Authors: Susanne Dunlap
For Sofia, Ella, and Avery, with love
Paris! I’m in Paris!
Or at least I was, for a few weeks, until Mama decided to ruin everything by sending me to school.
I wish I didn’t have to go! L’Académie Nationale à Saint-Germain. Horrors. I thought this year in Paris was going to be for fun, a break from learning tedious sums and boring history. It’s 1799, after all. The revolution is long over and France is becoming an extraordinary power again. Not to mention the gowns. How everyone in Virginia will be envious of me when I return with the latest fashions to show them!
“Remember, Eliza, you can hold your head up in the most exalted company in France. We’re descended from the New York Aspinwalls, a very honored and wealthy family. Our money did not come from trade, and your father was first minister to France when Jefferson was president.”
This is the hundredth—no, the thousandth—time my mother has told me this as we set out for Saint-Germain-en-Laye. At least she could have found a school actually
Paris, for pity’s sake! But as usual, she had to find the best. Anything to raise us up a notch.
“Your papa—and I, truth be told—were the ones who managed to get the Marquis de Lafayette out of prison in Germany during the
. You know I went to the jail in Paris where they were holding Madame de Lafayette, and saved her from the guillotine?” She thinks I was too young to remember, but I recall it quite well. How nervous she was, in the rented carriage with liveried servants attending, at a time when everyone who looked aristocratic risked being set upon by a mob. I can still picture the broken-down walls and rubble in the streets. They’ve been cleaned up nicely since then.
As for the school, I expect I’ll find only the daughters of dead aristocrats, or perhaps a few grocers’ daughters who have risen up in the world thanks to the new system of merit. The new manner of government gives titles and positions to those who actually deserve them. It will be easy to stand out in that sort of crowd.
school! It truly isn’t necessary. I already have enough Latin to understand erudite jokes at a dinner party. My needlework is as fine as it must be to entertain me at home on quiet evenings. I can spell tolerably well and have read most of the books in my father’s library. It
was supposed to be a lark to come to Paris. Mama promised we’d have a delightful home together for this year, and then go back to Virginia. Papa practices law there, and we have a lovely plantation and neighbors who come to dance and enjoy themselves with us.
“You understand, it’s not for your education in the usual sense,” Mama says to me. “But I hope it will be an education in other ways. It will add some polish to you and make your French not only good but flawless. Madame Campan is very respected.”
“Yes, yes, I know. She was mistress of the bedchamber to Marie Antoinette. Do you suppose she went to the execution?” I wondered what it was like to see someone get her head chopped off!
“Eliza! Don’t be ghoulish!” Mama swallows the last word as she is flung to the other side of the carriage. They may have rebuilt much of Paris, but the roads are still atrocious.
Once she regains her balance and straightens her headdress, Mama continues. “Ernestine has done a marvelous job on your
.” She pronounces it in an exaggerated French accent. Mama thinks her French is perfect, but I can hear the rough edges. I would never say anything to her about it, though.
“She knows everything and everyone,” I say. Ernestine was a find. She used to serve in the household of a duchess and is acquainted with the finest couturiers and milliners in Paris. It is because of her that I am wearing the high-waisted
gown made of silk voile with a blue satin sash and only a black silk rope with a simple gold locket around my neck.
“It is not the fashion to wear jewels in the daytime in Paris,” Ernestine told me just this morning. “Ever since the
, one’s wealth is shown only in private circles where everyone is trusted.”
“I should think Ernestine could teach me all I need to know about French society,” I say, knowing it will vex my mother.
“Saint-Germain isn’t just any suburb, you know,” Mama says. Sometimes I think she can read my mind. “Many of France’s wealthiest families have homes in Saint-Germain. There’s a royal palace there, although no one stays in it now.”
“At least you’re not making me board at this school,” I say.
Mama does not meet my eyes but looks out the window of the carriage. “See how pretty it is here.”
“I certainly don’t need to mix with bourgeois country girls who have come to Paris for some culture, afterward to return to Rouen, or Lille, or Toulouse—wherever they came from—to marry the wealthy burghers their papas have already picked out for them.”
Mama says nothing, and before I can press the issue we pull up to the gates of the courtyard. The school’s footman opens them for us. He’s not in livery, I observe. Our Negro coachman in Virginia wears livery. Still, I expect it is another one of those practices that is frowned upon after the revolution. I can see that at one time someone’s crest
must have topped the gates, but it was most likely torn off by the mob. I’m pleased to see that the courtyard is well kept and quite large, and there’s a fresh coat of black paint on the doors and window frames.
An elderly lady dressed entirely in black greets us at the door—well, perhaps she isn’t as old as she looks; many of the people we’ve encountered in the salons who survived the
have white hair, even though they are not yet forty. It was the fear, they told us. But by the lines in Madame Campan’s face I can see that she would have been white haired with or without a fright.
, Madame Monroe, and Mademoiselle Elizabeth.”
s’il vous plaît
,” I say, giving her just as much of a curtsy as I think she warrants. I detest it when people call me by my mother’s name.
“Madame Campan, how good of you to meet us,” Mama says, flashing me a fierce look.
I suppose it was a little rude of me, and I decide I had better make up for my impertinence by being very sweet.
“But you have not brought any trunks for Mademoiselle ... Eliza,” Madame Campan says as she leads us across a large vestibule with a stairway that sweeps in a curve up to the next floor and into a spacious drawing room where tea things have been laid out.
“Oh, I’m not—” I start to speak, but my mother places her hand on my arm to stop me.
“I didn’t want to delay our arrival for the sake of packing. Her maid will bring the luggage—you do have accommodations for personal maids?” Mama flashes Madame Campan her most winning smile.
My maid will bring...?
This was not in our plans! I am so stunned I almost forget to notice what kind of china the tea is served on, and whether the silver is plate or sterling. When did Mama decide that I would board? I don’t want to be a prisoner in a girls’ school! Paris is for attending parties and going out to fabulous banquets and the theater and the opera. I try to catch Mama’s eye, but she steadfastly avoids me. No doubt having Ernestine there is intended to soften the blow to me.
But it won’t work. She tricked me. My own mother! I feel a sensation like fire bubbling up inside me. I want to throw something, or spit. But I can’t argue. Not in front of others. Instead I have to sit here like a lady.
“Ah, and here is another one of my pupils,” Madame Campan says, gesturing toward the salon door. “Allow me to present Hortense de Beauharnais.”
De Beauharnais... That is a noble name. And familiar somehow. And this girl who enters the room is utterly beautiful. Blue eyes, delicate features, and golden blond hair. She is dressed in the very latest fashion, and how she moves—she floats, hardly disturbing the air around her.
To my surprise, Mama, who considers herself superior to everyone, stands and curtsies to greet this apparition,
who I can see is only a few years older than I. “An honor to meet you, mademoiselle,” Mama says. “May I present my daughter, Eliza Monroe? Eliza, this is the daughter of Joséphine Bonaparte.”
My teacup is about to touch my lips and I must use every ounce of concentration not to jerk suddenly and slosh the tea out and over my gown. Daughter of Joséphine! I just saw the famous lady the other night, in a box at the theater, wearing exquisite jewels and looking absolutely beautiful. Some people say she ensnared the general and he had to marry her. Others are even less kind and say her powerful former lover, the Marquis de Barras, passed her on to his young protégé.
“And I,” says another voice before I can even address Hortense, “am sister to the great general himself.”
We all four turn at once to see another girl enter through the same door. She is not quite as beautiful as Hortense, but very striking. Her eyes flash dark and lively. Her skin is smooth as porcelain, and her gown is of the finest silk and decorated with jewels at the neckline.
“Yes, this is Caroline Bonaparte, who has been at my school almost since her arrival in Paris. You are all close enough in age to be friends, I hope,” Madame Campan says, smiling toward my mother, who looks as though every dream she’s ever had for me is about to come true.
Could this be why such a plan was hatched? Because Mama wanted to throw me together with these girls—the most famous in all Paris, perhaps even the world? I suppose if
I have to be away from home boarding in a girls’ school, it will at least be a compensation to keep company among the most celebrated young ladies alive.