“Come, take us! We will give you everything and ask for nothing. We do not expect true and enduring love. Do not be constant or generous or even kind. We know that we shall suffer. But, none the less, in our sorrow there will be sweetness, and even in our abasement we shall feel a sort of triumph.”
In history there is one woman who stands out conspicuously as a type of her melancholy sisterhood, one whose life was full of disappointment even when she was most successful, and of indignity even when she was most sought after and admired. This woman was Adrienne Lecouvreur, famous in the annals of the stage, and still more famous in the annals of unrequited—or, at any rate, unhappy —love.
Her story is linked with that of a man no less remarkable than herself, a hero of chivalry, a marvel of courage, of fascination, and of irresponsibility.
Adrienne Lecouvreur—her name was originally Couvreur—was born toward the end of the seventeenth century in the little French village of Damery, not far from Rheims, where her aunt was a laundress and her father a hatter in a small way. Of her mother, who died in childbirth, we know nothing; but her father was a man of gloomy and ungovernable temper, breaking out into violent fits of passion, in one of which, long afterward, he died, raving and yelling like a maniac.
Adrienne was brought up at the wash-tub, and became accustomed to a wandering life, in which she went from one town to another. What she had inherited from her mother is, of course, not known; but she had all her father’s strangely pessimistic temper, softened only by the fact that she was a girl. From her earliest years she was unhappy; yet her unhappiness was largely of her own choosing. Other girls of her own station met life cheerfully, worked away from dawn till dusk, and then had their moments of amusement, and even jollity, with their companions, after the fashion of all children. But Adrienne Lecouvreur was unhappy because she chose to be. It was not the wash-tub that made her so, for she had been born to it; nor was it the half-mad outbreaks of her father, because to her, at least, he was not unkind. Her discontent sprang from her excessive sensibility.
Indeed, for a peasant child she had reason to think herself far more fortunate than her associates. Her intelligence was great. Ambition was awakened in her before she was ten years of age, when she began to learn and to recite poems—learning them, as has been said, “between the wash-tub and the ironing-board,” and reciting them to the admiration of older and wiser people than she. Even at ten she was a very beautiful child, with great lambent eyes, an exquisite complexion, and a lovely form, while she had the further gift of a voice that thrilled the listener and, when she chose, brought tears to every eye. She was, indeed, a natural elocutionist, knowing by instinct all those modulations of tone and varied cadences which go to the hearer’s heart.