Chateaubriand's memoirs, XVII, 2

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XVII - Chapter 2
Madame de Coislin

Madame de Coislin was a very old lady. At nearly eighty, her proud and dominating gaze expressed wit and irony. Madame de Coislin was not well read and gloried in it; she had passed through the age of Voltaire without knowing it; if she had any idea of it at all, it was as a period of bourgeois chatter. It was not that she ever spoke about her noble birth; she was too superior to stoop to anything so ridiculous; she knew very well how to view the little people without being derogatory; but after all, she was the offspring of the premier Marquis in France. If she was descended from Drogon de Nesle, killed in Palestine in 1096; from Raoul de Nesle, Constable, knighted by Louis IX; of Jean II de Nesle, Regent of France during Saint Louis’ last crusade, Madame de Coislin affirmed that it was a quirk of fate for which she should not be considered responsible; she was naturally of the Court, as others, happier ones, are of the street, just as one is a racing mare or a coach horse: she could do nothing about that accident of birth, and its use to her was to enable her to withstand the suffering with which it had pleased heaven to afflict her.

Did Madame de Coislin have relations with Louis XV? She never confessed it to me: yet she admitted that she had been greatly loved, though she pretended to have treated the royal lover with the greatest severity. ‘I have seen him at my feet,’ she told me, ‘he had charming eyes and the language of a seducer. One day he proposed to give me a porcelain washstand like the one which Madame de Pompadour possessed. – “Ah! Sire,’ I cried, ‘that will do for hiding beneath!”’

By an odd chance, I met with this washstand again in London at the home of the Marchioness of Conyngham; she had received it from George IV, and she showed it to me with a charming simplicity.

Madame de Coislin lived in a room of her hotel opening beneath the colonnade which matches the colonnade of the Garde-Meuble. Two seascapes by Vernet, which Louis the Well-Beloved had given the noble lady, were hung in front of an old tapestry of greenish satin. Madame de Coislin remained, resting, until two in the afternoon, sitting up, supported by pillows, in a vast bed with curtains of a similar green silk; a sort of nightcap badly pinned to her head allowed her grey hair to escape. Diamond ear-rings, mounted in the old style, fell to the shoulders of her bed-jacket, which was sprinkled with snuff in the manner of fashionable people during the Fronde. Around her, on the covers, lay a shoal of envelopes, separated from their letters, on which envelopes Madame de Coislin wrote her thoughts, at all angles: she never bought paper: her post furnished her with it. From time to time, a little bitch called Lili stuck its nose out from beneath the sheets, barked for five minutes or so and retreated grumbling into its mistress’s ‘kennel’. Thus time had dealt with Louis XV’s young love.

Madame de Châteauroux and her sisters were cousins of Madame de Coislin: the latter would not have been of the mood, as Madame de Mailly was, as a Christian repentant, to reply to a man who insulted her using a coarse expression in the Saint-Roch church: ‘My friend, since you know me, pray to God for me.’

Madame de Coislin, avaricious, like many spirited people, crammed her money into cupboards. She lived gnawed at by a swarm of coins which stuck to her skin: her people relieved her of them.

When I found her plunged inextricably in calculations, she reminded me of the miser Hermocrates, who when dictating his will had himself declared as his own heir. Yet she gave dinners randomly; though she moaned about the coffee which, according to her, no one liked, and which was only there to eke out the meal.

Madame de Chateaubriand took a trip to Vichy with Madame de Coislin and the Marquis de Nesle; the Marquis rode on ahead and had an excellent dinner prepared. Madame de Coislin followed on behind, and asked for nothing but a half-pound of cherries; the host maintained that whether one ate or not, it was customary, at an inn, to pay for the meal.

Madame de Coislin, embraced spirituality when she wished. Credulous and incredulous, her lack of faith led her to mock beliefs of which she was superstitiously afraid. She had met Madame de Krüdner; the secretive Frenchwoman was only spiritually enlightened as to the benefit of possessions; she did not please the fervent Russian, who agreed with her not at all. Madame de Krüdner said to Madame de Coislin, with passion: ‘Madame, who is your confessor within?’ – ‘Madame,’ replied Madame de Coislin, ‘I know nothing of any confessor within; I know only that my confessor is within his confessional.’ After that, the two ladies no longer had anything to do with each other.

Madame de Coislin was proud of having introduced a novelty to court, a fashion for loose chignons, despite the very pious Queen Marie Leczinska, who was opposed to that dangerous innovation. She maintained that in the past a person who was comme il faut would be advised never to pay their doctor. Exclaiming about the abundance of female lingerie: ‘It smacks of the upstart;’ she said, ‘we others, ladies of the court, only had two chemises; we replaced them when they were worn out; we were clothed in silk robes, and lacked the air of working class girls young ladies possess today.’

Madame Suard, who lived on the Rue Royale, had a cockerel whose crowing, across the inner courtyard, bothered Madame de Coislin. She wrote to Madame Suard: ‘Madame, wring your cockerel’s neck.’ Madame Suard returned the message with a note: ‘Madame, I have the honour to reply that I will not wring my cockerel’s neck.’ The correspondence rested there. Madame de Coislin said to Madame de Chateaubriand: ‘Ah! Goodness me, what times we live in! She’s only the daughter of Panckoucke, the wife of a Member of the Academy, you know.’

Monsieur Hennin, a former clerk in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who was as boring as a book of etiquette, scribbled long novels. One day he was reading a descriptive passage to Madame de Coislin: a lover forsaken and in tears, was fishing, in a state of melancholy, for salmon. Madame de Copislin, who was impatient and did not like salmon, interrupted the author and said to him with that air of seriousness that rendered her so comical: ‘Monsieur Hennin, could you not have him catch another kind of fish for that lady?’

The stories Madame de Coislin told cannot be re-captured, because there was nothing in the content; everything was in the mimicry, the tone, and the manner of the speaker: she never laughed. There was a conversation between Monsieur and Madame Jacqueminot whose perfection outdid everything. When, during the conversation between the two, Madame Jacqueminot replied: ‘But Monsieur Jacqueminot!’ the name was pronounced in such a way that one was seized by wild laughter. Obliged to let it die down, Madame de Coislin waited gravely, while taking snuff.

Reading in a newspaper of the death of several kings, she removed her glasses, and said, while blowing her nose: ‘There is an epidemic among these crowned creatures.’

At the moment when she was ready for death, someone at her bedside maintained that one only succumbed because one allowed oneself to; that if one was truly attentive and never lost sight of the enemy, one would not die: ‘I believe it,’ she said, ‘but I am afraid I am becoming distracted.’ She expired.

I went down to her room the following morning; I found Monsieur and Madame d’Avaray, her sister and brother-in-law, sitting by the hearth, a small table between them, counting coins from a purse they had taken from a hole in the panelling. The poor dead woman was there on the bed, the curtains half-drawn: she could not hear the sound of the gold which ought to have woken her, counted by fraternal hands.

Among the pensées which the departed had written, on the margins of letters and their envelopes, some were of great beauty. Madame de Coislin had revealed to me what remained of Louis XV’s court, under Bonaparte, when the days of Louis XVI were done, as Madame d’Houdetot had revealed what was still left to us, in the nineteenth century, of her society of philosophers.