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Seven Small Duchesses
by [?]

Since those “precious” days when the habitués of the Hôtel Rambouillet first raised social intercourse to the level of a fine art, the morals and manners, the amusements and intrigues of great French ladies have interested the world and influenced the ways of civilized nations. Thanks to Memoirs and Maxims, we are able to reconstruct the life of a seventeenth or eighteenth century noblewoman as completely as German archeologists have rebuilt the temple of the Wingless Victory on the Acropolis from surrounding débris.

Interest in French society has, however, diminished during this century, ceasing almost entirely with the Second Empire, when foreign women gave the tone to a parvenu court from which the older aristocracy held aloof in disgust behind the closed gates of their “hôtels” and historic ch�teaux.

With the exception of Balzac, few writers have drawn authentic pictures of nineteenth-century noblewomen in France; and his vivid portrayals are more the creations of genius than correct descriptions of a caste.

During the last fifty years French aristocrats have ceased to be factors even in matters social, the sceptre they once held having passed into alien hands, the daughters of Albion to a great extent replacing their French rivals in influencing the ways of the “world,”-a change, be it remarked in passing, that has not improved the tone of society or contributed to the spread of good manners.

People like the French nobles, engaged in sulking and attempting to overthrow or boycott each succeeding régime, must naturally lose their influence. They have held aloof so long-fearing to compromise themselves by any advances to the powers that be, and restrained by countless traditions from taking an active part in either the social or political strife-that little by little they have been passed by and ignored; which is a pity, for amid the ruin of many hopes and ambitions they have remained true to their caste and handed down from generation to generation the secret of that gracious urbanity and tact which distinguished the Gallic noblewoman in the last century from the rest of her kind and made her so deft in the difficult art of pleasing-and being pleased.

Within the last few years there have, however, been signs of a change. Young members of historic houses show an amusing inclination to escape from their austere surroundings and resume the place their grandparents abdicated. If it is impossible to rule as formerly, they at any rate intend to get some fun out of existence.

This joyous movement to the front is being made by the young matrons enlisted under the “Seven little duchesses’” banner. Oddly enough, a baker’s half-dozen of ducal coronets are worn at this moment, in France, by small and sprightly women, who have shaken the dust of centuries from those ornaments and sport them with a decidedly modern air!

It is the members of this clique who, in Paris during the spring, at their ch�teaux in the summer and autumn, and on the Riviera after Christmas, lead the amusements and strike the key for the modern French world.

No one of these light-hearted ladies takes any particular precedence over the others. All are young, and some are wonderfully nice to look at. The Duchesse d’Uzès is, perhaps, the handsomest, good looks being an inheritance from her mother, the beautiful and wayward Duchesse de Chaulme.

There is a vivid grace about the daughter, an intense vitality that suggests some beautiful being of the forest. As she moves and speaks one almost expects to hear the quick breath coming and going through her quivering nostrils, and see foam on her full lips. Her mother’s tragic death has thrown a glamor of romance around the daughter’s life that heightens the witchery of her beauty.

Next in good looks comes an American, the Duchesse de la Rochefoucauld, although marriage (which, as de Maupassant remarked, is rarely becoming) has not been propitious to that gentle lady. By rights she should have been mentioned first, as her husband outranks, not only all the men of his age, but also his cousin, the old Duc de la Rochefoucauld-Doudeauville, to whom, however, a sort of brevet rank is accorded on account of his years, his wealth, and the high rank of his two wives. It might almost be asserted that our fair compatriot wears the oldest coronet in France. She certainly is mistress of three of the finest ch�teaux in that country, among which is Miromail, where the family live, and Liancourt, a superb Renaissance structure, a delight to the artist’s soul.