Madame Roland - John S. C. Abbott


When Jane was in the convent, she became acquainted with a young lady from Amiens, Sophia Cannet. They formed for each other a strong attachment, and commenced a correspondence which continued for many years. There was a gentleman in Amiens by the name of Roland de la Platiere, born of an opulent family, and holding the quite important office of inspector of manufactures. His time was mainly occupied in traveling and study. Being deeply interested in all subjects relating to political economy, he had devoted much attention to that noble science, and had written several treatises upon commerce, mechanics, and agriculture, which had given him, in the literary and scientific world, no little celebrity. He frequently visited the father of Sophia. She often spoke to him of her friend Jane, showed him her portrait, and read to him extracts from her glowing letters. The calm philosopher became very much interested in the enthusiastic maiden, and entreated Sophia to give him a letter of introduction to her, upon one of his annual visits to Paris. Sophia had also often written to Jane of her father's friend, whom she regarded with so much reverence.

One day Jane was sitting alone in her desolate home, absorbed in pensive musings, when M. Roland entered, bearing a letter of introduction to her from Sophia. "You will receive this letter," her friend wrote, "by the hand of the philosopher of whom I have so often written to you. M. Roland is an enlightened man, of antique manners, without reproach, except for his passion for the ancients, his contempt for the moderns, and his too high estimation of his own virtue."

The gentleman thus introduced to her was about forty years old. He was tall, slender, and well formed, with a little stoop in his gait, and manifested in his manners that self-possession which is the result of conscious worth and intellectual power, while, at the same time, he exhibited that slight and not displeasing awkwardness which one unavoidably acquires in hours devoted to silence and study. Still, Madame Roland says, in her description of his person, that he was courteous and winning; and though his manners did not possess all the easy elegance of the man of fashion, they united the politeness of the well-bred man with the unostentatious gravity of the philosopher. He was thin, with a complexion much tanned. His broad and intellectual brow, covered with but few hairs, added to the imposing attractiveness of his features. When listening, his countenance had an expression of deep thoughtfulness, and almost of sadness; but when excited in speaking, a smile of great cheerfulness spread over his animated features. His voice was rich and sonorous; his mode of speech brief and sententious; his conversation full of information, and rich in suggestive thought.

Jane, the enthusiastic, romantic Jane, saw in the serene philosopher one of the sages of antiquity, and almost literally bowed and worshiped. All the sentiments of M. Roland were in accordance with the most cherished emotions which glowed in her own mind. She found what she had ever been seeking, but had never found before, a truly sympathetic soul. She thought not of love. She looked up to M. Roland as to a superior being—to an oracle, by whose decisions she could judge whether her own opinions were right or wrong. It is true that M. Roland, cool and unimpassioned in all his mental operations, never entered those airy realms of beauty and those visionary regions of romance where Jane loved, at times, to revel And perhaps Jane venerated him still more for his more stern and unimaginative philosophy. But his meditative wisdom, his abstraction from the frivolous pursuits of life, his high ambition, his elevated pleasures, his consciousness of superiority over the mass of his fellow-men, and his sleepless desire to be a benefactor of humanity, were all traits of character which resistlessly attracted the admiration of Jane. She adored him as a disciple adores his master. She listened eagerly to all his words, and loved communion with his thoughts. M. Roland was by no means insensible to this homage, and though he looked upon her with none of the emotions of a lover, he was charmed with her society because she was so delighted with his own conversation. By the faculty of attentively listening to what others had to say, Madame Roland affirms that she made more friends than by any remarks she ever made of her own. The two minds, not hearts, were at once united; but this platonic union soon led to one more tender.

M. Roland had recently been traveling in Germany, and had written a copious journal of his tour. As he was about to depart from Paris for Italy, he left this journal, with other manuscripts, in the hands of Jane. "These manuscripts," she writes, "made me better acquainted with him, during the eighteen months he passed in Italy, than frequent visits could have done. They consisted of travels, reflections, plans of literary works, and personal anecdotes. A strong mind, strict principles, and personal taste, were evident in every page." He also introduced Jane to his brother, a Benedictine monk. During the eighteen months of his absence from Paris, he was traveling in Italy; Switzerland, Sicily, and Malta, and writing notes upon those countries, which he afterward published. These notes he communicated to his brother the monk, and he transmitted them to Jane. She read them with intense interest. At length he returned again to Paris, and their acquaintance was renewed. M. Roland submitted to her his literary projects, and was much gratified in finding that she approved of all that he did and all that he contemplated. She found in him an invaluable friend. His gravity, his intellectual life, his almost stoical philosophy, impressed her imagination and captivated her understanding. Two or three years passed away ere either of them seemed to have thought of the other in the light of a lover. She regarded him as a guide and friend. There was no ardor of youthful love warming her heart. There were no impassioned affections glowing in her bosom and impelling her to his side. Intellectual enthusiasm alone animated her in welcoming an intellectual union with a noble mind. M. Roland, on the other hand, looked with placid and paternal admiration upon the brilliant girl. He was captivated by her genius and the charms of her conversation, and, above all, by her profound admiration of himself. They were mutually happy in each other's society, and were glad to meet and loth to part. They conversed upon literary projects, upon political reforms, upon speculations in philosophy and science. M. Roland was naturally self-confident, opinionated, and domineering. Jane regarded him with so much reverence that she received his opinions for law. Thus he was flattered and she was happy.

M. Roland returned to his official post at Amiens, and engaged in preparing his work on Italy for the press They carried on a voluminous and regular correspondence He forwarded to her, in manuscript, all the sheets of his proposed publication, and she returned them with the accompanying thoughts which their perusal elicited. Now and then an expression of decorous endearment would escape from each pen in the midst of philosophic discussions and political speculations. It was several years after their acquaintance commenced before M. Roland made an avowal of his attachment. Jane knew very well the pride of the Roland family, and that her worldly circumstances were such that, in their estimation, the connection would not seem an advantageous one. She also was too proud to enter into a family who might feel dishonored by the alliance. She therefore frankly told him that she felt much honored by his addresses, and that she esteemed him more highly than any other man she had ever met. She assured him that she should be most happy to make him a full return for his affection, but that her father was a ruined man, and that, by his increasing debts and his errors of character, still deeper disgrace might be entailed upon all connected with him; and she therefore could not think of allowing M. Roland to make his generosity to her a source of future mortification to himself.

This was not the spirit most likely to repel the philosophic lover. The more she manifested this elevation of soul, in which Jane was perfectly sincere, the more earnestly did M. Roland persist in his plea. At last Jane, influenced by his entreaties, consented that he should make proposals to her father. He wrote to M. Phlippon. In reply, he received an insulting letter, containing a blunt refusal. M. Phlippon declared that he had no idea of having for a son-in-law a man of such rigid principles, who would ever be reproaching him for all his little errors. He also told his daughter that she would find in a man of such austere virtue, not a companion and an equal, but a censor and a tyrant. Jane laid this refusal of her father deeply to heart, and, resolving that if she could not marry the man of her choice, she would marry no one else, she wrote to M. Roland, requesting him to abandon his design, and not to expose himself to any further affronts. She then requested permission of her father to retire to a convent.

Her reception at the convent, where she was already held in such high esteem, was cordial in the extreme. The scanty income she had saved from her mother's property rendered it necessary for her to live with the utmost frugality. She determined to regulate her expenses in accordance with this small sum. Potatoes, rice, and beans, with a little salt, and occasionally the luxury of a little butter, were her only food. She allowed herself to leave the convent but twice a week: once, to call, for an hour, upon a relative, and once to visit her father, and look over his linen. She had a little room under the roof, in the attic, where the pattering of the rain upon the tiles soothed to pensive thought, and lulled her to sleep by night. She carefully secluded herself from association with the other inmates of the convent, receiving only a visit of an hour each evening from the much-loved Sister Agatha. Her time she devoted, with unremitting diligence, to those literary avocations in which she found so much delight. The quiet and seclusion of this life had many charms for Jane. Indeed, a person with such resources for enjoyment within herself could never be very weary. The votaries of fashion and gayety are they to whom existence grows languid and life a burden. Several months thus glided away in tranquillity. She occasionally walked in the garden at hours when no one else was there. The spirit of resignation, which she had so long cultivated; the peaceful conscience she enjoyed, in view of duty performed; the elevation of spirit, which enabled her to rise superior to misfortune; the methodical arrangement of time, which assigned to each hour its appropriate duty; the habit of close application, which riveted her attention to her studies; the highly-cultivated taste and buoyantly-winged imagination, which opened before her all the fairy realms of fancy, were treasures which gilded her cell and enriched her heart. She passed, it is true, some melancholy hours; but even that melancholy had its charms, and was more rich in enjoyment than the most mirthful moments through which the unreflecting flutter. M. Roland continued a very constant and kind correspondence with Jane, but she was not a little wounded by the philosophic resignation with which he submitted to her father's stern refusal. In the course of five or six months he again visited Paris, and called at the convent to see Jane. He saw her pale and pensive face behind a grating, and the sight of one who had suffered so much from her faithful love for him, and the sound of her voice, which ever possessed a peculiar charm, revived in his mind those impressions which had been somewhat fading away. He again renewed his offer, and entreated her to allow the marriage ceremony at once to be performed by his brother the prior. Jane was in much perplexity. She did not feel that her father was in a situation longer to control her, and she was a little mortified by the want of ardor which her philosophical lover had displayed. The illusion of romantic love was entirely dispelled from her mind, and, at the same time, she felt flattered by his perseverance, by the evidence that his most mature judgment approved of his choice, and by his readiness to encounter all the unpleasant circumstances in which he might be involved by his alliance with her. Jane, without much delay, yielded to his appeals. They were married in the winter of 1780. Jane was then twenty-five years of age. Her husband was twenty years her senior.

The first year of their marriage life they passed in Paris. It was to Madame Roland a year of great enjoyment. Her husband was publishing a work upon the arts, and she, with all the energy of her enthusiastic mind, entered into all his literary enterprises. With great care and accuracy, she prepared his manuscripts for the press, and corrected the proofs. She lived in the study with him, became the companion of all his thoughts, and his assistant in all his labors. The only recreations in which she indulged, during the winter, were to attend a course of lectures upon natural history and botany. M. Roland had hired ready-furnished lodgings. She, well instructed by her mother in domestic duties, observing that all kinds of cooking did not agree with him, took pleasure in preparing his food with her own hands. Her husband engrossed her whole time, and, being naturally rather austere and imperious, he wished so to seclude her from the society of others as to monopolize all her capabilities of friendly feeling. She submitted to the exaction without a murmur, though there were hours in which she felt that she had made, indeed, a serious sacrifice of her youthful and buoyant affections. Madame Roland devoted herself so entirely to the studies in which her husband was engaged that her health was seriously impaired. Accustomed as she was to share in all his pursuits, he began to think that he could not do without her at any time or on any occasion.

At the close of the year M. Roland returned to Amiens with his wife. She soon gave birth to a daughter, her only child, whom she nurtured with the most assiduous care. Her literary labors were, however, unremitted, and, though a mother and a nurse, she still lived in the study with her books and her pen. M. Roland was writing several articles for an encyclopedia. She aided most efficiently in collecting the materials and arranging the matter. Indeed, she wielded a far more vigorous pen than he did. Her copiousness of language, her facility of expression, and the play of her fancy, gave her the command of a very fascinating style; and M. Roland obtained the credit for many passages rich in diction and beautiful in imagery for which he was indebted to the glowing imagination of his wife.

Frequent sickness of her husband alarmed her for his life. The tenderness with which she watched over him strengthened the tie which united them. He could not but love a young and beautiful wife so devoted to him. She could not but love one upon whom she was conferring such rich blessings. They remained in Amiens for four years. Their little daughter Eudora was a source of great delight to the fond parents, and Madame Roland took the deepest interest in the developments of her infantile mind. The office of M. Roland was highly lucrative, and his literary projects successful; and their position in society was that of an opulent family of illustrious descent—for the ancestors of M. Roland had been nobles. He now, with his accumulated wealth, was desirous of being reinstated in that ancestral rank which the family had lost with the loss of fortune. Neither must we blame our republican heroine too much that, under this change of circumstances, she was not unwilling that he should resume that exalted social position to which she believed him to be so richly entitled. It could hardly be unpleasant to her to be addressed as Lady  Roland. It is the infirmity of our frail nature that it is more agreeable to ascend to the heights of those who are above us, than to aid those below to reach the level we have attained. Encountering some embarrassments in their application for letters-patent of nobility, the subject was set aside for the time, and was never after renewed. The attempt, however, subsequently exposed them to great ridicule from their democratic opponents.

About this time they visited England. They were received with much attention, and Madame Roland admired exceedingly the comparatively free institutions of that country. She felt that the English, as a nation, were immeasurably superior to the French, and returned to her own home more than ever dissatisfied with the despotic monarchy by which the people of France were oppressed.

From Amiens, M. Roland removed to the city of Lyons, his native place, in which wider sphere he continued the duties of his office as Inspector General of Commerce and Manufactures. In the winter they resided in the city. During the summer they retired to M. Roland's paternal estate, La Platiere, a very beautiful rural retreat but a few miles from Lyons. The mother of M. Roland and an elder brother resided on the same estate. They constituted the ingredient of bitterness in their cup of joy. It seems that in this life it must ever be that each pleasure shall have its pain. No happiness can come unalloyed. La Platiere possessed for Madame Roland all the essentials of an earthly paradise; but those trials which are the unvarying lot of fallen humanity obtained entrance there. Her mother-in-law was proud, imperious, ignorant, petulant, and disagreeable in every development of character. There are few greater annoyances of life than an irritable woman, rendered doubly morose by the infirmities of years. The brother was coarse and arrogant, without any delicacy of feeling himself, and apparently unconscious that others could be troubled by any such sensitiveness. The disciplined spirit of Madame Roland triumphed over even these annoyances, and she gradually infused through the discordant household, by her own cheerful spirit, a great improvement in harmony and peace. It is not, however, possible that Madame Roland should have shed many tears when, on one bright autumnal day, this hasty tongue and turbulent spirit were hushed in that repose from which there is no awaking. Immediately after this event, attracted by the quiet of this secluded retreat, they took up their abode there for both summer and winter.

La Platiere, the paternal inheritance of M Roland, was an estate situated at the base of the mountains of Beaujolais, in the valley of the Saone. It is a region solitary and wild, with rivulets, meandering down from the mountains, fringed with willows and poplars, and threading their way through narrow, yet smooth and fertile meadows, luxuriant with vineyards. A large, square stone house, with regular windows, and a roof, nearly flat, of red tiles, constituted the comfortable, spacious, and substantial mansion. The eaves projected quite a distance beyond the walls, to protect the windows from the summer's sun and the winter's rain and snow. The external walls, straight, and entirely unornamented, were covered with white plaster, which, in many places, the storms of years had cracked and peeled off. The house stood elevated from the ground, and the front door was entered by ascending five massive stone steps, which were surmounted by a rusty iron balustrade. Barns, wine-presses, dove-cots and sheep-pens were clustered about, so that the farm-house, with its out-buildings, almost presented the aspect of a little village. A vegetable garden; a flower garden, with serpentine walks and arbors embowered in odoriferous and flowering shrubs; an orchard, casting the shade of a great variety of fruit-trees over the closely mown greensward, and a vineyard, with long lines of low-trimmed grape vines, gave a finish to this most rural and attractive picture. In the distance was seen the rugged range of the mountains of Beaujolais, while still further in the distance rose towering above them the snow-capped summits of the Alps. Here, in this social solitude, in this harmony of silencer, in this wide expanse of nature, Madame Roland passed five of the happiest years of her life—five such years as few mortals enjoy on earth. She, whose spirit had been so often exhilarated by the view of the tree tops and the few square yards of blue sky which were visible from the window of her city home, was enchanted with the exuberance of the prospect of mountain and meadow, water and sky, so lavishly spread out before her. The expanse, apparently so limitless, open to her view, invited her fancy to a range equally boundless. Nature and imagination were her friends, and in their realms she found her home. Enjoying an ample income, engaged constantly in the most ennobling literary pursuits, rejoicing in the society of her husband and her little Eudora, and superintending her domestic concerns with an ease and skill which made that superintendence a pleasure; time flew upon its swiftest wings.

[Illustration] from Madame Roland by John S. C. Abbott


Her mode of life during these five calm and sunny years which intervened between the cloudy morning and the tempestuous evening of her days, must have been exceedingly attractive. She rose with the sun, devoted sundry attentions to her husband and child, and personally superintended the arrangements for breakfast, taking an affectionate pleasure in preparing very nicely her husband's frugal food with her own hands. That social meal, ever, in a loving family, the most joyous interview the day, being passed, M. Roland entered the library for his intellectual toil, taking with him, for his silent companion, the idolized little Eudora. She amused herself with her pencil, or reading, or other studies, which her father and mother superintended. Madame Roland, in the mean time, devoted herself, with most systematic energy, to her domestic concerns. She was a perfect housekeeper, and each morning all the interests of her family, from the cellar to the garret, passed under her eye. She superintended the preservation of the fruit, the storage of the wine, the sorting of the linen, and those other details of domestic life which engross the attention of a good housewife. The systematic division of time, which seemed to be an instinctive principle of her nature, enabled her to accomplish all this in two hours. She had faithful and devoted servants to do the work. The superintendence was all that was required. This genius to superintend and be the head, while others contribute the hands, is not the most common of human endowments. Madame Roland, having thus attended to her domestic concerns, laid aside those cares for the remainder of the day, and entered the study to join her husband in his labors there. These intellectual employments ever possessed for her peculiar attractions. The scientific celebrity of M. Roland, and his political position attracted many visitors to La Platiere; consequently, they had, almost invariably, company to dine. At the close of the literary labors of the morning, Madame Roland dressed for dinner, and, with all that fascination of mind and manners so peculiarly her own, met her guests at the dinner table. The labor of the day was then over. The repast was prolonged with social converse. After dinner, they walked in the garden, sauntered through the vineyard, and looked at the innumerable objects of interest which are ever to be found in the yard of a spacious farm. Madame Roland frequently retired to the library to write letters to her friends, or to superintend the lessons of Eudora. Occasionally, of a fine day, leaning upon her husband's arm, she would walk for several miles, calling at the cottages of the peasantry, whom she greatly endeared to her by her unvarying kindness. In the evening, after tea, they again resorted to the library. Guests of distinguished name and influence were frequently with them, and the tours glided swiftly, cheered by the brilliance of philosophy and genius. The journals of the day were read, Madame Roland being usually called upon as reader. When not thus reading, she usually sat at her work-table, employing her fingers with her needle, while she took a quiet and unobtrusive part in the conversation. "This kind of life," says Madame Roland, "would be very austere, were not my husband a man of great merit, whom I love with my whole heart. Tender friendship and unbounded confidence mark every moment of existence, and stamp a value upon all things, which nothing without them would have. It is the life most favorable to virtue and happiness. I appreciate its worth. I congratulate myself on enjoying it; and I exert my best endeavors to make it last." Again she draws the captivating picture of rural pleasures. "I am preserving pears, which will be delicious. We are drying raisins and prunes. We make our breakfast upon wine; overlook the servants busy in the vineyard; repose in the shady groves, and on the green meadows; gather walnuts from the trees; and, having collected our stock of fruit for the winter, spread it in the garret to dry. After breakfast this morning, we are all going in a body to gather almonds. Throw off, then, dear friend, your fetters for a while, and come and join us in our retreat. You will find here true friendship and real simplicity of heart."

Madame Roland, among her other innumerable accomplishments, had acquired no little skill in the science of medicine. Situated in a region where the poor peasants had no access to physicians, she was not only liberal in distributing among them many little comforts, but, with the most self-denying assiduity, she visited them in sickness, and prescribed for their maladies. She was often sent for, to go a distance of ten or twelve miles to visit the sick. From such appeals she never turned away. On Sundays, her court-yard was filled with peasants, who had assembled from all the region round, some as invalids, to seek relief, and others who came with such little tokens of their gratitude as their poverty enabled them to bring. Here appears a little rosy-cheeked boy with a basket of chestnuts; or a care-worn mother, pale and thin, but with a grate-rut eye presenting to her benefactress a few small, fragrant cheeses, made of goat's milk and there is an old man, hobbling upon crutches, with a basket of apples from his orchard. She was delighted with these indications of gratitude and sensibility on the part of the unenlightened and lowly peasantry. Her republican notions, which she had cherished so fondly in her early years, but from which she had somewhat swerved when seeking a patent of nobility for her husband, began now to revive in her, bosom with new ardor. She was regarded as peculiarly the friend of the poor and the humble; and at all the hearth-fires in the cottages of that retired valley, her name was pronounced in tones almost of adoration. More and more Madame Roland and her husband began to identify their interests with those of the poor around them, and to plead with tongue and pen for popular rights. Her intercourse with the poor led her to feel more deeply the oppression of laws, framed to indulge the few in luxury, while the many were consigned to penury and hopeless ignorance. She acquired boundless faith in the virtue of the people, and thought that their disenthrallment would usher in a millennium of unalloyed happiness. She now saw the ocean of human passions reposing in its perfect calm. She afterward saw that same ocean when lashed by the tempest.