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May 12 , 2011

Later Queens of the French Stage (Illustrated)


IN her unpublished Mémoires,[1] which she began, but never completed, and only a few pages of which—possibly all that she wrote—have been preserved, Sophie Arnould tells us that she was born in 1745, “in the same alcove in which Admiral Coligny had been assassinated two hundred years before.” As a matter of fact, the celebrated singer was born on February 14, 1745, and it was not until some years after her birth that her parents removed to the Hôtel de Ponthieu, Rue Béthisy, then known as the Rue des Fossés-Saint-Germain l’Auxerrois.[2]

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Sophie’s parents belonged to the upper bourgeoisie, and at the time of her birth appear to have been in {4}comfortable circumstances. Her father, Jean Arnould, was a worthy man, whose worldly ambitions were limited to securing a comfortable competence, retiring from business, and purchasing some Government or municipal office and the social distinction which went with it. Her mother, however, had received an excellent education, “which, joined to her natural intelligence,” says Sophie, “rendered her in society the most amiable and interesting of women.” She affected literary society and numbered among her friends and acquaintances Voltaire, Fontenelle, who, a few days before his death, called to show her the manuscript of one of the great Corneille’s tragedies, Piron, the Comte de Caylus, Moncrif, the Abbé (afterwards the Cardinal) de Bernis, Diderot, and d’Alembert.

So impressed was Madame Arnould by the conversation of these celebrities, that she determined to make her little girl a prodigy of learning. Sophie’s education began almost as soon as she was out of her cradle. She was precocious and learned quickly. At four, she declares, she could read; at seven she wrote better than at the time of penning herMémoires, and at the same age could read music at sight without any difficulty. The infant prodigy was petted and spoiled to the top of her bent, “dressed up in silk and satin, with marcasite necklace and flowers in her hair.”

When the child was four or five years old she attracted the attention of the Princess of Modena, wife of the Prince de Conti, from whom, however, she was separated.{5}Madame de Conti, lonely and bored, without husband, lover, child, or occupation, took a violent fancy to Sophie, and begged Madame Arnould to let her have the little girl to live with her. Madame Arnould consented, and Sophie became the plaything of the eccentric princess, “who dragged her about everywhere as she might have her little dog,” now nursing her on her knee, now setting her down to the harpsichord, now taking her visiting in her carriage, now summoning her to her salon to amuse her guests, and anon, if she happened to be in an ill-humour, turning her out into the ante-chamber to play with the yawning lackeys.

No pains were spared with Sophie’s education, and the best masters of the day were engaged to teach her all the arts and accomplishments. Before she was twelve, she could both write and speak her own language correctly—a rare accomplishment in those days outside literary circles,[3] and was familiar with Latin or Italian; while she could sing like a professional.

Her musical talents were not destined to remain long hidden. When the time for her first communion drew near, she was placed in the Ursuline Convent at Saint-Denis, thesupérieure of which was a fellow townswoman and friend of Madame Arnould. Here she sang in the choir, and with such astonishing success that Court and town flocked to hear her, and Voltaire, from his retreat at Ferney, wrote to his little friend a letter congratulating her on her twofold success as a vocalist and a first communicant; an epistle which Madame Arnould, who did not share the Patriarch’s views on matters of religion,{6} promptly committed to the fire, although the Duc de Nivernais begged for a copy on his knees. On leaving Saint-Denis, Sophie returned to live with Madame de Conti, who, delighted by the notice which she had attracted, provided her with the most celebrated music-masters to be found in France: Balbatre gave her lessons on the harpsichord, and the famous Jéliotte—Jéliotte, the pride of the Opera!—Jéliotte, “the happy and discreet conqueror of all the fair ladies in Paris!”—condescended to sing with her. Sophie proved herself worthy of her teachers.

It was then the fashion, among ladies of rank, to do penance during Lent by retiring to one of the many convents in Paris or its neighbourhood. Some of the visitors were, of course, sincerely desirous of benefiting by the services, the conversation of the nuns, and the opportunities for meditation which these peaceful abodes afforded; but to the majority the practice would appear to have been regarded merely as a kind of rest cure. There was nothing at all austere or conventual about the life for such as these. They rose late, walked in the gardens, dined on plain but well-cooked food, received visits from their friends, attended a service or two, supped, and retired early to bed; and if their souls did not greatly benefit, the early hours and simple fare worked wonders with their complexions. They had, too, an opportunity of listening to some very beautiful singing; for, during Holy Week, the convents vied with one another in engaging the finest voices of the Opera to reinforce their choirs, and the services of such singers as Jéliotte, Chassé, and Mlles. Fel, Chevalier, and Anna Tonelli were always in great request.

At the beginning of Holy Week 1757, Madame de{7} Conti, who, as became an Italian princess, was very strict in her observance of Lent, arrived at the Abbey of Panthémont, where she found the community in a state of consternation. The convent in question had not deemed it necessary to enlist the services of any of the stars of the Opera, as it numbered among its inmates a nun with an exceptionally beautiful voice. But alas! she had suddenly been taken ill, and it was feared that it would be impossible to replace her. Half fashionable Paris would be coming on Holy Wednesday to hear the Tenebræ sung, and there would be no one capable of singing it. The abbess fell upon Madame de Conti’s neck and wept tears of mortification.

The princess bade her not despair, told her of the talent of her little protégée, and suggested that she should be sent for; a proposal to which the grateful abbess readily consented.

Holy Wednesday came, and with it a great crowd of visitors. At the beginning of the service Sophie was a little nervous, but quickly recovered her presence of mind, and sang so divinely that her hearers were enraptured, and some, in spite of the solemnity of the place, could not refrain from applause. The following day there was not a vacant seat in the church; while on Good Friday the doors were literally besieged, and more than two hundred carriages were turned back. Those who had succeeded in gaining admission had every reason to congratulate themselves on their good fortune, for Sophie sang the Miserere of Lalande, and with such exquisite pathos that there was scarcely a dry eye in the congregation.[4]

Paris was as delighted as if it had found a new fashion.{8} All the Faubourg Saint-Germain wended its way to the Hôtel de Conti to congratulate the princess upon the possession of this little wonder with her angelic voice. The Court was scarcely less interested and, finally, the Queen, the pious Marie Leczinska, who lived in a little world of her own and seldom troubled herself about what was happening in the one outside, expressed a desire to see Sophie.

“On your account,” remarked Madame de Conti to the radiant girl, “her Majesty condescends to remember my existence.” (The said Majesty did not approve of ladies who lived apart from their husbands.) Nevertheless, the Queen had to be obeyed, and so the princess, who was proud of her protégée and, in truth, far from displeased with so striking a tribute to her discernment, ordered her coach and set out for Versailles.

On reaching the Château, Madame de Conti and Sophie were conducted to Marie Leczinska’s apartments, where the Queen almost immediately joined them. Her Majesty smiled very graciously upon the girl, and kissed her forehead, murmuring: “She is indeed very pretty!” Then several portfolios of music were put before her, and she was bidden to choose what she would like to sing, and not to be afraid; a somewhat unnecessary exhortation, since never was there a more self-possessed young person. Sophie, quite undismayed by the presence of her royal auditor, forthwith assailed a very difficult piece, and had scarcely finished when the Queen, who was herself a musician of no mean attainments, remarked to Madame de Conti: “I should like to have her, cousin; you will give her up to me, will you not?” meaning that she wished to make her one of her Musicians of the Chamber. Afterwards refreshments{9} were brought in, and the Queen, having complimented the young singer and bestowed upon her a friendly pat with her fan, took her departure.

But there was another Queen of France: Madame de Pompadour, to wit, who had already expressed a wish to hear Sophie sing; a wish which could no more be ignored than that of Marie Leczinska. On the morrow of the interview with the Queen, Madame du Hausset, the favourite’s femme de chambre, presented herself at the Hôtel de Conti, bearing a letter from her mistress to the princess, requesting the loan of little Mlle. Arnould till the evening.

This request caused Madame de Conti considerable embarrassment. What one called then “les grandes convenances” forbade her to present Sophie to both the crowned and the uncrowned Queen of France. On the other hand, a refusal would mortally offend the latter, who was an extremely awkward person to offend, as a great many people, from Princes of the Blood and Ministers of State to ballad-mongers, had found to their cost. The poor lady was at a loss what to do.

Finally, she sought refuge in a compromise. Sophie should go to Versailles again, but, on this occasion, not in her patroness’s company, but in that of her mother. So Madame Arnould was sent for and told to take her daughter, as from Madame de Conti, to the favourite; and the princess congratulated herself on having emerged with credit from a very embarrassing situation.

Madame de Pompadour received her visitor very graciously, and remarked that “mother and daughter were the very picture of one another,” after which, saying that the King had sent for her, and that she would return in a few minutes, she left them to themselves.{10} In the room in which they sat were two magnificent harpsichords, one of which had been decorated with charming pictures by Boucher. This instrument attracted Sophie’s attention, and, while Madame de Pompadour was absent, she stepped up to it, ran her fingers over the keys, and began to sing. The marchioness, returning at that moment, listened entranced to the girl’s singing until she had finished, when she exclaimed: “My dear child, le bon Dieu has made you for the theatre; you were born, formed as one ought to be for it: you will not tremble before the public.”

Then their hostess conducted them through her apartments, where Sophie appears to have been particularly struck by the favourite’s sumptuous bed, with its green and gold hangings and gold fringes, raised, like a throne, upon a daïs, and enclosed within a semi-circular balustrade of gold and marble, the exact counter-part, in fact, of the Queen’s own couch. The marchioness begged her to sing again, and, delighted with her sweet voice, smilingly inquired who were her masters; to change countenance, however, when she heard their names, for they were the same whom she had engaged for her idolised little daughter, Alexandrine d’Étoiles, who had died some years before.

As Sophie and her mother were taking their leave, Madame de Pompadour drew the latter aside, and said in a low voice: “If the Queen should ask for your daughter for the music of the Chamber, do not have the imprudence to consent. The King goes from time to time to these little family concerts, and, instead of giving this child to the Queen, you will have made a present of her to the King.” Then she turned to Sophie, and, having examined the lines in the girl’s{11} forehead and hand, said to her gravely: “You will make a charming princess!”

A few days after these visits, Madame Arnould received a communication from the Gentlemen of the Chamber to the effect that her Majesty had deigned to admit the demoiselle Sophie Arnould into her private company of musicians and singers, at a salary of one hundred louis; Madame Arnould received a similar appointment, at the same salary as her daughter.

Hardly had the good lady had time to master the contents of this document, when there came a second of a much less welcome nature. It was a lettre de cachet, informing her that by the express order of the King, the demoiselle Sophie Arnould was attached to his Majesty’s company of musicians, and, in particular, to his theatre of the Opera.

On reading this, the poor mother burst into tears. She had no objection to her daughter singing before the virtuous Marie Leczinska, but the Opera was a very different matter. No young girl could hope to preserve her virtue for long at the Académie Royale de Musique, the rules of which emancipated its members from parental control. Rather than see her child ruined, she resolved to consign her to a convent, and, accordingly, hurried off to Madame de Conti to implore her assistance.

Madame de Conti promised to do all in her power to save Sophie from the danger which threatened her, and took the girl to her friend the Abbess of Panthémont. “I bring you,” said she, “this young girl, of whom the Gentlemen of the Chamber wish to make an actress; a decision which does not meet with my approval. Conceal her for me in some little corner of{12} your convent, until I have had an opportunity of speaking to the King.”

To which the discreet abbess replied: “Princess, salvation is possible in every profession. I cannot bring myself to thwart the wishes of the King, to whom I owe my abbey. Go and see the abbesses of Saint-Antoine and Val-de-Grâce: perhaps, in this matter, they will have more courage than myself.”

Madame de Conti tried Saint-Antoine and Val-de-Grâce; but at both she received the same answer as at Panthémont; and was reluctantly forced to the conclusion that further attempts in the same direction offered but very small prospect of success.

There remained, however, another way of escape: marriage. Sophie had an admirer—a devoted and, what was more to the point, an eligible admirer—a certain Chevalier de Malézieux, who asked nothing better than to give her the protection of his name. In his day, M. de Malézieux had been a noted vainqueur de dames, but that day, alas! was long past, and though he strove manfully to repair the ravages of time by the aid of an ingenious toilette, the only result of his efforts was to give him the appearance of a majestic ruin.

Madame de Conti had, at first, regarded this veteran dandy’s attentions to her protégée with scant favour, and, meeting the old gentleman one day at the Arnoulds’ house, charitably related for his benefit the story of a prince of her own family, who had imprudently contracted a marriage at the age of eighty, and had died the same night. Still, a day or two later, she told Sophie that she might do worse than take charge of the chevalier and his infirmities, provided that he would agree to settle his whole fortune upon her; and after the arrival{13} of the lettre de cachet from Versailles, and her abortive attempts to secure the girl’s admission to a convent, actually proposed to send for M. de Malézieux, and have the marriage celebrated there and then.

Madame Arnould, however, did not altogether approve of such haste, while Sophie shed tears enough to melt the heart of the sternest parent; and the matter, therefore, remained in abeyance. Nevertheless, the chevalier, encouraged by Madame de Conti, pressed his suit with ardour, dyed his eyebrows, rouged his cheeks, “shaved twice a day,” and, one fine morning, presented himself at the Arnoulds’ house, bearing the draft of a marriage-contract, in which the whole of his property, amounting to some 40,000 livres a year, was settled upon Sophie.

The prospect of so advantageous a settlement in life for her daughter was a temptation greater than any self-respecting mother could be expected to resist, and though M. Arnould declined to force the girl into a marriage which was distasteful to her, his wife lost no opportunity of sounding the praises of M. de Malézieux—or rather of M. de Malézieux’s income—in Sophie’s reluctant ear. That young lady, however, only pouted, and when her antiquated admirer strove to soften her heart towards him by citing the example of Madame de Maintenon, who, when a young and beautiful girl, no older than Sophie herself, had espoused the crippled poet Scarron, replied, laughing: “I will make a similar marriage to-morrow, on condition that my husband will begin by being a cripple, and end by being a king.”[5]

And so poor M. de Malézieux’s contract was never{14} signed, and no alternative now remained for Madame Arnould but to allow Sophie to enter the Opera, trusting that, for some time to come, her services would only be required for the Concerts of Sacred Music which were given during Lent. This hope, however, was not realised, for the directors of the Opera happened to be just at that time on the look-out for some novelty to divert the attention of their patrons from the mediocrity of the pieces with which they had lately been provided, and, accordingly, on December 15, 1757, the young singer was called upon to make her first bow to the public.

It was a very modest début—merely the singing of an air introduced into an opera-ballet by Mouret, entitled Les Amours des Dieux.[6] Nevertheless, restricted as were the girl’s opportunities on this occasion, she quickly became a public favourite; indeed, the eagerness to see and hear her was so great that on the evenings on which she appeared, the doors of the theatre were besieged, and Fréron sarcastically observed that “he doubted whether people would give themselves so much trouble to enter Paradise.”

“Mlle. Arnould,” says the Mercure de France of the following January, which was but the feeble echo of the enthusiasm of the public, “continues her début in Les Amours des Dieux, with great and well-deserved success. She attracts the public to such an extent that the Thursday has become the most brilliant day at the Opera, altogether effacing the Friday. The second air which she sings affords her more scope for the display of her talent than the first. She possesses at once a charming{15} face, a beautiful voice, and warmth of sentiment. She is full of expression and of soul. Her voice is not only tender, but passionate. In a word, she has received all the gifts of Nature, and, in order to perfect them, she receives all the resources of Art.”

At the beginning of the New Year, Sophie appeared in a second piece, called La Provençale, in which she confirmed the favourable impression she had created in Les Amours des Dieux. “Mlle. Arnould,” says the Mercure, “sang the Provençale with the ingenuous charm of her age. In this rôle she had only one important song. It is the monologue (‘Mer paisible’...), into which she threw all the expression that it demanded. The crowded houses which have followed it up to Lent are proofs of the pleasure which she gives the public.”

In the following April the young actress reaped the reward of her success by receiving her first important part, that of Venus in Énée et Lavinie, a tragic opera in five acts by Fontenelle, music by Dauvergne.[7] The confidence reposed in her was not misplaced, and she received as much applause as she had previously obtained in ariettas and pastorals. Such was her success indeed that she was speedily promoted to the principal rôle, and the admiring critic of the Mercure, who had already spoken in high terms of the new singer’s rendering of Venus, consecrated to her the following article:

“On Tuesday, April 13, Mlle. Arnould played the{16} rôle of Lavinie for the first time. Her success was complete. The tragic indeed seems to be the genre most suited to her. It is, at any rate, that in which she has appeared to most advantage. Her gestures are noble without arrogance and expressive without grimaces. Her acting is vivacious and animated, and yet never departs from the natural. This excellent actress has already partially corrected herself of a kind of slowness, which is only suitable to the arietta. Bad examples had led her astray. We invite her to pay heed to no one but herself, if she wishes to approach nearer and nearer to perfection.”

“So great a success renders it almost needless for us to observe that Mlle. Arnould has retained this rôle; that she has brought back the public to the Opera; finally, that she has adorned Énée et Lavinie with an appearance of novelty.”

Some months later the Mercure returns to the subject of Énée et Lavinie, and observes that Mlle. Arnould played the latter part “with that intelligence, that dignity, those natural and touching graces which enchant the public.” “Happily,” continues the critic, “she has depended upon her own impulses before allowing herself to be intimidated by all the little prejudices of the art. Model as a débutante, she reanimates the lyric stage and appears to communicate her soul to those who have the modesty and the talent to imitate her.”

Towards the end of June of that year, Sophie created a trio of small parts in an opera-ballet in three acts, entitled Les Fêtes de Paphos.[8] Collé, that most exacting{17} of critics, is very severe on this piece, but, at the same time, has nothing but praise for Sophie, who appears to have covered herself with glory. “At the first representation,” he writes, “the music of this ballet was thought pitiable, and it would not have survived six, if it had not been for a young actress who made her first appearance this winter, and who, in four months, has become the queen of the theatre. Never have I seen combined in the same actress more grace, more truth of sentiment, dignity of expression, intelligence, and fire. Never have I seen grief more charmingly expressed. She can depict the deepest horror without her countenance losing one feature of its beauty. She would be twice as great an actress as Mlle. Le Maure,[9] if she only possessed two-thirds of her voice, and Mlle. Le Maure will always be regarded as a great artiste. I speak of Mlle. Sophie Arnould, who is not yet nineteen years old.”[10]

The voice of Sophie Arnould was very far from being a powerful one. “Nature,” she says in her Mémoires, “had seconded this taste [the taste for music] with a tolerably agreeable voice, weak but sonorous, though not extremely so. But it was sound and well-balanced,{18} so that, with a clear pronunciation and without any defect save a slight lisp, which could hardly be considered a fault, not a word of what I sang was lost, even in the most spacious buildings.”

She might have added, without fear of contradiction, that her voice was infinitely sweet and that she possessed the gift of imparting to it wonderful pathos and expression. “She brought to harmony, emotion, to the song, compassion, to the play of the voice, sentiment. She charmed the ear and touched the heart. All the domain of the tender drama, all the graces of terror, were hers. She possessed the cry, and the tears, and the sigh, and the caresses of the pathetic.... What art, what genius, must there have been to wrest so many harmonies from a contemptible voice, a feeble throat.”[11]

Another important factor in Sophie’s success is to be found in the fact that she was not only a great singer, but an accomplished actress, which great singers rarely are. When Madame Arnould had found that she had no alternative but to allow her daughter to enter the Opera, she had, like a sensible woman, decided that, since to the Opera Sophie must go, nothing which could possibly make for her success in her profession should be neglected, and had sent her to take lessons in singing from Mlle. Fel, and in acting from Mlle. Clairon. The girl had not failed to benefit by the teaching of the famous tragédienne, and her command of facial expression and the dignity and grace of her movements would have reflected credit on a veteran member of the Comédie-Française, while for a débutante of the lyric stage they were little short of extraordinary.

And yet, with all her vocal and histrionic talents,{19} it may be doubted whether Sophie would so speedily have attained the dazzling position in the estimation of both the public and the critics which was now hers, had she not been fortunate enough to possess physical attractions of a high order. If we are to judge of her appearance solely by her portraits by La Tour and Greuze, she must have been a very pretty woman. In the former, which the excellent engraving by Bourgeois de la Richardière has helped to popularise, Sophie is depicted at the moment when she is about to sing. Her lips are parted; her eyes, fine and full of expression, and surmounted by arched eyebrows, are turned imploringly heavenward; while her face, which is oval in shape, with small and regular features, wears a look at once charming and pathetic. In the Greuze portrait—now in the Wallace Collection at Hertford House—the actress is dressed in white, with a large black hat decorated with a white plume. Her elbow rests on a chair, her chin on the back of her hand; her expression is nonchalant and slightly ennuyé.

These portraits, as we have already remarked, are those of a very pretty woman; but it should be added that the pen-portraits which some of her contemporaries have left of Sophie are not altogether in accord with the crayon of La Tour or the brush of Greuze—nor yet with the description which the lady gives us of her own charms[12]—and we are, therefore, inclined to think that both artists have rather idealised their subject, a practice not uncommon with portrait-painters{20} in the eighteenth century or, for that matter, in much later times. Collé and Grimm, it is true, both speak of Sophie as beautiful, though without condescending to particulars; but, on the other hand, Madame Vigée Lebrun asserts that the beauty of her face was spoiled by her mouth, while one of the inspectors of the Lieutenant of Police describes her skin as “black and dry.” That curious work L’Espion anglaisconfirms the artist and the inspector: “To tell the truth, there is nothing remarkable about her; her face is long and thin; she has a villainously ugly mouth, prominent teeth, standing out from the gums, and a black and greasy skin.” The writer adds, however, that she possessed “two fine eyes,” a feature which also impressed Madame Lebrun, who says that they gave their owner “a piquant look,” and were “indicative of the wit which had made her celebrated.”

But two fine eyes, as one of her biographers very justly observes, count for much, especially when animated by the intelligence, the feeling, and the passion which belonged to Sophie; and no sooner did she appear upon the stage than a host of soupirants gathered about her. For some months, however, they sighed in vain. The guardian of the Golden Fleece was not more vigilant or more awe-inspiring than Madame Arnould. Every evening she escorted her daughter to the theatre, remained in her dressing-room while the mysteries of her toilette were being performed, accompanied her to the corner of the stage, and then waited in the wings until the young actress made her exit, when she again took charge of her. She seemed to have as many eyes as Argus himself. If an admirer bolder than the rest ventured to approach Sophie, before he had uttered half a dozen words down{21}would swoop the watchful mother, with a freezing: “Allons! laissez la petite en repos, s’il vous plait, Monsieur!” before which the luckless gallant fled incontinently. If a poulet were despatched, it was invariably intercepted and returned to the sender, with a message which made him feel supremely foolish. “She is not a woman at all,” exclaimed the indignant Duc de Fronsac, after one of these rebuffs; “she is a veritable watch-dog!”

But even the most intelligent of watch-dogs cannot always discriminate between friend and foe. The danger came from a quarter whence the poor mother least expected it. She herself admitted the wolf into the sheepfold.

For some time past, matters had not gone well with the Arnoulds; M. Arnould had become involved in some disastrous speculations, which had swallowed up the greater part of his fortune, and a long and serious illness had made further inroads upon his resources. Accordingly, about the time that Sophie made her début at the Opera, he removed from the Rue du Louvre to the Hôtel de Lisieux, Rue Fossés-Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois, and converted his new residence into an inn, where “persons from the provinces were accommodated at thirty sols a night.”[13] To this inn there came, one fine day in the spring of 1758, a handsome young man of about five and twenty, who informed the Arnoulds that his name was Dorval, that he was an artist by profession, and that he had just arrived from Normandy, to study painting and get a play produced. M. Dorval was a model guest. He never grumbled about his food or his wine, never questioned the amount of his bills, never returned home{22} with an unsteady gait or accompanied by undesirable acquaintances, as did so many young provincials who aspired to imitate the vices of the fine gentlemen of the capital. And then he was so ingenuous, so friendly, and had such charming manners. He knew nothing of the ways of Paris, he said, but, morbleu! he had heard that it was a terribly wicked place and full of snares and pitfalls for unwary youth. Would M. Arnould do him the favour of taking care of his purse? Would Madame have the complaisance to do the same for his lace? Ah! it was indeed a fortunate hour which had led him to the Hôtel de Lisieux!

The good people might have thought it a little singular that a young man with so well-filled a purse and such fine lace should have selected so unpretentious a hostelry as theirs for a lengthy stay; also that, although he never looked askance at the menus of the Hôtel de Lisieux, he was constantly receiving hampers containing fish, game, truffles, and choice wines, which, he said, came from his fond parents in Normandy, and begged his hosts and their daughter to share with him. But M. Dorval quite disarmed suspicion—if any existed—by reading the letters he received from home to the sympathetic Madame Arnould, and, besides, innkeepers have more important matters requiring their attention than the investigation of the private affairs of their guests, particularly those who give no trouble, pay regularly, and are so agreeable and open-handed as was this young Norman.

M. Dorval overwhelmed Madame Arnould with attention; he had literary tastes, and recognised in her a kindred soul. To Sophie he was also attentive, though not more so than good-breeding required. In a short time he had become quite a friend of the family,{23} dining and supping with them, escorting the ladies to the Opera and home again at the conclusion of the performance, and spending the rest of the evening in their company. One night, after playing a couple of games of backgammon with M. Arnould, Dorval pleaded an insupportable headache and retired to his modest apartment. Soon afterwards a man in a lackey’s livery entered the house by means of a false key, knocked at his door, and informed him that all was ready. Dorval emerged from his room, and was joined by Sophie. The pair crept noiselessly down the stairs, across the courtyard and into the street, at the corner of which a coach was awaiting them. Dorval helped the girl in and took his seat beside her; the driver cracked his whip; the coach rolled away. Sophie was carried off!

Terrible was the consternation at the Hôtel de Lisieux the following morning. Madame Arnould was like one distraught; M. Arnould, who had not yet fully recovered from his recent illness, had a serious relapse. As for the Chevalier de Malézieux, when the news was communicated to him he took to his bed and never left it again, dying of grief—or, perhaps, of wounded vanity. In Paris, nothing else was talked of but the elopement of the queen of the Opera, and many were the wagers made about the identity of the fortunate individual who had borne away the coveted prize. All uncertainty was soon at an end. Two days later a letter was brought to the Hôtel de Lisieux, signed Louis, Comte de Brancas-Lauraguais, in which the writer offered his apologies to M. and Madame Arnould for the deception he had been obliged to practise upon them, and concluded by a formal promise to espouse their daughter—if he should ever become a widower!{24}

Madame Arnould dried her tears; M. Arnould’s illness took a favourable turn. Since Sophie had been carried off, it was at least some consolation to learn that her abductor was a man of rank and wealth, and not a mere middle-class libertine; one, too, who, without doubt, was only prevented from giving his name and all that went with it to the object of his affection by the unfortunate circumstance that he was already provided with a wife. The worthy pair quite forgot their disgrace as they thought of the brilliant future which awaited their daughter, when the earth should have closed over poor, delicate Madame de Lauraguais—she lived till 1793, and her career was ended by the guillotine—and the count’s father, the old Duc de Lauraguais, should have gone the way of all flesh. Why, if the Fates were kind, ere many months had passed Sophie might be a countess—nay, a duchess! And so when, in due course, the prodigal daughter came, in a magnificent coach, to pay a visit of courtesy to her parents, she found, instead of tears and reproaches, caresses and pardon. Such was the moral code of the year of grace 1758!


Louis Léon Félicité de Brancas, Comte de Lauraguais, the first lover of Sophie Arnould, was a singular creature. “He has all possible talents and all possible eccentricities,” wrote Voltaire, while Collé describes him as “the most serious fool in the kingdom.” His conceit was stupendous, his extravagance unbounded, his energy and versatility truly astonishing; he dabbled in everything and confidently believed that he excelled in whatever he might choose to undertake. Now he was composing tragedies intended to eclipse the masterpieces of Corneille and Racine; now making experiments in{25} chemistry or anatomy which were to completely revolutionise those sciences; anon writing treatises in favour of inoculation, or endeavouring to bring about reforms in the theatre,[14] or riding in horse-races.[15] The violence with which he advocated his own views and his unsparing denunciations of all who ventured to differ from him, no matter how highly placed they might be, were perpetually bringing him into collision with the authorities, and he was several times exiled or imprisoned, only to resume his eccentric career the moment his punishment was at an end. The stories about him are numberless.

On one occasion he wrote a comedy, entitled La Cour du Roi Pétaud, and coaxed his unsuspecting father to persuade the Comte de Saint-Florentin, the Minister of the King’s Household, to direct the Comédie-Italienne to produce it. The order was on the point of being{26} sent, when one of Saint-Florentin’s secretaries, happening to glance through the play, discovered, to his horror, that it was nothing less than a clever and biting satire on certain idiosyncrasies of his Most Christian Majesty Louis XV. himself, which, had it been represented, would most certainly have entailed banishment or the Bastille on all concerned in its production.[16]

On another, he appeared, at four o’clock in the morning, at the lodging of two poor but talented young chemists, hustled them into a coach which was in waiting, and carried them off to Sèvres, where he had a little house, in which he was in the habit of conducting his chemical experiments. Leading his companions to the laboratory, he addressed them as follows: “Messieurs, I wish you to make certain experiments; you will not leave this house until they are completed. Adieu; I shall return a week hence; you will find here everything you require; the servants have orders to attend to your wants; set to work.” So saying, he locked them in and went{27} away. When he returned, the young chemists communicated to him the result of their labours, a discovery of some little importance, upon which he offered them a sum of money if they would agree to surrender to him the credit of having made it. “You,” said he, “have genius, and you want money. I have money, and I want genius. Let us strike a bargain. You shall have clothes to wear, and the glory shall be mine.” The young chemists consented, and Lauraguais went about boasting everywhere of the discovery he had made; and such, says Diderot, who tells the story, was his conceit that he soon succeeded in persuading himself that it was he to whom the credit really belonged, and that the young men had done nothing, except render him some merely mechanical assistance.[17]

A third story of this extraordinary man is even more amusing than the preceding one. He appears to have had a theory that it would be possible for a person to support life entirely on a diet of forced fruit, provided that they were kept in the same temperature as was required for the production of what they consumed. He, therefore, persuaded one of his mistresses to allow herself to be shut up in a green-house and fed upon grapes, pine-apples, and so forth. This regimen, as may be supposed, did not agree with the lady, who soon declared that she was starving. “Ungrateful girl!” exclaimed the disgusted count. “Can you complain of not having sufficient to eat—a trivial matter at best—while you are thus abundantly supplied with the luxuries that every one longs for?”

So eccentric a character as Lauraguais was hardly calculated to make any woman happy, whether wife{28} or mistress, and Sophie declared long afterwards that the count “had given her two million kisses and caused her to shed four million tears.” Nevertheless, the liaison was a tolerably long one, and, for the first three years, in the course of which the actress presented her lover with two children, we are assured that they were a most affectionate couple. By the police-reports of the time, Sophie is represented as an extravagant, grasping and avaricious woman, who cared for the count only so long as he was able and willing to gratify her innumerable caprices. Extravagant she no doubt was, but in regard to the other and graver charge, she would appear to have been maligned, that is to say, if we are to place any reliance in the following anecdote related by Diderot:

“For some days past a rumour has been current that Mlle. Arnould is dead, but it requires confirmation. In the meanwhile, the Abbé Raynal has made me her funeral oration, by relating to me some fragments of a conversation which passed between her and Madame Portail [the wife of a president of the Parliament of Paris], in which, it appears, the latter played the part of a wanton, and the little actress that of an honest woman:

“ ‘Is it possible, Mademoiselle, that you have no diamonds?’

“ ‘No, Madame, nor do I think them necessary for a little bourgeoise of the Rue du Four.’

“ ‘Then, I presume, you have an allowance?’

“ ‘An allowance! Why should I have that, Madame? M. de Lauraguais has a wife, children, a position to maintain, and I do not see that I could honourably accept the smallest part of a fortune which legitimately belongs to others.{29}’

“ ‘Oh, par ma foi! If I were in your place, I should leave him.’

“ ‘That may be, but he likes me, and I like him. It may have been imprudent to take him, but, since I have done so, I shall keep him.’

“I do not recollect the remainder of the conversation, but I have an idea that it was as dishonourable on the part of the president’s wife as honourable on the part of the actress.”[18]

If Lauraguais really was so generous a protector as the police-reports and those writers who accept them would have us believe, it is certainly rather surprising to find on November 13, 1759, when the count’s passion for his mistress was undoubtedly at a very high temperature, the sieur Jean Baptiste Delamarre, tipstaff to the Châtelet de Paris, acting on behalf of the sieur Jean Baptiste Desper, perruquier, requiring the attendance of a commissary of police to witness an execution upon the goods of the demoiselle Madeleine Sophie Arnould, residing on the first floor of a house in the Rue de Richelieu. The said demoiselle, it appeared, had, twelve months before, taken the apartment in question, on a lease for three, six, or nine years, at an annual rental of 2400 livres; but the perruquier had not as yet seen any part of that sum. The goods seized were left in the charge of one Chevalier, fruiterer of the Rue Traversière, parish of Saint-Roch, from whom, we may presume, Sophie or Lauraguais subsequently redeemed them.[19]


After her elopement with the Comte de Lauraguais,{30} Sophie became more than ever the idol of the public, and, for the next few years, might without exaggeration have parodied the famous mot of le Grand Monarque and exclaimed: “L’Opéra, c’est moi!” Never, declared both public and critics, had the heroines of lyrical tragedy: the Psychés, the Proserpines, the Thisbés, the Iphises, and the Cléopâtres, found so worthy a representative, and, no matter how insipid the opera which related the story of their woes might happen to be, the young singer was always sure of an enthusiastic reception. The patrons of the Palais-Royal seemed indeed as if they could not have enough of her; the directors, who owed to her popularity their increased receipts, were at her feet; every one adored her, or pretended to do so, and every one trembled before her epigrams.

For side by side with her reputation as a singer and actress, Sophie was building up another reputation, and one which was to endure long after her stage triumphs had been forgotten: that of a diseur de bons mots, and of bons mots of a peculiarly caustic kind. Few indeed were the wits of her time—and they were plentiful enough in the eighteenth century—who cared to cross swords with her, and such was the dread which her sharp tongue inspired that people imagined they detected a sarcasm lurking even in her most innocent remark, as the following incident will show.

It was the custom of the Royal Family of France to dine in public (au grand couvert) on certain days of the week, and any respectably dressed person was permitted to view his Most Christian King partaking of his soup or his venison. In the days of Louis XIV., who, if his sister-in-law, the Princess Palatine, is to be believed, was in the habit of disposing at a single meal of as much{31} as would suffice an ordinary person for at least three,[20] a dinner au grand couvert must have been a spectacle worth going a long way to see; but as “the Well-Beloved” had no pretensions to emulate the gastronomic feats of his predecessor, the ceremony was now shorn of much of its former interest. Sophie, who had never yet enjoyed a near view of her sovereign, expressed one day a desire to attend one of these dinners, and a noble admirer, accordingly, conducted her to Versailles and into the Salon de Grand Couvert, where he placed her exactly opposite the King. His Majesty was in the act of raising his glass to his lips when he caught her eye. At the same moment Sophie remarked, half-involuntarily, to her companion: “The King drinks!” Louis, who had heard much of the young lady’s biting wit, was apparently under the impression that these simple words were intended as a covert jest at his expense, and became so embarrassed that every one present noticed it. Finally, he motioned to Sophie to withdraw, which she did, reflecting that a reputation as a wit sometimes has its drawbacks.

To appreciate the witticisms of Sophie Arnould as they deserve, they must be read in the language in which they were uttered, for, when translated, the point of many of them—plays upon names and so forth—is lost. Not a few, too, of her most pungent sayings will scarcely bear reproduction in a modern work, for her wit was essentially the wit of thecoulisses, whose frequenters were seldom at any pains to curb their tongues, even{32} in the presence of the highest in the land. Fortunately, however, there still remain a considerable number of mots which may be rendered into English with tolerable fidelity and without injuring the susceptibilities of even the most fastidious of readers.

Sophie was an inveterate punster, a form of wit more appreciated in the eighteenth century than it is to-day. Here is one, however, which most of us will find it hard not to forgive.

The Duc de Bouillon became so enamoured of the charms of a young singer named Mlle. Laguerre that, in the course of three months, he was reported to have squandered upon her no less a sum than 800,000 livres. This prodigality greatly exasperated the creditors of the duke, who complained to the King himself, with the result that the infatuated nobleman received orders to retire to his country-seat. A few days later, some one, meeting Sophie, happened to inquire after the health of Mlle. Laguerre. “I do not know how she is at present,” was the reply; “but for the last month the poor child has been living entirely on soup (bouillon).”

This same Mlle. Laguerre created the principal rôle in Piccini’s Iphigénie en Tauride, produced on January 22, 1781. At the first performance she sang admirably and contributed largely to the enthusiastic reception it received; but on the second evening her efforts were but too obviously inspired by wine. “Mon Dieu!” exclaimed Sophie. “This is not Iphigenia in Tauris; it is Iphigenia in Champagne!”

Mlle. Laguerre was only one among many of Sophie’s colleagues to suffer from the sharpness of that lady’s tongue. She was particularly severe upon the famous danseuseMlle. Guimard, the subject of our next sketch,{33} whose many wealthy conquests would appear to have excited her jealousy. Mlle. Guimard, though the very embodiment of grace and elegance upon the stage, was slender almost to attenuation, and Sophie dubbed her “la squelette des Grâces.” Seeing her one evening performing a pas de trois with two male dancers, she declared that it put her in mind of a couple of dogs quarrelling over a bone. On another occasion, when the danseuse’s well-known liaison with Jarente, Bishop of Orléans, the holder of the feuille of benefices, happened to be the subject of conversation, she remarked: “I cannot conceive why that little silk-worm is so thin; she lives upon such a good leaf (feuille).”

Another butt of her sarcasm was Mlle. Beaumesnil, who, after gallantries innumerable, married a singer of the Opera, named Belcourt. By that time her charms were on the wane, and, making a virtue of necessity, she became a model wife. One day, some one speaking of her early career, observed that she had then been like a weather-cock, veering round to a new lover every day. “Just so,” answered Sophie, “and very like a weather-cock in this also, that she did not become fixed till she was rusty.”

But Sophie was very far from confining her witticism to her comrades of the Opera; no one was safe from her shafts. When the intriguing old Duc de la Vauguyon, the Dauphin’s governor, who had done his best to sow dissension between that prince and Marie Antoinette, died, he was regretted by no one. The day after his death, the opera ofCastor et Pollux was played. In this piece there was a ballet of devils, which on this particular evening went all wrong, whereupon Sophie observed that the devils were so much upset by M. de{34} la Vauguyon’s arrival among them that their heads were turned.

M. de Boynes, who succeeded the Duc de Choiseul-Praslin as Minister of Marine, in 1760, was an honest and well-meaning man, but entirely ignorant of the duties of that important post. One evening he appeared at the Opera, where the scene on the stage represented a ship on a stormy sea. “Oh, how fortunate!” exclaimed Sophie. “He has come here to get some idea of the Navy.”

Better perhaps was her remark about the Abbé Terrai, the detested Comptroller-General of Finance, whose expedients for raising money excited so much indignation in the last years of Louis XV. The abbé, who suffered from a defective circulation, was seen, one bitter winter’s day, with his hands hidden in a huge muff. “What need has he of a muff?” asked the actress. “Are not his hands always in our pockets?”

The Ministers, indeed, seem to have been very favourite objects of Sophie’s sarcasm. On being shown a snuff-box, with the head of the Duc de Choiseul on one side, and that of Sully, the great Minister of Henri IV. on the other, she exclaimed: “Tiens! they have put the receipts and the expenses together.”


The liaison between Sophie and the Comte de Lauraguais was, as might be expected, from the singular character of the latter, not untroubled by storms. The count, though honestly attached to his mistress, was jealous, suspicious, headstrong, and passionate, always full of some new and frequently wild project or other, with which he expected her to sympathise, while the slightest opposition to his wishes was sufficient to throw{35} him into such paroxysms of rage that it was dangerous to approach him.[21] At times, he led poor Sophie a terrible life, and over and over again she was on the point of leaving him. At last, in the autumn of 1761, after their irregular union had lasted about three years, it came temporarily to a close.

Lauraguais had written a tragedy on the not very novel subject of Iphigenia in Tauris.[22] He had dedicated it to Voltaire, and, so soon as it was completed, set out for Ferney, to read it to the Patriarch. It would appear that, for some time past, the count’s vagaries had been more than usually difficult to endure—possibly the labours of composition had not been without their effect upon his temper. Any way, Sophie resolved to profit by this moment of liberty, and no sooner had her tyrannical lover left Paris, than she ordered her coach—a present{36} from the absent Lauraguais—threw into it pell-mell everything portable that she had ever received from him: jewellery, plate, lace, porcelain, and so forth, placed the two children whom she had borne him on the top, and despatched the whole cargo to the Hôtel de Lauraguais, Rue de Lille, with a note for Madame de Lauraguais, in which she stated that “having resolved to recover her freedom, she did not wish to retain anything which might serve to remind her of her unhappy love-affair.”[23] Madame de Lauraguais, who was a good and long-suffering woman, accepted the children, “regretting very much that they were not her own,” but sent back the coach and the rest of its contents.

At the same time, Sophie wrote to Ferney the following letter:

“Monsieur, mon cher ami,—You have written a very fine tragedy, so fine that I can no more understand it than your other proceedings. You have gone to Geneva, to receive a crown of the laurels of Parnassus from the hands of M. de Voltaire, leaving me alone and abandoned to myself. I profit by my liberty, that liberty so precious to philosophers, to leave you. Do not take it ill that I am weary of living with a madman who dissected his{37} coachman, and who wished to act as my accoucheur, with the intention of dissecting me also. Allow me, therefore, to remove myself out of reach of your philosophic bistoury.”[24]

When the Comte de Lauraguais received the aforegoing epistle he was so overcome that he clutched his valet by the shoulder, exclaiming: “Support me, Fabien; this blow is more than I can bear!” Then, bidding a hasty adieu to Voltaire, he posted off to Paris and tried, by promises, threats, and every means he could think of, to induce his mistress to return to him. All his efforts were, however, fruitless, and soon afterwards Sophie placed the comble upon his misery by “coming to an arrangement” with M. Bertin, a wealthy financier.[25]

The gallantry of the eighteenth century, it should be understood, had its etiquette, which was strictly observed by all who wished to be thought men of honour. Before even approaching Sophie on the matter, M. Bertin wrote to the Comte de Lauraguais, to inform him that, having been given to understand that all was at end between the count and Mlle. Arnould, he proposed to take the lady in question under his protection, if she were willing to honour him by accepting it. Sophie{38} consented, on certain conditions; Lauraguais sorrowfully withdrew, and M. Bertin gave a supper-party, at which he formally presented Mlle. Arnould to his friends.

M. Bertin was not only rich and generous, but easy-going, good-tempered, and practical; in fact, the very antithesis of his erratic predecessor. He had lately been cruelly deceived by Mlle. Hus, a star of the Comédie-Française, his admiration for whom is said to have cost him something like a million livres, and his heart positively yearned for sympathy and affection. But alas! Sophie had none to give him. It was in vain that he paid her debts; that he provided a handsome dowry for one of her sisters; that he commissioned a celebrated coachbuilder of the singular name of Antechrist to construct for her an equipage which was the envy and admiration of all the ladies in Paris; that he loaded her with diamonds. The actress soon decided that poor M. Bertin was dull, wearisome, altogether insupportable, and began to look about for fresh conquests.

She had not far to look. So soon as it was known that the adorable Mlle. Arnould was no longer inaccessible, all the admirers whom the jealous transports of Lauraguais had kept at a respectful distance flocked around her, and Sophie, having broken with the man who had possessed her heart, threw scruples to the winds, and bestowed her favours upon several gallants, varying in social position—or, at least, so M. de Sartines’s inspectors reported—from the Prince de Conti to a handsome young friseur, who called daily to dress the lady’s hair.

But, in spite of these “passades” and the lavish generosity wherewith her titular protector sought to gain her affections, love for Lauraguais still smouldered{39} in Sophie’s breast, and, at the beginning of the following year, only a few days after the enamoured M. Bertin had bestowed upon her the sum of 12,000 livres, by way of a New Year’s gift, all Paris was astonished to hear that she had thrown over the financier and returned to the count.

At first, the public was inclined to applaud what it was pleased to consider the rare disinterestedness of the lady in preferring a comparatively poor admirer to an exceptionally wealthy one. But when it became known that poor Bertin’s brief reign had cost him over 100,000 livres, exclusive of the New Year’s gift mentioned above, it veered round, and Bachaumont reports that the general impression was that the financier had been very hardly treated. He himself expresses the opinion that the favoured lover was in honour bound to indemnify the abandoned one for the very large sums he had expended on the capricious Sophie, and that, as this had not been done, Mlle. Arnould must be held to have gained the affection of tender and susceptible hearts on false pretences, and must therefore—morally at least—“be relegated to the crowd of women from whom she had been drawn.”[26]

It is only fair to Lauraguais to say that, very soon after this was written, he gave the lie to the rumour that Sophie’s liaison with Bertin had been nothing but an ingenious speculation on the part of that lady, by refunding to his discomfited rival all that he had disbursed on her behalf, so that, in the end, the financier “lost nothing except the most charming woman in Paris.”


The second stage of the liaison between Sophie and{40} Lauraguais was not less stormy than the first; in fact, it might quite as appropriately be called a renewal of hostilities as a renewal of love. A week or two of bliss, and then their quarrels recommenced, more frequent and more violent than before. After what had passed, the count felt that he had the right to be suspicious, and he took the fullest advantage of it. Almost every day there were angry accusations, indignant denials, bitter reproaches, and floods of tears, followed by apologies, vows of amendment, and reconciliation. Never was there a more singular pair of lovers. They seem to have been perpetually separating and coming together again, for, though life with one another was intolerable, they were even more unhappy apart; while if any misfortune happened to befall either of them, however strained their relations at the time might be, all grievances were straightway forgotten. An instance of this occurred towards the end of the following year.

The practice of inoculation for the small-pox, which had been introduced into England by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu early in the eighteenth century, had hitherto made but little progress in France, notwithstanding the fact that it had had several distinguished advocates, including Voltaire and Jean Jacques Rousseau. Towards the year 1763, however, a strong movement in its favour took place, in consequence of which the Parliament of Paris, on the requisition of the Advocate-General, Joly de Fleury, passed a decree prohibiting inoculation until the Faculties of Medicine and Theology should have pronounced a definite opinion on the subject.

The decree roused the indignation of Lauraguais, who was one of the warmest supporters of the innovation,{41} and his indignation vented itself in a Mémoire sur l’inoculation, wherein M. Joly de Fleury was very roughly handled. This memoir he read before the Académie des Sciences, of which he was a member, and demanded permission to print it. The Academy at first demurred, but ultimately gave its consent, on the understanding that the references to the Advocate-General should be expunged. Apparently this condition was not observed, for the publication of the memoir was followed by an acrimonious correspondence, ending with a lettre de cachet, which directed that M. le Comte de Lauraguais should be conveyed to Metz and imprisoned in the citadel during his Majesty’s pleasure.[27]

On learning of the arrest of her lover, Sophie was in despair. She closed her salon and put on mourning. The few friends who were permitted to intrude upon her sorrow found her dissolved in tears, and went about declaring that nothing so pathetic had ever been seen before. The Abbé de Voisenon wrote to the imprisoned count, describing in touching language the actress’s grief, and felicitating him on having found a faithful mistress at the Opera; a piece of good fortune, said the abbé, so remarkable that it ought to go far to console him for his captivity:

“Ne te plains pas de ton malheur,
Du cœur de La Vallière il te fournit la preuve,
On assure qu’Arnould se souvient d’être veuve
Et que de sa constance elle fait son bonheur.”

Lauraguais’s family and friends did everything in their power to procure his release; but both Louis XV. and Choiseul had come to regard that nobleman as a{42} public nuisance, and turned a deaf ear to their appeals. And so the count remained for some four months at Metz, and might have remained a good deal longer, had not a fortunate chance enabled Sophie to intervene on his behalf.

On November 2, the opera of Dardanus was played before the Court, at Fontainebleau, Sophie taking the part of the heroine Iphise, one of her most successful impersonations. On this occasion she appears to have surpassed herself, and even the bored King was moved to something like admiration. Profiting by the impression she had created, without waiting to doff the robes of Iphise, she begged for a few minutes’ conversation with the Duc de Choiseul, and, throwing herself at his feet, besought him to release her lover. “The heart of the gallant and all-powerful Minister was touched, and he had not the courage to refuse to this beautiful and tearful Iphise the return of her Dardanus.”[28]

Lauraguais returned more infatuated than ever. Gratitude had redoubled his love for his mistress; never had she appeared to him more adorable. Declaring that it was his intention to consecrate to her alone the liberty which he owed to her, he installed himself at Sophie’s house, as in the early days of their liaison, and refused even to see his unfortunate wife, whom he unjustly suspected of having been a trifle lukewarm in her efforts to obtain his release. This was a little too much for the endurance even of that long-suffering lady, and,{43} soon afterwards, she sought and obtained a judicial separation.

His few months’ imprisonment at Metz would appear to have exercised a chastening effect upon the volatile count, as, for the next three or four years, though quarrels were still of frequent occurrence, there was no open rupture between the lovers. During this period, two more children were born to them: a son, Antoine Constant, who subsequently entered the army, rose to be colonel of a regiment of cuirassiers, and was killed at the battle of Wagram; and a daughter, Alexandrine Sophie, of whom we shall have something to say later on.

Perhaps the comparative harmony which now reigned between this singular pair was the result of a tacit understanding that they should forgive and forget. At any rate, they were very far from being all in all to one another during these years. Some doubt seems to have existed as to whether Alexandrine Sophie, born March 7, 1767, had not the right to claim an even more illustrious descent than that of the Brancas; for, though M. de Lauraguais recognised the child as his, the assiduous attentions paid by the Prince de Conti to her mother rendered it quite possible that she had royal blood in her veins. On his side, the count indulged in several “passades,” one of which, with a certain Mlle. Robbi, a colleague of Sophie, threatened to develop into a more permanent connection. Finally, in the spring of 1768, the union was again dissolved, Lauraguais being, on this occasion, the one to sever the knot.

On February 26 of that year, a young German danseuse, Mlle. Heinel by name, who had already achieved a reputation in Vienna, made her appearance at the Opera, and created a great sensation. “Mlle. Heinel,” says{44} Grimm, “afflicted with seventeen or eighteen years, two large, expressive eyes, and two well-shaped legs, which support a very pretty face and figure, has arrived from Vienna and made her début at the Opera in the danse noble. She displays a precision, a sureness, an aplomb, and a dignity of bearing comparable to the great Vestris. The connoisseurs of dancing pretend that, in two or three years, Mlle. Heinel will be the first danseuse in Europe, and the connoisseurs of charms are disputing the glory of ruining themselves for her.”[29]

In a letter written some months later, Grimm becomes quite ecstatic over the beauty and talent of his young compatriot:

“Her grace and dignity make of her a celestial creature. To see her, I do not say dance, but merely walk across the stage, is alone worth the money that one pays at the door of the Opera.”[30]

The charms of this “celestial creature” proved{45} more than the susceptible heart of M. de Lauraguais could withstand, and we read in the Mémoires secrets, under date March 28, 1768:

“Her (Mlle. Heinel’s) attractions have so captivated M. le Comte de Lauraguais as to cause him to forget those of Mlle. Arnoux (sic). He has given her, as a wedding-presentà l’Allemand, 30,000 livres, 20,000 livres to a brother, to whom she is much attached, an exquisite set of furniture, a coach, and so forth. It is computed that the première cost this magnificent nobleman 100,000 livres.”

Sophie appears to have been anything but heart-broken at the desertion of her eccentric lover—probably she was as anxious to be rid of him, for a season, as he was to leave her—and, less than a year later, we find her corresponding with him in the friendliest manner. By that time the count had had more than enough of the society of Mlle. Heinel, concerning whom Sophie has many spiteful things to say. She herself, she informs him—perhaps with a view of exciting his jealousy—is receiving great attention from the Prince de Conti, who often invites her, together with other past, present, and potential members of his seraglio,[31] to his box at the Opera, where he invariably greets her with a kiss upon the chin.[32]


Sophie’s life at this period affords us very little that is edifying to contemplate, and much that is the reverse. Her apartment in the Rue du Dauphin was the rendezvous of many wits and men of letters: Marmontel, Crébillon fils, Dorat, Voisenon, and the Abbé Arnaud; but it was also frequented by nearly all the fashionable libertines of the day, and “her table was an altar of free life and free love.” “Foreign Ambassadors covered her with diamonds, Serene Highnesses threw themselves at her feet, dukes and peers sent her carriages, and Princes of the Blood deigned to have children by her.”[33] Unlike the majority of her colleagues, who clung tenaciously to the few poor shreds of reputation that were left them, Sophie appears to have been perfectly indifferent to public opinion, and jested cynically with comparative strangers on the depraved life she was leading.

In the spring of 1770, we find her accepting a new amant en titre, in the person of Charles Alexander Marc Marcellin d’Alsace, Prince d’Hénin et du Saint-Empire. The Prince d’Hénin was a dull, pompous man, nicknamed, by a play on his title, “le prince des nains,” who seems to have taken the actress under his protection merely because it was the mode in those days to keep a mistress, and the more notorious the lady, the greater the distinction she conferred upon her lover. His chief recommendations, so far as Sophie was concerned, were that he was very rich and disposed to allow her to do{47} pretty much as she pleased, so long as the admirers whom he chanced to encounter on his visits to her house behaved towards him with the deference which he considered due to his exalted rank.

Her apartment in the Rue du Dauphin not being large enough to accommodate all the distinguished persons who desired to pay homage to her, Sophie, about this time, removed to a more commodious one in the Rue des Petits-Champs. This, in its turn, becoming too small for her requirements, she made up her mind to have an hôtel built, and selected a site in the Chaussée-d’Antin, immediately adjoining the hôtel of Mlle. Guimard—the “Temple of Terpsichore,” as it was called—the erection of which had half-ruined more than one of the adorers of “la squelette des Grâces.”

In the Bibliothèque Nationale may be seen a drawing of the façade of the proposed house, and plans of the rez-de-chaussée and the first and second floors. The drawing of the façade bears the following inscription:

“Façade of a projected house for Mlle. Arnould in the Chaussée-d’Antin. The house to be constructed side by side with that of Mlle. Guimard, and to be of the same dimensions.—Bélanger.”

On the portico, which is supported by two Doric columns, may be seen the figure of the Muse Euterpe, with the features of Sophie Arnould. The plan of the second floor is inscribed: “Plan of the second floor of Mlle. Arnould’s projected house, in which there are to be four small rooms for the accommodation of the children.”

This palace never got beyond the paper stage, for Sophie fell in love with the architect and the architect with her, in consequence of which, we may presume,{48} the Prince d’Hénin, or whatever wealthy admirer was to have defrayed the expenses, declined to have anything further to do with the scheme.

François Joseph Bélanger, the architect in question, was a charming man. He was then about thirty years of age, handsome, good-tempered, witty, and one of the most rising members of his profession.[34] Sophie loved him dearly—for a time at least—though this did not prevent her indulging in various passing fancies. Once, when he was temporarily out of favour, she sent him his congé, and, at the same time, wrote to an actor named Florence, inviting him to take the vacant place in her affections. Bélanger, however, happening to call at her house at a time when she was not at home, found the two letters on her desk, read them, and promptly changed the envelopes. The result was that Florence received thecongé, instead of the avowal of love, and naturally became very cold in his manner towards Sophie, who, deeply mortified, turned for consolation to her faithful architect.

At one time a rumour was current that Sophie was about to become Madame Bélanger, and, when questioned on the matter, the lady replied: “What would you have? So many people are endeavouring to destroy my reputation that I need some one who can restore it. I could not make a better choice, since I have selected an architect!” The marriage, however, did not take place, though that would not appear to have been the fault of Bélanger.{49} Notwithstanding the fact that a lady with so romantic a past, and three fine children to prevent people forgetting it, was hardly the kind of wife for a rising professional man, the architect would have been only too willing to regularise their connection. But Sophie had no mind to marry any one who was unable to satisfy all her caprices; and it is probable that the rumour referred to was started and circulated by her with the object of giving the lie to another, which was occasioning her intense annoyance.[35]

Sophie’s insolence and pride in this the heyday of her prosperity knew no bounds. She insulted the Lieutenant of Police and was, in consequence, placed under arrest for twenty-four hours; she made biting epigrams about Ministers and other distinguished persons, which, no doubt, duly reached her victims’ ears; she behaved with such “unexampled audacity” and “essential want of respect” towards Madame du Barry, on the occasion of a performance before the Court, at Fontainebleau, that, but for the intervention of the injured lady—the most sweet-tempered left-hand queen who ever degraded a throne—she would have spent the next six months as a prisoner in the Hôpital,[36] and she drove the unfortunate directors of the Opera to the verge of distraction with her whims and caprices.

The race of prime donne is proverbially a capricious{50} one; the profession of an impresario one of the most trying which can fall to the lot of man. Yet, it may be doubted whether any queen of song since opera was invented can have occasioned her managers anything approaching the anxiety and annoyance caused by Mlle. Sophie Arnould. She knew she was necessary, well-nigh indispensable, and she abused her position. Dearly did the administration pay for the increased receipts which her popularity brought them. Every day she had some new grievance, some unexpected whim. She wished to sing and she did not wish to sing, she retired and she reappeared. Sometimes she would create a part in an opera, sing divinely to crowded houses for three or four nights, then suddenly discover that it was unsuited to her or made too great demands upon her strength, and insist upon another singer taking her place for the remainder of the run of the piece. A few evenings later, jealous perhaps of the applause which her successor was receiving, she would come down to the theatre and announce her intention of resuming her part, only to throw it up again so soon as she considered that she had asserted her superiority.

To revive an opera in which she had scored a success was often as risky a venture as to produce a new one, since it might, and very often did, happen, that Mlle. Arnould—who, it should be mentioned, unlike the majority of public performers, cared very little for applause—would be indisposed, that is to say, indisposed to exert her full powers, with the result that the once popular piece would be received in comparative silence. In February 1769, Dardanus was revived. Iphise, the heroine, was one of Sophie’s greatest rôles, but on the first night she either could not or would not sing,{51} and the opera became, in consequence, “almost a burlesque.”

It is only, however, fair to say that she made ample atonement on the following evening. Thinking perhaps, as one of her biographers suggests, that any one was good enough to sing with a voiceless prima donna, the management entrusted the part of Dardanus to a new tenor named Muguet, “who had neither voice, figure, nor expression.” The audience not unnaturally resented the experiment, and M. Muguet and the opera with him were in a fair way to be hissed off the stage, when Sophie came to the rescue and, by superb singing and impassioned acting, restored the house to good humour and converted a complete failure into something approaching a success.

Seeing that the ladies of the Opera were the King’s servants in the literal sense of the phrase, and that misbehaviour on their part was wont to be construed as disobedience to his Majesty’s commands and punished accordingly, why, it may well be asked, was such conduct tolerated? Why did not the chief of the King’s Household intervene with one of those lettres de cachet which were generally so efficacious in bringing contumacious artistes to their senses? The answer is that Sophie had so many noble admirers always ready to espouse her cause that to punish her as she deserved could not have failed to create a great deal of unpleasantness; for which reason, though the directors appealed again and again to the Comte de Saint-Florentin to exercise his authority, their representations were without effect. Here is an instance:

On March 24, 1772, Sophie, who was announced to take the part of Thélaïre, in Rameau’s Castor et Pollux, had{52} not arrived when the time came for the opera to begin, and her place was, therefore, taken by her understudy, Mlle. Beaumesnil. As no intimation of her inability to appear that evening had reached them, the directors naturally concluded that she had been suddenly taken ill, and their astonishment and indignation may be imagined when they presently espied the lady in a box, laughing and talking with several of her admirers, and, seemingly, in the best of health and spirits. A message demanding an explanation of what she meant by appearing in the front of the house when she was “billed” to play a part produced the impertinent reply that she had come to take a lesson from Mlle. Beaumesnil! The angry directors thereupon appealed to the chief of the King’s Household and begged him to send the recalcitrant actress to For l’Évêque. But the Prince d’Hénin, or some other influential adorer, interceded on her behalf, and the only punishment she received was “a severe reprimand.”

Such misplaced leniency, Bachaumont tells us, was highly displeasing to a certain section of the Opera’s patrons, and when, an evening or two later, Mademoiselle did condescend to appear, a number of people came to the theatre “with the intention of humiliating her by hissing.” Sophie, however, perhaps desirous of making atonement to the public for its previous disappointment, put forth all her powers and sang and acted so admirably that the malcontents’ courage failed them, and, finally, forgetting the object which had brought them thither, they joined heartily in the general applause.[37]

Owing to the cares of maternity and other causes, chief of which would seem to have been a pronounced{53} antipathy to hard work, Sophie’s appearances at the Opera were very irregular, and sometimes her name did not find a place in the bills for several months together. Thus, she was absent from October 1761 to the following February; again from November 1766 to August 1767; while in 1770 she does not appear to have sung at all. A less popular actress, or one whose life outside the theatre was less notorious, might have incurred some risk of finding herself forgotten. But Sophie’s admirers were numerous and faithful, and when she had a part which suited her, and was in the humour to do herself justice, her singing and, more especially, her acting were so superior to her rivals that the house was invariably crowded. Among her triumphs may be mentioned: Thisbé, in Pyrame et Thisbé; Oriane, in Amadis de Gaule;[38] Aline, in Aline, Reine de Golconde,[39] “which,” says Bachaumont, “she endowed with all the delicate graces of sentiment, beauty, and talent”; Psyché, in L’Amour et Psyché; Iphise, in Dardanus, and Thélaïre, in Castor et Pollux, when the critic of the Mercure declared that she was “not a character of the piece,{54} but Thélaïre herself, and that the feelings she depicted passed involuntarily into the souls of the spectators.”[40]


Although Bélanger was Mlle. Arnould’s amant de cœur, the Prince d’Hénin remained her titular protector. The prince was an exceedingly dull and fatuous person, with the most absurdly exaggerated idea of his own importance, and bored the lady insufferably, although financial considerations compelled her to tolerate him. At the same time, she was at no pains to conceal from her friends the ennui which his visits occasioned her, and when, at the beginning of the year 1774, the Comte de Lauraguais, with whom she still maintained friendly relations, returned from a lengthy visit to England, she hastened to pour her troubles into his sympathetic ear. Perhaps Lauraguais would have been not unwilling to resume his connection with Sophie, had there been no Prince d’Hénin in the way, and cherished a grudge against that nobleman for taking the place which had so long been his own. Perhaps he had some other grievance against him, for the prince was by no means universally beloved. Any way, he determined to have a little diversion at his expense. We read in the Mémoires secrets:

“February 19, 1774.—The Comte de Lauraguais,{55} that amiable nobleman, whose inextinguishable gaiety is so marvellously seconded by his lively imagination, after having amused London, has come to enliven this capital with his sallies and ingenious pleasantries, of which one relates a charming instance: Some days ago, he summoned four doctors of the Faculty of Medicine to a consultation, in order to know whether it were possible for any one to die of ennui. They replied in the affirmative and, after a long preamble, setting forth the reasons for their decision, signed a paper to that effect, in all good faith. The family of Brancas is so generally composed of lunatics, hypochondriacs, hysterical and melancholy persons, and so forth, that they imagined that the question put to them concerned some relative of the consultant, and agreed that the only means of effecting a cure was to remove out of the patient’s sight the object which occasioned this condition of inertia and stagnation.

“Armed with this document duly signed and witnessed, the facetious nobleman proceeded to lay it before a Commissary of Police and, at the same time, to lodge a complaint against the Prince d’Hénin, who, by his continual obsession of Mlle. Arnoux (sic), would infallibly cause that actress to perish of ennui, and the public to lose one whom it valued highly, and whom he especially desired to preserve.”

Needless to say, the commissary did not issue the warrant demanded; but, equally needless to say, he related the jest to every one he happened to meet that morning, with the result that, in a very few hours, this “charming instance of the inextinguishable humour of the Comte de Lauraguais” was the talk of Paris, and was voted the best comedy that had been played for many a long day. The Prince d’Hénin naturally did not{56} look at the matter in quite the same light, and talked about sending the count a challenge. According to one account, he actually did so, and a bloodless duel followed. But since, as we shall presently see, he was a nobleman by no means remarkable for his courage, it is more probable that he ultimately decided to pocket the affront.

In the course of that same month, Sophie Arnould determined to withdraw altogether from the Opera and, accordingly, sent in her resignation, giving as her reason the unsatisfactory state of her health. The Duc de la Vrillière, however, declined to accept it, at the same time assuring her, in a courteous letter, that, “under no circumstances would more be required of her than her strength would permit of her undertaking.” Although it would appear that Sophie was really somewhat out of health at that time—so that Lauraguais’s charge against the poor Prince d’Hénin was not without a basis of truth—her resolution to quit the scene of her many triumphs was dictated by a very different reason. The fact of the matter was that the Sophie Arnould of 1774 was not the Sophie Arnould of 1758—not the singer who had charmed all Paris in Les Amours des Dieux and Énée et Lavinie. Her voice, always more expressive than powerful, was becoming perceptibly weaker. Her beauty, though she was still very attractive, had lost its freshness. Her frequent absences, her endless caprices, her arrogance and insolence, so long tolerated, had begun to weary not only the long-suffering directors of the Opera, but the public and the critics who influenced it. Where there had been applause, there was now silence. Where there had been praise, there was now criticism, and criticism sometimes of a peculiarly galling kind. In a word, Sophie’s long reign was drawing to a close. And Paris{57} was eagerly awaiting the arrival of a new composer. Gluck, who was to revolutionise opera in France, was coming, at the invitation of Marie Antoinette, to give a series of “musical dramas”—as he himself called them—reconstructed from those which had delighted Vienna and Italy. Supported as he would be by the young Dauphiness and the Court, his success was a foregone conclusion. What unthinkable humiliation for her if, when the principal parts came to be allotted, she should be passed over in favour of one of her youthful competitors: Mlle. Laguerre or, worse still, Rosalie Levasseur, the mistress of Mercy-Argenteau, the Austrian Ambassador, between whom and herself the bitterest rivalry existed! Rather than incur such a risk, she would retire of her own accord, while her laurels were still untarnished, while her sovereignty was still acknowledged.

[GLUCK After the painting by N. F. Duplessis]  
After the painting by N. F. Duplessis

But, as we have just seen, her resignation was not accepted, and when Gluck arrived in Paris, he appears to have had little difficulty in deciding to entrust the title-part in hisIphigénie en Aulide to her, though his choice was probably influenced more by Sophie’s histrionic than her vocal capabilities, for while her voice was neither so powerful nor so fresh as those of the two ladies mentioned above, her acting was immeasurably superior to theirs.

We are inclined to think, however, that even if Sophie had been much less fitted than she was to undertake the difficult rôle of Iphigénie, Gluck would still have hesitated before passing her over, since to have done so would have been certain to arouse a storm of hostile criticism, a singularly inauspicious opening to his Paris campaign. As matters stood, his position was, at first, far from an easy one. The musical world of Paris was the most critical and contentious of any capital in Europe,{58} and the advent of a foreign operatic troupe or a new composer was invariably the sign for the amateurs of music to range themselves into hostile camps and to discuss the merits and demerits of the innovation with as much warmth as, in the present day, rival schools of politicians might debate a question of international importance. Just as in 1752, when an Italian troupe came to perform the Serva Padrona of Pergolese and other works of the Italian buffo order, all musical Paris was divided into Buffonists and anti-Buffonists; so now, immediately on Gluck’s arrival, two parties were formed, one prepared to laud to the skies everything the master might compose, the other resolved to uphold the traditions of the old French opera at all costs and to drive the daring reformer from the field.[41]

Gluck found the task of producing Iphigénie the most difficult of any which he had yet undertaken. What he saw and heard at the Palais-Royal disgusted as much as it astonished him; orchestra, singers, chorus, ballet—all were lamentably inefficient, and it was obvious that a course of the most rigorous training would be required ere they would be competent to do his work anything like justice. The state of the Paris Opera at this time was indeed almost incredible. “Disorder, abuse, caprice, routine, inertia,” says Desnoiresterres, “were despotically enthroned there, without a protest from any one. If reform were urgent, so many persons were interested in the statu quo that there was scarcely any hope of obtaining from the administration, from this ignorant and prejudiced crowd, any improvement that was at all practical. In the midst of all the pomp and expenditure was a carelessness, an anarchy, a disorder past all belief. Actors{59} and actresses pushed indecency to such a point as to appear outside the coulisses, the latter in white camisoles with a culotte d’argent and a band across the forehead; the former in a simple peignoir. It was not an infrequent sight, while the foreground was occupied by Jupiter or Theseus, to see, through the scenes, the dancers moving and fluttering about, they having actually chosen the background of the stage to practise their steps and make their jetés-battus.”[42] The choruses drew themselves up in a semi-circle, impassive, without a gesture, like grenadiers on guard, and evinced not the slightest interest either in the words they had to sing or in the action of the principal performers. The latter went to the opposite extreme. “One sees the actresses, almost in convulsions, violently tear the yelps out of their lungs, their fists clenched against their chest, the head thrown back, the face inflamed, the veins swollen, the stomach heaving; one does not know which is the more disagreeably affected, the eye or the ear; their exertion gives as much pain to those who see them as their singing does to those who hear them.”[43]

The orchestra, which in winter was in the habit of performing in gloves, is compared by Mercier, the author of Le Tableau de Paris, to “an old coach drawn by consumptive horses and led by one deaf from his birth,” and besides being careless and indifferent, was continually at variance with the singers on the question whether the latter should follow the musicians or the musicians follow them. Grétry relates the following conversation, which took place between Sophie Arnould and Francœur, the conductor of the orchestra, during a rehearsal of his own opera of Céphale et Procris, in 1773:{60}

“What is the meaning of this, Monsieur? The orchestra seems in a state of rebellion?”

“What do you mean by rebellion, Mademoiselle? We are all here for the service of the King, and we serve him zealously.”

“I should like to serve him also, but your orchestra puts me out and spoils my singing.”

“Nevertheless, Mademoiselle, we play in time.”

“In time! Quelle bête est-ce là? Follow me, Monsieur, and understand that your accompaniment is the very humble servant of the actress who is reciting!”

As the Goncourts point out, under the apparent insolence of her claim, Sophie was here asserting the rights of the dramatic vocalist before the musical revolution, of which Gluck was the pioneer, when opera-singers were regarded merely as men and women reciting musical tragedy with intonations indicated by a musician. Until then they had enjoyed the most complete independence as to the manner of presenting their phrases. Until then they had been at liberty to hurry or slacken the time, to pause on or shorten any particular note, according to the inspiration of the moment, or even as they felt more or less fatigued, the orchestra following as best it could. “ ‘Quelle bête est-ce là?’ Sophie had but little doubt when she uttered these words that cette bête was on the eve of reducing her talent and reputation to nothing.”[44]

The pretension, however, was one which a composer, like Gluck, “who took the trouble to note not only the inflections of the voice, but also the long notes and the short ones, the accent and the time,” could not for one moment tolerate; and his insistence on its abandonment{61} was the cause of endless wrangling at rehearsals, where the principal vocalists roundly declared that, if he refused them the liberty which had so long been theirs, their talent would become superfluous and they would be reduced to the level of mere chorus-singers.

These disputes were chiefly with the lady members of the troupe, though the male singers did not fail to occasion the composer an infinity of trouble. Legros, who had been cast for the part of Achilles, had an admirable voice, but his singing was totally lacking in expression, while his movements on the stage were stiff and awkward; and though Gluck laboured unceasingly to remedy these faults, it was some months ere he succeeded. Larrivée, to whom had been entrusted the rôle of Agamemnon, was even more difficult to deal with, being so obstinate and self-opinionated that to remonstrate with him seemed almost waste of breath. Once the composer was forced to tell him that he seemed to have no comprehension of his part, and to be unable to enter into the spirit of it. “Wait till I put on my costume,” answered the singer complacently; “you won’t recognise me then.” At the general rehearsal Gluck took his seat in a box. Larrivée reappeared, in the costume of Agamemnon, but his interpretation remained the same. “Ah, my friend!” cried the composer, “I recognise you perfectly!”[45] Finally, Gluck had to contend with the ballet, and, in particular, with its chief, the celebrated Gaetano Vestris—“le dieu de la danse”—who once observed that there were only three great men in Europe: Frederick II., Voltaire, and himself! Vestris naturally considered the dancing by far the most important feature of an opera, and, although there were{62} already several ballets in Iphigénie, wanted yet another. Gluck angrily refused.

“Quoi!” stammered Vestris; “moi! le dieu de la danse!”

“If you are the God of Dancing, Monsieur,” replied the composer, “dance in heaven, not in my opera!”[46]

When, some months later, Orphée was being rehearsed, the ballet-master asked Gluck to write him the music of a chaconne. The latter, who had strongly objected to the introduction of any dancing whatever into Orphée, being of opinion that it would interfere with the seriousness and pathos of the general action, was horrified.

“A chaconne!” he cried. “Do you suppose, Monsieur, that the Greeks, whose manners I am endeavouring to depict, knew what a chaconne was?”

“Did they not?” rejoined the God of Dancing. “Then they are much to be pitied!”

In those days it was the custom to attend the rehearsals of a piece which happened to be arousing an unusual amount of interest, and the demand for admission to those ofIphigénie was so great that La Vrillière wrote to the directors of the Opera, ordering them to take special precautions to avoid any disturbance and to allow no one to enter without a ticket signed by themselves. The desire to be present is not difficult to understand, since to see Gluck at a rehearsal must have been a sight not easily forgotten. Throwing off his coat and replacing his wig by an old cotton night-cap, he would dart about the stage, imploring Mlle. Arnould to follow his music, M. Larrivée not to sing through his nose, M. Legros to endeavour to express something at least of the dignity and nobility which one was accustomed{63} to associate with the great champion of the Greeks, and the chorus to endeavour to look and move a little less like automata. “Look you, Mademoiselle!” he would cry, purple with passion, when Sophie or some other actress proved more than usually contumacious, “I am here to make you perform Iphigénie. If you are willing to sing, nothing can be better. If you are not willing to do so, do not trouble. I will go and see Madame la Dauphine and tell her what you say. If it is impossible for me to get my opera produced, I shall order my travelling-carriage and take the road to Vienna.”

This indeed was no idle threat, and had it not been for the support accorded him by Marie Antoinette, there can be very little doubt that he would have shaken the dust of Paris off his feet. But, with the Dauphiness behind him, the malcontents, grumble as they might, had no option but to obey this terrible man, whom they devoutly wished at the bottom of the Seine.

The first performance was fixed for April 13, 1774, but almost at the last moment Legros announced that he was too ill to appear. Gluck immediately demanded the postponement of the opera. The management pointed out that the Royal Family were to be present, and that all arrangements had been made for their reception, and begged him to allow another singer to take the place of the absent tenor. The composer rejoined that, rather than see his work mutilated by an inferior rendering of so important a part, he would throw it into the fire; and the directors were compelled to give way.

The opera was eventually produced on April 19, amidst the most intense excitement. From eleven o’clock in the morning the box-offices were besieged by an immense concourse of people, and it was found{64} necessary to double and treble the ordinary guard, to prevent disorder. The public interest was no doubt stimulated by rumours that the Anti-Gluckists were planning a hostile demonstration; and Marie Antoinette, in great alarm for the success of her protégé, sent orders to the Lieutenant of Police to take measures to nip any such attempt in the bud. The Dauphiness herself, accompanied by her obedient husband, the Comte and Comtesse de Provence, the Duchesses de Chartres and de Bourbon, and the Princesse de Lamballe, entered the theatre before the public was admitted, and was followed by most of the Ministers and practically the whole Court; indeed, but for the absence of Louis XV.—who scarcely ever visited Paris during the later years of his reign—and Madame du Barry, the spectators might have imagined themselves at Versailles or Fontainebleau.

The opera was very cordially received,[47] though, according to Grimm, parts pleased more than the ensemble. Both he and the Mémoires secrets are very severe upon the ballets, “the airs of which had been absolutely neglected”; while the latter declare that “the decorations were pitiable.” The second representation did not take place until three days later, when the crowd was even greater than on the first night, and a brisk and remunerative business was done by certain speculators, who had bought up the two-franc parterretickets and retailed them at from three to seven times their value.[48] During the interval, certain improvements{65} appear to have been made in the ballets, scenery, and accessories, for the opera was now “applauded to the skies, and, when the curtain fell, the calls for the author lasted for half an hour.”[49] The author, however, did not appear, being ill in bed, a fact which, considering all the worry and anxiety he had suffered during the past few weeks, will hardly occasion much surprise.

All the leading performers distinguished themselves, and Sophie covered herself with glory. “Mlle. Arnould,” says the Mercure, “charms as much as she astonishes us in the rôle of Iphigénie, by her dignified and sympathetic acting, by the animation and correctness of her singing, by an expression always true and delicate; by her voice itself, which seems in this opera to possess more variety, power, and extent.” Grimm, a far less partial observer, where Sophie is concerned, than the musical critic of the Mercure, is equally enthusiastic: “She renders the part of Iphigénie as it has perhaps never been rendered at the Comédie-Française, and she sings not only with all the charm that we have found in her for a long time past, but with an infinite precision, which is less common with her. It seems that the Chevalier Gluck has exactly divined the character and range of her voice and has assigned to it all the notes of her part.”[50]

Iphigénie grew in favour with each repetition and soon became quite the rage, as a proof of which may be mentioned the fact that the ladies began to wear a “headdress in the form of a coronet surmounted by the crescent of Diana, whence escaped a kind of veil that covered the back of the head; it was called à l’Iphigénie.{66}”

Encouraged by the success which had attended Iphigénie, Gluck at once set to work to adapt Orfeo, the most successful of the operas he had produced in Italy, for the Paris stage. A good many alterations were necessary, as the title-part had originally been written for a contralto, the celebrated Guadagni, and it had now to be cast for Legros. That gentleman, whose head would appear to have been slightly turned by the applause he had received as Achilles, when handed his part, informed the composer that he should decline to sing it, unless he had an opportunity of making a brilliant exit in the first act; and this necessitated further alterations. However, the rest of the troupe were by this time far more amenable to reason than they had been during the rehearsals of Iphigénie, and by the end of July the opera was ready for production.

It was while Orphée was in preparation that an incident occurred which was not without its effect upon Sophie Arnould’s connection with the operas of Gluck. After her triumph in the part of Iphigénie, Sophie had, of course, been entrusted with that of Eurydice, and had persuaded the composer to hold some informal rehearsals in her apartment in the Rue Neuve-des-Petits-Champs. Now, for some reason, the prima donna’s titular protector, the Prince d’Hénin, had conceived a strong antipathy to Gluck (Mr. Douglas supposes that he was displeased at the frequency of the composer’s visits to his mistress’s house, though, as jealousy was certainly not one of his failings, this seems to us hardly probable), and had on several occasions let fall very disparaging remarks about the German musician, which had in due course reached the latter’s ears. One day, in the midst of a rehearsal, the Prince d’Hénin was{67} announced. All rose from their seats and bowed—all, that is to say, save Gluck, who settled himself more firmly in his chair and took not the slightest notice of the distinguished visitor.

“I was under the impression,” remarked the Prince, when he had recovered from his first astonishment, “that it is the custom in France to rise when any one enters the room, especially if it be a person of consideration.”

Gluck sprang from his seat, walked up to the speaker, and, looking him full in the face, replied: “It is the custom in Germany, Monsieur, to rise only for those whom one esteems.” Then, turning to Sophie, he added: “Since I perceive, Mademoiselle, that you are not mistress in your own house, I leave you and shall return no more.” With which he picked up his hat and stalked out.

Gluck wanted to challenge the prince to a duel, but, being assured that such a step would be useless, as the latter would certainly shelter himself behind his rank and refuse to fight with a musician, took counsel with his friend and admirer the Duc de Nivernais. That nobleman, whom Lord Chesterfield had once held up to his son as a model for him to form himself upon, was now in his sixty-eighth year, notwithstanding which he at once constituted himself the composer’s champion, and informed M. d’Hénin that he must either apologise to Gluck or fight him (the duke). In the meanwhile, the story had reached Marie Antoinette—now Queen—who sent a peremptory order to the prince to make reparation to her injured protégé, under pain of her displeasure. The latter, reflecting that even if he escaped the sword of the duke, who handled one as neatly as he composed verses, he would undoubtedly be exiled, had{68} no choice but to obey, and, with a very bad grace, called upon Gluck and made the amende honorable.

Orphée et Eurydice was produced on August 2 and met with a success surpassing even that of Iphigénie. The same, unfortunately, cannot be said of Sophie. The friendly critic of the Mercure declares that “she acted and sang with much soul, intelligence, and correctness”; but the general opinion seems to have been that her display was decidedly inferior to that which she had given in the previous opera. This impression is, no doubt, partly to be accounted for by the fact that she was on this occasion somewhat overshadowed by Legros, who, Grimm tell us, “sang the principal rôle with so much fire, taste, and sentiment, that it was difficult to recognise him.” At the same time, it is evident that her voice was no longer equal to the strain of any very exacting part, especially if, as was now very frequently the case, she happened to be in indifferent health.

In the early days of January 1775, Iphigénie, in which Gluck had made several alterations, was revived and received with even more enthusiasm than on its first production. All the artistes resumed their old parts, and Sophie’s rendering of the heroine was again loudly applauded. She did not, however, enjoy her success for long, as, after a few performances, she resigned her part to Mlle. Laguerre, who in March fell ill and was, in her turn, replaced by Rosalie Levasseur.

Sophie’s health, at this time, would appear to have been far from satisfactory. Any way, she did not sing again for more than ten months, and thus took no part in Cythère assiégée, a light opera first produced in 1759, and now reconstructed by Gluck, at the request of Marie Antoinette. The libretto was by Favart, and the incongruity{69} between his light and playful style and the solemn and pathetic music of the composer caused the piece to be very coldly received.

At the beginning of December, Sophie reappeared in the rôle of Adèle in Adèle de Ponthieu, a part which she had successfully created three years before, and might have repeated the triumph she had then secured, but for an unfortunate incident which occurred on the first night.

Louis XVI.’s younger brother, the Comte d’Artois (afterwards Charles X.)—a very different person in those days from the gloomy and Jesuit-ridden old monarch of 1830—attended the performance, and, from the shelter of his private box, proceeded, as was his wont, to ogle and make signs to the actresses upon the stage. Presently he cast “a benevolent glance” upon Mlle. Arnould, when that lady so far forgot the respect due to the visitor’s exalted rank as to smile familiarly in his direction, “exactly as she might have done to a comrade or a lover.” The audience, the chronicler tell us, was inexpressibly shocked at the lady’s behaviour, and “testified its indignation in a manner that was humiliating to her.”[51]

Meanwhile, Gluck was at work upon his Alceste, and Sophie had every reason to believe that, after her brilliant triumph in Iphigénie and her very successful rendering of the part of Eurydice, she would again be cast for the principal rôle. But alas! a bitter disappointment was in store for her.

We have mentioned that Rosalie Levasseur was the mistress of Mercy-Argenteau, the Austrian Ambassador at the French Court. Shrewd and capable though Mercy was in everything relating to his professional duties—the manner in which he had succeeded in keeping{70} the peace, and all that it involved, between Marie Antoinette and Madame du Barry, during the last years of the late King’s reign was a perfect masterpiece of diplomacy—in love, he appears to have been as foolish as any of the gilded youths who haunted thecoulisses of the Opera and the Comédie-Française. The fair Rosalie exercised the most absolute ascendency over him—a fact which was the more astonishing, as all Paris knew that she had an amant de cœur, in the person of Nicolet, the clown. Mercy, in fact, could deny her nothing, and even carried his infatuation so far as to purchase for her a barony of the Holy Roman Empire, with a considerable revenue; while, on another occasion, he condescended to bribe Larrivée, whose singing in a certain opera the young lady found was quite eclipsing her own, not to put forth his full powers.[52]

Now, Rosalie had set her heart upon supplanting Sophie and filling the principal part in the forthcoming opera, and called upon her lover to assist her to realise her ambition. First, she suggested—or persuaded Mercy to suggest—that Gluck should take up his quarters in her house, in the Rue des Fossoyeurs-Saint-Germain, and give her singing-lessons; a proposal to which the composer, who, besides being an Austrian subject, was under considerable obligations to the Ambassador, who, with Marie Antoinette, had been mainly instrumental in bringing him to Paris, readily consented. Next, she induced him to teach her the music of Alceste and took care to show herself a docile as well as an industrious pupil. Finally, she hinted pretty plainly that he ought to entrust her with the title-part when the opera was{71} produced, pointing out that, though she might lack the histrionic ability of Mlle. Arnould, her voice was fresher and more powerful, to say nothing of the advantage which the composer would derive from having the part rendered exactly as he desired, whereas the elder actress would very probably insist on rendering it in conformity with her own ideas.

These arguments were, it is needless to say, warmly seconded by Mercy; and Gluck, who was anxious to please the amorous diplomatist, and in whose mind the insult he had received from Sophie’s titular protector perhaps still rankled, after some hesitation, yielded to their wishes.

“Gluck,” says the composer’s French biographer, Desnoiresterres, “was wanting in gratitude towards Mlle. Arnould, so charming, so passionate in Iphigénie, so pathetic still, though somewhat eclipsed by Legros, in Orphée.” At the same time, he points out that Gluck would never have superseded Sophie had he thought that the change would prejudice his work, and that the event proved that he had not over-estimated the talents of Rosalie Levasseur, who, in the part of Alceste, “displayed much art and sensibility.”[53]

Poor Sophie seems to have borne her disappointment, notwithstanding that she could hardly have failed to see in it the end of her own dramatic career, with praiseworthy equanimity, merely observing when she heard the news: “Rosalie ought certainly to have the part; she has the voice of the people.” This remark was duly repeated to her triumphant rival, who retaliated by a disgusting lampoon, composed by one of her admirers named Guichard, copies of which were printed and circulated in the theatre, while others were sent to Sophie’s{72} friends. The injured lady, however, was equal to the occasion; she sent certain copies which had fallen into her hands to the journals, and turned the tables very adroitly on Mlle. Levasseur and her ally, all decent-minded persons combining to condemn such methods of warfare.

Although the dethroned prima donna wisely refrained from giving public expression to her feelings, others were not prepared to imitate her discretion. The Prince d’Hénin, who could be very bold indeed when there was no likelihood of his being called upon to fight a duel, having heard that there was some talk of giving Sophie’s dressing-room at the Opera to Rosalie Levasseur, went down to the theatre and threatened to flog the unfortunate directors within an inch of their lives, if they dared to inflict such a slight upon a lady whom he honoured with his protection; the few critics who still remained faithful to the waning star condemned in unmeasured terms the selection of Mlle. Levasseur for so important a rôle in place of an actress “who had so long been, and still was, the delight of the Opera”; while the Anti-Gluckists, only too delighted to find so stout a stick wherewith to belabour the composer, raised a perfect howl of indignation.

[SOPHIE ARNOULD From an engraving by Prud’hon after the drawing by Cœuré in the Collection of M. Godfrey Meyer]  
From an engraving by Prud’hon after the drawing by Cœuré in the Collection of M. Godfrey Meyer

The result of all this was most unfortunate for Sophie. The contest between the Gluckists and their opponents had now reached a very acute stage, and it was the general belief of the composer’s admirers that the partisans of the old school were prepared to employ the most questionable methods in order to counteract the ever-increasing popularity of the German. A rumour spread that a cabal had been formed to ensure the failure of Alceste, and that Sophie and her friends had joined it. There seems to have been little truth in this report, the best{73} refutation of it being the fact that, although Alceste was somewhat coldly received at first, its success grew with each performance, and none at all, so far as it concerned Sophie, who, in a letter to a theatrical journal, Le Nouveau Spectateur, in acknowledgment of some sympathetic references to herself which had appeared in a previous issue, expressly disclaimed all hostility to Gluck or Rosalie Levasseur:

“I await with impatience your judgment on the opera of Alceste, which is about to interest and divide all Paris. Your views will confirm those which I myself have formed from witnessing the rehearsals only. If the success which I obtained in Iphigénie might have predisposed me in favour of the authors, their want of consideration, I even venture to say their bad conduct, towards me might have served to alter my opinion of them. But I have too much respect for myself to join (as these gentlemen would have people believe) in any cabal which may be formed for or against the new work. Such things I have always considered beneath me; the former savours of charlatanerie, the latter of baseness. I have confined my vengeance to not asserting my right to the principal rôle.[54] But no personal reason will make me underrate genius, nor prevent me from rendering justice to that of M. Gluck. He is, I proclaim it aloud, the musician of the soul and master of all the modulations that express sentiment and passion, especially grief.

“As to the author of the words, I leave to the public{74} the task of judging him. If I belonged to the Académie-Française, my opinion would carry as much weight as that of any other of the Forty. But I belong to the Académie Royale de Musique. I acknowledge my incompetence and my motto is: tacet. I will merely permit myself to say that one does not always find subjects as interesting as Iphigenia, nor models as sublime as Racine.

“In regard to the performers, if I may be allowed to speak of them, I should praise the acting of M. Gros [Legros], in the part of Admetus, and the singing of Mlle. Rosalie, in the part of Alceste.

“I have the honour to be, very perfectly, Monsieur,
“Your very humble and very obedient servant,
“Sophie Arnould.”

The good effect which this letter might have produced was, unhappily, entirely discounted by a series of bitter attacks upon Alceste, Gluck, and Rosalie, which appeared in subsequent issues of the same journal. On the day after the first performance of the new opera, the Nouveau Spectateur published an anonymous letter, containing the following choice morsel of criticism:

“It seemed as if the music was being sung by invalids who had just swallowed half a pint of emetic and were making futile efforts to vomit.”

This was soon followed by a second letter reproaching Gluck for having taken “a girl like Rosalie to play the part of Alceste,” and several articles declaring that the opera was “more mournful than affecting,” and that, in preferring Mlle. Levasseur to Mlle. Arnould, the composer showed that he “misunderstood the taste of the nation in music as well as in acting.{75}”

These letters, there can be little doubt, were the work of Lefuel de Méricourt, the editor of the journal in question, a libellous scribe of the school of Pidansat de Mairobert.[55]But the admirers of Gluck and the friends of Rosalie believed, or affected to believe, that, if not written, they had, at any rate, been inspired by Sophie, and thirsted for revenge.

Their opportunity arrived at the beginning of the following October, when Sophie, in the vain hope of counterbalancing the success of Rosalie in Alceste, created the part of Lyris in Euthyme et Lyris, an opera by a very mediocre composer named Desormery. The theatre became the battlefield of the contending factions. The Anti-Gluckists and the personal friends of Sophie crowded to the Palais-Royal and loudly acclaimed the singer; but the opposition came in even greater numbers, and the applause was drowned in a tempest of groans, hisses, and cat-calls.

Marie Antoinette heard of the scenes which were nightly taking place at the theatre, and, though herself an enthusiastic supporter of Gluck, was indignant at the treatment accorded an actress whose talent she had often admired. She determined to come to her assistance and, therefore, visited the Opera on two or three occasions and warmly applauded Sophie. On the evenings on which she was present the opposition was silent, but the next the hissing and hooting broke out with redoubled violence, rather intensified than otherwise by the Queen’s intervention. “To-day,” we read in the Mémoires secrets, “the Queen being no longer{76} present to intimidate the pit, the partisans of the Chevalier Gluck arrived in force and completely overwhelmed Mlle. Arnoux (sic) with the hisses which they had spared her at the previous performance. She also sang badly. One does not believe that she will dare to continue to present herself to the eyes of the public, and especially to its ears; and perhaps this humiliation will mark the period of a definite retirement, to which the weakness of her voice ought to have determined her ere this.”[56]

The writer of the above paragraph was, no doubt, actuated by personal hostility to the actress; but, at the same time, it was only too true that Sophie’s voice was failing rapidly. Early in March 1777, Iphigénie en Aulide was again revived, and Sophie reappeared in the part which she had created so brilliantly. She was now, however, manifestly unequal to the effort required of her, and seemed to have altogether lost her old power of holding the audience enthralled. “The public,” she had once observed, “behaves to actresses like Love to warriors; it has no consideration for an old soldier”; and she herself is a particularly painful illustration of the truth of her own axiom, at least, so far as it concerns the Parisian playgoers of the eighteenth century. Forgetting the many triumphs of the woman who had for nearly twenty years been its idol, the public seemed to see before it only a performer who had committed the unpardonable offence of disappointing its expectations, and joined with the Gluckists and the personal enemies of the actress in expressing its disgust. Sophie was relentlessly hissed.[57]


Again the Queen attempted to stem the tide of public feeling by attending the theatre and applauding the unfortunate singer. But Marie Antoinette was now fast losing what popularity she had once enjoyed with the Parisians, and even her presence and example “did not prevent the malcontents from continuing their indecent manœuvres.”

It is not easy to understand why Sophie, who, in the heyday of her success, had often absented herself from the theatre for months together, merely from indolence or caprice, should have continued to appear on the stage, in the face of these hostile demonstrations. The only explanation which her biographers can find is that she had recently concluded with the directors of the Opera a fresh arrangement, whereby, in lieu of the regular salary which she hitherto received, she was to be paid the sum of five louis for each performance, and that, since she is known to have been at this time in pecuniary difficulties, she endured the taunts of the public for the sake of the money.

For our own part, we are inclined to think that, though financial considerations may not have been without their effect upon her decision, her chief reason was a very different one. Sophie was a courageous and high-spirited woman; she knew that the demonstrations against her were prompted far more by personal animosity than by the failure of her powers, and she was determined not to allow her enemies the satisfaction of boasting that they had driven her from the stage.

The malice of her foes, however, pursued her even outside the theatre. She was hissed while performing at a concert given by the Duc and Duchesse de Chartres. She was driven, one day, from the garden of the Palais-Royal, by an ill-bred youth, who, on recognising her,{78} began to sing the air from Alceste: “Caron t’appelle, entends sa voix!” Even Lefuel de Méricourt abandoned her, and in an article in his precious journal, “regretted the loss of a part of her physical gifts by an actress who had been so long the idol of the public.”

At length, at the beginning of June 1778, Sophie decided to retire from the stage. She continued to sing from time to time at the Concerts of Sacred Music, at benefit performances, and in private theatres; but at the Opera her name was definitely placed on the retired list. For her services at the theatre, she received a pension of 2000 livres, and one of the same amount in her quality as Court singer. This, as pensions went in those days, must be considered liberal treatment and compares very favourably with the lot of the actors and actresses of the Comédie-Française, who, even after thirty years’ service, only received a pension of 1500 livres. Mlle. Clairon, the greatest tragédienne of her time, on her retirement in 1766, after twenty-two years on the stage, had to rest content with one of 1000 livres.


Now began for Sophie Arnould a life very different from that to which she had so long been accustomed. Youth, beauty, and fame were gone, and with them her lovers too, for, soon after her retirement from the stage, the Prince d’Hénin deserted her for Mlle. Raucourt, of the Comédie-Française, whom Sophie had generously taken to live with her, and endeavoured to protect against the hostility of the public.[58]

One thing, however, still remained to her—her wit, which, if it were powerless to retain her wealthy and aristocratic admirers, sufficed to draw to her salon men{79} whose friendship was infinitely to be preferred. Poets, philosophers, encyclopædists, dramatists were all at home in the house of Sophie Arnould. Diderot and d’Alembert were among her most frequent guests; Helvétius, who had once, for a brief period, been very near and dear to her, remained one of her greatest friends; Beaumarchais delighted in an assaut d’espritwith his witty hostess; Rulhière came and brought with him Jean Jacques Rousseau; Marmontel, Duclos, Favart, Linguet, and a host of lesser lights made her salon one of their favourite rendezvous; that most affable of literary noblemen, the Prince de Ligne, seldom failed to make his appearance there whenever he happened to visit the French capital, and Voltaire himself—King Voltaire—when he came to Paris in 1778, to enjoy at last the triumph of his renown at its centre—and to die—condescended to call upon Sophie.

The day and hour of the great man’s visit were duly notified to Sophie, who, knowing what kind of a reception would please him, collected a band of children, headed by her own little daughter, Alexandrine, who, the moment Voltaire entered the room, sprang forward and proceeded to hug and kiss him. The Patriarch was delighted. “You wish to kiss me,” said he laughing, “and I have no face left!”

After conversing with Sophie for some time, the poet remarked: “Ah, Mademoiselle! I am eighty-four years old, and I have committed eighty-four follies.”

“A mere trifle,” replied Sophie consolingly; “I am not yet forty, and I have committed a thousand!”

That same year, Mesmer visited Paris, professing to cure all diseases by means of animal magnetism, and speedily became the doctor à la mode. Some of Sophie’s{80} friends advised her to consult him, but, as she did not happen to have any need of his professional services herself, she sent her lap-dog instead, declaring that, if he could cure that pampered animal, who had been ailing for some time past, presumably as the result of a too generous diet, she would believe in him. Mesmer, anxious to prove that the success of his system was not dependent upon the credulity of the patient, undertook the case, and, in a few days, returned the dog, with the assurance that it was now in the best of health. Sophie thereupon wrote him a letter of thanks, which the doctor sent to the journals. He soon, however, had cause to regret this step, for, four days later, the dog died, much to the joy of the sceptics, who asked Sophie what could have induced her to give the German a testimonial so little deserved. “I have nothing to reproach myself with,” she replied; “the poor animal died in excellent health.”

When Sophie retired from the stage, she was apparently in possession of what most members of her profession, in those days, would have considered a very comfortable income, as from a packet of letters published for the first time by M. Henri Gauthier-Villars, in La Nouvelle Revue (February 1897), we learn that her notary, a certain M. Alleaume, was in the habit of paying her fifty louis a month, out of the moneys she was supposed to lodge in his hands.[59] The maintenance and{81} education of her three children, however, seems to have involved her in considerable expense, while during her long years of prosperity she had acquired such extravagant habits that her income was quite inadequate for her needs, and she was, in consequence, continually in pecuniary difficulties. Her letters to Alleaume, indeed, are almost without exception demands for money, in which she brings all her persuasive powers to bear upon the stern man of business, in the hope of inducing him to unlock his cash-box and advance her “her month.”

“Well, petit père Alleaume,” she writes, “I never see you now, and I ask myself why?—why this difference to poor Sophie?—for it is not kind of you to avoid the poor people who love you. You will reply to that: ‘But it is you who never see me, unless you have something to ask.’

“Wait and see if I never ask for anything, unless I visit you. Here for example: Will you please advance me my month? for I am absolutely without funds.

“Will petit père Alleaume remain inflexible for four days to the request of Sophie?”

And again:

“I swear to you, though you may be somewhat incredulous as to the state of my mind, that when you have put my little business clear and straight—I promise you, on my word as a living being, that I will think twice ere I incur the smallest expense. It is not possible for me to be miserly—it is a disgusting vice.”

Then, in a third letter:

“Eh! bon jour, my good friend; it is an age since I saw you or embraced you. When are you going to spend a morning with me? Do you know that I have learned a good deal of sense since the beginning of the year?{82} Do you know that I intend to keep my word and commit hardly any foolish extravagance; and you will see that you will be very satisfied with poor Sophie. If you knew how many small debts I have discharged, you would be well content with your Sophie. I have not yet got into my den (at Port-à-l’Anglais), but so soon as I have, I should like to meet you, and talk over all this business at our leisure. If, in the meanwhile, you would like to come this evening and eat a truffled turkey, much bigger and a thousand times more of a dinde than I am, you will be welcome.”

In spite of these promises of amendment, we find her, shortly afterwards, writing to inform the worthy notary that an execution has been levied upon her for non-payment of her capitation tax and other dues, and to beg him to send her the sum of 196 livres to enable her to get rid of the emissaries of the law.

As time goes on, the letters multiply, all full of entreaties, excuses, promises, regrets, expostulations. She assures him that she cares nothing for money—one can well believe that—but has an intense desire to be free from debt. Then, when he shows a marked disinclination to make any further advances, she declares that not even on the stage of the Opera has she met with so inhuman, so hard-hearted, a monster. But the notary, annoyed at finding that her promises are never kept, and that, notwithstanding her protestations, she makes no change in her extravagant way of living, shuts himself up in his office and turns a deaf ear to her appeals. Sophie redoubles her entreaties, reiterates her vows of amendment, sends him epistles bedewed with her tears. All is in vain; petit père Alleaume remains inflexible.

In November 1780, Sophie’s daughter, Alexandrine,{83} married a certain André de Murville, a young man of respectable middle-class family, who dabbled in literature. Alexandrine was, at this time, only in her fourteenth year; an ungainly, red-haired child, who seems to have inherited both her mother’s biting wit and—or, at least, so scandal asserted—her mother’s indifference to the conventions of morality.[60] For which reasons, Sophie was probably glad to be rid of her. The ceremony took place at Saint-Roch, and was attended by several worthy bourgeois couples, relatives of Murville, who must have been considerably shocked when Sophie, on being presented to them, remarked upon the strangeness of the circumstance that the mother of the bride should be the only unmarried lady present.[61]

For the next few years, we hear little of Sophie. She appears, like so many women of her class, to have endeavoured to find consolation in devotion, but soon gave up the attempt, protesting that the directors of conscience were worse than the directors of the Opera. By the bankruptcy of the Prince de Guéménée, in 1782, she lost a considerable part of her fortune—how we are not told—a disaster which probably accounts for the fact that she soon afterwards quitted Paris and took a little house at Clichy-la-Garenne, “with an acre of land, which, however, she did not cultivate.” Here, in 1785, she was joined by her daughter, whose marriage had turned out very unhappily, and who was now suing for a separation, on the ground of her husband’s cruelty.

In her plaint, which bears date October 19, 1795,{84} Alexandrine declares that “since she had had the misfortune to espouse the sieur Murville, she had never known a moment’s peace”; that he had “several times struck her at the end of frightful scenes”; that she had been forced to make over to him all the moneys that had been settled upon her, and that she was now “sick, destitute, and in urgent need of medical assistance to prevent the loss of an eye, which her husband had grievously injured at the risk of killing her.”

In a second plaint, made the following year, she relates that, a few days after the birth of her first child, towards whose support he now refused to contribute, her husband had called her atrocious names, seized her violently by the right arm, “with such force as to leave a red mark,” and, finally, turned her out of the house, at one o’clock in the morning.

About the same time, the unhappy Alexandrine applied to the Minister of the King’s Household for admission to the Opera in the humble capacity of a chorus-singer; but, for some reason, her request does not appear to have been granted.

At Clichy, Sophie lived a very quiet life, though she seems to have been fond of entertaining her humble neighbours. “I went sometimes to see Mlle. Arnould, at Clichy,” writes Millin. “One day, I found her in the midst of a large circle. There were twenty persons at table. I was on the point of retiring, when she called me back and said to me: ‘Come in! I am marrying the son of my cook to the daughter of my gardener. Both families are my guests; we are celebrating the pleasures of Love and Equality.’ In the evening, her two sons arrived. They wanted money. She had none to give them. ‘Ah, well!’ said she, ‘each of you take{85} a horse from the stable.’ And they went away with the two horses.”[62]

The expenses of her family—she had now to support Alexandrine and her two children, in addition to her sons—pressed heavily upon poor Sophie, and, in January 1788, we find her writing to one of her old friends, a financier of the name of Boutin, begging him to arrange for her a loan of 24,000 livres, which she proposes to repay by four yearly instalments of 6000 livres. As security, she offers a mortgage on her house at Clichy, which, she declares, is worth 20,000 francs, and another on the furniture of a house belonging to her in the Rue Caumartin, and assures him that she will keep her promise to repay the money “with certainty, honour, and probity.”

She appears to have obtained the accommodation she sought, but was speedily in difficulties again, and compelled to apply for assistance to some of her old friends, whom, when they sent her money, or even “evinced an intention to oblige her,” she overwhelms with gratitude, declaring that, if it be true, as learned men assert, that the soul never perishes, her own will remember the obligation, even after death.

Yet, harassed though she was, she could sympathise with the distress of others. On January 21, 1789, a young man of the name of Bompas was arrested at the Barrière de Clichy, with three parcels in his possession, containing a large quantity of lady’s underwear, “marked with the letters S.A. in red cotton,” a porcelain mustard-pot, a green morocco case holding two decanters and a crystal goblet, two pairs of candlesticks, and various other articles. On being brought before a commissary of{86} police, he confessed that the above-mentioned articles were the property of Mlle. Arnould, whose residence he had burglariously entered the previous evening. Sophie caused inquiries to be made and, finding that Bompas was a journeyman carpenter of hitherto irreproachable character, who had been out of work for several weeks and had been driven to the theft by necessity, generously declined to prosecute, and the prisoner was accordingly released.

Several writers have stated that, in the early days of the Revolution, Sophie’s salon became a political club and that she herself was an enthusiastic advocate of republican doctrines. “There are beings,” wrote Champcenetz, in the course of a brutal attack on the ex-singer which he published in the royalist organ, La Chronique scandaleuse, “who would not die content unless they had degraded themselves in every conceivable way. Of this the aged Sophie Arnould is an example. After delivering herself for forty years to every scoundrel of bad taste, she has now turned demagogue, that she may receive at her house the dregs of the human race. She has sent to study at the Jacobins the two children, with whom a man of gallantry once presented her, through inadvertence.”[63]

That Sophie, in common with her old lover Lauraguais and others of her aristocratic and literary friends, sympathised to a certain extent with the Revolution—that is to say, with the Revolution in its earlier phases—is probable enough. That, crippled as she was with debts, she kept open house for all the turbulent spirits of her time, or carried her partisanship so far as to endeavour{87} to influence the opinions of her sons, who were quite old enough to form them without any assistance from their mother, as Champcenetz—an old enemy, by the way, of both Sophie and Lauraguais—asserts, we beg leave to doubt. Any way, her enthusiasm for the new order of things must have been very short-lived, for, in 1789, her pension of 4000 livres was reduced to 2000, and from 1793 not paid at all, but, according to an entry in the Archives, “left owing.”

In 1790, Sophie sold her house at Clichy-la-Garenne and purchased, “for a mere song,” an old disused priory at Luzarches. Her new residence she christened Le Paraclet, though whether she derived much comfort from the house itself is open to question, as it was in the last stage of dilapidation, and she had no money to spare for even the most urgent repairs. In an amusing letter, written in 1794 to Belanger, she describes it as “only the carcase of a house, which waits for doors and windows until it shall please God to send me the means,” and adds that she is “camping provisionally in the dovecot of the ancient monks.”

Her surroundings, however, appear to have afforded her some compensation for the ruinous condition of the building. “I have a beautiful park, containing all that it is possible to desire whether for ornament or use; superb kitchen-garden; a vineyard, which has yielded me this year six hogsheads of wine; a forest, a wood, an orchard, a pond well stocked with fish, fresh air, beautiful scenery, good land. This is the fourth year that I have been here, and I remain in the greatest solitude. But well! I have not felt one moment’s ennui since I came.”

While at Luzarches, Sophie received a domiciliary{88} visit from the local revolutionary committee. She received them with a smiling face, though she must have been quaking with fear, since her intimacy with the Prince de Condé and other distinguished émigrés was sufficient to have sent her to the guillotine a dozen times over.

“I have always been a very active citizen,” said she; “I know the Rights of Man by heart” (a remark which was certainly true), “and I have sung twenty years at the Opéra-National for the pleasure of the Sovereign People.”

The committee, however, were not satisfied with these assurances and insisted on ransacking the house, in quest of compromising correspondence and so forth. Presently they came across a bust of Gluck and paused before it.

“It is Marat,” said Sophie, in a tone of the deepest veneration.

The worthy sans-culottes uncovered, and convinced that they had just been contemplating the august features of the father of the people, whose sanguinary career the knife of Charlotte Corday had recently brought to an abrupt termination, retired, with many apologies for having doubted the patriotism of the Citoyenne Arnould.[64]

Sophie remained at Luzarches for seven years, “tout à fait en paysanne.” She wore sabots, she planted cabbages, she gathered peas and apples, and she reared,{89} or tried to rear, poultry. Her daughter Alexandrine lived with her for a couple of years, and then took advantage of the new law of divorce to get rid of the estimable Murville and replace him by the son of the local postmaster, “a stout boy, who was quite unsuitable for her.” Sophie, though, as we have seen, by no means strait-laced herself, strongly disapproved of her daughter’s conduct, and made it the occasion of one of her most celebrated bons mots. “Divorce,” she gravely observed, “is the sacrament of adultery.”

All this time the unfortunate woman was gradually becoming poorer and poorer. Her pension had been discontinued; the greater part of what money she had possessed apart from that seems to have been swallowed up, with so many other fortunes, in the financial chaos which accompanied the political one; while to apply to her friends for help was no longer of any avail. Not a few of them, among whom was the Prince d’Hénin, had departed to another world, by way of the Place de la Révolution; others, like Lauraguais, were in exile; those who were still within reach of her appeals were ruined. Of all her old friends and admirers the only one to whom she could turn was Belanger, and it was but little that he could do to assist his once-adored Sophie. He himself had been imprisoned and had narrowly escaped the guillotine, and when he was released, to find that everything portable belonging to him had been carried off by a faithless servant, he was thrust, bon gré mal gré, into a miserably-paid municipal office, which kept him hard at work from seven o’clock in the morning until nearly midnight, and left him no time for practising his profession. Moreover, he was now married, having, while in prison, espoused a companion in misfortune,{90}Mlle. Dervieux, of the Opera, who had been a notorious courtesan, and, consequently, had no money to spare for old friends in distress.

Nevertheless, the kind-hearted architect did all that was in his power. He wrote to Sophie; he went to visit her; he entertained her at his house, and acted as her intermediary with the Minister of the Interior, in order to secure the restitution of the pension to which she was entitled. And Sophie, on her side, makes him the confidant of all her hopes and disappointments, and writes him long, affectionate letters, beginning: “Mon bel ange,” and one of them superscribed, “À mon meilleur ami.”

Once, learning that she was in sore distress, Belanger sent her a double louis—probably all that the poor man could afford—which the grateful Sophie acknowledges in the following letter:

“8 Nivôse, Year viii. (January 29, 1800).

“Ah, mon bel ange, my friend, you are always the same for goodness and generosity. What a good heart is yours! I would thank you sincerely, my poor friend, but what expressions can I employ?... They would always fall short of my gratitude, not for the money, but for the action. Ah! what good you have done my heart! Here are a hundred years of happiness for me, if I had them to live. Console yourself, my friend; I have still a few sous, and have no need of the two louis that you sent me, and of which you have deprived yourself for me; for I also know what your position is. But I will keep this piece to wear upon my heart, and it shall not leave me until my death. I know the motto I shall put there; it shall be my relic. Good-bye, mon bel ange, my good angel, my true friend. Believe{91} me there does not exist on earth a being who is more tenderly attached to you, and more inviolably attached to you, than your

“Sophie Arnould.

“On the 24th, I shall be with my good friends, with you and your wife, and shall devote that day to my happiness.”

In another letter, written eleven months later, we find her rejoicing over the victory of Hohenlinden, in which “her son in the army, her hussar, had well avenged them with the army of the Rhine against the Austrians.” She has received details of the engagement from Constant himself, who sends many affectionate messages to his “good and tender mother” and the Belangers, and desires to be remembered to “the amiable ladies of their circle.” The hastily-scribbled notes of the hussar, who seems to have been both a good son and a brave and capable officer—he rose, as we have mentioned elsewhere, to the rank of colonel and fell at Wagram—seem to have been one of the chief consolations of poor Sophie’s life.

When the first of the above letters was written, Sophie had been living for some years in Paris. She had returned to the capital in 1797, and had at first taken lodgings over a barber’s shop in the Rue du Petit-Lion, from which, however, she had removed, a few months later, to an apartment in the Hôtel d’Angivilliers. She still retained possession of the old priory at Luzarches, and appears to have occasionally visited it.

From the Hôtel d’Angivilliers, we find her writing to Lauraguais, who, though he had contrived to save his head,[65] was now almost as poor as she herself was, and{92} was living on a small farm which he had bought or rented at Manicamp, in the department of the Aisne. He had invited her to share his retreat, but Sophie felt obliged to decline the offer. She had succeeded, not without great difficulty, in obtaining from François de Neufchâteau, the Minister of the Interior, a pension of 200 livres a month, and, as pensions were paid very grudgingly, she feared that her leaving Paris might serve as an excuse for discontinuing it. Unable to join Lauraguais in the country, she now invites him to come and live with her, “as to end her days near him, to render him all the attentions of friendship, of the most tender, the most constant attachment, is the desire of her heart and will crown her happiness.” “One must have money, you will say,” she continues, after pointing out that Paris will be the safest place for him to be in, in the coming renewal of the faction strife, which she believes to be close at hand. “But you have a little, and I have a little also. We shall not have any great expenses to meet. No rent to pay; we must breakfast at home; for dinner we can visit our friends; we will be moderate at their houses and very moderate at our own. I have also some wood at Le Paraclet, a portion of which I will have brought here.... As to our means of living; well, my Dorval, we must help one another. We will take for our models Baucis and Philemon. Dorval will write the great adventures of the Revolution; I will transmit to posterity those of our youth. That is already a long time ago, but one never forgets what has moved one deeply. The heart alone, my Dorval, has imperishable recollections.... I shall prepare for you all that I can procure for your needs and comfort. You shall have a fine room, very large and airy and in a good position, where you{93} will be alone and free, with a staircase and door to yourself, a good bed, chairs and commodes to match, a big table for your papers, writing materials, &c. Finally, I hope you will not be uncomfortable. As for other matters, I have all that is required. To assist me, I keep one servant, a woman about thirty years of age, unmarried, and not too intelligent, but who works well and is a great help to me. The intelligent ones are only intrigantes, &c. We must avoid all that, and for good reasons. But do not, my friend, be uneasy about yourself; I shall always be at your service, and shall always say:

“ ‘Ah! qu’on est heureux de déchausser ce qu’on aime!’

“Adieu. I will let you know when the lodging will be ready. That will not be long; and do not send any excuses for not coming. Adieu.”

Lauraguais did not see his way to accept this invitation, but he appears to have been residing in Paris, for some time at least, during the last year or two of Sophie’s life, and to have done what little he could to assist her.

The poverty in which poor Sophie spent the last years of her life was in a great measure the result of her own goodness of heart. Soon after she removed from Luzarches to Paris, her daughter Alexandrine died, leaving behind her three children totally unprovided for. The ex-singer heroically undertook the charge of her grandchildren, although she must have been aware that the cost of their maintenance would leave her with hardly sufficient to procure the barest necessaries. Still, by the aid of the most rigid economy, she contrived to support both herself and them until the summer of 1799, when François de Neufchâteau resigned office, and the pension he had accorded her was discontinued. The{94} unfortunate woman was now almost penniless—it was at this time that Belanger sent her the double louis which called forth the letter of thanks we have already cited. Nevertheless, even when face to face with starvation, her wit did not desert her, as will be seen by the following letter, which she addressed to Lucien Bonaparte, the new Minister of the Interior:

Paris, I Pluviôse, Year viii. (January 21, 1801).

“Citizen Minister,—I am called Sophie Arnould; a name perhaps quite unknown to you, but formerly very familiar to the Theatre of the Gods.

‘Je chantais, ne vous déplaise.’

...Since my earliest years, and without any other destiny than the chance which governs so many things, twenty years of my life have been consecrated to the Théâtre des Arts,[66] where some natural talents, a careful education, and the most artistic teaching were supported by the counsels of men of taste, scholars, artists, in a word, of persons justly celebrated. As for myself, I had then to recommend me, a suitable physique, an abundant youth, vivacity, soul, a bad head, and a good heart. These were the auspices under which I was fortunate enough to make my life illustrious, and to gain, together with a sort of celebrity, glory, fortune, and many friends. Alas! now Chance has turned against me. As for celebrity, my name is still cited with some praise in association with those of Psyché, Thélaïre, Iphigénie, Eglé, Pomone, in a word, at the Théâtre des Arts. As for the friends, I can only say that I so well deserved them that I have only lost those whom death has taken from me, and those of whom the decemviral axe has deprived me.{95}

There is thus only inconstant Fortune which, without rhyme or reason, has given me the slip ... and in what circumstances too!... When I am too old for Love and too young for Death. You see then, Citizen Minister, how cruel it is, after so much happiness, to find oneself reduced to so miserable a state, and, after having kindled so many fires, to be to-day without even a log to burn on my own hearth! For the fact is that, since the nation has placed me on its Pension List, I have nowhere to sleep and nothing to live on. I assuredly do not ask for riches, but only for enough to enable me to finish my life and to avoid an unhappy old age. I have heavy expenses, because, in my fortunate days, I was the support of the unfortunate members of my family. That had to be, but my poverty does not make them rich. Finally, Citizen Minister, I beg you to come to my assistance and to continue those benefits which my friend, François de Neufchâteau, when he became Minister, procured for me. I owe this testimony to his heart....

“Sophie Arnould.”

Lucien Bonaparte’s reply to this letter was to promise Sophie a free benefit at the Opera. He subsequently, however, withdrew this permission, at the same time announcing his intention to make her, by way of compensation, a grant of 6000 francs. But, in the then depleted state of the Treasury, many months frequently intervened between a promise and its performance; and the poor woman could only obtain a portion of the money. Her condition was now pitiable, since not only was she living in extreme poverty, but her health was failing rapidly. An accident which she had met with some time before had induced a malignant growth which defied{96} medical treatment, and occasioned her terrible suffering. In her distress, she begged Belanger to write to the Minister, and the architect addressed to Lucien Bonaparte the following pathetic letter:

11 Messidor, Year x. (June 30, 1802).

“Citizen Minister,—I address this letter to you alone. It is written from the bedside of the celebrated Arnould, who is now on the point of death. [She did not die until four months later.] This woman is dying in want of the necessaries which her state of distress does not permit her to procure. You accorded her a benefit performance at the Théâtre des Arts, for which some obliging persons offered her 12,000 francs. You subsequently desired that this permission should be withdrawn and, in exchange, offered her 6000 francs. She has only received 4000. The 2000 which are still due would be of the greatest service to her; but to whom am I to address myself to obtain the fulfilment of your promise? The treasurer of the Théâtre des Arts declares that he must have a special order from you, and that, without such order, he can hand over nothing. And this unhappy woman, of whom Gluck said: ‘Without the charm of the voice and elocution of Mlle. Arnould, my Iphigénie would never have been accepted in France’—this unfortunate woman finds herself to-day deprived even of the means of prolonging her life, for want of assistance! What would the Moncrifs, the Rousseaus, the d’Alemberts, the Diderots, Helvétius, the Baron d’Holbach, and all those celebrated men who so courted her society (as you may find in their correspondence) have said to this? What would Voltaire himself have said? he who, at the age of eighty-four, had himself carried{97} to her house, and inscribed these verses on her bust:

“ ‘Ses grâces, ses talents ont illustré son nom;
Elle a su tout charmer, jusqu’à la jalousie.
Alcibiade en elle eut cru voir Aspasie,
Maurice, Lecouvreur, et Gourville, Ninon.’

“This woman, now so utterly forsaken, was once surrounded by men of learning. She lived to help the unfortunate; she lived to leave models and pupils to the stage, which she adorned and even created. Eminent men have immortalised her talents and her wit; and yet this woman is dying for want of means to procure remedies for the cruel sufferings which she is enduring.”[67]

It is believed that this letter was the means of shaming the Minister into paying the remainder of the sum due. Let us hope that such was the case, and that the money was able to procure poor Sophie some relief in her last hours. She died on Vendémiaire 30, Year xi. (October 22, 1802), having previously received the last Sacraments from the hands of the curé of Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois.

She was buried the following day; in what cemetery is uncertain. The Goncourts think it must have been at Montmartre, because all persons at this period who died in the IerArrondissement were interred there. But, as Mr. Douglas suggests, it is quite likely that Belanger or Lauraguais might have caused her to be buried elsewhere.

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