Madame Récamier : The Woman of Society – Beacon Lights of History, Volume VII : Great Women by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume VII : Great Women by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume VII : Great Women

Héloïse : Love
Joan of Arc : Heroic Women
Saint Theresa : Religious Enthusiasm
Madame de Maintenon : The Political Woman
Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough
Madame Récamier : The Woman of Society
Madame de Staël : Woman in Literature
Hannah More : Education of Woman
George Eliot : Woman as Novelist

Beacon Lights of History, Volume VII : Great Women
John Lord

Topics Covered
Queens of society first seen in Italy
Provençal poetry in its connection with chivalrous sentiments
Chivalry the origin of society
Society in Paris in the 17th Century
Marquise de Rambouillet
Her salons
Mademoiselle de Scudéri
Early days of Madame Récamier
Her marriage
Her remarkable beauty and grace
Her salons
Her popularity
Courted by Napoleon
Loss of property
Friendship with Madame de Staël
Incurs the hatred of Napoleon
Friendship with Ballanche
Madame Récamier in Italy
Return to Paris
Duke of Montmorency
Seclusion of Madame Récamier
Her intimate friends
Friendship with Châteaubriand
His gifts and high social position
His retirement from political life
His old age soothed by Récamier
Her lovely disposition
Her beautiful old age
Her death
Her character
Remarks on society
Sources of its fascinations

Madame Récamier : The Woman of Society

A. D. 1777-1849.

I know of no woman who by the force of beauty and social fascinations, without extraordinary intellectual gifts or high birth, has occupied so proud a position as a queen of society as Madame Récamier. So I select her as the representative of her class.

It was in Italy that women first drew to their salons the distinguished men of their age, and exercised over them a commanding influence. More than three hundred years ago Olympia Fulvia Morata was the pride of Ferrara,–eloquent with the music of Homer and Virgil, a miracle to all who heard her, giving public lectures to nobles and professors when only a girl of sixteen; and Vittoria Colonna was the ornament of the Court of Naples, and afterwards drew around her at Rome the choicest society of that elegant capital,–bishops, princes, and artists,–equally the friend of Cardinal Pole and of Michael Angelo, and reigning in her retired apartments in the Benedictine convent of St. Anne, even as the Duchesse de Longueville shone at the Hôtel de Rambouillet, with De Retz and La Rochefoucauld at her feet. This was at a period when the Italian cities were the centre of the new civilization which the Renaissance created, when ancient learning and art were cultivated with an enthusiasm never since surpassed.

The new position which women seem to have occupied in the sixteenth century in Italy, was in part owing to the wealth and culture of cities–ever the paradise of ambitious women–and the influence of poetry and chivalry, of which the Italians were the earliest admirers. Provençal poetry was studied in Italy as early as the time of Dante; and veneration for woman was carried to a romantic excess when the rest of Europe was comparatively rude. Even in the eleventh century we see in the southern part of Europe a respectful enthusiasm for woman coeval with the birth of chivalry. The gay troubadours expounded and explained the subtile metaphysics of love in every possible way: a peerless lady was supposed to unite every possible moral virtue with beauty and rank; and hence chivalric love was based on sentiment alone. Provence gave birth both to chivalry and poetry, and they were singularly blended together. Of about five hundred troubadours whose names have descended to us, more than half were noble, for chivalry took cognizance only of noble birth. From Provence chivalry spread to Italy and to the north of France, and Normandy became pre-eminently a country of noble deeds, though not the land of song. It was in Italy that the poetical development was greatest.

After chivalry as an institution had passed away, it still left its spirit on society. There was not, however, much society in Europe anywhere until cities arose and became centres of culture and art. In the feudal castle there were chivalric sentiments but not society, where men and women of cultivation meet to give expression and scope to their ideas and sentiments. Nor can there be a high society without the aid of letters. Society did not arise until scholars and poets mingled with nobles as companions. This sort of society gained celebrity first in Paris, when women of rank invited to their salons literary men as well as nobles.

The first person who gave a marked impulse to what we call society was the Marquise de Rambouillet, in the seventeenth century. She was the first to set the fashion in France of that long series of social gatherings which were a sort of institution for more than two hundred years. Her father was a devoted friend of Henry IV., belonged to one of the first families of France, and had been ambassador to Rome. She was married in the year 1600, at the age of fifteen. When twenty-two, she had acquired a distaste for the dissipations of the court and everything like crowded assemblies. She was among the first to discover that a crowd of men and women does not constitute society. Nothing is more foreign to the genius of the highest cultivated life than a crowded salon, where conversation on any interesting topic is impossible; where social life is gilded, but frivolous and empty; where especially the loftiest sentiments of the soul are suppressed. From an early period such crowds gathered at courts; but it was not till the seventeenth century that the salon arose, in which woman was a queen and an institution.

The famous queens of society in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries do not seem to have mixed much in miscellaneous assemblies, however brilliant in dress and ornament. They were more exclusive. They reserved their remarkable talents for social reunions, perhaps in modest salons, where among distinguished men and women they could pour out the treasures of the soul and mind; where they could inspire and draw out the sentiments of those who were gifted and distinguished. Madame du Deffand lived quietly in the convent of St. Joseph, but she gathered around her an elegant and famous circle, until she was eighty and blind. The Saturday assemblies of Mademoiselle de Scudéry, frequented by the most distinguished people of Paris, were given in a modest apartment, for she was only a novelist. The same may be said of the receptions of Madame de la Sablière, who was a childless widow, of moderate means. The Duchesse de Longueville–another of those famous queens–saw her best days in the abbey of Port Royal. Madame Récamier reigned in a small apartment in the Abbaye-au-Bois. All these carried out in their salons the rules and customs which had been established by Madame de Rambouillet, It was in her salon that the French Academy originated, and its first members were regular visitants at her hotel. Her conversation was the chief amusement. We hear of neither cards nor music; but there were frequent parties to the country, walks in the woods,–a perpetual animation, where ceremony was banished. The brilliancy of her parties excited the jealousy of Richelieu. Hither resorted those who did not wish to be bound by the stiffness of the court. At that period this famous hotel had its pedantries, but it was severely intellectual. Hither came Mademoiselle de Scudéri; Mademoiselle de Montpensier, granddaughter of Henry IV.; Vaugelas, and others of the poets; also Balzac, Voiture, Racan, the Duc de Montausier, Madame de Sévigné, Madame de la Fayette, and others. The most marked thing about this hotel was the patronage extended to men of letters. Those great French ladies welcomed poets and scholars, and encouraged them, and did not allow them to starve, like the literary men of Grub Street. Had the English aristocracy extended the same helping hand to authors, the condition of English men of letters in the eighteenth century would have been far less unfortunate. Authors in France have never been excluded from high society; and this was owing in part to the influence of the Hôtel de Rambouillet, which sought an alliance between genius and rank. It is this blending of genius with rank which gave to society in France its chief attraction, and made it so brilliant.

Mademoiselle de Scudéry, Madame de la Sablière, and Madame de Longueville followed the precedents established by Madame de Rambouillet and Madame de Maintenon, and successively reigned as queens of society,–that is, of chosen circles of those who were most celebrated in France,–raising the intellectual tone of society, and inspiring increased veneration for woman herself.

But the most celebrated of all these queens of society was Madame Récamier, who was the friend and contemporary of Madame de Staël. She was born at Lyons, in 1777, not of high rank, her father, M. Bernard, being only a prosperous notary. Through the influence of Calonne, minister of Louis XVI., he obtained the lucrative place of Receiver of the Finances, and removed to Paris, while his only daughter Juliette was sent to a convent, near Lyons, to be educated, where she remained until she was ten years of age, when she rejoined her family. Juliette’s education was continued at home, under her mother’s superintendence; but she excelled in nothing especially except music and dancing, and was only marked for grace, beauty, and good-nature.

Among the visitors to her father’s house was Jacques Rose Récamier, a rich banker, born in Lyons, 1751,–kind-hearted, hospitable, fine-looking, and cultivated, but of frivolous tastes. In 1793, during the Reign of Terror, being forty-two, he married the beautiful daughter of his friend, she being but fifteen. This marriage seems to have been one of convenience and vanity, with no ties of love on either side,–scarcely friendship, or even sentiment. For a few years Madame Récamier led a secluded life, on account of the troubles and dangers incident to the times, but when she did emerge from retirement she had developed into the most beautiful woman in France, and was devoted to a life of pleasure. Her figure was flexible and elegant, her head well-poised, her complexion brilliant, with a little rosy mouth, pearly teeth, black curling hair, and soft expressive eyes, with a carriage indicative of indolence and pride, yet with a face beaming with good-nature and sympathy.

Such was Madame Récamier at eighteen, so remarkable for beauty that she called forth murmurs of admiration wherever she appeared. As it had long been a custom in Paris, and still is, to select the most beautiful and winning woman to hand round the purse in churches for all charities, she was selected by the Church of St. Roche, the most fashionable church of that day; and so great was the enthusiasm to see this beautiful and bewitching creature, that the people crowded the church, and even mounted on the chairs, and, though assisted by two gentlemen, she could scarcely penetrate the crowd. The collection on one occasion amounted to twenty thousand francs,–equal, perhaps, to ten thousand dollars to-day. This adaptation of means to an end has never been disdained by the Catholic clergy. What would be thought in Philadelphia or New York, in an austere and solemn Presbyterian church, to see the most noted beauty of the day handing round the plate? But such is one of the forms which French levity takes, even in the consecrated precincts of the church.

Madame de Récamier Painting by Jacques-Louis David

Madame de Récamier Painting by Jacques-Louis David

The fashionable drive and promenade in Paris was Longchamps, now the Champs Élysées, and it was Madame Récamier’s delight to drive in an open carriage on this beautiful avenue, especially on what are called the holy days,–Wednesdays and Fridays,–when her beauty extorted salutations from the crowd. Of course, such a woman excited equal admiration in the salons, and was soon invited to the fêtes and parties of the Directory, through Barras, one of her admirers. There she saw Bonaparte, but did not personally know him at that time. At one of these fêtes, rising at full length from her seat to gaze at the General, sharing in the admiration for the hero, she at once attracted the notice of the crowd, who all turned to look at her; which so annoyed Bonaparte that he gave her one of his dreadful and withering frowns, which caused her to sink into her seat with terror.

In 1798 M. Récamier bought the house which had Récamier belonged to Necker, in what is now the Chaussée d’Antin. This led to an acquaintance between Madame Récamier and Madame de Staël, which soon ripened into friendship. In the following year M. Récamier, now very rich, established himself in a fine chateau at Clichy, a short distance from Paris, where he kept open house. Thither came Lucien Bonaparte, at that time twenty-four years of age, bombastic and consequential, and fell in love with his beautiful hostess, as everybody else did. But Madame Récamier, with all her fascinations, was not a woman of passion; nor did she like the brother of the powerful First Consul, and politely rejected his addresses. He continued, however, to persecute her with his absurd love-letters for a year, when, finding it was hopeless to win so refined and virtuous a lady as Madame Récamier doubtless was,–partly because she was a woman of high principles, and partly because she had no great temptations,–the pompous lover, then Home Minister, ceased his addresses.

But Napoleon, who knew everything that was going on, had a curiosity to see this woman who charmed everybody, yet whom nobody could win, and she was invited to one of his banquets. Although she obeyed his summons, she was very modest and timid, and did not try to make any conquest of him. She was afraid of him, as Madame de Staël was, and most ladies of rank and refinement. He was a hero to men rather than to women,–at least to those women who happened to know him or serve him. That cold and cutting irony of which he was master, that haughty carriage and air which he assumed, that selfish and unsympathetic nature, that exacting slavery to his will, must have been intolerable to well-bred women who believed in affection and friendship, of which he was incapable, and which he did not even comprehend. It was his intention that the most famous beauty of the day should sit next to him at this banquet, and he left the seat vacant for her; but she was too modest to take it unless specially directed to do so by the Consul, which either pride or etiquette prevented. This modesty he did not appreciate, and he was offended, and she never saw him again in private; but after he became Emperor, he made every effort to secure her services as maid-of-honor to one of the princesses, through his minister Fouché, in order to ornament his court. It was a flattering honor, since she was only the wife of a banker, without title; but she refused it, which stung Napoleon with vexation, since it indicated to him that the fashionable and high-born women of the day stood aloof from him. Many a woman was banished because she would not pay court to him,–Madame de Staël, the Duchesse de Chevreuse, and others. Madame Récamier was now at the height of fashion, admired by Frenchmen and foreigners alike; not merely by such men as the Montmorencys, Narbonne, Jordan, Barrère, Moreau, Bernadotte, La Harpe, but also by Metternich, then secretary of the Austrian embassy, who carried on a flirtation with her all winter. All this was displeasing to Napoleon, more from wounded pride than fear of treason. In the midst of her social triumphs, after having on one occasion received uncommon honor, Napoleon, now emperor, bitterly exclaimed that more honor could not be shown to the wife of a marshal of France,–a remark very indicative of his character, showing that in his estimation there was no possible rank or fame to be compared with the laurels of a military hero. A great literary genius, or woman of transcendent beauty, was no more to him than a great scholar or philosopher is to a vulgar rich man in making up his parties.

It was in the midst of these social successes that the husband of Madame Récamier lost his fortune. He would not have failed had he been able to secure a loan from the Bank of France of a million of francs; but this loan the Government peremptorily refused,–doubtless from the hostility of Napoleon; so that the banker was ruined because his wife chose to ally herself with the old aristocracy and refuse the favors of the Emperor. In having pursued such a course, Madame Récamier must have known that she was the indirect cause of her husband’s failure. But she bore the reverse of fortune with that equanimity which seems to be peculiar to the French, and which only lofty characters, or people of considerable mental resources, are able to assume or feel. Most rich men, when they lose their money, give way to despondency and grief, conscious that they have nothing to fall back upon; that without money they are nothing. Madame Récamier at once sold her jewels and plate, and her fine hotel was offered for sale. Neither she nor her husband sought to retain anything amid the wreck, and they cheerfully took up their abode in a small apartment,–which conduct won universal sympathy and respect, so that her friends were rather increased than diminished, and she did not lose her social prestige and influence, which she would have lost in cities where money is the highest, and sometimes the only, test of social position. Madame de Staël wrote letters of impassioned friendship, and nobles and generals paid unwonted attention. The death of her mother soon followed, so that she spent the summer of 1807 in extreme privacy, until persuaded by her constant friend Madame de Staël to pay her a visit at her country-seat near Geneva, where she met Prince Frederick of Prussia, nephew of the great Frederic, who became so enamored of her that he sought her hand in marriage. Princes, in those days, had such a lofty idea of their rank that they deemed it an honor to be conferred on a woman, even if married, to take her away from her husband. For a time Madame Récamier seemed dazzled with this splendid proposal, and she even wrote to the old banker, her husband, asking for a divorce from him. I think I never read of a request so preposterous or more disgraceful,–the greatest flaw I know in her character,–showing the extreme worldliness of women of fashion at that time, and the audacity which is created by universal flattery. What is even more surprising, her husband did not refuse the request, but wrote to her a letter of so much dignity, tenderness, and affection that her eyes were opened. “She saw the protector of her youth, whose indulgence had never failed her, growing old, and despoiled of fortune; and to leave him who had been so good to her, even if she did not love him, seemed rightly the height of ingratitude and meanness.” So the Prince was dismissed, very much to his surprise and chagrin; and some there were who regarded M. Récamier as a very selfish man, to appeal to the feelings and honor of his wife, and thus deprive her of a splendid destiny. Such were the morals of fashionable people in Europe during the eighteenth century.

Madame Récamier did not meddle with politics, like Madame de Staël and other strong-minded women before and since; but her friendship with a woman whom Napoleon hated so intensely as he did the authoress of “Delphine” and “Germany,” caused her banishment to a distance of forty leagues from Paris,–one of the customary acts which the great conqueror was not ashamed to commit, and which put his character in a repulsive light. Nothing was more odious in the character of Napoleon than his disdain of women, and his harsh and severe treatment of those who would not offer incense to him. Madame de Staël, on learning of the Emperor’s resentment towards her friend, implored her not to continue to visit her, as it would certainly be reported to the Government, and result in her banishment; but Madame Récamier would obey the impulses of friendship in the face of all danger. And the result was indeed her exile from that city which was so dear to her, as well as to all fashionable women and all gifted men.

In exile this persecuted woman lived in a simple way, first at Chalons and then at Lyons, for her means were now small. Her companions, however, were great people, as before her banishment and in the days of her prosperity,–in which fact we see some modification of the heartlessness which so often reigns in fashionable circles. Madame Récamier never was without friends as well as admirers. Her amiability, wit, good-nature, and extraordinary fascinations always attracted gifted and accomplished people of the very highest rank.

It was at Lyons that she formed a singular friendship, which lasted for life; and this was with a young man of plebeian origin, the son of a printer, with a face disfigured, and with manners uncouth,–M. Ballanche, whose admiration amounted to absolute idolatry, and who demanded no other reward for his devotion than the privilege of worship. To be permitted to look at her and listen to her was enough for him. Though ugly in appearance, and with a slow speech, he was well versed in the literature of the day, and his ideas were lofty and refined.

I have never read of any one who has refused an unselfish idolatry, the incense of a worshipper who has no outward advantage to seek or gain,–not even a king. If it be the privilege of a divinity to receive the homage of worshippers, why should a beautiful and kind-hearted woman reject the respectful adoration of a man contented with worship alone? What could be more flattering even to a woman of the world, especially if this man had noble traits and great cultivation? Such was Ballanche, who viewed the mistress of his heart as Dante did his Beatrice, though not with the same sublime elevation, for the object of Dante’s devotion was on the whole imaginary,–the worship of qualities which existed in his own mind alone,–whereas the admiration of Ballanche was based on the real presence of flesh and blood animated by a lovely soul.

Soon after this friendship had begun, Madame Récamier made a visit to Italy, travelling in a voiture, not a private carriage, and arrived at Rome in Passion Week, 1812, when the Pope was a prisoner of Napoleon at Fontainebleau, and hence when his capital was in mourning,–sad and dull, guarded and occupied by French soldiers. The only society at Rome in that eventful year which preceded the declining fortunes of Napoleon, was at the palace of Prince Torlonia the banker; but the modest apartment of Madame Récamier on the Corso was soon filled with those who detested the rule of Napoleon. Soon after, Ballanche came all the way from Lyons to see his star of worship, and she kindly took him everywhere, for even in desolation the Eternal City is the most interesting spot on the face of the globe. From Rome she went to Naples (December, 1813), when the King Murat was forced into the coalition against his brother-in-law. In spite of the hatred of Napoleon, his sister the Queen of Naples was devoted to the Queen of Beauty, who was received at court as an ambassadress rather than as an exile. On the fall of Napoleon the next year the Pope returned from his thraldom; and Madame Récamier, being again in Rome, witnessed one of the most touching scenes of those eventful days, when all the nobles and gentry went out to meet their spiritual and temporal sovereign, and amid the exultant shouts and rapture of the crowd, dragged his gilded carriage to St. Peter’s Church, where was celebrated a solemn Te Deum.

But Madame Récamier did not tarry long in Italy, She hastened back to Paris, for the tyrant was fallen. She was now no longer beaming in youthful charms, with groups of lovers at her feet, but a woman of middle age, yet still handsome,–for such a woman does not lose her beauty at thirty-five,–with fresh sources of enjoyment, and a keen desire for the society of intellectual and gifted friends. She now gave up miscellaneous society,–that is, fashionable and dissipated crowds of men and women in noisy receptions and ceremonious parties,–and drew around her the lines of a more exclusive circle. Hither came to see her Ballanche, now a resident of Paris, Mathieu de Montmorency, M. de Châteaubriand, the Due de Broglie, and the most distinguished nobles of the ancient regime, with the literary lions who once more began to roar on the fall of the tyrant who had silenced them, including such men as Barante and Benjamin Constant. Also great ladies were seen in her salon, for her husband’s fortunes had improved, and she was enabled again to live in her old style of splendor. Among these ladies were the Duchesse de Cars, the Marchionesses de Podences, Castellan, and d’Aguesseau, and the Princess-Royal of Sweden. Also distinguished foreigners sought her society,–Wellington, Madame Krüdener, the friend of the Emperor Alexander, the beautiful Duchess of Devonshire, the Duke of Hamilton, and whoever was most distinguished in that brilliant circle of illustrious people who congregated at Paris on the restoration of the Bourbons.

In 1819 occurred the second failure of M. Récamier, which necessarily led again to a new and more humble style of life. The home which Madame Récamier now selected, and where she lived until 1838, was the Abbaye-au-Bois, while her father and her husband, the latter now sixty-nine, lived in a small lodging in the vicinity. She occupied in this convent–a large old building in the Rue de Sèvres–a small appartement in the third story, with a brick floor, and uneven at that. She afterwards removed to a small appartement on the first floor, which looked upon the convent garden.

Here, in this seclusion, impoverished, and no longer young, Madame Récamier received her friends and guests. And they were among the most distinguished people of France, especially the Duc de Montmorency and the Viscount Châteaubriand. The former was a very religious man, and the breath of scandal never for a moment tainted his reputation, or cast any reproach on the memorable friendship which he cultivated with the most beautiful woman in France. This illustrious nobleman was at that time Minister of Foreign Affairs, and was sent to the celebrated Congress of Vienna, where Metternich, the greatest statesman of the age, presided and inaugurated a reaction from the principles of the Revolution.

But more famous than he was Châteaubriand, then ambassador at London, and afterwards joined with Montmorency as delegate to the Congress of Vienna, and still later Minister of Foreign Affairs, who held during the reign of Louis XVIII. the most distinguished position in France as a statesman, a man of society, and a literary man. The author of the “Genius of Christianity” was aristocratic, moody, fickle, and vain, almost spoiled with the incense of popular idolatry. No literary man since Voltaire had received such incense. He was the acknowledged head of French literature, a man of illustrious birth, noble manners, poetical temperament, vast acquisitions, and immense social prestige. He took sad and desponding views of life, was intensely conservative, but had doubtless a lofty soul as well as intellectual supremacy. He occupied distinct spheres,–was poet, historian, statesman, orator, and the oracle of fashionable salons, although he loved seclusion, and detested crowds. The virtues of his private life were unimpeached, and no man was more respected by the nation than this cultivated scholar and gentleman of the old school.

It was between this remarkable man and Madame Récamier that the most memorable friendship of modern times took place. It began in the year 1817 at the bedside of Madame de Staël, but did not ripen into intimacy until 1818, when he was fifty and she was forty-one. His genius and accomplishments soon conquered the first place in her heart; and he kept that place until his death in 1848,–thirty years of ardent and reproachless friendship. Her other friends felt great inquietude in view of this friendship, fearing that the incurable melancholy and fitful moods of the Viscount would have a depressing influence on her; but she could not resist his fascinations any easier than he could resist hers. The Viscount visited her every day, generally in the afternoon; and when absent on his diplomatic missions to the various foreign courts, he wrote her, every day, all the details of his life, as well as sentiments. He constantly complained that she did not write as often as he did. His attachment was not prompted by that unselfish devotion which marked Ballanche, who sought no return, only the privilege of adoration. Châteaubriand was exacting, and sought a warmer and still increasing affection, which it seems was returned. Madame Récamier’s nature was not passionate; it was simply affectionate. She sought to have the wants of her soul met. She rarely went to parties or assemblies, and seldom to the theatre. She craved friendship, and of the purest and loftiest kind. She was tired of the dissipation of society and even of flatteries, of which the Viscount was equally weary. The delusions of life were dispelled, in her case, at forty; in his, at fifty.

This intimacy reminds us of that of Louis XIV. and Madame de Maintenon. Neither could live without the other. But their correspondence does not reveal any improper intimacy. It was purely spiritual and affectionate; it was based on mutual admiration; it was strengthened by mutual respect for each other’s moral qualities. And the friendship gave rise to no scandal; nor was it in any way misrepresented. Every day the statesman, when immersed even in the cares of a great office, was seen at her modest dwelling, at the same hour,–about four o’clock,–and no other visitors were received at that hour. After unbending his burdened soul, or communicating his political plans, or detailing the gossip of the day, all to the end of securing sympathy and encouragement from a great woman, he retired to his own hotel, and spent the evening with his sick wife. One might suppose that his wife would have been jealous. The wife of Carlyle never would have permitted her husband to visit on such intimate terms the woman he most admired,–Lady Ashburton,–without a separation. But Châteaubriand’s wife favored rather than discouraged the intimacy, knowing that it was necessary to his happiness. Nor did the friendship between Madame Récamier and the Due de Montmorency, the political rival of Châteaubriand, weaken the love of the latter or create jealousy, a proof of his noble character. And when the pious Duke died, both friends gave way to the most sincere grief.

It was impossible for Madame Récamier to live without friendship. She could give up society and fortune, but not her friends. The friendly circle was not large, but, as we have said, embraced the leading men of France. Her limited means made no difference with her guests, since these were friends and admirers. Her attraction to men and women alike did not decrease with age or poverty.

The fall of Charles X., in 1830, led of course to the political downfall of Châteaubriand, and of many of Madame Récamier’s best friends. But there was a younger class of an opposite school who now came forward, and the more eminent of these were also frequent visitors to the old queen of society,–Ampère, Thiers, Mignet, Guizot, De Tocqueville, Sainte-Beuve. Nor did she lose the friendship, in her altered fortunes, of queens and nobles. She seems to have been received with the greatest cordiality in whatever chateau she chose to visit. Even Louis Napoleon, on his release from imprisonment in the castle of Ham, lost no time in paying his respects to the woman his uncle had formerly banished.

One of the characteristic things which this interesting lady did, was to get up a soiree in her apartments at the convent in aid of the sufferers of Lyons from an inundation of the Rhône, from which she realized a large sum. It was attended by the élite of Paris. Lady Byron paid a hundred francs for her ticket. The Due de Noailles provided the refreshments, the Marquis de Verac furnished the carriages, and Châteaubriand acted as master of ceremonies. Rachel acted in the rôle of “Esther,” not yet performed at the theatre, while Garcia, Rubini, and Lablache kindly gave their services. It was a very brilliant entertainment, one of the last in which Madame Récamier presided as a queen of society. It showed her kindness of heart, which was the most conspicuous trait of her character. She wished to please, but she desired still more to be of assistance. The desire to please may arise from blended vanity and good-nature; the desire to be useful is purely disinterested. In all her intercourse with friends we see in Madame Récamier a remarkable power of sympathy. She was not a woman of genius, but of amazing tact, kindness, and amiability. She entered with all her heart into the private and confidential communications of her friends, and was totally free from egotism, forgetting herself in the happiness of others. If not a woman of genius, she had extraordinary good sense, and her advice was seldom wrong. It was this union of sympathy, kindness, tact, and wisdom which made Madame Récamier’s friendship so highly prized by the greatest men of the age. But she was exclusive; she did not admit everybody to her salon,–only those whom she loved and esteemed, generally from the highest social circle. Sympathy cannot exist except among equals. We associate Paula with Jerome, the Countess Matilda with Hildebrand, Vittoria Colonna with Michael Angelo, Hannah More with Dr. Johnson. Friendship is neither patronage nor philanthropy; and the more exalted the social or political or literary position, the more rare friendship is and the more beautiful when it shines.

Portrait of Madame de Récamier

Portrait of Madame de Récamier

It was the friendships of Madame Récamier with distinguished men and women which made her famous more than her graces and beauty. She soothed, encouraged, and fortified the soul of Châteaubriand in his fits of depression and under political disappointments, always herself cheerful and full of vivacity,–an angel of consolation and spiritual radiance. Her beauty at this period was moral rather than physical, since it revealed the virtues of the heart and the quickness of spiritual insight. In her earlier days–the object of universal and unbounded admiration, from her unparalleled charms and fascinations–she may have coquetted more than can be deemed decorous in a lady of fashion; but if so, it was vanity and love of admiration which were the causes. She never appealed to passion; for, as we have said, her own nature was not passionate. She was satisfied to be worshipped. The love of admiration is not often allied with that passion which loses self-control, and buries one in the gulf of mad infatuation. The mainspring of her early life was to please, and of her later life to make people happy. A more unselfish woman never lived. Those beauties who lure to ruin, as did the Sirens, are ever heartless and selfish,–like Cleopatra and Madame de Pompadour. There is nothing on this earth more selfish than what foolish and inexperienced people often mistake for love. There is nothing more radiant and inspiring than the moral beauty of the soul. The love that this creates is tender, sympathetic, kind, and benevolent. Nothing could be more unselfish and beautiful than the love with which Madame Récamier inspired Ballanche, who had nothing to give and nothing to ask but sympathy and kindness.

One of the most touching and tender friendships ever recorded was the intercourse between Châteaubriand and Madame Récamier when they were both old and infirm. Nothing is more interesting than their letters and daily interviews at the convent, where she spent her latter days. She was not only poor, but she had also become blind, and had lost all relish for fashionable society,–not a religious recluse, saddened and penitent, like the Duchesse de Longueville in the vale of Chevreuse, but still a cheerful woman, fond of music, of animated talk, and of the political news of the day, Châteaubriand was old, disenchanted, disappointed, melancholy, and full of infirmities. Yet he never failed in the afternoon to make his appearance at the Abbaye, driven in a carriage to the threshold of the salon, where he was placed in an arm-chair and wheeled to a corner of the fireplace, when he poured out his sorrows and received consolation. Once, on one of those dreary visits, he asked his friend to marry him,–he being then seventy-nine and she seventy-one,–and bear his illustrious name. “Why,” said she, “should we marry at our age? There is no impropriety in my taking care of you. If solitude is painful to you, I am ready to live in the same house with you. The world will do justice to the purity of our friendship. Years and blindness give me this right. Let us change nothing in so perfect an affection.”

The old statesman and historian soon after died, broken in mind and body, living long enough to see the fall of Louis Philippe. In losing this friend of thirty years Madame Récamier felt that the mainspring of her life was broken. She shed no tears in her silent and submissive grief, nor did she repel consolation or the society of friends, “but the sad smile which played on her lips was heart-rending…. While witnessing the decline of this noble genius, she had struggled, with singular tenderness, against the terrible effect of years upon him; but the long struggle had exhausted her own strength, and all motives for life were gone.”

Though now old and blind, yet, like Mme. du Deffand at eighty, Madame Récamier’s attractions never passed away. The great and the distinguished still visited her, and pronounced her charming to the last. Her vivacity never deserted her, nor her desire to make every one happy around her. She was kept interesting to the end by the warmth of her affections and the brightness of her mind. As it is the soul which is the glory of a woman, so the soul sheds its rays of imperishable light on the last pathway of existence. No beauty ever utterly passes away when animated by what is immortal.

Madame Récamier died at last of cholera, that disease which of all others she had ever most dreaded and avoided. On the 11th of May, 1849, amid weeping relatives and kneeling servants and sacerdotal prayers, this interesting woman passed away from earth. To her might be applied the eulogy of Burke on Marie Antoinette.

Madame Récamier’s place in society has never since been filled with equal grace and fascination. She adopted the customs of the Hôtel de Rambouillet,–certain rules which good society has since observed. She discouraged the tête-à-tête in a low voice in a mixed company; if any one in her circle was likely to have especial knowledge, she would appeal to him with an air of deference; if any one was shy, she encouraged him; if a mot was particularly happy, she would take it up and show it to the company. Presiding in her own salon, she talked but little herself, but rather exerted herself to draw others out; without being learned, she exercised great judgment in her decisions when appeals were made to her as the presiding genius; she discouraged everything pedantic and pretentious; she dreaded exaggerations; she kept her company to the subject under discussion, and compelled attention; she would allow no slang; she insisted upon good-nature and amiability, which more than anything else marked society in the eighteenth century.

We read so much of those interesting reunions in the salons of distinguished people in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that we naturally seek to know what constituted their peculiar charm. It seems to me to have been conversation, which is both an art and a gift. In these exclusive meetings women did not reign in consequence of their beauty so much as their wit. Their vivacity, intelligence, and tact, I may add also their good-nature, were a veil to cover up all eccentricities. It was when Madame du Deffand was eighty, and blind, that Horace Walpole pronounced her to be the most interesting woman in France. Madame de Staël, never beautiful, was the life of a party at forty-five; Madame Récamier was in her glory at fifty; Hannah More was most sought when she was sixty. There can be no high society where conversation is not the chief attraction; and men seldom learn to talk well when not inspired by gifted women. They may dictate like Dr. Johnson, or preach like Coleridge in a circle of admirers, or give vent to sarcasms and paradoxes like Carlyle; but they do not please like Horace Walpole, or dazzle like Wilkes, or charm like Mackintosh. When society was most famous at Paris, it was the salon–not the card table, or the banquet, or the ball–which was most sought by cultivated men and women, where conversation was directed by gifted women. Women are nothing in the social circle who cannot draw out the sentiments of able men; and a man of genius gains more from the inspiration of one brilliant woman than from all the bookworms of many colleges. In society a bright and witty woman not merely shines, but she reigns. Conversation brings out all her faculties, and kindles all her sensibilities, and gives expression to her deepest sentiments. Her talk is more than music; it is music rising to the heights of eloquence. She is more even than an artist: she is a goddess before whom genius delights to burn its incense.

Success in this great art of conversation depends as much upon the disposition as upon the brains. The remarkable women who reigned in the salons of the last century were all distinguished for their good-nature,–good-nature based on toleration and kind feeling, rather than on insipid acquiescence. There can be no animated talk without dissent; and dissent should be disguised by the language of courtesy. As vanity is one of the mainsprings of human nature, and is nearly universal, the old queens of society had the tact to hide what could not easily be extirpated; and they were adepts in the still greater art of seeming to be unconscious. Those people are ever the most agreeable who listen with seeming curiosity, and who conceal themselves in order to feed the vanity of others. Nor does a true artist force his wit. “A confirmed punster is as great a bore as a patronizing moralist.” Moreover, the life of society depends upon the general glow of the party, rather than the prominence of an individual, so that a brilliant talker will seek to bring out “the coincidence which strengthens conviction, or the dissent which sharpens sagacity, rather than individual experiences, which ever seem to be egotistical. In agreeable society all egotism is to be crushed and crucified. Even a man who is an oracle, if wise, will suggest, rather than seem to instruct. In a congenial party all differences in rank are for the time ignored. It is in bad taste to remind or impress people with a sense of their inferiority, as in chivalry all degrees were forgotten in an assemblage of gentlemen.” Animated conversation amuses without seeming to teach, and transfers ideas so skilfully into the minds of others that they are ignorant of the debt, and mistake them for their own. It kindles a healthy enthusiasm, promotes good-nature, repels pretension, and rebukes vanity. It even sets off beauty, and intensifies its radiance. Said Madame de la Fayette to Madame de Sévigné: “Your varying expression so brightens and adorns your beauty, that there is nothing so brilliant as yourself: every word you utter adds to the brightness of your eyes; and while it is said that language impresses only the ear, it is quite certain that yours enchants the vision.” “Like style in writing,” says Lamartine, “conversation must flow with ease, or it will oppress. It must be clear, or depth of thought cannot be penetrated; simple, or the understanding will be overtasked; restrained, or redundancy will satiate; warm, or it will lack soul; witty, or the brain will not be excited; generous, or sympathy cannot be roused; gentle, or there will be no toleration; persuasive, or the passions cannot be subdued.” When it unites these excellences, it has an irresistible power, “musical as was Apollo’s lyre;” a perpetual feast of nectared sweets, such as, I fancy, Socrates poured out to Athenian youth, or Augustine in the gardens of Como; an electrical glow, such as united the members of the Turk’s Head Club into a band of brothers, or annihilated all distinctions of rank at the supper-table of the poet Scarron.

We cannot easily overrate the influence of those who inspire the social circle. They give not only the greatest pleasure which is known to cultivated minds, but kindle lofty sentiments. They draw men from the whirlpools of folly, break up degrading habits, dissipate the charms of money-making, and raise the value of the soul. How charming, how delightful, how inspiring is the eloquence which is kindled by the attrition of gifted minds! What privilege is greater than to be with those who reveal the experiences of great careers, especially if there be the absence of vanity and ostentation, and encouragement by those whose presence is safety and whose smiles are an inspiration! It is the blending of the beatitudes of Bethany with the artistic enjoyments of Weimar, causing the favored circle to forget all cares, and giving them strength for those duties which make up the main business of human life.

When woman accomplishes such results she fills no ordinary sphere, she performs no ordinary mission; she rises in dignity as she declines in physical attractions. Like a queen of beauty at the tournament, she bestows the rewards which distinguished excellence has won; she breaks up the distinctions of rank; she rebukes the arrogance of wealth; she destroys pretensions; she kills self-conceit; she even gains consideration for her husband or brother,–for many a stupid man is received into a select circle because of the attractions of his wife or sister, even as many a silly woman gains consideration from the talents or position of her husband or brother. No matter how rich a man may be, if unpolished, ignorant, or rude, he is nobody in a party which seeks “the feast of reason and the flow of soul.” He is utterly insignificant, rebuked, and humiliated,–even as a brainless beauty finds herself de trop in a circle of wits. Such a man may have consideration in the circle which cannot appreciate anything lofty or refined, but none in those upper regions where art and truth form subjects of discourse, where the aesthetic influences of the heart go forth to purify and exalt, where the soul is refreshed by the communion of gifted and sympathetic companions, and where that which is most precious and exalted in a man or woman is honored and beloved. Without this influence which woman controls, “a learned man is in danger of becoming a pedant, a religious man a bigot, a vain man a fool, and a self-indulgent man a slave.” No man can be truly genial unless he has been taught in the school where his wife, or daughter, or sister, or mother presides as a sun of radiance and beauty. It is only in this school that boorish manners are reformed, egotisms rebuked, stupidities punished, and cynicism exorcised.

But this exalting influence cannot exist in society without an attractive power in those ladies who compose it. A crowd of women does not necessarily make society, any more than do the empty, stupid, and noisy receptions which are sometimes held in the houses of the rich,–still less those silly, flippant, ignorant, pretentious, unblushing, and exacting girls who have just escaped from a fashionable school, who elbow their brothers into corners, and cover with confusion their fathers and mothers. A mere assemblage of men and women is nothing without the charms of refinement, vivacity, knowledge, and good-nature. These are not born in a day; they seldom mark people till middle life, when experiences are wide and feelings deep, when flippancy is not mistaken for wit, nor impertinence for ease. A frivolous slave of dress and ornament can no more belong to the circle of which I now speak, than can a pushing, masculine woman to the sphere which she occasionally usurps. Not dress, not jewelry, not pleasing manners, not even innocence, is the charm and glory of society; but the wisdom learned by experience, the knowledge acquired by study, the quickness based on native genius. When woman has thus acquired these great resources,–by books, by travel, by extended intercourse, and by the soaring of an untrammelled soul,–then only does she shine and guide and inspire, and become, not the equal of man, but his superior, his mentor, his guardian angel, his star of worship, in that favored and glorious realm which is alike the paradise and the empire of the world!


Miss J. M. Luyster’s Memoirs of Madame Récamier; Memoirs and Correspondence by Lenormant; Marquis of Salisbury’s Historical Sketches; Mrs. Thomson’s Queens of Society; Guizot’s sketch of Madame Récamier; Biographie Universelle; Dublin Review, 57-88; Christian Examiner, 82-299; Quarterly Review, 107-298; Edinburgh Review, 111-204; North British Review, 32; Bentley’s Magazine, 26-96; The Nation, 3, 4, 15; Fraser’s Magazine, 40-264.

Madame de Staël : Woman in Literature

Beacon Lights of History, Volume VII : Great Women