In the interest of ensuring this blog maintains an objective view of its subject, from time to time I intend to post primary accounts that recollect Murat in a negative manner; my goal is to be Murat’s biographer, not his hagiographer. It isn’t particularly enjoyable for me to read these often malicious accounts of him (and there are many, especially because of his betrayal of Napoleon), but it’s a necessary evil, in order to acquire a full and honest view of the man; no human being is ever perfect. And Murat, it must be admitted, was definitely not everyone’s cup of tea. Hortense, whose memoirs provide one of the most well-balanced descriptions of him, acknowledges that “the rise of his fortunes had been too rapid not to have slightly turned his head.” In public, as his meteoric rise continued, he carried himself with an increasing haughtiness that many found off-putting, especially those encountering him for the first time; this, combined with his notorious vanity and dramatic air gave him a penchant for making enemies. Those who were able to endure these early impressions and get to know him better tended to warm to him quickly.
The Countess Potocka, née Anna Tyszkiewicz, was not in this latter camp.
Meeting Murat for the first time in November of 1806 as the French army made its entry into Poland, the Countess took an immediate dislike to him that only increased during his stay as her family’s house-guest. His carriage, demeanor, and manner of dress offended her sensibilities, though, from the tone of her descriptions of him, the greatest crime he seems to have committed in her eyes is to not have been born an aristocrat. She sneers at his failure to pull off the manners that come so naturally to real nobles (which brings to mind Hortense’s observation that Murat “sought to have good manners and overdid them.”) When this man of low birth has the audacity to try to seduce her, she is appalled; it is his young (and noble-born) aide-de-camp, Charles de Flahault (his last name is redacted in her memoirs), with whom she falls in love. Her hatred of Murat will reach its peak later on when a break between Murat and Charles leads to the young man being sent back to his regiment (he will later sire an illegitimate child with Hortense). The Countess’ description of Charles is provided below as well, as she obviously intended it to be contrasted with that of Murat.
This will be the first of two parts featuring Countess Potocka’s reminiscences of Murat.
Source: Memoirs of the Countess Potocka, English translation by Lionel Strachey, 1900.
The 21st of November, in the morning, the arrival of a French regiment was announced. How shall I describe the enthusiasm with which it was received? To understand such emotions properly one must have lost everything and believe in the possibility of hoping for everything–like ourselves. This handful of warriors, when they set foot on our soil, seemed to us a guarantee of the independence we were expecting at the hands of the great man whom nothing could resist. [pg 63]
The next day Murat, then Grand Duke of Berg, made his entry on horseback. A quantity of plumes were to be seen, braided uniforms, gold and silver and lace, etc. Lodgings had been prepared for him at the Hotel Raczynski; but, being uncomfortable there on account of a smoking chimney, he came to settle in our house. [pg 63]
Charles was twenty-one or twenty-two; without being really handsome, he had a charming face, which was veiled with a melancholy that seemed to betray a secret sorrow. His manners were elegant without fatuity, his conversation clever, his opinions independent; no one ever more fully realized the idea that one has of the hero of a romance and of a true knight. (…) His answers were in the best taste, without the least swagger; he understood the art of conversation like a real Frenchman, never exhausting one’s interest, passing from one subject to another smoothly yet not too slowly. Towards the end of the evening I was drawn into the talk; I thought to perceive that he listened to me with pleasure, and I confess I was flattered.
Two days after his arrival Prince Murat, having sent to me to announce his visit, in the evening came up with a numerous attendance. His face was without nobility and entirely devoid of expression. He had the majestic air of actors who are playing kings. It was easily seen that his manners were sham, and that he usually had others. He did not talk badly, for he watched himself carefully; but his Gascon accent and some too soldierlike phrases belied the “prince” a little. He was fond of telling of his feats of arms, and talked war to us for over an hour.
The taking of Lübeck was his favourite theme: he had entered that place at the head of his cavalry, like one going to an assault. It was a fine exploit, was that, but rather unpleasant to hear related. Blood ran in the streets, horses reared at the heaps of dead bodies. This too faithful picture of war was not comforting to us poor women, who were to see all those we were most deeply interested in rushing to arms.
Murat had already contracted princely habits; he did not converse, he talked, flattering himself that you listened, if not with approbation at least with respectful deference.
Rising at last and bowing with dignity, he said he would return to his study, to examine the map of Poland and the positions of the Russian army.
A few days later there was a grand ball at the palace. Murat, desirous of showing himself off, had told Prince Poniatowski that, having heard of the beauty of the Polish ladies, he wanted to judge of them for himself. My uncle gave a magnificent party. I was indisposed, and could not go, but my friends brought me all the news post haste. The prince had appeared in full uniform. I afterwards saw him in this somewhat theatrical costume, such as was suited to a prince of his blood. There was nothing to be admired about it all except his plume–that tri-coloured plume which was always seen floating where there was menace of danger! And the Poles, fascinated by such valour, would have willingly put a crown over that glorious plume!
We never knew if Napoleon had held out a hope of this kind to his brother-in-law, but it is known that Murat entertained this hope, and was pleased to compare Sobieski’s fortunes with his own. It was always one of his favourite topics of conversation; he recurred to it incessantly, and wanted to be informed of everything relating to the rise of this soldier-king. [pgs 64-66]