In June 1885, three Frenchmen arrived in London. One was a Prince, one was a Count, and the third was a commoner with an Italian surname. The Count subsequently described their purpose as “intellectual and decorative shopping.”
Or we might begin in Paris the previous summer, with Oscar and Constance Wilde on their honeymoon. Oscar is reading a recently published French novel and, despite the occasion, happily giving interviews to the press.
Or we could begin with a bullet, and the gun which fired it. That usually works: a sturdy rule of theatre declares that if you show a gun in the first act, it will assuredly be fired in the last. But which gun, and which bullet? There were so many of them around at the time.
We might even begin across the Atlantic, in Kentucky, back in 1809, when Ephraim McDowell, the son of Scottish and Irish immigrants, operated on Jane Crawford to remove an ovarian cyst containing fifteen litres of liquid. This strand of the story, at least, has a happy ending.
Then there is the man lying on his bed in Boulogne-sur-Mer—perhaps with a wife beside him, perhaps alone—wondering what to do. No, that’s not quite right: he knew what to do, he just didn’t know when or whether he would be able to do what he wanted to do.
Or we might begin, prosaically, with the coat. Unless it is better described as a dressing gown. Red—or, more exactly, scarlet—full length, from neck to ankle, allowing the sight of some ruched white linen at the wrists and throat. Beneath, a single brocade slipper allows tiny dashes of yellow and blue into the composition.
Is it unfair to begin with the coat, rather than the man inside it? But the coat, or rather its depiction, is how we remember him today, if we remember him at all. How would he have felt about that? Relieved, amused, a trifle insulted? That depends on how, at this distance, we read his character.
But his coat reminds us of another coat, painted by the same artist. It is wrapped around a handsome young man of good—or at least prominent—family. Yet despite standing for the most famous portrait painter of the day, the young man is not happy. The weather is mild, but the coat he is being asked to wear is of heavy tweed, intended for an altogether different season. He complains to the painter about its choice. The painter replies—and we only have his words, so cannot tell the tone on a scale from gently teasing to professionally commanding to magisterially contemptuous—the painter replies: “It’s not about you
, it’s about the coat.” And it’s true that, as with the red dressing gown, the coat is now remembered more than its young inhabitant. Art outlasts individual whim, family pride, society’s orthodoxy; art always has time on its side.
So let’s continue with the tangible, the particular, the everyday: with the red coat. Because that’s how I first encountered the picture and the man: in 2015, hanging in the National Portrait Gallery in London, on loan from America. I called it a dressing gown just now; but that’s not quite right either. He hardly has pyjamas underneath—unless those lacy cuffs and collar were part of a nightshirt, which seems unlikely. Do we call it a day coat, perhaps? Its owner has hardly just fallen out of bed. We know that the picture was painted in the late mornings, after which artist and subject had lunch together; we also know that the subject’s wife was astonished at the painter’s large appetite. We know that the subject is at home, because the picture’s title tells us so. That “home” is expressed by a deeper hue of red: a burgundy background setting off the central scarlet figure. There are heavy curtains tied back by a loop; and a further, different swathe of fabric, all of which melts into a floor of the same burgundy colour without any obvious dividing line. It is all highly theatrical: there is swagger not just in the pose but also in the pictorial style.
It was painted four years before that trip to London. Its subject—the commoner with the Italian name—is thirty-five, handsome, bearded, gazing confidently over our right shoulder. He is virile, yet slender, and gradually, after the picture’s first impact, when we might well think that “it’s all about the coat,” we realise that it isn’t. It’s more about the hands. The left hand is on the hip; the right hand is on the chest. The fingers are the most expressive part of the portrait. Each is articulated differently: fully extended, half-bent, fully bent. If asked to guess the man’s profession blind, we might think him a virtuoso pianist.
Right hand on chest, left hand on hip. Or maybe something more suggestive than this: right hand on heart, left hand on loins. Was that part of the artist’s intention? Three years later, he painted a portrait of a society woman that had a scandalous effect at the Salon. (Could the Paris of the Belle Epoque be shocked? Certainly; and it could be just as hypocritical as London.) The right hand plays with what looks to be a toggle fastening. The left hand is hooked into one of the coat’s twin waist cords, which echo the curtain loops in the background. The eye follows them along to a complicated knot, from which dangle a pair of feathery, furry tassels, one on top of the other. They hang just below groin level, like a scarlet tassel. (Where is its partner? It seems to be grasped in that right hand, the one against the heart.) This tassel hangs just below groin level, like a scarlet bull’s pizzle. Did the painter intend this? Who can tell? He left no account of the picture. But he was a sly as well as a magnificent painter; also, a painter of magnificence, not afraid of controversy, indeed perhaps drawn towards it.
The pose is noble, heroic, but the hands make it subtler and more complicated. Not the hands of a concert pianist, as it turns out, but of a doctor, a surgeon, a gynaecologist.
And the scarlet pizzle? All in good time.
So yes, let’s begin with that visit to London in the summer of 1885.
The Prince was Edmond de Polignac.
The Count was Robert de Montesquiou-Fezensac.
The commoner with the Italian name was Dr. Samuel Jean Pozzi.
Their first item of intellectual shopping was the Handel Festival at Crystal Palace, where they heard Israel in Egypt
to celebrate the bicentenary of the composer’s birth. Polignac noted that “the performance made a gigantic effect. The 4,000 executants royally fêted le grand
The three shoppers also came bearing a letter of introduction from John Singer Sargent, the painter of Dr. Pozzi at Home
. It was addressed to Henry James, who had seen the picture at the Royal Academy in 1882, and whom Sargent was to paint in full mastery years later, in 1913, when James was seventy. The letter began:
I remember that you once said that an occasional Frenchman was not an unpleasant diversion to you in London, and I have been so bold as to give a card of introduction to you to two friends of mine. One is Dr. S. Pozzi, the man in the red gown (not always), a very brilliant creature, and the other is the unique extra-human Montesquiou.
Strangely, this is the only letter from Sargent to James which survives. The painter seems unaware that Polignac was also to be of the party, an addition which would surely have pleased and interested
Henry James. Or perhaps not. Proust used to say that the Prince was like “a disused dungeon converted into a library.”
Pozzi was then thirty-eight, Montesquiou thirty, James forty-two and Polignac fifty-one.
James had been renting a cottage on Hampstead Heath for the previous two months and was about to return to Bournemouth, but put off his departure. He devoted two days, 2 and 3 July 1885, to entertaining these three Frenchmen who, the novelist subsequently wrote, had been “yearning to see London aestheticism.”
James’s biographer Leon Edel describes Pozzi as “a society doctor, a book-collector, and a generally cultivated conversationalist.” The conversation went unrecorded, the book collection is long dispersed, leaving only the society doctor. In that red gown (not always).
The Count and the Prince came from old aristocratic lines. The Count claimed descendence from D’Artagnan the Musketeer, and his grandfather had been an aide-de-camp to Napoleon. The Prince’s
grandmother had been a close friend of Marie Antoinette; his father was Minister of State in Charles X’s government and the author of the July Ordinances, whose absolutism set off the 1830 Revolution. Under the new government, the Prince’s father was sentenced to “civil death,” so that legally he did not exist. Frenchly, however, the non-existent man was permitted conjugal visits during his imprisonment, one of which resulted in Edmond. On his birth certificate, in the space for
“Father,” the civilly dead aristocrat was listed as “the Prince called Marquis de Chalançon, currently travelling.”
The Pozzis were Italian Protestants from the Valtellina in northern Lombardy. In the religious wars of the early seventeenth century, a Pozzi was among many burnt to death for their faith in the Protestant temple of Teglio in 1620. Shortly afterwards, the family moved to Switzerland. Samuel Pozzi’s grandfather Dominique was the first to arrive in France, crossing the country in slow stages and finally setting up as a patissier in Agen; he Frenchified the family name to Pozzy. The last of his eleven children—inevitably called Benjamin—became a Protestant minister in Bergerac. The pastor’s family was pious and republican, devoted to God and conscious of its social and moral duties. Samuel’s mother, Inès Escot-Meslon, from the Périgord gentry, brought into the marriage the charming eighteenth-century manor house of La Graulet, a few kilometres outside Bergerac, which Pozzi was to cherish and expand all his life. Always frail, and worn out by child-bearing, she died when he was ten; the pastor swiftly remarried a “young and robust” Englishwoman, Marie-Anne Kempe. Samuel grew up speaking both French and English. He also, in 1873, restored the family name to Pozzi.
“What a strange trio,” muses Pozzi’s biographer Claude Vanderpooten of that London trip. Partly he means the disparity of rank; but also, perhaps, the presence of a famously heterosexual commoner alongside two aristocrats of “Hellenic tendencies.” (And if they sound like characters out of Proust, that is because they are all—partially, refractedly—related to characters in Proust.) There were two immediate destinations for Parisian aesthetes visiting London at that time: Liberty & Co., opened in Regent Street in 1875, and the Grosvenor Gallery. Montesquiou had admired Burne-Jones’s The Beguiling of Merlin
at the 1875 Paris Salon. Now they met the painter himself, who took them to the “Abbey-Phalanstery” of William Morris, where the Count selected some fabrics, and to the studio of William De Morgan. They also met Lawrence Alma-Tadema. They went to Bond Street for tweeds and suitings, hats and coats and shirts and ties and scents; to Chelsea to seek out Carlyle’s house; and to bookshops.
James hosted them assiduously. He reported finding Montesquiou “curious but slight,” and Pozzi “charming” (again, Polignac seems to have passed unnoticed). He had them to dinner at the Reform Club, where he introduced them to Whistler, to whom Montesquiou became powerfully devoted. James also arranged for them to visit Whistler’s Peacock Room at the house of the shipping magnate F. R. Leyland. But by then Pozzi had been called back to Paris by a telegram from the wife of one of his celebrity clients, Alexandre Dumas fils
From Paris, on 5 July, Pozzi wrote asking the Count to return to Liberty’s and add to the order he had already placed there. He wanted “thirty rolls of the seaweed-coloured curtain material of which I enclose a sample. Please pay on my behalf. I shall owe you thirty schillings [sic] and much gratitude.” He signs himself “The devoted friend of your Preraphaelitehood.”
When that “strange trio” arrived in London, none of them was much known outside their immediate circles. Prince Edmond de Polignac had unrealised musical ambitions, and had spent many years, at the insistence of his family, touring Europe in a genial, halfhearted, theoretical search for a wife; somehow, he—more than she—always evaded capture. Pozzi was a decade into his career as a doctor, surgeon and socialite, working in a public hospital while building up a fashionable private clientele. Each would attain a certain level of fame and satisfaction in future years. And this fame, such as it was, had the advantage of being based—as far as it ever is—on a public knowledge of more or less exactly who they were.
Montesquiou’s case was more complicated. He was the best-known of the three in the world they mostly shared: a society figure, dandy, aesthete, connoisseur, quick wit and arbiter of fashion. He also had literary ambitions, writing Parnassian poetry in strict metre and squibbish vers de société
. As a young man about town, he had once been introduced to Flaubert at the Hotel Meurice. He was so overcome that he found himself speechless (a very rare occurrence), but consoled himself that “I
had at least touched his hand and so received from him, if not a torch, at least a single flame.” However, a rare and unenviable fate was already beginning to close in on the Count: that of being confused in the public mind—or at least the readerly mind—with an alter ego. His life, and afterlife, were to be dogged by shadow versions of himself.
Montesquiou was thirty when he arrived in London in June 1885. Exactly a year earlier, in June 1884, Joris-Karl Huysmans had published his sixth novel, A Rebours
—translated as Against the Grain
or Against Nature—
featuring a twenty-nine-year-old aristocrat, Duc Jean Floressas des Esseintes. Huysmans’ five previous novels had been exercises in Zolaesque realism; now he threw all that aside. A Rebours
is a dreamily meditative bible of decadence. Des Esseintes is a dandy and aesthete, sickly from too much inbreeding, the last of his line, with strange and corrupting tastes, a love of apparel, jewellery, scents, rare books and fine bindings. Huysmans, a minor civil servant who knew Montesquiou only by repute, had obtained a background briefing about the Count’s house from his friend the poet Mallarmé. The Count had fresh and idiosyncratic theories of home decoration: he displayed a sledge on a polar bearskin, items of church furniture, an array of silk socks in a glass case, and a live, gilded tortoise. That such details were authentic was vexing to Montesquiou, because some readers would hear the clicking latch of a roman à clef
and assume that everything else in the novel was true too. The story goes that Montesquiou once ordered some rare volumes from a bookseller who happened to be one of Huysmans’ friends; when he went to collect
them, the bookseller, failing to recognize the Count, commented annoyingly, “Why, Monsieur, these are books fit for Des Esseintes.” (Or perhaps he had
And here is another parallel. The year before Montesquiou made his first trip to London, his shadowy fictional counterpart had set out with exactly the same intention, and this “journey” forms one of the
novel’s most celebrated chapters. Des Esseintes is living in spiritual if suburban isolation at Fontenay; one morning, he asks his manservant to lay out a suit ordered from London, where all well-dressed Parisians obtained their clothes. He takes the train to Paris, arriving at the Gare de Sceaux. The weather is filthy. He hires a cab, which he rents by the hour. It takes him first to Galignani’s bookshop in the rue de Rivoli, where he examines guides to London. Browsing in Baedeker, he finds a list of London art galleries, which sets him dreaming about modern British art, and especially Millais and G. F. Watts: the latter’s pictures seem to him as if “sketched by an ailing Gustave Moreau.” The weather outside continues to be atrocious—“ an instalment of English life paid to him on account here in Paris.” The cabbie drives him to the Bodega, which, despite its name, is a haunt of the English; here both expatriates and tourists find the fortified wines they prefer. He sees “a line of tables loaded with baskets of Palmer’s biscuits, and stale, salty cakes, and plates heaped with mince pies and sandwiches whose tasteless exteriors contained burning mustard-plasters.” He drinks a glass of port, then one of amontillado sherry. He is surrounded by English people, and finds them mutating into characters from Dickens. “He settled down comfortably in this London of the imagination.”
Hunger announces itself: he is driven to a tavern in the rue d’Amsterdam opposite the Gare Saint-Lazare, from where the boat train will depart. This is recognisably Austin’s Bar, otherwise the English Tavern, later the Bar Britannia (and still extant as the Hotel Britannia). His dinner consists of greasy oxtail soup, smoked haddock, roast beef and potatoes, Stilton cheese and rhubarb pie; he drinks two pints of ale, a glass of porter, coffee laced with gin, then a brandy; between the porter and the coffee he smokes a cigarette.
At the Tavern, as at the Bodega, he is surrounded by “a crowd of islanders with china-blue eyes, crimson complexions, and earnest or arrogant expressions, skimming through foreign newspapers; but here there were a few women dining in pairs without male escorts, robust Englishwomen with boyish faces, teeth as big as palette-knives, cheeks as red as apples, long hands and long feet. They were enthusiastically attacking helpings of rump-steak pie.”
(This thing about Englishwomen. They are the subject of generic mockery in France at this time, seen as large, ruddy, awkward outdoorswomen, manifestly inferior to Frenchwomen, and especially
Parisiennes, who are the perfection of the species. Englishwomen are often described as being oddly unawakened in their sexual presence, which in turn could only be the fault of Englishmen, unable to ignite their wives—or even their mistresses—into sexual beings. This conviction that the British and sex are a matter for concerned pity is a persistent dogma. I remember being in Paris shortly after the news broke of Prince Charles’s continuing relationship with Camilla Parker-Bowles throughout his marriage to “LaddyDi,” as the French pronounced her. “How extraordinary,” more than one delighted Parisian murmur informed me, “to choose a mistress who is plainer than one’s wife!” Really, these Anglo-Saxons, ils sont incorrigibles
Des Esseintes still has time to catch his train, but finds himself reflecting that when he had previously travelled abroad—to Holland—his expectation that Dutch life would be similar to Dutch art had been rudely unfulfilled. What if London life similarly fell short of his Dickensian preconceptions? “What was the point of moving,” he asks himself, “when a fellow could travel magnificently just by sitting in a chair? Wasn’t he already in London?” Why risk reality when the imagination can be equally, if not more, compelling? And so the faithful but expensive cabbie takes his fare back to the Gare de Sceaux, from where he returns home.
Montesquiou caught the train, Des Esseintes missed it; Montesquiou is social, Des Esseintes a recluse; Montesquiou gave little thought to religion (except for its artefacts), Des Esseintes, like his creator, was heading tormentedly back to Rome. And so on. But still Des Esseintes “was” Montesquiou: the world knew. And I knew too, because when I bought my Penguin edition of Against Nature
in 1967, the cover was a headshot from Boldini’s portrait of Le comte Robert de Montesquiou.
Copyright © 2020 by Julian Barnes. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.