Salon of Mme de Genlis (1803)

Edgeworth, Maria
Etienne-Frédéric Lignon (1779-1833), ‘Comtesse de Genlis (gravure d’après le tableau de Sophie Bertaud)’, Fogg Art Museum, G 2368, 19th century.


"She came forward, and we made our way towards her as well as we could through a confusion of tables, chairs and work-baskets, china, writing-desks and ink-stands, and bird-cages, and a harp. She did not speak, and as her back was now turned to both fire and candle, I could not see her face..."

Full of the pleasure I had received from the Rosière de Salency, I was impatient to pay a visit to Madame de Genlis. A few days afterwards we dined with Mr. and Mrs. Scotto, rather a stupid party of gentlemen. After dinner my father called me out of the room and said, "Now we will go to see Madame de Genlis." She had previously written to say she would be glad to be personally acquainted with Mr. and Miss Edgeworth. She lives—where do you think?—where Sully used to live, at the Arsenal. Buonaparte has given her apartments there. Now I do not know what you imagined in reading Sully's Memoirs, but I always imagined that the Arsenal was one large building, with a façade to it like a very large hotel or a palace, and I fancied it was somewhere in the middle of Paris. On the contrary, it is quite in the suburbs. We drove on and on, and at last we came to a heavy archway, like what you see at the entrance of a fortified town: we drove under it for the length of three or four yards in total darkness, and then we found ourselves, as well as we could see by the light of some dim lamps, in a large square court, surrounded by buildings: here we thought we were to alight; no such thing; the coachman drove under another thick archway, lighted at the entrance by a single lamp, we found ourselves in another court, and still we went on, archway after archway, court after court, in all which reigned desolate silence. I thought the archways, and the courts, and the desolate silence would never end: at last the coachman stopped, and asked for the tenth time where the lady lived. It is excessively difficult to find people in Paris: we thought the names of Madame de Genlis and the Arsenal would have been sufficient, but the whole of this congregation of courts, and gateways, and houses, is called the Arsenal, and hundreds and hundreds of people inhabit it who are probably perfect strangers to Madame de Genlis. At the doors where our coachman inquired, some answered that they knew nothing of her, some that she lived in the Fauxbourg St. Germain, others believed that she might be at Passy, others had heard that she had apartments given to her by Government somewhere in the Arsenal, but could not tell where; while the coachman thus begged his way, we anxiously looking out at him, from the middle of the great square where we were left, listened for the answers that were given, and which often from the distance escaped our ears. At last a door pretty near to us opened, and our coachman's head and hat were illuminated by the candle held by the person who opened the door, and as the two figures parted with each other we could distinctly see the expression of their countenances and their lips move: the result of this parley was successful: we were directed to the house where Madame de Genlis lived, and thought all difficulties ended. No such thing, her apartments were still to be sought for. We saw before us a large, crooked, ruinous stone staircase, lighted by a single bit of candle hanging in a vile tin lantern in an angle of the bare wall at the turn of the staircase—only just light enough to see that the walls were bare and old, and the stairs immoderately dirty. There were no signs of the place being inhabited except this lamp, which could not have been lighted without hands. I stood still in melancholy astonishment, while my father groped his way into a kind of porter's lodge, or den, at the foot of the stairs, where he found a man who was porter to various people who inhabited this house. You know the Parisian houses are inhabited by hordes of different people, and the stairs are in fact streets, and dirty streets to their dwellings. The porter, who was neither obliging nor intelligent, carelessly said that "Madame de Genlis logeait au seconde à gauche, qu'il faudrait tirer sa sonnette," he believed she was at home, if she was not gone out. Up we went by ourselves, for this porter, though we were strangers, and pleaded that we were so, never offered to stir a step to guide or to light us. When we got to the second stage, we faintly saw by the light from the one candle at the first landing-place, two dirty large folding-doors, one set on the right and one on the left, and hanging on each a bell, no larger than what you see in the small parlour of a small English inn. My father pulled one bell and waited some minutes—no answer: pulled the other bell and waited—no answer: thumped at the left door—no answer: pushed and pulled at it—could not open it: pushed open one of the right-hand folding-doors—utter darkness: went in, as well as we could feel, there was no furniture. After we had been there a few seconds we could discern the bare walls and some strange lumber in one corner. The room was a prodigious height, like an old playhouse. We retreated, and in despair went down again to the stupid or surly porter. He came upstairs very unwillingly, and pointed to a deep recess between the stairs and the folding-doors: "Allez, voilà la porte et tirez la sonnette." He and his candle went down, and my father had but just time to seize the handle of the bell, when we were again in darkness. After ringing this feeble bell we presently heard doors open, and little footsteps approaching nigh. The door was opened by a girl of about Honora's size, holding an ill-set-up, wavering candle in her hand, the light of which fell full upon her face and figure: her face was remarkably intelligent: dark sparkling eyes, dark hair, curled in the most fashionable long cork-screw ringlets over her eyes and cheeks. She parted the ringlets to take a full view of us, and we were equally impatient to take a full view of her. The dress of her figure by no means suited the head and the elegance of her attitude: what her "nether weeds" might be we could not distinctly see, but they seemed to be a coarse short petticoat, like what Molly Bristow's children would wear—not on Sundays, a woollen gray spencer above, pinned with a single pin by the lapels tight across the neck under the chin, and open all below. After surveying us, and hearing that our name was Edgeworth, she smiled graciously, and bid us follow her, saying, "Maman est chez elle." She led the way with the grace of a young lady who has been taught to dance, across two antechambers, miserable-looking, but miserable or not, no house in Paris can be without them. The girl, or young lady, for we were still in doubt which to think her, led us into a small room, in which the candles were so well screened by a green tin screen that we could scarcely distinguish the tall form of a lady in black, who rose from her armchair by the fireside as the door opened: a great puff of smoke issuing from the huge fireplace at the same moment. She came forward, and we made our way towards her as well as we could through a confusion of tables, chairs and work-baskets, china, writing-desks and ink-stands, and bird-cages, and a harp. She did not speak, and as her back was now turned to both fire and candle, I could not see her face, or anything but the outline of her form, and her attitude; her form was the remains of a fine form, and her attitude that of a woman used to a better drawing-room. I, being foremost, and she silent, was compelled to speak to the figure in darkness: "Madame de Genlis nous a fait l'honneur de nous mander qu'elle voulait bien nous permettre de lui rendre visite, et de lui offrir nos respects," said I, or words to that effect: to which she replied by taking my hand and saying something in which charmée was the most intelligible word. Whilst she spoke she looked over my shoulder at my father, whose bow I presume told her he was a gentleman, for she spoke to him immediately as if she wished to please, and seated us in fauteuils near the fire.

I then had a full view of her face and figure: she looked like the full-length picture of my great-great-grandmother Edgeworth you may have seen in the garret, very thin and melancholy, but her face not so handsome as my great-grandmother's; dark eyes, long sallow cheeks, compressed thin lips, two or three black ringlets on a high forehead, a cap that Mrs. Grier might wear,—altogether an appearance of fallen fortunes, worn-out health, and excessive, but guarded irritability. To me there was nothing of that engaging, captivating manner which I had been taught to expect by many even of her enemies; she seemed to me to be alive only to literary quarrels and jealousies: the muscles of her face as she spoke, or as my father spoke to her, quickly and too easily expressed hatred and anger whenever any not of her own party were mentioned. She is now you know dévote acharnement. When I mentioned with some enthusiasm the good Abbé Morellet, who has written so courageously in favour of the French exiled nobility and their children, she answered in a sharp voice,

"Oui, c'est un homme de beaucoup d'esprit, à ce qu'on dit, à ce que je crois même, mais il faut vous apprendre qu'il n'est pas des NÔTRES." My father spoke of Pamela, Lady Edward Fitzgerald, and explained how he had defended her in the Irish House of Commons; instead of being pleased or touched, her mind instantly diverged into an elaborate and artificial exculpation of Lady Edward and herself, proving, or attempting to prove, that she never knew any of her husband's plans, that she utterly disapproved of them, at least of all she suspected of them. This defence was quite lost upon us, who never thought of attacking: but Madame de Genlis seems to have been so much used to be attacked, that she has defences and apologies ready prepared, suited to all possible occasions. She spoke of Madame de Staël's Delphine with detestation, of another new and fashionable novel, Amélie, with abhorrence, and kissed my forehead twice because I had not read it, "Vous autres Anglaises vous êtes modestes!" Where was Madame de Genlis's sense of delicacy when she penned and published Les Chevaliers du Cygne? Forgive me, my dear Aunt Mary, you begged me to see her with favourable eyes, and I went to see her after seeing her Rosière de Salency with the most favourable disposition, but I could not like her; there was something of malignity in her countenance and conversation that repelled love, and of hypocrisy which annihilated esteem, and from time to time I saw, or thought I saw through the gloom of her countenance a gleam of coquetry. But my father judges much more favourably of her than I do; she evidently took pains to please him, and he says he is sure she is a person over whose mind he could gain great ascendency: he thinks her a woman of violent passions, unbridled imagination, and ill-tempered, but not malevolent: one who has been so torn to pieces that she now turns upon her enemies, and longs to tear in her turn. He says she has certainly great powers of pleasing, though I neither saw nor felt them. But you know, my dear aunt, that I am not famous for judging sanely of strangers on a first visit, and I might be prejudiced or mortified by Madame de Genlis assuring me that she had never read anything of mine except Belinda, had heard of Practical Education, and heard it much praised, but had never seen it. She has just published an additional volume of her Petits Romans, in which there are some beautiful stories, but you must not expect another "Mademoiselle de Clermont:" one such story in an age is as much as one can reasonably expect.

I had almost forgotten to tell you that the little girl who showed us in is a girl whom she is educating, "Elle m'appelle maman, mais elle n'est pas ma fille." The manner in which this little girl spoke to Madame de Genlis, and looked at her, appeared to me more in her favour than anything else. She certainly spoke to her with freedom and fondness, and without any affectation. I went to look at what the child was writing, she was translating Darwin's Zoonomia. I read some of her translation, it was excellent; she was, I think she said, ten years old. It is certain that Madame de Genlis made the present Duke of Orleans such an excellent mathematician, that when he was during his emigration in distress for bread, he taught mathematics as a professor in one of the German Universities. If we could see or converse with one of her pupils, and hear what they think of her, we should be able to form a better judgment than from all that her books and enemies say for or against her. I say her books, not her friends and enemies, for I fear she has no friends to plead for her, except her books. I never met any one of any party who was her friend: this strikes me with real melancholy; to see a woman of the first talents in Europe, who lived and has shone in the gay court of the gayest nation in the world, now deserted and forlorn, living in wretched lodgings, with some of the pictures and finery, the wreck of her fortunes, before her eyes, without society, without a single friend, admired—and despised: she lives literally in spite, not in pity. Her cruelty in drawing a profligate character of the Queen after her execution, in the Chevaliers du Cygne, her taking her pupils at the beginning of the Revolution to the revolutionary clubs, her connection with the late Duke of Orleans and her hypocrisy about it, her insisting upon being governess to his children when the Duchess did not wish it, and its being supposed that it was she who instigated the Duke in all his horrible conduct; and more than all the rest, her own attacks and apologies, have brought her into all this isolated state of reprobation. And now, my dear aunt, I have told you all I know, or have heard, or think about her; and perhaps I have tired you, but I fancied that it was a subject particularly interesting to you, and if I have been mistaken you will with your usual good-nature forgive me and say, "I am sure Maria meant it kindly."


Taken from Maria Edgeworth, Life And Letters Of Maria Edgeworth, edited by Augustus  J.C. Hare, Volume 1, Letter 47 (19 March 1803). Full text from wikisource.