The fact was that Mme. d'Albany could now become, so to speak, what she really was; or, at least, show herself to be such. Worldly wise and a trifle cynical she had always been; in the midst of the pages of literary review and political newspaper constituting her letters to Mme. Mocenni, Canon Luti and Alessandro Cerretani of Siena, there is a good deal of mere personal gossip, stories of married women's lovers, married men's mistresses, domestic bickerings, &c., interspersed with very plain-spoken and (according to our ideas) slightly demoralised moralisings. It is evident that this was not a woman to shrink from the reality of things, to take the world in disgust, to expect too much of her acquaintances.
On the other hand these letters of the Alfieri period show Mme. d'Albany to have been decidedly a good-natured and friendly woman. She has the gift of getting people to trust her with their little annoyances and grievances; she is constantly administering sympathy to Mme. Mocenni for the tiresomeness and stupidity and harshness of her husband; she keeps up a long correspondence, recommending books, correcting French exercises, exhorting to study and to virtue (particularly to abstinence from gambling), encouraging, helping Mme. Mocenni's boy Vittorio. She is clearly a woman who enjoys hearing about other folk's concerns, enjoys taking an interest in them, sympathising and, if possible, assisting them.
These two qualities, a dose of cynical worldliness, sufficient to prevent all squeamishness and that coldness and harshness which springs from expecting people to be better than they are, and a dose of kindliness, helpfulness, pleasure in knowing the affairs and feelings and troubles of others; these two qualities are, I should think, the essentials for a woman who would keep a salon in the old sense of the word, who would be the centre of a large but decidedly select society, the friend and correspondent of many and various people possessed of more genius or more character than herself. Such a woman, thanks to her easy-going knowledge of the world, and to her cordial curiosity and helpfulness, is the friend of the most hostile people; and she is so completely satisfied with, and interested in, the particular person with whom she is talking or to whom she is writing, that that particular person really believes himself or herself to be her chief friend, and overlooks the scores of other chief friends, viewed with exactly the same degree of interest, and treated with the same degree of cordiality all round. The world is apt to like such women, as such women like it, and to say of them that there must be an immense richness of character, an extraordinary power of bringing out the best qualities of every individual, in a woman who can drive such complicated teams of friends.
But is it not more probable that the secret of such success is poverty of personality rather than richness; and that so many people receive a share of friendship, of sympathy, of comprehension, because each receives only very little; because the universal friend is too obtuse to mind anybody's faults, and too obtuse, also, to mind anybody's great virtues? In short, do not such women pay people merely in the paper money of attention, which can be multiplied at pleasure, rather than in the gold coin of sympathy, of which the supply is extremely small?
Be this as it may, Mme. d'Albany, after having been, in the earlier period of her life, essentially the woman who had one friend, who let the wax of her nature be stamped in one clear die, became, in the twenty years which separate the death of Alfieri from her own, pre-eminently the woman with many friends, a blurred personality in which we recognise traces of the mental effigy of many and various people. Mme. d'Albany was, therefore, in superficial sympathy with nearly everyone, and in deep antagonism with no one: she was the ideal of the woman who keeps a literary and political salon. At that time especially, when Italy was visited only by people of a certain social standing, society was carried on by a most complicated system of letters of introduction, and everyone of any note brought a letter to Mme. d'Albany. "_La grande lanterne magique passe tout par votre salon_," wrote Sismondi to the Countess; and the metaphor could not be truer. Writers and artists, beautiful women, diplomatists, journalists, pedants, men of science, women of fashion, Chateaubriand and Mme. de Stael, Lamartine and Paul Louis Courier, Mme. Recamier and the Duchess of Devonshire, Canova and Foscolo, and Sismondi and Werner, the whole intellectual world of the Empire and the Restoration, all seem to be projected, figures now flitting past like shadows, now dwelling long, clear and coloured, upon the rather colourless and patternless background of Mme. d'Albany's house; nay, of Mme. d'Albany herself. Such readers as may wish to have all these figures, remembered or forgotten, pointed out to them, called by their right names and titles, treated with the perfect impartiality of a _valet de place_ expounding monuments, or of a chamberlain announcing the guests at a _levee_, may refer to the two volumes of Baron Alfred von Reumont; and such readers (and I hope they are more numerous) as may wish to examine some of the nobler and more interesting of these projected shadows of men and women, may read with pleasure and profit the letters of Sismondi, Bonstetten, Mme. de Souza and Mme. de Stael to the Countess of Albany, and the interesting pages of criticism in which they have been imbedded by M. St.-Rene Taillandier. With regard to myself, I feel that the time and space which have been given me in order to analyse or reconstruct the curious type and curious individual called Louise d'Albany are both nearly exhausted; and I can therefore select to dwell upon, of these many magic-lantern men and women, of these friends of the Countess, only two, because they seem to me to exemplify my remarks about the friendship of a woman whose vocation it is to have many friends. The two are Sismondi and Foscolo.
Two or three years after Alfieri's death, somewhere about the year 1806 or 1807, there was introduced to Mme. d'Albany a sort of half-Italian, half-French Swiss, a man young in years and singularly young--with the peculiar earnestness, gravity, purity which belongs sometimes to youth--in spirit, Jean Charles Leonard Simonde de Sismondi. Quietly idealistic, with one of those northern, eminently Protestant minds which imagine the principle of good to be more solemnly serious, the principle of evil more vainly negative, than is, alas, the case in this world--M.
de Sismondi, full of the heroism of mediaeval Italy which he was studying with a view to his great work, came to the house of Alfieri, to the woman whom Alfieri had loved, as to things most reverend and almost sacred. The Countess of Albany received him very well; and this good reception, the motherly cordiality of this woman with that light in her hazel eyes, that welcoming graciousness in the lines of her mouth, which Lamartine has charmingly described, with the "_parole suave, manieres sans appret, familiarite rassurante_," "which made one doubt whether she was descending to the level of her visitor, or raising him up to her own,"--this reception by this woman, who was, moreover, still surrounded by a halo of Alfieri's glory, fairly conquered the heart, the pure, warm, grave and truthful heart of young Sismondi. He saw her often, on his way between Geneva, whither he was called by his family business and his lectures, and Pescia, a little town nestled among the olives of the Lucchese Apennine, where he was for ever sighing to join his mother, to resume his walks, his readings with this noble old woman. Florence, the house on the Lung Arno, had an almost romantic fascination for Sismondi; those passing visits, at intervals of months, when Mme. d'Albany would devote herself entirely to the traveller, sit chatting, or rather (we feel that) listening to the young man's enthusiastic talk about liberty, letters, and philanthropy, about Alfieri and Mme. de Stael, enabled Sismondi to make up for himself a sort of half-imaginary Countess of Albany, to whom he poured out all his hopes and fears in innumerable letters, for whom he longed as (alas!) we perhaps long only for the phantoms of our own creating. That Mme. d'Albany was, after all, a shallow woman; that she adored a mediocre M. Fabre (to whom Sismondi invariably sent respectful messages) and half disliked the memory of Alfieri; that she had called Mme. de Stael, Sismondi's goddess, about whom he was for ever expatiating, "a mad woman who always wants to inspire passions, and feels nothing, and makes her readers feel nothing"
(I am quoting from an unpublished letter at Siena); that she preferred despotism on the whole to liberty, and had no particular belief or interest in the heroic things of the present and future; that she was a lover of gossip and scandal, sometimes (as Gino Capponi says) hard and disagreeable; that she inspired some men, like d'Azeglio and Giordani, with a positive repulsion as a vulgar-minded, spiteful, meddlesome old thing; that there should be any other Mme. d'Albany than the one of his noble fancy, than the woman whose image (fashioned by himself) he loved to unite with the image of his own sweet, serious, shy, noble-minded mother: all these things M. de Sismondi, who never guessed himself to be otherwise than the most unpoetical and practical of men, never dreamed of. So Sismondi went on writing to Mme. d'Albany, pouring out his grief at Mme. de Stael's persecutions, his schemes of general improvement, all the interests which filled his gentle, austere, and enthusiastic mind.
1814 came, and 1815. Sismondi had always hated, with the hatred of an Italian mediaeval patriot, and the hatred of an eighteenth-century philanthropist, the despotism, the bureaucratic levelling, the great military slaughters of Napoleon; but when he saw Napoleon succeeded by the inept and wicked governments of the Restoration, his heart seemed to burst. A Swiss, scarcely acquainted with France, the passion for the principles of liberty and good sense and progress which France had represented, the passion for France itself, burst out in him with generous ardour. This man suffered intensely at what to him, as to Byron and to Shelley (we must recollect the introduction of the _Revolt of Islam_), seemed the battle between progress and retrogression; and suffered all the more as he was too pure and just-minded not to feel the impossibility of complete sympathy with either side. Mme. d'Albany answered his letters with Olympic serenity. What was it to her which got the upper hand? She was by this time one of those placid mixtures of optimism and pessimism which do not expect good to triumph, simply because they do not care whether good does triumph. Sismondi, in his adoration of her, thought this might be the result of a superior magnanimity of character; yet he kept conjuring her to take an interest in the tragedy which was taking place before her eyes. If she will take no interest, will not Fabre? "Does M. Fabre not feel himself turning French again?" writes Sismondi, and there is a pathetic insistency in the question. Fabre thought of his pictures, his collections of antiques, perhaps of his dinner; of anything save France and political events. Mme. d'Albany smiled serenely, and chaffed Sismondi a little for his political passions. Sismondi, of all men the most loyal to the idea he had formed of his friends, seems never to have permitted himself to see the real woman, the real abyss of indifference, beneath his ideal Mme. d'Albany. But there are few things more pathetic, I think, than the letters of this enthusiastic man to this cold woman; than the belief of Sismondi--writing that the retrograde measures of which he reads in the papers give him fits of fever, that the post days on which he expects political news are days of frenzied expectation--in the moral fibre, the faculty for indignation, of this pleasant, indifferent, cynical quasi-widow of Alfieri.
The story of the Countess and Foscolo is an even sadder instance of those melancholy little psychological dramas which go on, unseen to the world, in a man's soul; little dramas without outward events, without deaths or partings or such-like similar visible catastrophes, but the action of which is the slow murder of an affection, of an ideal, of a belief in the loyalty, sympathy, and comprehension of another. The character and history of Ugo Foscolo, like Chenier, half a Greek in blood, and more than half a Greek in passionate love of beauty and indomitable love of liberty, are amongst the most interesting in Italian literature; and I regret that I can say but little of them in this place. Reviewing his brief life, his long career from the moment when, scarcely more than a boy, he had entered the service of liberty as a soldier, a political writer, and a poet, only to taste the bitterness of the betrayal of Campo Formio, he wrote, in 1823, from London, where he was slowly dying, to his sister Rubina: "I am now nearly forty-six; and you, although younger than myself, can recollect how miserable, how unquiet and uncertain our lives have always been ever since our childhood." Poor, vain, passionate and proud, torn between the selfish impulses of an exactingly sensuous and imaginative nature, and the rigid sense of duty of a heroic and generous mind, Ugo Foscolo was one of the earliest and most genuine victims of that sickness of disappointed hope and betrayed enthusiasm, of that _Weltschmerz_ of which personal misfortunes seemed as but the least dreadful part, that came upon the noblest minds after the Revolution, and which he has painted, with great energy and truthfulness, in his early novel _Jacopo Ortis_. His career broken by his determination never to come to terms with any sort of baseness, his happiness destroyed by political disappointment, literary feuds, and a number of love affairs into which his weaker, more passionate and vainer, yet not more ungenerous temper was for ever embroiling him, Foscolo came to Florence, ill and miserable, in the year 1812. The Countess of Albany, recognising in him a something--a mixture of independence, of passion, of vanity, of truthfulness, of pose--which resembled Alfieri in his earlier days (though, as she was unable to see, a nobler Alfieri, wider-minded, warmer-hearted, born in a nobler civilization and destined to give to Italy a nobler example, the pattern for her Leopardi, than Alfieri had been able to give)--the Countess of Albany received Foscolo well. His letters are full of allusions to the hours which he spent seated at the little round table in Mme. d'Albany's drawing-room, opposite to the "Muse" newly bought of Canova, narrating to her his many and tangled love affairs; love affairs in which he left his heart on all the briars, and in which, however, by an instinct which shows the very nobleness of his nature, he seems to have been impelled rather towards women whom he must love sincerely and unhappily, than towards Marchesa di Prie and Lady Ligonier, like Alfieri; love affairs in which, alas, there was also a good dose of the vanity of a poet and a notorious beau. Mme. d'Albany, as we have seen, loved gossip; and, being a kind, helpful woman, she also sincerely liked becoming the confidant of other folk's woes. She took a real affection for this strange Foscolo. Foscolo, in return, ill, sore of heart, solitary, gradually got to love this gentle, sympathising Countess with a sort of filial devotion, but a filial devotion into which there entered also somewhat of the feeling of a wounded man towards his nurse, of the feeling of a devout man towards his Madonna.
His letters are full of this feeling: "My friend and not the friend of my good fortune," he writes to Mme. d'Albany in 1813, "I seem to have left home, mother, friends, and almost the person dearest to my heart in leaving Florence." Again, "I had in you, _mia Signora_, a friend and a mother; a person, in short, such as no name can express, but such as sufficed to console me in the miseries which are perhaps incurable and interminable." Her letters are a real ray of sunlight in his gloomy life, they are "so full of graciousness, and condescension and benevolence and love. I venture to use this last word, because I feel the sentiment which it expresses in myself towards you."
His health, his work, his money-matters, his love-affairs, were all getting into a more and more lamentable condition, in which Mme.
d'Albany's sympathy came as a blessing, when the catastrophes of 1814 and 1815, which to Italy meant the commencement of a state of degradation and misery much more intolerable and hopeless than any previous one, came and drowned the various bitternesses of poor Foscolo's life in a sea of bitterness. "Italy," wrote Foscolo to Mme.
d'Albany in 1814, "is a corpse; and a corpse which must not be touched if the stench thereof is not to be made more horrible. And yet I see certain crazy creatures fantasticating ways of bringing her to life; for myself, I should wish her to be buried with myself, and overwhelmed by the seas, or that some new Phaeton should precipitate upon her the flaming heavens, so that the ashes should be scattered to the four winds, and that the nations coming and to come should forget the infamy of our times. Amen."
How strongly we feel in this outburst that, despite his despair, or perhaps on account of it, Foscolo is himself one of those "crazy creatures fantasticating ways of bringing Italy to life!" But the Countess did not understand; she could conceive liking Bonaparte and serving him, or liking the Restoration and serving it; but to love an abstract Italy which did not yet exist, to hate equally all those who deprived it of freedom, that was not within her comprehension. And as she could not comprehend this feeling, the mainspring of Foscolo's soul, so she could understand of Foscolo only the slighter, meaner things: his troubles and intrigues, his loves and quarrels. The moment came when the grief of miscomprehension was revealed to poor Foscolo; when he saw how little he was understood by this woman whom he loved as a mother.
Foscolo had refused, latterly, to serve Napoleon; he refused, also, to serve the Austrians. Hated for his independent ways both by the Bonapartists and the reactionists, surrounded by spies, he was forced to quit Italy never to return. He wrote to explain his motives to Mme.
d'Albany. Mme. d'Albany wrote back in a way which showed that she believed the assertions of Foscolo's enemies; that she ascribed to cowardice, to meanness, to a base desire to make himself conspicuous, the self-inflicted exile which he had taken upon him: a letter which the editor of Foscolo's correspondence describes to us in one word--unworthy.
This letter came upon Foscolo like a thunder-clap. "So thus," he wrote to the Countess in August 1815, "generosity and justice are banished even from nobler souls. Your letter, Signora Contessa, grieves me, and confers upon me, at the same time, two advantages: it diminishes suddenly the perpetual nostalgia which I have felt for Florence, and it affords me an occasion to try my strength of spirit.... My hatred for the tyranny with which Bonaparte was oppressing Italy does not imply that I should love the house of Austria. The difference for me was that I hoped that Bonaparte's ambition might bring about, if not the independence of Italy, at least such magnanimous deeds as might raise the Italians; whereas the regular government of Austria precludes all such hopes. I should be mad and infamous if I desired for Italy, which requires peace at any price, new disorders and slaughterings; but I should consider myself madder still and more infamous if, having despised to serve the foreigner who has fallen, I should accept to serve the foreigner who has succeeded.... But if your accusation of inconstancy is unjust, your accusation that I want to '_passer pour original_' is actually offensive and mocking."
Later, in his solitary wanderings, Foscolo's heart seems to have melted towards his former friend; he wrote her one or two letters, conciliating, friendly, but how different from the former ones! The Countess of Albany, whom he had loved and trusted, was dead; the woman who remained was dear to him as a mere relic of that dead ideal.
Such is the story of Mme. d'Albany's friendship for two of the noblest spirits, Sismondi and Foscolo, of their day; the noblest, the one in his pure austerity, the other in his magnanimous passionateness, that ever crossed the path of the beloved of Alfieri.
With her other friends, who gave less of their own heart and asked less of hers, Mme. d'Albany was more fortunate. She contrived to connect herself by correspondence with the most eminent men and women of the most different views and tempers; she made her salon in Florence, as M.
St. Rene Taillandier has observed, a sort of adjunct to the cosmopolitan salon of Mme. de Stael at Coppet. Her efforts in so doing were crowned with the very highest success. In 1809 Napoleon requested Mme. d'Albany to leave Florence for Paris, where, he added with a mixture of brutality and sarcasm, she might indulge her love of art in the new galleries of the Louvre, and where her social talents could no longer spread dissatisfaction with his government, as was the case in Italy.
The one year's residence in Paris, which Napoleon's jealous meddlesomeness forced upon her, was, in itself, a very enjoyable time, spent with the friends whom she had left in '93, and with a whole host of new ones whom she had made since. She returned to Florence with a larger number of devoted correspondents than ever; her salon became more and more brilliant; and when, after Waterloo, the whole English world of politics, fashion, and letters poured on to the Continent, her house became, as Sismondi said, the wall on which all the most brilliant figures of the great magic lantern were projected.
Thus, seeing crowds of the most distinguished and delightful people, receiving piles of the most interesting and adoring letters, happy, self-satisfied, Mme. d'Albany grew into an old woman. Every evening until ten, the rooms of the Casa Alfieri were thrown open; the servants in the Stuart liveries ushered in the guests, the tea was served in those famous services emblazoned with the royal arms of England. The Countess had not yet abandoned her regal pretensions; for all her condescending cordiality towards the elect, she could assume airs of social superiority which some folk scarcely brooked, and she was evidently pleased when, half in earnest, Mme. de Stael addressed her as "My dear Sovereign," "My dear Queen," and even when that vulgar woman of genius, Lady Morgan, made a buffoonish scene about the "dead usurper,"
on the death of George III. But Mme. d'Albany herself was getting to look and talk less and less like a queen, either the Queen of Great Britain or the Queen of Hearts; she was fat, squat, snub, dressed with an eternal red shawl (now the property of an intimate friend of mine), in a dress extremely suggestive of an old house-keeper. She was, when not doing the queen, cordial, cheerful in manner, loving to have children about her, to spoil them with cakes and see them romp and dance; free and easy, cynical, Rabelaisian, if I may use the expression, as such mongrel Frenchwomen are apt to grow with years; the nick-name which she gave to a member of a family where the tradition of her and her ways still persists, reveals a wealth of coarse fun which is rather strange in a woman who was once the Beatrice or Laura of a poet. She was active, mentally and bodily, never giving up her multifarious reading, her letter-writing; never foregoing her invariable morning walk, in a big bonnet and the legendary red shawl, down the Lung Arno and into the Cascine.
Such was Louise of Stolberg, Countess of Albany, widow of Prince Charles Edward, widow, in a sense, of the poet Vittorio Alfieri; and such, at the age of seventy-two, did death overtake her, on the 29th January 1824. Her property she bequeathed to Fabre whom a false rumour had called her husband; and Fabre left it jointly to his native town of Montpellier, and to his friend the Cavaliere Emilio Santarelli, who still lives and recollects Mme. d'Albany.
The famous epitaph, composed by Alfieri for himself, had been mangled by Mme. d'Albany and those who helped her and Canova in devising his tomb; the companion epitaph, the one in which Alfieri described the Countess as buried next to him, was also mangled in its adaptation to a tomb erected in Santa Croce, entirely separate from Alfieri's. On that monument of Mme. d'Albany, in the chapel where moulder the frescoes of Masolino, there is not a word of that sentence of Alfieri's about the dead woman having been to him dearer and more respected than any other human thing. Mme. d'Albany had changed into quite another being between 1803 and 1824; the friend of Sismondi, of Foscolo, of Mme. de Stael, the worldly friend of many friends, seemed to have no connection with the lady who had wept for Alfieri in the convent at Rome, who had borne with all Alfieri's misanthropic furies after the Revolution, any more than with the delicate intellectual girl whom Charles Edward had nearly done to death in his drunken jealousy. So, on the whole, Fabre, and whosoever assisted Fabre, was right in concocting a new epitaph.
But to us, who have followed the career--whose lesson is that of the meanness which lurks in noble things, the nobility which lurks in mean ones--of this woman from her inauspicious wedding-day to the placid day of her death, to us Louise of Stolberg, Countess of Albany, Queen of Great Britain, France, and Ireland, will remain, for all blame we may give her and her times, a figure to remember and reflect upon, principally because of those suppressed words of her epitaph: "_A Victorio Alferio ultra res omnes dilecta, et quasi mortale numen ab ipso constanter habita et observata._"
1: I have purposely quoted, almost textually, the account given by Ewald, lest I should be accused of following Alfieri's vague version.
2: The chief sources for this account are Mann's despatches and the _Memoires_ of Louis Dutens. Alfieri gives no details.
_UNIFORM WITH THIS VOLUME_
THE ENCHANTED WOODS and other Essays on the Genius of Place
HORTUS VITae, or the Hanging Gardens.
THE SPIRIT OF ROME.
Leaves from a Diary
HAUNTINGS: Fantastic Tales Second Edition
THE SENTIMENTAL TRAVELLER.
Notes on Places
GENIUS LOCI. Second Edition
POPE JACYNTH. Second Edition
LIMBO; and Other Essays; to which is now added ARIADNE IN MANTUA.
RENAISSANCE FANCIES AND STUDIES.
VANITAS: Polite stories.
LAURUS NOBILIS: Chapters on Art and Life