Adams Family Correspondence, volume 5



Anne-Catherine, Comtesse De Ligniville D'Autricourt, Madame Helvétius, by Louis Michel Vanloo 347[unavailable]

Host of the famous salon “L'Académie d'Auteuil,” intimate friend of Benjamin Franklin, and near neighbor of the Adamses, Mme. Helvétius (1719–1800) was among the first French women Abigail Adams and her daughter met. Their shocked reactions are recorded in early letters from France.

One of twenty-two children, Anne-Catherine Helvétius was born into the ancient Ligniville family. After spending much of her youth in a convent with rather dim prospects, she was brought to Paris by her aunt, the author Françoise Grafigny. There she met and married, in 1751, the hedonistic philosopher and farmer-general Claude Adrien Helvétius (1715–1771), author of the controversial De l'esprit. Inheriting her husband's significant fortune, Mme. Helvétius settled in Auteuil, enjoying her garden, her menagerie, and the company of many of the great thinkers of her era.

Benjamin Franklin called Mme. Helvétius “Notre Dame d'Auteuil” and sometime between 1778 and 1780 proposed to her. Upon being rejected, he wrote a letter to her containing a parable in which he meets the late M. Helvétius and Deborah Franklin, who have married in the afterlife, prompting Franklin to renew his proposition. (“The Elysian Fields, M. Franklin to Madame Helvétius,” printed in Benjamin Franklin: Writings, ed. J. A. Leo Lemay, xixN.Y., 1987, p. 924–925. It is thought to be dated January 1780 by the editors of the Franklin Papers.)

Following a dinner hosted by Mme. Helvétius, Abigail Adams 2d wrote to Lucy Cranch (4 September 1784, below): “I wish it were possible to give you a just idea of her. I know not in America any person of any class that would serve as a description, or comparison, unless it is Mrs. Hunt when she is crazy. I could not judge of her conversation as I could not understand a word, but if it was in unison with her dress, and manners, I assure you that I consider myself fortunate that I did not.”

Concluding a vivid description of Mme. Helvétius' behavior, Abigail Adams wrote, also to Lucy Cranch (5 September 1784, below): “I should have been greatly astonished at her conduct, if the good Doctor Franklin had not told me that in this Lady I should see a genuine French Woman, wholy free from affectation or stifness of behaviour and one of the best women in the world. For this I must take the Drs. word, but I should have set her down for a very bad one altho Sixty years of age and a widow. I own I was highly disgusted and never wish for an acquaintance with any Ladies of this cast. . . . Thus my dear you see that Manners differ exceedingly in different Countries. I hope however to find amongst the French Ladies manners more consistant with my Ideas of decency, or I shall be a mere recluse.”

See Hoefer, Nouv. biog. générale ; Claude-Anne Lopez, Mon Cher Papa, Franklin and the Ladies of Paris, New Haven, 1966, p. 244–301.

Courtesy of the Caisse Nationale des Monuments Historiques, Paris (Copyright 1991 ARS, N.Y./SPADEM).