Letter 104

The Marchioness de Merteuil to Madame de Volanges

It was with some difficulty, my dear worthy friend, I could suppress an impulse of pride on reading your letter. You honour me, then, with your full confidence; you even condescend to ask my advice. I should be completely happy if I merited this favourable opinion; or, that it did not proceed from the prepossession of your friendship. Whatever may be the motive, it is so flattering, that having obtained it, I shall endeavour more ardently to deserve it. I shall then, but without presuming to advise, tell you freely my thoughts. I own I am diffident of them, as they differ from yours; yet, when you have my reasons, you will then judge, and if they should not meet with your approbation, I declare beforehand I submit. I shall, at least, be so prudent as not to think myself wiser than you. However, for this once, if my opinion should have the preference, you will find the cause in the facility of maternal fondness. With you we must look for so laudable an inclination, and readily recognize it in the measure you are inclined to embrace. Thus if you sometimes err, it is always on the side of virtue.

When we are to decide on the lot of others, but more especially, when the question is to fix it by a sacred and indissoluble band, such as marriage, prudence, I think, ought to take place of all other considerations. It is then an equally wise and tender mother should, as you well observe, assist her daughter with her own experience. I ask then, how is she to attain it, but by making a distinction between what is pleasing and what convenient.

Would it not be debasing maternal authority, nay even annihilating it, to make it subservient to a frivolous inclination, whose illusive power is felt only by those that dread it, and immediately vanishes when contemptuously treated? For my part, I must own I never believed in those irresistible, impetuous passions, which one would imagine the world has adopted, as an universal excuse for their irregularities. I cannot conceive how a passion, that one moment creates, and the next destroys, can overpower the unalterable principles of chastity, decency and modesty; nor how a woman, that has relinquished them, can be justified by a pretended passion, no more than a robber for a thirst for money, or a murderer for a desire of revenge. Where is the person who has not had their struggles? I have been always persuaded, inclination was sufficient for resistance, and experience has confirmed my opinion. Of what estimation would virtue be, without the obligations it imposes? Its worship are our sacrifices, its reward in our hearts. Those incontestable truths can be denied only by those whose interest it is to forget them; and who being already contaminated, hope to carry on the illusion, and justify their bad conduct by worse reasoning.

But is this to be apprehended from an innocent timid child; from a child of yours, whose pure and modest education is strengthened by a happy disposition? Still it is to this apprehension, which I will venture to call very humiliating for your daughter, you would give up an advantageous match your prudence had provided. I have a great friendship for Danceny; and you know for some time past I have seldom seen M. de Gercourt: but my friendship for the one, nor my indifference for the other, can prevent me from observing the immense difference between the two matches.

As to birth, I agree with you, they are on an equality: but the one is deficient in fortune, and the other’s is such as, exclusive of blood, is sufficient to raise him to the highest employments. I acknowledge, happiness may be independent of fortune; but we must also own it a very necessary ingredient. You say, Mademoiselle de Volanges is rich enough for both; yet sixty thousand livres per annum, which she is to possess, will not be too much for one who bears the name of Danceny, to furnish and keep up a house suitable to it. These are not Madame de Sévigné’s days. Luxury absorbs everything; we blame, yet imitate it; and our superfluities end in depriving us of necessaries. As to personal accomplishments, which you with great reason dwell much on, certainly on that point M. de Gercourt is irreproachable, which he has already proved. I am fond of thinking, and really believe Danceny is not his inferior; but are we so certain of it? It is true, hitherto he appears untainted with the follies of the age, and notwithstanding the ton of the day, he shows a taste for good company, which inclines one to judge favourably of him. Yet who knows whether this apparent discretion is not the result of the mediocrity of his income? To be a gamester or a libertine, money must be had; or if there should be a tincture of knavery or epicurism, one may be fond of the defects, and still dread their excess. There are thousands who are admitted into good company because they have no other employment.

I do not say, God forbid I should! that I believe such things of him: yet there is some danger; and if the event should not answer your expectations, how you would reproach yourself! What reply could you make to your daughter, who would probably say, “Mother, I was young and unexperienced; I was even led astray by an error excusable at my age: Providence, which had foreseen my incapacity, had given me a prudent mother to preserve me. How is it then, that laying your discretion aside, you have consented to make me unhappy? Was I to choose a husband, I who knew nothing of a married state? If even I was determined on it, should you not have opposed it? But I never was possessed with that foolish self will. Determined to obey you, I waited with respectful veneration your choice. Did I ever swerve from my submission? Yet now I suffer the afflictions due to rebellious children only. Your weakness has been my ruin.” Perhaps her respect might stifle those complaints: but your maternal love would discover them; and your daughter’s tears, though concealed, would still overwhelm your heart.

Where then will you seek consolation? Will it be in this ridiculous passion, against which you should have guarded her, by which you even suffer yourself to be seduced?

Perhaps I may, my dear friend, conceive too strong a prejudice against this attachment: I view it in a formidable light, even in case of a marriage. Not that I disapprove a decent and pure intention should embellish the matrimonial bands, to soften in some measure the obligations it requires: but he is not the man appointed to tie them; it is not an illusory moment that ought to regulate our choice for life: for to choose well, we ought to compare; how then is it possible, when our imaginations are engrossed by a sole object; when that object cannot even be investigated, as we are plunged in intoxication and blindness? I have often, I assure you, fallen in with women attacked by this dangerous disorder; some of them I have been in confidence with: hear them speak, their lovers were in every degree all perfection; but those perfections were confined to their imaginations only. Their exalted ideas dress at pleasure those they prefer; they dream of nothing but excellence and virtue; it is the drapery of an angel often worn by an abject model: be him as he may, they have no sooner adorned him, than, dupes to their own labour, they fall down and adore him.

Your daughter, then, does not love Danceny, or, she is fascinated by this same illusion; and if they mutually love, they both experience the same. Thus your reason for uniting them is reduced to a certainty that they do not know each other, but also, that they never can know each other. I think I hear you say, “Can M. de Gercourt and my daughter know each other better?” No, certainly; but at least they do not mistake themselves; they are not sufficiently acquainted together. What then happens between a couple that I suppose decent? Why they study to please, observe, seek, and find out soon what inclinations or desires they must relinquish, for their mutual tranquillity. Those small self denials give but little uneasiness, as they are foreseen, and are reciprocal; they are soon converted into mutual good will; and custom, which ever strengthens all inclinations it does not destroy, gradually leads to that sincere friendship, that tender confidence, which, when united with esteem, forms, I think, the true solid happiness of the married state.

The illusions of love, I will allow, are more engaging; but don’t we well know they are not so lasting? And what dangers does not their destruction bring on! Then the most trivial faults become shocking and intolerable, being contrasted with the ideas of perfection which had seduced us. Each then thinks the other is only altered, and they themselves of as much worth as in the first instant the error took its rise. They are astonished they can no longer create the charm they experienced; they are humbled; vanity is hurt, the mind is soured, injuries augmented, which bring on peevishness, and is succeeded by hatred; thus frivolous pleasures are repaid by long misfortunes.

I have now given you, my dear friend, my thoughts on this subject. I do not insist on them, only lay them before you:⁠—you are to decide. Should you persist in your opinion, I shall only beg to know the reasons that combat mine. I shall be happy to be set right by you, and, above all, to be made easy on the fate of that lovely child, whose happiness I so ardently wish, not only for my particular friendship for her, but also for that which unites me to you forever.