Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Mrs Livingston, I Presume: Part 3

So Louise settled in with Edward Livingston as the new Mrs. Livingston, and Edward opened his arms to her family.  And the D'Avezac family responded by moving in with the newlyweds.

Louise's grown brother Auguste and little Anglea (the sister whom she had carried across the Caribbean Sea two years before would now have been at least four years old) would have been valued companions, although eventually Anglea was shipped off to a convent where she was apparently very happy.  How her uncle Jules "Major" Davezac got into the mix, I'm not sure, but he came along to the Livingston household too.  I guess it's a good thing he was witty and good company.  But I imagine that when Louise's mother was brought from Haiti, it was the greatest relief for her.

I don't know what Edward thought about all of these in-laws, but their French chatter (the mother-in-law never learned English) certainly became part of his daily life.  The Memoir makes this sounds idyllic.  Literary readings around the breakfast table, a broad piazza shaded by orange and fig trees, a balcony that caught evening breezes, pralines (at left), and fresh figs at every meal.

The book doesn't mention the oppressive heat, appalling mosquito problem, or the Yellow Fever epidemics that regularly assaulted the city, but nevertheless, life was good.

Louise's intellect, which had always been a strength, was now put towards learning English and getting as involved as possible in Edward's law career.  But the duties of womanhood of the time were never far away. She was responsible for dinner parties, entertaining the city's elite in order to help keep Edward's status on par, and eventually she was wrapped up in preparations for motherhood.

In 1806, Louise gave birth a fourth time, this time to a daughter named Coralie.  The Memoir is at pains to describe Louise's devotion and attachment to Coralie--even to suggest that she smothered her a bit-- but I can't blame her; it was the first of her children to survive infancy.  "Early in the evening, when the hour came to put the little girl to bed, [Louise] so gay and admired, would leave everything and everybody to go with her child; she would get under the mosquito-bar, and...hear her say her prayers, and kiss her good-night, and return to the company."

When Coralie was allowed to visit neighboring plantations, the letters would come flowing in from her mother.  "What is my little girl doing?  I ask myself all day long.  At what hour do you go fishing, and are you sure to wear your sun-bonnet?"  The Memoir does not indicate how long these visits were, but hopefully they gave Coralie the chance to explore her independence a little.


The little girl was also lucky to receive tutelage from her highly-educated uncle Major.  She learned Latin and spent hours practicing translations, which her mother saved in boxes the way my mom posted my spelling tests on the refrigerator when I was little.  At least one portrait also suggests that Coralie was given a musical education; as an adult she was painted with a guitar in her lap.

Edward too devoted to his care and love to Coralie, walking with her in the cool of the evenings and encouraging his older children (still living with his brother John in the Hudson Valley) to build their relationships with her through letters.  The Livingston family was proud to proclaim what a loving and devoted environment they raised their children in, and Edward appears to have been no exception.  On one of her birthdays he wrote,

This is the anniversary, my dear wife, of the birth of our daughter, to whose existence we owe so much of that happiness we have enjoyed, whose life has been one continued blessing to us, without one hour's uneasiness arising from her fault.

Somehow, I think that any daughter is bound to give her parents some "uneasiness" over the years, but Edward's sentiment is nice anyway.  Coralie was the light of her parents' life together.

In 1809, Louise and Coralie finally got a chance to met their Livingston relations for the first time, finally making a trip north to the Hudson River Valley.  They left Edward behind and crossed the dense woodlands of the southern United States. The "long and fatiguing voyage" was intended to assist Coralie's health, and it seemed to have the desired affect--until they returned to New Orleans the following year.  I wonder if the environment played such a clear role, perhaps the ailment was asthma or allergies?  Thereafter, Coralie dreamed of "the banks of the Hudson," and eagerly awaited any opportunity to return. 

This year-long visit to New York was to have farther-reaching effects than just Coralie's temporary improvement in health; Louise charmed Edward's oldest sister Janet.  The 66-year-old blind widow was now ensconced in a stately mansion a few miles south of her mother's, one she had name after her deceased husband--Montgomery Place (shown at right).  Louise later described her meeting with Janet thus, "You ... were so kind to me when I first came, you and inexperienced, from a distant land, far from my natural home, not even speaking your language.  You were just the protecting friend I then needed..."   By the end of the visit, the two women had become fast friends, and when Louise returned to New Orleans, they began a correspondence that was to last for years.  Later, when Coralie dreamed of returning to New York, it was to her aunt's mansion with a little bedroom just for her and a babbling waterfall on the edge of the clearing.

The relationship that developed between Janet and Louise eventually played a role in the future of Montgomery Place.  When Janet passed away in 1828, she left the mansion to her brother and his charming Haitian wife.

Louise was soon to join Washington DC society when her husband was elected to Congress to represent the state of Louisiana in 1822.  Though her charm continued to serve her well, and they were granted entry to some very elite social circles, Louise seemed to have felt her age greatly.  She had thrown a 30th birthday party for herself and toasted her age just a few years ago, but warned Janet when she came to visit in 1822 that "I am much altered in appearance, but I return with the same heart..."  For a woman of 37, she had done a lot of living.

Louise had been a widow at 16.  At 19, she had fled a violent rebellion, and two of her companions (slave and grandmother) were killed in at her side, only just barely leaving her sister alive.  Then she and her aunt led the survivors of the party as refugees to a foreign country where she had scrambled for a plan.  But at last now she was settled in.  Having married into one of the wealthiest families in America, Louise could now spend pleasant summers strolling along the Hudson's banks with her growing daughter and loving husband.

Louise D'Avezac may have become "Mrs. Edward Livingston," but a name change could not conceal the hard-won identity and engaging personality that made her who she truly was.

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