Lafayette, Marie Adrienne de (1760–1807)
Lafayette, Marie Adrienne de (1760–1807)
French marquise and wife of the American revolutionary hero, the marquis de Lafayette. Name variations: Adrienne de Noailles; Dame Marie Adrienne de Lafayette; Madame de Lafayette or La Fayette. Born Marie-Adrienne-Françoise de Noailles, in Paris, France, in 1760; died in Paris, France, on December
24, 1807; second of five daughters of the Duke and Duchess d'Ayen; married Gilbert du Motier (1757–1834), marquis de Lafayette (French aristocrat and major general who fought in the American Revolution and played a prominent role in the French Revolution), on April 11, 1774; children: Henriette de Lafayette (who died in infancy); Anastasie de Lafayette ; Virginie de Lafayette ; George Washington de Lafayette.
Adrienne de Noailles was born in Paris in 1760, the second of five daughters of the Duke and Duchess d'Ayen. Five months past her 14th birthday, she married 16-year-old Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, a wealthy and titled orphan to whom she had been betrothed years earlier. A clause inserted in the marriage contract dictated that the couple would live with Adrienne's parents until they were old enough to have their own home, so the first years of their marriage were spent in the lavish Hôtel de Noailles, where Adrienne had spent her childhood. There, Adrienne gave birth to the couple's four children, one of whom, Henriette, died in infancy. While Adrienne cared for her children, the marquis advanced his military career, which included several periods in America, fighting with the American army in the War of Independence. Returning to a hero's welcome in 1782, the marquis de Lafayette split his brief stay between Adrienne and Aglaé de Hunolstein , a somewhat older admirer who had watched his rise as a public figure with growing interest and had become his mistress that spring. Gilbert barely had time for romance, however, or even to settle his family into their own home on the left bank of the Seine, before he left for a third voyage to America, quickly followed by a tour of Germany and Austria.
The middle years of Adrienne's marriage were shaped by the French Revolution, during which time her husband, no longer considered a hero, was forced to flee Paris for his life and spent five years languishing in an Austrian prison. Adrienne, clinging to her deep religious faith, passed the time within her close-knit family, attempting to win freedom for her husband while keeping out of harm's way. In June 1794, during the dark days of the Reign of Terror, she was jailed in Le Pessis in Paris, while her grandmother, mother, and sister were incarcerated at the nearby Luxembourg Palace and later executed by the guillotine. After surviving the squalid conditions of Le Pessis and the grief of losing her loved ones, Adrienne was removed to a prison infirmary in the Rue des Amandiers, where she remained through the brutal winter months. She was finally released in January 1795 and, with most of her family connections scattered, took refuge with a youthful aunt, her mother's half-sister. Reuniting with her children, Adrienne once again set about freeing her husband, using money furnished by the United States.
Adrienne made the long journey to Austria with her two grown daughters, Anastasie and Virginie, her son George having left for America. Upon finally reaching the prison at Olmütz, she was given permission to live with her husband in his cramped and primitive prison barracks. As unpleasant as conditions were, it was the first time that Adrienne could claim her husband's full attention. "There was no career or adventure to beckon him across the seas," wrote Constance Wright in her biography Madame de Lafayette, "no dangerous duties to the state to call him out at all hours, no mistresses, no friends or henchmen clamoring for their share of his attention. He was hers, and hers alone." Adrienne and her daughters set up housekeeping in the barren two-room suite that would be home for several years.
Largely due to the intervention of Napoleon Bonaparte, the marquis de Lafayette was freed in September 1797, after which the family remained in Austria, not far from Hamburg, before their return to France in 1799. Back in their homeland, they took up residence at La Grange-Bléneau, a château that had been in Adrienne's family for years. Now into her 30th year of marriage, she was finally able to enjoy a life free of politics, as her husband clung to his status as a private citizen, even turning down an offer from Thomas Jefferson to govern the territory of the Louisiana Purchase.
Around 1807, Adrienne suffered a recurrence of an illness, diagnosed simply as "a dissolution of the blood," that had first stricken her at Olmütz, the symptoms of which were fever and the swelling of her arms and legs. The high fevers resulted in periods of mental confusion that would clear as suddenly as they had come. Throughout her final illness, she grew closer to her husband, to whom she expressed her love without restraint. "If you don't think you are loved enough," she told him, "you will have to blame God for my shortcomings, for He made me what I am. What a fate to have been your wife! I have loved you in the Christian sense, in the worldly sense—and passionately."
Madame de Lafayette died on Christmas Eve, 1807. The marquis de Lafayette survived her by 27 years, resuming his military career and lending a hand in the fall of Napoleon and the restoration of the Bourbons. While gaining status once again as a beloved hero, he never forgot the woman who had stood by him in darker times. He walled up her bedroom at La Grange, so visitors could not wander into it uninvited, and left everything in the room as it had been when she was alive. Some say he spent each Christmas Eve there in her company.
Wright, Constance. Madame de Lafayette. NY: Henry Holt, 1959.
Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts
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