Memoires of Madame Vigee Lebrun - chapter 2

The Memoirs of Madame Vigée Lebrun – Chapter 2: Up the ladder of fame

My detestable stepfather, annoyed no doubt by the public admiration shown my mother, forbade us to go for any more walks, and informed us that he was about to take a place in the country. At this announcement my heart beat with joy, for I was passionately fond of the country. I had been sleeping near the foot of my mother’s bedstead, in a dark corner where the light of day never penetrated. Every morning, whatever the weather might be, my first care was to open the window wide, such was my thirst for fresh air.

So my stepfather took a small cottage at Chaillot, and we went there on Saturday, spent Sunday there, and returned to Paris on Monday morning. Good heavens, what a country! Imagine a tiny vicarage garden, without a tree, without any shelter from the blazing sun but a little arbour, where my stepfather had planted some beans and nasturtium, which refused to grow. At that we only occupied a quarter of this delightful garden, for it was divided into four by slender railings, and the three other sections were let out to shopboys, who came every Sunday and amused themselves by shooting at the birds. The incessant noise threw me into a desperate state of mind, besides which I was terribly afraid of being killed by these marksmen, so inaccurate was their aim. I could not understand why this stupid, ugly place, the very recollection of which makes me yawn as I write, was “the country.” At last my good angel brought to my rescue a friend of my mother’s, who one day came to dine with us at Chaillot with her husband. Both were sorry for me in my exile, and sometimes took me out for a charming drive.

We went to Marly-le-Roi, and there I found a more beautiful spot than any I had seen in my life. On each side of the magnificent palace were six summer-houses communicating with one another by walks embowered with jessamine and honeysuckle. Water fell in cascades from the top of a hill behind the castle, and formed a large channel on which a number of swans floated. The handsome trees, the carpets of green, the flowers, the fountains, one of which spouted up so high that it was lost from sight – it was all grand, all regal; it all spoke of Louis XIV. One morning I met Queen Marie Antoinette walking in the park with several of the ladies of her court. They were all in white dresses, and so young and pretty that for a moment I thought I was in a dream. I was with my mother, and was turning away when the Queen was kind enough to stop me, and invited me to continue in any direction I might prefer. Alas! when I returned to France in 1802 I hastened to see my noble, smiling Marly. The palace, the trees, the cascades., and the fountains had all disappeared; scarcely a stone was left.

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