Madame Lenormant: Juliette Récamier’s Adopted Daughter

Juliette Récamier 1801 by Jean-Baptiste Jacques Augustin. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Marie Josephine Cyvoct, who took the name Amélie, was born 26 December 1803 in Belley-en-Bugey, located in the Ain department in eastern France. Her father was a doctor named André Cyvoct, and he practiced at the Belley Hospital. Her mother was Mariette Récamier. Amélie was seven and half years old when her mother died in 1811.

A few months after Amélie’s mother died, Amélie’s uncle, a wealthy French Banker named Jacques-Rose Récamier, adopted Amélie. A socialite and French salonist named Jeanne-Françoise Julie Adélaïde Bernard, but called Juliette, had married Jacques-Rose when she was fifteen on 24 April 1793. Thus, Juliette Récamier (also known as Madame Récamier) became Amélie’s adopted daughter.  

Juliette loved to travel and soon after adopting Amélie, she took Amélie with her to Coppet to see her good friend Madame de Staël, who had been exiled by Napoleon. Later, when Napoleon exiled Juliette, Amélie went with her into exile at Châlons-sur-Marne. Juliette also traveled twice to Italy, once from March 1813 to June 1814 and later at the beginning of November 1822. The trip in 1822 was cited by Juliette as being for Amélie’s “delicate” health maintaining that Amélie needed to recuperate in a warmer climate.

Charles Lenormant. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

It was during this second tour of Italy that Amélie met her future husband, Charles Lenormant. Charles was about six months older than Amélie having been born 1 June 1802, in Paris. He had studied at both the Lycée Charlemagne and the Lycée Napoléon and obtained a law degree, which occupation he took up afterwards. However, when he visited Italy and Sicily between 1822 and 1823, he became enamored with archeology and gave up law to pursue a career in archeology.

Just as Charles was smitten with archeology, he also became smitten with the pretty Amélie. Charles had gotten to know Amélie by guiding her and Juliette on expeditions in and around Rome. Moreover, Charles had joined Juliette and Amélie in Venice where he functioned as their special chaperon taking them to palaces, art galleries, and churches and providing fascinating details about the places they visited and everything they saw.

Francois Rene Vicomte de_Chateaubriand. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Before Amélie left Italy, the couple were engaged, but because of finances, they could not afford to marry. Once they returned to France, Juliette’s friend and love of her life, the writer, diplomat, and historian, François-René de Chateaubriand, helped Charles get appointed as Inspector of Fine Arts in 1825. With the new position also came a fine new salary. This solved their financial issues and the couple married on 1 February 1826 at the Abbaye-Aux Bois.

Juliette thought highly of her adopted daughter’s husband writing on 26 May 1829:

“Tell him how much I am attached to him; how grateful I am to him for your happiness; but say to him also that he ought to adore me for having given him such a wife.”[1]

In the late 1820s, Charles went to Egypt with Jean-François Champollion, a French scholar, philologist and orientalist, known primarily for deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphs and for having found the field of Egyptology. Amélie accompanied her husband as far as Toulon, “where the frigate ‘l’Eglé’ was waiting to transport the savons to Alexandria.”[2] While in Egypt, Charles and Champollion read many hieroglyphic texts that had never before been studied, and then Charles planned to return to France by way of Alexandria. However, in Alexandria, Charles discovered he had been appointed assistant-director of the archeological and proceeded to Greece where he served in the archaeological department of the Morea scientific commission and where he studied Greek monuments for four months.

When Charles returned to France, Amélie was excited to greet him at Toulon. Over the next few years, Charles and Amélie had three children: Juliette (1830), Paule (1833), and François (1837), who also became an archeologist like his father. During these years, Charles’s career continued to improve. He was appointed curator of the works of art in the Royal Library in 1836 and served as chair for modern history. However, he lectured primarily on ancient history, particularly the origins of Greek civilization. He was elected a member of the Academy in 1839, appointed curator of the Cabinet of Medals in 1840, and went on a mission to Greece in 1841. He was also busy writing during this time.

Benjamin Constant. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

In 1849, Amélie found herself dealing with a situation that had affected Juliette years earlier. It began in 1815 when a Swiss-French political activist and writer on politics become enamored with Juliette. His name was Benjamin Constant. During his infatuation, he wrote Juliette about sixty passionate letters. Juliette considered these letters to be of value to the French public, but she did not want them published until after her death. She had also become close friends with a young French poet named Louise Colet. Colet visited Juliette often during the last year of her life, and the two women developed a close relationship. In fact, the relationship became close enough that Juliette entrusted Benjamin’s letters to Colet writing:

“I have given to madame Louise Colet the copy of the Letters of Benjamin Constant; trusting to her to make such use of them as she shall deem most honorable to his memory: upon the condition however, that these Letters shall not be communicated or published till after my death.”[3]

Part of Juliette’s reasoning for giving them to Colet rather than Amélie had to do with Amélie’s ultra conservative views and because Juliette thought Amélie would destroy Benjamin’s letters.

After receiving the letters, Colet began immediately to write an introduction and prepare the letters for publication. However, when Juliette died on 11 May 1849 from cholera, Colet found herself hard pressed for money and sold them a month later to the French newspaper La Presse.  The newspaper saw the letters as a boon and immediately announced their upcoming publication in an ad. They then published some of the letters the following week and found that readers were enthralled.

Louise Colet. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

In the meantime, Amélie who was Juliette’s legal heir, got an injunction accusing Colet of fraud and forgery and thereby preventing La Presse from publishing any more letters. Amélie was worried about preserving her aunt’s reputation and memory. Moreover, Benjamin’s family was also against the publication of the letters even though Benjamin had died years earlier on 8 December 1830.

A trial to determine the matter was scheduled for the last week in July 1849. It turned out to be a trial that had Frenchmen everywhere mesmerized. In fact, it became the most publicized trial of the year with one newspaper alleging:

“[T]he whole political horizon is now dark with menacing clouds, it may be doubted whether the Prince-President’s progresses, or the war in Hungary, or the restoration of the Pope, have not, one and all, been thrown in to the shade, by the lawsuit respected the right to publish private letters of Benjamin Constant to Madame Recamier.”[4]

The decision after the 10-day trial had both sides winning and losing. Colet and La Presse were ordered not to publish any more letters and had to pay restitution. However, Colet was not charged with fraud or forgery and the letters were returned to her. Sometime years later several other letters that Benjamin had written to Juliette were published in different publications, and then Colet published the remainder through a bookseller believing that the prohibition to publication had been lifted. Amélie’s lawyers protested, and it was determined that “all the copies of the work should at once be given up.”[5]

In 1855, Amélie published a two-volume book about Juliette’s life titled, Souvenirs et Corespondance de madame Récamier. Critics declared the book to be lacking, stating:

“We cannot say that she has succeeded in making either the character of the life of Mme. Récamier entirely clear to us. … A cloud of doubt and mystery hangs over the whole life, and the important relation of it rests upon a fiction.”[6]

Moreover, critics complained there was “little of the fresh and genuine expression of Mme. Récamier’s own sentiments and thoughts.”[7] Another criticism was that there was little information about Amélie and that few letters of Juliette’s were included.

Four years after Amélie’s publication, Charles died. It happened on 22 November 1859 while he was in Athens on an expedition. He was buried on the Colonus hilltop in Athens.

Amélie survived him by almost 35 years, and in the process watched all her children die (Juliette in 1875, Paule in 1883, and François in 1883). Amélie died in 1893 in Paris. By that time, most people had forgotten about her and probably forgotten about her connection to Juliette. A five-line newspaper article noted her death in July of 1893 but the article also misspelled her name and got her age wrong.

References:

  • [1] Lenormant, Amélie Cyvoct, Madame Récamier and Her Friends, 1867, p. 139.
  • [2] Ibid, p. 130.
  • [3] The Southern Literary Messenger, 1849, p. 599.
  • [4] “A French Trial,” in Derry Journal, 15 August 1849, p. 4.
  • [5] “The Farmer’s Corner,” in Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 22 December 1863.  p. 6.
  • [6] The Edinburgh Review, Or Critical Journal, Volume 111, 1860, p. 106.
  • [7] Ibid., p. 206.

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