Monday, 25 November 2013

Madame H. according to Abigail Adams

Abigail Adams by Benjamin Blythe, 1766

Abigail Adams in the HBO mini series John Adams

The correspondence of Abigail Adam's contains a memorable depiction of Madame Helvétius, who was one of the first  people Abigail met in 1784 when she and her daughter joined John Adams in France following the successful negotiation of the Treaty of Paris. The occasion was a dinner which took place chez Franklin on 1st September 1784.  The serious-minded Abigail was to say the least unimpressed by this untidily dressed and exuberant French lady!

The first mention is in a letter of 4th September 1784: 
""She was a Lady of Sixty years of age with whom I dined this week at Dr. Franklins.... "I could not judge of her conversation as I could not understand a word, but if it was in unison with her dress, and manners, I assure you that I consider myself fortunate that I did not". 

 More detailed description follows in a letter of 5th September :


This Lady I dined with at Dr. Franklings. She enterd the Room with a careless jaunty air. Upon seeing Ladies who were strangers to her, she bawled out ah Mon dieu! where is Frankling, why did you not tell me there were Ladies here? You must suppose her speaking all this in French. How said she I look? takeing hold of a dressing chimise made of tiffanny which She had on over a blew Lutestring, and which looked as much upon the decay as her Beauty, for she was once a handsome woman. Her Hair was fangled, over it she had a small straw hat with a dirty half gauze hankerchief round it, and a bit of dirtyer gauze than ever my maids wore was sewed on behind. She had a black gauze Skarf thrown over her shoulders. She ran out of the room. When she returnd, the Dr. enterd at one door she at the other, upon which she ran forward to him, caught him by the hand, helas Frankling, then gave him a double kiss one upon each cheek and an other upon his forehead. When we went into the room to dine she was placed between the Dr. and Mr. Adams. She carried on the chief of the conversation at dinner, frequently locking her hand into the Drs. and sometimes spreading her Arms upon the Backs of both the Gentlemans Chairs, then throwing her Arm carelessly upon the Drs. Neck.

I should have been greatly astonished at this conduct, if the good Doctor had not told me that in this Lady I should see a genuine French Woman, wholy free from affectation or stifness of behaviour and one of the best women in the world. For this I must take the Drs. word, but I should have set her down for a very bad one altho Sixty years of age and a widow. I own I was highly disgusted and never wish for an acquaintance with any Ladies of this cast. 

After dinner she threw herself upon a settee where she shew more than her feet. She had a little Lap Dog who was next to the Dr. her favorite. This She kisst and when he wet the floor she wiped it up with her chimise. This is one of the Drs. most intimate Friends, with whom he dines once every week and She with him. She is rich and is my near Neighbour, but I have not yet visited her. Thus my dear you see that Manners differ exceedingly in different Countries. I hope however to find amongst the French Ladies manners more consistant with my Ideas of decency, or I shall be a mere recluse.

 Since she had met "but one French lady" and respected Franklin's views, Abigail  promised to reserve judgment. One must suppose she did indeed thaw a little; certainly the Adams venture much beyond Franklin's immediate circle during their time in Paris.


See  Adams family correspondence vol. 5.  In Massachusetts Historical Society digital editions:
http://www.masshist.org/publications/apde/portia.php?&id=AFC05fd12

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