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The King Of Poland And Madame Geoffrin by By Henry James


1"Correspondance inédite du Roi Stanislas Auguste Poniatowski et de Mme. Geoffrin.” (1764-1777.) Par M. Charles de Mony. Paris: Plon et Cie. 1875.

MADAME GEOFFRIN'S name is familiar to all those who have glanced into the records of the French society of the last century, and especially familiar in its somewhat enigmatic aspect. She played a part in the world which it is not an exaggeration to call eminent, and yet there is nothing whatever to show in explanation of her success. She had neither birth, nor beauty, nor wit; she had no conversational talent, no specialty, no secret charm. She could do nothing particular; so far from being able to write, she could not even spell, And yet she was hand and glove with the people of her day; her house was a sort of intellectual headquarters; she scolds the King of Poland in her ill-spelled epistles; she travels across Europe to Warsaw, and her journey is a “European” event; she lodges in the King's palace, and speaks her mind to him face to face; she sees Catharine of Russia entreat her in vain to honour St. Petersburg with a visit; she passes through Vienna and sits holding the hand of Maria Theresa for an hour, while the Emperor of Austria gets out of his coach into the mud, and comes to make his obeisance to her. Meanwhile she remains a plain-faced old woman, with a close white cap tied under her chin, who draws a large income from a manufactory of looking-glasses. She was the daughter of a valet de chambre about the court, and she was married at fifteen years of age to a rich but insignificant tradesman, who was so illiterate that he was one day found reading the double-columned page of a dictionary straight across from margin to margin. Mme. Geoffrin made her way with the sole assistance of her tranquil but robust ambition, her native tact, and her extreme good sense. Though she was no talker herself, she knew how to make others talk; she knew apparently how to preside at a brilliant conversation, and in the highly intellectual circle which she brought about her she performed the office of moderator, or, to express it in parliamentary phrase, of speaker. Moreover, she was extremely benevolent and humane; she was a kind of maternal providence to the whole sensitive and needy race—-the genus irritabile—-of artists and men of letters. She was rich and hospitable, a great giver of dinners, and above all she was discriminating. She understood human nature, read character, and (except sometimes in her epistolary judgments, as when she falls foul of Frederick the Great, and declares that in fifty years his name will be utterly forgotten among men) she never made mistakes. She had a genius for good sense; we have the word of Horace Walpole for it, and he, though he did not understand everything, often understood men and women. She was a person of excellent counsel, and her opinion on most matters was well worth having. All this in a measure accounts for the position she had made for herself, but it fails to solve the whole case. A mysterious element remains, which the letters before us do little toward clearing up. They give no glimpse of that possible “hidden charm” which we spoke of just now, as a necessary explanation of such an influence as Mme. Geoffrin's. They contain plenty of good sense, but they contain also plenty of silliness and on the whole they strike us as quite below the average of publishable French letters. The chance always is that a French letter will be charming, and these of Mme. Geoffrin are rather common and dry. Such persons as have cherished an historical devotion to the memory of the lady must have pronounced them disappointing. One merit, however, they would have if they had no other, and one service they would render—-they would do something toward blunting the edge of our admiration for the eighteenth century, of our envy of it as a kind of golden age of “society,” in so far as these feelings are at all tinged with superstition. Posterity has agreed to bow very low to the French salons of 1750—-to admit that their wit, their intellectual brilliancy, their urbanity of tone, are, as it were, a broken mould. Talleyrand said that a man who had not lived before the French revolution could form no idea of how charming a thing life could be; and we have always assumed that it savours desirably of “culture” to agree with him. But in the light of this closer familiarity with Mme. Geoffrin, who was one of the dispensers of the charm commemorated by Talleyrand, we are warranted in revising our regrets. Putting aside what belongs to the more primitive character of her time, and judging the lady in herself, she strikes us as a rather uninspired priestess of the amenities. A single example will suffice. She declares to the King of Poland in one of her letters, that she never reads the “gazettes” and that “les raisonnements politiques” are so much Greek to her. The heroic proportions of her image are immediately somewhat curtailed, and she becomes simply a comfortable matron, who takes care that her guests plates are filled, and prefers the shallow waters to the deep. Such a woman may be very agreeable, but we do not need a Talleyrand to tell us so.

The present volume, however, is published much less in the interest of Mme. Geoffrin than of Stanislaus Augustus, whose collateral descendants, the Poniatowski family, have opened their archives to the editor. Young Count Poniatowski came to Paris in 1753, at twenty years of age, was presented to Mme. Geoffrin, and was subsequently indebted to her intervention with his creditors for release from some of the penalties of too lavish an enjoyment of the pleasures of the capital. At twenty-five he was appointed Polish ambassador to the Russian court, where he made a lively impression upon the susceptible heart of the Empress Catharine, and had the honour of being one of her many lovers. In the midst of his good fortune, however, he was recalled, and it is apparent that he remained more faithful to the memory of the episode we have mentioned than the mighty Empress herself. It was always a sort of feather in his cap. The crown of Poland was elective, and on the death of Augustus III. young Poniatowski was presented to the Diet as a candidate—-presented by Frederick II. and by Catharine, who was at least disposed to render the ex-ambassador this service. It was a questionable one, for the young nobleman was elected to a very uneasy throne. The nation itself seems to have had a very slender voice in the affair. In this, however, there was reason; for the Polish people appears, during the last years of its independence, to have been in a political sense little less than insane. Internal conflicts were unending, and rebellion was in a manner legitimated and rendered permanent by the custom of the country. The Diet was fanatically Catholic, among other things, and would allow of no possible modus vivendi with members of the Protestant and Greek communions. Frederick and Catharine again interfered to enforce the rights of the dissenters, occupied the country with their troops,. deprived the King, who was being ground between two millstones, of everything but his name, and finally, with the assistance of Austria, proceeded to transact the first partition.

Stanislaus Augustus had retained a warm affection for Mme. Geoffrin, and a tender memory of her maternal assistance in his hour of youthful need in Paris. He had corresponded with her ever since that period, but the earlier letters are lost. The correspondence is preserved only from the moment of his ascending the throne, and this through Mme. Geoffrin having sent him back his letters in one of her frequent fits of irritation. It terminates only with her death in 1777, thus covering in the volume before us a space of thirteen years. During this time it had been subjected to some brief interruptions. The most important, if not the longest, was caused by Mme. Geoffrin's visit to Warsaw. This was a great event at the time, and was indeed a sufficiently remarkable occurrence. Mme. Geoffrin was sixty-seven years of age, and was the most sedentary of women; she had not slept out of Paris in years, and a journey to Warsaw, which in our own day has a slightly formidable sound, was in the last century, for an old bourgeoise, very fond of her fireside and her ease, a really heroic undertaking. It becomes heroic, indeed, or it becomes at least beautiful, when one regards the sentiment which lies at the bottom of it. Mme. Geoffrin's relation to the King of Poland was not a love affair; she was almost double his age, and he never calls her anything but “maman.” But it was a great tenderness and an extreme devotion, a deep interest in his prosperity, a strong desire that he should make no mistakes of any kind, and a lively sympathy with his eventual misfortunes. Besides, she was of course proud of their intimacy; to be the “maman” of the King of Poland was a high distinction. Her visit, at any rate, was only partially a success.; they fell out more than once during her sojourn in the palace, and on her return there is an after taste of acrimony in her letters. She was sensitive, suspicious, and a trifle jealous; and indeed her moral tone, as we call it nowadays, does not in general strike us as particularly high. She was too violent and too perverse a partisan. Stanislaus Augustus himself, however, produces the impression of an altogether genial and generous nature, and his letters are finer than Mme. Geoffrin's. He was a decidedly ineffectual king, but this arose in a measure from his very virtues. He was a man of a rather feminine type, and he hoped to overcome all his difficulties by patience, tact, and discretion. He was full of good will and good intention, and he evidently had a sincere love for his country; but he was too light a weight to ride so dangerous a steed. He had plenty of delicacy, but he lacked force, and while Poland is being carved into morsels, and the treasury is empty, he is busy writing to Mme. Geoffrin to send him pictures and busts, and assuring her, with amiable optimism, that all is for the best. One feels that in the same situation a man. of a different temper might have done something to control events. All that he can do is to resort to the last expedient of misplaced monarchs and suffer picturesquely.

We had noted as we read a number of quotable passages in these letters, but have not allowed ourselves space to reproduce them. Glancing over them, we feel as if we may have seemed to exaggerate the want of merit in the letters of Mme. Geoffrin; for here and there her thought has much elevation, and her expression a certain homely felicity. She is, moreover, always very downright and emphatic, and she perfectly knows her own mind on every possible subject. She dislikes Voltaire, and when a subscription is opened to erect a statue to him, she declines to put down her name, and has a perfectly definite answer. She thinks him good enough for a bust or a medallion, but not good enough for a statue. The book, we should add, is admirably edited. It is preceded by a copious and lucid introduction, narrating in full the dark chapter of Polish history of which Stanislaus Augustus was hero, and it is enriched with a multitude of exact and compact notes, in which no ambiguous allusion or undefined figure fails to be made clear. By reader's fond of the period, the book will be found not only interesting but entertaining.


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