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A Woman, a Man, and Two Kingdoms
The Story of Madame d'Épinay and the Abbé Galiani
By Francis Steegmuller
Alfred A. KnopfCopyright © 1991 Francis Steegmuller
All rights reserved.
Madame D'Épinay; or, Poor Relations
"I am not at all pretty," Mme Louise d'Épinay wrote of herself in one of her early, privately printed books, "but I am not ugly. I am petite, thin, with a good figure. I have a youthful look, but without freshness: noble, gentle, lively, and interesting." Voltaire wrote of her "grands yeux noirs"; a young Genevan admirer said, "her eyes are so beautiful, so tender, so eloquent of her soul, that one is scarcely aware of the rest"; and there is Diderot's description of a portrait—its painter and its present whereabouts unknown—for which he had seen her pose in her chateau de La Chevrette, a few miles north of Paris: "The portrait of Mme d'Épinay is finished. Her bust is demi-nu. A few curling locks of hair fall to her neck and shoulders: the rest is caught up by a blue ribbon around her forehead. Her mouth is slightly open: one sees her breathe: and her eyes are filled with languor. It is the very image of tenderness and voluptuousness." The picture, Diderot wrote, was also an excellent likeness.
Today we know her from two portraits in Geneva, where she lived for two years in her early thirties, under the medical supervision of the esteemed Dr. Théodore Tronchin. One of the portraits—both are by Jean-Etienne Liotard—was given to Dr. Tronchin, with Mme d'Épinay's thanks, when she left that city to return to France; and he, in turn, bequeathed it to the Musée d'Art et d'Histoire in Geneva, where one sees it today. The other, perhaps a preparatory sketch, but very "finished," is closer to Diderot's description of the portrait he saw later, at La Chevrette; it is privately owned in Switzerland. Both portraits are spirited, each of them emphasizing a different aspect of the volatile subject. In these eighteenth-century invocations—of soul and wit, of the voluptuous and the tender—one "sees her breathe" indeed.
But it is her written word that most strongly reveals Mme d'Épinay as a woman of character, entirely recognizable in our modern context: penetrating, swift, resilient, and filled with intelligent life.
In January 1783, three months before her death, she was awarded the first Prix Montyon, a prize that had been recently established at the French Academy to honor the author of "the book published in the current year that might be of greatest benefit to society." Les Conversations d'Émilie—her memories, in dialogue form, of the education of her granddaughter Émilie de Belsunce—remains an intelligent and charming work. Although Mme d'Épinay has always been best, and most unfairly, known for the role Jean-Jacques Rousseau maliciously gives her in his Confessions, it is for Les Conversations d'Émilie, displaying her as teacher and "liberated woman," that she is admired in the present day.
Very different from the exemplary Conversations are the volumes of Mme d'Épinay's much longer work: her novel, or "pseudo-memoirs," L'Histoire de Madame de Montbrillant (referred to in the following pages as "Memoirs"), begun when she was thirty and unpublished in her lifetime. Of this work she writes in the preface:
My aim in publishing the story of my misfortunes is to absolve myself in the eyes of the public from suspicions of frivolity, coquetry, and lack of character.... These memoirs should also serve as a lesson to mothers. In them they will see the dangers of unconsidered and formless education, and the necessity of studying a child's nature before imposing a rigid program of instruction.
No one, Sainte-Beuve said, better describes the society and customs of eighteenth-century France: "Madame d'Épinay's memoirs are not a book: they are an epoch." Just as she gives herself a pseudonym as author (Montbrillant is the name of a village near Geneva she had reason to visit), so throughout the book Mme d'Épinay rebaptizes her relations, friends, and acquaintances; and at the end of this extraordinary "autobiography" she even recounts, with considerable pathos, the exemplary death of "Madame de Montbrillant" herself. As biography the book must be read with caution—although, in its most modern edition, admirable guidance has been provided by the editors, who have included many identifying notes. The reader comes away both historically informed and with a sense of having read a French equivalent of one of those eighteenth-century English novels which Mme d'Épinay tells us she herself enjoyed—Pamela or Sir Charles Gmndison.
She was christened Louise-Florence-Petronille-Tardieu d'Esclavelles, born on n March 1726 in the fortress at Valenciennes, a stronghold on the Franco-Flemish border, where her father, the baron d'Esclavelles, ex-musketeer, exlieutenant colonel in the wars of Louis XIV, was commanding officer. He and his wife, both of old aristocratic stock, were not at all rich; and when the baron died suddenly, he left his widow and nine-year-old daughter in modest circumstances. Because Mme d'Esclavelles was occupied in dismantling the quarters at Valenciennes to make way for the new commandant and arranging the sale of superfluous effects, Louise was sent to Paris to stay with an aunt, her mother's sister. Although this lady's husband, Louis-Denis de Lalive de Bellegarde, an immensely wealthy bourgeois, a fermier-général, was a kindly man, his wife was something of a termagant; and Louise found herself a Cinderella, continually reminded of her inferior, impoverished state and her lack of beauty. She was an intelligent, serious-minded child, and immediately began to profit from the meager lessons in "heraldry, French history and geography" given to her younger cousin Sophie by the latter's governess—lessons which her aunt grudgingly and intermittently allowed her to share. She wrote later:
When I was a child it was not the custom to teach girls anything. They were more or less inoculated with their religious duties, to prepare them for their first communion: they were given a very good dancing-master, a very poor music teacher, and in rare cases a mediocre teacher of drawing. Add to this a bit of history and geography, devoid of any incentive to further learning: it was merely a question of memorizing names and dates, which were forgotten as soon as the teacher was let go. Such was the extent of what was considered a superior education. Above all, we were never taught to think; and any study of science was scrupulously avoided as being inappropriate to our sex.
Back from Valenciennes after several months, Mme d'Esclavelles took a small flat in Paris. Being extremely devout, she was pleased when Louise, benefiting from a scholarship endowed by a distant relation, went to live as a student boarder in a convent. The nuns did their wretched work; and, two years later, her "education" completed, the girl who had shown such early promise—and it seems to have been her father, never her mother, who had encouraged the child to use her mind—emerged at fourteen ignorant and pietistic. An elderly cousin of her father's, the shrewd Mme de Roncherolles, who was fond of Louise and who is often quoted in the Memoirs as a source of worldly wisdom, put it this way to Mme d'Esclavelles, who was encouraging her daughter to frequent a certain religious-minded couple: "Those people are 36-karat bigots. Not good for your daughter. That sort of thing leads straight to l'amour. Make no mistake: when a girl is devout at fifteen, it's not God whom she loves—it's her lover, and she only adores God as a substitute while she awaits the lover's appearance."
During her unhappy stay with her aunt Bellegarde, Louise had seen something of her young cousin Sophie's brothers and sisters. Marie-Charlotte, between Louise and Sophie in age, home from her convent school, was erratic, nasty, patronizing; Ange-Laurent, a sweet-natured, timid boy, was a stammerer; and there was the principal heir, Denis-Joseph, two years Louise's senior. The last's formal name at the time, derived from a remote maternal connection, was Monsieur de Preux (a name later to be given by Rousseau, when he became acquainted with the family, to the hero of La Nouvelle Héloïse). The boys lived at school, with their tutor, in another part of the city, and during visits to their home they were kind to their fatherless cousin. On Epiphany, 6 January, when the family celebrated Twelfth Night (she calls it "La Nuit des Rois") with the traditional cutting of a cake, it was twelve-year-old Monsieur de Preux who found the hidden ring and thus became king. Called to choose his queen, he beckoned to Louise, whose pleasure gave rise to spiteful remarks from her aunt.
Two and a half years later, when Louise emerged from her convent school, she and her mother were asked to a summer house-party at the chateau de La Chevrette: it was Louise's first visit to the house that would later be her home, and her entry into le monde as a young lady. Among those assembled one evening to play games was Denis-Joseph, now almost fifteen, handsome, headstrong, and spoiled. A few days before, when he had said something Louise thought improper, she had not hesitated, following the precepts given by her confessor in the convent, to offer him a few sage words of reproval. His tutor had "applauded" what she said, and he himself had "listened to her very attentively." One of the games they played that evening in the salon of the chateau was le jeu du secrétaire," in which each player writes a line on a piece of paper and the slips are passed in turn to every other player, each of whom adds a line which he thinks in some way appropriate: the slips are then read aloud. "I confess," Mme d'Épinay writes, "that my vanity was flattered to find written on my card, in my cousin's hand, the words 'She was born to please, and she will succeed.'"
Thus, while they were both in their mid-teens, Louise had attracted her cousin's particular attention; and one hundred fifty very Richardsonian pages later—which in the Memoirs cover six years—we learn that they were married in the church of Saint-Roch, in the rue Saint-Honoré, a little after midnight on the day before Christmas 1745. Mme d'Esclavelles had provided her daughter with a dowry of thirty thousand livres; on his son, M. de Bellegarde had settled three hundred thousand. Denis-Joseph was twenty-one, Louise twenty. Now of age, he assumed a new surname, Lalive d'Épinay, legally bestowed on him by his father (in 1742 M. de Bellegarde had bought the seigneurie of the village of Épinay, on the Seine close to Paris); and the young man was soon appointed, through his father's influence, to a post in the fermes of Brittany and Périgord.
During the courtship of the young couple, after the family had discovered that they were passing each other secret notes, Denis-Joseph had been sent for a time to a military school, the "Académie du Roi pour l'éducation des jeunes gentilhommes," in the rue de Tournon, where he was taught fencing, mathematics, dancing, languages, drawing, and music. And later—after his mother died and Mme d'Esclavelles consented to manage her widowed brother-in-law's household, taking Louise to live with her there—the young man, although decorous in his behavior with his cousin, was again sent away, this time to Brittany.
In the earliest pages of the Memoirs, this period is recounted in some charming passages. On one of his last evenings at home, before she had been told of his impending exile, Mme d'Épinay writes:
My uncle had just left the harpsichord: my cousin took his place and asked me to sing an aria from an opera. I agreed. My uncle and my mother were sitting beside the fire with my cousin Sophie. While I was singing a recitative from Thétis et Pelée, he said to me in a low voice: "At last I have a moment to talk to you. I suspect you've been unfair to me."
"I? In what way?"
"You have been attributing my silence to indifference."
"If you knew what I've been suffering because of you! Never, never have you been absent from my heart, but now there's to be no end to my suffering. You must have noticed how depressed I've been during this past week. There's a good reason. In a fortnight I'm to go away for six months, perhaps longer."
I was so astonished, so affected by the news, that as I sang I gave an exclamation of astonishment, and what was to have been a simple "Ah!" came out strangely.
"No, no!" my uncle called out. "What are you doing? Sing the right notes!"
"We turned the wrong page, father," my cousin said.
That little lie made me unhappy, and I wanted to stop, but my mother, who thought I was offended by my uncle's words, told me to stay where I was and begin the scene again. As soon as I had sung one or two bars, my cousin resumed: "What worries me most about my absence is that you'll have some bad times with my other sister, and nobody to comfort you.... If you'll write to me when things go wrong ..."
"No," I said. "Not unless my mother approves. I show her all my letters."
"Will she see mine?" he asked.
That exchange took place while we were singing alternately; and since the passage ended as he asked me that last question, I made no answer, and walked away.
M. de Bellegarde's farewell to his son, the evening before Denis-Joseph left for Brittany, is a scene suggestive of a depiction by Greuze, whose fine, fashionable, sentimental canvases would later be collected by Ange-Laurent:
I am still upset [Mme d'Épinay writes, in a "letter to a friend"] by the farewell given him by his father. What a parting! It was touching and terrible. We were all assembled in M. de Bellegarde's study to bid good-bye to the "poor exile," as he calls himself. It was after lunch. He embraced us all, finally going to his father. M. de Bellegarde put his hands on his son's shoulders, indicating that he should kneel. He did so, and then his father, with tears in his eyes, gave him his blessing. "May God bless my first-born," he said, "and with His grace keep him good, happy, and well."
Then, collecting himself a little, and speaking affectionately, with his son still kneeling, he said: "My son, never forget the lessons you learned in your father's house, and the advice your mother gave you as she lay dying." His voice broke, he wept, and we all wept with him. He reminded him of his conduct since his mother's death, in a way that could only have pleased him, since he stressed everything he could praise; but then he spoke strongly, too strongly perhaps, of his tendency to dissipation, his lack of application, his spirit of independence, and his stubbornness. I confess that I have not been particularly aware of those last-mentioned failings. Isn't it a bad policy for mothers and fathers to exaggerate the failings of their children? It seems to me that my cousin has not, as yet, given signs of being so entirely willful.
"As yet." That was two years before they were married. During the interval that followed, Louise had reason to conceive many doubts about Denis-Joseph, to note many bad "signs"; and friends, while acknowledging his ability to charm, gave her warnings. When she learned that he had contracted a venereal disease in Brest she was "horrified," and resolved to give him up and accept one of the other, flattering marriage proposals she tells us she had received; but in her infatuation she believed those who told her that he had been cured. As her wedding day approached he showered her with jewels—diamonds, gold, "buckles, a necklace, an aigrette"; and from M. de Bellegarde came a gift of spending money, one hundred louis d'or—a thousand dollars, or, perhaps, pounds, today. Nevertheless, she tells us, she walked to the church on that winter night in 1745 in "fear and trembling." As well she might: she was in thrall to a monster.
Excerpted from A Woman, a Man, and Two Kingdoms by Francis Steegmuller. Copyright © 1991 Francis Steegmuller. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc.
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