Read an Excerpt
Marie d'AgoultThe Rebel Countess
By RICHARD BOLSTER
Yale University PressCopyright © 2000 Yale University
All right reserved.
Chapter OneA Soldier's Daughter
THERE is an old saying in Germany that a child born at midnight is influenced by dark forces which show themselves in dreams and premonitions. Marie de Flavigny would often recall this superstition, because she was herself a Midnight Child who came into the world in late December of 1805. Her place of birth was the ancient German city of Frankfurt, on the river Main. Her mother, Maria, belonged to a prominent local family which owned the leading bank in the city. The Bethmann bank enjoyed high status and was engaged in major financial operations throughout the continent. The decades of conflict started by the French Revolution of 1789 had led the kings of Europe to borrow heavily in their attempt to overthrow the new regime in Paris; to the Bethmann family in Frankfurt the war had brought great wealth.
Marie's father was an exiled young French aristocrat whom the accidents of war had brought to Frankfurt in 1796. The early life of Count Alexandre de Flavigny had been one of ease and privilege before the Revolution. He had been a page at Versailles, the magnificent palace of Louis XVI and his charming consort, Marie-Antoinette. When the Revolution of 1789 began, Flavigny was twenty-three and a lieutenant in the artillery, an elite corps whose officers possessed mathematical and scientific skills and looked down on the cavalry, just as the cavalry felt superior to the infantry. Like many officers who had sworn an oath of loyalty to their king, Flavigny left France and made his way to the German town of Coblenz. There he joined an army of French royalists led by Prince Conde and supported by the major European monarchies. Conde and his men were preparing to invade France in order to restore the king to power. In June 1791 Louis XVI and his wife had escaped from Paris disguised as middle-class travelers. Unfortunately, they were recognized and recaptured at Varennes before they could cross the frontier into Germany. The king whom Flavigny had sworn to serve was now a prisoner of the revolutionaries and was suspected of complicity with those who planned an invasion of his country.
The years from 1789 to 1791 had brought profound change to the easy life of Marie's father, who was now a soldier in earnest and playing a part in one of the great dramas of European history. His first major conflict would be the battle of Valmy, which took place on 20 September 1792. Conde's army was part of a large alliance of Prussians and contingents from other German states, and the invading royalist forces were so certain of victory that crowned princes such as the king of Prussia and the duke of Weimar had accompanied them to observe the battles and were already imagining their triumphant entry into Paris. Early events tended to confirm this expectation as they took the fortified towns of Longwy and Verdun without difficulty and advanced quickly from the German frontier toward Paris. Conde's aristocratic officers had assured their German allies that the new French army opposing them was made up of ill-trained rabble and that the majority of the population would receive the invaders with open arms.
The first French troops encountered by the allies lived up to their reputation for indiscipline and incompetence, as they were mostly raw volunteers who had been repeatedly driven back. In a desperate last effort to defend Paris, the French commander Charles Dumouriez decided to make a stand on a small plateau at Valmy in spite of the risk of being surrounded. Rejecting advice, the young king of Prussia then ordered an instant attack by the allies. To their astonishment, they were confronted by regiments of well-trained regulars, determined fighters who were eager to defend their country and its new regime.
For Alexandre de Flavigny and his royalist comrades the defeat was shocking and unexpected. Marie's father left no written record of his experiences or thoughts on that memorable day, but a vivid account was recorded by Goethe, who witnessed it all in the company of the duke of Weimar. He recalled that great demoralization spread quickly through the invading armies, who only that morning had assumed they would chase the French off the plateau. As night fell, Goethe was in the company of a wet, hungry, and mostly silent group, without even a fire to cheer them. He tactlessly expressed the opinion that they could console themselves with the thought of having participated in a great event in world history. It is likely that Alexandre de Flavigny felt no such consolation. A few days after the battle the grave news arrived that France was now a republic and that the former king awaited trial on a charge of treason. At this point the exile must have realized that his return to a privileged position in his homeland was seriously in doubt and that the precarious life of a soldier would be his for some time.
In the years which followed, Flavigny continued to experience the dangers of war in Conde's army as it fought with initial success at the battle of Wissembourg on the northern frontier between October and December 1793. The French royalists distinguished themselves in the allied army, which captured twenty kilometers of fortifications from the republican forces, only to lose them again. For the next few years Flavigny and his comrades were in the vicinity of the Rhine, awaiting the next stage in the continuing war between the French Republic and the old monarchies of Europe. In 1796 Marie's father, who now held the rank of colonel, was sent to Frankfurt with the important mission of raising an additional regiment for the next campaign. The necessary funds were coming from Britain and were to be dispensed by the Bethmann bank. Thus it was that the young French aristocrat met his future wife.
Maria Bethmann was then a twenty-four-year-old widow and the mother of a six-year-old daughter, Augusta. The circumstances of this early marriage were not exceptional at the time, though they may seem strange to us. At the age of seventeen Maria had accepted the hand of Jakob Bussmann, a business partner of her father's and exactly twice her age. In the wealthy classes such marriages between young girls and older men were seen as a sensible arrangement in that an older man could provide a better home, including servants and a carriage, and could be expected to have a certain knowledge of life, including sexual matters. Teenage girls were physically nubile and usually eager for the status provided by marriage, a social condition which freed them from a highly protected existence. Naturally, such unions were not based on calculation alone, and common sense prescribed that some element of affection and esteem was needed, though the realities of courtship and marriage were far from the notion of passionate love found in sentimental novels. Little is known about the years Maria Bethmann spent with her father's business partner, but later events would indicate that they left her dissatisfied with arranged marriages.
When the young widow met Alexandre de Flavigny, with his charm, blue eyes, fair hair, fine uniform, and aristocratic name and manner, she liked what she saw. This man was clearly different from Jakob Bussmann. The problem was that the qualities she found irresistible did not arouse enthusiasm in her family. He was a foreigner and an exile. He was a soldier who might be killed in his next battle. He was an aristocrat and they were commoners, proud of their own class and status. To cap it all, he had no money and few prospects, whereas Maria was already a rich woman who had inherited the estate of her husband, to say nothing of her share of the Bethmann fortune. The theme of star-crossed lovers that had inspired many a play and novel was in this case a reality.
To Maria the decision seemed simple. She wanted Flavigny, she had enough money for both of them, and her situation as widow had emancipated her from family authority. Unfortunately this stance was not accepted by her domineering mother, Frau Bethmann, who, determined to prevent the match, called on Maria's older brother, Moritz, the head of the family firm. The Bethmanns could do very much as they pleased in Frankfurt, so the pair decided to thwart the lovers by getting the authorities to serve an expulsion order on the French officer for an alleged irregularity in his passport. When he refused to leave the city, he was promptly locked up as an undesirable alien. Maria, who considered Flavigny to be anything but undesirable, angrily countered the plot. She asked to be driven to the prison, where she entered his cell and remained alone with him for a sufficient length of time to tarnish her reputation. She next went defiantly to her mother and brother and asked whether they would still try to prevent the marriage.
As she was now technically dishonored unless she wed Flavigny, the family withdrew its opposition. It was clear that Maria's quiet manner masked a rigid determination. No doubt she felt she had paid her tribute to duty in the years with Bussmann and that the time had come to grasp at happiness. It is a remarkable fact that in years to come both of Maria Bethmann's daughters, Augusta Bussmann and the future Marie d'Agoult, would become famous for similar acts of folly inspired by love. In 1807, when Augusta was sixteen, she decided to marry the poet Clemens Brentano in spite of his reluctance. She invited him to go in her carriage for a ride in the country one evening and when he entered the vehicle he found her wearing a wedding dress and accompanied by two witnesses. The horses took them at breakneck speed to Kassel, where everything necessary for a wedding ceremony had been prepared. One can imagine Brentano's misgivings, but he went ahead with the marriage and lived to regret it. When the stormy relationship became unbearable, he more than once tried to leave Augusta, but with little success. It is clear that Maria Bethmann had passed on her passionate nature to her daughter, and equally evident that intensity of emotion is no guarantee of future bliss. Indeed Augusta was to have a tragic end.
By contrast, the marriage of Maria and Flavigny would bring them many happy years. The wedding took place in the town of Solothurn, Switzerland, in September 1797, after which the couple moved to Vienna, as dictated by Flavigny's military career. Their first child, a son, did not survive infancy; a second son, named Maurice, was born in 1799.
The remnants of Conde's army were now gathered under the colors of Austria, whose emperor was continuing the struggle against the French Republic. Flavigny's last experience of war with his royalist comrades was to be the battle of Hohenlinden, which took place near the river Inn in Austria in 1800. When the Austrian force advanced, the army of the French Republic had made a tactical retreat through the forest. The Austrian army imprudently followed them and became entangled in a difficult narrow passage leading through the trees. The French army was waiting, its regiments deployed on the small plain in front of the town of Hohenlinden. As the first Austrians emerged, one French section carried out a frontal attack, while another attacked the flank of the Austrians still in the forest. To add to the confusion, snow was falling, making visibility difficult as hand-to-hand fighting took place among the pines. Many of the Austrians were killed, wounded, or captured, or simply fled in disorder; the result was another severe reverse for the French royalist cause. The empire of the Hapsburgs found itself obliged to accept defeat. Weary of the dangers and disappointments of war, Flavigny was ready to hang up his sword. Like some of his comrades, he might have taken up service in the armies of the Russian czar. He was theoretically under sentence of death in his own country, as were all Frenchmen who had fought against the Republic, and it seemed impossible that he could ever return. Recovery of any family property also appeared improbable, in that the estates of exiled nobles had been confiscated. The best plan was therefore to settle in Frankfurt, the home of the Bethmann family, leaving behind the insecurity and hardship of military life. Flavigny had fought loyally for his king, but the cause seemed lost; the time had come to think of his young family and of his own future.
Like many German cities in these troubled times, Frankfurt had a community of French exiles, and Flavigny had only to look around him to see how fortunate he was. Many of these uprooted French had a difficult life and were dependent on the help of the local aristocracy. Some made a little money by giving French lessons, doing clerical work, or even working as cooks and gardeners. Most were young and did their best to maintain the atmosphere of gaiety and conviviality which had been typical of their class. Others had assumed false names and made a clandestine return to France, where nobody troubled them once the fanatical persecution of the Terror was over. Then in 1802 France ordered a general amnesty for all exiles except those still active in foreign armies. From this time on, Marie's father was free to return to his native land. Nonetheless, he chose to remain in Frankfurt rather than become a citizen of a French Republic now ruled by the remarkable Napoleon Bonaparte, whose title was first consul but who was known to royalists simply as the Usurper.
Frankfurt was a fine and prosperous city, and the Bethmann family was generally admired. Maria's brother, Moritz, was a man of outstanding ability and progressive ideas, one of which had been the creation of a college for Jews-this at a time when the city authorities still maintained a ghetto which was closed off by gates at night. Moritz was known for his skill with people and his understanding of the power of money. It is said that when the French army stood at the gates of Frankfurt, he saved the gold and silver treasures of the city's churches by rushing to Paris and bribing the appropriate minister. He took on this mission even though he held no office in the Frankfurt city council and in spite of the fact that the council did not have the ready money, which meant that he had to advance it himself.
Moritz Bethmann had a pragmatic mind, and it seems that he accepted Flavigny into his well-to-do family without difficulty. Differences of wealth and social rank were forgotten, or at least not mentioned; in addition marriages between poor aristocrats and rich young women from the middle class were not uncommon. It is probable that Flavigny could not speak German well, in spite of his years in exile, though, like all educated people at the time, the Bethmanns could speak French.
Excerpted from Marie d'Agoult by RICHARD BOLSTER Copyright © 2000 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.