S.A. Bent, comp. Familiar Short Sayings of Great Men. 1887.
Madame du Deffand
[A French lady of caustic wit and able critical ability, born 1697; separated from her husband soon after marriage; her house was for fifty years the resort of authors, statesmen, and men of fashion; corresponded with Horace Walpole, Voltaire, and dAlembert; became nearly blind at fifty-four; died 1780.]
Mme. du Deffand describes, in a letter to Horace Walpole, June 6, 1767, the origin of one of the most celebrated mots in the French language. She says that Cardinal de Polignac, who was a great talker, and a man of extraordinary credulity, had given her an account of the martyrdom of St. Denis at Montmartre, and stated that, after his decapitation, he walked with his head in his hands, two leagues to the spot where afterwards the cathedral dedicated to him was built, in the village called by his name. Her comment was, The distance is nothing: it is only the first step that costs (La distance ny fait rien: il ny a que le premier pas qui coûte).
Camille Desmoulins gained the implacable hatred of the stern and haughty St. Just by saying jocosely of him, He carries his head like the Host (comme un saint sacrement), to which St. Just retorted, I will make him carry his like a St. Denis. Desmoulins soon afterwards accompanied Danton to the guillotine, saying, My pleasantry has killed me (Cest ma plaisanterie qui ma tué).
How happy one would be if one could throw off ones self as one throws off others!
This ability to throw off others was illustrated by her going out to supper on the day of the death of M. Pont-de-Veyle, an intimate friend for forty years. The conversation turned upon her loss: Alas! she said, he died at six this evening: otherwise you would not see me here (sans cela vous ne me verriez pas ici).
Having been told of a mot of Frederick the Great, who spoke of the philosophers having levelled the forest of prejudices (qui abattent la forêt des prèjugés), Mme. du Deffand was said to have remarked, That is why they supply us with so many fagots (Ah! voilà donc pourquoi ils nous débitent tant de fagots), (fagots meaning either fagots, or, in the other sense of the pun, tales or yarns). More honest than Talleyrand, who never refused the paternity of a bon-mot, she admitted in a letter to Walpole that it was good, but claimed no right over it but that of adoption.Correspondence, I. 222.
She said of Montesquieus LEsprit des Lois, that he might better have called it LEsprit sur les Lois (or Wit on Laws).
When the remark was made of Voltaire, the author of the Lives of Charles XII. and Louis XIV., that he had not much invention, Mme. du Deffand exclaimed, What more can you ask? He has invented history! (Que voulez-vous de plus? Il a inventé lhistoire!) Lord Bolingbroke once charged Voltaire with having changed in his narrative the circumstances of an event in the life of Charles XII. for the sake of effect. Confess, he said, that it did not occur as you have told it.Confess, replied Voltaire, that it is better as I have told it.
Her caustic manner of speaking of friend as well as foe caused Mme. du Deffand to be compared to the physician who said, My friend fell sick, I attended him: he died, I dissected him.
She maintained an intimacy for many years with President Hénault; who was in the habit of dining frequently at her house, and remarked, that between her cook and the Marquise de Brinvilliers, who was executed in 1676 for poisoning three of her relatives and several other people, there was only a difference of intention (entre elle et la Brinvilliers il ny a de différence que dans lintention).