It is not through loyalty alone that Madame Campan deserves recognition as a biographer and historian. Her education and endowments, which rendered her remarkable even at a tender age, ripened with especial opportunities and experience. Jeanne Louise Henriette Genet was born in Paris October 6, 1752. Her home was one of quiet refinement, in which her talents found full development. She made rapid progress in music and languages and was equally proficient in English. Tasso, Milton, Dante, and Shakespeare were read in the original. She was also apt in elocution, reciting passages in Racine and Moliere to delighted audiences.
Such a prodigy was soon spoken of at Court, and she presently obtained a place as reader to the Princesses, or Mesdames, the four daughters of Louis XV. “I was then fifteen,” she says; “my father felt some regret at yielding me up at so early and age to the jealousies of the Court.” When Marie Antoinette, the Archduchess of Austria, was married to the Dauphin, afterwards, Louis XVI, mademoiselle Genet became the wife of Campan, son of the Queen’s Secretary. The King himself gave her a dowry, and she became reader and companion to the Dauphiness. Thenceforth a close sincere attachment was maintained between the two, which was to bear fruit in the volume of Memoirs written by Madame Campan in her old age.
After the stormy events leading to the death of Louis XVI and his Queen, Madame Campan fled from Paris carrying valuable state papers on behalf of her mistress, and during the Reign of Terror remained concealed at Combertin. After the fall of Robespierre she opened a female boarding school at St. Germain, where among other pupils she received Hortense, daughter of Josephine de Beauharnais. When Josephine married Napoleon Bonaparte he took lively interest in Madame Campan, appointing her lady superintendent of the institution founded by him at Ecouen, for the education of daughters of the officers of the Legion of Honor. After the Restoration this school was suppressed, and Madame Campan, again an exile, retired to Mantes, where she died in 1822. In her declining years, her mind reverted to her life at Court, and she set herself the devoted task of clearing the memory of its ill-fated Queen.
She gives her reasons for writing, in the following memorandum left with the original work: “I have spent half my life either with the daughters of Louis XV or with Marie Antoinette. I knew the character of those Princesses; I became privy to some extraordinary facts, the publication of which may be interesting, and the truth of the details will form the merit of my work. I am determined to note in this work no other events than such as I witnessed; no other words than such as (withstanding the lapse of time) still in some measure vibrate in my ears. “Destiny having formerly placed me near crowned heads, I now amuse my solitude when in retirement with collecting a variety of facts which may prove interesting to my family when I shall be no more. I have put together all that concerned the domestic life of an unfortunate princess, whose reputation is not yet cleared of the stains it received from the attacks of calumny, and who justly merited a different lot in life, a different place in the opinion of mankind, after her fall.
From The Memoirs of Marie Antoinette by Madame Campan…we begin….