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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

A Connecticut Beauty

By Samuel Griswold Goodrich (1793–1860)

[From Recollections of a Lifetime. 1857.]

THIS gentleman [Jonathan Ingersoll] had a large family—sons and daughters: the names of the former are honorably recorded in the official annals of their native State,—nay, of the United States. The daughters were distinguished for personal attractions and refined accomplishments. One of them claims a special notice—Grace Ingersoll: how beautiful the name, how suggestive of what she was in mind, in person, in character! I saw her once—but once, and I was then a child—yet her image is as distinct as if I had seen her yesterday.

In my boyhood these New Haven Ingersolls came to Ridgefield occasionally, especially in summer, to vist their relations there. They all seemed to me like superior beings, especially Mrs. Ingersoll, who was fair and forty about those days. On a certain occasion, Grace, who was a school companion of my elder sister’s, came to our house. I imagine she did not see or notice me. Certainly she did not discover in the shy boy in the corner her future biographer. She was tall and slender, yet fully rounded, with rich, dark hair, and large Spanish eyes—now seeming blue and now black, and changing with the objects on which she looked, or the play of emotions within her breast. In complexion she was a brunette, yet with a melting glow in her cheek, as if she had stolen from the sun the generous hues which are reserved for the finest of fruit and flowers. Her beauty was in fact so striking—at once so superb and so conciliating—that I was both awed and fascinated by her. Wherever she went I followed, though keeping at a distance, and never losing sight of her. She spent the afternoon at our house, and then departed, and I saw her no more.

It was not long after this that a Frenchman by the name of Grellet, who had come to America on some important commercial affairs, chanced to be at New York, and there saw Grace Ingersoll. Such beauty as that of the New Haven belle is rare in any country: it is never indigenous in France. Even if such could be born there, the imperious force of conventional manners would have stamped itself upon her, and made her a fashionable lady, at the expense of that Eve-like beauty and simplicity which characterized her. It is not astonishing, then, that the stranger—accustomed as he was to all the beauty of French fashionable life—should still have been smitten with this new and startling type of female loveliness.

I may remark, in passing, and as pertinent to my narrative, that the women of New Haven in these by-gone days were famous for their beauty. They may be so yet, but I have not been there—except as a railroad passenger—for years, and cannot establish the point by my own direct testimony. As to the olden time, however, I can verify my statements from the evidence of my own eyes, as well as the records of long tradition. Among the legends I have heard on this subject is one to this effect. There was once a certain Major L.—a Virginian—who I believe was at one time a member of Congress. He was a federalist: and when I saw him at Washington, about the year 1820, he wore a thick cue, and a good sprinkling of hair powder—then generally esteemed very undemocratic. He was a large and handsome man, and at the period of which I speak was some fifty years of age. But being a Virginian, and withal a bachelor, he was still highly chivalrous in his feelings and conduct toward the fair sex.

Now, once upon a time this handsome old bachelor paid a visit to New England. Having stayed a while at Boston, he journeyed homeward till he came to New Haven. It chanced to be Commencement-day—the great jubilee of the city—while he was there. Having no acquaintances, he set out in the morning to go and see the ceremonies. Directed by the current of people to the chapel, he went thither, and asked for admittance. It was the custom first to receive the reverend clergy and the ladies, who had privileged seats reserved for them—the world at large being kept out till these were accommodated; a fact which shows that our Puritan ancestors, if they did not hold women to be divine, placed them on the same level as divines. The door-keeper scanned Major L. as he came up to the place, and observing him to be a good-looking gentleman in black, with a tinge of powder on his coat-collar, set him down as a minister of the Gospel, and so let him pass. The sexton within took him in charge, and placed him in the clerical quarter between two old D.D.’s—Dr. Perkins, of West Hartford, and Dr. Marsh, of Wethersfield, each having the Five Points sticking out—the one from his gray locks and the other from his frizzed wig—as plainly as if they had been emblazoned on a banner.

The major, with the conscious ease of his genial nature and southern breeding, took his seat and surveyed the scene. His gaze soon fell upon a battery of eyes—beautiful, yet dangerous—that ran along the gallery. Unconscious of the sanctity and saintliness of his position, he half rose and made a low and gracious bow to the ladies above, as if to challenge their whole artillery. Every eye in the house was thus drawn toward him. Before he had time to compose himself, Miss F., one of the belles of the day, came down the broad aisle, full upon him! He had never seen anything so marvellously beautiful—at once so simple and so superb, so much a woman and so much a divinity. He held his breath till she had passed, when he turned suddenly to Rev. Dr. Marsh, and giving him a slap on his shoulder—which dislodged a shower of powder from his wig—exclaimed, “By all the gods, sir, there is Venus herself!”

It is not easy to conceive of the consternation of all around, and especially of the reverend clergy. Their grizzled hair stood out, as if participating in the general horror. What could possess their reverend brother? Was he suddenly beset by the Evil One, thus to utter the unhallowed name of Venus in the house of God? It was indeed a mystery. Gradually, and one by one, they left the infected pew, and Major L., finding himself alone, quietly pocketed the joke, which, however, he often repeated to his friends after his return to Virginia.

This legend refers to a date some dozen years subsequent to the era of Grace Ingersoll, and which therefore shows that the traditional beauty of the New Haven ladies had not then declined. I now return to my story. From the first view of that fair lady, M. Grellet was a doomed man. Familiar with the brilliant court of the Parisian capital, he might have passed by unharmed, even by one as fair as our heroine, had it not been for that simplicity, that Puritanism of look and manner, which belonged to the social climate in which she was brought up—so strongly in contrast to the prescribed pattern graces of a French lady. He came, he saw, he was conquered. Being made captive, he had no other way than to capitulate. He was a man of good family, a fine scholar, and a finished gentleman. He made due and honorable proposals, and was accepted—though on the part of the parents with many misgivings. Marriage ensued, and the happy pair departed for France.

This took place in 1806. M. Grellet held a high social position, and on his arrival at Paris, it was a matter of propriety that his bride should be presented at court. Napoleon was then in the full flush of his imperial glory. It must have been with some palpitations of heart that the New Haven girl—scarcely turned of eighteen years, and new to the great world—prepared to be introduced to the glittering circle of the Tuileries, and under the eye of the emperor himself. As she was presented to him, in the midst of a dazzling throng, blazing with orders and diamonds, she was a little agitated, and her foot was entangled for a moment in her long train—then an indispensable part of the court costume. Napoleon, who, with all his greatness, never rose to the dignity of a gentleman, said in her hearing, “Voilà de la gaucherie americaine!” American awkwardness! Perhaps a certain tinge of political bitterness mingled in the speech, for Jerome had been seduced into marriage by the beauty of an American lady, greatly to the chagrin of his aspiring and unprincipled brother. At all events, though he saw the blush his rudeness had created, a malicious smile played upon his lips, indicative of that contempt of the feelings of women, which was one of his characteristics.

Madame Grellet, however, survived the shock of this discourtesy, which signalized her entry into fashionable life. She soon became a celebrity in the court circles, and always maintained pre-eminence, alike for beauty of person, grace of manners, and delicacy and dignity of character. More than once she had her revenge upon the emperor, when in the centre of an admiring circle, he, with others, paid homage to her fascinations. Yet this transplantation of the fair Puritan, even to the Paradise of fashion, was not healthful.

M. Grellet became one of Bonaparte’s receivers-general, and took up his residence in the department of the Dordogne—though spending the winters in Paris. Upon the fall of Napoleon, he lost his office, but was reappointed during the “hundred days,” only to lose it again upon the final restoration of Louis XVIII. The shadows now gathered thick and dark around him. His wife having taken a violent cold was attacked with pleurisy, which resulted in a gradual decline. Gently but surely her life faded away. Death loves a shining mark, and at the early age of five-and-twenty she descended to the tomb. With two lovely daughters—the remembrances of his love and his affliction—M. Grellet returned to the south of France, and in the course of years, he too was numbered with the dead.

Almost half a century passed away, and the memory of Grace Ingersoll had long been obliterated from my mind, when it was accidentally recalled. One evening, being at the Tuileries—among the celebrities of the world’s most brilliant court—I saw her brother, R. I. Ingersoll. It was curious to meet here with one to whom I had not spoken—though I had occasionally seen him—since we were boys together in Ridgefield. The last incident associated with him in my memory was that we played mumbletepeg together on the green mound, beneath the old Ingersoll buttonwoods. He was now the American Ambassador to Russia, and on his way thither, and I was a chance sojourner in Paris.

We met as if we were old friends. At length I recollected his sister Grace, and asked if her children were living. He replied in the affirmative, and that he was on the point of paying them a visit. I saw him a month afterward, and he told me that he had just returned from the south of France, where he had enjoyed a most interesting stay of a fortnight with his nieces. One—the elder—was married, and had children around her. She was the wife of an eminent physician, and in easy circumstances—occupying a good social position. She was a charming person, and, as he thought, possessed something of the appearance and character of his lost sister. He found that she could sing the simple Connecticut ballads—taught her in childhood, perhaps in the cradle—by her mother: she had also some of her sketches in pencil, and other personal mementoes, which she cherished as sacred relics of her parent, who now seemed a saint in her memory. How beautiful and how touching are such remembrances—flowers that cast perfume around the very precincts of the tomb!

The other niece—where was she? In a convent, lost to the world—devoted to God—if indeed to extinguish the lights of life be devotion to Him who gave them! By special favor, however, she was permitted to leave her seclusion for a short period, that she might see her uncle. She came to the house of her sister, and remained there several days. She was a most interesting person, delicate, graceful, sensitive, still alive to all human affections. She was generally cheerful, and entered with a ready heart into the pleasures of home and friends around her….

The direct descendants of the Puritan minister of Ridgefield—the one a mother, blending her name, her lineage, and her language, in the annals of a foreign land; the other, a devotee, seeking in the seclusion of her cell—and perhaps not altogether in vain—“that peace which the world cannot give!”