John Lord.

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the eight tunes of which she thought much better to hear than going to
the Italian opera. Even society, in which she once shone, - for her
intellect was bright and her person beautiful, - at last wearied her and
gave her no pleasure. Like many lonely, discontented women, she became
attached to animals; she petted three dogs, in which she saw virtues
that neither men nor women possessed. In her disquiet she often changed
her residence. She went from Marlborough House to Windsor Lodge, and
from Windsor Lodge to Wimbledon, only to discover that each place was
damp and unhealthy. Wrapt up in flannels, and wheeled up and down her
room in a chair, she discovered that wealth can only mitigate the evils
of humanity, and realized how wretched is any person with a soul filled
with discontent and bitterness, when animal spirits are destroyed by the
infirmities of old age. All the views of this spoiled favorite of
fortune were bounded by the scenes immediately before her. While she was
not sceptical, she was far from being religious; and hence she was
deprived of the highest consolations given to people in disappointment
and sorrow and neglect. The older she grew, the more tenaciously did she
cling to temporal possessions, and the more keenly did she feel
occasional losses. Her intellect remained unclouded, but her feelings
became callous. While she had no reverence for the dead, she felt
increasing contempt for the living, - forgetting that no one, however
exalted, can live at peace in an atmosphere of disdain.

At last she died, in 1744, unlamented and unloved, in the eighty-fourth
year of her age, and was interred by the side of her husband, in the
tomb in the chapel of Blenheim. She left £30,000 a year to her
grandson, Lord John Spencer, provided he would never accept any civil
or military office from the Government. She left also £20,000 to Lord
Chesterfield, together with her most valuable diamond; but only small
sums to most of her relatives or to charities. The residue of her
property she left to that other grandson who inherited the title and
estates of her husband. £60,000 a year, her estimated income, besides a
costly collection of jewels, - one of the most valuable in Europe, - were
a great property, when few noblemen at that time had over £30,000
a year.

The life of Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, is a sad one to contemplate,
with all her riches and honors. Let those who envy wealth or rank learn
from her history how little worldly prosperity can secure happiness or
esteem, without the solid virtues of the heart. The richest and most
prosperous woman of her times was the object of blended derision,
contempt, and hatred throughout the land which she might have adorned.
Why, then, it may be asked, should I single out such a woman for a
lecture, - a woman who added neither to human happiness, national
prosperity, nor the civilization of her age? Why have I chosen her as
one of the Beacon Lights of history? Because I know of no woman who has
filled so exalted a position in society, and is so prominent a figure in
history, whose career is a more impressive warning of the dangers to be
shunned by those who embark on the perilous and troubled seas of mere
worldly ambition. God gave her that to which she aspired, and which so
many envy; but "He sent leanness into her soul."


Private Correspondence of the Duchess of Marlborough; Mrs. Thompson's
Life of the Duchess of Marlborough; "Conduct," by the Duchess of
Marlborough, Life of Dr. Tillotson, by Dr. Birch; Coxe's Life of the
Duke of Marlborough; Evelyn's Diary; Lord Mahon's History of England;
Macaulay's History of England; Lewis Jenkin's Memoirs of the Duke of
Gloucester; Burnet's History of his own Times; Lamberty's Memoirs;
Swift's Journal to Stella; Liddiard's Life of the Duke of Marlborough;
Boyer's Annals of Queen Anne; Swift's Memoir of the Queen's Ministry;
Cunningham's History of Great Britain; Walpole's Correspondence, edited
by Coxe; Sir Walter Scott's Life of Swift; Agnes Strickland's Queens of
England; Marlborough and the Times of Queen Anne; Westminster Review,
lvi. 26; Dublin University Review, lxxiv. 469; Temple Bar Magazine, lii.
333; Burton's Reign of Queen Anne; Stanhope's Queen Anne.


* * * * *

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

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.

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

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

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Online LibraryJohn LordBeacon Lights of History, Volume 07 Great Women → online text (page 12 of 20)