The Salon of the comtesse d'Haussonville1

   Since, for the needs of the cause, a "clerical" Renan (in other aspects more similar than the "anti-clerical" Renan of the government) sees little by little his face made more conspicuous in the opposition press2, Renan's "pronouncements" are the order of the day. The charming "Statue's response" by my colleague M. Beaunier3 - a little piece that seems at first sight pure scholarship, but in which the opinion of the prominent compiler understood, with the ingenious grace of Ariadne, how to lay down the subtle guiding thread through the labyrinth of Renan's works - this important little piece has founded a school - and not always worthy of the master. Never have the Souvenirs d'enfance et de jeunesse, the Drames, the Dialogues philosophiques, the Feuilles detachées been so much read (or rather leafed through so much). And since now it is a phrase from Renan that regularly garlands the "Paris headlines", I could be excused for beginning a "society gossip" with a phrase from Renan. Of the two, "political Paris headlines" and "society gossip", it is not perhaps society that Renan found the more frivolous.
   "When a nation", Renan said in his acceptance speech to the Academy, "has produced what we have created with our frivolity... a nobility more exalted than our own of the XVIIth and XVIIIth centuries, women more charming than those who smiled on our philosophy... a society more sympathetic and spiritual than that of our forefathers, then shall we be mastered."
   This opinion is not accidental in Renan's work (and in any case can an idea ever be?). In the same speech, elsewhere, in Drames philosophiques, in Réforme intellectuelle et morale in which he declares that Germany would find itself in difficulty if it had a society like XVIIth and XVIIIth century French society and "noblemen like those of the ancien régime", we see him return to it once more. He even returns to it so as to contradict it, which is one of his favourite ways of taking up an idea anew. But such ideas seem a little curious to us. The attraction of manners, politeness and grace, even wit, are they really of absolute value, deserving of being taken into account by great thinkers? It is difficult to believe today. And little by little for the readers of Renan such ideas will lose what little sense they can still offer them.
   Now if some young reader of Renan were to say to us: "Is there nothing left of those beings in whom the heredity of intellectual and moral nobility had come to shape the body and brought it to that "physical nobility" that the books tell us about and that now show no sign of life? May we not consider, by virtue of being "survivors" (one can still be young, not having lived very long, and yet still survive, and even throughout the whole of one's life have never lived but survived) two examples of that civilization that Renan deemed sufficiently refined to justify in some way the ancien régime and make him prefer a fickle France to a masterly Germany? Can we not see those beings whose noble stature quite naturally made for a noble statue and after their death the sculpture laid in the depths of chapels, above their tombs? Of course," this reader would add, "I would wish these two beings to be intelligent and, if not leading, at least living the life of today, but still bringing back a little of the grace of the life of days gone by." I would reply to this young reader: "Have yourself introduced to the comte and comtesse d'Haussonville." And if I wanted to bring it about under the most favourable conditions, I would endeavour to make the introduction come about in the residence steeped in the past of which M. and Mme d'Haussonville are simply the continuation, the flowering, the maturation: at Coppet4.
   I would not wish, through a little story in which in other respects I cannot guarantee the outcome, to cause offense, in the opinion of those who share his cause, to the man who is brilliantly gifted in ideas, in actions, and in words, that is M. Jaurès. But in the end who could be offended by such a thing? One day the admirable orator was dining with a lady who owned a celebrated art collection, and as he was falling into raptures in front of a canvas by Watteau: "But my dear sir", said the lady, "if your reign comes to pass, all this will be taken away from me" (she meant the reign of the communists). But then the messiah of the new society reassured her with these divine words: "My good woman5, have no fear of that, because all these things will be left to you for safe keeping, to be sure; in truth, you know them better than us, furthermore you love them, you take better care of them, so it is only right that it is you who cares for them." I imagine that by virtue of the same principle, in understanding that things should go to those who know and love them, in a collectivist Europe M. Jaurès would leave the "safe keeping" of Coppet to M. d'Haussonville for the simple reason that he knows and loves it better than anyone. Even before the death of Mlle d'Haussonville, who passed Coppet into his hands, it could be said that Coppet, so to speak, already belonged to M. d'Haussonville.
   He "possessed" the subject entirely, if not the land itself. And his book, Le Salon de Mme Necker, written at that period, proves that Coppet was, from that time on, his "by right of conquest". It came to him too "by right of birth". It is not that this work is the better of the two that M. d'Haussonville has written. At that time, M. d'Haussonville senior6 was still alive, and the author of Le Salon de Mme Necker is still only the "vicomte" d'Haussonville. His talent, in some ways, is only "presumed". He has not yet arrived. He does not have a firm grip on the reins of his style, which remains irresolute as though let slip here and there in its strained phrases. One feels an element of negligence. Later on, he will arrive at that fully consummate style, more restrained and particularly successful that makes him the most adroit discourser, the most stimulating historian at the Académie. But, such as it is, the book is very enjoyable to read. One feels that the future proprietor of Coppet is already "at home". It is said that one of the most prominent members of our aristocracy upon bringing a foreigner to visit his château, the foreigner said: "How marvellous, you really have some wonderful trinkets." To which the disgruntled lord of the manor replied with eloquent vexation: "Trinkets! trinkets! To you they may be trinkets. To me they are family history." By the same token, where a foreigner visiting Coppet on a Cook's tour sees only a piece of furniture that once belonged to Mme de Staël, M. d'Haussonville traces the armchair back to his grandmother. It is divine to arrive at Coppet on a day softened and gilded by autumn, when the vines are golden and the lake still blue, into this rather chilly eighteenth century residence, both historic and lively, inhabited by descendants who possess both "style" and life.
   It is a church that is already a historic monument, but in which mass is still celebrated. Mme de Staël's room is occupied by the duchesse de Chartres, Mme Récamier's by the comtesse de Béarn, Mme de Luxembourg's by Mme de Talleyrand, the duchesse de Broglie's by the princesse de Broglie. They chat, they sing, they laugh, they go out for motor car excursions, they have supper, they read, they do things their own way and with no affectation of imitating the behaviour of those people of a bygone age, they live. And in this unconscious continuation of life among the things to which they are accustomed, the perfume of the past is emitted more acutely and strongly than in those "reconstructions" of "old Paris" where in an archaic setting the "characters of the period" have been set out and costumed. The past and the present rub shoulders. In Mme de Staël's library we find M. d'Haussonville's books of choice.
   Over and above the afore-mentioned persons, some of M. and Mme d'Haussonville's closest friends are often to be seen at Coppet, their children the comte and comtesse Le Marois, the comtesse de Maillé, the comte and comtesse de Bonneval, their brothers-in-law and cousins Harcourt, Fitz-James and Brogie. The princesse de Beauvau and the comtesse de Briey visited them the other day from Lausanne, along with the comtesse de Portalès and the comtesse de Talleyrand. From time to time the duc de Chartres stays there. The princesse de Brancovan, comtesse Mathieu de Noailles, princesse Caraman-Chimay, princesse de Polignac, came there from Amphion. Mme de Gontaut came from Montreux; baron Adolphe de Rothschild from Prégny. Sometimes the comtesse de Guerne, née Ségur, performs there. Comtesse Greffulhe stopped there on her way to Lucerne.
   But moreover there is a charm to the society of M. and Me d'Haussonville like those waters that are most exquisitely drawn from the very source, but which one could take very great enjoyment from in Paris. Everyone there has great admiration for the comtesse d'Haussonville, in marvellous flight from an incomparable haven, that surpasses, that crowns, that "crests" so to speak, a wonderfully proud and gentle head, with brown eyes of intelligence and goodness. All who see it admire her magnificent greeting of welcome, filled at one and the same time with affability and reserve, where she inclines her whole body forward in a gesture of sovereign amiability, and with a barely perceptible but harmonious gymnasticism, throws it back in the exact same measure that she projected it forward7. This means of "keeping one's distance" is exactly the same as in M. d'Haussonville, naturally transported by "habit" (to use the word in the way that it had been inherited in the seventeenth century from Latin) from a gentleman's greeting. Since Mme d'Haussonville, unaffected as she is, has a rather close circle of friends, many people know of her only through this regal manner of greeting and so can only conjecture on her intelligence and tenderness, which in her are exquisite. M. d'Haussonville is by necessity more widely known. He is the social adornment of diverse literary salons where his amiability, taken at face value by the people who are introduced to him and who are often unfamiliar with the exact interpretation of what Balzac would have called "the necromancer's book of politeness", makes them believe that they are about to enter into regular relations with him. From which arise many comic discomfitures. It would be wrong too to think that M. d'Haussonville ever allowed himself to dominate through the precedent of class. "I will say to you that in company I belong to a small group who scoff at personal merit", says one of the characters in Gaston de Caillavet and Robert de Flers' wonderful Travaux d'Hercule8, where in the middle of the most delightful operetta there are superb scenes of high comedy. Neither in company or in society is M. d'Haussonville part of that particular group. For him personal merit is precisely what counts above everything. And at the salon of the rue Saint-Dominique9 the abbess of Remiremont, whose portrait is hung on the high wall10, witnessed people of merit separating themselves from all types and all parties, of whom many had none of the quarterings necessary to gain admission into their aristocratic chapter. Out of all the "conservatives", M. d'Haussonville is the most sincerely, the most fiercely "liberal". I shall cite his interview, which was too little noticed, at the time when he was an adherent to the Ligue de la Patrie française11, in which he explained how, according to him, patriotism and respect for justice need to be reconciled; more recently still his letters about Paul Bourget's L'Étape12. Nobody is more qualified than he to protest against the persecutions whose victims today are the Catholics. Because, along with M. Anatole Leroy-Beaulieu, he did not wait for the break out of "anticlericalism" to passionately condemn all other modes of sectarian principle, which are sometimes their corollaries and sometimes their precursors.
   His authority merited his being chosen as the well appointed consultant in cases of literary uncertainty, the forms of which evil Renan called: morbus litterarius. He is the attentive, sagacious, obliging, a little hair-splitting, a little alarmist perhaps, doctor, by dint of being conscientious. His opinions, sometimes pessimistic through fear of being flattering, could have the fault of discouraging genius. But this is something that only happens very rarely. And they are sometimes worthy of him, on the other hand, by informing and guiding the talent of others at those times when he relaxes from exercising his own. But to this literary magistrature one would have liked to have seen, at other times, added a political magistrature. With his tolerant and generous spirit, his heart open to compassion, he would have been the model minister to the Good King, or the just and well-informed prince.


Le Figaro, 4 January 1904.


1. Comte Othenin d'Haussonville (1843-1924), great grandson of Mme de Staël, was considered at the Académie française among the "green cardinals". Comtesse Pauline, née d'Harcourt, was a great beauty.

2. L'Action française, nationalist and monarchist group which published a review since 1899, recognizing Renan as one of its spiritual directors, especially on account of La Réforme intellectuelle et morale de France (1871).

3. A statue of Renan was inaugurated at Tréguier on 13 September 1903, on the side of which the sculptor had depicted Pallas Athene. In the speech he made at the inauguration Anatole France made reference to the goddess; she re-echoed the "prayer on the Acropolis". - André Beaunier (1869-1925), essayist and polemicist, was a close friend of Proust.

4. Comte d'Haussonville was the heir to Mme de Staël's château.

5. Proust is amusing himself, ascribing to Jaurès, "The Messiah of the New Society", the language of the Evangelist.

6. Head of the liberal opposition under the Empire, he was elected permanent senator in 1878 and sat among the conservatives. He was elected to the Académie française in 1869.

7. This is the same greeting given by the duchesse de Reveillon in Jean Santeuil and certain of the Guermantes ladies in À la recherche du temps perdu.

8. These two friends of Proust staged Les Travaux d'Hercule, a comic opera, in 1901.

9. The comte and comtesse d'Haussonville's house was in Paris, 5 rue de Constantine.

10. Béatrix de Lillebonne, born 1662, became abbess of Remiremont in 1711.

11. Founded in 1898 opposed to the "intellectuals" who pronounced Dreyfus's innocence. The comte d'Haussonville had only slight links with this League.

12. In this novel (1902), Paul Bourget tried to show that, even for the most gifted individuals, social ascent should only be brought about gradually, a step at a time.


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