Madame Mohl's Salon
THE salon is so distinctively a French institution that it is not a little startling to find an Englishwoman ruling it; but this circumstance adds, perhaps, to the interest of its history. The true story of the salon itself is, of course, not to be told. Senior himself would not be voluminous enough to hold even its typical conversation, and the social agreeableness of it must escape in the monologue that every undramatic book is forced to be. The esprit, the spirit of freshness and surprise which is its genius loci, is a butterily thing, and has its momentary life in constant motion ; it is dead when pinned to the page. The list of the guests may be recorded, and the ménu ; with a good reporter there is a chance that some of the talk may survive in a moribund state ; the sense that there was “ a good time ” may be keen even to the tantalizing point ; but the banquet is cleared away. The French salon is as incommunicable as the English home; one must be born to it. In a certain way it has been the home of literary men in France. There, in the arm-chair by the hearth, one sees Châteaubriand ; and he belongs in that place as naturally as Dryden in the inn’s chimney-corner, or Wordsworth in his wooded walk. Sometimes one seems to get to the private life of a great French writer in the salon of which he was the habitué ; but for the most part it is only a deception, due to the repeated expression of his traits in one spot, or to the letters which salon life has often brought into being. So when one reads accounts of the brilliant company, the eloquence and wit and spring of the conversation, and some genre anecdote, he frequently deludes himself into thinking this the real thing ; but if he begins to ask how the group looked, and what was the accent and manner, and what the nobodies were doing with themselves while the big flies buzzed, and, in short, how the acting went on, he will see that the social part, the distinctive thing in the whole, has dropped out of the tale.
This is why we say that it is fortunate for this book,1 with which our readers have already made acquaintance, that its heroine was an Englishwoman. It is her character, rather than her salon, which is prominent in the volume, and its interest is largely, and perhaps mainly, due to the English eccentricities of her nature. Of her girlhood and younger days we are told but little ; there was a fascination that clung to her then, when her freshness, originality, and unconsciousness, together with a certain unconventional daring, made her, one thinks, not unlike that very modern figure, the American girl abroad. The anecdotes of her at the beginning of her career seem a good deal like the stories of our grandmothers’ conquests, traditionary and not easily imagined by younger people ; for in this memorial of her she is undeniably past middle age when we really begin to know her, and she comes to the mind in the “ oldwitch ” garb she adopted, and clothed with the irresponsible prerogatives of word and action that belong to the old, and are tolerated in them only when they are past any reformation of manners. The habit of spontaneity she carried on from childhood to age ; she seems never to have refused the word to the thought and never to have been abashed. This characteristic, which was a charm in the audacious girl, was sometimes a terror in the woman. It made her appear unfeelingly rude when she probably had no intent to offend, and it smoothed the way to perilous facility when she really had it in mind to teach somebody not to call again. She confessed, or one might more properly say she avowed, that she was deliberately impolite to persons whom she desired to keep off the premises, and more than once she was betrayed by her lack of forethought into insults whose enormity is to be shuddered at. But usually her freedom, when youth had ceased to excuse and grace it, had no worse effect than self-indulgence in whim or prejudice, and it made her, more than any other of her qualities, an entertaining person. She was, as the phrase goes, real ; and reality in this sense implies a habit of self-assertion, a tendency to fly in the face of conventions, a hatred of hypocrisies, and some essential originality for the sake of which society allows its forms to be snubbed. Perhaps this individuality of Madame Mohl has been excessively dwelt upon by her biographer, for it embodies the irreconcilable element in her, that which society and experience could not subdue; but on the other hand, she spent her life in the effort to please others, with the conscious aim to provide agreeable social intercourse for brilliant men and women, and this she declared was all that life was worth living for. “Au fond il n’y a que cela ! ”
That is the true French spirit, the motto of the salon; and whatever proportion of the British eccentricity remained in Madame Mohl’s heart, she must have suffered a very complete Parisian naturalization before she could sum up life in a maxim which in relation to its whole range is so utterly provincial. It was an accident that the mistress of this drawing-room was English by birth, for the realm she commanded was unmistakably French; at most, her extraction served only to make her salon Parisian in the sense in which Paris is larger than France, is comprehensive of foreign elements and, as we say, cosmopolitan. This distinction was heightened, too, by the fact that her husband was a German. The consequence of this curious blending of the three great national strains was that her rooms gathered in the eminent people of the intellectual world ; her apartments had the advantage of a city situated at the confluence of three great rivers ; and this is to be taken into the account if one seeks the secret of her success. The entrée there was to society which intellectual persons liked to meet. This, of course, was not all. The qualities which originally established the rendezvous in those quarters, and maintained its fitness and agreeableness for the purpose, count for much more in the problem. Into this it is, perhaps, not worth while to go, though the matter has been much debated ; and no one, certainly, can lay down this volume without silently asking how it was that Madame Mohl obtained and kept her sceptre. It may not be quite superfluous, however, to remind ourselves that in the dynasty of society inheritance plays a considerable rôle. Madame Mohl had been a promising candidate for the succession from the time when she was the only person who could relieve Châteaubriand’s tedium vitœ ; his election lighted upon her, and the favor of Madame Récamier and the Princess Belgiojoso was a powerful alliance, and her own gifts drew about her the clever young men. When the salon was fairly set up all this helped, and in the friendship of Fauriel, Ampère, and Mohl the crucial point was safely met; and after that, the queen and the chief courtiers being provided, the rooms filled up as a matter of course. At the end, habit and the well-worn “ Do you remember?” of old acquaintances kept the tea simmering till that last Friday, when for the first time Madame Mohl was too weary to make it, and asked the faithful Barthélémy St. Hilaire, who seems like a ghost of days past, to assist her. But before this consummation, she had outlived her reign. She complained that no one came to see her. She confessed she was unable to be alone. She had, in fact, reached the last stage of all when there was no longer any one to please. Her desertion, for which her friends were little to blame, since they had merely gone over to death, seems rather pitiable, and its discomfort is increased by the emphasis with which her weaknesses, both of mind and temper, are brought out at the close. Her old age is not attractive; not so much from her own defects as because time deprived her of the milieu which was to her the whole of life, and did not supply her with the entourage in which alone old age is beautiful. Few scenes in this volume stand out with the sharpness of that in which she is seen at Père La Chaise, — “ the aged widow sitting, one cold morning, on a high spot, and looking on from a distance while they carried her husband’s coffin from its temporary resting-place to the grave she had made ready for it, and then stealing quietly away, weeping under her black veil, and returning unseen to the desolate home.” One remembers this same woman skipping about from chair to chair to find her shoes, or seated on the mantel-piece in talk with her friends; and, on the whole, he thinks that the process of growing old was never more relentlessly set down than in these pages.
It is the climax of the disagreeable, to one who believes that the ends of life are served by being entertaining to one’s friends, to find the pleasant chat ending at the dumb headstone and the silence under it. But such a one is to be judged within the limits of his own philosophy and by his own ideal. It ought to be insisted on, amid these lugubrious reflections in which the example of the biographer has led us to indulge, that if Madame Mohl thought that the chief end of woman was to please, this was not in her conception a small thing. The standard of pleasure in her salon was a high one. It was naturally mainly intellectual, and if, as is allowed, the talk was not stimulating, it was the best in some respects that Paris afforded; for the men who frequented there were solid as well as brilliant. And in the days of the Empire and the Celui-ci, whom, true child of Madame Récamier and Madame de Staël, Madame Mohl hated, it was an inspiriting thing to know that in the midst of the tide of flattery and luxury and the worship of a vulgar success there was one hearth of the intellectual monde which kept to plain living and high thinking, and suffered no desertion from its learned and self-respecting circle. Then, too, one is much struck, in these records of the little society which formed the nucleus of the gathering, with the fact that though brains were essential to membership in it, the heart also had a well-recognized share in the universal labor of pleasuregiving. The attachment of the male friends, of Mohl and Ampère, of Fauriel and Manzoni, is the source of delightful episodes; but the love of madame herself for Fauriel and for her husband, and her interest in the advancement and temporal welfare of others more or less closely connected with her group, deserve constant remembrance, if one would do justice to her. For, to use another of those popular phrases which mean so much more than they seem to express, she was as human as she was real. Perhaps one cannot follow that end of “ pleasing ” his fellow-mortals so long and so consistently, without being humanized ; for it is mainly by association that individuals come to share in that abstraction, humanity which is so much larger than any life in the concrete. The power of sympathy and the habit of its exercise must be the fond, as Madame Mohl has it; but society in its general sense is the field in which the quality of humaneness flourishes. It was so with Madame Mohl, at all events ; and for our part, it is much more to our taste to have these solid virtues of her salon impressed upon our memory than to read the catalogue of her oddities. Queer she was, no doubt; but it seems to us too much has been made of this in comparison with her other characteristics. There is, we fear, a touch of mere Boswellianism in this volume, interesting, truthful, but not a little damaging. At the end we come back to our first remark : the book gains by the individuality of its subject, but it is after all rather a substitute for the history of the salon, which truly could not be written. What is presented to us is a portrait of a woman of very high human interest, both for her own nature and for her affiliations with the genius and talent of her day ; but it strikes the eye more than the mind. There is in the concluding passages of the work a strain of moralizing that indicates an imperfection of sympathy with Madame Mohl’s ideal, though there is never a lack of true respect for her character and care for her memory. We have, indeed, almost a sermon on the text of the vanity of vanities, in connection with that remark already quoted, that to please is all there is to life. We do not object to the little disquisition nor to its teaching. It is cited merely to illustrate the spirit in which the volume is conceived, which is thoroughly English. In it Madame Mohl is more picturesque than attractive, more entertaining than respected. One continually has a feeling that it was in spite of much that is told here that Madame Mohl was liked; but the thing for which she was sought after is nowhere to be found. The biographer seems herself puzzled to discover her fascination ; but notwithstanding the defective grasp of a character which must have passed through many changes in a long and active life, the writer has succeeded in telling the story as well, perhaps, as the inherent difficulties of such a task, on which we have already dwelt, will permit. The salon in question will never be so famous as its predecessors, but it will remain an object of interest in the literary memoirs of the period of Louis Philippe and of the Second Empire.
- Madame Mohl: her Salon and her Friends. A Study of Social Life in Paris. By KATHLEEN O’MEARA. Boston : Roberts Brothers. 1886.↩