Skip to Content
Indiana University

Search Options




View Options


In a Walled Garden. Belloc, Bessie Rayner, 1829–1925.
previous
next
page: 285

MADEMOISELLE ADELAIDE DE MONTGOLFIER.

NO biography of this very distinguished Frenchwoman has appeared, except a paragraph in a great dictionary, recording her few books by their titles, and giving a wrong date of her birth; not an unimportant matter, as will be seen in the story of her life. She was the only person whom I ever heard speak of the French Revolution as an eye‐witness of the smallest fact. This aged lady, who was the closest friend of our family, was born in 1789, and lived to be ninety. She was therefore four years old at the death of Marie Antoinette; but as she lived not in Paris but at Annonay, near Lyons, that which she remembered distinctly was being awakened by men with torches in the middle of the night; men who came searching under her little bed for a hunted priest.

page: 286

The Montgolfiers were very wealthy, important people, who were known to protect the clergy, and their various houses were the scene of frequent domiciliary visits from the revolutionary authorities.

Nearly two hundred years ago President Montgolfier was a large paper‐maker in Annonay. He received that title as being at the head of some great commercial corporation having its chief centre at Lyons. He had nine children, and lived in patriarchal fashion among his workpeople, and surrounded by relatives. They were all important members of that Tiers Étât of which so little is known in England, and which on its upper level was allied to the noblesse de la robe. Two of President Montgolfier’s sons became famous as joint inventors of the balloon. Their names were Joseph and Etienne, and the latter was the father of Adelaide de Montgolfier. Joseph was the eldest of the two, and must from the first have had a lively mind, for at the age of thirteen he ran away from the College de Tournon, setting out gallantly for the shores of the Mediterranean, intending to live upon shell‐fish. Hunger compelled him page: 287 to stop on the way at a farm in Bas Languedoc, where he was employed to pick mulberry‐leaves for the rearing of silk‐worms. There his distracted parents found him and sent him back to school.

Joseph’s intellectual passion was for calculation and the higher mathematics, and a strong thread of eccentricity ran through his nature. Arrived at manhood he went off to a sort of hermitage, where he lived by fishing, and devoted himself to chemistry.

He made with his own hands Prussian blue and many salts needed in manufactures, and peddled them in the Vivarais. At length his wealthy father got him back, and set him to his natural work in the paper fabrique; but he never ceased making experiments and getting into divers schemes and much hot water. Meanwhile his brother Etienne, five years younger, was trained as an architect, and, according to the family tradition, fell upon a translation of one of Dr. Priestley’s works on air; on which he rushed to his wife, saying, “If what this Englishman says is true respecting the relative density and weight of warm and of cold air, we can raise a light machine page: 288 above the earth.” The two brothers then laid their scientific heads together, probably much troubling the respectable President, and made the splendid invention of which the last word is as yet far from being said.

After a first successful trial at Annonay, Etienne, though so much the youngest, was sent on a mission to Paris, where the idea was eagerly caught up by the scientific world, then in full activity previous to the Revolution, and he was invited to send off a balloon from the gardens of Versailles in the presence of the king and queen, and “all the court beside.” The experiment proved a splendid success, and the brothers were offered a patent of nobility, which they refused, unless it were first conferred upon the old President, their father. In 1832, Mademoiselle de Montgolfier and Madame Swanton‐Belloc spent a first summer at La Celle St. Cloud, and saw an old woman living in the village who well remembered the fall of that balloon in a neighbouring wood. Some of these particulars are to be found in an article written by Mademoiselle de Montgolfier for the Biographie Universelle in 1821, others she told to me herself.

page: 289
Etienne de Montgolfier did not live to be old. He married a Mademoiselle Brun, who in her early youth had been by some family intrigue made to take the veil. At the age of eighteen she appealed to Rome, and Rome set her free. She became the Madame de Montgolfier who survived her husband so many years that she became legendary in Paris. In the forties a quite fantastic story was set about of a workman finding a very old lady in the street, who said she had forgotten her own name, on which the workman said politely, “Ah, then you must be Madame de Montgolfier,” and straightway took her to her home! She was popularly said to have died at the age of one hundred and twelve, but she really was in all probability a century old, and there is no genuine record of her having failed in mind. She died in 1845, and is buried in our family grave at La Celle. Her husband predeceased her nearly half a century. He was deeply and fatally affected by the tragic events of the French Revolution. He only himself escaped death by the devotion of his workpeople, who hid him in a moment of extreme danger. But his daughter told me that what really shook page: 290 his health was the death of his dear friend Malesherbes, the defender of Louis the Sixteenth, which took place under peculiarly horrible circumstances. The son‐in‐law of Malesherbes, the President de Rosambo, imprisoned with him, had been taken away from his side for execution a few days before, and Malesherbes himself on the 22nd of April, 1794, was placed in the same cart as his daughter, Madame de Rosambo, and his granddaughter, Madame de Chateaubriand, and her husband. These had entreated to be allowed to share the same prison as the old man, and their wish had been granted. The young people were first guillotined, then Mme. de Rosambo, and lastly Malesherbes himself. The horror of that day, falling on the vivid, sensitive nature of Etienne de Montgolfier, was never recovered, though he survived for five years. His heart became affected, and he went in 1799 to Lyons with his family in search of medical advice. Feeling the approach of death, and “wishing to save his wife and children the sight of his death‐bed,” he started to return alone to Annonay, but did not reach his home alive. He died upon the way, at Serrières, page: 291 on the 2nd of August, 1799, when his little daughter was only ten years old. She survived him for eighty‐one years. No stronger proof of hereditary faculty can be cited than the case of Mlle. de Montgolfier. She was so good an artist, so good a writer, and so intelligent an organizer of daily life, that she might have excelled in any special department of activity to which she had devoted herself. At eighty years of age she was still at her easel, still wielding a lively pen, and still practically keeping a very complicated household. She was tiny in person, with a face full of expression, and her most marked characteristic was an extraordinary sensibility, using the word in its highest and best sense. She seemed a human harp on which every influence of nature, and every joy and grief of others played in turn. Her musical faculty had been keen, she wrote poems and set them to music. Her “Melodies du Printemps” were well known in France, and are delicate flowers of fancy. When nearly ninety she was fond of playing one particular air upon the piano; it was a Belgian Carillon, and the touch of her frail fingers seemed to the hearers to produce a wonderful page: 292 effect of melodies in the upper air, shaken down from high towers upon the children of men.

Mlle. de Montgolfier was liberal in politics. She reminded one of the pre‐revolutionary thinkers who finally sealed with their blood their devotion to the rights of man; and she scorned to allow the crimes of the ultra party to make her unjust.

She preserved a profound silence about religion, but went to Mass every Sunday. If the Gallican element had remained as an influence in French thought, creating a party, it is my impression that she would have been very Gallican, or perhaps a liberal Jansenist.

As it was, she said nothing, but accepted the ministrations of an old priest who knew her well and understood her points of view, and she passed away munie des sacraments de l’Eglise. Ten years before her death occurred the Siege of Paris, when she absolutely refused to leave the city, or even the house not far from the Luxembourg where she had lived for forty years; although it was on the south side of Paris and exposed to Prussian bombs sent from page: 293 the hills in possession of the enemy. It was not far from that orphanage in which eight children were killed in their beds. Every other family in the large dwelling‐house shut their apartments and departed, but Mlle. de Montgolfier resolutely stayed on in her flat, with her maid and a young lad for the outdoor service, doubly necessary during the siege, when every pound of food had to be obtained by standing in the queue, and she merely filled a huge bath with water and put it on the landing outside her door “to quench the bombs.” This old Frenchwoman of eighty spent her days for four months of that bitter winter attending an ambulance ever full of wounded soldiers brought in from the sorties, and when the siege was over it was found that Mademoiselle had torn up all her sheets and table‐cloths for dressings, and had then taken her own delicate stock of body‐linen, so that her maid said tearfully, “Elle ne s’est pas même gardée une seule chemise.” And this extraordinary bravoure which responded to a call of duty like that of some old knight taking down his arms from the wall, was adorned in daily intercourse with a most elaborate courtesy, a perfect politeness, of page: 294 which the modern world shows no example. If it were at first artificial in the original conception of the Versailles of the seventeenth century, it had become entirely natural to French people of social rank after its adoption by three or four succeeding generations. Educated by a mother who had been young under Louis the Fifteenth, and who had occupied in the Ardêche a great provincial position—brought to Paris when still a child, and accustomed to the conversation and the manners of the choicest cosmopolitan world as the inheritrix of a scientific name—Mlle. de Montgolfier blended in her own person all the best elements of French breeding. The Fairy Godmother had allotted her every gift except that of beauty, and she seems to have early made up her mind not to marry, though suitors were not wanting. The chief interest of a most affectionate heart was her enduring friendship of sixty years with Mme. Swanton‐Belloc, whose noble portrait in the Louvre enables this generation to understand the devotion she inspired. To this lady’s children, and particularly to the only son, Mlle. de Montgolfier was a second mother. To the page: 295 youngest generation she became in her old age the dear “Maman Aide” they will never forget; a gracious figure of the France which has passed away.

previous
next