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The salon's-eye view in full undress

May 04, 2003|Eugen Weber | Eugen Weber, Joan Palevsky professor of modern European history emeritus at UCLA, is the author of numerous works, including "Peasants Into Frenchmen," and is a contributing writer to Book Review.

Memoirs of the Comtesse de Boigne

Vol. I, 1781-1815

Vol. II, 1816-1830

Edited and with an introduction by Anka Muhlstein

Turtle Point Press / Helen Marx Books:

Vol. I: 304 pp., $14.50

Vol. II: 266 pp., $14.50


Charlotte-Louise-Eleonore- Adelaide d'Osmond was born in 1781, eight years before the Bastille fell, into a family that traced its origins back past the Crusades. Her mother, Eleonore Dillon, was the daughter of a noble Catholic Irishman who had settled in France. Her father, the Marquis d'Osmond, was wealthy, cultivated and sensible. Eleonore, beautiful and charming, was selected to serve as lady-in-waiting to Adelaide, daughter of King Louis XV, sister of King Louis XVI; so the family lived at Versailles, where baby Adelaide (Adele) became a pet of the court and grew up, as it were, at or on the knees of the royal family.

These first, happy years came to an end with the French Revolution. Like many other nobles, the Osmonds took refuge in emigration, first to Italy (where Adele made friends with the daughter of the king of Naples who, in 1830, became queen of France), then to England. London, they found, was a great city composed of identical little houses, where a white dress clean in the morning would be soiled before the end of the day. "Overwhelmed with monotony," the Osmonds lived in ever more straitened circumstances until, in 1798, Adele, now 17, met an older emigre, the Comte de Boigne, and set her cap at him.

Son of a furrier from Chambery in Savoy, Benoit Le Borgne was a commoner turned soldier of fortune who returned from long, profitable service in India a general and soon Count de Boigne, at the head of an enormous fortune. The teenager made no secret that she married Boigne, 30 years older than she, for his money and for the generous terms to which he consented with her parents. It took little time for her to find that, although upright, honorable and trustworthy, he was also ill bred, surly, offensive, ostentatious and insanely jealous (even of her father and her dog). Unsurprisingly, the marriage broke up after 10 months, the couple separated, reunited, separated again and kept up that awkward exercise until the count moved back to his native Savoy and the comtesse moved to Paris in 1804 with her parents. The more distant the spouses, the more cordial their relations became, until Boigne died in 1830, leaving Adele a very wealthy widow. But she had become her own woman long before that.

A major historian of 19th century France, Hippolyte Taine, has described the role that ladies of her ilk played in the 18th and 19th centuries. "Women were queens, they made the fashion, molded the taste, led the conversation, hence ideas, hence opinions. Where they took the lead in politics, men would follow: each of them carried her salon with her." Salons, the coteries that gathered in the stream of guests paying court to hostesses, were crucial institutions of those days; and Comtesse de Boigne was one of the influential women that Taine wrote about, her intellect, tact and charm attracting the personalities and celebrities of the capital.

The comtesse describes them with a sharp, opinionated but equable pen. Madame de Stael: witty, brilliant, tactless, big red face, poor complexion and hair arranged in the picturesque manner -- "in other words, badly." Francois Rene de Chateaubriand: who believed in nothing except his own talent and was entirely absorbed with himself, building a pedestal from which to look down upon the age. Madame de Talleyrand: "The remains of her great beauty adorned her stupidity with a fair amount of dignity." The Duc de Berry, heir to the throne murdered in 1820: hot-tempered, promiscuous but kind, generous, just. His duchess, Marie-Caroline, a princess of Naples, cheerful, natural, clever, but spoiled, childish, sulky and looking "like a drowned dog" when she dressed up.

"I know history only as gossip," she declares. And anyway, "I am not writing history, merely putting down my knowledge of certain details" -- those "trivial details that help to give the stamp of truth." Like her description of the royal palace of the Tuileries: crowded, grubby and stinking everywhere, mostly of food. Or of Charles X, last of the elder Bourbon line, dethroned in 1830: a man of mulish obstinacy and curious superstitions, who handled and mishandled the revolution of 1830 based on advice from the Holy Virgin relayed by his favorite, the Prince de Polignac. He was affable, graceful, gracious, but had a shrill voice, did not pronounce words clearly and read his speeches clumsily. Shortsighted physically, he was no less shortsighted in politics. No wonder the Duke of Wellington was moved to remark that the best hope for the Restoration would be for the senior Bourbons to become extinct.

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