The Salon of Madame Necker

M. D’HAUSSONVILLE has won an honorable reputation by his earlier works on Charities and Penal Establishments, and by essays on Sainte - Beuve and certain French, English, and American literary celebrities. He now offers a work 1 drawn from the unpublished and hitherto unread treasures gathered together at Coppet, the home of his ancestors, the Neckers, of their famous daughter, Mme. de Staël, and also of his nearer relatives, the De Broglies, so favorably known by their well-earned place in French letters, politics, and society. The enforced leisure and involuntary abstention from active political public life, under the existing condition of affairs in France, of a man of such ability as M. d’Haussonville may well find some palliation in the useful task to which he has devoted himself in his admirable work on L’Enfance à Paris, and his still incomplete series of papers on La Misère à Paris, in the Revue des Deux Mondes. In the same journal he has begun an account of his recent visit to the United States as one of the representatives of the families of the French officers who served here during the Revolution. His brief sojourn was full of opportunities—well used, too — of forming sound judgment of the men and things he saw, and his statements and opinions have been received with almost unanimous approval, although he is by no means lavish of praise or stinted in criticism. Coppet, still the home of his family, has opened to him, as he in turn has given to his readers, a large and important contribution to the history of the closing years of the eighteenth century, He has diligently examined the twenty-seven volumes of letters addressed to the Neckers by all of their famous contemporaries, as well as the large collection of their own manuscripts, not included in the numerous printed works by which husband and wife are too little known to the present generation. Indeed, even in Mine. Necker’s own life-time, her talents were overshadowed by the growing fame of her daughter, Mme. de Staël, and it is to be hoped that from among the mass of imprinted papers relating to her life there may yet be supplied another collection for publication ; while, coming down to our own day, the salons of her daughter, the Duehesse de Broglie, and of her granddaughter, the Comtesse d’Haussonville, might well afford subjects for future literary contributions from the author of the present volume. The book now before us is in every sense just such a one as will serve admirably to give to all those who seek, often in vain, information on the society of France in the days of our Revolution. It presents in great perfection of literary form, and with brief sketches of the persons and events of historical importance mentioned in the text and letters, a broad view of times that even now are full of deep interest. M. d’Haussonville is too honest in his judgments, too well poised by his personal and political experiences, too broad in his knowledge, to be unduly swayed by the accident of relationship to the Neckers to be a mere eulogist, and his sketch of their life and work is the best proof of the high merit he ascribes to them.

Mine. Necker was the daughter of a Presbyterian pastor in a little Swiss village near Lausanne, and her childhood was simple and uneventful. Perhaps the most noteworthy events of her girlhood were her appearance on the stage of Voltaire’s amateur theatre, in some small characters in his plays, and her attachment and engagement to Gibbon, the historian. His unfaithfulness, excused on the score of his father’s disapproval, was punished by his living to see her in the height of her own and her husband’s fame, and to be the witness of their domestic happiness, when he was their guest forty years later. The death of her father left her dependent on her own resources, and as a teacher, and afterwards as a companion to a great lady, she maintained herself and her mother. Her husband, M. Necker, a prosperous Swiss, established as a successful banker in Paris, raised her to such a degree of comfort and material superiority as might well have turned the head of a less clever woman ; but with her it was the beginning of a life of reciprocal fidelity and devotion,—rare perhaps at any time, but exceptional indeed in the days and in the country in which they lived. She shared her husband’s aspirations for public service, and contributed largely to his success in the establishment of his bank, and in the still greater duties so ably filled by him as the real financial reformer of his adopted country. Necker’s task was a herculean one, and his failure was due to influences beyond human control; but the promise which he gave of saving France was largely helped on by his wife’s admirable conduct of her salon, and its good influence. Indeed, in its way and its degree, her task was quite as difficult at the outset as the heavy burden afterwards put upon her husband. Protestants, Swiss, out of the pale of the aristocracy, in the midst of a society largely made up of utterly worldly, ambitious, and able men and women, the Neckers never sacrificed their religion, nor that which was part of it, — their perfect faith and loyalty, their honesty of purpose, their simple love of truth, and their fearlessness in doing what was right.

Mme. Necker’s training was as unlike as possible that of her contemporaries, but it served to make her as systematic in the business of life and in its duties and pleasures as her husband was in his bank and in his office. She chose Fridays for receiving her friends, so as to leave Mondays and Wednesdays for Mme. Geoffrin, Tuesdays for Helvetius, Thursdays and Sundays for Holbach ; but when the literary men and philosophers paid their court to her, she quietly established Tuesdays for her intimate friends, and especially for the great ladies, who were attracted to her as much by her own qualities as by her husband’s growing greatness. She never rivaled Mme. du Deffand, who openly proclaimed that supper was the third end of man, and boldly avowed that she forgot the others. Mme. du Deffand, Gibbon, Marmontel, and too many of her brilliant friends revenged themselves for her virtue and her husband’s merits by reserving for their posthumous memoirs their offensive criticisms; and M. d’Haussonville cannot deny himself the pleasure of contrasting the letters written to the Neckers, full of adulation, with the base suggestions preserved in journals and diaries since published, or manufactured in the French fashion.

In the case of Mme. de Créquy, whose “ memoirs ” are now proved to have been manufactured by her old lover, it is shown that he forged hostile opinions in her name at the very time when she was full of affection and admiration for the Neckers ; but he was thus enabled to revenge himself for the contempt which they showed for him. It was not, however, in the spirit of the age to punish people of good position for irregular relations, and Mme. Necker herself wrote a letter of condolence to Mlle. de l’Espinasse on the death of one lover, which was handsomely acknowledged by another. It was she who called Necker’s Praise of Stupidity, the ninth beatitude.

As far back as 1770 we find trace of interest in the impending rebellion of the British colonies, and Galiani, writing from Naples, discusses the Boston agitation and the chances of a successful American revolution ; but he was driven to such grave topics because “ there was no conversation outside of Paris.” Long before Necker had won his place in the political world, his wife had become a power, and her influence was felt in the elections for the Academy ; and these were often decided in her salon, a real bureau d’esprit, as they had been, in earlier days, in that of Mme. Lambert, and have since been in those of Mine, de Broglie and Mine. d’Haussonville. It was still later on that the great ladies sought her friendship, and this was largely due to the good sense of the Due de Rochefoueauld Liancourt, the author of a clever book of travels in the United States, as well as to the growing respect for the Neckers, who, bourgeoise as they were, secured not only the respect of the philosophers, but the affection of the best men and women of the court itself.

Even as a child the future Mme. de Staël gave early evidence of her combative nature by trying to drive Mme. de Geoffrin from her easy chair, as later she devoted her great talent to the hopeless task of opposing Napoleon. She learned lessons of eloquence and savoir vivre of the best women of the time, and was present when Talleyrand won his first social laurels by a clever repartee. The Duc de Lévis has left a sketch of Mme. Necker at this time, which shows the height of esteem in which she was held by the leaders of the aristocracy and the Duc de Lauzun. one of the French officers who had learned political as well as military art in America, was one of her strong supporters; while Mme. de Lauzun and Mme. de Bonneval were among the pure and good women, in spite of the times and their husbands, who appreciated and shared her virtues. It is true, Mme. du Deffand called her “ roide et froide,” but Mme. Necker, with more justice, described Mme. du Deffand as “insensible.” The Noailles alone of the best French families were not of her set, but they lived apart from the rest of the world, although Mme. de Staël, in the evil days of the Revolution, worked with success to rescue some of the members of that.great connection, after three generations had fallen victims to the guillotine. M. d’Haussonville quotes freely from those charming Memoirs, — that of the Marquise de Montagu, by the Duc de Noailles, of the Duehesse de Mouchy and the Duehesse d’Ayen, by Mme. de Lafayette, and of the Princesse de Poix, — all lives well worth the telling and well told, characteristics which are now shared with them by M. d’Haussonville’s clear-cut story of Mme. Necker and her salon.

Mme. Necker as a child had played in Voltaire’s private theatricals, and as a woman she took part in those of Mme. Houdetot, the friend of Rousseau; and thus, throughout her life, she was associated with all the great names of her epoch. M. d’Haussonville finds some good reasons for extenuating, at least, the bad morals of those with whom she lived, by their charm of manner and intelligence. Her friendship with Buffon and her other intimates was perfectly honest, but it found expression in terms stronger than those of our more conventional life now. It must strike even a Frenchman of to-day as a strange state of things, when he finds Buffon and Mme. Necker coolly discussing the proper inscription for the statue erected to him during his life-time; but, on the other hand, no one can deny the tender feeling that inspired her gift of her portrait to him, his affectionate return of it by his will, and the pious preservation of this and other relics of her life of usefulness at Coppet. M. d’Haussonville gives an admirable description of the wealth of intelligence and emotion which characterized France during this portion of the last half of the eighteenth century, and shows from the papers at Coppet that, while the books of the time were generally artificial and stilted, the letters and private papers were clear and simple. Mine, de Staël was the daughter of the time as well as of the mother who bore her; and while father and daughter were united in an intimacy that sometimes distressed her, the mother found comfort in writing down her thoughts. Apart from the five volumes of her works, printed by her husband as a tribute to her talents, she left MSS. entitled Journal of my Defects and Faults, with the Best Way of Curing Them, Maxims Necessary for my Happiness, together with others giving A Minute Account of my Daily Life (Journal de la Dépense de mon Temps), showing its special distribution : (1) to her husband, (2) to her daughter, (3) to her friends, (4) to the poor, (5) to her household, (6) to society, (7) to dress, — an order likely to be sadly reversed in every-day life. But Mine. Necker and her husband were not every-day people, and they were tenderly affectionate toward one another and mutually watchful of the development of their daughter. Raynal, Grimm, and Marmontel were Mine, de Staël’s daily companions, and of intellectual culture she had more than enough; but perhaps it was no disadvantage that, on the score of her mother’s ill-health, the daughter was able to exchange the mother’s careful training for the father’s somewhat lax guidance, with its larger indulgence in mental as well as physical romping. It seems clear that Pitt was really proposed as her first choice for a husband, and Prince George of Mecklenburg for the next. The one would have made her the wife of the greatest of English statesmen, the other sister-in-law of the Queen of England; but with the Baron de Staël, the friend as well as the ambassador of the King of Sweden, she was able to remain true to her native country, France.

Necker’s connection with Geneva, as the minister of the republic in Paris, leads to a curious account of the government and diplomacy of that little state, and how the blundering conduct of its magistracy led the French minister to a threat to set up a new town and port across the lake, to be called Pompadour. Some of the material for its construction still rests quietly on the shore. Necker himself was honored with eighty-two memorial inscriptions, at the outset of his career, as the first Protestant made minister of state, but he ended it with a much longer list of bitter libels from those in whose behalf he had labored with such thankless sacrifices. His plan of financial reform was great in itself, and impresses us still more when we take into account the time in which he lived, and the evil infiuences which were evoked by measures that are now accepted as the primary condition of good government. He ruthlessly reduced the army of officials, published details of the finances of the state, endeavored to balance receipts and expenditures, established local responsible bodies throughout the country, and stopped plunder at both top and bottom of the administrative hierarchy. The five years of Necker’s first ministry were marked as an epoch of good intentions on the part of the king; but the queen had around her a party which tried in vain to bribe, or cajole, or threaten Necker, and were more successful in driving him from office, mainly by insulting his religion. His Reports on Finances and his other published works were the best evidences of his zeal and ability in the task entrusted to him. 11 is wife was often his secretary and always his strong support, and Diderot, in thanking her for a copy of the husband’s able book on Finance, acknowledged her work on Hospitals; for she published the experience acquired in managing a charity which still bears her name. While Necker was pursued as a Protestant, and as therefore unfit for office, by men without religion, the great prelates and the humble members of the church and its orders were earnest and eloquent in their praise of his public services, and the former were frequent visitors in his wife’s salon. She secured the introduction of the religious orders of women in hospitals and prisons, and distributed the gifts of Catholic priests and laymen in useful charities under her own careful supervision. It is still doubtful whether Necker could have saved France and the throne if he had remained in power, but he worked to that end, even during the eight years of his enforced retirement; and then, in the political blindman’s-buff, as Mirabeau described it, he was recalled to office too late for a hope of successfully combating the evils that had grown apace. He was not strong enough to contend with, much less to overcome, the influences that had been evoked alike from above and from below. His plan of a single chamber was undoubtedly faulty, and to it, unchecked by any strong executive, is mainly due the flood of evil that soon brought to the scaffold so many of his old friends, forced others into exile, and spared him only by the happy accident of another deprivation of office and a peaceful retirement to Coppet.

The history of Coppet is interesting in itself, and is an episode that relieves the story of the Neckers of the gloom that was rapidly gathering around those who had been its frequent guests. Life there during the French Revolution was trying indeed on account of its perfect tranquillity, or, in Mme. de Stael’s strong language, the “paix infernalef which drove her back to Paris, so long as her husband’s diplomatic functions secured her safety. Necker and his daughter worked and wrote their best to save the king; characteristically, all this time the queen was abusing them to Fersen, her champion, who like Chastellux and others frequently named in this book, had served in the French army in America. Indeed, at the worst stage of public affairs, Mme. de Staël talked to her husband of finding a refuge in this country. What would have been the result of such a visit in her case? One cannot but recall the possibilities, if Cromwell and Swift and Coleridge and Carlyle, and many others now become great in history by dint of claims of one kind or another, had carried out their plans, and if Mme. de Staël, too, had chosen this as the field for her brilliant talents. However, her story yet remains to be told, for M. d’Haussouville ends this book with a sad account of the last days of Mme. Necker at Coppet. There she died and was buried, and with her rest the remains of her husband and their illustrious daughter. And now, after many years, an author of their blood, but not their name, dedicates to them this noble tribute of well-deserved respect.

The Salon of Mme. Necker belongs to that class of personal memoirs in which the French language and literature are already so rich, supplying broad pictures of the men and women of the time in which its subject lived, not with any servile accumulation of dates or events, but from the fullness of knowledge based on the careful study of a large mass of unpublished documents, and from an intimate knowledge of contemporary literature. It is just such a book as can safely be put in the hands of every intelligent reader, and it serves better than any formal essays to show that France still possesses a large number of writers fully able to do justice to domestic virtues and public services. It is free from any frantic appeals for justice, or any violent effort to rehabilitate reputations that seemed almost gone forever,and M. d’Haussonville has told his story so temperately, and yet so eloquently, that it will take its place among the best justifications of the truths of a history that deserves to be retold, until it is thoroughly ascertained and understood. Coppet is indeed fortunate in having preserved intact the Neeker papers, until they could find in the author of The Salon of Mrue. Neeker a lover of the truth, zealous only to preserve that which belongs to the world, as well as to her family, — the memory of a woman whose life was pure, whose aim was noble, whose efforts were all for the advancement of others, whose sacrifices were in behalf of husband, daughter, country; it is the lesson of a life well worth learning.

  1. Le Salon de Madame Necker. D’après des Documents tirés des Archives de Coppet. Par le Vicomte D’HAUSSONVILLE, Ancien Deputé. Paris: Calinann Lévy. 1882.