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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Madame du Deffand (Marie de Vichy-Chamrond) (1697–1780)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
MADAME DU DEFFAND is interesting as a personality, a type, and an influence. Living through nearly the whole of the eighteenth century, she assimilated its wealth of new ideas, and was herself a product of the thought-revolution already kindling the spirit of 1789.  1
  She very early showed her mental independence by puzzling questions upon religion. The eloquent Massillon attempted to win her to orthodoxy. But he soon gave up the task, told the Sisters to buy her a catechism, and went off declaring her charming. The inefficacy of the catechism was proved later, when the precocious girl developed into the graceful, unscrupulous society woman. She was always fascinating to the brightest men and women of her own and other lands. But the early years of social triumph, when she still had the beautiful eyes admired by Voltaire, are less significant than the nearly thirty years of blindness in the convent of St. Joseph, which after her affliction she made her home. Here she held her famous receptions for the literary and social celebrities of Paris. Here Mademoiselle Lespinasse endured a miserable ten years as her companion, then rebelled against her exactions, and left to establish a rival salon of her own, aided by her devoted d’Alembert. His preference Madame du Deffand never forgave. Henceforth she opposed philosophy, and demanded from her devotees only stimulus and amusement. It was here that Horace Walpole found the “blind old woman” in her tub-like chair, and began the friendship and intellectual flirtation of fifteen years. It proved a great interest in her life, notwithstanding Walpole’s dread of ridicule at a suggestion of romance between his middle-aged self and this woman twenty years older.  2
  She was a power in the lives of many famous people, intimate with Madame de Staël, Voltaire, Montesquieu, Madame de Choiseul, the Duchess of Luxembourg, Madame Necker, Hume, Madame de Genlis. In her salon old creeds were argued down, new ideas disseminated, and bons mots and witty gossip circulated. She has recounted what went on, and explained the reign of clever women in her century. Ignoring her blindness, she lived her life as gayly as she could in visiting, feasting, opera-going, and letter-writing. But even her social supremacy and brilliant correspondence with Voltaire, Walpole, and others, did not satisfy her. She wished to appeal to the heart, and she appealed only to the head. Of all ills she most dreaded ennui, and the very dread of it made her unhappy. She became more and more insufficient to herself, until at eighty-three she died with clear-sighted indifference.  3
  “She was perhaps the wittiest woman who ever lived,” says Saintsbury. Hers was an inextinguishable wit, always alert, epigrammatic, enriching the language with proverbial phrases.  4
  During her life Voltaire’s science of unbelief and Rousseau’s appeal to nature and sentiment were stimulating Europe. For Rousseau, Madame du Deffand had no respect; but Voltaire’s philosophy appealed to her egotism. It bade a human being investigate his own puzzles, and seek solution in himself. Madame du Deffand agreed, but failed to find satisfaction in her anxious analysis; she envied believers in God, and longed for illusions, yet allowed herself none. Jealous, exacting, critical, with all the arrogance of the old aristocracy, she was as merciless to herself as to others. “All my judgments have been false and daring and too hasty…. I have never known any one perfectly…. To whom then can I have recourse?” she cries despairingly.  5
  Sainte-Beuve emphasizes her noblest quality: with all her faults she was true. She lived out her life frankly, boldly, without self-deception or imposition. So in the entertaining volumes of her letters and pen-portraits of acquaintances, she has left a valuable record. She takes us back a century, and shows not only how people looked and what they did, but how they thought and felt.  6

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