Isabelle de Montolieu: A Life

"Ma patrie est celle de Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Je fus longtemps enthousiaste de son génie et de ses ouvrages."
"Convenez, disait-elle, que la vie est bien triste et l'amitié bien douce."1

Part One: The Framework (1751 - 1786)

Few English and not many French readers will recognize the name of a novelist and translator who from the later 18th through mid-19th century gave much pleasure to English, French -- and Spanish, Portuguese and German readers. Isabelle de Montolieu was the author of a very few novels, stories and essays, and of over 100 volumes of translation. Once a favorite with, and respected by, women readers and writers, Montolieu now lives a shadow's existence, mostly in footnotes and bibliographies. She comes in for a citation as the first French translator of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility (Raison et Sensibilité, ou Les Deux Manières d'Aimer) and Persuasion (La Famille Elliot, ou L'Ancienne Inclination). One of her translation/free adaptations, Le Robinson suisse, ou, Journal d'un père de famille, naufragé avec ses enfans, rewritten and expanded by her more than once is the literal source of a still frequently reprinted "translation" of the children's classic, The Swiss Family Robinson. She turns up as intimate with Stéphanie-Félicité de Genlis; the indefatigible correspondent of Anne-Pierre, marquis de Montesquiou; and Edward Gibbon's friend (though this relationship has been treated with derision). She is named and occasionally quoted as an early writer of children's literature and a member of a circle of Francophone Swiss writers much influenced by early romantic English and German literature. Montolieu also has two claims on contemporary notice as an original author of texts which were influential or sold: her first novel, Caroline de Lichtfield, ou Mémoires d'une Famille Prussienne, was an influential instant best-seller in the 1780s and stayed in print until the mid-19th century; and her depiction of the landscape of Switzerland and free adaptation of a few of its legends, Châteaux Suisses, was reprinted as recently as 1965.

She was born May 7, 1751, in Lausanne, Switzerland. Her father's name was Antoine-Noé Polier. He was one of 22 children of Jean-Jacques Polier and Salomé Quisard. Polier was a clergyman of the type which Goldsmith's Vicar of Wakefield and Prévost's Le Doyen de Killerine has kept familiar to English and French readers. Polier studied theology at Leyden; became a vicar at Lausanne and then at Lausanne and Vevey; is said to have been Voltaire's friend; collaborated on articles in the Encyclopédie; and published La sainte écriture de l'Ancien Testament, exposée et éclaircie par demandes et par réponses (1764-68), and a memoir, Les souvenirs de jeunesse (edited and published in 1911). There are a series of extant letters between him and a near-by reasonably well-educated, connected and wealthy neighbor, Salomon de Charrière de Sévery. in which Polier attempts to enlist Sévery in the (according to Polier) difficult task of making desperately-needed money honestly; Polier proposes to turn his house into a boarding school for wealthy young English boys. Isabelle's recorded story begins when on June 1, 1751, Polier wrote Sévery about her birth: "Vous savez, mon cher monsieur, les couches heureuses de ma petite femme qui m'a donné une petite fille que les bonnes matrons disent devoir être jolie.2

His "little" wife, Isabelle's mother was Elizabeth de Lagier-de Pluvianes, whom Isabelle described as playful and affectionate to her three children by Polier:

Ma mère était fort petite et pourtant je me souviens que l'un de mes plus grands plaisirs d'enfance était de me blottir avec mon frère et ma soeur sous les grands pans de sa robe lorsqu'elle allait á une assemblée: elle nous appelait comme des poussins et nous logeait sous son panier.

Isabelle's sister was Jeanne-Françoise Polier de Bottens (sometimes called Jeanette); her brother, Henri Polier de Bottens. Eventually Jeanne wrote novels too: Lettres d'un Hortense de Valsin, Féline et Florentine and Mémoires et voyages d'une famille émigrée, and "après la révolution vaudoise, [her brother became] le premier préfet national du Léman."3

From Isabelle's childhood we can single out an encounter important for her later vocation: at age 11 she met Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Its significance and her attitude towards Rousseau and his work are told in story form in her conte, published 43 years later, Le Serin de Jean-Jacques Rousseau. She revealed the provenance of the tale in a letter written 25 August 1811 to her publisher, Amaury Duval:

J'ai connu Rousseau personellement dans mon enfance, et j'ai passé quelque temps avec lui á Yverdon chez Mr de Gingins de Moiry, qui était mon proche parent. J'avais alors l'âge que je suppose á Rosine, j'ai donc pu le peindre, d'après nature, et je crois avoir bien saisi sa manière et son caractère…

In the tale Isabelle describes a visit she made to the Panthéon in 1800. There she went over to the monument to Rousseau and found a small box containing a stuffed canary and a manuscript by a child named Rosine. We are in the land of the imagination, and move into the manuscript. A fictional child, Rosine, aged 11, tells of how she met and was deeply attracted to an apparently lonely simple elderly man, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The child is characerized as impulsive, someone who loves music, easily delighted with toys, forward, trusting, and apt very apt to sympathize with an elderly man, apparently all alone, but for an ill-tempered woman, Mlle Thérèse. The man spends his time with his books, his plants, and a pet bird and treats her with great affectionate kindness. We are told she soon becomes his new "Sophie," a beloved pupil:

Par ses soins je devins une passable musicienne; j'appris de l'histoire et de la géographie ce qu'il en fallait pour comprendre les gazettes que je lisais á ma tante. Je lisais avec lui quelques morceaux choisis des meilleurs auteurs français, quelques tragédies de Racine. Télémaque en entier, peu d'ouvrages modernes, et des siens suelement quelques pages d'Emile, qui me firent comprendre pourquoi il me nommait quelquefois sa Sophie. Ce nom réveillait en lui mille souvenirs doux et pénibles. Il le prononçit souvent en caressent Carino [the canary]. Il me dit que celle qui le lui avait donné, portait ce nom qu'il ne prononçait jamais sans émotion. Ce fut dans un de ces moments qu'il me dit les larmes aux yeux: -- Bonne Rosine! si tu m'aimes encore quand je ne serai plus, porte Carino sur ma tombe lorsque sa vie aussi sera terminée; tu le placeras sur la pierre qui qui couvrira ton vieux ami, ce sra peut-être qui m'aura toujours aimé. Ce fut mon tour de pleurer. -- Tais-toi, lui dis-je en portant ma main sur sa bouche, tu dis qu'il ne faut pas mentir, et á présent tu ne dis pas la véerité; tu said bien que je t'aime, que je t'aimerai toute ma vie.

Toute sa vie, répéta-t-il en souriant; puis il me donna un baiser sur le front en renouvelant sa prèrede placer Carino sur sa tombe.

Alas, when a male cousin, aged 17, Armand, comes from Paris, is told about Rosine's friendship with Rousseau, Armand begins to tell his mother and cousin all about Rousseau's work, friends, and enemies. It seems that Armand collaborates on a journal in Paris. He wants to meet the great man and tells his cousin how proud he will make her when she turns up in books next to Julie and Sophie. She brings the cousin to Rousseau and the old man's character undergoes an immediate transformation:

Cette aimable et bonne physionomie qui me souriait toujours, devint sombre, farouche: son regard exprimait l'indignation et colère la plus violente. Il le porta d'abord sur Armand, puis sur moi. -- Que faites-vous ici, Rosine, avec ce jeune homme? Pourquoi me l'amenez-vous? Qui est-il? Que me veut-il? -- C'est mon cousin Armand, répondis-je tuote tremblante, qui est de retour de Paris et… -- Dieu! de Paris, dit-il avec un accent terrible, en cachant son visage dans ses deux mains qui tremblaient de colère, je vois … je compresnds… retirez-vous… laissez-mois, laissez-moi. Il se promenait avec agitation. Armand le suivant en lui faisant des excuses, et lui nommant des gens de lettres de Paris qu'il connaissait. A chaque nom, á chaque pas, le fureur de Jean-Jacques redoublait, et son terrible laissez-moi devenait plus positif. Je voulous aller prendre Carino dans sa cage pour m'aider á l'apaiser. -- Laissez cet oiseau, Rosine, vous n'êtes plus digne de lui, il est le seul être qui ne m'ait pas trahi.

Within a couple of days the old man has vanished. Mlle Thérése explains that his health, his very life has become insecure at Môtiers. He leaves her a letter justifying himself. It seems he wanted to believe her an innocent, and is still willing to believe her not yet guilty of conspiring against him. But he knows that soon she will as she has found this other friend, who she will love, marry and who has come to spy on him and is in league with his enemies. He leaves her the bird to remember him by and hopes that the virtue she has learned from him will someday prove to her that the man who instructed her was virtuous. Montolieu has presented Rousseau as profoundly paranoid, and not presented any evidence to explain why partly because she (and many of her contemporaries who knew Rousseau) found themselves unable to understand his antisocial rage. He is a pathetic figure in the conte.

We know that in 1768 when Isabelle was 17 she was deeply influenced by La Nouvelle Héloise. She opens this conte with the statement: "Ma patrie est celle de Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Je fus longtemps enthousaiste de son génie et de ses ouvrages." She remarks that at her mother's death, she remained alone with her father who was too preoccupied with his business affairs to direct her or to watch what she was reading. Thus her teacher at the time became Rousseau and she remained faithful to him until she read his Confessions.4

The mother died in the same year. By that time Isabelle was also planning to marry Benjamin de Crousaz. She told Pierre Picot, a young man attracted to her, that her parents were against her choice. Something of Isabelle's attractively impulsive emotional nature again comes through, and now adult susceptibility to depression comes through in a record Picot left of a walk he took with her:

Elle avait alors dix-sept ans et sa figure était charmante. Comme, par bonheur, elle était auprès de son père, tandis que les deux pasteurs s'entretenaient, ce fut avec la fille que j'eus mon a parte. C'était un samedi. Elle m'invita pour sa société du lendemain. Je la vis le matin au sermon. M. le professeur de Bons, ami et collègue á Londres de mon oncle Patron, prêchait ce jour-lá; j'en fus enchanté. J'avoue que je l'étais plus encore par l'attente de la soirée. Rien de plus aimable que ma nouvelle connaissance qui s'aperçut bientôt de l'impression qu'elle faisait sur moi. On se promena. Elle saisit mon bras et me prenant de suite pour son confident, elle me dit quelle était sa position du moment. Son père et sa mère ne voulaient pas consentir á son mariage avec M. de Crousaz-Mézery. Au premier moment je fus un peu capot en apprenant que son coeur était déjá pris, mais c'eût été folie á moi de m'en affecter longtemps et de la contrarier dans ses vues par un égoïsme insensé. Le mariage eut donc lieu, mais son mari ne vécut longtemps. Les talents de sa femme pour la littérature, fort connus par nombre de jolis romans qu'elle a publiés (Caroline de Lichtfield entre autres), remplirent d'abord le vide de son coeur. Elle a ensuite épousé M. de Montolieu.5

In 1769 at age 18 she married Benjamin de Crousaz. The marriage lasted only six years, but it was by Crousaz that she had her only child, a son, Henri, to whom she was very strongly attached. I shall have more to say about this son, but will here record that when by chance mother and son died within twenty-four hours of one another, since it was thought an appropriate permanent gesture by those who knew them well, they were buried side-by-side. The inscription over their shared tomb, written by her, declares her son the most treasured element in her existence: "Me voici, Seigneur, avec le fils que tu m'avais donné".6

Eleven years went by before she remarried. During this time she wrote Caroline de Lichtfield, became friends with Stéphanie-Félicité de Genlis, and was courted by and flirted with eligible men. Isabelle met Félicité shortly after Isabelle was widowed. Towards the end of 1775 Isabelle had gone to live with two maternal aunts. Tired and nervous (perhaps ill, perhaps pregnant), Félicité had for a time left her life as the mistress of one man whose children she was governess to, and whose wife she served as an (in effect) paid companion, and as the wife of another man who networked similarly to stay afloat. De Genlis was travelling through Switzerland. Both women were at a point in their lives where they were seeking the relief of real companionship, and they found they were congenial. After they parted, Félicité wrote that she dreamed of living with Isabelle one day, and in response Isabelle sent Félicité some verses as a gift:

Joindre á la sensibilité
Et le talent et le génie,
Dans l'âge heureux de la beauté
Penser avec solidité,
S'exprimer avec énergie,
 tre bonne, aimable et jolie,
Et loin d'en tirer vanité
Plaire encore par sa modestie.
Ce portrait n'est-il pas flatté?
Non, c'est celui de mon amie
Et c'est lá ma Félicité.

Portrait charmante, tu me retraces
Et mon amie, et mon bonheur;
Tu me peins ses traits et ses grâces
Le reste est gravé dans on coeur7

Isabelle had reason to be grateful to Félicité, for upon Isabelle showing Félicité the manuscript of Caroline de Lichtfield, Félicité had encouraged her to try to publish it, and promised to do what she could for Isabelle in Paris:

Je sais ce qui peut réussir dans ce pays ci, et c'est de que la seul expérience peut apprendre. Je parlerai á mon libraire afin de l'engager á se charger de vos ouvrages, ce qu'il fera quand je pourrai lui dire que je les ai lus. Je ferai votre arrangement pour le mieux. Ensuite vous écrirez et vous traiterez directement ensemble. Que je serais heureuse, ma chère amie, de pouvoir vous être de quelque utilité.

The precise history of the editing and first two publications of the manuscript of Caroline de Lichtfield remains unclear. Isabelle writes in her Préface to the 1816 edition of Caroline de Lichtfield that it was she who gave her novel "tous mes soins," and that it was without her knowledge that the book was printed for the first time by Jacques Georges Deyverdun (the French translator of Goethe's Werther); in 1787 Gibbon wrote that the novel "was of our home manufacture; I may say of ours, since Deyverdun and myself were the judges and patrons of the Manuscript;" that is, he and Deyverdun (who was also Gibbon's close friend and live-in companion), went over the manscript with Isabelle, and intervened successfully on her behalf with the publisher, Buisson; and although much later (in her Mémoires), De Genlis misled readers when she gave the impression that she corrected and initiated the publication of Caroline de Lichtfield, De Genlis did help Isabelle to republish the novel in a fuller corrected version. Yet Isabelle (and also much later) wrote that Félicité had a superior talent and produced serious original works, but also clearly identified with De Genlis as a comparable women, and seems to regard De Genlis as her first muse.8 So in this mix of personalities, anxieties, corrections, encouragement and effective business arrangements, it is clear that Félicité de Genlis's initial encouragement and strong praise was instrumental in helping Isabelle to have the courage and belief in her talent as a writer to begin to build a writing life and professional career for herself. For Isabelle after the success of Caroline de Lichtfield, writing would not be just a private way of finding a release for her imagination, displacing her melancholy and expressing the realities of her inner life: it would also become a source of respect and needed money.

On the other hand, Gibbon and Deyverdun's role in bringing Caroline de Lichtfield to light and initiating Isabelle's life as a professional writer has not been sufficiently emphasized. Instead Gibbon and her playing at flirtation and courtship has been treated derisively. That Gibbon was attracted he makes clear more than once: "The author [of Caroline de Lichtfield] who is since married a second time (Madame de Crousaz, now Montolieu) is a charming woman. I was in some danger." The year was 1784; Isabelle was 33 and Gibbon 47. Lord Sheffield's oldest daughter, Maria-Josepha Holroyd remembered Isabelle at this time: she had

les yeux les plus perçants que j'aie jamais vus, et un air très sensible, mais elle n'est ni jeune ni belle, comme je m'attendais á trouver la femme qui risqua d'aliéner la liberté de M. Gibbon, car il reconnaît qu'á moment donné, il l'a échappé belle. Il ne paraît jamais s'être arrêté á l'idée qu'elle aurait pu le refuser, et si on y fait allusion, j'ose dire qu'il croirait plutôt á un miracle qu'á un pareil manque de goût possible de la part d'une femme sensible.

In Persuasion Austen remarks that

Personal size and mental sorrow have certainly no necessary proportions. A large bulky figure has as good a right to be in deep affliction, as the most graceful set of limbs in the world. But, fair or not fair, there are unbecoming conjunctions, which reason will patronize in vain -- which taste cannot tolerate -- which ridicule will seize."

Gibbon had a large bulky figure and Isabelle was middle-aged and plain ("elle n'est ni jeune ni belle, comme je m'attendais á trouver"), but their behavior and feelings for one another have deserved better from their friends and biographers than the mockery both have had. They played at courting; they flirted a little seriously; then they maintained a supportive friendship until 1792, a relationship which also helped Isabelle to become a professional writer.9

There appears to have been one nearly romantic adventure during Isabelle's first widowhood. In 1795 she confessed to General Montesquiou that in 1778 as part of plan for an elopement she and a young English lord had dreamed about together, she had gone with her brother to Neuchâtel; the young man had been touring Europe and that's how they had met. A vigilant tutor stopped this plan from getting anywhere. The general teased Isabelle for feeling guilty and embarrassed so many years later, telling her that not only did he not like her less, he respected her more -- though what she had committed was in practical reality nothing much at all.10

Otherwise what comes down to us from these eleven years leading up to Isabelle's second marriage are many mentions of Isabelle, sometimes sympathetic, sometimes not, by Lausanne friends, neighbours, and potential suitors, by people willing to play at literature and art, to make music and dance, to put on and attend and act in amateur productions of plays, and to form literary societies. A few typical examples must suffice. In 1769, before she was widowed, we hear of a puppet performance "chez Mme de Crousaz." In 1775 August Tissot, a respected physician who had helped to spread the use of inoculation against small pox, records that Isabelle, her second husband's first wife, Rose Mayor de Sullens, and another woman friend, Madame d'Orges, have formed a society which meets every Monday and is dedicated to friendship and "honnêteté," and which he and some male friends attend. The same group of male and female names recurs over and over again in letters by members of the group. Now the group as a whole are praising Richardson and blaming Rousseau; and then we hear of how "Mme de Crousaz et Mme Polier" (Isabelle and her sister-in-law?), are worrying lest a "fête champêtre" not come off in precisely the way planned. Isabelle de Crousaz belonged to a hierarchical and ambitious society where people vyed for a few niches outside Switzerland, and within or through these gatherings attempted to relax and keep "ennui" (depression, anxiety, melancholy, sheer idleness) at bay. Here is a typical entry from a diary-letter:

Notre spectacle va son train… il n'y a pas un jour de vuide, les répétitions sont très amusantes et j'ose vos dire qu'on joue sur notre petit théâtre aussi bien qu'il est possible en société. La Surprize de l'amour et la Gageure ont réussi au delá de l'espérance, nos amis ont fait des merveilles et Mme e Miremont joue en vérité comme un ange; demain on donne Eugénie. Je n'imagine pas qu'on puisse mieux jouer ce rôle. Nous avons encore Le philosophe sans le savoir, sur le métier, vous pensez bien qu'on rit ensemble de mille petits riens dans les coulisses; c'est mon revenant bon á moi qui ne fais point de rôle. Le baron est toujours aussi original et son toupet aussi expressif, sa femme est drôlette et gaie. Angélique, la Villardin et la petite femme font dest petit rôles, et Crousaz, Montolieu, Corcelles, Saint-Cierges, Seigneux, Saussure tant cela est employé.

As the laughter at the very idea of a philosophe suggests, there was little interest in serious political or social analyses; serious books which were read by this group were travel memoirs, histories, and geography. Their criticism of authors was personal. This was a milieu outsiders (tourists) came to for "repos," who refreshed one another ("que mon âme se rafraîchit dans cette retraite, ah!"), but which lacked seriousness and trivialized art. It's not that the group did not number among its members numerous serious people and writers: one finds verses from Rosalie de Constant, to Servan (the lawyer, magistrate and member of a local Parlement who published works calling for the abolition of torture and Protestant marriage in France); mentions of De StaŽl and her circle, Benjamin de Constant, and of course Gibbon joined in. Nonetheless, the essential or indigenous group spirit is caught by one of its members as encouraging

"études légères et superficielles, ils avaient peu de sérieux, pas d'occupations… Ils s'amusaient á copier les petits maîtres, quelques-uns donnaient dans le libertinage elles-mêmes, sentaient la nullité de leurs cavaliers et s'en plaignaient. Il y a pourtant, parmi les hommes plus âgés, quelques individus plus aimables et d'un grand mérite. C'étaient des gens que les voyages ou le service avaient formés et mûris. Dans un milieu pareil, les femmes se développaient au contact de la conversation des hommes; elles voulaient tombaient fatalement dans une infériorité marquée dans ces milieux mondains qui accaparaient tout leur temps. Un travail regulier et des emplois plus sérieux leur manquaient. D'ailleurs, ces divertissements continuels et variés finissaient aussi par lasser.

There was also much malice, petty spite, and constant intriguing and internecine sexual liaisons, some of which occurred out of doors: "Je ne l'ai jamais laissé passer la nuit dehors comme certaines femmes sont dans l'habitude de le faire… " Every woman was surrounded by a neighborhood of voluntary spies. Someone belonging to such a set could not easily keep weaknesses or embarrassing proclivities hidden. Verses to Isabelle include references to her sleeplessness and depression, and among complimentary to this "gentle veuve", we find this half-mocking acute portrait:

Dans cette femme on voit régner
La douceur prévenante.
C'est que le désir d'obliger
Sans cesse la tourmente.
Le malheur la voit accourir.
C'est qu'elle est égoïste:
Son bon coeur a trop á souffrir
Quand le malheur subsiste.
Chacun exalte son talent,
D'encens on la parfume,
Mais l'Esprit naturellement,
Se place sous sa plume;
Sur sa bonté, la trop louer,
Est une erreur extrême.
Elle a besoin pour exister,
Que tout le monde l'aime.

One exchange of verses between Isabelle and an unnamed male admirer turns on the same sharp alertness of her black eyes noticed by Maria-Josepha Holroyd. This quietly penetrating look in her eyes seems to have struck people, for it is alluded to again in a letter dated 28 Sepember 1787, written by Salomon de Charrière de Sévery's wife, Catherine de Chandieu de Sévery, in which she talks of a lovely new expensive hat she has bought. The letter was written just after Isabelle remarried:

Mme de Montolieu ne cessait de me regarder, enfin elle n'y put plus tenir. "Je vous supplie, me dit-elle, me dire ou vous avez pris ce bonnet et ce qu'il coute." Je voyais arriver la question depuis longtemps; je lui contai l'historie de point en point, mais le prix la fit reculer, parce que depuis qu'elle a épousé Montolieu, il semble que ce soit pour désirer tout ce qu'elle voit; au lieu de s'etre mise mieux, elle ressent toutes les privations imaginables, vu qu'elle ne peut tout avoit. Mme de Rolaz (du Rosey) qui tout en ayant le renom de la bonne Mme Rolaz, dit des choses uniques, disait l'autre jour que les linons de Mme Genus de Lavigny avaient rendu le séjour d'Etoy désagréable á Mme de Montolieu. Enfin, ce bonnet l'occupa incroyablement. -- Il en fut question tout le soir, et á force de paroles, elle parvint a trouver que c'était une vraie economie que d'en acheter un, parce qu'il se lavait et que les bandes pouvaient resservir pour des manchettes! Le souper fut extrêmement gai."

Catherine insinuates that since Isabelle has remarried and not found herself personally better off financially, Isabelle is feeling she has to endure all sorts of privations, seeing that "now she can't have it all" (I translate the French literally). Catherine accuses Isabelle of envy. I see in the letter evidence testified to elsewhere that Isabelle's presence was felt to be too intense and her behavior strained. Here she unsuccessfully attempted to smooth over the discomfort she has caused others by a joking allusion to how the hat is really economical.

Catherine de Chandieu de Sévery's malice was of the garden-variety kind. After a fairly long but still single paragraph detailing an episode in her social life, a visit filled with psychological portraiture, and a rich catalogue of sheer objects, she writes:

Voilá nos aventures, mon cher enfant, Jeannette de Bottens (soeur de Mme de Montolieu) en aurait eu pour un volume, je n'ai su faire que trois pages, mais aussi il n'y a nulle broderie.11

Still it is no wonder that in this milieu of highly sophisticated wits, a sensitive woman would come to see (as Rosalie de Constant puts it in some verses) that the pretense of "naïveté" and "l'aimable simplicité" is necessary, and must be insisted upon as a kind of carapace. This milieu stimulated Isabelle into writing; at the same time her consciousness of its closeness to her, and the active tendency of its leading members to denigrate intangible and serious ambitions they couldn't aspire to led to her choice to translate and adapt freely rather than write originally. When in 1795 she was writing another original novel, Le Mystère ou Mémoires de Madame Melvin, she wrote her close friend, General Montesquiou, that she feared people would ridicule it and see in it proof that she and Germaine de StaŽl's lover, Matthieu Montmorency had been her lover too; she lacked the courage to withstand malignity. The General praised the novel in the strongest terms possible. He says it is "in the mode of both Jean-Jacques and Richardson" and

quand one voit tant de choses tirées d'un espace de trois jours, presque sans événements, on en peut assez admirer le talent de l'auteur… Je ne suis étonné ue d'une chose, c'est que vous n'ayez pas été saisie comme moi de l'étonnant mérite de cet ouvrage

In an earlier similar episode when the General had encouraged Isabelle to write, and she cannot make up her mind about the value of the text she is working with, Sylphide, ou les anges gardiens, a novel then attributed to Georgiana Spencer Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, nor her own translation, he told her:

Je crois que vous consultez trop ... et que vous êtes trop douce. Avec tant de conseils, je crois impossible de bien faire. Les trois quarts des gens manquent de goût et veulent juger. Il n'y a pas d'absurdités qui ne se disent et vous êtes bien capable de décider des quesetions sur lesqwuelle un goût exercé est souverain que ceux qui vous donnent des avis… Si peu de gens sentent, et je ne veux pas injurier Lausanne, car, á Paris, c'était la même chose dans le bon temps. Il était curieux de voir les pièces de vers que l'on envoyait á l'Académie pour les prix de poésie. Tous les ans, nous avions, pendant deux mois, l'ouvrage de les lire. Il n'y en avait pas une qui n'eût été applaudie de quelque société et, sur deux cents, il n'y en avait pas quatre de lisibles. Fiez-vous donc un peu plus á vous-même et vous vous en trouverez bien…

But if the opinions of others are absurdities; the author's taste all that aesthetically and ethically in an ideal sense Isabelle needed to consult; and if in a great academy among 200 works, many of which are praised by the societies from which their members spring, maybe there are four which are readable, Isabelle was dependent upon Lausanne society for her peace of mind with near relatives and friends whose company she could not escape, for the livelihood of her son, and for what validating female companionship she was able to sustain. Her one safety value was writing letters to true companions at a distance. We are getting ahead of ourselves chronologically, but it is important to recognize how Isabelle's continual awareness and need of Lausanne society functioned in her imaginative life and limited what she allowed herself to write, for she remained intimately involved with its members all her life.12

Isabelle's marriage to Baron Louis de Montolieu probably took place on 9 August 1786. The Baron was 56; Isabelle, 35.13 If we cannot know that Isabelle had her second husband in mind specifically when she created her portrait of an ideal older man in the Count of Walstein in Caroline de Lichtfield, Montolieu does fit the type -- if we just remove the unreal idealization of the fictional Walstein into a kind mother figure, his equally extreme ugliness and crippled state, and Montolieu's aging ill wife. Montolieu and Walstein are both literary gentleman, impeccably courteous when they wanted to be, aristocrats whose family were landowners and had made their fortune through military, diplomatic and court appointments. If Montolieu was not rich in ready money for fancy hats and linen, Isabelle was marrying a mature man from an ancient family whom she had allured and been charmed by; the ambivalence in her portrait of Walstein of Caroline de Lichtfield is our earliest record of Isabelle's feelings towards this man and the reasons for her marriage to him.

First, the military, diplomatic and aristocratic background: Louis de Montolieu's father had risen high in the service of a reigning Duke of Wurtemberg and become his minister at Berne. The family came from Languedoc, and his father had come to Lausanne with Prince Louis-Eugène. Louis's father married Adrienne Crammer, born in 1704, herself a widow of Jean-Louis Favre, an auditor and commisionary-general. As Voltaire is said to have been friends with Isabelle's father so there is a note by Voltaire to a friend on 12 February 1754 that Louis's father's "société ferait le charme de ma vie, dans ma retraite." Before retiring to the Pays de Vaud, with the title of "chambellan," Louis de Montolieu had himself served as a colonel and aide-de-camp to the reigning Duke of Wurtembourg; he owned the château d'Etoy that he lived in during the summer and passed his winters at Lausanne and from 1773 to 1796 he presided over the Chambre des réfugiés français at Lausanne. Like Isabelle's Comte de Walstein, Louis de Montolieu carried with him the elegant ambiance of the court and aristocrats with a military career.14

They met and apparently fell in love within the Lausanne "hôtel de Rambouillet" salon milieu (the phrase is General Montesquiou's).15 Throughout the records of Isabelle's first widowhood, there are references to the illness (and pain) of Louis de Montolieu's wife, Rose Mayor de Sullens, sometimes in the same letters which record Lausanne festivities, and Isabelle's friendship with her. Salomon and Catherine de Sévery and Louis de Montolieu were friends; they consulted Montolieu on the best education to give their son, and Catherine proposed Montolieu as the model of the well-educated man who after living the sophisticated life of a courtier is happy to retire to his estate, Etoy, and his books:

Meuble ta mémoire pendant que tu peux, prends toutes sortes de bonnes habitudes et tu sera heureux même si la fortune l'était aussi contraire qu'elle t'est favorable. Vois, si M. de Montolieu n'avait pas l'âme ferme et l'habitude de s'occuper, il serait très á plaindre, mais il s'est créé des affaires, des études, il est devenu habile, il est consulté, il rend mille services, on l'aime, on le chérit. Il jouit de la douceur d'être utile.

Montolieu had lived in Paris for several years, was on friendly terms with a few of the denizens of its literary and philosophical milieux (e.g., the l'abbé Delille, Marmontel, Buffon), though, as she wrote Isabelle in August 1786 (probably shortly after Isabelle married the baron), his encounter with Félicité de Genlis, had not been fortunate:

Je suis très fâchée que le M. le baron de Montolieu ne m'ait vue que si grognon. Il m'aura trouvée fort laide car, lorsque j'étais jeune, on m'avait avertie que je n'étais jolie que parce que j'avais une mine douce et gaie. Et justement le jour où je le rencontrai, j'étais de mauvaise humeur et en colère. Ah! si j'avais pu lire l'avenir, quelle réception je lui aurais faite!

Félicité was inclined to blame herself for the Baron's unfriendly attitude towards her and wanted to remain friends. Nonetheless, upon Isabelle's marriage to Montolieu, her epistolary friendship with De Genlis comes to an end. I surmize that De Genlis's position as a governess and mistress to the Duke of Chartres had led to just that fleeting form of disrespect in the Baron's behavior which she elsewhere shows herself understandably inimical to. As she writes, she was young; he expected her to be beautiful -- and overtly compliant. She had let her resentment come to the surface. We see in Caroline de Lichtfield, Walstein controls whom Caroline can associate with, and his criteria include, is she socially impeccable?16

Finally, recalling the Count de Walstein's perceptive understanding of Caroline de Lichtfield, from the earliest years of Isabelle's marriage to Montolieu (or just before) come two love songs Louis wrote to Isabelle about how sexually alluring he finds his "chère somnambule:

Douce amitié, besoin d'un coeur sensible,
Si, dans le mien, tu remplaces l'amour,
Les derniers jours de ma course paisible
Seront encore les plus beaux de mes jours.

* * *

Après avoir longemps douté
Je renonce á mon scepticisme,
Je rends gloire á la vérité
Enfin je crois au magnétisme.
Eh! pourquoi ça?
«a ne se dit pas
Ou ça se dit tout bas,
Tout, tout bas.

Aime-t'on quelque jeune objet?
Si l'oeil de la maman vous gêne
Qui'il est doux autour d'un Baquet
Auprès d'elle, d'être á la chaine.
Eh! pourquoi ça? etc.

Les coeurs sont-ils enfin d'accord,
Faut-il que l'amant dissimule,
Eh! bien, il se met en rapport
Avec sa chère somnambule.
Eh! pourquoi ça? etc.

S'il magnétise ses appas,
Si tour á tour il les encense,
On ne s'en formalise pas,
Car honni soit qui mal y pense.
Eh! comment ça?
«a ne se dit pas
Ou ça se dit tout bas,
Tout, tout bas.

Dans le magnétisme animal
Je vois ainsi le bien Suprême.
Cher Mesmer! te vouloir du mal
C'est bien en vouloir á soi-même.
Eh! comment ça? etc.

Ce fut au flambeau de l'amour
A sa lumière vive et pure,
Que Mesmer ressort de la nature
Eh! comment ça? etc.

L'envoi:

Oui, mon ami, c'est Isabelle,
C'est ta bonne, ta tendre soeur,
Que ce profil te la rappelle,
Qu'il parle souvent á ton coeur,
Et pendant que tu vis loin d'elle,
Adoucisse un peu le malheur
Que cause une absence cruelle.

Agréable, mais point jolie,
Douce, sensible, bonne amie,
Peu d'esprit mais le coeur bien bon.
On prétend que'elle est étourdie,
Mais ce n'est qu'une calomnie,
Car elle étouffe de raison.

De Mme de Montolieu

This suave man was given the nickname (or appropriate pseudonym) "le Bonhomme," and it is after Isabelle marries him that she is recorded as nicknamed "Le Tourbillon." These sorts of "soubriquets" were not, as Louise D'Épinay remarks in her novel-memoir, Montbrillant, ordinarily given people simply as a way of being gay, but in the spirit of criticism and half-mocking apt commentary. So as in the above poems we can glimpse the sources of the original attraction of Montolieu to Isabelle and his sympathy for her, in the contrast between their nicknames we glimpse the way they were seen those in daily contact with them.17

I have here sketched the social framework within which Isabelle de Montolieu wrote. We see much constraint and many advantages. She had a liberal, well-educated, and clerical father and affectionate mother and grew up within the high phases of French salon and eighteenth-century enlightenment thought and Swiss pre-romanticism. She became the wife of a comfortable but not rich minor baron with a son to care for and to place in a small town culture which provided her with what pleasure, knowledge, and inspiration she could reach. I have also begun the angle at which we will be able to understand the limitations she placed upon her own gifts. A Rousseauist by nature and by instinct, someone who was most comfortable when alone and in the world of her imagination, she could not allow herself to dismiss the views of her culture as embodied in those she had to deal with, no matter how puerile or destructive this might be of her individual gifts. She needed the encouragement and validation of other literary people, and when they came to her spot in the world, refugees from the cataclysm of the Terror she supported them. We now turn to fill in this perspective with her inner life as it is recorded through her friendships "par correspondance;" we will then look at her imaginative work.


1 See Isabelle de Montolieu, Le Serin de Jean-Jacques Rousseaued., introd. Claire Jaquier (Genève: Minizoé, 1997), p. 9; Dorette Berthoud, Le Général et La Romancière: 1792-1798, Épisodes de L'Émigration Française en Suisse, d'Après les Lettres du Général de Montesquiou á Mme de Montolieu. (Neuchatel: Éditions de la Baconnière, 1959), p. 344.

2 M. et Mme William de Sévery. La Vie de Société dans le Pays de Vaud á la fin du dix-huitième siècle: Salomon et Catherine de Charrière de Sévery et leurs amis. 2 Vols. (Lausanne and Paris, 1911; reprinted Genève: Editions Slatkine, 1978), I:267; II:199.

3 Montolieu, Le Serin de Jean-Jacques Rousseau, passim, "Préface" by Claire Jaquier, pp. 3-7; and Fernand Baldensperger, "A Propos d'un Conte d'un Mme de Montolieu sur Jean-Jacques Rousseau et son Serin," Annales de la Société J. J. Rousseau, 9 (1913), 63-66.

4 "Notice Biographique" in Isabelle de Montolieu, Les Château Suisses, Anciences Anecdotes et Chroniques, Nouvelle Édition, Ornée de gravures. 2 Vols. (Lausanne: Samule Blan, Libraire-Éditeur, 1865), I:17. See also Berthoud, p. 44; Sévery I:268.

5 Picot later became a pastor and professor; he came to Lausanne with some theologically learned friends to Lausanne supposedly simply to visit a relative, the governess to the Sévery children, but probably also to keep up a valuable connection. See Sévery II:360-61.

6 Berthoud, p. 343.

7 Gabriel de Broglie, Madame de Genlis (Paris: Librairie Académique Perrin, 1985), pp. 81-83, Berthoud, p 44; Sévery I:294. There seems to be no firm consensus on how to name or refer to Madame de Genlis. I have come across modern references to her as "Félicité" and as "Stéphanie, as "De Genlis" and "Genlis" and, of course, "Mme de Genlis." (I omit references to her later names acquired through her husband's promotions.) I have opted for "Félicité" and "De Genlis" when not calling her Madame de Genlis.

8 See Isabelle and Gibbon's statements in Caroline de Lichtfield, "Préface de l'Auteur", pp. iii-iv; Gibbon's letter of January 20, 1787 from The Letters of Edward Gibbon, ed. J. E. Norton (London: Cassell, 1956, 3 vols), No 642, Vol 3, p 62, and Berthoud, p. 46; Les Château Suisses, "A Madame La Comtesse de Valence (née de Genlis), pp. 5-6.

9 Quoted by Sévery I:269. See Berthoud, p. 124 and Gibbon's letters quoted in my On the Courtship and Friendship of Isabelle de Montolieu with the historian, Edward Gibbon (1737-1794). It is probably relevant to add that Isabelle was also at one point friends with Suzanne Curchod after she became Mme Necker, and the Crousazs as a family were among Gibbon's familiar friends during his first stay in Lausanne; see Le Journal de Gibbon A Lausanne, 17 Août 1763 - 19 Avril 1764, ed. Georges Bonnard (Lausanne: Librairie de l'Université Lausanne, 1945). Austen's remark may be found in The Oxford Illustrated Austen, ed. R. W. Chapman, 6 vols (1988; rpt. London: Oxford University Press, 1942-44), V (Northanger Abbey,Persuasion), I:8:68.

10 Berthoud, p. 252.

11 Sévery I:188, 193, 228, 230-31, 233-34, 235-36, 239; 240; 247, 254-57; 261- 62, 266-8, 295-97 (a list of the plays put at the theatre in Lausanne, 299-301 (letters on their play-acting in which Isabelle takes a frequent part); 330-31. Rosalie Constant's most recent biographer, Christine Chicoteau, Chère Rose: A Biography of Rosalie de Constant (1758- 1834) downplays Rosalie's relationship with Isabelle, and treats Isabelle with disdain because Chicoteau is embarrassed at the association of Constant (who has recently been treated with a respect which is nonetheless sentimentalizing) with Montolieu, a writer of sentimental and erotic novels.

12 Berthoud, pp. 217-18, 272-73.

13 Berthoud, p. 46, dates the marriage 9 August 1786; Sévery, I:270, dates it 9 May 1786. However, as the Séverys clearly misdate many letters, misorder others because they have no idea when they were written, and include a letter from Isabelle to her banker which is written soon after the marriage and is dated 30 September 1786, 9 August seems the accurate one. De Genlis's rueful letter to Isabelle is also dated August 1786 (see directly below).

14 Sévery I:269-71; Berthoud, pp. 46-47.

15 Berthoud, p. 235. Isabelle suggested the General contribute to a journal brought out by her aunt, a canoness, Journal de Lausanne, a journal to which Isabelle herself contributed. The general declined on the grounds it was too frivolous for him.

16 Sévery I:270-71; Berthoud, p 47. Berthoud suggests that the pause in Isabelle and Stéphanie's friendship also occurred as a result of De Genlis's political activities leading up to the revolution.

17 Sévery I:277-79, 281; Madame [Louise] D'Épinay, Histoire de Madame de Montbrillant, ed. Georges Roth, 3 Vols (Paris: Gallimard, 1951), II:401.


Morning Coffee (1739) by François Boucher (1703-1770)

Painting


Page Last Updated 28 April 2003