"Her angelic face can bear no other name; one look suffices to bind your heart to her for ever." So said Lamartine of Madame Recamier, the wonderful woman who ruled French society for thirty-four years.
A list of her attractions is so long that it sounds almost impossible. She was lovely, graceful, with charming manners; she Was generous, unselfish, hard-working in the cause of others; she was affectionate; she Was a force in politics and a power in literature, wrote wonderful letters herself, and inspired fine Work in others; she was an accomplished musician, and a perfect hostess; she was dowered with sympathy, tact, and self-effacement in a very liberal degree; she possessed the power of attracting love from every human creature she met; she could turn her lovers into friends; and, in a lcose age, no one could ever so much as breathe upon the purity of her good name.
At the age of fifteen she was married to a middle-aged, grave man, to whom she was bound by merely a nominal tie. From him she could have obtained at any time her release; but, when her heart Was touched by the young Prince Augustus of Prussia, and she wrote to her husband to ask for her freedom, a single tender, sorrowful letter from him was enough to bring her back to his side. She refused the advances of an emperor, a prince, a reigning grand duke, and as for the lesser men - philosophers, writers, statesmen, poets, artists, noblemen - who loved her, they were reckoned by the dozen. She must have lost count of them herself. She Was adored by women - even by the wives of the men who loved her ! The Duke of
Because she refused his advances, Napoleon hated her and persecuted her. He could not bear her social supremacy, and later, to revenge himself for her coldness, he ruined her husband. It was of little avail. People flocked to her, loved her, praised her, all the more for the reverses she bore with such patience and gentleness. He exiled her; and wherever she went a brilliant circle of adorers sprang up.
She was the daughter of Bernard, first a notary of Lyons, then a collector of Customs under Louis XVI. in Paris. Her mother was very lovely, and, it is said, affectionate to others besides her husband. This gave rise to a curious explanation of the strange marriage between Juliette, then but a child, and the grave, rich banker, Jacques Recamier, which took place at the very height of the Reign of Terror. The marriage was one in name only, and it was said that Juliette was Recamier's daughter, and that he took this way of securing his fortune to her, should he perish on the scaffold, as seemed at that time almost inevitable.
When the Reign of Terror was over, Madame Recamier burst upon Paris in the days when, with Gallic light-heartedness, people were throwing themselves madly into amusements. She was a little shy - never a drawback in a very young and extremely beautiful girl. Her fame filled Paris. She was asked, in accordance with a custom then extant, to hold the plate in church for a special charitable object. The church was filled to overflowing, people standing even on the side altars to catch a view of her as she knelt holding the plate, and in imminent danger of being crushed to death by the crowd.
Before long she was the very heart of political society in brilliant Paris. She blossomed into one of those rare hostesses who can always draw the best from everyone. The admiration she received did not turn her head, and although she had no deep religious principles at that time, she had a sweet and loving nature, and was well guided by close and earnest friends of both sexes. Her greatest friend Was Madame de Stael, and this friendship was never broken till death gathered in the author of "Corinne." It lasted through exile and persecution, and Madame Recamier's own exile sprang directly from her daring to visit her friend when the latter Was under Napoleon's displeasure.
Madame Recamier, who ruled French society for thirty four years. " Her angelic face can bear no other name; one look suffices to bind your heart to her for ever," said Lamartine. Front the famous painting by David
Her life was full of brilliant and dramatic chapters, but perhaps the most outstanding of all was that in which Chateaubriand figured; and it also shows the glorious qualities of her nature better than the others.
She had met the famous writer casually in society, and some years later renewed his acquaintance at the death-bed of Madame de Stael. That circumstance alone was sufficient to give him a special interest in her eyes, and as for him, he Was no exception to the rule that "to see her Was to love her." He was egotistic, vain, ambitious, and melancholy, but he always had an attraction for women, and he was destined to be the only man who captured the real heart of beautiful Juliette. For two years from the death of Madame de Stael her two greatest friends became ever closer united in the bonds of mutual affection and mutual interest influence.
In 1819, when Chateaubriand was fifty and Madame Recamier was forty, and still very beautiful and more popular than ever, Monsieur Recamier lost his money. It became necessary to retrench, and Madame Recamier seized the opportunity of leaving her husband without scandal. She felt that Chateaubriand took the first place in her life. It is a sign of her nature that, at this point in her life, the way she took was to retire to semi-obscurity in the outskirts of a convent, where her husband visited her daily, and
Chateaubriand also, to say nothing of her other friends.
The Abbaye-aux-bms was only pulled down in 1908. The writer stayed there, just before its demolition, in a suite of rooms on the second floor, whose red-tiled floors had a depression worn in them where pious women had paced up and down meditating during three centuries. The outer part of the convent Was built round a paved courtyard - the one where Chateaubriand and Bal-lanche paced up and down, anxiously waiting for news of their adored friend when she was ill. All the rooms were small and bare, but Madame Recamier brightened them with flowers, and, on the faith of one who spent five delicious weeks there, there are worse places than Was the old Abbaye-aux-bois.
Certainly the life here was a great change from that of wealth and pleasure she had been accustomed to lead; but it suited well with the tenor of her thoughts. She who had reigned, and might have done so still, preferred to make Chateaubriand the centre of everything, to devote herself to making him happy, and encouraging him in his work. Before long, there was a literary centre in the abbaye, to the full as important, if more quiet, than that of the Rue du Mont Blanc. Politics were eliminated, or treated in a detached fashion; conversation was kept general by the tact of the hostess, and the gatherings were always small. All the most notable men and women of France and England went to the dull old convent; the courtyard rang with voices. Madame Recamier received it all quietly, her thoughts fixed on well-doing, and on the welfare of her famous friend. She was ready now, as always, to exert every nerve to help anyone, whether he were an exiled prince or a poor fisherman.
The rest of her story is one of unfaltering devotion. When her sight failed, she was chiefly concerned because she could no longer be of the same use to Chateaubriand. His death, and that of several old friends, shook her sadly, but she was never lonely, as some people are when they leave youth behind, for her power over hearts remained till the end, and when she was well on in the fifties she could still attract and keep the love of even quite young men. Although Chateaubriand held the first place in her heart, she had plenty of kindness and affection for her other friends. It is significant, by the way, that even in light-hearted, frivolous Paris, no breath of scandal ever sullied the purity and beauty of her devotion to Chateaubriand.
When his wife died, he begged her to marry him; but this beautiful grey-haired lady, thinking of others always, refused. She said his one pleasure was coming to see her, and she feared he would lose this little excitement if she married him.
In the end, she was carried off suddenly by cholera - a disease of which she had always had a horror. Thus ended the life of a woman so sweet and kindly that in her salons men of every opinion could meet in friendship; who, as said one of her women friends, was "beloved always and by all from her cradle to her grave. . . . What other glory is so enviable?"