sparkled. Dramas were played--the "Zaire" and
"Tancred" of Voltaire, and tragedies written by herself. Mme.
Recamier acted the Aricie to Mme. de Stael's Phedre. This life
that seems to us so fascinating, has been described too often to
need repetition. It had its tumultuous elements, its passionate
undercurrents, its romantic episodes. But in spite of its
attractions Mme. de Stael fretted under the peaceful shades of
Coppet. Its limited horizon pressed upon her. The silence of
the snowcapped mountains chilled her. She looked upon their
solitary grandeur with "magnificent horror." The repose of
nature was an "infernal peace" which plunged her into gloomier
depths of ennui and despair. To some one who was admiring the
beauties of Lake Leman she replied; "I should like better the
gutters of the Rue du Bac." It was people, always people, who
interested her. "French conversation exists only in Paris," she
said, "and conversation has been from infancy my greatest
pleasure." Restlessly she sought distraction in travel, but
wherever she went the iron hand pressed upon her still. Italy
fostered her melancholy. She loved its ruins, which her
imagination draped with the fading colors of the past and
associated with the desolation of a living soul. But its
exquisite variety of landscape and color does not seem to have
touched her. "If it were not for the world's opinion," she said,
"I would not open my window to see the Bay of Naples for the
first time, but I would travel five hundred leagues to talk with
a clever man whom I have not met." Germany gave her infinite
food for thought, but her "astonishing volubility," her
"incessant movement," her constant desire to know, to discuss, to
penetrate all things wearied the moderate Germans, as it had
already wearied the serious English. "Tell me, Monsieur Fichte,"
she said one day, "could you in a short time, a quarter of an
hour for example, give me a glimpse of your system and explain
what you understand by your ME; I find it very obscure." The
philosopher was amazed at what he thought her impertinence, but
made the attempt through an interpreter. At the end of ten
minutes she exclaimed, "That is sufficient, Monsieur Fichte.
That is quite sufficient. I comprehend you perfectly. I have
seen your system in illustration. It is one of the adventures of
Baron Munchhausen." "We are in perpetual mental tension," said
the wife of Schiller. Even Schiller himself grew tired. "It
seems as if I were relieved of a malady," he said, when she left.

It was this excess of vivacity and her abounding sensibility that
constituted at once her fascination and her misfortune. Her
beliefs were enthusiasms. Her friendships were passions. "No
one has carried the religion of friendship so far as myself," she
said. To love, to be loved was the supreme need of her soul; but
her love was a flame that irradiated her intellect and added
brilliancy to the life it consumed. She paints in "Corinne" the
passions, the struggles, the penalties, and the sorrows of a
woman of genius. It is a life she had known, a life of which she
had tasted the sweetest delights and experienced the most cruel
disenchantments. "Corinne" at the Capitol, "Corinne" thinking,
analyzing, loving, suffering, triumphing, wearing a crown of
laurel upon her head and an invisible crown of thorns upon her
heart--it is Mme. de Stael self-revealed by the light of her own

It was in a moment of weakness and weariness, when her idols had
one after another been shattered, and all the pleasant vistas of
her youth seemed shut out forever, that she met M. de Rocca, a
wounded officer of good family, but of little more than half her
years, whose gentle, chivalric character commanded her
admiration, whose suffering touched her pity, and whose devotion
won her affection. "I will love her so much that she will end by
marrying me," he said, and the result proved his penetration.
This marriage, which was a secret one, has shadowed a little the
brilliancy of her fame, but if it was a weakness to bend from her
high altitude, it was not a sin, though more creditable to her
heart than to her worldly wisdom. At all events it brought into
her life a new element of repose, and gave her a tender
consolation in her closing years.

When at last the relentless autocrat of France found his rock-
bound limits, and she was free to return to the spot which had
been the goal of all her dreams, it was too late. Her health was
broken. It is true her friends rallied around her, and her
salon, opened once more, retook a little of its ancient glory.
Few celebrities who came to Paris failed to seek the drawing room
of Mme. de Stael, which was still illuminated with the brilliancy
of her genius and the splendor of her fame. But her triumphs
were past, and life was receding. Her few remaining days of
weakness and suffering, darkened by vain regrets, were passed
more and more in the warmth and tenderness of her devoted family,
in the noble and elevated thought that rose above the strife of
politics into the serene atmosphere of a Christian faith. At her
death bed Chateaubriand did her tardy justice. "Bon jour, my
dear Francis; I suffer, but that does not prevent me from loving
you," she said to one who had been her critic, but never her
friend. Her magnanimity was as unfailing as her generosity, and
it may be truly said that she never cherished a hatred.

The life of Mme. de Stael was in the world. She embodied the
French spirit; she could not conceive of happiness in a secluded
existence; a theater and an audience were needed to call out her
best talents. She could not even bear her griefs alone. The
world was taken into her confidence. She demanded its sympathy.
She chanted exquisite requiems over her dead hopes and her lost
illusions, but she chanted them in costume, never quite
forgetting that her role was a heroic one. She added, however,
to the gifts of an improvisatrice something infinitely higher and
deeper. There was no problem with which she was not ready to
deal. She felt the pulse beats in the great heart of humanity,
and her tongue, her pen, her purse, and her influence were ever
at the bidding of the unfortunate. She traversed all fields of
thought, from the pleasant regions of poetry and romance to the
highest altitudes of philosophy. We may note the drift of her
ardent and imaginative nature in the youthful tales into which
she wove her romantic dreams, her fancied griefs, her inward
struggles, and her tears. In the pages of "Corinne" we read the
poetry, the sensibility, the passion, the melancholy, the thought
of a matured woman whose youth of the soul neither sorrow nor
experience could destroy. We may divine the direction of her
sympathies, and the fountain of her inspiration, in her letters
on Rousseau, written at twenty, and foreshadowing her own
attitude towards the theories which appealed so powerfully to the
generous spirits of the century. We may follow the active and
scholarly workings of her versatile intellect in her pregnant
thoughts on literature, on the passions, on the Revolution; or
measure the clearness of her insight, the depth of her
penetration, the catholicity of her sympathies, and the breadth
of her intelligence in her profound and masterly, if not always
accurate, studies of Germany. The consideration of all this
pertains to a critical estimate of her character and genius which
cannot be attempted here.

It has grown to be somewhat the fashion to depreciate the
literary work of Mme. de Stael. Measured by present standards
she leaves something to be desired in logical precision; she had
not the exactness of the critical scholar, nor the simplicity of
the careful artist; the luxuriance of her language often obscures
her thought. She is talking still, and her written words have
the rapid, tumultuous flow of conversation, together with its
occasional negligences, its careless periods, its sudden turns,
its encumbered phrases. Misguided she sometimes was, and carried
away by the resistless rush of ideas that, like the mountain
torrent, gathered much debris along their course. But her rapid
judgments, which have the force of inspiration, are in advance of
her time, though in the main correct from her own point of view,
while her flaws in workmanship are more than counterbalanced by
that inward illumination which is Heaven's richest and rarest
gift. But who cares to dwell upon the shadows that scarcely dim
the brilliancy of a genius so rare and so commanding? They are
but spots on the sun that are only discovered by looking through
a glass that veils its radiance. It is just to weigh her by the
standards of her own age. Born at its highest level, she soared
far above her generation. She carried within herself the vision
of a statesman, the penetration of a critic, the insight of a
philosopher, the soul of a poet, and the heart of a woman. If
she was not without faults, she had rare virtues. No woman has
ever exercised a wider or more varied influence. With one or two
exceptions, none stands on so high a pinnacle. George Sand was a
more finished artist; George Eliot was a greater novelist, a more
accurate scholar, and a more logical thinker; but in versatility,
in intellectual spontaneity, in brilliancy of conversation and
natural eloquence of thought she is without a rival. Her moral
standards, too, were above the average of her time. Her ideals
were high and pure. The wealth of her emotions and the rich
coloring of sentiment in which her thoughts and feelings were
often clothed left her open to possible misconceptions. It was
her fate to be grossly misunderstood, to miss the domestic
happiness she craved, to be the victim of a sleepless
persecution, to pass her best years in a dreary exile from the
life she most loved, to be maligned by her enemies and betrayed
by her friends. Her very virtues were construed into faults and
turned against her. Though we may not lift the veil from her
intimate life, we may fairly judge her by her own ideals and her
dominant traits. The world, which is rarely indulgent, has been
in the main just to her motives and her character. "I have been
ever the same, intense and sad," were among her last words. "I
have loved God, my father, and liberty." But she was a victim to
the contradictory elements in her own nature, and walked always
among storms. This nature, so complex, so rich, so ardent, so
passionate, could it ever have found permanent repose?

A Transition Period--Mme. de Montesson--Mme. de Genlis--
Revival of the Literary Spirit--Mme. de Beaumont--Mme. de
Remusat--Mme. de Souza--Mme. de Duras--Mme. de Krudener--
Fascination of Mme. Recamier--Her Friends--Her Convent Salon--
Chateaubriand--Decline of the Salon

In the best sense, society is born, not made. A crowd of well-
dressed people is not necessarily a society. They may meet and
disperse with no other bond of union than a fine house and lavish
hospitality can give. It may be an assembly without unity,
flavor, or influence. In the social chaos that followed the
Revolution, this truth found a practical illustration. The old
circles were scattered. The old distinctions were virtually
destroyed, so far as edicts can destroy that which lies in the
essence of things. A few who held honored names were left, or
had returned from a long exile, to find themselves bereft of
rank, fortune, and friends; but these had small disposition to
form new associations, and few points of contact with the
parvenus who had mounted upon the ruins of their order. The new
society was composed largely of these parvenus, who were
ambitious for a position and a life of which they had neither the
spirit, the taste, the habits, nor the mellowing traditions.
Naturally they mistook the gilded frame for the picture.
Unfamiliar with the gentle manners, the delicate sense of honor,
and the chivalrous instincts which underlie the best social life,
though not always illustrated by its individual members, they
were absorbed in matters of etiquette of which they were
uncertain, and exacting of non-essentials. They regarded society
upon its commercial side, contended over questions of precedence,
and, as one of the most observing of their contemporaries has
expressed it, "bargained for a courtesy and counted visits." "I
have seen quarrels in the imperial court," she adds, "over a
visit more or less long, more or less deferred." Perhaps it is
to be considered that in a new order which has many aggressive
elements, this balancing of courtesies is not without a certain
raison d'etre as a protection against serious inroads upon time
and hospitality; but the fault lies behind all this, in the lack
of that subtle social sense which makes the discussion of these
things superfluous, not to say impossible.

It was the wish of Napoleon to reconstruct a society that should
rival in brilliancy the old courts. With this view he called to
his aid a few women whose names, position, education, and
reputation for esprit and fine manners he thought a sufficient
guarantee of success. But he soon learned that it could not be
commanded at will. The reply of the Duchesse d'Brantes, who has
left us so many pleasant reminiscences of this period, in which
she was an actor as well as an observer, was very apt.

"You can do all that I wish," he said to her; "you are all young,
and almost all pretty; ah, well! A young and pretty woman can do
anything she likes."

"Sire, what your Majesty says may be true," she replied, "but
only to a certain point. If the Emperor, instead of his guard
and his good soldiers, had only conscripts who would recoil under
fire, he could not win great battles like that of Austerlitz.
Nevertheless, he is the first general in the world."

But this social life was to serve a personal end. It was to
furnish an added instrument of power to the autocrat who ruled,
to reflect always and everywhere the glory of Napoleon. The
period which saw its cleverest woman in hopeless exile, and its
most beautiful one under a similar ban for the crime of being her
friend, was not one which favored intellectual supremacy. The
empire did not encourage literature, it silenced philosophy, and
oppressed the talent that did not glorify itself. Its blighting
touch rested upon the whole social fabric. The finer elements
which, to some extent, entered into it were lost in the glitter
of display and pretension. The true spirit of conversation was
limited to private coteries that kept themselves in the shade,
and were too small to be noted.

The salon which represented the best side of the new regime was
that of Mme. de Montesson, wife of the Duc d'Orleans, a woman of
brilliant talents, finished manners, great knowledge of the
world, fine gifts of conversation, and, what was equally
essential, great discrimination and perfect tact. If her niece,
Mme. de Genlis, is to be trusted, she had more ambition that
originality, her reputation was superior to her abilities, and
her beauty covered many imperfections. But she had experience,
finesse, and prestige. Napoleon was quick to see the value of
such a woman in reorganizing a court, and treated her with the
greatest consideration, even asking her to instruct Josephine in
the old customs and usages. Her salon, however, united many
elements which it was impossible to fuse. There were people of
all parties and all conditions, a few of the nobles and returned
emigres, the numerous members of the Bonaparte family, the new
military circle, together with many people of influence "not to
the manner born." Mme. de Montesson revived the old amusements,
wrote plays for the entertainment of her guests gave grand
dinners and brilliant fetes. But the accustomed links were
wanting. Her salon simply illustrates a social life in a state
of transition.

Mme. de Genlis had lived much in the world before the Revolution,
and her position in the family of the Duc d'Orleans, together
with her great versatility of talent, had given her a certain
vogue. Author, musician, teacher, moralist, critic, poser,
egotist, femme d'esprit, and friend of princes, her romantic life
would fill a volume and cannot be even touched upon in a few
lines. After ten years of exile she returned to Paris, and her
salon at the Arsenal was a center for a few celebrities. Many of
these names have small significance today. A few men like
Talleyrand, LaHarpe, Fontanes, and Cardinal Maury were among her
friends,, and she was neutral enough, or diplomatic enough, not
to give offense to the new government. But she was a woman of
many affectations, and in spite of her numerous accomplishments,
her cleverness, and her literary fame, the circle she gathered
about her was never noted for its brilliancy or its influence.
As a historic figure, she is more remarkable for the variety of
her voluminous work, her educational theories, and her
observations upon the world in which she lived, than for talents
of a purely social order.

One is little inclined to dwell upon the ruling society of this
period. It had neither the dignity of past traditions nor
freedom of intellectual expression. Its finer shades were
drowned in loud and glaring colors. The luxury that could be
commanded counted for more than the wit and intelligence that
could not.

As the social elements readjusted themselves on a more natural
basis, there were a few salons out of the main drift of the time
in which the literary spirit flourished once more, blended with
the refined tastes, the elegant manners, and the amiable courtesy
that had distinguished the old regime. But the interval in which
history was made so rapidly, and the startling events of a
century were condensed into a decade, had wrought many vital
changes. It was no longer the spirit of the eighteenth century
that reappeared under its revived and attractive forms. We note
a tone of seriousness that had no permanent place in that world
of esprit and skepticism, of fine manners and lax morals, which
divided its allegiance between fashion and philosophy. The
survivors of so many heart-breaking tragedies, with their weary
weight of dead hopes and sad memories, found no healing balm in
the cold speculation and scathing wit of Diderot or Voltaire.
Even the devotees of philosophy gave it but a half-hearted
reverence. It was at this moment that Chateaubriand, saturated
with the sorrows of his age, and penetrated with the hopelessness
of its philosophy, offered anew the truths that had sustained the
suffering and broken-hearted for eighteen centuries, in a form so
sympathetic, so fascinating, that it thrilled the sensitive
spirits of his time, and passed like an inspiration into the
literature of the next fifty years. The melancholy of "Rene" found
its divine consolation in the "Genius of Christianity." It was
this spirit that lent a new and softer coloring to the intimate
social life that blended in some degree the tastes and manners of
the old noblesse with a refined and tempered form of modern
thought. It recalls, in many points, the best spirit of the
seventeenth century. There is a flavor of the same seriousness,
the same sentiment. It is the sentiment that sent so many
beautiful women to the solitude of the cloister, when youth had
faded and the air of approaching age began to grow chilly. But
it is not to the cloister that these women turn. They weave
romantic tales out of the texture of their own lives, they repeat
their experiences, their illusions, their triumphs, and their
disenchantments. As the day grows more somber and the evening
shadows begin to fall, they meditate, they moralize, they
substitute prayers for dreams. But they think also. The drama
of the late years had left no thoughtful soul without earnest
convictions. There were numerous shades of opinion, many finely
drawn issues. In a few salons these elements were delicately
blended, and if they did not repeat the brilliant triumphs of the
past, if they focused with less power the intellectual light
which was dispersed in many new channels, they have left behind
them many fragrant memories. One is tempted to linger in these
temples of a goddess half-dethroned. One would like to study
these women who added to the social gifts of their race a
character that had risen superior to many storms, hearts that
were mellowed and purified by premature sorrow, and intellects
that had taken a deeper and more serious tone from long brooding
over the great problems of their time. But only a glance is
permitted us here. Most of them have been drawn in living colors
by Saint-Beuve, from whom I gather here and there a salient

Who that is familiar with the fine and exquisite thought of
Joubert can fail to be interested in the delicate and fragile
woman whom he met in her supreme hour of suffering, to find in
her a rare and permanent friend, a literary confidante, and an
inspiration? Mme. de Beaumont--the daughter of Montmorin, who
had been a colleague of Necker in the ministry--had been
forsaken by a worthless husband, had seen father, mother,
brother, perish by the guillotine, and her sister escape it only
by losing her reason, and then her life, before the fatal day.
She, too, had been arrested with the others, but was so ill and
weak that she was left to die by the roadside en route to Paris--
a fate from which she was saved by the kindness of a peasant. It
was at this moment that Joubert befriended her. These numerous
and crushing sorrows had shattered her health, which was never
strong, but during the few brief years that remained to her she
was the center of a coterie more distinguished for quality than
numbers. Joubert and Chateaubriand were its leading spirits, but
it included also Fontanes, Pasquier, Mme. de Vintimille, Mme. de
Pastoret, and other friends who had survived the days in which
she presided with such youthful dignity over her father's salon.
The fascination of her fine and elevated intellect, her gentle
sympathy, her keen appreciation of talent, and her graces of
manner lent a singular charm to her presence. Her character was
aptly expressed by this device which Rulhiere had suggested for
her seal: "Un souffle m'agite et rien ne m'ebrante."
Chateaubriand was enchanted with a nature so pure, so poetic, and
so ardent. He visited her daily, read to her "Atala" and "Rene,"
and finished the "Genius of Christianity" under her influence. He
was young then, and that she loved him is hardly doubtful, though
the friendship of Joubert was far truer and more loyal than the
passing devotion of this capricious man of genius, who seems to
have cared only for his own reflection in another soul. But this
sheltered nook of thoughtful repose, this conversational oasis in
a chaotic period had a short duration. Mme. de Beaumont died at
Rome, where she had gone in the faint hope of reviving her
drooping health, in 1803. Chateaubriand was there, watched over
her last hours with Bertin, and wrote eloquently of her death.
Joubert mourned deeply and silently over the light that had gone
out of his life.

We have pleasant reminiscences of the amiable, thoughtful, and
spirituelle Mme. de Remusat, who has left us such vivid records
of the social and intimate life of the imperial court. A
studious and secluded childhood, prematurely saddened by the
untimely fate of her father in the terrible days of 1794, an
early and congenial marriage, together with her own wise
penetration and clear intellect, enabled her to traverse this
period without losing her delicate tone or serious tastes. She
had her quiet retreat into which the noise and glare did not
intrude, where a few men of letters and thoughtful men of the
world revived the old conversational spirit. She amused her idle
hours by writing graceful tales, and, after the close of her
court life and the weakening of her health, she turned her
thoughts towards the education and improvement of her sex.
Blended with her wide knowledge of the world, there is always a
note of earnestness, a tender coloring of sentiment, which
culminates towards the end in a lofty Christian resignation.

We meet again at this time a woman known to an earlier generation
as Mme. de Flahaut, and made familiar to us through the pens of
Talleyrand and Gouverneur Morris. She saw her husband fall by
the guillotine, and, after wandering over Europe for years as an
exile, became the wife of M. de Souza, and, returning to Paris,
took her place in a quiet corner of the unaccustomed world,
writing softly colored romances after the manner of Mme. de La
Fayette, wearing with grace the honors her literary fame brought
her, and preserving the tastes, the fine courtesies, the gentle
manners, the social charms, and the delicate vivacity of the old

One recalls, too, Mme. de Duras, whose father, the noble and
fearless Kersaint, was the companion of Mme. Roland at the
scaffold; who drifted to our own shores until the storms had
passed, and, after saving her large fortune in Martinique,
returned matured and saddened to France. As the wife of the Duc
de Duras, she gathered around her a circle of rank, talent, and
distinction. Chateaubriand, Humboldt, Curier, de Montmorency
were among her friends. What treasures of thought and
conversation do these names suggest! What memories of the past,
what prophecies for the future! Mme. de Duras, too, wore
gracefully the mantle of authorship with which she united
pleasant household cares. She, too, put something of the sad
experiences of her own life into romances which reflect the
melancholy of this age of restlessness and lost illusions. She,
too, like many of the women of her time whose youth had been
blighted by suffering, passed into an exalted Christian strain.
The friend of Mme. de Stael, the literary CONFIDANTE of
Chateaubriand, the woman of many talents, many virtues, and many
sorrows, died with words of faith and hope and divine consolation
on her lips.

The devotion of Mme. de Cantal, the mysticism of Mme. Guyon, find
a nineteenth-century counterpart in the spiritual illumination of
Mme. de Krudener. Passing from a life of luxury and pleasure to
a life of penitence and asceticism, singularly blending
worldliness and piety, opening her salon with prayer, and adding
a new sensation to the gay life of Paris, this adviser of
Alexander I, and friend of Benjamin Constant, who put her best
life into the charming romances which ranked next to "Corinne" and
"Delphine" in their time; this beautiful woman, novelist,
prophetess, mystic, illuminee, fanatic, with the passion of the
South and the superstitious vein of the far North, disappeared
from the world she had graced, and gave up her life in an ecstasy
of sacrifice in the wilderness of the Crimea.

It is only to indicate the altered drift of the social life that
flowed in quiet undercurrents during the Empire and came to the
surface again after the Restoration; to trace lightly the slow
reaction towards the finer shades of modern thought and modern
morality, that I touch--so briefly and so inadequately--upon
these women who represent the best side of their age, leaving
altogether untouched many of equal gifts and equal note.

There is one, however, whose salon gathered into itself the last
rays of the old glory, and whose fame as a social leader has
eclipsed that of all her contemporaries. Mme. Recamier, "the
last flower of the salons," is the woman of the century who has
been, perhaps, most admired, most loved, and most written about.
It has been so much the fashion to dwell upon her marvelous
beauty, her kindness, and her irresistible fascination, that she
has become, to some extent, an ideal figure invested with a
subtle and poetic grace that folds itself about her like the
invisible mantle of an enchantress. Her actual relations to the
world in which she lived extended over a long period, terminating
only on the threshold of our own generation. Without strong
opinions or pronounced color, loyal to her friends rather than to
her convictions, of a calm and happy temperament, gentle in
character, keenly appreciative of all that was intellectually
fine and rare, but without exceptional gifts herself, fascinating
in manner, perfect in tact, with the beauty of an angel and the
heart of a woman--she presents a fitting close to the long reign
of the salons.

We hear of her first in the bizarre circles of the Consulate, as
the wife of a man who was rather father than husband, young,
fresh, lovely, accomplished, surrounded by the luxuries of
wealth, and captivating all hearts by that indefinable charm of
manner which she carried with her to the end of her life. Both
at Paris and at her country house at Clichy she was the center of
a company in which the old was discreetly mingled with the new,
in which enmities were tempered, antagonisms softened, and the
most discordant elements brought into harmonious rapport, for the
moment, at least, by her gracious word or her winning smile.
Here we find Adrien and Mathieu de Montmorency, who already
testified the rare friendship that was to outlive years and
misfortunes; Mme. de Stael before her exile; Narbonne, Barrere,
Bernadotte, Moreau, and many distinguished foreigners. Lucien
Bonaparte was at her feet; LaHarpe was devoted to her interests;
Napoleon was trying in vain to draw her into his court, and
treasuring up his failure to another. The salon of Mme. Recamie
was not in any sense philosophical or political, but after the
cruel persecution of LaHarpe, the banishment or Mme. de Stael,
and the similar misfortunes of other friends, her sympathies were
too strong for her diplomacy, and it gradually fell into the
ranks of the opposition. It was well known that the emperor
regarded all who went there as his enemies, and this young and
innocent woman was destined to feel the full bitterness of his
petty displeasure. We cannot trace here the incidents of her
varied career, the misfortunes of the father to whom she was a
ministering angel, the loss of her husband's fortune and her own,
the years of wandering and exile, the second period of brief and
illusive prosperity, and the swift reverses which led to her
final retreat. She was at the height of her beauty and her fame
in the early days of the Restoration, when her salon revived its
old brilliancy, and was a center in which all parties met on
neutral ground. Her intimate relations with those in power gave
it a strong political influence, but this was never a marked
feature, as it was mainly personal.

But the position in which one is most inclined to recall Mme.
Recamier is in the convent of Abbaye-aux-Bois, where, divested of
fortune and living in the simplest manner, she preserved for
nearly thirty years the fading traditions of the old salons.
Through all the changes which tried her fortitude and revealed
the latent heroism of her character, she seems to have kept her
sweet serenity unbroken, bending to the passing storms with the
grace of a facile nature, but never murmuring at the inevitable.
One may find in this inflexible strength and gentleness of temper
a clue to the subtle fascination which held the devoted
friendship of so many gifted men and women, long after the fresh
charm of youth was gone.

The intellectual gifts of Mme. Recamier, as has been said before,
were not of a high or brilliant order. She was neither profound
nor original, nor given to definite thought. Her letters were
few, and she has left no written records by which she can be
measured. She read much, was familiar with current literature,
also with religious works. But the world is slow to accord a
twofold superiority, and it is quite possible that the fame of
her beauty has prevented full justice to her mental abilities.
Mme. de Genlis tells us that she has a great deal of esprit. It
is certain that no woman could have held her place as the center
of a distinguished literary circle and the confidante and adviser
of the first literary men of her time, without a fine
intellectual appreciation. "To love what is great," said Mme.
Necker "is almost to be great one's self." Ballanche advised her
to translate Petrarch, and she even began the work, but it was
never finished. "Believe me," he writes, "you have at your
command the genius of music, flowers, imagination, and elegance.
. . . Do not fear to try your hand on the golden lyre of the
poets." He may have been too much blinded by a friendship that
verged closely upon a more passionate sentiment to be an
altogether impartial critic, but it was a high tribute to her
gifts that a man of such conspicuous talents thought her capable
of work so exacting. Her qualities were those of taste and a
delicate imagination rather than of reason. Her musical
accomplishments were always a resource. She sang, played the
harp and piano, and we hear of her during a summer at Albano
playing the organ at vespers and high mass. She danced
exquisitely, and it was her ravishing grace that suggested the
shawl dance of "Corinne" to Mme. de Stael and of "Valerie" to Mme.
de Krudener. One can fancy her, too, at Coppet, playing the role
of the angel to Mme. de Stael's Hagar--a spirit of love and
consolation to the stormy and despairing soul of her friend.

But her real power lay in the wonderful harmony of her nature, in
the subtle penetration that divined the chagrins and weaknesses
of others, only to administer a healing balm; in the delicate
tact that put people always on the best terms with themselves,
and gave the finest play to whatever talents they possessed. Add
to this a quality of beauty which cannot be caught by pen or
pencil, and one can understand the singular sway she held over
men and women alike. Mme. de Krudener, whose salon so curiously
united fashion and piety, worldliness and mysticism, was troubled
by the distraction which the entrance of Mme. Recamier was sure
to cause, and begged Benjamin Constant to write and entreat her
to make herself as little charming as possible. His note is
certainly unique, though it loses much of its piquancy in

"I acquit myself with a little embarrassment of a commission
which Mme. de Krudener has just given me. She begs you to come
as little beautiful as you can. She says that you dazzle all the
world, and that consequently every soul is troubled and attention
is impossible. You cannot lay aside your charms, but do not add
to them."

In her youth she dressed with great simplicity and was fond of
wearing white with pearls, which accorded well with the dazzling
purity of her complexion.

Mme. Recamier was not without vanity, and this is the reverse
side of her peculiar gifts. She would have been more than mortal
if she had been quite unconscious of attractions so rare that
even the children in the street paid tribute to them. But one
finds small trace of the petty jealousies and exactions that are
so apt to accompany them. She liked to please, she wished to be
loved, and this inevitably implies a shade of coquetry in a young
and beautiful woman. There is an element of fascination in this
very coquetry, with its delicate subtleties and its shifting
tints of sentiment. That she carried it too far is no doubt
true; that she did so wittingly is not so certain. Her victims
were many, and if they quietly subsided into friends, as they
usually did, it was after many struggles and heart burnings. But
if she did not exercise her power with invariable discretion, it
seems to have been less the result of vanity than a lack of
decision and an amiable unwillingness to give immediate pain, or
to lose the friend with the lover. With all her fine qualities
of heart and soul, she had a temperament that saved her from much
of the suffering she thoughtlessly inflicted upon others. The
many violent passions she roused do not seem to have disturbed at
all her own serenity. The delicate and chivalrous nature of
Mathieu de Montmorency, added to his years, gave his relations to
her a half-paternal character, but that he loved her always with
the profound tenderness of a loyal and steadfast soul is apparent
through all the singularly disinterested phases of a friendship
that ended only with his life.

Prince Augustus, whom she met at Coppet, called up a passing
ripple on the surface of her heart, sufficiently strong to lead
her to suggest a divorce to her husband, whose relations to her,
though always friendly, were only nominal. But he appealed to
her generosity, and she thought of it no more. Why she permitted
her princely suitor to cherish so long the illusions that time
and distance do not readily destroy is one of the mysteries that
are not easy to solve. Perhaps she thought it more kind to let
absence wear out a passion than to break it too rudely. At all
events, he cherished no permanent bitterness, and never forgot
her. At his death, nearly forty years later he ordered her
portrait by Gerard to be returned, but her ring was buried with

The various phases of the well-known infatuation of Benjamin
Constant, which led him to violate his political principles and
belie his own words rather than take a course that must result in
separation from her, suggest a page of highly colored romance.
The letters of Mlle. de Lespinasse scarcely furnish us with a
more ardent episode in the literature of hopeless passion. The
worshipful devotion of Ampere and Ballanche would form a chapter
no less interesting, though less intense and stormy.

But the name most inseparably connected with Mme. Recamier is
that of Chateaubriand. The friendship of an unquestioned sort
that seems to have gone quite out of the world, had all the
phases of a more tender sentiment, and goes far towards
disproving the charge of coldness that has often been brought
against her. It was begun after she had reached the dreaded
forties, by the death bed of Mme. de Stael, and lasted more than
thirty years. It seems to have been the single sentiment that
mastered her. One may trace in the letters of Chateaubriand the
restless undercurrents of this life that was outwardly so serene.
He writes to her from Berlin, from England, from Rome. He
confides to her his ambitions, tells her his anxieties, asks her
counsel as to his plans, chides her little jealousies, and
commends his wife to her care and attention. This recalls a
remarkable side of her relations with the world. Women are not
apt to love formidable rivals, but the wives of her friends
apparently shared the admiration with which their husbands
regarded her. If they did not love her, they exchanged friendly
notes, and courtesies that were often more than cordial. She
consoles Mme. de Montmorency in her sorrow, and Mme. de
Chateaubriand asks her to cheer her husband's gloomy moods.
Indeed, she roused little of that bitter jealousy which is
usually the penalty of exceptional beauty or exceptional gifts of
any sort. The sharp tongue of Mme. de Genlis lost its sting in
writing of her. She idealized her as Athenais, in the novel of
that name, which has for its background the beauties of Coppet,
and vaguely reproduces much of its life. The pious and austere
Mme. Swetchine, whose prejudices against her were so strong that
for a long time she did not wish to meet her, confessed herself
at once a captive to her "penetrating and indefinable charm."
Though she did not always escape the shafts of malice, no better
tribute could be offered to the graces of her character than the
indulgence with which she was regarded by the most severely
judging of her own sex.

But she has her days of depression. Chateaubriand is absorbed in
his ambitions and sometimes indifferent; his antagonistic
attitude towards Montmorency, who is far the nobler character of
the two, is a source of grief to her. She tries in vain to
reconcile her rival friends. Once she feels compelled to tear
herself from an influence which is destroying her happiness, and
goes to Italy. But she carries within her own heart the seeds
of unrest. She still follows the movements of the man who
occupies so large a space in her horizon, sympathizes from afar
with his disappointments, and cares for his literary interest,
ordering from Tenerani, a bas-relief of a scene from "The Martyrs."

After her return her life settles into more quiet channels.
Chateaubriand, embittered by the chagrins of political life,
welcomed her with the old enthusiasm. From this time he devoted
himself exclusively to letters, and sought his diversion in the
convent-salon which has left so wide a fame, and of which he was
always the central figure. The petted man of genius was moody
and capricious. His colossal egotism found its best solace in
the gentle presence of the woman who flattered his restless
vanity, anticipated his wishes, studied his tastes, and watched
every shadow that flitted across his face. He was in the habit
of writing her a few lines in the morning; at three o'clock he
visited her, and they chatted over their tea until four, when
favored visitors began to arrive. In the evening it was a little
world that met there. The names of Ampere, Tocqueville,
Montalembert, Merimee, Thierry, and Sainte-Beuve suggest the
literary quality of this circle, in which were seen from time to
time such foreign celebrities as Sir Humphry and Lady Darcy,
Maria Edgeworth, Humboldt, the Duke of Hamilton, the gifted
Duchess of Devonshire, and Miss Berry. Lamartine read his
"Meditations" and Delphine Gay her first poems. Rachel recited,
and Pauline Viardot, Garcia, Rubini, and Lablache sang.
Delacroix, David, and Gerard represented the world of art, and
the visitors from the grand monde were too numerous to mention.
In this brilliant and cosmopolitan company, what resources of wit
and knowledge, what charms of beauty and elegance, what splendors
of rank and distinction were laid upon the altar of the lovely
and adored woman, who recognized all values, and never forgot the
kindly word or the delicate courtesy that put the most modest
guests at ease and brought out the best there was in them!

One day in 1847 there was a vacant place, and the faithful
Ballanche came no more from his rooms across the street. A year
later Chateaubriand died. After the death of his wife he had
wished to marry Mme. Recamier, but she thought it best to change
nothing, believing that age and blindness had given her the right
to devote herself to his last days. To her friends she said that
if she married him, he would miss the pleasure and variety of his
daily visits.

Old, blind, broken in health and spirit, but retaining always the
charm which had given her the empire over so many hearts, she
followed him in a few months.

Mme. Recamier represents better than any woman of her time the
peculiar talents that distinguished the leaders of some of the
most famous salons. She had tact, grace, intelligence,
appreciation, and the gift of inspiring others. The cleverest
men and women of the age were to be met in her drawing room. One
found there genius, beauty, esprit, elegance, courtesy, and the
brilliant conversation which is the Gallic heritage. But not
even her surpassing fascination added to all these attractions
could revive the old power of the salon. Her coterie was
charming, as a choice circle gathered about a beautiful, refined,
accomplished woman, and illuminated by the wit and intelligence
of thoughtful men, will always be; but its influence was limited
and largely personal, and it has left no perceptible traces. Nor
has it had any noted successor. It is no longer coteries
presided over by clever women that guide the age and mold its
tastes or its political destinies. The old conditions have
ceased to exist, and the prestige of the salon is gone.

The causes that led to its decline have been already more or less
indicated. Among them, the decay of aristocratic institutions
played only a small part. The salons were au fond democratic in
the sense that all forms of distinction were recognized so far as
they were amenable to the laws of taste, which form the ultimate
tribunal of social fitness in France. But it cannot be denied
that the code of etiquette which ruled them had its foundation in
the traditions of the noblesse. The genteel manners, the absence
of egotism and self-assertion, as of disturbing passions, the
fine and uniform courtesy which is the poetry of life, are the
product of ease and assured conditions. It is struggle that
destroys harmony and repose, whatever stronger qualities it may
develop, and the greater mingling of classes which inevitably
resulted in this took something from the exquisite flavor of the
old society. The increase of wealth, too, created new standards
that were fatal to a life in which the resources of wit,
learning, and education in its highest sense were the chief
attractions. The greater perfection of all forms of public
amusement was not without its influence. Men drifted, also, more
and more into the one-sided life of the club. Considered as a
social phase, no single thing has been more disastrous to the
unity of modern society than this. But the most formidable enemy
of the salon has been the press. Intelligence has become too
universal to be focused in a few drawing rooms. Genius and
ambition have found a broader arena. When interest no longer led
men to seek the stimulus and approval of a powerful coterie, it
ceased to be more than an elegant form of recreation, a theater
of small talents, the diversion of an idle hour. When the press
assumed the sovereignty, the salon was dethroned.


Back to Full Books