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French Bred

NEW YORK — She was only 16 in 1798, but the young French aristocrat Adèle d’Osmond had already realized that her exiled parents were in a difficult financial situation, and resolved to do something about it. The Comte de Boigne was a...

NEW YORK — She was only 16 in 1798, but the young French aristocrat Adèle d’Osmond had already realized that her exiled parents were in a difficult financial situation, and resolved to do something about it. The Comte de Boigne was a wealthy 49-year-old (the equivalent of about 75 today). Originally from a lower-middle-class family, he had made a fortune in India, then bought a title, and he was visiting friends in England when he met and took a fancy to Adele. He proposed, and she accepted on the condition that he guarantee her parents an ample income. They were married 12 days after they met.

This story first appeared in the May 28, 2003 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

She describes her gambit in “Memoirs of the Comtesse de Boigne,” edited by Anka Muhlstein and published in two volumes by Helen Marx Books. The Comte thought he was getting a gentle, shy, well-brought-up girl. The new Comtesse was well-bred, but also extremely well-educated since, as she noted later, while in exile, her father had the time to tutor her. She had read widely, spoke several languages and was no shrinking violet. The marriage proved so stormy that the pair separated after just 10 months. A few months later, they were reunited, but they continued to quarrel and to separate over the years until they set up discrete establishments in 1812.

The Comtesse de Boigne, however, was no Consuelo Vanderbilt, scarred by an ill-advised marriage. Her husband’s wealth, in fact, left her free to live the life she wanted, as did the understanding they eventually reached. Actually, she had a great life, one that’s delightful to read about. She makes, as Muhlstein, who edited her books points out, a good memoirist partly because she didn’t have an axe to grind. This differentiates her from most memoir writers of the period (1781 to 1830), a particularly turbulent one in French history. She was well-connected, both by birth and by interest and inclination. Her house was one of the few where people of all shades of the political spectrum met. She also had a love affair for almost 40 years with Etienne-Denis Pasquier, who eventually became chancellor of France and a duke.

Muhlstein believes that the Comtesse’s perspective owes a great deal to the 14 years she spent in England, where she was exposed to a more democratic society, and the fact that, although from a very old family herself, she was married to one man of the new age and engaged in a long-term love affair with another. As Muhlstein writes in an afterward, “The French Revolution, when it swept away the Ancien Régime, did more than take away the privileges of the nobility — it also ended what could almost be called the professional status of aristocratic women. The position and ancient nobility of Mlle. d’Osmond’s family would have assured her of a grand marriage and a place at court; and that, in turn, would have given her influence, a role, a job.” Fortunately, she was resourceful enough to reinvent herself in the new society.

The Comtesse de Boigne is tart and funny about people. She notes, for example, that Madame de Staël, though brilliant and winning, dressed oddly and carelessly. Then there was the Queen of Sweden, who began life as Désirée, the daughter of a Marseilles merchant who married Bernadotte, an army officer who then unexpectedly became king of Sweden. Désirée became obsessed with the Duc de Richelieu and stalked him, literally, taking rooms near his apartment in Paris, going into the same shops after him, even following him when he went on vacation, staying in the same inns. No matter where he went, her carriage followed his. The Comtesse also describes the legendary beauty Emma, Lady Hamilton as practically illiterate but exquisite and able to bend any man within reach to her will. Hamilton could also be mean-spirited and cruel, and died penniless and in disgrace.

There were strange goings-on in Turin, Italy, too, where the Comtesse’s father was posted as ambassador for several years, and she served as his hostess. King Vittorio Emmanuel had just returned from exile, and insisted on putting everything back to the way it had been when he had left 20 years before. Career military men, for example, who had achieved high ranks in the intervening years had to accept being demoted to subalterns or leave the service. The king went so far as to have an important ornithological collection that had been assembled by the French destroyed. From these shenanigans, the Comtesse writes, she learned the pitfalls of giving one man absolute power.

She also lived through other, even more dramatic, events. When Charles X, for example, was about to be deposed, he was said to be spending all this time playing whist in his apartments at Versailles and avoiding speaking to anyone who came from Paris, so that he didn’t have to hear any bad news.

Paris at the time was a small world, and people visited and wrote each other frequently. The Comtesse herself wrote Pasquier every morning, as today one might telephone someone daily. Then, too, as Muhlstein says, “Social life was a full-time occupation, and you needed to know how to do it.”

Muhlstein is a writer who won the Prix Goncourt for a biography of the travel writer Astolphe de Custine and has also won the French Academy’s history prize twice. She is married to the noted writer and lawyer Louis Begley, and they share a spacious, well-appointed apartment on Park Avenue with two charming Abyssinian cats. This is a second marriage for both of them. They met in France, where Muhlstein was working as a editor, but because she needed to look after her own two children and three stepchildren when they married, she opted for the greater flexibility writing offered. After their children were grown, her husband began to write, too, on weekends and vacations. The pair have done a book together about a favorite city, Venice — he covered its literary history and venues, she its restaurants.

Have they ever been competitive as writers?

“Not at all. We don’t write in the same language,” says Muhlstein, who usually writes in French. “And he’s a novelist and I’m non-fiction. We both read each other’s stuff while we’re writing it. We’re secure enough in ourselves and about each other to do that.

“Actually, there’s a big advantage in being married to another writer, because you know, for example, that when you’re writing, time doesn’t really exist. Writers have a floating schedule, and besides, most of them don’t talk that much, because they’re thinking about what they’re writing. My husband and I take walks where we don’t exchange a word. That might be disorienting for somebody else.”