Letter 98

Madame de Volanges to the Marchioness de Merteuil

A few days ago you applied to me, my charming friend, for advice and consolation; it is now my turn, and I am to make the same request you made to me for myself. I am really in great affliction, and fear I have not taken the proper steps to avoid my present sorrow.

My uneasiness is on account of my daughter. Since our departure, I observed she was always dejected and melancholy; that I expected, and assumed a severity of behaviour which I judged necessary; flattering myself, that absence and dissipation would soon banish an affection, which I viewed as a childish error, rather than a deep-rooted passion; but I am disappointed in my expectations, and observe she gives way more and more to a dangerous dejection. I am seriously alarmed for her health. These few days past, particularly, there is a visible alteration in her; and yesterday she affected me very much, and alarmed us all.

The strongest proof I have of her being sensibly affected, is because I find that awe she always stood in of me is greatly diminished. Yesterday morning, on my only asking her if she was indisposed, she flung herself in my arms, saying, she was very unhappy, and sobbed and cried piteously. You can’t conceive my grief; my eyes filled immediately; I had scarcely time to turn about, to prevent her seeing me. Fortunately, I had the prudence not to ask her any questions, and she did not venture to say anything more; nevertheless, I am confident it is this unhappy passion disturbs her.

What resolution to take, if it should last, I know not. Shall I be the cause of my child’s unhappiness? Shall the most delicate sensations of the mind, tenderness and constancy, be employed against her? Is this the duty of a mother? Were I even to stifle the natural inclination that induces us to seek our children’s happiness; should I call that weakness, which I am persuaded is the first, the most sacred duty? Should I force her inclinations, am I not answerable for the dreadful consequences that may ensue? What abuse of my maternal authority would it not be to place my daughter between guilt and misery!

My dear friend, I will not imitate what I have so often condemned. I was certainly authorised to choose for my daughter; in that, I only assisted her with my experience: I did not mean to use it as a right; I only fulfilled a duty, which I should have counteracted, had I disposed of her in contempt of an inclination which I could not prevent, the extent and duration of which neither she or I can foresee. No; she shall never marry Gercourt and love Danceny; I will much rather expose my authority than her virtue.

I am, then, of opinion, it will be the most prudent way to recall my promise to M. de Gercourt. You have my reasons which, I think, stronger than my promise. I will go farther; for as matters are circumstanced, by fulfilling my engagement I should in reality violate it: for if I am bound to keep my daughter’s secret from M. de Gercourt, I am also bound not to abuse the ignorance I leave him in, and to act for him, as I believe he would act himself, was he better informed. Should I, then, injuriously deceive him, when he reposes his confidence in me, and, whilst he honours me with the title of mother, deceive him in the choice he makes for his children? Those reflections, so just in themselves, and which I cannot withstand, give me more uneasiness than I can express.

In contrast to the misfortunes I dread, I picture to myself my daughter happy in the choice her heart has made, fulfilling her duties with pleasure; my son-in-law, equally satisfied, daily congratulating himself on his choice; each enjoying the other’s happiness, and both uniting to augment mine. Should, then, the prospect of so charming a futurity be sacrificed to vain motives? And what are those that restrain me? Interest only. Where is, then, the advantage of my daughter being born to a large fortune, if she is to be nevertheless the slave to that fortune? I will allow, that M. de Gercourt is, perhaps, a better match than I could have expected for my daughter; I will even own, I was much pleased when he made her his choice: but Danceny is of as good a family as he, and is nothing inferior to him in personal accomplishments; he has, moreover, the advantage over M. de Gercourt of loving and being beloved. He is not rich, it’s true; but my daughter is rich enough for both. Ah! Why should I deprive her the pleasure of making the fortune of the man she loves? Those matches of convenience, as they are called, where certainly everything is convenient except inclination and disposition, are they not the most fruitful source of those scandalous rumours which are become so frequent? I would much rather defer matters a little. I shall have an opportunity to study my daughter’s disposition, which as yet I am a stranger to. I have resolution enough to give her some temporary uneasiness, in order to make her enjoy some temporary happiness: but I will not risk making her miserable forever.

Thus, my dear friend, I have related to you my afflictions, on which I beg your advice. Those severe subjects are a contrast to your amiable gaiety, and seem not at all adapted to your age; but your good sense outstrips your years. Your friendship will also aid your prudence; and I am confident, both will gratify the maternal anxiety that implores them.

Adieu, my dear friend! never doubt the sincerity of my sentiments.