Madame Roland - John S. C. Abbott


The influence of those intense emotion which were excited in the bosom of Jane by the scenes which she witnessed in her childhood in the nunnery were never effaced from her imaginative mind. Nothing can be conceived more strongly calculated to impress the feelings of a romantic girl, than the poetic attractions which are thrown around the Roman Catholic religion by nuns, and cloisters, and dimly-lighted chapels, and faintly-burning tapers, and matins, and vespers, and midnight dirges. Jane had just the spirit to be most deeply captivated by such enchantments. She reveled in those imaginings which clustered in the dim shades of the cloister, in an ecstasy of luxurious enjoyment. The ordinary motive which influence young girls of her age seem to have had no control over her. Her joys were most highly intellectual and spiritual, and her aspirations were far above the usual conceptions, of childhood. She, for a time, became entirely fascinated by the novel scenes around her, and surrendered her whole soul to the dominion of the associations with which she was engrossed in subsequent years, by the energies of a vigorous philosophy, she disenfranchised her intellect from these illusions, and, proceeding to another extreme, wandered in the midst of the cheerless mazes of unbelief; but her fancy retained the traces of these early impressions until the hour of her death. Christianity, even when most heavily encumbered with earthly corruption, is infinitely preferable to no religion at all. Even papacy has never swayed so bloody a scepter as infidelity.

Jane remained in the convent one year, and then, with deep regret, left the nuns, to whom she had become extremely attached. With one of the sisters, who was allied to the nobility, she formed a strong friendship, which continued through life. For many years she kept up a constant correspondence with this friend, and to this correspondence she attributes, in a great degree, that facility in writing which contributed so much to her subsequent celebrity. This letter-writing is one of the best schools of composition, and the parent who is emulous of the improvement of his children in that respect, will do all in his power to encourage the constant use of the pen in these familiar epistles. Thus the most important study, the study of the power of expression, is converted into a pleasure, and is pursued with an avidity which will infallibly secure success. It is a sad mistake to frown upon such efforts as a waste of time.

While in the convent, she, for the first time, partook of the sacrament of the Lord's Supper. Her spirit was most deeply impressed and over-awed by the sacredness of the ceremony. Du-ring several weeks previous to her reception of this solemn ordinance, by solitude, self-examination, and prayer, she endeavored to prepare herself for that sacred engagement, which she deemed the pledge of her union to God, and of her eternal felicity. When the hour arrived, her feelings were so intensely excited that she wept convulsively, and she was entirely incapable of walking to the altar. She was borne in the arms of two of the nuns. This depth of emotion was entirely unaffected, and secured for her the peculiar reverence of the sacred sisters.

That spirit of pensive reverie, so dangerous and yet so fascinating, to which she loved to surrender herself, was peculiarly in harmony with all the influences with which she was surrounded in the convent, and constituted the very soul of the piety of its inmates. She was encouraged by the commendations of all the sister to deliver her mind up to the dominion of these day-dreams, with whose intoxicating power every heart is more or less familiar. She loved to retire to the solitude of the cloisters, when the twilight was deepening into darkness, and alone, with measured steps, to pace to and fro, listening to the monotonous echoes of her own footfall, which alone disturbed the solemn silence. At the tomb of a departed sister she would often linger, and, indulging in those melancholy meditations which had for her so many charms, long for her own departure to the bosom of her heavenly Father, where she might enjoy that perfect happiness for which, at times, her spirit glowed with such intense aspirations.

At the close of the year Jane left the peaceful retreat where she had enjoyed so much, and where she had received so many impressions never to be effaced. Her parents, engrossed with care, were unable to pay that attention to their child which her expanding mind required, rand she was sent to pass her thirteenth year with her paternal grandmother and her aunt Angelieu. Her grandmother was a dignified lady, of much refinement of mind and gracefulness of demeanor, who laid great stress upon all the courtesies of life and the elegances of manners and address. Her aunt was gentle and warm-hearted, and her spirit was deeply imbued with that humble and docile piety, which. has so often shone out with pure luster even, through all the encumbrances of the Roman, Catholic Church. With them she spent a year, in a seclusion from the world almost as entire as that which she found in the solitude of the convent. An occasional visit to her parents, and to her old friends the nuns, was all that interrupted the quiet routine of daily duties. Books continued still her employment and her delight. Her habits of reverie continued unbroken. Her lofty dreams gained a daily increasing ascendency over her character.

She thus continued to dwell in the boundless, regions of the intellect and the affections. Even the most commonplace duties of life were rendered attractive to her by investing them with a mysterious connection with her own limitless being. Absorbed in her own thoughts, ever communing with herself, with nature, with the Deity, as the object of her highest sentiment and aspirations, though she did not despise those of a more humble mental organization, she gave them not a thought. The evening twilight of every fine day still found her at her chamber window, admiring the glories of the setting sun, and feeding her impassioned spirit with those visions of future splendor and happiness which the scene appeared to reveal. She fancied she could almost see the wings of angels gleaming in the purple sunlight. Through those gorgeous avenues, where clouds were piled on golden clouds, she imagined, far away, the mansions of the blessed. These emotions glowing within her, gave themselves utterance in prayers earnest and ardent, while the tears of irrepressible feeling filled her eyes as she thought of that exalted Being, so worthy of her pure and intensest homage.

The father of Jane was delighted with all these indications of a marked and elevated character, and did all in his power to stimulate her to greater zeal in her lofty studies and meditations. Jane became his idol, and the more her imaginative mind became imbued with the spirit of romantic aspirations, the better was he pleased. The ardor of her zeal enabled her to succeed in every thing which she undertook.

Invincible industry and energy were united with these dreams. She was ambitious of knowing every thing; and when her father placed in her hands the burin, wishing to teach her to engrave, she immediately acquired such skill as to astonish both of her parents. And she afterward passed many pleasant hours in engraving, on highly-polished plates of brass, beautiful emblems of flowers as tokens of affection for her friends.

The mother of Jane, with far better judgment, endeavored to call back her daughter from that unreal world in which she loved to dwell, and to interest her in the practical duties of life. She began to be impatient for her return home, that she might introduce her to those household employments, the knowledge of which is of such unspeakable importance to every lady. In this she was far from being unsuccessful; for while Jane continued to dream in accordance with the encouragement of her father, she also cordially recognized the good sense of her mother's counsels, and held herself ever in readiness to co-operate with her in all her plans.

A little incident which took place at this time strikingly illustrates the reflective maturity which her character had already acquired. Before the French Revolution, the haughty demeanor of the nobility of France assumed such an aspect as an American, at the present day, can but feebly conceive. One morning, the grandmother of Jane, a woman of dignity and cultivated mind, took her to the house of Madame De Boismorel, a lady of noble rank, whose children she had partly educated. It was a great event, and Jane was dressed with the utmost care to visit the aristocratic mansion. The aspiring girl, with no disposition to come down to the level of those beneath her, and with still less willingness to do homage to those above her, was entirely unconscious of the mortifying condescension with which she was to be received. The porter at the door saluted Madame Phlippon with politeness, and all the servants whom she met in the hall addressed her with civility. She replied to each with courtesy and with dignity. The grandmother was proud of her granddaughter, and the servants paid the young lady many compliments. The instinctive pride of Jane took instant alarm. She felt that servants had no right to presume to pay her compliments—that they were thus assuming that she was upon their level.

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


Alas! for poor human nature. All love to ascend Few are willing to favor equality by stepping down. A tall footman announced them at the door of the magnificent saloon. All the furnishing and arrangements of this aristocratic apartment were calculated to dazzle the eye and bewilder the mind of one unaccustomed to such splendor. Madame De Boismorel, dressed with the most ostentatious display of wealth, was seated upon an ottoman, in stately dignity, employing her fingers with fancy needlework. Her face was thickly covered with rouge, and, as her guests were announced, she raised her eyes from her embroidery, and fixing a cold and unfeeling glance upon them, without rising to receive them, or even making the slightest inclination of her body, in a very patronizing and condescending tone said to the grandmother,

"Ah! Miss  Phlippon, good morning to you'."

Jane, who was far from pleased with her reception in the hall, was exceedingly displeased with her reception in the saloon. The pride of the Roman maiden rose in her bosom, and indignantly she exclaimed to herself, "So my grandmother is called Miss  in this house!"

"I am very glad to see you," continued Madame De Boismorel; "and who is this fine girl? your grand-daughter, I suppose? She will make a very pretty woman. Come here, my dear. Ah! I see she is a little bashful. How old is your grand-daughter, Miss Phlippon? Her complexion is rather brown, to be sure, but her skin is clear, and will grow fairer in a few years. She is quite a woman already."

Thus she rattled on for some time, waiting for no answers. At length, turning again to Jane, who had hardly ventured to raise her eyes from the floor, she said, "What a beautiful hand you have got. That hand must be a lucky one. Did you ever venture in a lottery my dear?"

"Never, madam," replied Jane, promptly "I am not fond of gaming."

"What an admirable voice!" exclaimed the lady. "So sweet and yet so full-toned! But how grave she is! Pray, my dear, are you not a little of a devotee?"

"I know my duty to God," replied Jane, "and I endeavor to fulfill it."

"That's a good girl," the noble lady rejoined. "You wish to take the veil, do you not?"

"I do not know what may be my destination, neither am I at present anxious to conjecture it "

"How very sententious!" Madame De Bois. morel replied. "Your grand-daughter reads a great deal, does she not, Miss Phlippon?"

"Yes, madam, reading is her greatest delight."

"Ay, ay," rejoined the lady; "I see how it is. But have a care that she does not turn author. That would be a pity indeed."

During this conversation the cheeks of Jane were flushed with wounded pride, and her heart throbbed most violently. She felt indignant and degraded, and was exceedingly impatient to escape from the humiliating visit. Conscious that she was, in spirit, in no respect inferior to the maidens of Greece and Rome who had so engrossed her admiration, she as instinctively recoiled from the arrogance of the haughty occupant of the parlor as she had repelled the affected equality of the servants in the hall.

A short time after this she was taken to pass a week at the luxurious abodes of Maria Antoinette. Versailles was in itself a city of palaces and of courtiers, where all that could dazzle the eye in regal pomp and princely voluptuousness was concentered. Most girls of her age would have been enchanted and bewildered by this display of royal grandeur. Jane was permitted to witness, and partially to share, all the pomp of luxuriously-spread tables, and presentations, and court balls, and illuminations, and the gilded equipages of embassadors and princes. But this maiden, just emerging from the period of childhood and the seclusion of the cloister, undazzled by all this brilliance, looked sadly on the scene with the condemning eye of a philosopher. The servility of the courtiers excited her contempt. She contrasted the boundless profusion and extravagance which filled these palaces with the absence of comfort in the dwellings of the over-taxed poor, and pondered deeply the value of that regal despotism, which starved the millions to pander to the dissolute indulgence of the few. Her personal pride was also severely stung by perceiving that her own attractions, mental and physical, were entirely overlooked by the crowds which were bowing before the shrines of rank and power. She soon became weary of the painful spectacle. Disgusted with the frivolity of the living, she sought solace for her wounded feelings in companionship with the illustrious dead. She chose the gardens for her resort, and, lingering around the statues which embellished these scenes of almost fairy enchantment, surrendered herself to the luxury of those oft-indulged dreams, which lured her thoughts away from the trivialities around her to heroic character and brilliant exploits.

"How do you enjoy your visit, my daughter?" inquired her mother.

"I shall be glad when it is ended," was the characteristic reply, "else, in a few more days, I shall so detest all the persons I see that I shall not know what to do with my hatred."

"Why, what harm have these persons done you, my child?"

"They make me feel injustice and look upon absurdity," replied this philosopher of thirteen.

Thus early did she commence her political meditations, and here were planted the germs of that enthusiasm which subsequently nerved her to such exertions for the disenthrallment of the people, and the establishment of republican power upon the ruin of the throne of the Bourbons. She thought of the ancient republics, encircled by a halo of visionary glory, and of the heroes and heroines who had been the martyrs of liberty; or, to use her own energetic language, "I sighed at the recollection of Athens, where I could have enjoyed the fine arts without being annoyed at the sight of despotism. I was out of all patience at being a French-woman. Enchanted with the golden period of the Grecian republic, I passed over the storms by which it had been agitated. I forgot the exile of Aristides, the death of Socrates, and the condemnation of Phocion. I little thought that Heaven reserved me to be a witness of similar errors, to profess the same principles, and to participate in the glory of the same persecutions."

Soon after Jane had entered her fourteenth year, she left her grandmother's and returned to her parental home. Her father, though far from opulence, was equally removed from poverty, and, without difficulty, provided his family with a frugal competence. Jane now pursued her studies and her limitless reading with unabated ardor. Her mind, demanding reality and truth as basis for thought, in the developments of character as revealed in biography, in the rise and fall of empires as portrayed in history, in the facts of science, and in the principles of mental and physical philosophy, found its congenial aliment. She accustomed herself to read with her pen in her hand, taking copious abstracts of facts and sentiments which particularly interested her. Not having a large library of her own, many of the books which she read were borrowed, and she carefully extracted from them and treasured in her common-place book those passages which particularly interested her, that she might read them again and again. With these abstracts and extracts there were freely intermingled her own reflections, and thus all that she read was carefully stored up in her own mind and became a portion of her own intellectual being.

Jane's mother, conscious of the importance to her child of a knowledge of domestic duties, took her to the market to obtain meat and vegetables, and occasionally placed upon her the responsibility of most of the family purchases; and yet the unaffected, queenly dignity with which the imaginative girl yielded herself to these most useful yet prosaic avocations was such, that when she entered the market, the fruit-women hastened to serve her before the other customers. The first comers, instead of being offended by this neglect, stepped aside, struck by those indescribable indications of superiority which ever gave her such a resistless influence over other minds. It is quite remarkable that Jane, apparently, never turned with repugnance from these humble avocations of domestic life. It speaks most highly in behalf of the intelligence and sound judgment of her mother, that she was enabled thus successfully to allure her daughter from her proud imaginings and her realms of romance to those unattractive practical duties which our daily necessities demand. At one hour, this ardent and impassioned maiden might have been seen in her little chamber absorbed in studies of deepest research. The highest themes which can elevate or engross the mind of man claimed her profound and delighted reveries. The next hour she might be seen in the kitchen, under the guidance of her placid and pious mother, receiving from her judicious lips lessons upon frugality, and industry, and economy. The white apron was bound around her waist, and her hands, which, but a few moments before, were busy with the circles of the celestial globe, were now occupied in preparing vegetables for dinner. There was thus united in the character of Jane the appreciation of all that is beautiful, chivalric, and sublime in the world of fact and the world of imagination, and also domestic skill and practical common sense. She was thus prepared to fascinate by the graces and elegances of a refined and polished mind and to create for herself, in the midst of all the vicissitudes of life, a region of loveliness in which her spirit could ever dwell; and, at the same time, she possessed that sagacity and tact, and those habits of usefulness, which prepared her to meet calmly all the changes of fortune, and over them all to triumph. With that self-appreciation, the expression of which, with her, was frankness rather than vanity, she subsequently writes, "This mixture of serious studies, agreeable relaxations, and domestic cares, was rendered pleasant by my mother's good management, and fitted me for every thing. It seemed to forebode the vicissitudes of future life, and enabled me to bear them. In every place I am at home. I can prepare my own dinner with as much address as Philopoemen cut wood; but no one seeing me thus engaged would think it an office in which I ought to be employed."

Jane was thus prepared by Providence for that career which she rendered so illustrious through her talents and her sufferings. At this early period there were struggling in her bosom those very emotions which soon after agitated every mind in France, and which overthrew in chaotic ruin both the altar and the throne.

The dissolute lives of many of the Catholic clergy, and their indolence and luxury, began to alarm her faith. The unceasing denunciations of her father gave additional impulse to every such suggestion. She could not but see that the pride and power of the state were sustained by the superstitious terrors wielded by the Church. She could not be blind to the trickery by which money was wrested from tortured consciences, and from ignorance, imbecility, and dotage. She could not but admire her mother's placid piety, neither could she conceal from herself that her faith was feeling, her principles sentiments. Deeply as her own feelings had been impressed in the convent, and much as she loved the gentle sisters there, she sought in vain for a foundation for the gigantic fabric of spiritual dominion towering above her. She looked upon the gorgeous pomp of papal worship, with its gormandizing pastors and its starving flocks, with its pageants to excite the sense and to paralyze the mind, with its friars and monks loitering in sloth and uselessness, and often in the grossest dissipation, and her reason gradually began to condemn it as a gigantic superstition for the enthrallment of mankind. Still, the influence of Christian sentiments, like a guardian angel, over hovered around her, and when her bewildered mind was groping amid the labyrinths of unbelief, her heart still clung to all that is pure in Christian morals, and to all that is consolatory in the hopes of immortality; and even when benighted in the most painful atheistic doubts, conscience became her deity; its voice she most reverently obeyed.

She turned from the Church to the state She saw the sons and the daughters of aristocratic pride, glittering in gilded chariots, and surrounded by insolent menials, sweep by her, through the Elysian Fields, while she trod the lusty pathway. Her proud spirit revolted, more and more, at the apparent injustice. She had studied the organization of society. She was familiar with the modes of popular oppression She understood the operation of that system of taxes, so ingeniously devised to sink the mass of the people in poverty and degradation, that princes and nobles might revel in voluptuous splendor. Indignation nerved her spirit as she reflected upon the usurpation thus ostentatiously displayed. The seclusion in which she lived encouraged deep musings upon these vast inequalities of life. Piety had not taught her submission. Philosophy had not yet taught het the impossibility of adjusting these allotments of our earthly state, so as to distribute the gifts of fortune in accordance with merit. Little, however, did the proud grandees imagine, as in courtly splendor they swept by the plebeian maiden, enveloping her in the dust of their chariots, that her voice would yet aid to upheave their castles from their foundations, and whelm the monarchy and the aristocracy of France in one common ruin.

At this time circumstances brought her in contact with several ladies connected with noble families. The ignorance of these ladies, their pride, their arrogance, excited in Jane's mind deep contempt. She could not but feet her own immeasurable superiority over them, and yet she perceived with indignation that the accident of birth invested them with a factitious dignity, which enabled them to look down upon her with condescension. A lady of noble birth, who had lost fortune and friends through the fraud and dissipation of those connected with her, came to board for a short time in her father's family. This lady was forty years of age, insufferably proud of her pedigree, and in her manners stiff and repulsive. She was exceedingly illiterate and uninformed, being unable to write a line with correctness, and having no knowledge beyond that which may be picked up in the ballroom and the theater. Than was nothing in her character to win esteem. She was trying, by a lawsuit, to recover a portion of her lost fortune. Jane wrote petitions for her, and letters, and sometimes went with her to make interest with persons whose influence would be important. She perceived that, notwithstanding her deficiency in every personal quality to inspire esteem or love, she was treated, in consequence of her birth, with the most marked deference. Whenever she mentioned the names of her high-born ancestry—and those names were ever upon her lips—she was listened to with the greatest respect. Jane contrasted the reception which this illiterate descendant of nobility enjoyed with the reception which her grandmother encountered in the visit to Madame De Boismorel, and it appeared to her that the world was exceedingly unjust, and that the institutions of society were highly absurd. Thus was her mind training for activity in the arena of revolution. She was pondering deeply all the abuses of society. She had become enamored of the republican liberty of antiquity She was ready to embrace with enthusiasm any hopes of change. All the games and amusements of girlhood appeared to her frivolous, as, day after day, her whole mental powers were engrossed by these profound contemplations, and by aspirations for the elevation of herself and of mankind.