The Aristocracy’s Swann Song

Roger-Viollet, Paris/Knopf
Élisabeth Greffulhe in her ‘swan’ persona; photograph by Otto Wegener, circa 1887

In June 1885 Henry James received a letter from John Singer Sargent in Paris asking him to see two friends of his who were coming to London. One was Dr. Samuel Pozzi, whom Sargent had painted in a red dressing gown in 1881, “a very brilliant creature”; the other, Sargent wrote, was “the unique extra-human Montesquiou of whom you may have heard [Paul] Bourget speak with bitterness….(Take warning and do not bring them together.)” There was a third man in the group: Prince Edmond de Polignac, a composer.

James devoted July 2 and 3 to entertaining these three gentlemen. “Montesquiou is curious, but slight,” James wrote to a friend. On the second day, he invited Whistler to join the group. Even for James, who was intrigued by the lines that connect art and life, history and literary history, it would have been strange indeed had he realized that he was in the company of the man on whom Baron de Charlus in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time would be based, that beside him was the doctor who would be used in the making of Proust’s Dr. Cottard, and that Proust would become a friend of Polignac’s once he was introduced to him by Montesquiou in 1894.

There is a wonderful encounter in Proust’s Within a Budding Grove, as the narrator is walking close to the zoo with the Swanns, when an old lady “smiled at us with a caressing sweetness.” Swann takes him aside to explain that they are in the presence of the Princess Mathilde, a niece of Napoleon I and friend of Flaubert and Sainte-Beuve:

And the whole person was clothed in an outfit so typically Second Empire that—for all that the Princess wore it simply and solely, no doubt, from attachment to the fashions that she had loved when she was young—she seemed to have deliberately planned to avoid the slightest discrepancy in historic colour, and to be satisfying the expectations of those who looked to her to evoke the memory of another age.

The encounter, and what the princess had to say for herself, have an aura of pure, distilled reportage. The princess belonged to many kinds of history that fascinated Proust. She herself was aware of how recent the Bonapartes were, reminding others: “Without the French Revolution, I’d be selling oranges on the streets of Ajaccio.” Proust referred to her as “my first highness.” Flaubert had replied to her in 1867 when she asked, “Who ever thinks of me?”:

All those who know you, Princess, and they do more than think. Writers, people whose job it is to observe and to feel, are not stupid! I also observe that my close friends, the Goncourts, Théo [Théophile Gautier], father Beuve and I are not the least devoted among your…

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