The Comtesse De Boufflers
The Comtesse De Boufflers
Abstract and Keywords
Whether called ‘Divine Comtesse’ in affection, or ‘Idol of the Temple’ in derision, Madame de Boufflers was something of an enigma to everyone. That she was exceedingly attractive – if not beautiful – is attested by all who met her and is borne out in her portraits. She had all the charm of Dresden china: a figure dainty and slight, delicate features crowned with dark hair in a simple coiffure, eyes that burned brightly. That she was a distinguished – if not the most distinguished – salonnière of the eighteenth century was universally acknowledged, as was also her social charm and poise, and her interest in the arts and learning. She also attempted to write plays and some say that she actually published books. The enigma of Madame de Boufflers lies not in such externals, but in character; and while the readings of her character vary, they yet agree on essentials.
“You have saved me from a total indifference towards every thing in human life.”
WHETHER called “Divine Comtesse” in affection, or “Idol of the Temple” in derision, Mme de Boufflers was something of an enigma to everyone. That she was exceedingly attractive—if not beautiful—is attested by all who met her and is borne out in her portraits. She has all the charm of Dresden china: a figure dainty and slight, delicate features crowned with dark hair in a simple coiffure, eyes that burn brightly. That she was a distinguished—if not the most distinguished—salonniere of the eighteenth century was universally acknowledged, as was also her social charm and poise, and her interest in the arts and learning. She also attempted to write plays and some say that she actually published books. The enigma of Mme de Boufflers lies not in such externals, but in character; and while the readings of her character vary, they yet agree on essentials.
The combined comments of two discerning men who knew her may be taken as representative of the masculine point of view. Horace Walpole, after describing her as a savante, proceeds: “She is two women, the upper and the lower. I need not tell you that the lower is gallant, and still has pretensions. The upper is very sensible, too, and has a measured eloquence that is just and pleasing—but all is spoiled by an unrelaxed attention to applause. You would think she was always sitting for her picture to her biographer.” Jean-Jacques Rousseau remarked to one of her intimate friends: “As to Mme de Boufflers, one must adore her”; but in his Confessions he was to accuse her of having made improper advances to him under guise of patroness, and in a private letter was even more outspoken.1
The feminine point of view, much the subtler, is best represented by Mme du Deffand, who, though a rival and enemy for many years, resumed friendship late in life. Her judgment of Mme de Boufflers is carefully weighed and the resulting enigma is skilfully pointed:
(p.457) Her mind, though not eminent…is highly capable of consistency and application…. She knows a good deal and knows it well, confidently, and flawlessly. You can say that she has all the mind it is possible to acquire; but what she has, and there is no gainsaying that she has much, she owes more to art than to nature.
Her conversation, without being cold or tedious, is neither very brilliant, nor very piquant, nor very animated; she says nothing ill, nothing flat, but she essays few witticisms….
Her heart…is as artificial as her mind. You cannot say of her that she has neither vices, nor virtues, nor even shortcomings and failings; but you do not find in her sentiments, or passions, or prudences, or preferences, or hate.
Her good qualities, for she has several, result from the emptiness of her character and from the slight impression that everything around her makes on her; she is not envious, or scandal-mongering, or dangerous, or interfering, because she is occupied solely with herself and not with others….
Her ethics are most austere, always mounted on high principles, which she announces in a firm and decided tone and in the sweetest voice; she seems like a flute which is pronouncing laws and delivering oracles. What is amusing, though a little annoying, is that this lofty morality is not perfectly in accord with her conduct; what is even more amusing is that the contrast does not startle her. She will tell you coldly that it is against good order for a woman to live apart from her husband, that the mistress of a Prince of the Blood is a woman in disgrace; but she says all that so ingenuously, so persuasively, with a voice so pretty and a manner so sweet, that you are not even tempted to find it ridiculous; she is only drôle—the word seems made expressly for her….1
Drôle, then, may be taken as the epithet for Mme de Boufflers. It is true that she was a moralist and had drawn up her own “Rules of Conduct.” These read, in part:
- In conduct, simplicity and reason.
- In appearance, propriety and decency.
- In dealings with others, justice and generosity.
- In the use of wealth, economy and liberality.
- In discourse, clarity, truth, and precision.
- In adversity, courage and pride.
- In prosperity, modesty and moderation.
- In society, charm, ease, courteousness.
- In domestic life, integrity and kindness without familiarity….
- To sacrifice everything for tranquillity of soul.
- To combat misfortunes and afflictions by temperance.
- To permit one’s self only innocent railleries, which cannot wound….2
It is likewise true that Mme de Boufflers was living apart from her husband and that she was a mistress of a Prince of the Blood. It is no less true that she was naïve in her mixture of the theory and practice of ethics.
One day, for instance, she upbraided the Maréchale de (p.458) Mirepoix, her intimate friend, for associating with Mme de Pompadour, saying, “She is, after all, merely the first prostitute of the Kingdom.” A little vexed, Mme de Mirepoix returned, “Don’t ask me to count up to three.”1
This repartee was widely circulated and disturbed Mme de Boufflers no little. Just why she was so disturbed is what perplexed all who knew her. Such liaisons did not disturb her close friends, the Maréchale de Mirepoix and the Maréchale de Luxembourg, nor the Duchesse de Chartres, nor Mlle de Lespinasse, nor a dozen others of her acquaintance. Only Mme de Boufflers herself knew the answer, but she seemingly found it incapable of expression, except once when she observed that, “I wish to give back to virtue by my words what I take away from it by my actions.”
Less than a year after her marriage in 1746 to Edouard de Boufflers, the Comtesse gave birth to a son. Shortly thereafter, her husband passed out of her life, to resume importance, paradoxically, only with his death in 1764. In 1752, at the age of twenty-seven, the Comtesse had begun a liaison with the widowed Prince de Conti, aged thirty-four; and they were to remain friends until his death in 1776—the greatest possible tribute to her beauty, grace, and understanding. Her devotion to the Prince, she regarded as a “sacred duty”; but, with her enigmatical ethics, she also found it a “torment.” From neither duty nor torment did she ever flinch.
Louis-François de Bourbon, Prince de Conti, was a remarkable man. A brave and skilful generalissimo of the French Army in Italy, he had won the battle of Coni in 1744 and retired from the Army three years later. He held the confidence of Louis XV in maintaining secret diplomatic missions throughout Europe until 1755, when he was ousted by the intrigues of Mme de Pompadour. Immediately he assumed the leadership of the opposition and earned the King’s appellation of “my cousin the advocate.” The Prince was also well versed in the arts and sciences and was a liberal patron. He protected Rousseau and Beaumarchais, among others, not because he agreed with them, but because he detested censorship. In religion he was a sceptic, but not an atheist, and kept the Abbé Prevost as his chaplain—on condition that he never should say the mass. He was a good talker and of unexampled grace and dignity in society, though he has sometimes been accused of overweening pride and arrogance. A handsome man, the Prince (p.459) de Conti lived handsomely and lavishly. In an age of many libertines, his reputation as a libertine was almost unapproached; but he permitted himself only one principal mistress at a time. A violent quarrel with Mme d’Arty in 1751 had made Mme de Boufflers’s succession possible.
As Grand Prior of Malta, the Prince de Conti maintained as his Paris residence the Temple, situated north of the Seine in the eastern extremity of the old city. Within the fortified walls of the spacious enclosure, the original thirteenth-century square and turreted edifice of the Knights Templars was surrounded by more modern buildings. One of the smaller of these, facing north on the rue Notre-Dame-de-Nazareth and with a simple garden on the south, was assigned to Mme de Boufflers. An elegant and spacious town-house, elevated somewhat above the others, was reserved for the Prince himself. There he entertained, on a scale rivalling that of the Royal Palace, with theatre-parties, grand assemblies, and intimate soirees. For the Temple had its own theatre, its grand assembly room, and its small salon. All were decorated with white wainscoting, with facings and casings of pressed copper, and with high glass windows offering a vivid contrast to the austerity of the ancient fortress.
On Mondays the Prince de Conti was accustomed to give suppers to fifty or a hundred people. In the centre of the grand assembly room, the Prince and the Comtesse received their guests with formal dignity. The men stood in three ranks, the ladies sat on dainty chairs in a circle. But it was in the small “Salon of the Four Mirrors” that the distinctive reputation of the Temple was made. Mme de Boufflers was the soul of the salon, and Anglomania its prevailing atmosphere. Tea in the English fashion was served early in the evening as the last rays of the sun, reflected in the mirrors, tinted the walls with living colours. In the tradition inaugurated by the Regent to encourage free conversation, no servants were present. The ladies, wearing dainty aprons, lighted the lamps under the urns, poured the tea, cut the cakes, and passed the plates. For incidental music, there might be a singer or a player upon the lute or the harpsichord. In the painting of “Tea in the English fashion at the Prince de Conti’s” made by Michel-Barthelemy Ollivier in 1766, the child prodigy Mozart is seated upon a high chair before an open harpsichord.1 On Fridays, it (p.460) was the custom of Mme de Boufflers to gather together a few select friends in her own house.
David Hume was introduced to the Temple in November or December 1763, after his presentation at court and after the recovery of the Comtesse from the measles. The two had already met when Mme de Boufflers wrote to Hume: “I shall not go to the comedy tomorrow. The play bores me. I shall stay at home. If you wish to come here, I shall conduct you to the Temple, that is to say, to M. the Prince de Conti’s. Without this explanation you might perhaps think that it is to church.”1 Such was Hume’s first invitation to a formal Monday supper. Soon afterwards he began to fall under the spell of the “Divine Comtesse,” and within a year was generally reputed to be the most fervent idolater at the Temple. “They say,” Mme de Verdelin told Rousseau, “that he is madly in love with Mme de Boufflers.”2
At the time of their first meeting Mme de Boufflers was aged thirty-eight, Hume fifty-two. Of their early relations during the winter months in Paris, 1763–64, there is no record. That a warm feeling was being engendered, however, may be inferred from Hume’s letter of 15 May 1764 to the Comtesse in Holland, where she had gone, in the company of Lord and Lady Holdernesse, to visit her son, who was studying at the University of Leyden. “I am afraid,” acknowledges Hume, “that, as I sit down at present to write you without any subject, you will conjecture that I think of you often, and that the pleasure of your society (shall I say, of your friendship?) is not easily made up by other connexions or conversation.” After banter about Court intrigues, well aware that the Comtesse and the Prince pretended to be completely indifferent to such matters, Hume concludes: “Be only assured, dear Madam, and with the greatest seriousness, though at the end of a foolish letter, that were he [Lord Holdernesse] to carry you farther, my wishes for your welfare would still follow you and that nothing can diminish, and scarce augment, my respectful attachment towards you.” In reply Mme de Boufflers admits that, “Your letter made me Smile,” but news of the death of M. the Maréchal de Luxembourg prevents further pleasantry. “I write only,” she charmingly concedes, “that you may not be discontent with me and to assure you of my friendship.”3
During the two or three weeks after the return to Paris of the Comtesse in the middle of June, their friendship mellowed into something more intimate than friendship. This new phase is (p.461) revealed in the exchange of letters in July and August when Hume had followed the Court to Compiègne and the Comtesse had gone to the chateau of the Prince de Conti at L’Isle Adam, only ten leagues away and also on the Oise River. The two had agreed that the lady should be the first to open the correspondence, and on 6 July she had indeed begun a long and severe critique upon John Home’s Douglas, when she was interrupted by the arrival of a letter of the same day from Hume. Writing from the heart, if a little playfully, Hume admits that he had been desperately endeavouring to keep his promise and not to write first, when a commission from the Maréchale de Mirepoix provided him with a pretext. “And I believe really,” he says, “without giving myself too great airs of fortitude, that, were it not for so great a handle, I could have held out two or three days longer at the least. For you must not imagine, but I make advantage of the ten leagues of interval that lie between us, and feel already some progress in the noble resolution I have formed of forgetting you entirely before the end of the summer.”
At Compiègne, continues Hume, he lives in a kind of solitude and retirement. “You cannot imagine, Madam, with what pleasure I return as it were to my natural element, and what satisfaction I enjoy in reading and musing, and sauntering amid the agreeable scenes that surround me.” But, yes, she can, for she had resolved to take up her studies and literary amusements once more. “If you have been so happy as to execute your purpose, you are almost in the same state as myself, and are at present wandering along the banks of the same beautiful river, perhaps with the same books in your hand, a Racine, I suppose, or a Virgil, and despise all other pleasure and amusement. Alas! why am I not so near you, that I could see you for half an hour a day, and confer with you on these subjects? “Recovering himself quickly, however, he adds, “But this ejaculation, methinks, does not lead me directly in my purposed road, of forgetting you.” A postscript gives the forgotten commission of the Maréchale, the original pretext for writing.
Mme de Boufflers’s letter of 6 July had opened: “You are my Maître of philosophy and ethics; and I have often told you that, if I have ideas a little more just and a little more elevated on these subjects than most people, I am obliged to you for having developed them.” On receipt of Hume’s highly personal letter, she immediately interrupted the critique of Douglas to reply. Like Hume, she wrote from the heart:
(p.462) If there is any resemblance in our actual occupations, it is not the only one between us since there is even more in our resolutions. You wish to break away from me; I do not know your motive but, at least, I do know the one that compels me to want to break away from you. It is not ungracious, and I shall not hesitate to tell it to you. It is that you have an uprightness and a goodness of heart that I esteem, a genius that I admire, and a good humour that pleases me; you are a foreigner and, sooner or later, you will go away; your coming here only gave me distaste for most of the people I have to live with. If this were the only drawback, I should find a remedy for books take the place of many things; but the worst of it is that I cannot be contented with simple esteem and cool admiration. As soon as these sentiments are aroused in me, my sensibility is touched and my affections engaged, with the result that I suffer real sorrow when circumstances bring about separation from those who have merited such progress over my heart…. I look upon myself as a feeble shrub that has thrown out its roots too far and is thereby exposed to greater damage and risk. As a matter of fact, I am afraid that reflection and prudence are useless to me at present so far as you are concerned. But if you are working so fruitfully on your side, that may give me courage….
Farewell, my dear Maître, I am going to make haste to love you no longer so as not to feel ashamed to be the last to end this useful undertaking. But as I have not yet started it, I may be permitted for today to assure you that I love you with all my heart.1
The deepening affection of the previous weeks in Paris had aroused Hume to a declaration of love—for sake of caution, phrased negatively—which, in turn, had elicited a declaration on the part of the Comtesse—phrased much more openly. If this was the reply that Hume had sought—whether he would admit it to himself or not—his answering letter of 14 July presents a change of front inspired, doubtless, by stark timidity of the path he was hastening down. He is, in turn, cold, impersonal, passionate, evasive—and yet somehow hopeful. “I shall venture to say, dear Madam,” he begins, “that no letter, which even you have ever wrote, conveyed more satisfaction than did that with which you favoured me. What pleasure to receive testimonies and assurances of good-will from a person whom we highly value, and whose sentiments are of such importance to us! “But he soon approaches the crux of the matter: the Comtesse is not entirely free. “Common sense requires,” he explains, “that I should keep at a distance from all attachments that can imply passion. But it must surely be the height of folly, to lay myself at the mercy of a person whose situation seems calculated to inspire doubt, and who, being so little at her own disposal, could not be able, even if willing, to seek such remedies as might appease that tormenting sentiment. And,” he adds, “if I sometimes join the chimerical project of (p.463) relaxing the severities of study, by the society of a person dear to me, and who could have indulgence for me, I consider it a pleasing dream, in which I can repose no confidence. My only comfort is, that I am myself a person free as the air we breathe, and that, wherever such a blessing might present itself, I could there fix my habitation.”
The cold reception of John Home’s Douglas by Mme de Boufflers produces a statement of curious intensity: “I can even kiss the hand, with pleasure and passion, which signs the verdict against me: I could only have kissed it with more pleasure, had it acquitted my friend.” The letter ends with the inquiry whether the Comtesse would not “come to Paris about the middle of August, and stay there for some time”? Timid of the suggested intimacy of an assignation, however, Hume immediately recoils into the coolly formal: “My question proceeds not merely from curiosity. I could wish to enjoy your company, before the return of winter recalls us to our former dissipations.”
Perplexed by this two-directional letter, the Comtesse patiently wrote eight pages of self-analysis and of explanation of her relations with the Prince de Conti. She begins rhetorically: “I am going to ask you a question…. Do you think that I have a heart that is tender, charitable, and susceptible of friendship? I give you a few moments to think about it.” After an indicated pause, she assumes that Hume has answered in the affirmative and proceeds with her analysis. She is grieved, she says, that she has caused him pain but is hurt that he has had any doubt about the sincerity of her friendship. Painstakingly and circuitously she approaches the central issue of her liaison with the Prince. Her unselfish devotion to him is “the most pleasing of sentiments, the foundation and the support of all the others,” and this devotion, she chides, Hume has dared to profane. As a result of her unselfish devotion, she has little affection left for others and, she emphasises, “You will make me still more miserly of it in the future.”
Turning directly to Hume, she inquires:
But why do you always appear to repent your attachment to me, when I evince one for you so true and so firmly established? I acknowledge that it will sometimes be hindered by absence and by duties which another and older attachment has imposed upon my gratitude. These duties are sacred. They would exact the sacrifice of myself if the occasion arose. My inclination, too, impels me to fulfil them, and they would give me nothing but satisfaction, if the religion, the devotion, with which I discharge them were always recognised. For all that, such as they are, and such as I consider them, they do not absorb me wholly; they leave a place in my heart for other sentiments, (p.464) and I am able to command the greater part of my time and to give it to you. Scrutinize yourself, however, for, whatever it may cost me, and whatever price I set upon your friendship, I should prefer it to be cut short rather than confirmed, if you must suffer or if I must foresee the end.
She closes by saying that she will probably be in Paris when Hume is there and will keep him informed of her plans. “Farewell! I flatter myself that you will not be less pleased with this letter than with the other. I would have to have little art, indeed, to have ill-expressed a friendship that my heart feels so warmly.”1
This candid declaration on the part of the Comtesse drew from Hume a candid, though unexpected, answer. Impersonally, but certainly not coldly, he exclaims, “What amiable, what unaffected, what natural expressions of good-will and friendship! “Yet as to their allowing themselves to proceed with the course of their affection—that is out of the question. The decision is entirely in the spirit of Antony’s exclamation—“I must from this enchanting queen break off!” “I am uneasy,” explains Hume, “that, notwithstanding all you can say, I should not have the prospect of passing much of my time with you. Our connexions and course of life led us into very different roads: but my comfort is, that these may alter: my regard for you is unalterable: I shall firmly believe the same of your indulgence towards me.” In brief, Hume is reluctant to hold a second place in the affections of the Comtesse.
Softening at the close of the letter, however, Hume writes a moving farewell to the love that might have been: “I kiss your hands, my dear, my amiable friend, with the greatest devotion and most sincere affection. Among other obligations, which I owe you, without number, you have saved me from a total indifference towards every thing in human life. I was falling very fast into that state of mind, and it is perhaps worse than even the inquietudes of the most unfortunate passion”—but the poignancy of the farewell is lost in the insipidity of the following phrase—“how much, then, is it inferior to the sweetness of your commerce and friendship!”
Mme de Boufflers was angry with the anger of a woman scorned. She answered immediately, exclaiming, “You reply in two pages, when I wrote you eight!” The letter continues with a sharp rebuke and a scarcely concealed warning:
Do you want to confirm me in the idea which I hold, that your sex like to be handled roughly, that they requite harshness with eagerness and kindness with neglect? for to confess to you my opinion of men, the majority seem to (p.465) me to have by nature servile souls. One can be seduced by them, but one can scarcely, it seems to me, esteem them. Their homage is accepted but cannot flatter. Sometimes it is discernment that they lack, sometimes delicacy, and almost always generosity…. For you towards whom love bore me only as a consequence of esteem, you, I separate from this crowd of slaves, and I attribute to you an entirely different character. If I was mistaken, my affection and the foundation upon which it chiefly rests would soon be destroyed…. I am by nature as proud as I am sensitive, as much borne to disdain as to tenderness, and whoever does not respond to my friendship soon seems to me unworthy of it. I want to flatter myself, my dear Maître, that I shall have to make use of only the more agreeable of these two sentiments towards you and that you will not force me to use that painful prudence, which often obliges us to constrain and to lock up those affections which are the most agreeable and the most innocent in the fear of creating ingrates. Nevertheless, I cannot keep from saying: I waited a long time for your letter, I waited impatiently for it, and I am not satisfied with it. We shall see what excuse you will give me!
This stern letter of 30 July had opened with a schedule of the Comtesse’s activities for the following month and with an invitation to Hume to accompany her, together with the Prince de Conti and his daughter, on a ten-day visit to the Prince’s magnificent palace at Saint-Martin de Pontoise.
The letter brought Hume to his knees with the most passionate declaration to date, but still with a residue of independence. After denying the charge of indifference, he protests:
I will never, but with my life, be persuaded to part with the hold which you have been pleased to afford me; you may cut me to pieces, limb by limb; but like those pertinacious animals of my country, I shall expire still attached to you, and you will in vain attempt to get free. For this reason, Madam, I set at defiance all those menaces, which you obliquely throw out against me. Do you seriously think, that it is at present in your power to determine whether J shall be your friend or not? In every thing else your authority over me is without control. But with all your ingenuity, you will scarce contrive to use me so ill, that I shall not still better bear it: and after all, you will find yourself obliged, from pity, or generosity, or friendship, to take me back into your service. At least, this will probably be the case, till you find one who loves you more sincerely and values you more highly; which with all your merit, I fancy it will not be easy for you to do. I know, that I am here furnishing you with arms against myself: you may be tempted to tyrannize over me, in order to try how far I will practise my doctrine of passive obedience: but I hope also that you will hold this soliloquy to yourself: This poor fellow, I see, is resolved never to leave me: let me take compassion on him; and endeavour to render our intercourse as agreeable to him and as little burdensome to myself as possible. If you fall, Madam, into this way of thinking, as you must at last, I ask no farther; and all your menaces will vanish into smoke.
Good God! how much am I fallen from the airs which I at first gave myself! You may remember, that a little after our personal acquaintance, I told you, that you was obliged à soutenir la gageure, and could not in decency (p.466) find fault with me, however I should think proper to behave myself. Now, I throw myself at your feet, and give you nothing but marks of patience and long-suffering and submission. But I own, that matters are at present upon a more proper and more natural footing; and long may they remain so.
Directly Hume admits that he is the Comtesse’s slave and glories in the fact. “And can you treat me with contempt because I am willing to be that person’s slave? For, let me tell you, that there is an expression in your letter against slavery, which I take a little to myself, as said against me; but I still maintain
- Nunquam libertas gratior extat
- Quam sub rege pio.1
Pray, go to your Latin dictionary,” admonishes the Maître, “to interpret this passage: You will find that regina, if it would agree with the measure, would suit much better with the sense.”
Perhaps it is not unreasonable to imagine that the “Maître of philosophy and ethics” in writing this account of his submis-siveness to a woman may vaguely have recalled his schoolboy “An Historical Essay on Chivalry and modern Honour.” If he did, the irony was inescapable. “Asa Cavalier is compos’d,” the schoolboy had observed, “of the greatest Warmth of Love, temperd with the most humble submission & Respect, his Mistresses Behavior is in every point, the Reverse of this, & what is conspicuous in her Temper is the utmost Coldness along with the greatest Haughtyness & Disdain; untill at last Gratitude…reduces her tho unwilling to the Necessity of commencing a Bride.” Now at the age of fifty-three and more than a quarter of a century after having written so disdainfully of modern honour, Hume was compelled to recant.
At this critical juncture, Hume’s somewhat mysterious quarrel with the Hon. Alexander Murray intervenes at once to becloud and to clarify his relations with Mme de Boufflers. Brother of Lord Elibank and cousin of the Comtesse, Murray was a political exile in Paris and associated there with exiled Jacobites. Along with his brother, he is also suspected of having had a hand in the mysterious Jacobite “Elibank Plot” of 1752–53.2 In 1761 he had forwarded to Hume the first letter from the Comtesse. Upon Hume’s arrival in Paris, Murray had sought his support in the effort to obtain a Parliamentary pardon; but Hume, circumspect of embarrassing Lord Hertford by treating with a Jacobite, had (p.467) done little. By that time, also, Murray was involved in a lawsuit brought by a certain Mrs Blake for reasons unknown. Hume again, despite solicitations, did not bestir himself officially on Murray’s account and privately was of the opinion that he was in the wrong. The case was finally decided in July 1764, the French judges giving the verdict to Murray. Mme de Boufflers was the sole person appearing in behalf of her cousin. After the judgment, Murray, who was a man of violent temper and who acknowledged only friends or enemies, sent Hume an abusive letter, threatening him, oddly enough, with retaliation by his brother, who, he averred, was ready to prove in print that Hume was wrong in his interpretation of the character of Mary Queen of Scots.1
Upon receipt of Murray’s letter, Hume enclosed it, together with the draft of a letter of his own to Lord Elibank, in a packet, which he dispatched to the Comtesse. She replied on 15 August, commenting indignantly on Murray’s outrageous conduct. In a postscript, she admitted that she did not approve of several expressions in Hume’s proposed letter to Elibank.2 She also wrote in reproof to Murray.
The impact of this fatuous quarrel was not yet spent. For as Hume informed Mme de Boufflers on 18 August:
About an hour after I had sent off my last pacquet, a friend of mine enterd my room, who informed me, with a certainty which admitted of no doubt, that you, dear Madam, you (this word cannot be too frequently repeated, in order to give emphasis to the sentence and augment surprise), that you, I say, had occasioned all the quarrel between Mr Murray and me, by telling him of the bad opinion I had of him and his lawsuit, &c. &c…. Thus you, who of all human creatures are the least tracassière, are here the author of a fray; you, who have created me so many new friends, are here robbing me of my ancient ones.
His reactions to the accusations are then detailed:
Have you ever had any experience of the situation of our mind, when we are very angry with the person whom we passionately love? You have, surely: can any thing be more tormenting and more absurd? How many projects of revenge, which we fondly cherish, and then fly from with horror! How many images of tenderness, which pride and indignation make us instantly regret! I thought of means, by which I might mortify and punish a person, who had behaved so treacherously towards me; for this epithet I thought your conduct richly merited: but I then reflected; is this the person for whose welfare I would sacrifice my existence; and can I now think of taking pleasure in her pain and uneasiness?
I was in this state of mind when I received yours. The very sight of your handwriting, I own, began the cure: but the persusal of those soft and obliging and amicable expressions, which you employ, penetrated me to the soul; and I saw a new world around me. Those circumstances of conduct, which I had before clothed in so many black colours, and from which I drew so many strange inferences, now appeared only a trivial indiscretion; which I was glad you could sometimes be guilty of, in order to excuse much greater of my own. Accept all of my penitence, Madam, for sentiments, which, though confined within my own bosom, I regard no less as violations of my duty towards you: accept also my thanks, for taking me so soon from a state of mind, in which my folly might have otherwise long detained me.
In a fit of joy, Hume instantly sat down and wrote a placatory letter to Murray and expunged some harsh expressions from that to Elibank. “I beseech you, dear Madam,” he concludes, “continue to like me a little: for otherwise I shall not be able in a little time to endure myself.”
The quarrel was over. Murray gallantly admitted that he had been in the wrong, and a friendly exchange of letters forestalled any possible rupture between Hume and Elibank. But what about the Comtesse? Had she, in reality, deliberately instigated the incident as a warning against further arousing her “sentiment of disdain”? Infatuated as he was, Hume found it easy to persuade himself to the negative—that she had been guilty of no more than “a trivial indiscretion”—and, indeed, that seems to have been the fact. The Comtesse’s reply of 18 August admits no more than just that; but the burden of the letter is complaisance and affection. “Having once convinced me of the sincerity of your affection, you have,” she acknowledges, “acquired complete ascendancy over me, your interests come before mine, and I willingly sacrifice for your gratification the dignity which becomes me. I do not imagine that you can desire stronger proofs of my sentiments, and I flatter myself that you will be content with them and that the agitation which distresses you on my account will at least be stayed.”1 The Murray incident, at all events, had wrung from Hume the most passionate declaration that he was ever to pen. Henceforth Mme de Boufflers could have had no possible doubt of her sway over him. She may also have been justifiably tempted to complacency over her theory that men prefer to be handled roughly.
The invitation to visit Saint-Martin de Pontoise had been (p.469) reluctantly declined by Hume because “there is just now arrived in France a very ancient and very intimate friend of mine, Mr Elliot, who is wholly a stranger there, and whom I cannot totally neglect…. Is it not strange,” he archly inquires, “that I should think my attention to him an incumbrance on the present occasion?” Elliot remained some three weeks before departing for Brussels and leaving Hume to complete arrangements about a school in Paris for the two Elliot boys. During his brief visit Elliot was able to size up the emotional state in which he found his old friend and, apparently, thought it too delicate a subject for personal discussion. From Brussels on 15 September, however, he ventured to give advice. “Before I conclude,” he wrote, “allow me in friendship also, to tell you, I think I see you at present upon the very brink of a precipiece. One cannot too much clear their mind of all little prejudices, but partiality to ones country is not a prejudice. Love the French as much as you will, many of the Individuals are surely the proper objects of affection, but above all continue still a Englishman.”1
The very vehemence with which Hume replied to Elliot, together with the careful avoidance of mentioning Mme de Boufflers in this connexion, is token that the shaft had struck home. “I cannot imagine,” he explodes, “what you mean by saying that I am on a Precipice.” Then he breaks out into a violent tirade against the English nation,2 instancing his own slim chances of ever being appointed Embassy Secretary. Triumphantly he points out that Mme de Boufflers had drafted a letter to the Duke of Bedford to engage his support; but “I instantly forbid her to write to England a Line about my Affair. I bear too great a Respect to her, to expose her to ask a Favour, where there was so little Probability of Success.” Testily he concludes, “Thus have vanish’d the last hopes of my obtaining Justice in this point: Here is surely a new Ground of Attachment to England.”
During September and early October of 1764, Hume saw much of the Comtesse, visiting her at the chateau on the Oise once and perhaps twice. “I went very contentedly,” he informed Elliot, “to L’Isle Adam, where I remain’d for four days.” The spirit of this intensified intimacy is reflected in a letter of 12 October. “I shall never, I hope,” he tells the Comtesse as if in deliberate defiance of Elliot’s warning, “be obliged to leave the place where you dwell…. Believe me (and surely you do believe me), that no one can bear you a more tender and more sincere friendship, (p.470) or desire more earnestly a return of like sentiments on your part. This long absence convinces me more fully than ever before, that no society can make me compensation for the loss of yours, and that my attachment to you is not of a light or common nature.” Despite the ambivalence of the diction, in part brought about by writing in English for a French correspondent, the tone of Hume’s letter is both serious and dignified, serene and confident, and less suggestive of the devoted friend than of the accepted lover.
Before the end of October, however, the death of Edouard de Boufflers, the Comtesse’s long absent and little missed husband, brought an abrupt end to the philosopher’s new-found happiness. Immediately on hearing the news Hume became acutely aware that the Comtesse would be determined to become the legal wife of the Prince de Conti and that, consequently, she would have no further use for a lover. Wounded to the quick by his accurate anticipation of the coldblooded and ruthless ambition of the Comtesse, he penned to her a letter of resentful irony:
This late incident, which commonly is of such moment with your sex, seems so little to affect your situation either as to happiness or misery, that
1 might have spared you the trouble of receiving my compliments upon it: but being glad of taking any opportunity to express my most sincere wishes for your welfare, I would not neglect an occasion which custom had authorised.
Receive, then, with your usual, I cannot say, with your constant, goodness, the prayers of one of your most devoted friends and servants. I hope that every change of situation will turn out to your advantage. In vain would I assume somewhat of the dignity of anger, when you neglect me: I find that this wish still returns upon me with equal ardour.
I hear…that you are to be in Paris on Saturday. I shall be there about that day se’nnight: I hope that your etiquette, which allows you to receive relations and particular friends, opens a wide-enough door for my admission.
By writing this letter in advance of any overt act on the part of the Comtesse, Hume was deliberately, and bitterly, reducing himself from the position of lover to that of confidant. The letter is thus at once an assertion of independence and an attempt at face-saving.
All Paris buzzed with rumours of the impending marriage, as the Duchess of Northumberland noted in her diary under 2 November: “…the news of Paris was that the Prince of Conti was certainly to marry Mme de Boufflers…. People thought it very extraordinary in every way, as the Princes of the Blood very seldom marry women so much their inferiors and still more extraordinary that any man should marry a woman who was once his mistress and who he had quitted as such, for the last (p.471) seven years. It is true his friendship has always appeared to continue in the strongest manner, but it is seldom people marry for friendship….”1
Assuming his self-appointed role of friendly adviser, Hume wrote to the Comtesse on 28 November in general appraisal of the situation and in open warning of its consequences: “On the whole, I am fully persuaded, from what I hear and see, that the matter will end as we wish. But in all cases, I foresee, that, let the event be what it will, you will reap from it much honour and much vexation.”
Twelve days later he collected his mature thoughts into a long letter of advice, advice that he must have been reasonably sure would not be followed but which was required by duty both to the Comtesse and to himself:
What advice, then, can I give you, in a situation so interesting? The measure which I recommend to you requires courage, but I dread, that nothing else will be able to prevent the consequences, so justly apprehended. It is, in a word, that after employing every gentle art to prevent a rupture, you should gradually diminish your connexion with the Prince, should be less assiduous in your visits, should make fewer and shorter journeys to his country seats, and should betake yourself to a private, and sociable, and independent life at Paris. By this change in your plan of living, you cut off at once the expectations of that dignity, to which you aspire; you are no longer agitated with hopes and fears; your temper insensibly recovers its former tone; your health returns; your relish for a simple and private life gains ground every day, and you become sensible, at last, that you have made a good exchange of tranquillity for grandeur. Even the dignity of your character, in the eyes of the world, recovers its lustre, while men see the just price you set upon your liberty; and that, however the passions of youth may have seduced you, you will not now sacrifice all your time, where you are not deemed worthy of every honour.
And why should you think with reluctance on a private life at Paris? It is the situation for which I thought you best fitted, ever since I had the happiness of your acquaintance. The inexpressible and delicate graces of your character and conversation, like the soft notes of a lute, are lost amid the tumult of company, in which I commonly saw you engaged. A more select society would know to set a juster value upon your merit. Men of sense, and taste, and letters, would accustom themselves to frequent your house. Every elegant society would court your company. And tho all great alterations in the habits of living may at first appear disagreeable, the mind is soon reconciled to its new situation, especially if more congenial and natural to it. I should not dare to mention my own resolutions on this occasion, if I did not flatter myself, that your friendship gives them some small importance in your eyes. Being a foreigner, I dare less answer for my plans of life, which may lead me far from this country; but if I could dispose of my fate, nothing could be so much of my choice as to live where I might cultivate your friendship. (p.472) Your taste for travelling might also afford you a plausible pretence for putting this plan in execution: a journey to Italy would loosen your connexions here and if it were delayed some time, I could, with some probability expect to have the felicity of attending you thither.
This letter bespeaks the philosopher and the moralist, but it, no less, bespeaks the man in the throes of an emotional crisis; it constitutes Hume’s final appeal to the Comtesse. She was blunt in her honesty: “My health is really very good and my mind, on the surface, very calm. There is the truth, since you wish me to tell it to you. I do not speak to you of my friendship because, although it is most sincere, I could talk of it only coldly in my present situation, which absorbs my whole being.”1 The Comtesse, in short, had no intention of taking Hume’s advice and of retiring into private life. Burning with ambition, she needed Hume as acutely as ever, no longer as lover, but only as confidant and potential go-between.
The Prince de Conti was unhurried in coming to a decision. The situation was sufficiently complicated for him. Marriage would entail, to begin with, the loss of the Temple with its annual income of 50,000 livres—although, to a man of his immense wealth, that could hardly have been a prime consideration. Perhaps more important to his imperious pride was the fact that the Comtesse de Boufflers simply did not have the rank to marry a Prince of the Blood. Furthermore, it is true that the Prince had, for some time, relinquished her as lover, though remaining a devoted friend. Finally, the Prince was genuinely distressed in March 1765 over the death of Mme d’Arty, his former principal mistress and dear friend, an event that may have been of some weight in his ultimate decision not to marry. Soon afterwards, at any rate, he requested Hume to bring his influence to bear upon Mme de Boufflers to relinquish her ambition of dying a princess. Thus was Hume trapped between the cross-fire of two friends.
Despite her protestations to the contrary, so agitated was Mme de Boufflers that her delicate health began to be affected. She had long suffered from the vapours, or melancholia, and had frequently agonised Hume with dark hints of suicide. Now, at the repeated suggestion of friends who felt that a change of climate and of society might help her recover nervous stability, she left for England at the end of June to visit Lord and Lady Holdernesse. To the Marquise de Barbantane, who was in the secret, Hume commented:
(p.473) I am sorry to inform you, that our friend left this place, full of the same sentiments, which she expressed to me in the most lively terms; and though her journey and a new scene and new company may occasion some dissipation, I foresee that, on her return, she will take up the matter precisely where she left off, and may perhaps feel her disagreeable situation more sensibly on account of the interval. I can hope for no event that will restore her peace of mind, except one, which is not likely to happen; and she herself is sensible of it.
He continued with an explanation of his own share in the undertaking: “I have wrote in the terms, which the Prince desired; though I wonder he should expect a great effect from any thing that can be wrote or said by any body on that head. If he does not choose to apply the proper remedy, he need expect no cure.” The letter that Hume wrote to Lord Holdernesse on behalf of the Prince is not extant, but in his reply Holdernesse promised to observe “the most inviolable Secresy even to the person concerned unless she brings with her a suspicion of my having been wrote to & should tax me with it in which case I cannot deceive her.”1 After several weeks Hume was in total despair. “I foresee,” he confided to Mme de Barbantane, “that all the former disputes and vexations will return never to have an end.”
Hume’s prediction proved correct. From England Mme de Boufflers informed him that she felt more miserable than ever and that his approaching departure from France, which was being rumoured, was a contributory factor. Just before leaving London at the end of July, she was in tears over the turn of events. The impending loss of a devoted friend at the very moment that she needed him most could only reinforce the steadfast conviction that she was taking the one road open to her, the continuing dedication of her life to the Prince. Throughout the last five months of Hume’s stay in France, the Comtesse remained of the same mind. Always patient, always understanding, and always affectionate, Hume became more and more troubled over this unrealistic decision and its consequent strain and unhappiness for her. During these final months, although his affection for the Comtesse was to remain steadfast, his infatuation slowly waned. Slowly, too, he began to waver from his resolution never to leave the place where she dwelt.
David Hume was now restored to his original position as counsellor and friend to Mme de Boufflers, her Maître of philosophy and ethics. Together they busily laid plans for the future welfare of their protege Jean-Jacques Rousseau and, upon his arrival in (p.474) Paris, gave him the protection of the Temple. Hume’s intention to spend the Christmas holidays with the Comtesse at L’Isle Adam was thwarted by a great fall of snow; he could get no farther than Moselle and was forced to return to Paris. On 4 January 1766 Mme de Boufflers bade a fond farewell to her Maître and his “pupil.” Hume left Paris undecided as to his future course, but actually never again to see the “Divine Comtesse.” From London his first letter was addressed to her, as was, from his deathbed in Edinburgh ten years later, one of his last letters.
David Hume left France richer in experience and in happiness. The homage of the people of France had salved the wounded intellectual pride of the philosopher and the love of a great lady of France had brought serenity to the man. Even the “inquietudes of the most unfortunate passion,” as he had reminded Mme de Boufflers in the summer of 1764 at the time of his fruitless resolution to forget her, were as nothing compared to the obligations he owed her—“You have saved me from a total indifference towards every thing in human life.” That tribute came from the heart and Hume never found reason to repent of it.
(1) Walpole Letters, VI, 407; Greig, p. 313.
(1) Quoted in Walpole Corr. (Yale), viii, 84 ff.
(2) Paul Emile Schazmann, La Comtesse de Boufflers (Lausanne 1933), p. 145.
(1) Sainte-Beuve, Nouveaux Lundis, 19 Jan. 1863. According to Sainte-Beuve, Mlle Marquise, mistress of the Due d’Orléans, rated the second position.
(1) Mozart was in Paris in both 1763 and 1766. For evidence that the painting is to be dated 1766, see G. Cafron and R. Yve-Plessis, Vie priviée du Prince de Conty (Paris 1907), p. 117, n 1.
(1) RSE, III, 72.
(2) Rousseau, XV, 187.
(3) RSE, III, 74.
(1) RSE, III, 75.
(1) RSE, III, 76.
(1) Claudian, De Consulate Stilichonis, III, 114–15.
(2) Sir Charles Petrie, “The Elibank Plot, 1752–3,” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Fourth Series, XIV (1931), 175–96.
(1) EU, Laing MSS, II, 503.
(2) RSE, III, 78.
(1) RSE, III, 79.
(1) RSE, V, 13.
(2) See Textual Supplement.
(1) Extracts from the Diaries of the First Duchess of Northumberland, ed. J. Greig (London 1926), pp. 60–1.
(1) RSE, III, 83.
(1) RSE, III, 79.