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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.
The Library of the World’s Best Literature. An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

A Dialogue of the Dead

By Anna Letitia Barbauld (1743–1825)

Between Helen and Madame Maintenon

HELEN—Whence comes it, my dear Madame Maintenon, that beauty, which in the age I lived in produced such extraordinary effects, has now lost almost all its power?

Maintenon—I should wish first to be convinced of the fact, before I offer to give you a reason for it.

Helen—That will be very easy; for there is no occasion to go any further than our own histories and experience to prove what I advance. You were beautiful, accomplished, and fortunate; endowed with every talent and every grace to bend the heart of man and mold it to your wish; and your schemes were successful; for you raised yourself from obscurity and dependence to be the wife of a great monarch.—But what is this to the influence my beauty had over sovereigns and nations! I occasioned a long ten-years’ war between the most celebrated heroes of antiquity; contending kingdoms disputed the honor of placing me on their respective thrones; my story is recorded by the father of verse; and my charms make a figure even in the annals of mankind. You were, it is true, the wife of Louis XIV., and respected in his court, but you occasioned no wars; you are not spoken of in the history of France, though you furnished materials for the memoirs of a court. Are the love and admiration that were paid you merely as an amiable woman to be compared with the enthusiasm I inspired, and the boundless empire I obtained over all that was celebrated, great, or powerful in the age I lived in?

Maintenon—All this, my dear Helen, has a splendid appearance, and sounds well in a heroic poem; but you greatly deceive yourself if you impute it all to your personal merit. Do you imagine that half the chiefs concerned in the war of Troy were at all influenced by your beauty, or troubled their heads what became of you, provided they came off with honor? Believe me, love had very little to do in the affair: Menelaus sought to revenge the affront he had received; Agamemnon was flattered with the supreme command; some came to share the glory, others the plunder; some because they had bad wives at home, some in hopes of getting Trojan mistresses abroad; and Homer thought the story extremely proper for the subject of the best poem in the world. Thus you became famous; your elopement was made a national quarrel; the animosities of both nations were kindled by frequent battles; and the object was not the restoring of Helen to Menelaus, but the destruction of Troy by the Greeks.—My triumphs, on the other hand, were all owing to myself, and to the influence of personal merit and charms over the heart of man. My birth was obscure; my fortunes low; I had past the bloom of youth, and was advancing to that period at which the generality of our sex lose all importance with the other; I had to do with a man of gallantry and intrigue, a monarch who had been long familiarized with beauty, and accustomed to every refinement of pleasure which the most splendid court in Europe could afford: Love and Beauty seemed to have exhausted all their powers of pleasing for him in vain. Yet this man I captivated, I fixed; and far from being content, as other beauties had been, with the honor of possessing his heart, I brought him to make me his wife, and gained an honorable title to his tenderest affection.—The infatuation of Paris reflected little honor upon you. A thoughtless youth, gay, tender, and impressible, struck with your beauty, in violation of all the most sacred laws of hospitality carries you off, and obstinately refuses to restore you to your husband. You seduced Paris from his duty, I recovered Louis from vice; you were the mistress of the Trojan prince, I was the companion of the French monarch.

Helen—I grant you were the wife of Louis, but not the Queen of France. Your great object was ambition, and in that you met with a partial success;—my ruling star was love, and I gave up everything for it. But tell me, did not I show my influence over Menelaus in his taking me again after the destruction of Troy?

Maintenon—That circumstance alone is sufficient to show that he did not love you with any delicacy. He took you as a possession that was restored to him, as a booty that he had recovered; and he had not sentiment enough to care whether he had your heart or not. The heroes of your age were capable of admiring beauty, and often fought for the possession of it; but they had not refinement enough to be capable of any pure, sentimental attachment or delicate passion. Was that period the triumph of love and gallantry, when a fine woman and a tripod were placed together for prizes at a wrestling-bout, and the tripod esteemed the most valuable reward of the two? No; it is our Clelia, our Cassandra and Princess of Cleves, that have polished mankind and taught them how to love.

Helen—Rather say you have lost sight of nature and passion, between bombast on one hand and conceit on the other. Shall one of the cold temperament of France teach a Grecian how to love? Greece, the parent of fair forms and soft desires, the nurse of poetry, whose soft climate and tempered skies disposed to every gentler feeling, and tuned the heart to harmony and love!—was Greece a land of barbarians? But recollect, if you can, an incident which showed the power of beauty in stronger colors—that when the grave old counselors of Priam on my appearance were struck with fond admiration, and could not bring themselves to blame the cause of a war that had almost ruined their country;—you see I charmed the old as well as seduced the young.

Maintenon—But I, after I was grown old, charmed the young; I was idolized in a capital where taste, luxury, and magnificence were at the height; I was celebrated by the greatest wits of my time, and my letters have been carefully handed down to posterity.

Helen—Tell me now sincerely, were you happy in your elevated fortune?

Maintenon—Alas! Heaven knows I was far otherwise: a thousand times did I wish for my dear Scarron again. He was a very ugly fellow, it is true, and had but little money: but the most easy, entertaining companion in the world: we danced, laughed, and sung; I spoke without fear or anxiety, and was sure to please. With Louis all was gloom, constraint, and a painful solicitude to please—which seldom produces its effect; the king’s temper had been soured in the latter part of life by frequent disappointments; and I was forced continually to endeavor to procure him that cheerfulness which I had not myself. Louis was accustomed to the most delicate flatteries; and though I had a good share of wit, my faculties were continually on the stretch to entertain him,—a state of mind little consistent with happiness or ease; I was afraid to advance my friends or punish my enemies. My pupils at St. Cyr were not more secluded from the world in a cloister than I was in the bosom of the court; a secret disgust and weariness consumed me. I had no relief but in my work and books of devotion; with these alone I had a gleam of happiness.

Helen—Alas! one need not have married a great monarch for that.

Maintenon—But deign to inform me, Helen, if you were really as beautiful as fame reports? for to say truth, I cannot in your shade see the beauty which for nine long years had set the world in arms.

Helen—Honestly, no: I was rather low, and something sunburnt; but I had the good fortune to please; that was all. I was greatly obliged to Homer.

Maintenon—And did you live tolerably with Menelaus after all your adventures?

Helen—As well as possible. Menelaus was a good-natured domestic man, and was glad to sit down and end his days in quiet. I persuaded him that Venus and the Fates were the cause of all my irregularities, which he complaisantly believed. Besides, I was not sorry to return home: for to tell you a secret, Paris had been unfaithful to me long before his death, and was fond of a little Trojan brunette whose office it was to hold up my train; but it was thought dishonorable to give me up. I began to think love a very foolish thing: I became a great housekeeper, worked the battles of Troy in tapestry, and spun with my maids by the side of Menelaus, who was so satisfied with my conduct, and behaved, good man, with so much fondness, that I verily think this was the happiest period of my life.

Maintenon—Nothing more likely; but the most obscure wife in Greece could rival you there.—Adieu! you have convinced me how little fame and greatness conduce to happiness.