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.

The power of these fluid institutions and the women who ran them was more evident then than it is now. By providing a comfortable setting for various shades of moderate opposition to Napoleon III, d’Agoult helped to lay the foundations of the Third Republic. Running a salon was not just a matter of being beautiful and ordering the petits-fours. In her memoirs, she says more than her modern biographers about the ingenuity and self-discipline required of a salonnière: ‘One had to give up being oneself and devote oneself – and other people – entirely to the cult of the great man . . . to tie up all the threads which, from those divergent vanities, had to lead back to the same point.’

Her best novels, in other words, were constructed in real time, with living people. Traditional biography, which tends to glorify the lone male hero, performs a function similar to that of the salon hostess. But does it also lend itself to the depiction of a life devoted to other egos?

To turn herself into the republican ‘Daniel Stern’, Marie d’Agoult had several advantages to overcome. Her German, Lutheran mother belonged to a family of bankers, the Bethmanns. Her father, Alexandre de Flavigny, was an exiled French aristocrat. The Catholic side of the family prevailed, and she was educated or, rather, ‘finished’ by nuns of the Couvent du Sacré-Coeur at the Hôtel Biron in Paris (now the Musée Rodin).

After leaving school with a poor opinion of women’s education and religious institutions, she was married in 1826 to a 36-year-old French officer, Charles d’Agoult, who found her reassuringly calm and ethereal: ‘She had the magnificent blonde plaits, the pale skin and the full figure of the daughters of Germania,’ he wrote. Unfortunately, even after giving birth to two daughters, the Countess spent a great deal of time ‘scribbling industriously on loose sheets of paper’.

Six years into her marriage, she was bored, intermittently suicidal and suffering, probably, from manic depression. According to Stock-Morton, she was ‘beset with nameless romantic longings’ and ‘manifested her frustration in spleen’. This diagnosis would have seemed old-fashioned even to the alienist who treated her in the 1850s and 1860s: Emile Blanche, whose best-known patient was Gérard de Nerval. However, Stock-Morton also offers a modern diagnosis: ‘It is becoming recognised that women in the 19th century did sicken because they could neither have power nor recognise publicly that they wanted it.’

In December 1832, Marie d’Agoult met the 21-year-old Liszt and experienced, says Bolster, ‘a passion which would transform her life and stir the deepest part of her being’. In May 1835, they ran away to Switzerland. After five weeks of ‘elevation’ in the Alps, they descended to Geneva, where she felt ‘like a carp on a lawn’. Her new career had begun. Ostracised by the society that idolised her lover, she wrote pugnacious articles expounding Liszt’s humanitarian philosophy and denouncing ‘bourgeois vandalism’. The articles were published under Liszt’s name and widely praised. ‘Together we make a great writer,’ he joked. When she published her first story, ‘Hervé’, in 1842, Liszt warned her not to believe the good reviews: the critics, he assured her, had overvalued her work. It should be said, though, that the best of his published writings probably owe very little to his literary handmaidens, Marie d’Agoult and, later, Princess Carolyne von Sayn-Wittgenstein.

Marie’s relationship with Liszt is supposed to have been one of the great Romantic affairs, acted out against a picturesque backdrop of Swiss and Italian cities; but it requires some operatic embellishment to arouse much sympathetic passion in the reader. Her husband refused to play the role of tyrant, while Liszt’s schedule prevented him from behaving like a lover in a novel. Love letters do not always age well, and the English versions supplied by both biographers do nothing to revitalise them: ‘Ah! don’t ever tell me that I need something else but you’; ‘Oh! your letters, they kill me’; etc. Even in private, Liszt was a professional Romantic: ‘There is too much energy, too much passion, too much fire in our depths to settle for the possible in bourgeois fashion,’ he wrote during a financially successful tour of England.

This was not quite the uncalculating passion normally associated with Romantic heroes: ‘At one point,’ says Bolster, Liszt’s ‘emotional state became so intense that he regularly intercepted the woman on a donkey who delivered mail to the house’. In the absence of anything more dramatic, gossips filled the gaps with imaginary scenes: Liszt carrying off his Countess in a grand piano; Marie disguising herself as a man in order to be with her lover when he played the organ in Notre-Dame at midnight.

A difficult life in the public eye may be romantically disappointing, but this is precisely what should make it an absorbing comedy of manners. Instead of blowing on the artificial embers, d’Agoult’s last French biographer, Charles Dupêchez (Marie d’Agoult, 1989, with a chronology, a genealogy, an iconography and a full list of archival sources), emphasises the forced tone of their letters and shows that the expressions of passion were also an attempt ‘to save face in the eyes of a society which the couple had been imprudently bombarding with press releases on the immortality of their love’.

Relations with other Romantics were similarly bathetic. The endless bickering of the tiny coteries that came to represent a disproportionately large part of French Romanticism suggests that social activity was a kind of mental waste-disposal exercise which allowed Romantic geniuses to save the best part of themselves for Art. Stock-Morton’s narrative is cluttered with small betrayals and resentments and, consequently, sentences like this: ‘Marie told Liszt that Vigny had complained that Sand took Dorval away from him.’ Her thumbnail sketches of the protagonists are too smudgy to generate much interest in their tribulations: ‘Although famous, Sainte-Beuve was ugly and effected [sic] a persona of cynicism and boredom.’

Their mutual friend George Sand appears in both books as a spiteful, small-minded trouble-maker. In her novel Horace (1841), she caricatured Marie as a skinny seductress with bad teeth, bony hands, a good memory but no wit. Both Bolster and Stock-Morton accuse Balzac of similar nastiness in Béatrix (1839), which is based on Sand’s account of the affair. But at least Balzac turned the soap opera into an amusing novel with a useful moral: ‘A noble and generous woman relinquishes her share of social and aristocratic sovereignty. But the story does not end there. She is attached for ever to the author of her ruin like a convict to his companion on the chain.’

Balzac realised that the main interest of the affair lay in the gap between fashionable ideal and banal reality, and especially in the Countess’s gradual awakening. He wrote Béatrix as a warning to ‘young girls who are tempted by modern celebrities’. Marie herself developed suspicions about Liszt long before what Stock-Morton calls their ‘rupture’. Like his rock star descendants, Liszt always had one eye on the emergency exit. ‘One day you told me,’ she reminded him in a letter, ‘that you loved me so much that you did not even need to see me!’ Increasingly, she found him – or his persona – unworthy of her devotion. While the ladies of Geneva swooned at the sight of the famous pianist attacking the keys like a beautiful bird of prey, Marie was writing on her programme: ‘Aversion for the personality of a virtuoso . . . depravity of a being who performs for money.’ This snooty view of Liszt colours both biographies, though most other accounts depict him as a man of great generosity.

Even before she became disgusted with what she saw as Liszt’s whore-like existence – the social climbing, the money-grubbing and the fluttering eyelashes – she found the right-on posturing of his Romantic friends embarrassing. Their high jinks on a Swiss holiday left her cold. ‘On one occasion’, Bolster reports, George Sand ‘threw water from an upstairs window over some English tourists; on another, the group drank so much wine that Pictet’ – a philologist – ‘began to talk to the ceiling in Sanskrit, George danced around the room, and Liszt sang at the top of his voice while . . . admonishing the chairs for being out of tune.’ Stock-Morton quotes the Countess’s reaction: ‘Their childishness put me off. I felt not at all at ease, and consequently I was not pleasant.’

Marie took her role as a progressive Romantic more seriously. In Italy, Bolster says, she ‘was intellectually critical of religious paintings which perpetuated naive traditions about miracles’. At times, she sounds like a left-wing Marie-Antoinette. She lunched in ‘a simple restaurant used by the workers of Paris’, felt sorry for ragged rioters when they were shot by firing squads and, later, referred to her apartment on the grand Avenue de l’Impératrice as ‘my slum’. Politically, she was a moderate liberal; in practice, she was a snob. To her, Liszt was not just a Don Juan but a ‘Don Juan parvenu’.

The affair was over by 1844. Although she continued to serve Liszt as a kind of press agent, she had as little as possible to do with their children, preferring to be maternal about the starving masses and her harem of young male admirers. ‘From now on, Monsieur,’ she told him, ‘your girls have no mother.’ Later, she admitted that her son Daniel was as much a stranger to her as ‘the presumptive heir of the celestial empire’.

Until her death in 1876, she devoted herself to her salons and her writing: an Essai sur la liberté, a comparative study of Dante and Goethe, a history of the early Dutch Republic, three historical dramas, articles on politics, religion and morality, and her memoirs. This is an oddly monotonous period in both biographies, enlivened only by Marie’s wit. Her late comment on the great affair, after a luncheon with Liszt in 1861, adds a welcome touch of Balzacian irony: ‘The great passions, the great sorrows, the great ambitions that rend and tear – they all come down to a chicken à la portugaise.’

Richard Bolster recounts this long life pleasantly and efficiently, favouring events over speculation. He modestly allows Marie’s anecdotes and digressions to dictate the story, though without always making the most of them. In her published memoirs, Marie seems a more imperious figure than Bolster’s summaries suggest. Her aristocratic confidence was never shaken by her political beliefs: ‘My mind is not vulgar,’ she confessed with the humility of Rousseau. ‘There is no pedantry in me, and even less vanity – neither pretensions, affectations nor impertinences of any sort. And a candour that one might call extraordinary.’ ‘Phrenologists,’ she claims in a footnote, ‘observed on my skull the enormous size of the organ of justice and informed me that I should suffer greatly from it. They have been proved right more than once.’

Paraphrasing is inevitable and desirable, but it should be complemented with direct quotation and some indication of the circumstances in which the memories were recorded. Bolster summarises Marie’s apparently straightforward recollections without explaining that they form part of a canny self-portrait. For instance, in describing her attachment to ‘the canine race’ and her childhood friendship with a young peddler, she was establishing her republican credentials, associating her own wounded innocence with the noble simplicity of those good little people who came to sell her trinkets and sweep her chimney.

The billowing, mystical language of the Romantic Left and even her sense of humour are half erased. Her account of the obligatory visits made by newly-weds to the old dowagers of the Court of Charles X is not only an entertaining caricature, it also gives some idea of the rebelliousness alluded to in Bolster’s subtitle: ‘Paralysed in all parts except the tongue, they never left their fire-screen, their andirons, their antique bergère, their cat, their snuff-box and their sweet-box.’ Bolster’s paraphrase omits the joke about the tongue and, crucially, the snuff-box.

It says much about the conventions of modern biography that Romantic clichés slip so easily into the narrative. Bolster’s phrase, ‘It seemed that a cruel and capricious force had condemned her to unhappiness,’ might have been written two centuries ago. The accounts of historical events also seem to date back to the 19th century, though no one would then have believed, as Bolster apparently does, that the Paris Commune took place during the Prussian siege. On the other hand, the idea that ‘Paris was full of ruins because of the Commune’ sounds like 130-year-old propaganda. Most of the ruins were the work of the Third Republic, which fire-bombed the Commune into submission. (Bolster’s source for this surprising statement seems to be Daniel Ollivier, who, as a son of Napoleon III’s last Prime Minister, is not the best authority on the Commune.)

Stock-Morton’s biography is 25,000 words longer. It is more analytical, better documented and shows more awareness of the varying reliability of witnesses. Both biographers repeat Marie’s Romantic claim that she was born at midnight, but only Stock-Morton reveals that she was actually born at 4 a.m. Whereas Bolster devotes half his book to the first thirty years of Marie’s life, Stock-Morton skips over the same period in thirty pages and concentrates on her adult achievements. One of d’Agoult’s great discoveries, Emerson, is not even mentioned by Bolster.

Stock-Morton claims that ‘if Marie d’Agoult had been a man, her life and works would be deemed worthy of a full-scale biography, set alongside those of the men she knew – Lamartine, Lamennais, Mazzini, Cavour, Renan, Michelet, Littré etc.’ Ignoring Jacques Vier and the 400-page biographies by Dominique Desanti (1980) and Dupêchez, and ignoring the fact that Marie d’Agoult never ran a country, led a revolution or compiled a dictionary, this is still a questionable assertion. Both English biographies are quite long enough, and both find it hard to keep the story going, especially once they are into the post-Liszt period. Some of Stock-Morton’s connecting phrases – ‘Stern continued to use her mind as she pondered the revolution and politics in general’ etc – reveal the difficulty of attaching this life of judicious self-effacement to a sturdy narrative. Treated in this way, even in ‘a full-scale biography’, Marie d’Agoult will always be defined by the handicap on which Stock-Morton insists in her closing remarks: ‘Power, yes, power would have been available to her had she been a man.’