“Adèle de Sénange”

Down into the literary rabbit hole we plunge

[Excerpt from Conventions: The Garden At Paris. Paperback. Click to expand. Underlining by me.]

…Adélaïde-Emilie Filleul, Marquise de Souza-Botelho was known in the 1780s and 1790s as Adélaïde, also called Adèle, de Flahaut. Married to a man some thirty-five years older, and a mother (she had had a son in 1785 whom, although he of course carried her husband’s name, was possibly biologically fathered by the wily politician known to history as Tallyrand), Adèle indeed became very close to Gouverneur Morris, who was the American ambassador (they were called “ministers” until the late 1800s) to France from 1792-1794. She and the unmarried Morris became lovers at some point after he first arrived in Paris in 1789.

She was age 27; he was 37. Morris’s amazing diary he kept while in Europe includes regular references to her; their meetings are even detailed, one by one, based on Morris’s diary, at Charles de Flahaut.fr. These are Morris’s jottings down (translated into French) of their get-togethers for only the month of July 1789:

9 : soirée jeu chez Mme de Flahaut (partie carrée)
12 : journée “politique”chez Mme de Flahaut
13 : soirée chez Mme de Flahaut
14 : soirée chez Mme de Flahaut, inquiète
15 : visite chez Mme de Flahaut, avec son neveu et l’abbé Bertrand
17 : visite chez Mme de Flahaut avec l’abbé Bertrand
21 : à la Bastille avec Mme de Flahaut, Capellis et l’abbé Bertrand. Retour au Louvre
23 : dîner chez Mme de Flahaut ; conversation confidentielle : elle est “mariée de coeur”
26 : après-midi chez Mme de Flahaut
28 : après-midi, souper et soirée avec M et Mme de Flahaut : conversation sur les affaires publiques
29 : adieu à Mme de Flahaut

In late 1792, as the French Revolution began to move into its most violent and bloodiest phase, she fled to England with her son – probably avoiding the guillotine. Her much older husband was not so fortunate: he was killed (probably guillotined) in October 1793.

In exile, she took up writing romance novels – yes, really – for extra money. Thus at nearly age 35 did her “second life” begin. Her most famous book is her first. Published in 1794, less than 100 pages long, it’s written from the perspective of an English aristocrat who knows “her”: one “Adèle de Sénange”:

Its storyline details may be found elsewhere; what is worth noting is it is clearly to a large degree autobiographical. This is what may happen as you research to write: I had not examined it before and was looking through the book seeking some more background that might be of use for my own new manuscript. I got drawn in…

…I was supposed to be writing, not exploring a 224 year old French-language romance novel…

…and of course in doing that I ended up heading down paths I hadn’t expected.

There appears to be no English translation of the book available on Amazon. Frankly, I’m stunned if there isn’t one somewhere; but it is a relatively obscure book so it is possible there may still be no English translation available. Within her introduction, she writes:

Cet essai a été commencé dans un temps qui semblait imposer à une femme, à une mère, le besoin de s’éloigner de tout ce qui était réel, de ne guère réfléchir, et même d’écarter la prévoyance; et il a été achevé dans les intervalles d’une longue maladie: mais, tel qu’il est, je le présente à l’indulgence de mes amis.

That translates roughly as: “This endeavor was started in a time which imposed on a woman, a mother, the need to get away from everything that was real, to hardly think, and even to rule out foresight; and it was completed in the intervals of a long illness: But, as it is, I present it to the indulgence of my friends.” (Never entirely trust online translators. They are useful, but only when used with caution.)

Her last line there is commonplace in 18th century writing. In an introduction an author regularly “offered” the book up to one’s friends, hoping for their “approval” of the literary effort. It was seen as a necessary display of humility.

Just below that, she shares this English verse, which unsurprisingly I suppose caught my eye:

…. A faint shadow of uncertain light,

Such as a lamp whose life doth fade away,

Doth lend to her who walks in fear and sad affright.

That is the only English in the novel. I didn’t recognize the lines, and instantly also suspected they weren’t original. So of course I went searching…

Jackpot! I found that she may well have seen similar lines in British parliamentarian (and no fan of the French Revolution) Edmund Burke‘s (1730-1797) On the Sublime and Beautiful, which may – because of his stature – have been familiar to her, and had been published in 1756:

“A faint shadow of uncertain light,

Like as a lamp, whose life doth fade away;

Or as the moon clothed with cloudy night

Doth show to him who walks in fear and great affright.”

In turn, Burke got them, as he cites in his book, from 1500s English poet Edmund Spenser’s epic: The Faerie Queene, Book 2:

Both roofe, and floore, and wals were all of gold,
But ouergrowne with dust and old decay,
And hid in darkenesse, that none could behold
The hew thereof: for vew of chearefull day
Did neuer in that house it selfe display,
But a faint shadow of vncertain light;
Such as a lamp, whose life does fade away:
Or as the Moone cloathed with clowdy night,
Does shew to him, that walkes in feare and sad affright.

Are you still with me?

She had obviously altered them, and omitted the third line.

Interesting, too, notice in her version that she also altered the original “him” in Spenser’s poem to “her.”

In her novel, one of the minor characters is also an Englishman, whom she names… “Docteur Morris”:

John, à qui je puis me fier, la conduira chez le docteur Morris, chapelain de ma terre.

That is almost certainly meant to be Gouverneur Morris. Of course hidden messages and fictionalizations in novels are not new; they thrive on them. They have been in “fiction” forever.

I haven’t seen anything indicating if Morris was ever aware of what she had done. Regardless in 1794 he had far more important matters on his mind. He was in Paris, up to his eyeballs struggling daily trying to represent the new – and then relatively insignificant and militarily weak – republic of the United States of America in chaotic and murderous republican revolutionary France. (He himself saw a man murdered in the street just feet away. He was also present and witnessed the guillotining of former king Louis XVI.)

Although they did so only unpredictably, the only foreign government the French Jacobin revolutionaries really paid any attention to in terms of its opinion was that of France’s ally since 1778: the new United States. Morris appeared to have discovered that if he as the American ambassador discreetly asked Jacobin authorities about this or that arrested person, that the Jacobins then believed the government of the United States – especially President George Washington – was interested in that person’s life and treatment. During the Great Terror of 1793-94, “inquiries” he made may have helped keep some from death by the guillotine, most prominently possibly the Marquise de Lafayette.

[Adélaïde-Emilie, around age 40. Wikipedia. Public Domain.]

After the Revolution had blown itself out and Napoleon seized power, Adélaïde-Emilie returned to France and in 1802 remarried – this time with a Portuguese noble only a couple of years older than herself. They met after, learning who she was, he had apparently voiced interest to mutual acquaintances about wanting to meet the author of Adèle de Sénange. (The book evidently floored him. Perhaps too even a bit social-media-ish, admiring her from a distance, but pre-social media, one could imagine his initial approach: “Madame, if I may be so forward, but I so adore your Instagram novel.”) She died in Paris of natural causes in 1836 at age 74 and is buried in the famous Cimetière du Père-Lachaise.

There. A few things you may have just picked up on here that you never imagined reading about today! Have a good day, wherever you are. 🙂

2 thoughts on ““Adèle de Sénange”

    1. I first learned of her as Morris’s and Talleyrand’s companion. I’ve learned more about her since. Her books may become better known because there is such thirst for stories from that time. I read an historian who believed she’s similar to Jane Austen in what she writes about, but she writes in a more complex manner because she saw and experienced much more in life than Jane did. 🙂


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