1. Mme. Geoffrin
The reign of woman ended, but only after the zenith of the salons. That unique institution reached its climax with Mme. Geoffrin, and subsided in a fever of romance with Mlle, de Lespinasse. It would revive after the Revolution, with Mesdames de Staël and Récamier, but never again with the zest and fullness of the time when political celebrities met on Saturdays at Mme. du Deffand’s, artists met on Mondays and philosophers and poets on Wednesdays at Mme. Geoffrin’s, philosophers and scientists on Tuesdays at Mme. Helvétius’ and on Sundays and Thursdays at Baron d’Holbach’s, and literary and political lions on Tuesdays at Mme. Necker’s, and any of these might meet any night at Julie de Lespinasse’s. Besides these there were many minor salons: chez Mesdames de Luxembourg, de La Vallière, de Forcalquier, de Talmont, de Broglie, de Bussy, de Crussol, de Choiseul, de Cambis, de Mire-poix, de Beauvau, d’Anville, d’Aiguillon, d’Houdetot, de Marchais, Dupin, and d’Épinay.
It was not beauty that distinguished these Junos of the salons; nearly all of them were middle-aged or older; it was that complex of intelligence, tact, grace, influence, and unobtrusive money that enabled a hostess to assemble women of charm and men of mind who could make a gathering or causerie sparkle with wit or wisdom without setting it on fire with passion or prejudice. Such a salon was no place for flirtations, or for erotic themes or double-entendres.81 Every man there might have a mistress, every woman a lover, but this was politely veiled in the civilized give and take of courtesies and ideas. Platonic friendships could find acceptance there, as with Du Def-fand and Horace Walpole, or with Lespinasse and d’Alembert. As the Revolution neared, the salons tended to lose their dispassionate elevation, and became centers of revolt.
Mme. Geoffrin’s salon won the highest repute because she was the most skillful of lion tamers among the salonnières, allowed more freedom of discussion, and knew how—without appearing oppressive—to keep liberty from passing the bounds of good manners or good taste. She was one of the few women who rose from the middle class to maintain a distinguished salon. Her father, valet de chambre to the Dauphine Marie-Anne, had married the daughter of a banker; their first child, born in 1699, was Marie-Thérèse, who became Mme. Geoffrin. The mother, a woman of culture with some talent for painting, laid great plans for her daughter’s development, but died in 1700 giving birth to a son. The two children were sent to live with their grandmother in the Rue St.-Honoré. Half a century later, in reply to Catherine II’s request for a brief autobiography, Mme. Geoffrin explained her lack of erudition:
My grandmother … had very little education, but her mind was so observant, so clever, so quick, that … it always served her instead of knowledge. She spoke so agreeably of the things she knew nothing of, that no one desired she should know them better. … She was so satisfied with her lot that she regarded education as superfluous for a woman. “I have managed so well,” she said, “that I have never felt the need of it. If my granddaughter is a fool, knowledge will make her self-confident and unbearable; if she has wit and sense she will do as I did; she will make up the deficiency by her tact and perception.” Therefore, in my childhood, she taught me simply how to read, but she made me read a great deal. She taught me to think, and made me reason; she taught me to know men, and made me say what I thought of them, and told me how she herself judged them. … She could not endure the elegancies that dancing masters teach; she only desired me to have the grace which nature gives to a well-formed person.82
Religion, Grandma felt, was more important than education; so the two orphans were taken to Mass every day.
Grandma attended also to Marie’s marriage. A wealthy businessman, François Geoffrin, aged forty-eight, offered to marry the thirteen-year-old girl; Grandma thought it a good match, and Marie was too well brought up to object. She insisted, however, on taking her brother with her to join M. Geoffrin in the comfortable home, also in the Rue St.-Honoré, which she was to keep to the end of her life. In 1715 she gave birth to a daughter, and in 1717 to a son—who died at the age of ten.
In that same fashionable street Mme. de Tencin opened a famous salon. She invited Mme. Geoffrin to attend. M. Geoffrin objected; La Tencin’s past had made some noise, and her favorite guests were such dangerous freethinkers as Fontenelle, Montesquieu, Marivaux, Prévost, Helvétius, and Marmontel. Mme. Geoffrin went nevertheless. She was fascinated by these untrammeled minds; how tiresome, by comparison, were the merchants who came to visit her aging husband! He was sixty-five now, and she was Balzac’s femme de trente ans. She too began to entertain. He objected, she overruled him; finally he consented to preside at her dinners, usually silent and always polite. When he died (1749), aged eighty-four, her diners hardly noticed his absence. One who returned from a journey inquired what had become of the old gentleman who had sat so unobtrusively at the head of the table. Mme. Geoffrin answered softly, “It was my husband. He is dead.”83
Mme. de Tencin also completed her course in 1749, to the dismay of her accustomed guests. We must record again the remark of the ninety-two-year-old Fontenelle: “Such a good woman! [She had been a veritable synthesis of sins.] What a worry! Where shall I dine on Tuesdays now?” But he brightened up: “Well, on Tuesdays now I must dine at Mme. Geof-frin’s.”84 She was glad to have him, for he had been a philosophe before Montesquieu and Voltaire, he had memories stretching back to Mazarin, he had seven years left in him, and could bear teasing without taking offense, being hard of hearing. Most of the celebrities who had shone at Tencin’s table followed his example, and soon the Geoffrin Wednesday midday dinners brought together, at one time or another, Montesquieu, Diderot, d’Holbach, Grimm, Morellet, Raynal, Saint-Lambert, and the witty little Neapolitan, Abbé Ferdinando Galiani, secretary to the Neapolitan ambassador in Paris.
After her husband’s death, and despite her daughter’s scandalized opposition, Mme. Geoffrin allowed Diderot, d’Alembert, and Marmontel to set the line and tone of discussion at her Wednesday dinners. She was a patriot and a Christian, but she admired the courage and vivacity of the philosophes. When the Encyclopédie was organized she contributed over 500,000 livres to its costs. Her home became known as “the salon of the Encyclopédie”; and when Palissot satirized the rebels in his comedy Les Philosophes(1760), he made fun of her as Cydalize, the fairy godmother of the coterie. Thereafter she asked her lions to roar more courteously, and checked wild eloquence with a deflating compliment—“Ah, there’s something good!”85 At last she withdrew her standing invitation to Diderot, but she sent him a suite of new furniture and an uncomfortably gorgeous dressing gown.
She discovered that artists, philosophers, and men of affairs did not mix well; the philosophers liked to talk, the statesmen expected discretion and good manners; the artists were a tempestuous tribe, and only artists could understand them. So Madame, who collected art and had caught some aesthetic glow from the Comte de Caylus, invited the leading artists and connoisseurs of Paris to special dinners on Monday evenings. Boucher came, La Tour, Vernet, Chardin, Vanloo, Cochin, Drouais, Robert, Oudry, Nattier, Soufflot, Caylus, Bouchardon, Greuze. Marmontel was the only philosophe admitted, for he lived in Mme. Geoffrin’s house. The amiable hostess not only entertained these guests; she bought their works, posed for their portraits of her, and paid them well. Chardin pictured her best, as a stout and kindly matron in a lace bonnet.86 After the death of Vanloo she bought two of his pictures for four thousand livres; she sold them to a Russian prince for fifty thousand livres, and sent the profit to the widow.87
To round out her hospitality Mme. Geoffrin gave petits soupers for her women friends. But no woman was invited to the Monday dinners, and Mlle, de Lespinasse (perhaps as d’Alembert’s alter ego) was one of the few women who came to the Wednesday soirees. Madame was somewhat possessive, and besides she found that female presences distracted her lions from philosophy and art. Her policy of segregation seemed justified by the high repute her assemblies gained for interesting and significant discussions. Foreigners in Paris angled for invitations; to be able to say, when they returned home, that they had attended Mme. Geoffrin’s salon was a distinction second only to being received by the King. Hume, Walpole, and Franklin were among her grateful guests. Ambassadors to Versailles—even the lordly Count von Kaunitz—made it a point to present themselves at the famous house in the Rue St.-Honoré. In 1758 Prince Cantemir, the Russian ambassador, brought with him the Princess of Anhalt-Zerbst, who told of the accomplishments of her daughter; four years later this daughter became Catherine II, and for many years thereafter the Empress of All the Russias carried on a charming correspondence with the bourgeois salonnière. A handsome and brilliant Swede who attended some of Madame’s dinners went home to be Gustavus III.
A still handsomer youth, Stanislas Poniatowski, was a frequent visitor, almost a devotee of Mme. Geoffrin (who sometimes paid his debts);88 soon he was calling her Maman; and when he became King of Poland (1764) he invited her to visit Warsaw as his guest. Though now sixty-four years old, she accepted. She made a triumphal stay in Vienna on the way: “I am better known here,” she wrote, “than a couple of yards from my own house.”89 For a while, in the royal palace at Warsaw (1766), she played at mothering and advising the King. The letters that she sent to Paris were passed from hand to hand there, like the letters of Voltaire from Ferney; “those who had not read Mme. Geoffrin’s letters,” Grimm wrote, “were not fit to go into good society.”90 When she came back to Paris and resumed her dinners, a hundred celebrities rejoiced; Piron and Delille wrote poems celebrating her return.
The trip had been arduous—riding in a coach through half the length of Europe and back; Mme. Geoffrin was never again as alert and sprightly as before. She who had once expressed her disbelief in life after death,91 and had reduced religion to charity, now renewed her observance of Catholic worship. Marmontel described her peculiar piety:
To be in favor with heaven without being out of favor with her society, she used to indulge in a kind of clandestine devotion. She went to Mass as secretly as others go to an intrigue; she had an apartment in a nunnery, … and a pew in the church of the Capuchins, with as much mystery as the galante women of that day had their petites maisons for their amours.92
In 1776 the Catholic Church announced a jubilee in which all who visited certain churches at stated times would receive dispensations and indulgences. On March 11 Mme. Geoffrin attended a long service in the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Soon after reaching home she fell in an apoplectic fit. The philosophes were angry that her illness should have followed an act of worship; the mordant Abbé Morellet remarked, “She has confirmed, by her own example, the maxim which she frequently repeated: One dies only through an act of stupidity.’”93 The daughter, Marquise de La Ferté-Imbault, took possession of her sick mother, and warned the philosophes away. Madame never saw d’Alembert or Morellet again; however, she arranged that the pensions she had given them should be increased after her death. She lingered on for another year, paralyzed and dependent, but distributing charity to the end.
2. Mme. duDeffand
There was only one salon in Europe that could rival Geoffrin’s in fame and votaries. We have studied elsewhere the career and character of Marie de Vichy-Chamrond: how as a girl she dismayed nuns and priests with her freethinking; how she wed the Marquis du Deffand, left him, and solaced her solitude with a salon (1739 f.), at first in the Rue de Beaune, then (1747) in the Convent of St. Joseph in the Rue St.-Dominique. Her new site frightened away all but one of the philosophes who had previously come to enjoy her wine and wit; d’Alembert remained, being the least pugnacious of the tribe; for the rest, her habitués were men and women of the aristocracy, who tended to snub La Geoffrin as bourgeoisie. When the Marquise became blind at the age of fifty-seven (1754), her friends still came to her dinners; but during the rest of the week she felt loneliness with a rising despondency, until she persuaded her niece to stay with her and serve as assistant hostess at her soirees.
Julie de Lespinasse was the illegitimate daughter of the Comtesse d’Albon and Gaspard de Vichy, brother of Mme. du Deffand. The Comtesse acknowledged her, brought her up with her other children, gave her an exceptionally good education, and sought to have her legitimized; but one of the daughters objected, and it was never done. In 1739 this half sister married Gaspard de Vichy and went to live with him in the Château de Chamrond in Burgundy. In 1748 the Comtesse died, leaving an annuity of three hundred livres for Julie, then sixteen. Mme. de Vichy took Julie to Cham-rond, but treated her as an illegitimate orphan who served as governess for the children. When Mme. du Deffand visited Chamrond she was struck by the excellent mind and manners of Mlle, de Lespinasse; she won the girl’s confidence, and learned that she was so unhappy in her present position that she had decided to enter a convent. The Marquise proposed that Julie come and live with her in Paris. Objections were raised by the family, in fear that Du Deffand would arrange Julie’s legitimation, thus entitling her to a share in the Albon estate. The Marquise promised that she would not so offend her relatives. Meanwhile Julie entered a convent (October, 1752), not as a novice but as a boarder. The Marquise renewed her proposal. After a year of hesitation, Julie agreed. On February 13, 1754, the Marquise sent her a strange letter, which must be remembered in judging the sequel:
I shall introduce you as a young lady from my province who intended to go into a convent, and will say that I offered you a lodging until you should find one which would suit you. You will be treated with politeness, and even with compliment, and you can count upon me that your self-respect will never be offended.
However, … there is another point which I must explain to you. The least artifice, even the most trifling little art, if you were to put it into your conduct, would be intolerable to me. I am naturally distrustful, and all those in whom I detect slyness become suspect to me until I lose all confidence in them. I have two intimate friends—Formont and d’Alembert. I love them passionately, but less for their agreeable charms and their friendship than for their absolute truthfulness. Therefore you must, my queen, resolve to live with me with the utmost truth and sincerity. … You may think that I preach, but I assure you that I never do so except in regard to sincerity. On that point I am without mercy.94
In April, 1754, Julie came to live with Mme. du Deffand, first above a carriage shed, then in a room over the Marquise’s apartment in the Convent of St. Joseph. Perhaps at Madame’s suggestion, the Duc d’Orléans settled upon her a pension of 692 livres.95 She helped the blind hostess to receive and place her guests at the salon assemblies; she brightened the proceedings with her pleasant manners, her quick intelligence, her fresh and modest youth. She was no beauty, but her bright black eyes and rich brown hair made an arresting combination. Half the men who came there fell half in love with her, even Madame’s old faithful chevalier, Charles-Jean-François Hénault, president of the Court des Enquêtes, who was seventy, always ailing, always rubicund with a flow of wine. Julie took their compliments with proper discount, but even so the Marquise, doubly sensitive in her blindness, must have felt that some worship had passed from her throne. Perhaps another element entered: the older woman had begun to love the younger one with an affection that would not share. Both were vessels of passion, despite the fact that the Marquise had one of the most penetrating minds of the time.
It was inevitable that Julie should fall in love. First (?) with a young Irishman of whom we know only the name Taaffe. Once admitted to the salon, he came almost every day, and it was soon obvious to the Marquise that he had come to see not her but Mademoiselle. She was alarmed to see that Julie received his advances favorably. She warned Julie against compromising herself. The proud girl resented the motherly advice. Fearing to lose her, and anxious to protect her against an impetuous attachment that promised no permanence, the Marquise commanded Julie to keep to her room when Taaffe called. Julie obeyed, but was so excited by the quarrel that she took opium to calm her nerves. Many persons in the eighteenth century used opium as a sedative. Mlle, de Lespinasse increased her doses with each new romance.
She learned to forget Taaffe, but her next love entered history, for it fell upon the man whom Mme. du Deffand had taken to herself with a maternal but possessive attachment. Jean Le Rond d’Alembert was in 1754 at the peak of his renown as mathematician, physicist, astronomer, and collaborator in that Encyclopédie that was the talk of all intellectual Paris. Voltaire, in a modest moment, called him “the foremost writer of the century.”96 Yet he had none of Voltaire’s advantages. He was of illegitimate birth; his mother, Mme. de Tencin, had disowned him, and he had not seen his father since childhood. He lived like a simple bourgeois in the home of the glazier Rousseau. He was handsome, neat, courteous, sometimes gay; he could talk with almost any specialist on any subject, but he could also hide his learning behind a façade of stories, mimicry, and wit. Otherwise he made few compromises with the world. He preferred his independence to the favor of kings and queens; and when Mme. du Deffand campaigned to get him into the French Academy he refused to assure himself of Hénault’s vote by praising Hénault’s Abrégé chronologique de l’histoire de France (1744). There was a strain of satire in him that made his wit bite now and then;97 he could be impatient, “sometimes violently choleric against opponents.”98 He never found out what to say or do when alone with women; yet his shyness attracted them, as if by challenging the efficacy of their charms.
When Mme. du Deffand first met him (1743) she was struck by the range and clearness of his mind. She was then forty-six, he twenty-six. She adopted him as her “wildcat” (chat sauvage);99 invited him not only to her salon but to private dinners tête-à-tête; she vowed her willingness to “sleep for twenty-two hours of the twenty-four, so long as we pass the remaining two hours together.”100 It was after eleven years of this warm friendship that Julie came into their lives.
There was a natural bond between the natural son and the natural daughter. D’Alembert noted it in retrospect:
Both of us lacked parents and family, and having suffered abandonment, misfortune, and unhappiness from our birth, nature seemed to have sent us into the world to find each other, to be to each other all that each had missed, to stand together like two willows, bent by the storm but not uprooted, because in their weakness they have intertwined their branches.101
He felt this “elective affinity” almost at first sight. “Time and custom stale all things,” he wrote to her in 1771, “but they are powerless to touch my affection for you, an affection which you inspired seventeen years ago.”102 Yet he waited nine years before declaring his love, and then he did it by indirection: he wrote to her from Potsdam in 1763 that in refusing Frederick’s invitation to become president of the Berlin Academy of Sciences he had had “a thousand reasons, one of which you haven’t the wits to guess”103—a strange lapse of intelligence in d’Alembert, for was there ever a woman who did not know when a man was in love with her?
Mme. du Deffand felt the growing warmth between her prized guest and her guarded niece; she noticed, too, that Julie was becoming the center of discussion and interest in the salon. For a while she uttered no reproach, but in a letter to Voltaire (1760) she made some bitter remarks on d’Alembert. She allowed a friend to read to her guests, before d’Alembert had arrived, Voltaire’s reply, referring to these remarks. D’Alembert came in soon after the reading had begun, and heard the telltale passage; he laughed with the others, but he was hurt. The Marquise tried to make amends, but the wound remained. When he visited Frederick in 1763 his letters were almost daily to Mlle, de Lespinasse, seldom to Madame. After his return to Paris he fell into the habit of visiting Julie in her apartment before they came down to the salon; and sometimes Turgot or Chastellux or Marmontel accompanied him in these intimate visits. The aging hostess felt that she was being betrayed by those whom she had helped and loved. Now she looked upon Julie as her enemy, and she revealed her feelings in a dozen irritating ways-cold tone, petty demands, occasional reminders of Julie’s dependence. Julie grew daily more impatient with this “blind and vaporous old woman,” and with the obligation to be always on hand or nearby to attend to the Marquise at any hour. Every day increased her unhappiness, for each day had its sting. “All pain strikes deep,” she later wrote, “but pleasure is a bird of quick passage.”104 In a final outburst Madame accused her of deceiving her in her own home and at her expense. Julie replied that she could no longer live with one who so considered her; and on a day early in May, 1764, she left to seek other lodgings. The Marquise made the breach irreparable by insisting that d’Alembert should choose between them; d’Alembert left, and never returned.
For a time the old salon seemed mortally wounded by these amputations. Most of the habités continued to come to the Marquise, but several of them—the Maréchale de Luxembourg, the Duchesse de Châtillon, the Comtesse de Boufflers, Turgot, Chastellux, even Hénault—went to Julie to express their sympathy and continued interest. The salon was reduced to old and faithful friends, and newcomers who sought distinction and good food. Madame described the change in 1768:
Twelve people were here yesterday, and I admired the different kinds and degrees of futility. We were all perfect fools, each in his kind. … We were singularly wearisome. All twelve departed at one o’clock, but none left a regret behind. … Pont-de-Veyle is my only friend, and he bores me to death three quarters of the time.105
She had never, since her light went out, had any love for life, but now that her dearest friends were gone she sank into a hopeless and cynical despair. Like Job, she cursed the day of her birth. “Of all my sorrows my blindness and age are the least. … There is only one misfortune, … and that is to be born.”106 She laughed equally at the dreams of romantics and philosophers—not only at Rousseau’s Héloïse and Savoyard Vicar, but at Voltaire’s long campaign for “truth.” “And you, Monsieur de Voltaire, the declared lover of Truth, tell me in good faith, have you found it? You combat and destroy errors, but what do you put in their place?”107 She was a skeptic, but she preferred genial doubters like Montaigne and Saint-Évre-mond to aggressive rebels like Voltaire and Diderot.
She thought herself finished with life, but life had not yet quite finished with her. Her salon had a fitful resurrection during the ministry of Choiseul, when the leading men in the government gathered around the old Marquise, and the friendship of the kindly Duchesse de Choiseul brought some brightness to darkened days. And in 1765 Horace Walpole began to come to her gatherings, and gradually she developed for him an affection that became her last desperate hold upon life. We hope to meet her again in that final and amazing avatar.
3. Mlle, de Lespinasse
Julie chose as her new home a three-story house at the meeting of the Rue de Bellechasse with the Rue St.-Dominique—only a hundred yards from the Marquise’s conventual home. She was not reduced to poverty; besides several small pensions, she had received pensions of 2,600 livres out of “the King’s revenues” (1758 and 1763), apparently at the urging of Choiseul; and now Mme. Geoffrin, at d’Alembert’s suggestion, dowered her with separate annuities of two thousand livres and one thousand crowns. The Maréchale de Luxembourg gave her a complete suite of furniture.
Soon after settling in these new quarters Julie came down with a severe case of smallpox. “Mlle, de Lespinasse is dangerously ill,” wrote David Hume to Mme. de Boufflers, “and I am glad to see that d’Alembert has come out of his philosophy at such a moment.”108 Indeed, the philosopher walked a long distance every morning to watch at her bed till late at night, and then walked back to his own room at Mme. Rousseau’s. Julie recovered, but was left permanently weak and nervous, her complexion coarsened and blotched. We can imagine what this meant to a woman thirty-two years old and still unmarried.
She was cured just in time to care for d’Alembert, who took to his bed in the spring of 1765 with a stomach ailment that brought him near death. Marmontel was shocked to find him living in a “little room ill-lit, ill-aired, with a very narrow bed like a coffin.”109Another friend, the financier Wate-let, offered d’Alembert the use of a commodious home near the Temple. The philosopher now sadly consented to leave the woman who had housed and fed him since his childhood. “Oh, wondrous day!” exclaimed Duclos; “d’Alembert is weaned!” To his new quarters Julie commuted daily, repaying his recent care of her with her own unstinted devotion. When he was well enough to move she begged him to occupy some rooms on the upper floor of her house. He came in the fall of 1765, and paid her a moderate rental. He did not forget Mme. Rousseau; he visited her frequently, shared some of his income with her, and never ceased apologizing for their separation. “Poor foster mother, fonder of me than of your own children!”110
For a while Paris assumed that Julie was his mistress. Appearances warranted the assumption. D’Alembert took his meals with her, wrote letters for her, managed her business affairs, invested her savings, collected her income. Publicly they were always together; no host dreamed of inviting one without the other. Nevertheless it gradually dawned even upon the gossipers that Julie was neither mistress nor wife nor lover to d’Alembert, but only a sister and friend. She seems never to have realized that his love for her, though he could not put it into words, was complete. Mesdames Geoffrin and Necker, both of exemplary morals, accepted the relationship as Platonic. The aging salonnière invited both of them to both of her gatherings.
It was a severe test of Mme. Geoffrin’s motherly kindness that she made no known protest when Mlle, de Lespinasse developed a salon of her own. Julie and d’Alembert had made so many friends that within a few months her drawing room was filled almost daily, from five to nine o’clock, with chosen visitors, women as well as men, nearly all of fame or rank. D’Alembert led the conversation, Julie added all the charms of womanhood, all the warmth of hospitality. No dinner or supper was offered, but the salon gained the reputation of being the most stimulating in Paris. Here came Turgot and Loménie de Brienne, soon to be high in the government; aristocrats like Chastellux and Condorcet, prelates like de Boismont and Boisgelin, skeptics like Hume and Morellet, authors like Mably, Condillac, Marmontel, and Saint-Lambert. At first they came to see and hear d’Alembert; then to enjoy the sympathetic skill with which Julie drew out each guest to shine in his or her special excellence. No topics were barred here; the most delicate problems of religion, philosophy, or politics were discussed; but Julie—trained in this art by Mme. Geoffrin—knew how to calm the excited, and return dispute to discussion. The desire not to offend the frail hostess was the unwritten law that generated order in this liberty. At the close of Louis XV’s reign the salon of Mlle, de Lespinasse, in Sainte-Beuve’s judgment, was “the most in vogue, the most eagerly frequented, at an epoch that counted so many that were brilliant.”111
No other salon offered such a double lure. Julie, though pockmarked and fatherless, was becoming the second love of a dozen distinguished men. And d’Alembert was at the height of his powers. Grimm reported:
His conversation offered all that would instruct and divert the mind. He lent himself with as much facility as good will to whatever subject would please most generally, bringing to it an almost inexhaustible fund of ideas, anecdotes, and curious memories. There was no topic, however dry or frivolous in itself, that he had not the secret of making interesting. … All his humorous sayings had a delicate and profound originality.112
And hear David Hume, writing to Horace Walpole:
D’Alembert is a very agreeable companion, and of irreproachable morals. By refusing offers from the Czarina and the King of Prussia he has shown himself above personal gain and vain ambition. … He has five pensions: one from the King of Prussia, one from the King of France, one as a member of the Academy of Sciences, one as a member of the French Academy, and one from his own family. The whole amount is not above six thousand livres a year; on half of this he lives decently; the other half he gives to poor people with whom he is connected. In a word I scarce know a man who, with some few exceptions, … is a better model of a virtuous and philosophical character.113
Julie was at opposite poles to d’Alembert in everything but facility and elegance of speech. But whereas the Encyclopédiste was one of the last heroes of the Enlightenment, seeking reason and measure in thought and action, Julie, after Rousseau, was the first clear voice of the Romantic movement in France, a creature (Marmontel described her) of “the liveliest fancy, the most ardent spirit, the most inflammable imagination which has existed since Sappho.”114 None of the romantics, in flesh or print—no Héloïse of Rousseau nor Rousseau himself, no Clarissa of Richardson or Manon of Prévost—exceeded her in keenness of sensibility, or in the ardor of her inner life. D’Alembert was objective, or tried to be; Julie was subjective to the pitch of a sometimes selfish self-absorption. Yet she “suffered with those that she saw suffer.”115 She went out of her way to comfort the sick or aggrieved, and she labored feverishly to get Chastellux and Laharpe elected to the Academy. But when she fell in love she forgot everything and everybody else—in the first case Mme. du Deffand, in the second and third d’Alembert himself.
In 1766 a young noble, Marqués José de Mora y Gonzaga, son of the Spanish ambassador, entered the salon. He was twenty-two, Julie was thirty-four. He had been married at twelve to a girl of eleven, who died in 1764. Julie soon felt the charm of his youth, possibly of his fortune. Their mutual attraction ripened rapidly to a pledge of marriage. Hearing of this, his father ordered him to military duty in Spain. Mora went, but soon resigned his commission. In January, 1771, he began to spit blood; he went to Valencia, hoping for relief; not cured, he rushed up to Paris and Julie. They spent many happy days together, to the amusement of her little court and the secret suffering of d’Alembert. In 1772 the ambassador was recalled to Spain, and insisted on his son coming with him. Neither parent would consent to his marrying Julie. Mora broke away from them and started north to rejoin her, but he died of tuberculosis at Bordeaux, May 27, 1774. On that day he wrote to her: “I was on my way to you, and I must die. What a horrible doom! … But you have loved me, and the thought of you still gives me happiness. I die for you.” Two rings were removed from his fingers; one contained a strand of Julie’s hair; the other was engraved with the words, “All things pass, but love endures.” The magnanimous d’Alembert wrote of Mora: “I regret on my own account that sensitive, virtuous, and high-minded man, … the most perfect being that I have ever known. … I shall ever remember those priceless moments when a soul so pure, so noble, so strong, and so sweet loved to mingle with mine.”116
Julie’s heart was torn by the news of Mora’s death, and all the more because she had in the meantime given her love to another man. In September, 1772, she met Comte Jacques-Antoine de Guibert, twenty-nine, who had made a notable record in the Seven Years’ War. Moreover, his Comprehensive Study of Tactics was acclaimed as a masterpiece by generals and intellectuals; Napoleon was to carry a copy of it, annotated by his own hand, through all his campaigns; and its “Preliminary Discourse,” denouncing all monarchies, formulated, twenty years before the Revolution, the basic principles of 1789. We can judge the admiration that poured upon Guibert from a topic selected for discussion in a leading salon: “Is the mother, the sister, or the mistress of M. de Guibert to be most envied?”117 He had, of course, a mistress—Jeanne de Montsauge, the latest and longest of his amours. Julie, in a bitter moment, judged him harshly:
The levity, even hardness, with which he treats women comes from the small consideration in which he holds them. … He thinks them flirtatious, vain, weak, false, and frivolous. Those whom he judges most favorably he believes romantic; and though obliged to recognize good qualities in some, he does not on that account value them more highly, but holds that they have fewer vices rather than more virtues.118
However, he was handsome, his manners were perfect, his speech combined substance with feeling, and erudition with clarity. “His conversation,” said Mme. de Staël, was the “most varied, the most animated, and the richest that ever I knew.”119
Julie considered herself fortunate in the preference that Guibert showed for her gatherings. Fascinated by each other’s fame, they developed what on his side became an incidental conquest, and on her side a mortal passion. It was this consuming love that gave her letters to Guibert a place in French literature and among the most revealing documents of the time; there, even more than in Rousseau’s Julie, ou La Nouvelle Héloïse (1761), the proto-Romantic movement in France finds its living expression.
Her earliest extant letter to Guibert (May 15, 1773) shows her already in his toils. But she was torn with remorse over the violation of her pledge of fidelity to Mora. So she wrote to Guibert, who was leaving for Strasbourg:
Ah, mon Dieu! by what charm, by what fatality, have you come to distract me? Why did I not die in September? I could have died then without … the reproaches that I now make to myself. Alas, I feel it, I could still die for him; there is no interest of mine that I would not sacrifice to him. … Oh, he will pardon me! I had suffered so much! My body and soul were so exhausted by the long continuance of sorrow. The news I received of him threw me into a frenzy. It was then that I first saw you; then that you received my soul, then that you brought pleasure into it. I know not which was sweetest—to feel it, or to owe it to you.120
Eight days later she took down all her defenses: “If I were young, pretty, and very charming, I should not fail to see much art in your conduct to me; but as I am nothing of all that, I find a kindness and an honor in it which have won you right over my soul forever.”121 At times she wrote with all the abandon of Héloïse to Abélard:
You alone in the universe can possess and occupy my being. My heart, my soul, can henceforth be filled by you alone. … Not once has my door been opened today that my heart did not beat; there were moments when I dreaded to hear your name; then again I was brokenhearted not to hear it. So many contradictions, so many conflicting emotions, are true, and three words explain them: I love you.122
The conflict of the two loves increased the nervous agitation that perhaps had come from the starvation of her hopes for womanly fulfillment, and from a growing tendency to consumption. She wrote to Guibert on June 6, 1773:
Though your soul is agitated, it is not like mine, which passes ceaselessly from convulsion to depression. I take poison [opium] to calm myself. You see that I cannot guide myself; enlighten me, strengthen me. I will believe you; you shall be my support.123
Guibert returned to Paris in October, severed his relations with Mme. de Montsauge, and offered his love to Julie. She accepted gratefully, and yielded to him physically—in the antechamber of her box at the opera (February 10, 1774).124 She claimed later that this, when she was forty-two, was her first lapse from what she called “honor” and “virtue,”125 but she did not reproach herself:
Do you remember the condition in which you put me, and in which you believed you left me? Well, I wish to tell you that, returning quickly to myself, I rose again [italics hers], and I saw myself not one hair’s-breadth lower than before. … And what will astonish you, perhaps, is that of all the impulses that have drawn me to you, the last is the only one for which I have no remorse.... In that abandonment, that last degree of abnegation of myself and of all personal interests, I proved to you that there is but one misfortune on earth that seems to me unbearable—to offend you and lose you. That fear would make me give my life.126
For a time she experienced transports of happiness. “I have thought of you constantly,” she wrote to him (for they kept their liaison secret, and dwelt apart). “I am so engrossed in you that I understand the feeling of the devotee for his God.”127 Guibert inevitably tired of a love that poured itself out so profusely, leaving no challenge to his power. Soon he was paying attention to the Comtesse de Boufflers, and resuming his affair with Mme. de Montsauge (May, 1774). Julie reproached him; he replied coldly. Then, on June 2, she learned that Mora had died on his way to her, blessing her name. She sank into a delirium of remorse, and tried to poison herself; Guibert prevented her. Now her letters to him were mostly about Mora, and how superior the young Spanish nobleman had been to every other man she had ever known. Guibert saw her less frequently, Montsauge more. Hoping to remain at least one of his mistresses, Julie planned marriages for him; he rejected her choices, and on June 1, 1775, he married Mlle, de Courcelles, seventeen and rich. Julie wrote him letters of hatred and disdain, ending with protestations of undying love.128
Through all the fever of her passion she was able to conceal the nature of it from d’Alembert, who thought the absence, then death, of Mora was its cause. He welcomed Guibert to her salon, developed a sincere friendship for him, and personally mailed the sealed letters which she wrote to her lover. But he noted that she had lost interest in him, that at times she resented his presence. And indeed she wrote to Guibert: “Did it not seem too ungrateful, I would say that M. d’Alembert’s departure would give me a sort of pleasure. His presence weighs upon my soul. He makes me ill at ease with myself; I feel too unworthy of his friendship and his goodness.”129 When she was dead he wrote to her “manes”:
For what reason, which I can neither imagine nor suspect, did that feeling, [once] so tender for me, … change suddenly to estrangement and aversion? What had I done to displease you? Why did you not complain to me if you had anything to complain of? … Or, my dear Julie, … had you done me some wrong of which I was ignorant, and which it would have been so sweet to pardon had I known of it? … Twenty times have I been on the point of throwing myself into your arms, and asking you to tell me what was my crime; but I feared that those arms would repulse me. . . .
For nine months I sought the moment to tell you what I suffered and felt, but during those months I always found you too feeble to bear the tender reproaches I had to make to you. The only moment when I could have shown to you, uncovered, my dejected and discouraged heart was that dreadful moment, a few hours before your death, when you asked me, in so heartrending a manner, to forgive you. … But then you had no longer the strength to either speak to me or hear me; … and thus I lost, without recovery, the moment of my life which would have been to me the most precious—that of telling you, once more, how dear you were to me, how much I shared your woes, and how deeply I desired to end my woes with you. I would give all the moments that remain to me to live, for that one instant which I can never have again, that instant when, by showing you all the tenderness of my heart, I might perhaps have recovered yours.130
The collapse of Julie’s dream helped tuberculosis to kill her. Dr. Bordeu (whom we have met in Diderot’s Dream of d’Alembert) was called in, and pronounced her condition hopeless. From April, 1776, she never left her bed. Guibert came to see her every morning and evening, and d’Alembert left her bedside only to sleep. The salon had been discontinued, but Con-dorcet came, and Suard, and the good Mme. Geoffrin, herself dying. On the last days Julie would not let Guibert come, for she did not wish to let him see how convulsions had disfigured her face; but she sent him frequent notes; and now he too protested: “I have always loved you; I have loved you from the first moment that we met; you are dearer to me than anything else in the world.”131 This, and d’Alembert’s silent fidelity, and the solicitude of her friends, were her only solace in her suffering. She made her will, of which she appointed d’Alembert executor, and she entrusted to him all her papers and effects.*
Her brother, the Marquis de Vichy, came up from Burgundy, and urged her to make her peace with the Church. To the Comte d’Albon he wrote: “I am happy to say that I persuaded her to take the sacraments, in spite of, in the face of, the entireEncyclopédie.”132She sent a last word to Guibert: “My friend, I love you. … Farewell.” She thanked d’Alembert for his long devotion, and begged him to forgive her ingratitude. She died that night, in the early hours of May 23, 1776. She was buried that same day, from the Church of St.-Sulpice, and as she had desired in her will—“like the poor.”