Vaux, Clotilde de (1815–1846)

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Vaux, Clotilde de (1815–1846)

French writer and muse of Auguste Comte. Born in Paris on April 3, 1815; died of tuberculosis in Paris on April 5, 1846; first child of Captain Joseph Marie and Countess Henriette-Josephine de Ficquelmont; educated at home by her mother; married Amenee de Vaux; beloved by philosopher Auguste Comte.

Selected works:

several essays; Lucie, a novel published in the journal The National; Wilhelmine, an unfinished novel.

Clotilde de Vaux was born in Paris in 1815, the first child of Captain Joseph Marie and Henriette-Josephine de Ficquelmont . Clotilde's mother was a countess belonging to a long aristocratic line, de Ficquelmont of Lorraine, who had lost their fortune during the French Revolution. The countess was well educated, with a particular interest in the arts and philosophy, and schooled her daughter well. Clotilde's father was a retired sea captain, now working as a tax collector for the District of Oise. He was dictatorial, as well as being suspicious of his wife's artistic bent and aristocratic unbringing, although she followed the liberal ideals of the time.

Clotilde married Amenee de Vaux, a friend of her mother's and a protegé of the marquis de Mornay, to gain independence from her father, whom she hated. Amenee replaced Clotilde's father as tax collector upon his retirement. But Amenee did not take his job or home responsibilities seriously. He frequently went off to Paris to gamble, without Clotilde, and eventually disappeared after embezzling 15,000 francs and burning the records.

Amenee wrote to Clotilde from Liege, Belgium, and pleaded with her to forgive him and join him. She wrote back in refusal, and remained officially married but without the financial or social benefits of wedlock. Clotilde continued to live in a small apartment, the rent paid by her uncle and meals provided by her brother. Despite her poverty, she enjoyed her independence and concentrated on writing, publishing several essays, and a novel Lucie

in the journal The National. Her family discouraged her literary career, as they felt her great beauty—she was petite with blonde hair and blue eyes—could easily gain her another husband to support her.

Clotilde met the philosopher Auguste Comte in August 1844 through their mutual friend Maximilien Marie, a professor at the Sorbonne. Comte was immediately impressed and made nervous by her beauty, although she found him ridiculous and unattractive at first. She had difficulty keeping him at a distance when he fell in love with her. His infatuation led him to believe that she returned his sentiments, while she enjoyed his intellectual companionship and respect, which inspired and flattered her.

She was particularly grateful for his attention as she was lonely, receiving little notice from her family—in part because of their growing jealousy as she became close to Comte. His friendship also offered her comfort when she became ill with tuberculosis, suffering chest pains and a constant cough. Her affection for him was genuine, if not romantic, and their friendship intensified as her illness progressed. But there was no hope of their marriage; even if Auguste could have divorced his wife Caroline Massin , Clotilde could not divorce her husband. There is little indication that they were ever lovers; if so, it would have been only once, near the end of her life.

Clotilde received poor medical treatment, even for the time, which probably hastened her death on April 5, 1846. Because Cherest's therapy of digitalis (for a weak heart) offered no relief and worsened her symptoms, Clotilde switched to Comte's doctor, Grandchamp. However, Grandchamp just prescribed more severe medication which made her violently ill. Comte could see that the treatment was a disaster, but he was jealous of the handsome Cherest and enjoyed Clotilde's dependency on him. When her family took charge of her, in her final days, she had to insist that they allow her to have Auguste's company. He was the only one in the room when she died.

After her death, Comte's devotion to her became religious, involving prayers and commemorations. He had adopted her as a model of saintly womanhood, holding her to be his muse like Dante's Beatrice Portinari . He credited her with having inspired his new religious philosophy, the "Religion of Humanity," a religion of science modeled on the Catholic Church, in which the idolatry of de Vaux replaced that of Mary the Virgin . His belief that he would be reunited with her lessened the suffering before his death on September 4, 1857. He made sure to be buried holding a lock of her hair; and an inscription on his tombstone reads "Clotilde de Vaux, the eternal companion of Auguste Comte, born April 3, 1815, in Paris, and deceased April 5, 1846, in Paris."


Sokoloff, Boris. The "Mad" Philosopher Auguste Comte. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1961.

Standley, Arline Reilein. Auguste Comte. Boston, MI: Twayne, 1981.

Catherine Hundleby , M.A. Philosophy, University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario, Canada