A Celebration of Women Writers

"The Duchesse d'Angoulême." by C.-A. Sainte-Beuve; translated by Katherine Prescott Wormeley.
From: The Ruin of a Princess. translated by Katherine Prescott Wormeley. New York: The Lamb Publishing Company, 1912. pp. 293-310.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

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November 3, 1851.

IN coming rather late and after all the other organs of publicity to render homage to a lofty virtue and a vast misfortune, I can only repeat, more or less, what has already been said and felt by all. There is one point of view, however,–if such an expression is permissible in presence of a figure so simple and true, so alien to all pompous attitude,–there is one point of view which we will here take especially for ours.

All suffers change; all dies or renews itself; the oldest and the most revered races have their end; nations themselves before they fall and end have their several ways of being successive, they take on divers forms of government in their diverse epochs; what was religion and fidelity in one age is only a monument and commemoration of the past in another; but through all (so long as vitiation does not come) something remains, namely: human nature and the natural sentiments that distinguish it, respect for virtue, for misfortune, especially if undeserved and innocent, and pity, which itself is piety towards God in so far as it turns towards human sorrow.

In speaking of Madame la Duchesse d'Angoulême it is to all those sentiments, apart from politics, that I address myself,–to the sensitive and durable side of our being.

The feature that stands out in this long life of suffering, of martyrdom in her early years and always of convulsion [Page 296]  and vicissitudes, is perfect truth, perfect simplicity, and, it may be said, entire and unalterable consistency. That upright soul, just and noble, was early fixed and established, and at no moment later did it vacillate. It was fixed during the very years that are for youth the age of lightsomeness, of joy, of budding bloom, during those three years and four months of captivity in the Tower of the Temple when she saw die, one after another, her father, her mother, her aunt, her brother. She entered that place before she was fourteen years old, she left it the day she was seventeen. At that age she had not acquired the marked and rather strong features by which we have known her. The portrait we have of her soon after this period in the Temple, with the hair negligently knotted, has delicacy in its outline, and nobleness and gravity without excess. Misfortune, while weighing upon that forehead, has not yet drawn there the furrow which appeared a few years later and gave her, as she grew older, more and more resemblance to Louis XVI.

But at the close of this year, 1795, though the outward presence still retained much of its early youth, the soul was mature, it was formed and disciplined. In its depths that strong and healthy organization had been attacked. The liver suffered and was injured. This tender young slip of a long and illustrious race was blighted, perhaps withered even in its future shoots. If we may dare to form an idea of these mysteries of sorrow, it seems to me that on leaving the Temple both the life and the soul of Madame Royale were finished, completed in all essential things; they were closed to the future; all their sources, all their roots where henceforth in the past. Our heart, let it have had but one day in life, fixes or recalls the emotions of a certain hour that we hear strike for us whenever we re-enter our inner selves and dream there. The Duchesse d'Angoulême, who never [Page 297]  dreamed but who prayed, when she retreated within herself (though she did not retreat, for she lived there), heard that hour strike on the clock of the Temple for the death-knell of her parents.

She has related the history of her captivity and the events happening in the Temple from the day she entered there until the day of her brother's death, and she has done it in a simple, correct, concise style, without one word too much, without one wrought-up phrase, as became an upright mind and a deep heart speaking in all sincerity of true sorrows, sorrows truly ineffable, which surpassed all that words could tell. She forgets herself as much as she can, and she stops her narrative at the death of her brother,–the last of the four immolated victims. Let us say more of her here than she has said of herself.

Marie-Thérèse-Charlotte de France, born December 19, 1778, was the first child of Louis XVI. and Queen Marie-Antoinette. Seven years had elapsed since the queen's marriage, when she one day informed the persons in her private circle of her first joy as a wife and her future hopes. About one year later she gave birth to Madame Royale. Although until then Louis XVI.'s timidity towards his young wife had been extreme, his passion from that moment was not less so, and this child, the first fruits of it, was to a great degree his image. Kindness, integrity, all the solid and virtuous qualities of her father were transmitted straight to Madame's heart, and Marie-Antoinette, with all her grace, could not hinder a little of that roughness of gesture and accent which covered the virtues of Louis XVI. from slipping into the wholly frank nature of his child. Also, she forgot to transmit to her that which women have so readily–a desire to please and the dawning charm of coquetry, even the most innocent and permissible. Of that, Madame Royale had no [Page 298]  idea, and no conception. Or if, in the beginning, some trifle of it mingled in her blood, that little disappeared completely in the trials of a childhood and a youth so oppressed, so desolate. In order to comprehend the Duchesse d'Angoulême, we must never cease to remember that all that calls itself springtide joy and bloom, that joyous and bewitching aspect under which, on entering life, we so naturally see all things, was suppressed and early blighted in her. Her soul, scarcely in its first dawn, was suddenly reduced and worn, as it were, to its woof,–but a solid indestructible woof, which resisted and grew stronger under all assaults, fortifying itself by tears, by prayers, but casting far away from it, as if it were the equal of a lie, all that might have been grace and ornament. In truth, for her who had wept true tears, and never ceased to weep them, it would have been a lie.

Though she seems in her nature to have derived from her father more than from her mother, there is one virtue at least that she held through the latter, which was lacking in that poor Louis XVI. to save him: I mean firmness, the courage to act in decisive moments. In her august and modest life, in general so aloof from political questions, the Duchesse d'Angoulême found, once at least at Bordeaux, an opportunity to show that she had in her that courage of action which came to her from her mother and grandmother, Maria Theresa. And again, in 1830, when she rejoined the royal family at Rambouillet (after the faults were committed), her first impulsion was, as in 1815 at Bordeaux, to resist and fight.

She was not eleven years old when, with the terrible days of October, 1789, her public rôle beside her mother began. She was made to appear on a balcony and retire from it at the bidding of a furious populace; and in that flux and reflux of the popular storm, of which she strove to divine the mean- [Page 299]  ing, she felt but one thing,–the clasp of her mother's hand, which pressed her against herself with the chill of death.

At that time, in the confines of the Tuileries to which the royal family was restricted, she received from her mother, now becoming more and more grave, from her noble Aunt Élisabeth, and from her father, the lessons of a practical and solid instruction and examples of an unalterable domestic religion. She was brought-up within that domesticity like a child of the most united and purest of noble families, but with mortal terrors added, and with agonies by day and night. It was in that long series of terrors, enigmas, and painful nightmares that the years and the dreams of girlhood, usually so lightsome, were passed.

On entering the Temple, there was no more enigma, the veil was rent away completely. Henceforth, the world to her was sharply divided in two–the good and the wicked: the wicked, that is to say, all that human imagination in times of peace and social regularity scarcely dares to present nakedly to itself,–brutality in all its coarseness and degradation, vice and envy in all the ignoble drunkenness of their triumph; the good, that is to say, a few touched, pitying, timid souls, softening the evil secretly and concealing their deed.

That the young heart of Madame Royale did not take from that hour an undying hatred, a contempt unchangeable, for the human race, that she preserved her purity of soul, her faith, her trust in good, was owing to the divine examples and the help she had around her, especially in her Aunt Élisabeth, that celestial person; it was owing to religion, clearly defined and practical, at which no questioning mind can ever have the right to smile, because it alone has the power to sustain and to console under such sorrows. One day (April 20, 1793) the wretch Hébert with other munici- [Page 300]  pals came to the Tower at ten at night, after the prisoners had gone to bed. "We rose hastily," says Madame Royale . . . "My poor brother was asleep; they pulled him roughly from his bed to search it . . . They took from my mother the address of a shop, from my Aunt Élisabeth a stick of sealing-wax, and from me a Sacred Heart of Jesus and a Prayer for France."

That Sacred Heart of Jesus and that Prayer for France were closer bound together than would seem at first; and perhaps she needed all her faith in the one to be able at that moment to pray for the other.

It has sometimes been said that the Duchesse d'Angoulême felt a rancour against France, and that when she returned in 1814, and again in 1815, she showed that feeling involuntarily in several of her remarks; as for acts, it would be impossible to find any for which to blame her. But the persons who knew her best, and who are most worthy of belief, declare that all such feelings were far from being hers. She was frank and sincere; she was even a little harsh and brusque in manner, like her father. Incapable of an evil thought, but also of insincerity, if she did not like you it was impossible for her to say to you or let you think the contrary. "She was a most loyal gentleman," some one said of her to me, "who was never false." She loved her friends, she forgave her enemies; but if, in the religion of her race and misfortunes, she believed there were faithful and unfaithful, good men and wicked men, can we wonder?

The narrative she has given of the events of the Temple was written in it, during the last months of her imprisonment, when there was some relaxation of extreme severity. In this precise, methodical, sensible, and touching narrative Madame d'Angoulême gives the measure of her precocious [Page 301]  reason, and her good judgement in things of the soul. She shows herself greatly struck by the dignity of her mother, who, to the speeches of various kings addressed to the noble captives, answered oftenest by silence. "My mother, as usual, said nothing," writes Madame, in regard to an insulting piece of news announced to them, which the queen had the air of not hearing; often her contemptuous calmness and her dignified bearing awed those men; it was rarely to her that they addressed themselves.

It was not until the first day of Louis XVI.'s trial, when she saw him taken away to be interrogated at the bar of the Convention,–it was not until that day that Marie-Antoinette succumbed to her anxiety and broke her noble silence: "My mother tried in every way to learn what was happening from the municipals who guarded her; it was the first time she had deigned to question them."

In this simple narrative, which no one can read without tears, there are touches that make a profund impression, of which the pen that wrote them had no suspicion. Madame has had a trouble in her foot (chilblains, as a result of the cold), complicated with some internal illness. During this time Louis XVI. is condemned. His family, who hoped to see him once more, to embrace him on the morning of his death, is left in a desolation we can well conceive.

"Nothing," writes Madame, "was able to calm my mother's anguish; we could make no hope of any sort enter her heart; she was indifferent whether she lived or died. She looked at us sometimes with a pity that made us shudder. Happily, grief increased my illness and that occupied her."

Happily!–that word slipping unconsciously into this picture of sorrow has an effect that no word of Bossuet's could equal.

It was in reflecting on these dolorous scenes of the Temple [Page 302]  that M. de Chateaubriand (not to confound him, however, as some too often do, with Boussuet) said in "Atala:" "The dweller in a cabin, and those in palaces, all suffer, and all moan here below; queens have been seen to weep like simple women, and men wonder at the quantity of tears that flow from the eyes of kings."

A popular poet alluding to that celebrated passage, but continuing to keep in opposition the classes, writes:–

"In the eye of a king the tears can be reckoned.
  The eyes of the people are too full of tears for that."

The sense of opposition of that kind will never come, I am very certain, to whoso reads the simple, Christian, human narrative of Madame Royale in the Temple. All spirit of party disarms itself and dies as we read it; there is room for nothing but compassion and the deepest admiration. Gentleness, piety, and virgin modesty inspire these pages of the shocked and insulted young girl. She spent alone with her Aunt Élisabeth the winter of 93-94. "They tutoyéd us much during the winter," she says. "We despised all vexations, but this last coarseness always made my aunt and me blush."

The most cruel moment for her was that when, after the death of her father, after the disappearance of her mother and her aunt, ignorant of the actual fate of those dear heads, she heard in the distance, during the weeks that preceded the 9th thermidor, the voice of her brother, already a prey to the corrupters, singing the atrocious songs taught him by Simon, the shoemaker.

"As for me," she says, "I only asked for simple necessaries; often they were refused to me harshly. But at least I could keep myself clean; I had soap and water; I swept my room daily, and I finished by nine o'clock when the guard brought me my breakfast. I had no light, but during the long days I [Page 303]  suffered less from that privation. They would not give me books, I had only some of piety and travels which I had read a hundred times."

At last the Convention, after the 9th thermidor, softened in severity; public opinion made itself heard, and pity dared to murmur. One of the commissioners, whose duty it was to visit the young princess in the Temple, has left a representation of her in her seemly attitude, suffering and poverty-stricken, seated by the window knitting, and far from the fire (there was not light enough for her work near the chimney), her hands swollen with cold and covered with chilblains, for they did not give her wood enough to warm the room at any distance. This was the first time attention was shown to her or any desire to soften her fate. Her first impulse was to be incredulous, silent, and to refuse all offers. To a question which the commissioners put to her as to her books, which consisted of the "Imitation of Jesus Christ" and a few other books of devotion, saying that they were scarcely sufficient to amuse her, "Those books, monsieur," she replied, "are precisely the ones that suit my situation."

The period which came between the 9th thermidor, July 27, 1794, and the deliverance of the princess in the last days of 1795, was that in which a whole royalist literature attempted to burst forth around her. Sentimental songs were made and sung to her from a distance, the echoes of which told her that henceforth friends were watching over her fate. Odes were written on the goat and the dog she was allowed at the very last to have, and which, from neighbouring windows, were seen with her in the garden. The Duchesse d'Angoulême has been, or rather could have been, the centre of a whole contemporaneous literature, of which we can follow the trace, from the song of M. Lepitre, sung beneath the walls of the Temple, and the novel of "Irma, or the Sorrows [Page 304]  of a Young Orphan" (published by Mme. Guénard in the year VIII.), to the "Antigone" of Ballanche, which more nobly crowned that allegorical and mythological literature in 1815. But one distinctive trait in her was to remain completely aloof from this rather tardy invasion of public sentimentality. It is to her honour that she never, in the slightest degree, suffered literature, romance, drama, to enter the sanctuary, veiled forever, of her sorrow. "I do not like scenes," she said one day, a little brusquely, to a woman who threw herself on her knees before her to thank her for some benefit.

Scenes! she had seen too many scenes, too awfully real, to endure the mere image of them. The deep sincerity of her mourning and of her filial affection had in this direction the same effect we should expect of the most enlightened and severe good taste. All this literature, more or less over-pitched, and in the style of Mme. Cottin, which accumulated round the youth of Madame Royale, evidently never touched her; and the Narrative she wrote in 1795 of the events of the Temple will be the touchstone by which to judge of all these other narratives and false descriptions, could they even be brought into comparison. She proved her great good sense in her utmost sorrow.

When she leaves France, in Vienna, at Mittau, where they marry her to her cousin, everywhere, in the diverse exiles where fortune tosses her, she is still the same; the life of the Temple is there, like a background to her oratory, dominating each day and dictating to her the employment of it. Submissive to her uncle, in whom she sees both a king and a father, she thinks only of reuniting all her faiths, all her religions, and of practising them faithfully.

A most touching scene in her life is well related by one of her biographers (M. Nettement); it occurred at Mittau in [Page 305]  May, 1807, when she nursed and assisted till his end the Abbé Edgeworth de Firmont, the priest who had accompanied Louis XVI. to the scaffold. A contagious fever broke out among the French prisoners brought to Mittau by the events of the war. The Abbé Edgeworth, in taking care of them, contracted the disease, a species of typhus; and it was under these extreme circumstances that Madame d'Angoulême would not abandon him. "The less knowledge he has of his needs and his condition," she said, "the more the presence of a friend is necessary to him . . . . Nothing can prevent me from nursing the Abbé Edgeworth myself; I ask no one to accompany me." She wished to return to him, as much as it was in her to do so, that which he had carried of consolation and succour to Louis XVI. when dying. She lived and dwelt continually in that line of thought, without being distracted from it for a single day.

Did Madame d'Angoulême ever have a single day of real happiness after her issue from the Temple? Was there ever place in that heart, saturated with anguish in her tenderest years, for one unalloyed and veritable joy? It would be strange if, in spite of all, she did not feel one, like an unexpected, gushing spring, during the great moments of 1814,–that year which must have seemed to her at every step a startling testimony to the wonders of Providence. Nevertheless, this sort of exaltation, if she felt it, could not have survived the events of Bordeaux and the new and bitter proof she there obtained of human frailty and unfaithfulness.

She was, as every one knows, at Bordeaux at the moment when Napoleon's landing in Provence from Elba (March 1815) became known. Madame d'Angoulême, obeying the impulsion of her maternal blood, had the idea of resistance, and to organize it she did all that we should expect from so noble and virile a character. The opinion of the city was [Page 306]  wholly favourable and devoted to her; but the troops in garrison seemed doubtful from the moment that the great captain and his eagles reappeared. Nevertheless, she (although warned by the generals), she could not believe that their fidelity was doubtful, because, only the evening before, she had received from these very men, whom she considered heroes, reiterated homage and oaths of fidelity.

The historians of the Restoration have very well related those scenes in which Madame d'Angoulême figures, and they all agree in praising her active courage and her bearing. She went through the barracks; she strove to electrify the soldiers, she piqued their honour–but it was all of no use; she found hearts closed against her, captured again by the old love. At the moment of leaving, after exhausting all efforts, she turned to the generals who had followed her, and said that she counted upon them to at least guarantee the inhabitants of Bordeaux against all reaction. "We swear it!" cried the generals, raising their hands. "I do not ask you for oaths," she said, with a gesture of disdainful pity; "enough have been made to me, I want no more." Those haughty words she had the right to say; surely few persons have seen with their eyes how far the malignancy or the instability of men can go.

Mirabeau said of Marie-Antoinette, "The king has but one man, and that is his wife." The Duchesse d'Angoulême deserves the speech of a like nature which Napoleon made about her conduct at Bordeaux. Such praises, even though they may be slightly exaggerated, serve as indications from afar and are registered in history.

The second Restoration could bring her no elation; on entering the Tuileries she saw Fouché, a regicide, made the king's minister. Her upright and inviolable conscience could not admit for a single moment such monstrous compromises, [Page 307]  which policy itself finds it difficult to understand and which, most assuredly, it did not require. After that moment in 1815, we never meet Madame d'Angoulême again in any political action, properly so called; her whole after life was domestic and inward.

I have questioned, in regard to her, men who approached her constantly, and this is what they tell me. Each day was alike to her, except the funereal days of her sorrowful anniversaries. She rose very early, at half-past five o'clock for example; she heard mass for herself alone between six and seven. It is conjectured that she took the communion often, but she was never seen to do so, except on the great days occasionally. No solemnity, no formal preparations; she was only a humble Christian doing a religious act; she did discreetly and secretly saintly things.

In the early morning she attended to the care of her room, in the Tuileries almost as she did in the Temple.

She never spoke of the painful and bleeding things of her youth, unless to a very few persons in her intimacy. The 21st of January and the 16th of October, the death days of her father and mother, she shut herself up alone, sometimes sending, to help her in passing the cruel hours, for some person with whom she was in harmony of mourning and piety–the late Mme. de Pastoret, for example.

She was charitable to a degree that no one knows, and which it is hard to fathom; those who were best informed as to her alms and other deeds were constantly discovering others, which came up, it were, as from underground, and of which they knew nothing. In that she was of the true and direct lineage of Saint Louis.

Her life was very regular and very simple, whether in the Tuileries or elsewhere in exile. The conversation around her was always very natural. At moments, when misfortune [Page 308]  made truce for a while, it was noticed that she had in her mind or in her nature a certain gaiety, of which, alas! she could make too little usage. Still, on her best days and in privacy she would let herself go, if not to saying, at least to hearing, things that were gay. When she felt herself in safe and friendly regions a certain pleasantry did not frighten her, and when on festivals she was expected to order plays for her theatre she did not choose the most serious.

Even amid the habit of pain there rose to the surface a sort of joy, such as comes to tried and austere souls, whom religion has guided and consoled throughout all time.

Politics were not for her; she did not like public affairs. No influence affected her. Her policy, which if it came from herself would have been judicious, was ruled completely by the desires of the king. She thought that when the king decidedly wished anything it was not permissible to resist it, however good a royalist one might be. MM. de Villèle and Corbières in resisting the king displeased her quite as much as the liberals themselves could have done.

She was educated, in the style of the instruction of Louis XVI.; she read books of history, travels, morality, and religion. If her reading lacked that which is vivifying in a worldly and literary sense, in the political and profane sense, if the breath and the intelligence of the new epoch never crossed the lines of her horizon, can we wonder at it? can we pity her for it? did she not gain far more than she lost through her fixed faith and the stability of her confidence in Heaven?

The letters that are quoted as hers, and probably all those that she wrote, are simple, sensible, a little stiff and dry, and presenting nothing remarkable.

Few good sayings of hers have been repeated, although her heart occasionally suggested one. Apropos of the war [Page 309]  in Spain, when she heard of the deliverance of King Ferdinand by a French army, she exclaimed: "So it is proved that an unfortunate king can be saved!"

During her last exile at Frohsdorf she was visited (December, 1848) by a French traveller, M. Charles Didier, who ventured to say to her: "Madame, it is impossible that you should not see in the fall of Louis-Philippe the finger of God." "It is in all things," she replied with simplicity, but also with a tact which came from religion, and from the heart as well.

It was the same moral delicacy which, in her union with the Duc d'Angoulême made her constantly ignore what there was of inequality between them. She took pains to put him forward on the front line,–a delicacy the more real because it was never known whether she was conscious of it.

I have told the class of sentiments to which we must limit ourselves in seeking her and admiring her. Do not ask of that soul, so early wounded and despoiled, either coquetry of mind or the lighter graces. She would have thought it profanation and indeed a sacrilege to have made her sorrows and those of her parents, her virtue and the respectful interest she inspired, a means of policy, success, or attraction for what she believed to be the "good cause." She would have blamed herself for so doing before God; and when the memory of all that she had lost came back to her she could only veil herself and withdraw into her soul with sobs and tears.

Enough said to indicate that august nature, that none have been tempted to misconceive: solidity, good sense, kindness, a certain background, as I have said, of gaiety, and a perfect simplicity,–those are the chief traits which composed that nature. Religion with charity placed upon [Page 310]  it a seal sublime. Her religion was the most uniform, the most practical, and absolutely foreign to all effect on others and all worldly considerations. No one ever bore more simply, naturally, or with more Christianity a greater woe.

The Duchesse d'Angoulême died at Frohsdorf October 19, 1851, aged seventy-three years and four months, and in the twenty-first year of her last exile. Her preceding exile lasted eighteen years (not counting the Hundred Days). They were preceded by imprisonment in the Temple for three years, and a forced confinement in the Tuileries in the midst of riot and danger for three more. That was the frame of this destiny of sorrow and sacrifice, on which Antiquity would have shed its poesy and its idealism, while we see only its inner beauty, half-veiled, as becomes Christianity.


Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

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Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom