Seven Small Duchesses by Eliot Gregory
Story type: Essay
Since those “precious” days when the habitués of the Hôtel Rambouillet first raised social intercourse to the level of a fine art, the morals and manners, the amusements and intrigues of great French ladies have interested the world and influenced the ways of civilized nations. Thanks to Memoirs and Maxims, we are able to reconstruct the life of a seventeenth or eighteenth century noblewoman as completely as German archeologists have rebuilt the temple of the Wingless Victory on the Acropolis from surrounding débris.
Interest in French society has, however, diminished during this century, ceasing almost entirely with the Second Empire, when foreign women gave the tone to a parvenu court from which the older aristocracy held aloof in disgust behind the closed gates of their “hôtels” and historic ch�teaux.
With the exception of Balzac, few writers have drawn authentic pictures of nineteenth-century noblewomen in France; and his vivid portrayals are more the creations of genius than correct descriptions of a caste.
During the last fifty years French aristocrats have ceased to be factors even in matters social, the sceptre they once held having passed into alien hands, the daughters of Albion to a great extent replacing their French rivals in influencing the ways of the “world,”-a change, be it remarked in passing, that has not improved the tone of society or contributed to the spread of good manners.
People like the French nobles, engaged in sulking and attempting to overthrow or boycott each succeeding régime, must naturally lose their influence. They have held aloof so long-fearing to compromise themselves by any advances to the powers that be, and restrained by countless traditions from taking an active part in either the social or political strife-that little by little they have been passed by and ignored; which is a pity, for amid the ruin of many hopes and ambitions they have remained true to their caste and handed down from generation to generation the secret of that gracious urbanity and tact which distinguished the Gallic noblewoman in the last century from the rest of her kind and made her so deft in the difficult art of pleasing-and being pleased.
Within the last few years there have, however, been signs of a change. Young members of historic houses show an amusing inclination to escape from their austere surroundings and resume the place their grandparents abdicated. If it is impossible to rule as formerly, they at any rate intend to get some fun out of existence.
This joyous movement to the front is being made by the young matrons enlisted under the “Seven little duchesses’” banner. Oddly enough, a baker’s half-dozen of ducal coronets are worn at this moment, in France, by small and sprightly women, who have shaken the dust of centuries from those ornaments and sport them with a decidedly modern air!
It is the members of this clique who, in Paris during the spring, at their ch�teaux in the summer and autumn, and on the Riviera after Christmas, lead the amusements and strike the key for the modern French world.
No one of these light-hearted ladies takes any particular precedence over the others. All are young, and some are wonderfully nice to look at. The Duchesse d’Uzès is, perhaps, the handsomest, good looks being an inheritance from her mother, the beautiful and wayward Duchesse de Chaulme.
There is a vivid grace about the daughter, an intense vitality that suggests some beautiful being of the forest. As she moves and speaks one almost expects to hear the quick breath coming and going through her quivering nostrils, and see foam on her full lips. Her mother’s tragic death has thrown a glamor of romance around the daughter’s life that heightens the witchery of her beauty.
Next in good looks comes an American, the Duchesse de la Rochefoucauld, although marriage (which, as de Maupassant remarked, is rarely becoming) has not been propitious to that gentle lady. By rights she should have been mentioned first, as her husband outranks, not only all the men of his age, but also his cousin, the old Duc de la Rochefoucauld-Doudeauville, to whom, however, a sort of brevet rank is accorded on account of his years, his wealth, and the high rank of his two wives. It might almost be asserted that our fair compatriot wears the oldest coronet in France. She certainly is mistress of three of the finest ch�teaux in that country, among which is Miromail, where the family live, and Liancourt, a superb Renaissance structure, a delight to the artist’s soul.
The young Duchesse de Brissac runs her two comrades close as regards looks. Brissac is the son of Mme. de Trédern, whom Newporters will remember two years ago, when she enjoyed some weeks of our summer season. Their ch�teau was built by the Brissac of Henri IV.’s time and is one of the few that escaped uninjured through the Revolution, its vast stone corridors and massive oak ceilings, its moat and battlements, standing to-day unimpaired amid a group of ch�teaux including Chaumont, Rochecotte, Azay-le-Rideau, Ussé, Chenonceau, within “dining” distance of each other, that form a centre of gayety next in importance to Paris and Cannes. In the autumn these spacious castles are filled with joyous bands and their ample stables with horses. A couple of years ago, when the king of Portugal and his suite were entertained at Chaumont for a week of stag-hunting, over three hundred people, servants, and guests, slept under its roof, and two hundred horses were housed in its stables.
The Duc de Luynes and his wife, who was Mlle. de Crussol (daughter of the brilliant Duchesse d’Uzès of Boulanger fame), live at Dampierre, another interesting pile filled with rare pictures, bric-à-brac, and statuary, first among which is Jean Goujon’s life-sized statue (in silver) of Louis XIII., presented by that monarch to his favorite, the founder of the house. This gem of the Renaissance stands in an octagonal chamber hung in dark velvet, unique among statues. It has been shown but once in public, at the Loan Exhibition in 1872, when the patriotic nobility lent their treasures to collect a fund for the Alsace-Lorraine exiles.
The Duchesse de Noailles, née Mlle. de Luynes, is another of this coterie and one of the few French noblewomen who has travelled. Many Americans will remember the visit she made here with her mother some years ago, and the effect her girlish grace produced at that time. The de Noailles’ ch�teau of Maintenon is an inheritance from Louis XIV.’s prudish favorite, who founded and enriched the de Noailles family. The Duc and Duchesse d’Uzès live near by at Bonnelle with the old Duc de Doudeauville, her grandfather, who is also the grandfather of Mme. de Noailles, these two ladies being descended each from a wife of the old duke, the former from the Princesse de Polignac and the latter from the Princesse de Ligne.
The Duchesse de Bisaccia, née Princesse Radziwill, and the Duchesse d’Harcourt, who complete the circle of seven, also live in this vicinity, where another group of historic residences, including Eclimont and Rambouillet, the summer home of the president, rivals in gayety and hospitality the ch�teaux of the Loire.
No coterie in England or in this country corresponds at all to this French community. Much as they love to amuse themselves, the idea of meeting any but their own set has never passed through their well-dressed heads. They differ from their parents in that they have broken away from many antiquated habits. Their houses are no longer lay hermitages, and their opera boxes are regularly filled, but no foreigner is ever received, no ambitious parvenu accepted among them. Ostracism here means not a ten years’ exile, but lifelong banishment.
The contrast is strong between this rigor and the enthusiasm with which wealthy new-comers are welcomed into London society or by our own upper crust, so full of unpalatable pieces of dough. This exclusiveness of the titled French reminds me-incongruously enough-of a certain arrangement of graves in a Lenox cemetery, where the members of an old New England family lie buried in a circle with their feet toward its centre. When I asked, many years ago, the reason for this arrangement, a wit of that day-a daughter, by the bye, of Mrs. Stowe-replied, “So that when they rise at the Last Day only members of their own family may face them!”
One is struck by another peculiarity of these French men and women-their astonishing proficiency in les arts d’agrément. Every Frenchwoman of any pretensions to fashion backs her beauty and grace with some art in which she is sure to be proficient. The dowager Duchesse d’Uzés is a sculptor of mark, and when during the autumn Mme. de Trédern gives opera at Brissac, she finds little difficulty in recruiting her troupe from among the youths and maidens under her roof whose musical education has been thorough enough to enable them to sing difficult music in public.
Love of the fine arts is felt in their conversation, in the arrangement and decoration of their homes, and in the interest that an exhibition of pictures or old furniture will excite. Few of these people but are habitués of the Hôtel Drouot and conversant with the value and authenticity of the works of art daily sold there. Such elements combine to form an atmosphere that does not exist in any other country, and lends an interest to society in France which it is far from possessing elsewhere.
There is but one way that an outsider can enter this Gallic paradise. By marrying into it! Two of the seven ladies in question lack the quarterings of the rest. Miss Mitchell was only a charming American girl, and the mother of the Princesse Radziwill was Mlle. Blanc of Monte Carlo. However, as in most religions there are ceremonies that purify, so in this case the sacrament of marriage is supposed to have reconstructed these wives and made them genealogically whole.
There is something incongruous to most people in the idea of a young girl hardly out of the schoolroom bearing a ponderous title. The pomp and circumstance that surround historic names connect them (through our reading) with stately matrons playing the “heavy female” roles in life’s drama, much as Lady Macbeth’s name evokes the idea of a raw-boned mother-in-law sort of person, the reverse of attractive, and quite the last woman in the world to egg her husband on to a crime-unless it were wife murder!
Names like de Chevreuse, or de la Rochefoucauld, seem appropriate only to the warlike amazons of the Fronde, or corpulent kill-joys in powder and court trains of the Mme. Etiquette school; it comes as a shock, on being presented to a group of girlish figures in the latest cut of golfing skirts, who are chattering odds on the Grand Prix in faultless English, to realize that these light-hearted gamines are the present owners of sonorous titles. One shudders to think what would have been the effect on poor Marie Antoinette’s priggish mentor could she have foreseen her granddaughter, clad in knickerbockers, running a petroleum tricycle in the streets of Paris, or pedalling “tandem” across country behind some young cavalry officer of her connection.
Let no simple-minded American imagine, however, that these up-to-date women are waiting to welcome him and his family to their intimacy. The world outside of France does not exist for a properly brought up French aristocrat. Few have travelled; from their point of view, any man with money, born outside of France, is a “Rasta,” unless he come with diplomatic rank, in which case his position at home is carefully ferreted out before he is entertained. Wealthy foreigners may live for years in Paris, without meeting a single member of this coterie, who will, however, join any new club that promises to be amusing; but as soon as the “Rastas” get a footing, “the seven” and their following withdraw. Puteaux had its day, then the “Polo Club” in the Bois became their rendezvous. But as every wealthy American and “smart” Englishwoman passing the spring in Paris rushed for that too open circle, like tacks toward a magnet, it was finally cut by the “Duchesses,” who, together with such attractive aides-de-camp as the Princesse de Poix, Mmes. de Murat, de Morny, and de Broglie, inaugurated last spring “The Ladies’ Club of the Acacias,” on a tiny island belonging to the “Tir aux Pigeons,” which, for the moment, is the fad of its founders.
It must be a surprise to those who do not know French family pride to learn that exclusive as these women are there are cliques in France to-day whose members consider the ladies we have been speaking of as lacking in reserve. Men like Guy de Durfort, Duc de Lorges, or the Duc de Massa, and their womenkind, hold themselves aloof on an infinitely higher plane, associating with very few and scorning the vulgar herd of “smart” people!
It would seem as if such a vigorous weeding out of the unworthy would result in a rather restricted comradeship. Who the “elect” are must become each year more difficult to discern.
Their point of view in this case cannot differ materially from that of the old Methodist lady, who, while she was quite sure no one outside of her own sect could possibly be saved, had grave fears concerning the future of most of the congregation. She felt hopeful only of the clergyman and herself, adding: “There are days when I have me doubts about the minister!”