An Afternoon At Coppet
( Originally Published 1911 )
GENEVA, August 24th.
LIKE Hawthorne, our first feeling upon returning to Switzerland, after our sojourn in Italy, was of a certain chill and austerity in the atmosphere, a lack of heartiness, in sharp contrast to the rich feast of beauty, the warm color and compelling charm of Italian towns. This impression was accentuated by the fact that it rained yesterday at Lausanne and that we reached Geneva in the rain. We had one clear day, however, at Lausanne, upon which we made a pilgrimage to Chillon, to the great delight of the Kinder. Miss Cassandra insisted that we should take the children to see this most romantic and beautiful spot, because, she says, it is out of fashion nowadays, like Niagara Falls at home, and that it is a part of a liberal education to see the Castle of Chillon and read Byron's poem on the spot, all of which we did. It is needless to tell you that Christine and Lisa considered this day on the lake and in and about Chillon the most interesting educational experience of their lives. We were glad to leave them at the pension in Lausanne with a memory so pleasant as this, and for ourselves we carry away with us a picture of the grim castle reaching out into the blue lake and beyond that almost unrivalled line of Alpine peaks, white and shining in the sun. After this there came a day of rain, in which we set forth for Geneva.
"We have not seen him for three days until to-day," said the garçon who waited on us at the terrace café of the hotel this morning, with a fond glance toward the snowy crest of Mont Blanc rising above enveloping clouds. It would not have occurred to us to call this exquisite pearl and rose peak him, as did the garçon, who was proud of his English, and much surer of his genders than we ever hope to be in his language, or any other save our own; but we were ready to echo his lament after a day of clouds and rain. To be in these picturesque old towns upon the shores of the Lake of Geneva, and not to see Mont Blanc by sunlight, moon-light, and starlight is a grievance not lightly to be borne; but when a glory of sunshine dispelled the clouds and Mont Blanc threw its misty veil to the winds and stood forth beautiful as a bride, in shining white touched with palest pink, we could only, like the woman of the Scriptures, forget our sorrows for joy that such a day was born to the world.
Days like this are rare in the Swiss autumn, and with jealous care we planned its hours, carefully balancing the claims of Vevey, Yvoire, picturesque as an Italian hillside town, Ferney, and Coppet. This last drew us irresistibly by its associations with Madame de Staël and her brilliant entourage, and we decided that this day of days should be dedicated to a tour along the Cote Suisse of the lake, stopping at Nyon for a glance at its sixteenth century château and returning in time to spend a long afternoon at Coppet. The only drawback to this delightful plan was that this is Wednesday, and according to the friendly little guidebook that informs sojourners in Geneva how to make the best of their days, Thursday is the day that the Château de Staël is open to visitors. Learning, however, that the d'Haussonvilles were not at present in residence, we concluded to take our courage, and some silver, in our hands, trusting to its seductive influence upon the caretaker. After a short stroll through the quaint old town of Coppet we ascended the steep hill that leads to the Château de Staël. As we drew near the entrance gate, Walter, manlike, retired to the rear of the procession, saying that he would leave all preliminaries to the womenfolk, as they always knew what to say and generally managed to get what they wanted.
Fortune favored us. We noticed several persons were grouped together in the court-yard, and pushing open the gate, which was not locked, Lydia, who if gentle of mien is bold of heart, inquired in her most charmingly hesitating manner and in her Sunday best French whether we should be permitted to enter. Upon this a man separated himself from the group and approaching us asked if we very much wished to see the château, for if we did he was about to conduct some friends through the premises and would be pleased to include us in the party.
"When the French wish to be polite how gracefully they accord a favor!" exclaimed Lydia, turning to Walter, the joy of conquest shining in her blue eyes.
"Yes, and I kept out of it for fear of spoiling sport. Any caretaker who could withstand the combined charms of you three must be valiant indeed ! I noticed that Zelphine put Miss Cassandra in the forefront of the battle; she is always a winner even if she isn't up to the language, and you did the talking. Zelphine certainly knows how to marshal her forces!"
We all laughed heartily over Walter's effort to make a virtue of his own masterly inactivity, and Miss Cassandra asked him if he had ever applied for a diplomatic mission, as we gaily entered the spacious courtyard.
We noticed, as we passed on toward the château, the old tower of the archives, which doubtless contains human documents as inter-;sting as those published by Count Othenin d'Haussonville about his pretty great-grandmother when she was jeune fille très coquette, with numerous lovers at her feet. Behind the close-barred door of the tower the love letters of Edward Gibbon to the village belle were pre-served, among them that cold and cruel epistle in which for prudential reasons he renounced the love of Mademoiselle Curchod, whom he would "always remember as the most worthy, the most charming of her sex."
Count d'Haussonville, who now owns Coppet, our guide informed us, is not the grandson of Madame de Staël, as Lydia and I had thought, but her great-grandson. Albertine de Staël married Victor, Duc de Broglie, and their daughter became the wife of Count Othenin d'Haussonville, to whom we are indebted for the story of the early love affair of his ancestress with the historian of the Roman Empire. The sympathies of the reader of this touching pastoral are naturally with the pretty Swiss girl, who seems to have been sincerely attached to her recreant lover, although she had sufficient pride to conceal her emotions. If Edward Gibbon found excuse for himself in the reported tranquillity and gayety of Mademoiselle Curchod, we, for our part, are glad that she did not wear her heart upon her sleeve, there being other worlds to conquer. Indeed, even then, several suitors were at Mademoiselle Curchod 's feet, among them a young parson,-her father being a pastor, young parsons were her legitimate prey,—and still greater triumphs were reserved for her in the gay world of Paris which she was soon to enter. As dame de compagnie, Mademoiselle Curchod journeyed with Madame Vermenoux to the French capital, and carried off one of her lovers, M. Necker, under her very eyes. The popular tradition is that Madame' Vermenoux was well tired of M. Necker and of Mademoiselle Curchod also, and so cheerfully gave them both her blessing, re-marking with malice as well as wit: "They will bore each other so much that they will be provided with an occupation."
It soon transpired that M. and Mme. Necker, far from boring each other, were quite unfashionably happy in their married life, some part of which was passed at Coppet, which M. Necker bought at the time of his dismissal from office.
An hour of triumph came to Madame Necker later when Edward Gibbon visited her in her husband's home in Paris. After being hospitably invited to supper by M. Necker, the historian related that the husband composedly went off to bed, leaving him tête-à-tête with his wife, adding, "That is to treat an old lover as a person of little consequence."
The love affairs of the Swiss pastor's daughter, her disappointments, her triumphs, and her facility for turning from lost Edens to pastures new, would be of little interest today did they not reveal certain common characteristics possessed by the lively blue-stocking, Susanne Curchod, and her passionate, intense daughter, Anne Germaine de Staël. The well-conducted Madame Necker, whose fair name was touched by no breath of scandal, possessed all her life a craving for love, devotion, and admiration, which were accorded to her in full measure. With the mother, passion was re-strained by fine delicacy and reserve, and her heart was satisfied by a congenial marriage, while the impetuous and ill-regulated nature of Germaine was thrown back upon itself by an early and singularly ill-assorted union.
With many thoughts of the two interesting women who once lived in the château we passed through the doorway into the hall, on whose right-hand side is a colossal statue of Louis Seize, while on the left are portraits of several generations of d'Haussonvilles. On the stair-way are numerous genealogical charts and family trees of the Neckers, doubtless reaching back to Attila, if not to Adam, for strange as it may seem the great Swiss financier was as much addicted to vain genealogies and heraldic quarterings as a twentieth century American.
It was in the long library, with its many windows opening out upon a sunny terrace, that we came upon traces of the presiding genius of the château. Here are Madame de Staël's own books, the cases unchanged, we were assured, except by the addition of new publications from time to time. On a table, among the most treasured possessions of the devoted daughter, is the strong box of M. Necker in which he kept his accounts with the French Government when he sought to stem the tide of financial disaster that was bearing the monarchy to its doom.
From this room instinct with the atmosphere of culture, a fit setting for the profoundly intellectual woman who inhabited it, we stepped through one of the long windows to the terrace which commands a glorious view. In the distance, yet not seeming very far away in this clear air, is that well-known group of which Mont Blanc is the central peak, with the Dent du Géant and the Aiguilles du Glacier and D'Argentière standing guard over its crystal-line purity. We had seen Mont Blanc and its attendant mountains from the heights of Mont Revard, and knew its majestic beauty as seen from Chamounix; but we all agreed that nothing could be lovelier than these white peaks rising above the sapphire lake, with the blue cloud-flecked sky over all. Yet, with this perfect picture spread before her, Madame de Staël longed for the very gutters of Paris, its sights and sounds, which were inseparably associated in her mind with the joyous chatter of the salon to which she had been introduced at an age when most children are in the nursery. Seated upon a high chair in her mother's salon, little Anne Germaine Necker listened eagerly to the discourses of the great men of her day. Listening was not destined to be her role in later years; but to pace up and down the long drawing room at Coppet, with the invariable green branch in her beautiful hands, uttering words that charmed such guests as Schlegel, Sismondi, Bonstetten of Geneva and Chateaubriand. It was Chateaubriand who said that the two magical charms of Coppet were the conversation of Madame de Staël and the beauty of Madame Récamier.
Madame de Staël's library opens into her bedroom, and beyond this is the charming little apartment dedicated to Madame Récamier. This small, dainty room, with hand-made paper upon its walls of delicate green decorated with flowers and birds, seemed a fit setting for the flower-like beauty who occupied it, a lily that preserved its purity amid the almost incredible corruption of the social life of the period.
Madame de Staël's own bedroom is filled with pictures, and souvenirs of the vie intime of one who with all her faults was dowered with a limitless affection for her family and friends. Here is a marble bust of the beautiful daughter Albertine in her girlhood, and on the right of Madame de Staël's bed is a portrait of her mother, in water color painted during her last illness, the fine, delicate old face framed in by a lace cap. On the margin of this picture is written, "Elle m'aimera toujours." Under this lovely water color is the same picture re-produced in black and white, beneath which some crude hand has written in English the trite phrase, "Not lost, but gone before."
In a glass case are Madame de Staël's India shawls, which, like Josephine de Beau-harnais and other women of the period, she seems to have possessed the art of wearing with grace and distinction. One of these shawls appears in the familiar portrait by David, which is in a small library or living room au premier; this we reached by climbing many stairs. It is quite evident that David was not in sympathy with his sitter, as in this painting he has softened no line of the heavy featured face, and illumined with no light of intellect a countenance that in conversation was so transformed that Madame de Stag's listeners forgot for the moment that she was not beautiful.
Quite near the portrait of the exile of Coppet, as she was pleased to call herself, is one of Baron de Staël Holstein, in court costume, finished, elegant, handsome perhaps, but quite insignificant. It is surely one of the ironies of fate that the Baron de Staël is only remembered to-day as the husband of a woman whom he seems to have looked upon as his social inferior. In this living room is a large portrait of M. Necker, indeed, no room is with-out a portrait or bust of the idolized father, and here, looking strangely modern among faces of the First Empire, is a charming group of the four daughters of the Count d'Haussonville, the present owner of Coppet. Several portraits and busts there are, in the drawing room, of beautiful Albertine de Staël, wife of Victor, Duc de Broglie, whom Madame de Staël says that she loved for his tenderness and sympathy.
In this spacious, homelike drawing room, furnished in the style of the First Empire, and yet not too fine for daily use, we could imagine Madame de Staël surrounded by her brilliant circle of friends, many of whom had been, like herself, banished from the Paris that they loved. She is described by Madame Vigée Lebrun, and other guests, as walking up and down the long salon, conversing incessantly, or sitting at one of the tables writing notes and interjecting profound or brilliant thoughts into the conversation. "Her words," added Madame Lebrun, "have an ardor quite peculiar to her. It is impossible to interrupt her. At these times she produces on one the effect of an improvisatrice."
Ohlenschlager described the châtelaine of Coppet as "living in an enchanted castle, a queen or a fairy," albeit of rather substantial proportions, it must be admitted, "her wand being the little green branch that her servant placed each day by her plate at table." The time of the Danish poet's visit was that golden period in the life of the château when it was the rendezvous of many of the savants of Germany and Geneva. Into the charmed circle, at this time, entered Madame Krudener, that strangely puzzling combination of priestess and coquette, whose Greuze face and mystic revelations touched the heart of an Emperor. Standing in the long salon, which contains many portraits and souvenirs of the habitués of Coppet, we realized something of the life of those brilliant days, when the walls echoed to what Bonstettin called "prodigious outbursts of wit and learning," and upon whose boards classic dramas and original plays were acted, often very badly, by the learned guests. Rosalie de Constant wrote that she trembled for her cousin Benjamin's success in Mahomet, which role he accepted with confidence, while beneath the play at life and love the great tragedy of a passion-ate human soul is played on to the end, for this is the period of storm and stress, of alternate reproaches and caresses, from which Benjamin Constant escaped finally to the side of his less exacting Charlotte.
After spending some weeks in the company of a hostess who could converse half the day and most of the night with no sign of fatigue, it is not strange that Benjamin Constant sometimes found himself wearied by the mental activity of Coppet, where "more intellect was dispensed in one day than in one year in many lands," or that Bonstettin said that after a visit to the château, "One appreciated the conversation of insipid people who made no demand upon one's intellect." And brilliant as was that of the hostess, her guests doubtless hailed as a relief from mental strain occasional days when she became so much absorbed in her writing that she ceased for a while to converse, and they were free to wander at will through the beautiful park, or to gather around the Récamier sofa, still to be seen in one corner of the salon, where the lovely Juliette held her court.
Madame Récamier, like Benjamin Constant, Sismondi, and many other distinguished per-sons who had incurred the displeasure of Napoleon, found what seems to us a gilded exile at Coppet in the home of the Emperor's arch-enemy. The close friendship of Germaine de Staël and Juliette Récamier, even cemented as it was by the common bond of misfortune, is difficult to understand. That Madame de Staël kept by her side for years a woman whose remarkable beauty and sympathetic charm brought out in strong contrast her own personal defects, presupposes a generosity of spirit for which few persons give this supremely egotistical woman credit. She always spoke of Madame Recamier in rapturous terms, and her "belle Juliette" and her "dear angel" seems to have been free under the eyes of her hostess to capture such noble and learned lovers as Mathieu de Montmorency, Prince Augustus of Prussia, Ampère, and Chateaubriand. It was only when that ill-named Benjamin Constant al-lowed his unstable affections to wander from the dahlia to the lily that Germaine de Staël's anger was aroused against her friend. For a short period Madame Récamier ceased to be the "belle Juliette" and the "dear angel" of the mistress of Coppet until, with a truly angelic sweetness of temper and infinite tact, she made Germaine understand that she had no desire to carry off her recreant lover and so the friend-ship continued to the end.
If it is difficult to understand the long friend-ship of Madame de Staël and Juliette Récamier, it is quite impossible to follow with any comprehension or sympathy the various loves of Germaine. One can perhaps understand that after Benjamin Constant had escaped from her stormy endearments she could turn for solace to young Albert Rocca, and yet why did she still cling to Benjamin's outworn affection, and then, with naive inconsistency, declare that he had not been the supreme object of her devotion, but that Narbonne, Talleyrand and Mathieu de Montmorency were the three men whom she had most deeply loved?
Lydia said something of this, as we passed through the gate of the château, upon which an elderly woman, who had been one of the guide's party, turned to us and said abruptly, "Artistic temperament! Men have been allowed a monopoly of all the advantages belonging to the artistic temperament for so many years that it seems only fair to cover over the delinquencies of women of such unquestioned genius as Germaine de Staël and George Sand with the same mantle of charity."
These words of truth and soberness were spoken in a tone of authority, almost of finality, and yet in the stranger's eyes there shone so kindly and genial a light that far from being repelled by them, we found ourselves discussing with her the loves of poets and philosophers as we descended the steep hill that leads from the château to the garden café at its foot. Here, led on by the pleasant comradeship induced by travel, we continued our discussion over cups of tea and buns, while Mont Blanc glowed to rose in the sunset light, and we wondered again how Madame de Staël could ever have looked upon the shores of this beautiful lake as a "terrible country," even if it was for her a " land of exile."
You will think that we have had enough pleasure and interest for one afternoon, but you must remember that this is our one day in Geneva, and although we have all been here before, we have never seen Ferney. Walter discovered, in looking over the local guidebook, that this is the day for Ferney, and that it is open until six o'clock. He found that we had an hour after reaching the boat landing. Walter secured an automobile and we set forth for the home of Voltaire, which is really very near Geneva.
It was interesting to see the old philosopher's rooms and the gardens, from which there is an extended view of the lake and mountains; but most impressive after all is the little church which he built in his old age, with the inscription on one end :
DEO EREXIT VOLTAIRE MDCCLXI
Walter has suddenly conceived the idea that there are some valuable coins well worth a visit in the Ariana Museum which we passed on the way to Ferney, so we have decided to gain a half day here by taking an afternoon train to Dijon and stopping there over night. When you next hear from me it will be from Mary Stuart's pleasant land of France and probably from the Paris beloved of Germaine de Staël. Until then, au revoir, ma belle.