Saturday, 15 November 2014

Charm and its effect, even late in life

Anne-Catherine de Ligniville, Madame Helvétius, known as Minette, was reputed to be quite a character, as well as being married to one of the more controversial thinkers of eighteenth-century France. 

Claude-Adrien Helvétius was denounced as an atheist, his book burned by the public executioner. Even his name has a story: he was called Helvétius because he came from a family with the surname Schweitzer, which they presumably regarded as altogether too Germanic. Helvetic means the same as Swiss, so they simply latinised the name, making it sound much grander and less Teutonic. 
Minette. Turned a few heads but not everyone approved
Madame Helvétius was, apparently, quite a looker, and as contemporaries might have put it, no better than she should have been. 

I’ve always had a soft spot for Abigail Adams, wife of the second US President John Adams, and in my humble opinion the more interesting half of that partnership.

To be more truthful, there’s nothing in the least humble about that opinion. I hold it with complete conviction. I have no qualms about putting it out there, right here.

What I can’t deny about Abigail is that she was of somewhat Puritan stock. Rural Massachusetts, don’t you know. Late eighteenth century. They liked things just so.

Abigail met Minette while she was in France with John, during one of the latter’s diplomatic missions on behalf of the emerging American nation. The senior American diplomat was Benjamin Franklin and it was at a dinner he gave that Minette, who was highly fond of him, met Abigail, who didn
’t become in the least fond of her. Franklin told Abigail that Minette was a “genuine Frenchwoman, wholly free from affectation or stiffness of behavior”, and:

… one of the best women in the world. For this I must take the Doctor’s word; but I should have set her down for a very bad one, although sixty years of age, and a widow. I own I was highly disgusted, and never wish for an acquaintance with any ladies of this cast. After dinner she threw herself upon a settee, where she showed more than her feet. She had a little lap-dog, who was, next to the Doctor, her favorite.”
Abigail Adams
"I must study politics and war that my sons 
may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy.”
I'm a fan of hers, but she was none of Minette's

I have to confess that, attached as I am to her, these views of Mrs Adams’ don’t make me think any the less well of Madame Helvétius. 

Apparently many others, and not just Franklin, thought rather highly of her at the time. A generation before Franklin, another thinker had found her fascinating. Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle had been the grand old man of French science, in a life that in the end fell only one month short of a century long.

When he met Madame Helvétius, he was already in his late nineties.

"Ah, madame," he is said to have remarked, "if only I were eighty again.”

Not sure why I’ve devoted a post to that story, except that it’s Saturday afternoon. What time would be more suitable for a gentle anecdote? Especially in a blog devoted to random views.


Faith A. Colburn said...

Abigail Adams is a bit of a looker herself, although a big severe.

David Beeson said...

Brains AND looks. Perhaps a little judgemental though. But a thoroughly fine person, Abigail.