The sweetness of living
More than twenty years after the fact, the heroine of Mistress of the Revolution, Gabrielle de Montserrat, reminisces about the lifestyle she, and other nobles, enjoyed during the years that immediately preceded the French Revolution. She is penniless, but has been befriended and welcomed in Paris by an elderly relation, the Duchess d’Arpajon.
The Duchess took me to parties given by her friends. Some were regular dinners, some informal suppers after the play, the ballet or the opera, and others musical gatherings, where both professional and amateur performers displayed their talents.
I was often pressed to sing, which, out of shyness, I avoided as much as I could without appearing affected or ungracious. Impromptu dances often concluded the pleasures of the evening.
The Bishop of Autun, Monsieur de Talleyrand, who has since achieved such fame as a diplomat, once said: “Who has not known that time has not known the sweetness of living.” It was indeed sweet, although that sweetness was not to last.
Manners in good society were very modest. It would have been the height of insolence for a gentleman to touch, even briefly, any part of a sofa occupied by a lady, let alone to sit next to her, or to offer her his arm for a walk.
Only husbands or brothers were allowed those familiarities. Lovers avoided them at all costs. The English custom of shaking hands, especially between persons of different sexes, was considered so vulgar as to be ridiculous. Conversations, however, were freer than anything I had heard before in company.
Gabrielle goes riding in the country estates of her friends, she attends outdoors parties, the Opera and balls.
She also hopes to make an advantageous match, but soon discovers that her youth and beauty do not quite replace the allurements of a substantial fortune in the eyes of her suitors. She is not yet twenty, and this does not, for the time being, prevent her from very much enjoying all of this without too many misgivings.
I was a Baroness, albeit a penniless one. I only associated with aristocrats. Not all were wealthy, but all lived in a world of luxury, of idleness, of parties, of pleasure, which was becoming mine.
For how long? The poor are starving, the people of Paris are restless.
The days of the sweetness of living are numbered…
All posts in the Footsteps of Gabrielle series: