What Adèle Knew

Memoirs of the Comtesse de Boigne

edited and with an introduction by Anka Muhlstein, and an afterword by Olivier Bernier
Helen Marx Books, two volumes:
Volume I, 1781–1815 257 pp., $14.50 (paper)
Volume II, 1861–1830 228 pp., $14.50 (paper)

Between 1907 and 1908 the French publisher Plon brought out, under the title Récits d’une tante (Tales of an Aunt), the four volumes of the Memoirs of Adèle, Comtesse de Boigne; and a very remarkable book it is, with a remarkable subject. The comtesse, née Osmond, was born in 1781, the daughter of the Marquis d’Osmond, a descendant of an ancient Norman family, and of Eléonore Dillon, offspring of an influential Irish clan with Jacobite connections.1 One of Adèle’s great-uncles had been a popular figure in the Palais Royal circle,2 and through this connection and with the help of other Dillon relatives her mother secured the post of lady-in-waiting to Madame Adélaïde (1732–1800), one of Louis XV’s daughters.

This position entailed living at Versailles, which suited Adèle’s haughty mother ideally, though her father, an unassuming man, rather less so. However, in 1787, he left the army for the diplomatic service, being appointed minister to The Hague and then ambassador to St. Petersburg. He was an enduring, though never fanatical, royalist and legitimist, and Adèle idolized him.

As for Adèle herself, she was a pretty and precocious child, able to recite Racine at the age of three. Both her parents, so she says, adored her, and she became a favorite with Louis XVI and Queen Marie-Antoinette. “I was,” she writes, “brought up literally upon the knees of the royal family.”

In her chapters on her childhood days she gives a most touching picture of the desperate social awkwardness of the unfortunate King:

With the best intention of being courteous, he would walk toward a man until he had pushed him back to the wall; and if no remark occurred to him, as often happened, he would burst into a loud laugh, turn on his heel and walk off.

The victim would take his leave in fury, believing himself deliberately insulted.

Then in 1789 came the Revolution. Adèle’s father (there was now no question of his mission to Russia) helped Madame Adélaïde and her sister Victoire to escape to Italy and sent Adèle with her mother and brother to follow them, staying on in France for some months himself, to give what support he could to the King and Queen. The family was reunited in Rome, where they encountered a certain Sir John Legard, whose wife was a first cousin of Adèle’s mother. By now their money was running low, and they accepted an invitation from Sir John to accompany him to Naples and ultimately to take refuge on his estate in Yorkshire.

The talk of the town in Naples, at this moment, was the famous Lady Hamilton, wife of the English minister and later the lover of Horatio Nelson. Adèle has several irresistible pages about her: she had a unique talent, with the aid of a classical costume, some cashmere shawls, an urn, a scent-box, a lyre, and a tambourine, for what were known as “attitudes,” emerging eventually from her shawls as “a statue of most admirable…

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