Like a Carp on a Lawn

Graham Robb

  • The Life of Marie d'Agoult, Alias Daniel Stern by Phyllis Stock-Morton
    Johns Hopkins, 291 pp, £33.00, July 2000, ISBN 0 8018 6313 9
  • Marie d’Agoult: The Rebel Countess by Richard Bolster
    Yale, 288 pp, £16.95, September 2000, ISBN 0 300 08246 0

Marie Catherine Sophie de Flavigny, Comtesse d’Agoult (born Frankfurt, 1805; died Paris, 1876) is famous for two contrasting reasons. In 1835, she left her husband for Franz Liszt. The affair lasted about ten years and produced three children, the second of whom, Cosima, succeeded ‘where her mother had failed’, says Phyllis Stock-Morton, by ‘becoming the permanent muse of a great composer’ (Wagner). Marie d’Agoult is also known as ‘Daniel Stern’, the name under which she published a vivid and well-documented Histoire de la Révolution de 1848 (1850-53). Until the fall of the Second Empire, it was one of the very few books published in France to present a balanced and therefore critical view of the rise of Napoleon III. Flaubert used it in his research for L’Education sentimentale; historians still treat it as an important source on the revolution.

Despite a six-volume study by Jacques Vier, La Comtesse d’Agoult et son temps (1955-63), Marie d’Agoult’s apparently contradictory image as lover and scholar continues to deprive her of a prominent place in French history. The old Oxford Companion to French Literature called her ‘both beauty and bluestocking’ (the ‘both’ was obviously supposed to indicate a paradoxical combination). The New Oxford Companion to Literature in French says nothing about beauty. It praises her ‘energy and enthusiasm’ and claims, surprisingly, that ‘she is best known for a novel, Nélida’ (1846). Nélida (the title is an anagram of her pen name, ‘Daniel’) was briefly famous because it seemed to recount her adventures with Liszt. Few people now have heard of it. As Richard Bolster and Stock-Morton both observe, her novels are as mediocre as most 19th-century romans à clé. According to Stock-Morton, a modern Marie d’Agoult would probably have visited a psychotherapist instead of writing fiction.

No one should regret the passing of those chortling voyeurs and sentimental exaggerators who used to tell the story of her romance with Liszt, but the ideologically motivated promotion of mediocre fiction does not necessarily redress the balance. To allow d’Agoult’s remarkable achievements as a lover and a salon hostess to be overshadowed by her novels is to consign her to an old-fashioned form of literary history in which durable commodities like published works are more important than ephemera like relationships and conversations.

The back cover of Bolster’s biography reproduces Josef Danhauser’s wonderfully stagey Liszt at the Piano (1840). (Neither biographer mentions this painting.) Liszt sits at a little drawing-room piano as if at a great organ, sending up the chords to a gigantic bust of Beethoven which bisects the horizon like an Alp. Dumas père, Hugo, a trousered, cigarette-smoking Sand, a spindly Paganini and a tubby Rossini look on in admiration. Of the eight faces, only Marie d’Agoult’s is invisible. She is seen from behind, sitting on the floor, her head resting on the piano, in imminent danger of being hit by the flying fingers.

This rear view of the Countess might just as well have appeared on the front cover. For Marie herself, her reckless adoration of Liszt was one of her great contributions to the modern world. Like her history of the 1848 Revolution, her affair was a courageous expression of her republican idealism – as, indeed, was Nélida, which, according to Alison Finch in Women’s Writing in 19th-Century France, ‘has a much firmer political core than could be supposed from those critics who read it largely as a cri de coeur after the end of her relationship with Liszt’. In the wake of the 1830 Revolution, the Countess believed, with the Saint-Simonians, that Romantic geniuses were the prophets of a new, more equitable society, and that it was her particular role to escape from the prison of marriage and to nourish and support the genius called Liszt. When the genius proved to be too busy or flirtatious to maintain an alternative marriage, she reinterpreted the affair, in retrospect, as a tough apprenticeship in modern womanhood. As she told him in 1839 (in Bolster’s lolloping translation): ‘You have done your best to liberate me from notions of duty in love which I needed, which were an ideal which you treated roughly.’

The liberated, post-Liszt d’Agoult is not an alter ego of the adoring woman in Danhauser’s painting. The polyglot Countess is a significant figure in the history of comparative literature, not just because she helped to found the cosmopolitan Revue germanique and introduced the French to several foreign writers, including Emerson and ‘the German Hegelians’ (notably Georg Herwegh and Karl Marx), but also because she established some of the most successful salons of the century.

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