J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, September 11, 2021

“Never ought to have thought of marrying”

Only three months after marrying Marie Anne Paulze de Lavoisier, Count Rumford told his daughter in America there were problems in the marriage.

The first bone of contention was: “Already I am obliged to send my good Germans home—a great discomfort to me and wrong to them.” In another letter Rumford elaborated on those servants:
Aichner and his family have returned to Munich. I was obliged to hire a place for them some time before they went away. They did not agree with Madame de Rumford’s servants, though mine were not in the least to blame, for never were there more honest people than Aichner and his wife. It would have been a great comfort to me to have kept them to the end of my life.
Obviously there was some sort of dispute between Rumford’s Bavarian servants and Lavoisier’s French staff, but was one side really blameless?

Earlier the count had described one of the Aichners’ daughters, Mary Sarah, as “very small of her age, considered a dwarf. But she is very clever and interesting, and excites universal attention. Madame seems to take quite a fancy to her, allowing her to dine with us at a sideboard when we have no company.” That little girl stayed on in the Paris household. So whatever happened seems more complex than Rumford’s complaint about the French servants driving his away.

We have the count’s side of the story in letters to his daughter, but few equivalent remarks from Madame. We therefore need extra work to imagine her side. For example, Rumford was very proud of making improvements to the Lavoisier house as soon as he moved in, and later emphasized how much he had spent on those. But had she asked him to change her house? Did the results benefit her?

In the marriage arrangements Lavoisier had specified that she could keep her first husband’s name, becoming Mme. Lavoisier de Rumford. Some observers later suggested that was a cause for friction. However, the couple’s friends were soon calling her Mme. de Rumford, and she used that name for the rest of her life, so that couldn’t have been a lasting issue.

Probably the best diagnosis of the problem came from Count Rumford himself, in a letter he sent to his daughter in October 1806, one year after the marriage:
I am sorry to say that experience only serves to confirm me in the belief that in character and natural propensities Madame de Rumford and myself are totally unalike, and never ought to have thought of marrying. We are, besides, both too independent, both in our sentiments and habits of life, to live peaceably together—she having been mistress all her days of her actions, and I, with no less liberty, leading for the most part the life of a bachelor. Very likely she is as much disaffected towards me, but I call her a female Dragon—simply by that gentle name! We have got to the pitch of my insisting on one thing and she on another.
Even though the couple had known each other for almost four years before their wedding, and had discussed and prepared for their marriage for years, they hadn’t lived together in Paris during that time. Instead, they had been traveling in the German states or Switzerland.

Once they settled in Mme. Lavoisier de Rumford’s house, she returned to living the way she had before, with crowded dinners, afternoon teas, and soirées. But the count had decided that he was done with social climbing and wanted to spend all his time on scientific investigations of heat.

One might think that work could have brought the couple together. After all, Marie Anne Lavoisier had worked closely with her first husband—taking notes on experiments, sketching equipment and set-ups, preparing work for publication. Instead, Count Rumford kept his wife out of his laboratory. So naturally she spent even more time with her friends.

TOMORROW: From bad to worse.

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