Marquise du Deffand
Allow us to introduce you to the Marquise du Deffand. Fiercely independent and quite flirtatious, she’s another French salonnière who was far ahead of her time.
Marie Anne de Vichy-Chamrond was born into a noble family in 1697 at the Château de Chamrond in beautiful Burgundy. Smart as a whip, she was sent to study at a convent in Paris but her cynical turn of mind, independent opinions, and spirit, quite alarmed the abbess, and her parents decided the best thing to do was to get the girl hitched.
When Marie was 21, they arranged a marriage to a gentleman 10 years her senior, the dull Jean Baptiste de la Lande, Marquis du Deffand. It wasn’t long before Marie decided she’d had enough of the old fuddy-duddy and ditched him to become the mistress of the Duke of Orleans. Our lady liked to play the field, though, and in 1721, cultivated a friendship with Voltaire and perhaps even fancied the witty writer, who became her regular pen pal.
A portrait of Voltaire by Maurice Quentin de la Tour c. 1736
You can imagine how charming she must have been to attract so many interesting men, and that esprit made her the center of a brilliant circle, her salon. With her notorious band of high-born débauchés, the Marquise’s salons were a welcoming place for the libertines and aristocrats of the day. Among her famous guests were Charles Henault (President of the Court of Inquiry and a close friend of the Queen), the writer, Marmontel, and the philosophers Diderot and Montesquieu.
Another habitué of her salon who caught the Marquise’s eye—here we go, again—was Jean le Rond D’Alembert, a mathematician and the publisher of the Encyclopedie. They remained close until the Marquise started to lose her sight in 1754, when she brought in Mademoiselle Julie de Lespinasse to help with her salons. Lo and behold, the younger Julie went behind the Marquise’s back and charmed D’Alembert. When the ladies quarreled and went their separate ways, Julie took D’Alembert with her.
Our matron may have been saddened to lose her literary clique and her beloved D’Alembert, but she wasn’t the type to cry over spilled Margaux. She soon found a younger man with whom to liaise, the British art historian and man of letters, Horace Walpole. Now 67, our Marquise developed quite a crush on Horace, 20 years her junior. While he may not have encouraged her advances, the two did maintain While he many not voluminous correspondence. Upon her death in 1780 at the age of 83, the Marquise left her precious papers and her precious pooch, Tonton, to his care.
A portrait of Horace Walpole by John Giles Eccardt, circa 1755
A book of the Marquise’s letters, Correspondance Inédite De Mme Du Deffand Avec D’alembert, Montesquieu, Le Président Hénault, La Dsse Du Maine, Mmes De Choiseul, De Staal, Le Mis … Lettres De M. De Voltaire À Mme Du Deffand, was published posthumously in 1809.
Until the end, this smart and sassy salonnière kept her mind and her options wide open. Bravo, Madame!
Click here to read about Kristen O’Brien, this story’s author.