Friday, August 14, 2015

A Cautionary Tale

I'm publishing this halfway written post, because I want neither to complete nor trash it...  Jeanne Julie Éléanore de Lespinasse deserves to be heard more loudly than this post will project.  If you're so inclined, the full story and her letters can be read HERE.  

It's been said that Mademoiselle Julie de Lespinasse's letters to the Comte de Guibert illustrate Sainte-Beuve's observation that "Rousseau was like a meteor which fired the heads and hearts of women, and kindled their imagination."  But, Rousseau and the dawning of sentimentalism, are only partial explanation for the amount of passion, some would call it obsession, that pour from her letters. That kind of emotion isn't the result of outside influence.  No trend toward romantic expression and love of nature could unleash such a flood of love and adoration.  Mademoiselle de Lespinasse had "a lot of feelings," as my daughter would say.  

First a little background...

Julie de Lespinasse was born in Lyon in 1732 to a Madame Julie Claude Hilaire d'Albon.  
Madame d'Albon was married, but didn't live with her husband and Julie was raised fatherless.  For a time, the lack of a father's support wasn't an issue.  The little girl, half-sister to an eight year old boy and a sixteen year old girl, was a delight to her mother and early childhood was happy and peaceful. In time, her sister married a man named Gaspard, comte de Vichy.  As Madame d'Albon's age advanced and health declined, her concern for her youngest child grew.  She wanted to pursue legitimacy for her thus providing for her future, but the matter was complicated by the fact that, the story goes, Julie's father was now her elder sister's husband, her mother's son-in-law. 

When her mother died, Julie went to live with her sister and brother-in-law/maybe-even-father, in their château, as a governess for their children.  The comte de Vichy's sister was the famous and famously difficult Paris hostess, Madame du Deffand.  While visiting her brother and his family, Madame du Deffand took a liking to Julie and took her back to Paris to live with her at the Convent of St. Joseph. Through her position as reader and companion to the crotchety, nearly blind, middle-aged woman, Mlle de Lespinasse was exposed to the most influential and important figures of the day who gathered in Madame du Deffand's salon to discuss politics, art, literature, science, theatre, and each other.  She learned so much, in fact, that she began to invite Madame du Deffand's friends and acquaintances to come an hour early to gather in her private rooms for conversation and socializing. When Madame discovered this small betrayal, she was furious, implacable, and kicked Julie out of her home.  Julie took with her the loyalties and patronage of some of Madame most illustrious guests among them the eminent mathematician, Jean le Rond d'Alembert, who eventually moved in with her and fell in love with her.

Then, we set the scene:

Mlle de Lespinasse established a salon of her own and acted as hostess to many of the most brilliant and creative minds that were shaping the changing world.  It wasn't beauty that drew others to her. Her own explanation of her success:  "You know a person who has all her life lacked attractiveness of features and the graces which please, interest and touch, and yet this person has had more successes, and been a thousand times more beloved than she could ever have claimed to be.  Do you know the secret of this?  It is because she has had the truth of everything, and had in addition been true in everything."

Julie may have "had the truth" in everything, but she wasn't true in everything. She kept her deepest thoughts from even her closest friends.  It is only through her letters, discovered and published posthumously, that her rich inner life was revealed.  Within her circle of friends, she was warm, genuinely interested and interesting, and had a gift for drawing people out and making them feel special and at their best.  But, of herself and her most private feelings, without making it obvious, she revealed little.  A personal inclination toward restraint is one explanation for her unexpressed feelings. Another is that she lived in an age and among a society in which it was "ridiculous to allow oneself to feel too keenly, and nothing was more to be feared than ridicule."  A third is that she was guilt-ridden, mortified by her own behavior, and terrified of exposure.

Mademoiselle de Lespinasse was madly in love with José y Gonzaga, marquis de Mora.  The marquis de Mora was the son of an imminent Spanish diplomat and highly regarded in his own right.  Julie de Lespinasse wrote to a friend that "This man fulfills my idea of perfection."  Julie loved him fully and that love was reciprocated.  His poor health demanded that he travel to southern climates for treatment and recuperation.  They corresponded, sometimes writing twice a day.  In one letter, he compared Julie to women he'd loved before with these words, "Oh!  They are not worthy to be your pupils.  Your soul was warmed by the sun of Lima, my countrywomen seem born beneath the icebergs of Lapland." They dreamed of a day when they could marry and be together forever. 

During one of the marquis' health-related absences, Julie met the Comte de Guibert.  He was a military expert, a writer, and an honored guest of men like Voltaire.  Julie and the Comte became friends and corresponded during his world travels. They spent time together when he was in Paris and drew closer and closer, finally consummating their relationship, ironically, it turned out, on the very day that Julie's Spanish fiancé died, far from France.  Julie seems to have been one of those people who place stock in irony and I imagine that the coincidence of the two life events raised the level of her anxiety to almost unbearable heights.  De Guibert was average looking, forceful, intelligent, a man of many talents and, critically important in the age, he talked a good game.  Madame de Staël, an extremely well-informed and intelligent woman, who valued wit and articulation as much as anyone of that witty and articulate age, said, "his conversation was the most varied, animated and eloquent" that she'd ever heard.  

Wracked with guilt and more drawn to the comte than ever, Julie wrote to him, "You and my grief are all that are left to me in the world." He was less than committed to their relationship and she often questioned and accused him.  Remorse, jealousy, and love struggled for mastery within her and she became physically ill and emotionally overwrought - turning increasingly to opium. Guibert married another woman, but Julie remains unable to unleash the surly bonds of Love and continues to write heartrending, painfully honest, too honest, letters to the object of her fixation devotion.

According to my book, "The fire which he had kindled had become a conflagration which nothing could extinguish;  her instinct was not at fault when she wrote that her death would be a relief to him." And, die she did, completely broken, in 1776, three years after becoming involved with Guibert.  D'Alembert was at her side to the end, totally unaware of the source of the turmoil that she carried.  Julie, ultimately, too late, found a way to resist (or was it "punish"?) the Comte de Guibert. She refused to allow him at her deathbed.  Talk about having the last word.

It was only after Mlle. de Lespinasse's death, after Guibert's death, that the Comte de Guibert's wife (with the encouragement of a prominent revolutionary - the book says "Barrfere."  Is that Barèrre of The Terror fame?), wanting to enhance her husband's image by showing the desperation with which he was loved, published the letters.  It was because of Guibert's betrayal of trust that she was able to expose Julie's deepest feelings to the world which included many of her friends and contemporaries as the letters were published during their lifetimes.  Her friends included Turgot and Condorcet and many prominent 18th century figures making them especially interesting to read.  Julie had repeatedly implored Guibert to return her letters and he did send some, insisting, untruthfully, that he'd sent them all. The number he kept is an indication of how many the poor woman must've written. The fact that she continued to write them while begging that he return the previous ones says something, too.

La Mademoiselle's letters to the Comte de Guibert reveal the love of a woman, passionate and emotional to the core, for a man whose, "eloquence concealed the essential emptiness of his emotions. Ambition was indeed the keynote of Guibert's character.  All his talents were subservient to it;  and he preferred the adulation of women to honest criticism.  He deceived himself into a belief that it was not ambition he felt, but the knowledge of his own strength;  as time went on, Julie could not fail to see that, to him, love was only a plaything." 

Though the circumstances and relationships were completely different, a quote from a poem that my maternal grandmother's beau wrote to her comes to mind... 

"If Thou Will Not Give Thine Heart, Give Back Mine Own to Me"

If only it were that simple.


Micah said...

Yikes. Julie sounds crazy, so, naturally, I love her.

You're a fantastic writer, and so insightful: "Julie seems to have been one of those people who place stock in irony and I imagine that the coincidence of the two life events raised the level of her anxiety to almost unbearable heights. De Guibert was average looking, forceful, intelligent, a man of many talents and, critically important in the age, he talked a good game." Beautiful.

Madeleine Doak said...

I'm so happy to have you back in Texas!