Madame Mohl, Her Salon and Her Friends: Third Paper
LIKE all persons who have a salon the entrée to which is much sought after, Madame Mohl was exposed to the risk of attracting bores and other undesirable acquaintances, now and then ; but she possessed the exquisite courage for getting rid of them. Her impatience of bores, expressed in the familiar formula, “ I can’t abide stupid folk ! ” made every one anxious to keep off the objectionable list by doing their best to be pleasant in her company ; but stupid folk, as a rule, steered clear of her. She denounced dullness, and fled from it as other people do from vice or pestilence, and made it responsible for most of the wickedness that goes on in the world. There was sense and truth underlying this exaggeration. A vast deal of mischief and wickedness may undoubtedly be traced to dullness: people begin by killing time because they are dull, and from this first murder they go on killing many other things. But Madame Mohl’s principle of self-defense against dullness and dull people involved a certain asperity of manner and a degree of boldness that sometimes degenerated to downright
rudeness. A friend having remarked to her that Mrs. — had not returned to the Rue du Bac after a first visit, because she fancied Madame Mohl had been rude to her, Madame Mohl replied, “It was no fancy; I was rude to her, and I meant to be. She is a silly woman and a bore, and I want no bores in my salon.”
At the same time, she was very careful never to commit herself deliberately to any acquaintance that might lead her into being rude, or acting with apparent unkindness or caprice. When people asked to be introduced to her, ladies especially, she always took pains to find out whether they were “all right,” as she called it.
The following letter, written to Madame Scherer, is interesting as a proof of this precautionary system, and as revealing some of Madame Mohl’s opinions : —
“ Do tell me if Madame A— is a proper woman, whom one can see, and not an embryo Madame Dudevant; for the first novel (Indiana) of this one was very much of the same sort, and I took a great fancy to her. Luckily, I was too young then to make acquaintances on my own hook, or else I should have had the désagrément of being obliged to get rid of her. Do tell me if you know the said lady, and what you think of her. However, I believe it is as well not to enter so deeply, in writing, into the question of men and women and their nature; but I must say that both this lady and George Sand have been unlucky in the men they have met with, for I have known much better ones, and I think if some are as bad as they make them out, there are as many exceptions to these as there are exceptions to the silly, vain, backbiting race which is perpetually obtruding itself before one’s eyes in the shape of women.
“As to George Sand, poor thing, I question if she has ever had one acquaintance with any man whom I should condescend to talk an hour with ; and it is mortifying to think that such a distinguished woman should have had such a want of tact as to have taken up with such Bohemians.
“ Do you remember the character of Doriforth in A Simple Story? I am quite sure it is from nature. In fact, I know some one very like him, and have no doubt Mrs. Inchbald drew from the life. It is so beautiful and so individual and so uncommonplace that I have no doubt she knew him well, and that she was like Miss Milner. As I have read it about six times I am well acquainted with it. I knew a lady who was old when I was young; she knew Mrs. Inchbald when she was young, and Mrs. Inchbald was old, and so I have a few traditions of her. But if you don’t worship the genius that wrote A Simple Story, I ’ll say no more. But what a bavardage I am regaling you with ! ”
She was often rude to those whom she liked best, for, whatever she felt, out it came; but she was thoroughly loyal; whatever she had to say, she said it to your face, never behind your back.
This sense of security that she inspired in all who knew her enabled her to express the rudest things without giving offense; the men forgave her because she was a woman, and the women because she was an “ originale.” Her male friends, whose name was legion, took it, indeed, as a compliment when she contradicted them outrageously, for it was only with very clever people that she cared to pick a fight; it was her peculiar way of flattering.
It is often asked now, as it was often asked during her lifetime by those who did not know Madame Mohl, what the great charm was which, from youth to old age, attracted and kept attached to her so many distinguished men through years of close and familiar intercourse. Perhaps her first and most irresistible charm was her brightness. This brightness was the scintillation of a mind glittering as a star, ever in motion like a mineral spring, whose waters are perpetually bubbling up in silvery sparks. The next was her realness. It seems little to say of a clever, rational woman that she was real, and yet of how few we can say it! Madame de Sévigné (or Madame de Maintenon, was it?) Said, “ Rien n’est beau, mais rien n’est difficile comme le simple.”Perhaps in our matter-of-fact age it is a little easier to be simple, to be real, than it was in the grand siècle when people walked on stilts ; but even now it is very seldom that we meet with perfectly real human beings, and when we do how we enjoy them ! Madame Mohl was one of these rare specimens. Then, again, she had a contented spirit, a keen delight in her fellow-creatures, great tact, and a perfectly childlike naturalness of manner. All these gifts made up a very original and attractive personality. Those who only judged from her eccentric external disguise were apt to account for the popularity of her salon by saying that all these clever people went there for the sake of the other clever people who went there. But why did these others go in the first instance ?
A distinguished man of science, a German, and a great admirer of Madame Mohl (but who knew her only in her old age), when asked wherein lay her great charm, replied, “In the absence of it. I never knew a woman so devoid of charm (in the ordinary sense of the word as applied to woman), and yet so fascinating. She was hardly a woman at all. We none of us looked upon her as a woman : we met her on equal terms, as if she had been a man ; she was more like a man. Her mind was essentially masculine ; it had that faculty of looking at every side of a subject that you seldom meet in a woman, and she never expected compliments. This set men very much at ease with her; one could talk to her without any effort to make one’s self agreeable.”
Perhaps this estimate of her accounts better than any other for her popularity. It has been said that Madame Mohl’s salon presented a unique exception in the history of social preëminence. Women of mediocre intelligence have founded salons and drawn clever men around them by the power of personal beauty, aided by the bait of luxurious or brilliant surroundings. But Madame Mohl possessed none of these potent, though secondary, advantages ; her sole spell was the intellectual fascination that she exercised. “Her perceptions were so acute,” says her German friend, “ that she darted into your mind, seized on your ideas and views, and turned them round on all sides before you were aware of it, often showing you more in them than you had yourself discovered.”
She read some books again and again, saturating her mind with them. But these were the few. She devoured an immense quantity of books, — the process was too rapid to he called reading, or to admit of her digesting them; and yet even this she escaped when she could get the work done by a quicker method. When a new book came out, whose contents she wished to know without the trouble of finding out herself, she would set two or three clever men to talk about it before her, and by the time they had done she knew as much about it as they did; quite as much, at any rate, as she would have learned by running through it herself. She never paraded under false pretenses the knowledge she got in this way. She would say honestly, “ Tell me what is in Soand-So’s book; I have n’t time to read it.” Her memory was so retentive that this reading by proxy served her as well as a direct perusal of the book. She was not learned, in any sense, but she was cultivated and remarkably well informed, and her subtle instinct enabled her to get at once into the heart of a subject of which she had only the slightest knowledge. Men of science and letters loved to talk over their labors and their books with her because of this faculty and her power of being interested in everything that was interesting ; but they did not seek her counsel, nor invite her criticism, as they sometimes do with women who, without having nearly so much esprit as Madame Mohl, have a finer critical faculty.
How careful and studious was her manner of reading when she set about it seriously may be seen from her own testimony. When M. Ampère sent her his Histoire Romaine àa Rome, she wrote to him, “ I have received your two beautiful volumes, and I have read the Introduction, which I like exceedingly. I am now reading the book itself; but it is one of those books that I study, which is quite a different thing from reading. I have my maps of modern Rome that I compare with your maps, and I read the text twice over. This is the only way I really enjoy a book; for my mind is slow, and I have to penetrate myself with the subject. This is why I can’t bear ‘ perusing ’ a book, except with a view to reading it again. I like to copy out bits, too. In this way, although I am always in the midst of books, I read very few, while reading a good deal. In the matter of books, I have some friends, but few acquaintances. And I hate short books, because, after taking all this trouble to get to know my friends well, I don’t like them to come suddenly to an end.”
Madame Mohl had no talent for writing, and still less taste for it. It is partly owing to this that I have been able to get so few of her letters. She wrote few. She carried on no regular correspondence with any one, but just wrote off to her friends when she had something to say that would not wait, or when she wanted news of them. The following interesting one is to Ampère during one of his sojourns in Rome ; like almost every letter of hers that is extant, it is without a date : —
“ I beg you will bring out all your amabilité for the lady who will give you this note,— Lady William Russell. She is sister-in-law of Lord John. She has a great deal of esprit, and speaks French in perfection. Like me, she came to France when she was three years old; then she went to Austria, so that she has had a European education. Her husband was ambassador at Berlin, and before that at Stuttgardt; her sons were brought up at Berlin. As a little girl, she saw Madame de Staël play comedy. She was very pretty, — one sees that still, — so that all the kings made court to her. In fact, she has led a life something like that of our dear Madame Récamier. She has known, all the distinguished people of the age. I am sure you will be delighted with her. Her son, Odo Russell,1 is English attaché at Florence, and détaché at Rome; a diplomatic fiction, it appears, which permits of communication being kept up on the sly between our evangelical nation and your — Babylon, and prevents the scandal of sending a minister to idolaters !
“ If by chance Lady William does not go, this note will be handed to you by the above-named functionary, who is young, gentil, and spirtuel, or by his brother Arthur, who has qualities of the same kind. But I hope you will see the lady herself; her conversation will remind you of our causeries of long ago.
“ M. Mohl is always going to write you an enormous letter; but he has so much to do that whenever he has a moment’s respite he talks, to rest himself. He is on an unlimited number of committees. He is exasperated. Ah, M. Ampère, what a wise man you are ! But we are more virtuous ; we stay on to make head against the torrent of platitude that seems to be submerging everything. I know a few people who, being formerly employés, had not the faculty of living on air, and so remained in their places. Well, nobody is now more indignant than they are, because they see all that is going on closer than we honest haters who stick in our corner. A few years more, and we shan’t know how to distinguish good from evil. They write novels nowadays that have great success (I am told), whose moral tone is inconceivably low. One of them is called Fanny. But I should never end if I began to enumerate these things. We want badly M. de Loménie to be named to the Institute. He ought for this to write something, — but he says he has not time, — some bit of good, really literary work. I am sure he would pass easily, he is such a favorite, and he is such a good fellow. You ought to have been here to manage this.
“ I have no time to write more. Do write, if only to prove that you have not forgotten this country. Adieu, dear M. Ampère. I embrace you with all my heart in sign of our old friendship.”
Here is another letter to Ampère, very expressive of Madame Mohl’s opinions and of her extremely emphatic man ner of enunciating them : —
“ You don’t know how I abhor the Hungarians ! They are the vilest canaille I have ever seen. And I have seen them in their own country. Nothing enrages me like the enthusiasm of the English for those fellows. Because a few grand seigneurs receive them well, and send them from château to château in carriages and four, — the horses being provided by the peasantry, as in the Middle Ages, —the people cry, ‘What a fine nation they are ! ’ God knows that all modern corruption is grafted on these feudal galanteries. I admire the Middle Ages as much as anybody, but I should like that period back with faith, and not wedded to socialism and the rage for setting up the low, ignorant classes. One must have seen this (in Hungary) to have an idea of it. All their patriotism consists in a costume. There are a few heroic seigneurs like Széclienyi, and he went mad with grief at seeing the people he had sacrificed himself for. The Austrians are absurd ; that is to say, the government is disgusting, for the people are good; but there is no hope, I fear, for those who are opposing it, so I try not to think about that, or about anything; for here, too, we are in a state of despair. I read books, and carry my feelings as well as I can. My only consolation is music.”
This was one of the minor points on which she and M. Mohl differed. She loved music passionately ; he absolutely disliked it. He used to say, “ I don’t mind any amount of natural noise, but I can’t bear unnatural noises, like music.” He rather enjoyed the deafening racket of a paved street in the busiest quarter of the town, on the ground that it was “ natural ” and lively.
Madame Mohl had been repeatedly urged to write something about Madame Récamier, but had always refused, fearing that she might be led into speaking indiscreetly, if she spoke at all. The sacredness of private life had not yet ceased to be respected, and she shrank from “turning to account” her intimacy with Madame Récamier, as others had been accused of doing. This scruple was, however, removed by the publication of Madame Recamier’s Life and Letters by her niece, Madame Lenormant. Madame Mohl considered it her duty now to come forward and correct certain erroneous impressions which this publication, though written in the most eulogistic spirit, had, she believed, made on tlie public mind. She accordingly wrote a charming little memoir of her old friend, which appeared first in the National Review, and afterwards in a volume 2 with some other sketches of French character and social fife. In the preface of the memoir, Madame Mohl says, speaking of Madame Leuormant’s Life and Letters, —
“ The book gave rise in England to so many mistaken judgments and false conclusions that although, from having spoken French from my childhood, I was ill prepared for the task, yet my friendship for Madame Récamier, and eighteen years of constant intercourse with her, emboldened me to show her character and the events of her life as they had appeared to me.”
Ampère was one of the first to whom she presented her little literary production. In sending it to him she writes,— “ I am ashamed of it; but I was possessed by one idea, — the small capacity of the public for attention. Then, again, it is the first time that I have felt the pulse of this public. I believe now I was wrong to leave out a good many facts and observations that I had written. I beg you to remember, in reading the book, that it was written for England, where many things are entirely unknown that are known to everybody in France. I don’t go the length 䈿of saying ‘ a certain poet called Shakespeare,’ as you accused me of doing here. One or two persons to whom I sent the book have put questions to me that would amaze you. In fact, I am convinced that I have left out many things that, for all they are so generally known here, are not the least understood in England. But above all I was moved to write the book by my impatience at seeing that what is most subtle and elevated in French character is absolutely undiscovered in England. For you this ideal is a commonplace fact, dear M. Ampère ; but please bear in mind my intention, and excuse the execution,— as God does, and as men don’t do.”
Ampère, though greatly pleased with the book, spiced his praise with a little criticism on certain points. Madame Mohl took the criticism as frankly as it was given, and replied, —
“ Far from being vexed by your sincerity, I am greatly obliged for it, as it gives me the opportunity of explaining some points to you. You are the only person who has a right to this, for if there ever was in this world perfect devouemerit, without arrière-pensée, without one obole kept back, like Ananias and Sapphira, it was yours, and yours alone. X—, and most of those who surrounded Madame Récamier, profited by her, in a greater or lesser degree ; but you gave yourself wholly, and I admire this perfect friendship more than you can know. ... I refrained from defending that poor Benjamin Constant, on whose head X—pours out all the vinegar of her virtue ; and it cost me something to do this, for I was very fond of him, and he was a great friend of M. Fauriel’s. . . . I was silent, also, concerning that parade of dukes and princes, that reminds one of the cards that small folk stick in their chimney glasses to show off in this way their titled acquaintances, while they throw the others into the wastepaper basket. Why not, instead of all this, tell us about the last twenty years of Madame Récamier’s life that were the most original ? Her success then was due solely to her character and esprit. Beauty and riches bring success everywhere.” 3
Madame Mohl, in her narrative, enlarges con amore on Madame Récamier’s admirable manner of governing her salon and conducting the conversation, and remarks that she was indebted for some of her success in this direction to Madame de Staël, “ who was in the habit of saying, ‘ I have not conducted the conversation well to-day,’ or the reverse.” Madame Récamier had not her brilliant friend’s depth, Madame Mohl admits,4 but she describes her tact as quite unique. “ If a mot was particularly happy, Madame Recamier would take it up and show it to the audience, as a connoisseur shows a picture. If she knew an anecdote apropos of something, she would call on any one else who knew it also to relate it, though no one narrated better than herself. No one ever understood more thoroughly how to show off others to the best advantage ; if she was able to fathom their minds, she would always endeavor to draw up what was valuable. This was one of her great charms ; and as the spirits of the speaker were raised by his success, he became really more animated, and his ideas and words flowed on more rapidly.” Those who remember Madame Mohl in her own salon will recognize in the above description the model that she endeavored, not unsuccessfully, to copy.
Through the course of her reminiscences she contrives to keep herself very much out of sight, never even putting herself forward as a witness, but giving her testimony as that of “a friend,” or “ one who enjoyed Madame Récamier’s intimacy.” This peculiarity in her style had its counterpart in her character. Her German friends used to say that she was, for a woman, singularly objective. She was certainly not in any perceptible degree subjective. She lost sight of herself and of the effect she was producing, as few women can do, and not only seemed to be, but was, taken out of herself for the time being by whatever she was hearing. Her intense curiosity, always on the qui vive, kept her mind in perpetual motion ; she was always thinking, and very seldom thinking of herself. She was not the least introspective, as intellectual women are apt to be, nor given to analyzing her thoughts, or probing her feelings, or philosophizing about herself; nor was there a grain of morbidity in her composition, mental or moral, — another proof of the masculine temper of her mind. This freedom from self-consciousness added greatly to the attraction of her conversation.
Madame d’Abbadie, in speaking to me of this charm in Madame Mohl, said, “ Never, in our long and intimate intercourse, did I ever detect in her the smallest attempt at effect. She talked as the birds sang ; the witty things came out as the song comes from the bird. She loved esprit, and reveled in it as a bee does in honey ; all she thought of in talking to you was to get at your mind and enjoy it.”
But if Madame Mohl had a talent for making good talkers talk their best, she had not the power of making the best of bad ones ; she had not the knack of playing on a bad instrument. No bore could have honestly paid her the compliment once paid to Madame Geoffrin by a simple old village curé, who, when she thanked him for the pleasant talk she had had with him, replied, “ Madame, I am only a shabby old harpsichord that your talent has brought some tune out of.”
Madame Mohl’s racy sayings borrowed a certain flavor, and sometimes gained in point, from her manner of saying them. Lord Chesterfield’s remark, that what Dr. Johnson said would not have seemed half so good if it had not been for his bow-wow way of saying it, might have applied to her. She had a little bow-wow way of her own that was very effective, and often gave piquancy to what from another would have passed unnoticed, as a commonplace. Her French was exquisite. M. de Tocqueville, a good judge, said he did not know a Frenchwoman who spoke it with the same perfection. Ampère, as we have seen, bore a similar testimony to her proficiency in his native tongue in her younger days. She handled it with a spirit and skill that bore the stamp of her own originality, and the fact of her being a foreigner, while it gave her the command of two languages, gave her also a special license for taking liberties with her adopted one. She used her license freely and with consummate art, though sometimes in defiance of law and precedent. She never stopped at such trifles as grammar, for instance, but proceeded boldly on the principle that it is the part of genius to know when to break rules. If a neuter verb served her purpose better than an active one, she would use the neuter, though it made the hair of the Forty Immortals stand on end ; the most rigorous puriste among them would never have counted the sin against her, so obviously did it carry its own excuse by adding to the force and clearness of her sentence. Her speech was as limpid as crystal. Madame d’Abbadie beautifully describes it in the remark, “ Elle avait la parole ailée.”
Her English was very pure, but not so graceful and rich as her French. She wrote it with correct grace, but there is something in the style that reminds one of a foreigner. Her memoir of Madame Récamier is charming, yet it reads rather like the writing of a French pen dipped in an English ink-bottle; a little stiff, as of a modern lady carefully picking her steps in the high-heeled shoes and unyielding brocade of an ancestress. In English as well as in French, Madame Mohl retained her fluency and vigor — “my gift of the gab,” as she called it herself — to the last.
Madame Mohl was variously judged. The majority of those who knew her spoke of her as “delightful ; ” while not a few called her “ that detestable old woman.” Both verdicts were just. She was delightful or detestable as the spirit moved her; and she was at times moved by a wicked spirit, a mischievous sort of Puck, who took possession of her now and then, and impelled her to say and do the rudest and most disagreeable things without any motive or provocation. For instance, one Friday evening, Madame Ristori was at the Rue du Bac. Several distinguished members of the Italian colony in Paris, knowing that she was to be there, went to meet her; among others, Montanelli, who had written Camma expressly for the great actress. Conversation was going on pleasantly, when suddenly, apropos of some remark about Italy, Madame Mohl exclaimed, “ Tous les Italians, c’est de la canaille ! ” This astounding sentiment, delivered in her high, sharp tones, with her little head well thrown back, produced the effect of a pistol shot on the company. Madame Ristori rose to the defense, and intoned the apologia of her countrymen with an eloquence of patriotism that moved every one present; then, with the majesty of Melpomene in person, she took leave of Madame Mohl, all the Italians forming an escort to her as she swept from the room. The incident was the talk of Paris for some days, and Madame Mohl’s best friends gave her small quarter for her extraordinary behavior. What induced her to make so rude and unprovoked a speech, Heaven only knows. She herself could have given no reason for it; but it was extremely characteristic of her willful, impulsive nature. She had no desire to vex, far less to insult, Madame Ristori, whom she admired intensely, both as a woman and an artist; hut she disliked Italians, as a race; something that was said prompted her to say so, and to check an impulse no more occurred to her than to stop herself from sneezing or coughing, if she wanted to do either.
The following note, written to Ampère (in Rome) some years before the above incident, proves how warm Madame Mohl’s personal regard was for the great Italian artist: —
“ Do you know Madame Ristori ? No ? Then I send you a line of introduction to her. Please to speak well of me to her. If you know her already, speak well of me all the same. You say you don’t want to make her acquaintance ? You are wrong. She is charming, quite apart from her talent. And she loves the French ! I entreat you to go and see her.”
Thought and speech were simultaneous with Madame Mohl. One did not precede and dictate the other, as it is supposed to do with the most inconsiderate of us ; they escaped together. When Mrs. Wynne Finch remarked to her that this peculiarity accounted for her often giving offense without intending it, Madame Mohl seemed very much surprised, and after a moment’s reflection, “ My dear,” she said, “ why do I speak and think at one and the same moment, instead of thinking first and then speaking, like other people ? ”
What answer could her friend make except “ Because you are Madame Mohl, and not like other people ” ?
Madame Mohl has been accused of being a lion-hunter. It is not true, at least in the vulgar sense of the word : she was never caught by lions of the hour, by sham celebrities; but it is true that she courted real ones, men whose fame rested on a solid foundation of genius or achievement. She cultivated her salon, and sought attractive elements for it, as other amateurs hunt after rare orchids, or gems, or æsthetic tea-pots; it was her great interest in life, and her ambition was to keep it ornamented and replenished with all that was interesting and distinguished. This love of celebrities, however, was untainted by the least touch of snobbishness. It was said to me by a cosmopolitan Englishwoman, herself a queen of society, “ Madame Mohl was the only Englishwoman I ever knew, in any rank, who was absolutely free from vulgarity.” This judgment, if it bear too severely on the rest of her countrywomen, was undoubtedly just as a testimony to Madame Mohl. She had no ill-will, either political or philosophical, towards money or rank ; but they did not impress her in the smallest degree. No titles, no splendor of external accessories, none of those false gods to which the vulgar herd bow down, got one iota of reverence from her. Worldly possessions did not in her eyes add one tittle of importance to any man or woman, nor did the total want of them lessen any one an iota in her consideration.
This entire unworldly-mindedness was a power, as well as a charm ; for there are few things the world admires more than contempt of itself, its maxims and its shams, and none command its esteem more than those who despise it. But courage was an element of power that Madame Mohl did not lack in any direction. She was so bold and vehement in her speech that her language often sounded exaggerated, and yet it was always the sincere expression of her feelings or opinions at the moment. Whatever she thought or felt, she saw it with a boldness that never stopped to consider effect or consequences. Nothing annoyed her more than for her friends, the few intimes in whom she felt a sort of proprietorship, to go away from Paris and leave her behind them. Once, Mrs. Wynne Finch was going to London, in May, as was her custom ; and knowing the storm this early departure was sure to raise, she postponed the announcement of it to the last day. The old lady took the tidings very peaceably, and said good-by without any bad language ; but when Mrs. Wynne Finch was going down the stairs, she put her head over the rail, and cried out after her, “ May God in heaven forgive me, but I wish your house in London was burnt down, and all your children dead, except Guy ; for then you would have to stay in Paris! ”
When an old woman, she loved her friends with the warmth of a young girl ; her heart retained its glow to the last This capacity for affection, combined with her passion for esprit, accounts in a measure for that contentment and sense of happiness that Madame Mohl enjoyed to the close of her long life. Her childhood and youth had been warmed by the tender affection of a mother whom she idolized, and her maturer life was amply satisfied by the affection of a husband whom she in turn loved with the deepest tenderness. These two supreme affections, supplemented by a number of very strong friendships, sufficed to keep her heart well warmed, and to prevent her love of esprit from freezing into intellectual egotism. They protected her from that deadly ennui that hung like a blight on the lives of many of her far more brilliant predecessors. Madame Mohl saw few flaws in her friends when they were alive, and none at all when they were dead; she mourned for them with a passionate grief that was very touching and quite sincere in its exaggeration, and she took their sorrow to heart as her own. When a heavy bereavement befell Ampère, she wrote to him, —
“ I have a big room, very comfortable : come and stay with us. You will have your old friend M. Mohl to look after you. What can you do all by yourself in these cruel days ? Come to us. I can’t write for the tears that blind me. I promise you that you will be better here than anywhere. I am so unhappy,— so unhappy.”
The writing is all awry, and the words are blurred and blotted with tears. Ampère did not accept the invitation so lovingly made ; he said that for the present he felt the absolute need of being alone.
“ Yes,” wrote Madame Mohl again. “ I can understand this need for solitude. All I can say is that when you like to come, your room is ready for you, with a splendid view. You will be perfectly free, and have no thought to give to material cares, which are in themselves a torment. You shall be alone as much as you like. I can’t tell you the longing I have to be of use to you. For I loved her more than I ever knew, or she either.”
On the death of another friend, she writes to Madame Scherer : —
“ I am sure you will feel for me when I tell you that I have lost my dear Mrs. Gaskell, the best friend I had in England, perhaps anywhere. I learnt it this morning from her poor daughter. She seemed perfectly well, and was talking, when her head suddenly lowered, and life fled.5 It must have been heart complaint. To say what I have lost would he impossible. My spirits are so low that, as you are so kind as to speak of my nieces’ visit to Versailles, I will profit by your kind memory to send them on Friday, if the weather is good. I don’t say fine ; that may not be expected. I am glad to send them somewhere without me. I had promised to take them to-night; but I could not. I can take them to the Flute Enchantée Thursday, as I need not speak there ; and I had taken the places, and can’t bear to disappoint them. I had rather sit and mope than anything ; but it’s hard upon them, who live at their own homes as in a nunnery, and youth has as good a right to pleasure as childhood has to play.
“ Oh, dear! my heart feels like a lump of lead in me. If you had known what a heart she had ! But no one did.”
One who gave so much had a right to expect a good deal in return ; and she got it, and enjoyed it. She was a singularly happy person, and her happiness expressed itself in an inexhaustible flow of high spirits. She looked happy. Her round blue eyes were wide open in a perpetual sparkle of curiosity and interest; her little turned-up nose, spirited and commanding, seemed to be scenting clever mots in the air; her mouth, like a bent bow, was incessantly shooting out bright arrows of wit; her upright figure, the pose of her head, her quick step, her whole air and deportment, expressed energy, vivacity, and happiness. And what a charm there is in the mere sight of a happy human face amidst the suffering, discontented ones that meet us on all sides !
Madame Mohl’s utter absence of coquetry was another characteristic which justified her German friend’s remark that she was more like a man than a woman. She was as free from personal vanity as an infant. Sometimes, when calling at fine houses for the first time, she was mistaken by the servants for a poor woman come to ask for something. These mistakes, far from offending, amused her exceedingly, and she used to relate them with great glee to her friends. She retained to her ninetythird year the fashion of her youth of having her dress cut open in the front, and of wearing little curls all over her forehead. This head-gear had never in her youngest days been a pattern of neatness, but in later years it had degenerated into the wildest tangle. M. Guizot used to say that Madame Mohl and his little Scotch terrier had the same coiffeur, for they both wore their hair in the same style. Madame Mohl never committed the extravagance of buying proper curl-paper, but took any odds and ends of colored circulars, notes, newspapers, etc., that came to hand; and the result was a Medusa-like head, bristling all over with little snakes of divers colors. She would present herself thus adorned before any visitor who chanced to call before the snakes were uncoiled. The effect was startling on some persons ; but she was always serenely unconscious of this, or seemed to be so.
A young Englishman, whose love of science endeared him to M. Mohl, and who had a warm place in Madame Mohl’s affections, was often favored by this striking apparition. “ She would come out in wonderful get-ups,” says Mr. G. L., — “a skirt of one color and a jacket of another, with a shabby nightcap stuck on the top of a bush of curlpapers ; altogether the most amazing figure that ever you beheld out of a pantomime.” But as this shrewd scientist remarks, “ there was a kind of coquetry in this defiance of coquetry.” Englishmen and Germans were amused by these eccentricities; but Frenchmen, although they overlooked them on the score of her nationality, never quite forgave Madame Mohl for being something of a caricature.
Madame Ozanam6 relates that one evening, at a ball at the Hotel de Yille, she saw M. de Lomenie approaching, with a figure “ like a mad witch ” leaning ou his arm; on nearer view, the figure proved to be a lady in a short skirt, her hair tangled out to a wild nimbus round her head and stuck all over with long straws, as if it had been rolled on a stable floor. As this astounding apparition drew closer, Madame Ozanam recognized Madame Mohl. Presently, M. de Lomenie, having handed over his charge to some other brave man, came to speak to Madame Ozanam, who said laughingly, “ I congratulate you on the act of courage you have just performed.” “ Yes, you well may,” replied M. de Lomenie ; and then he added quickly, “ But there is no mistaking her. One sees at a glance that she is English.”
On another occasion, at the Salle Erard, while the audience were waiting for the artists to come in, a door on the platform opened, and a short-skirted, witch-like figure appeared, and stood a moment surveying the assembly. There was a general laugh in the crowded concert hall, but Madame Mohl looked slowly round her, and with perfect composure walked to her seat.
In strange contradiction with this disregard of her personal appearance was her sensitiveness on the subject of her age. She could not bear to have it mentioned, and was always on the qui vxve to conceal it. Mérimée, M. Mohl’s témoin at their marriage, used to tell a story of her answering the mayor, when he asked her age, “ Monsieur, that is no business of yours ; and if it were, I would jump out of the window sooner than tell you! ” Sixty-eight seemed to be the period, beyond which, to the last, she never owned that she had passed, and it was very amusing to see how cleverly she kept to this date. Her friends would sometimes maliciously try to entrap her into betraying her age, but they never succeeded. One of them tells me that he never knew her to fail to make the subtraction instantly and correctly. For instance, if he said, “ Why, dear Madame Mohl, that was fifty years ago ! ” she would reply, “ Yes, so it was ; ! was just eighteen at the time;” or, “Why, it must be sixty years since that happened ! ” “ Yes, I remember I was then a child eight years old.”
There was no surer way of provoking her anger than by alluding, even inferentially, to her real age. Count Walsh, when he met her for the first time as Madame Mohl, said to her, “ Madame, as we are both of us very old, perhaps you could tell me something of a compatriot of yours, to whose house I was taken some fifty odd years ago by Thiers. She was a Miss Clarke, one of the most charming persons I ever met.” The dear old lady blushed like a girl, painfully divided between the pleasure of being so flatteringly remembered and the vexation of having her age thus brought home to her.
Not long before his death Thiers met her at the house of a friend, and reminded her that they had not met since 1836, just forty years before. She was exceedingly annoyed, and when the old statesman was gone she said to her hostess, “ The old fool is off his head ; he does n’t know what he is talking about; he has made a mistake of twenty years! ”
Madame Mohl preserved into advanced age, after the wear and tear of life, much of the delicacy that is apt to get rubbed off with years. She could not tolerate anything that sinned against good taste, either in books or conversation. Nothing affronted her like having her age made a pretext for reading or hearing what was in itself offensive.
One evening, she arrived at Madame de Montalembert’s in high dudgeon. “ Fancy,” she exclaimed on entering the salon, “ fancy M. — sending me a box for La Belle llclene, and saying that it is not a play fit for a young woman to go to, but that at my age that does not matter! Such impudence! As if I wanted to go to a play that a decent young woman could n’t see ! I hated indecencies when I was young, and I hate them still more now. I sent him back his box, and gave him my mind.”
When mere coarseness of language was redeemed by wit or genuine talent, she was willing to overlook it. She would, for instance, read with pleasure French writers of the seventeenth century or the English of the Elizabethan period, whose broad style contained true humor or philosophy ; but nothing could induce her to open the sickening French novels that she heard discussed by “decent men and women” around her.
M. Scherer wrote an article in the Temps on Rabelais that delighted her, and she wrote at once to his wife : “ Rabelais is a chef-d’œuvre! And what a benefactor to find out the valuable jewel in such a mass of filth! I wish M. Scherer would publish a little book about Rabelais to show ladies the moral beauties reclaimed out of the dirt, for none will have the stomach to hunt for them. No doubt the century may have half the blame. I tried once, but left off at the second page, and had no idea of what I lost. He is the contrary of Swift, who is a cynic to the back-bone, with no tenderness in his nature ; yet he is read ten times more, merely because he had the luck to be born later.”
Her feminine weakness about hiding her age was perhaps the only foolish trait of that essential youthfulness that Madame Mohl retained to the end. An incapacity for growing old sometimes includes an incapacity for growing wise, for growing in many things that should keep pace with the advance of years; but if, while these autumnal growths progress, the green springtide of youth remains unfaded, then the charm of the combination is perfect. Madame Mohl possessed it in a singular degree. She had a spice of romance in her that kept its flavor to the end. Edgar Quinet had been a great admirer of hers in the old Abbaye days, and even later, and some letters of a tender character had passed between them. After Quinet’s death, his widow asked a friend to get these back from Madame Mohl, and this friend was highly amused at the shyness of the old lady, then past ninety, when the subject was broached to her. “ She finessed about it,” he says, “ and was as conscious as a young girl might have been.”
- Lord Ampthill, late Ambassador of the Court of St. James at Berlin.↩
- Madame Récamier, with a Sketch of the History of Society in France. By Madame M***. Chapman & Hall. 1862.↩
- Madame Mohl corrects in this letter an involuntary error of Madame Lenormant’s concerning Madame Récamier’s journal, which it may be interesting to transcribe; the Madame Tastu alluded to was the author of several books much read at the time. “The truth,” says Madame Mohl, “was this. When Madame Tastu was here to be operated on (for cataract), I read aloud to her, translating it, all that related to Madame Réeamier, because she could not see to read, and her friends could not read English to her. Well, she said to me, ‘ It was I who wrote all that from what Madame Récamier had told me at various times. I read it to her, and she asked me for it, and I gave her everything except one little narrative about the life of a deserter that she saved when the Queen of Naples was about to sign his death warrant; but I will give you this to copy.’ And Madame Tastu did give it to me, and I copied it; but I did not insert it, so as not to have to give this explanation. If you have any doubt about it, ask Madame Lenormant to show you that portion of the manuscript, and you will understand how those bits came to her amongst her papers (Madame Rdcamier’s); they must be in her handwriting. Probably Madame Lenormant knew nothing about this, but 1 mean to publish it some day.” She never did-↩
- Madame Mohl had all her life a kind of worship for the author of Corinne. “ I am so obliged to your husband for doing justice to the saint of my childhood and youth,” she writes to Madame Scherer, on reading a charming article in the Temps. “Her stupid family have absolutely hushed up her name from over-prudery, and little know the additions people have made to her weaknesses, which would he reduced to their due proportions if they let a little of the truth (as I know it) transpire.”↩
- November, 1865.↩
- Widow of the celebrated Frédéric Ozanam.↩