Georgian Celebrities – Madame du Deffand
‘The Best Mind and the Worst Character’
I love to include real life historical characters in my books. One of these, who features in ‘A Hostage for the Corsair’ (a current work in progress in my Georgian Rebel Series), is the famous French salonnière, Madame du Deffand.
Marie Anne de Vichy-Chamrond was born at the Château de Chamrond, in Ligny-en-Brionnais, daughter of a noble French family. During her schooling at a convent in Paris, she showed great intelligence and a caustic, witty turn of mind which alarmed the abbess. Her parents arranged her marriage at the age of twenty one to her kinsman, Jean Baptiste de la Lande, Marquis du Deffand, without consulting her. The marriage was an unhappy one, and the couple separated in 1722.
Madame du Deffand is said by Horace Walpole to have been for a short time the mistress of the regent, the Duc de Orléans. She appeared to be quite incapable of forming strong attachments, but her intelligence, her cynicism and her wit made her the centre of a brilliant circle. In 1721 she began a friendship with Voltaire, with whom she later regularly corresponded. She spent much time at Sceaux, at the court of the Duchesse du Maine, where she struck up a close friendship with President Henault. In Paris the members of her salon included Voltaire, Montesquieu, Fontelle and Madame de Staal-Delaunay. Madame du Deffand is described as having the best mind and the worst character among the salonnières. She was proud, cynical, openly selfish, and one historian even referred to her as a ‘she-cat’.
In 1752 she retired from Paris, intending to remain in the country, but she was persuaded by her friends to return. She took up residence in 1747 in apartments in the convent of Saint-Joseph in the rue Saint-Dominique. When Madame du Deffand lost her sight in 1754, she engaged a young relative, Mademoiselle de Lespinasse, to help her in entertaining. Some of the guests, including D’Alembert, preferred the society of Mademoiselle de Lespinasse leading to an arrangement where she received visitors for an hour before her patron appeared. When this was discovered in 1764, Madame du Deffand dismissed Mademoiselle de Lespinasse and the salon broke up.
The principal friendship of Madame du Deffand’s later years was with Horace Walpole, who became the strongest and longest-lasting of all her attachments. Walpole refused at first to acknowledge their closeness due to a fear of being ridiculed because of his friend’s age. He did, however, pay several visits to Paris expressly for the purpose of enjoying her society, and maintained a close correspondence with her for fifteen years. On her death in 1780, Madame du Deffand left her dog Tonton to the care of Walpole, who was also entrusted with her papers.
Some of the Famous Sayings of Madame du Deffand:
1. In a letter to Horace Walpole in 1767 she says that Cardinal de Polignac, who was a great talker, had given her an account of the martyrdom of St. Denis at Montmartre, who, after his decapitation, had walked two leagues with his head in his hands. Her reply was, “The distance is nothing: it is only the first step that costs” (La distance n’y fait rien: il n’y a que le premier pas qui coûte).
2. “The things that cannot be known to us are not necessary to us.”
3. “Vanity ruins more women than love.”
4. “Women are never stronger than when they arm themselves with their weakness.”
5. She said she preferred “an old acquaintance to a new friend.”
6. When discussing Helvétius’ book On the Mind and his point that all human motives are egoistic, she remarked, “Bah, he has only revealed everyone’s secret.”
7. “How happy one would be if one could throw off one’s self as one throws off others!” This was illustrated when she went out to supper on the day of the death of M. Pont-de-Veyle, an close friend for forty years. The conversation turned upon her loss: “Alas!” she said, “He died at six this evening: otherwise you would not see me here” (sans cela vous ne me verriez pas ici).
8. When a remark was made that Voltaire, as an historian, did not have much imagination, Madame du Deffand exclaimed, “What more can you ask? He has invented history!” (Que voulez-vous de plus? Il a inventé l’histoire!). Voltaire himself, when accused of changing the circumstances of an event in the life of Charles XII for effect, appeared to support her statement. “Confess,” he was challenged, “That it did not occur as you have told it.” “Confess,” replied Voltaire, “That it is better as I have told it.”