Octavia Walton

Octavia Walton
(Madame Le Vert)

Into a world in which so many are born strangers, some later to know it in part and others destined to remain forever out of touch with life, and lonely-spectators rather than a part of it, Octavia Walton came as unto her own. Every atom of her being was in absolute accord with the universe. No bristling antipathies hedged in her genial personality nor raised barriers between herself and the beauties of life. She perceived them always and with an enthusiasm that raised not only her own existence, but that of many others, above the level of the commonplace. She was a sort of social sun, radiating light, warmth, and beauty upon all the lives that touched hers, and it has been said that no one ever came in contact with her, of no matter what rank or condition in life, without experiencing a sense of elation. She was one of nature’s cosmopolites, a woman to whom the whole world was home and the people of all nations her friends. Far more to this gift of temperament than to those of her personal beauty or intellect, does she owe the eminence of her position among the American women of her century.

She was born early enough in the history of the Republic to partake in a measure of the glow of patriotic enthusiasm that had been the inspiration of its founders. Though she was intensely American, she grew up with no touch of bitterness for the mother country, cherishing the memory of Chatham’s words uttered in the House of Lords, “You cannot conquer America,” rather than his sovereign’s misguided efforts “to be a king.”

Her grandfather, George Walton, who died two years before her birth, was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. He was a native of Prince Edward County, Virginia, but removed, prior to the Revolution, to Georgia, whence he was sent as a delegate to the first Congress. He had married, in the State of his adoption. Miss Camber, the daughter of an English nobleman and the heiress to large tracts of land that were grants from the crown. To this grand-mother Octavia Walton was indebted for many graphic stories of the thrilling days through which her country had passed in establishing itself as an independent nation. She was in Philadelphia with her husband, who was in attendance upon the Congress there, when the news of the fall of Yorktown was received. The town was quietly sleeping when the watchman calling the hours announced, as usual, ” Past midnight, and all’s well I” then, after an instant’s pause and in a voice that resounded through the streets, ” And Cornwallis is taken I” It sent a thrill through the town, and turned that October night into day, for presently the streets were swarming with people wild with joyous excitement.

When Madame Le Vert related to Lamartine, with whom she passed an evening during one of her visits to Paris, in speaking of the Declaration of Independence, that her grandfather’s name was thereon inscribed, and that he had given his blood and his fortune to the cause of America’s freedom, the Frenchman arose and bowed to her profoundly. “Madame,” he said, “in his name you have a noble heritage. It is the true patent of nobility, and you rightly cherish your descent from such a brave and heroic patriot with honest pride.”

The State of Georgia gave George Walton high honors, making him governor and, later, judge of the Supreme Court, and erecting a monument to commemorate his sterling qualities in one of the principal thoroughfares of the city of Augusta. His son and namesake married the accomplished and beautiful Miss Sally Walker, the daughter of a distinguished jurist of Georgia. Of the two children of their marriage, a son and a daughter, the latter was born at Bellevue, near Augusta, in the year 1810. She was named by her mother after the Roman Octavia, the beloved and noble sister of Augustus and the deserted wife of Marc Anthony, and was taught to revere the beauty of a character that possessed, as Pope Pius IX said, when Madame Le Vert told him for whom she was named, “every virtue and grace that should adorn a woman.”

Her early education was directed entirely by her mother and grandmother. An old Scotch tutor later assumed charge of the studies of Octavia and her brother, instructing them together in the sciences and languages. The facility with which Octavia mastered the latter was an evidence of the remarkable elasticity and adaptability of her nature. She acquired readily not only the language, but all the gestures and mannerisms of a foreign people. To her father this branch of her education was a matter of much interest. In the year 1821, when she was eleven years old, he became Secretary of State for Florida under Andrew Jackson, who was governor of the Territory. There often came to him in connection with the affairs of his office, letters and despatches in French and Spanish, of both of which languages she had so accurate a knowledge that he could entirely rely upon her translations of them. During a court ball at which she was present while in England, some years after her marriage, she delighted the ambassadors from France, Spain, and Italy by talking with each in his own tongue. She pleased the Holy Father no less upon the occasion of her audience with him, when, after he had spoken with her in both French and Spanish, thinking it might be less of an effort for him, she asked him to speak in his own tongue. During her residence in Florida, where her father succeeded General Jackson in the governor-ship, she also acquired a goodly store of Indian legends, which became later the delight of many an audience. She related on shipboard one night the story of Alabama having received the name from a tribe of Indians who were driven by a fierce northern foe to the forests of the southeast, and, coming upon a beautiful river, the chief struck his tent-pole, exclaiming “Alabama! Alabama!” meaning, “Here we rest.” She was greeted, upon going on deck the following day, with an out spread buffalo robe, which a Chicagoan was taking to England as a gift for the Queen, and requested to make it her “Alabama” during the remainder of the voyage.

When her father selected a permanent seat of government for Florida, he permitted her to give it a name, and she called it Tallahassee, the Indian word for “beautiful land,” as a courtesy to the Seminole chief who had first pitched his tent on the spot. She had much sympathy and affection for the Indians, often pleading their cause against some act of aggression or injustice, and they had a tender reverence for her, calling her frequently “the white dove of peace.”

One of the memorable events of her young life was the visit of Lafayette to America. It enters into the record of many lives that covered that period, some of which were far spent and some so tenderly youthful that the little marquis saluted them only by proxy, delegating somebody else “to kiss the babies” while he shook countless outstretched hands, for he was as complaisant as he was artistic. He wrote to the widow of his old friend, General George Walton, expressing a wish to see her during his stay in Mobile. Her health was not sufficiently robust, however, to admit of her undertaking a journey with the few comforts that were then possible. She sent her daughter-in-law and her granddaughter to represent her, intrusting to Octavia a miniature of her husband, the better to recall his features to Lafayette’s memory and to enable him to realize how strong was the resemblance the little girl bore to her illustrious grandfather. She talked to him in French, so that the interview was to Lafayette a time of delightful relaxation, and it was with genuine reluctance that he saw it draw to a close. To Octavia it was the first in a long series of interesting memories associated with Mobile, whither her family removed from Florida in the year 1835. In the latter State, however, she spent the happy period of her young womanhood; hence Lady Emmeline Stuart Wortley, in some lines addressed to her at a later period, calls her “Sweet Rose of Florida.”

Pensacola was the naval station of the gulf coast, and the constant coming and going of men-of-war, with the attendant festivities of balls of welcome and farewell banquets, were a distinctive feature in the social life of that portion of the Territory.

Octavia Walton, the governor’s daughter, cultivated intellectually to a degree that made her the appreciative listener and intelligent talker among men of science and of letters, and with a personal beauty that made her the admiration of every one, occupied from her earliest girlhood a position of unusual prominence.

Long runs with her brother in the invigorating air of the coast had given to her supple figure, with its graceful curves, that erect carriage which she always retained. Her head was well poised, and her soft brown hair parted simply above a broad brow of unusual whiteness and transparency. In her blue eyes there lurked a suggestion of the cool and quiet depth of a forest, while her mouth, that feature which, says Oliver Wendell Holmes, we all make for ourselves, denoted the sweetness of her character. These were the visible forms of the loveliness of the young Octavia Walton, whom Frederika Bremer, the Swedish novelist, called “the magnolia flower of the South.”

In 1835, the year her family moved to Mobile, accompanied by her mother and brother, she made a tour of the United States, visiting during the summer the famous resort of the North, Saratoga Springs, and going to Washington after the assembling of Congress in December. She attained a fame during that year that made her the inspiration of poets noted for the beauty of their lyric verse, and the subject of several analytical writings. She formed during the same period the friendship of two of the most eminent men of that time, Washington Irving and Henry Clay. She met Irving in travelling, and discovered his identity in a singular way. It was three years after his return from Spain, where he had represented his country with so much dignity and ability that his welcome home had been much in the nature of an ovation. The stagecoach, in which so many pleasant acquaintances were made, was yet the usual means of transportation, though the duration of journeys had been greatly lessened by the successful introduction of the steamboat, in which enterprise Fulton already had competitors, one young Vanderbilt running a rival one on the Sound between New York and Providence. Irving, who had been on the dock when Fulton made the first experiment with his steamer, used to relate with exquisite humor how the breathless silence of the crowd of curious spectators who watched her puff off into the stream was broken by the voice of an incredulous man saying, ” She may go well enough for a time, but give me a good sloop.” Being singularly shy, he usually talked but little among strangers. Divining in the young girl, who sat opposite him in the stage-coach for several days during the summer of 1835, those same qualities ” the sound and pure intellect and the heart full of affection” that so endeared her to Miss Bremer, he dropped frequently into the current of bright talk she kept up with her mother and brother. They speculated frequently upon his identity, for his appearance was unusual, his manner courtly, and his language that of a most cultivated man. While she was talking with her brother in Spanish one day, he joined in their conversation and related some incident in connection with a bull-fight he had seen when in Spain. Octavia had already heard the identical story from another source, and, connecting the two narrations, she ex-claimed, quickly, and quite unconsciously betraying the fact that his identity had been a matter of curiosity to her, “I know who you are ! You are Washington Irving. Mr. Slidell, who related that story to me, told me that Washington Irving was standing beside him when it happened.” Thus began a friendship that had an extensive influence upon her life. Realizing how keen were her powers of observation, and how unusual her command of language, he advised her to keep a journal, which was her first effort at writing, at which she attained later a leading position among women of letters at the South. He corresponded with her till the end of his life, and aided her with many suggestions gathered from his own experience in a long literary-career. She in return shed many a ray of brightness over an existence that, with all its fame and success, was not without its lonely hours. The last time they met he reluctantly watched her departure from Sunnyside. “I feel, my child,” he said, “that you are taking all the sunshine away with you.”

Henry Clay looked upon her with the same tender pride that characterized Irving’s attitude towards her. The beauty of her feet being at one time a subject of comment in his presence, he said that, while he was not prepared to pass judgment upon them, he was proud to be able to bear testimony to a beauty of tongue that he considered without parallel. Like Irving’s, his friend-ship for her knew no change during the remainder of his lifetime. When the corner-stone of the monument erected to his memory in New Orleans was laid, she delivered an address that was well worthy of the eloquence of the man it eulogized.

In 1836 Octavia Walton was married, in the city of Mobile, to Dr. Henry S. Le Vert, a son of Dr. Claud Le Vert, who, coming to America as surgeon of the fleet under Rochambeau, had remained there after the termination of hostilities, settling in Virginia, and marrying a niece of Admiral Vernon. As Madame Le Vert, Octavia Walton attained that same social sovereignty that was achieved a few years later by Mrs. Rush, of Philadelphia, and at a still more recent period by Mrs. Astor, of New York. The same sort of Instinctive tribute was everywhere accorded each of these women, raising her to an eminence in which she was sustained by the unusual order of the gifts with which she was endowed. In Mobile, so absolute was the leadership of Madame Le Vert that she was frequently designated simply as “Madame,” it being everywhere understood that the title without the accompaniment of any name applied only to her.

Her home on Government Street was the most noted of the city. There she entertained at various times not only the most distinguished of the people of her own country, but many eminent foreigners, Kossuth, among others, and Frederika Bremer. Lady Emmeline Stuart Wortley, the daughter of the Duke of Rutland, having been her guest for several weeks, gave her later that introduction that made possible the establishment of her social fame In England.

Joseph Jefferson, growing up In the profession in which he now stands In the foremost rank, and In whom she early recognized the divine spark of genius, had frequent proofs of the kindliness of her hospitality.

Her library was the feature of her home in which she always evinced the most interest. She never abandoned those habits of study which kept her in touch with the progressive minds of the world. Beauty alone is not sufficient to give a woman the place Madame Le Vert filled. It attracts, but there must be behind it the sustaining force of an intelligence radiating sympathy, of a mentality developed and adorned with those graces that enable it to enter into and illuminate the lives that approach it. She continued to read in the foreign languages she had mastered in her early girlhood, painstakingly teaching them to her children, whom, in their infancy, she often sung to sleep with the love ditties of Italy. To her husband she was a continual source of revelation and pride. Precise, practical, profoundly interested in his profession, he felt little interest in the purely fashionable element of the life that revolved about her. In her relationship to it, however, her power to attract and hold such a diversity of tastes and temperaments he found an interesting study. At her levees and receptions it was his delight to take up his position where he could watch her, and, if possible, where he could occasionally catch the sparkle of her words.

To a nature keenly alive to every impression, the loss of her only brother, to whom she was attached by ties of an extraordinary sympathy, brought a grief that for a long time overshadowed her happy spirit. A few years after this loss, in June, 1853, accompanied by her father and the elder of her daughters, she made her first visit to the Old World, whose treasures and resources her classical education had so ably fitted her to enjoy. Her journal and letters written during this period and a subsequent trip ring with the enthusiasm of a girl. They formed the basis of her first published work, which met with much success, for in those days the theme was fresher, and she handled it with a sprightliness that gave individuality and interest to every page. Very graphically she relates how the first ardor with which she embarked upon the new and delightful experience of a transatlantic voyage was quenched by that unromantic malady, sea-sickness. With the memory of the torture fresh upon her, she wrote that Solomon, when he ejaculated, “O that mine enemy would write a book!” probably knew nothing of the agonies of sea-sickness, or he would rather have invoked that malady upon him.

The London season was at its height when she arrived there. Well introduced, she created so favor-able an impression upon a society where the success of an American depends largely if not entirely upon personal merit as evinced by his or her good breeding, intelligence, and powers to entertain, that she experienced all the delights of a hospitality which to the uninitiated is cold and exclusive. She was presented to the Queen at a court ball, to which she received the unusual honor of an invitation without a previous presentation to Her Majesty. With genuine regret she saw the days allotted to her stay in England draw to a close. Every-where, however, she found and made friends, many strangers recognizing in her, in all its strength and purity, that sympathy which makes the world akin, and involuntarily opening their hearts to her. She was in-tensely interested in everyone and everything, so that her life never contracted. Her early memories were associated with the Spanish, and she never outgrew her appreciation for the grace of their civilization. Her ability to speak the language added much to the pleasure and profit of her visit to Spain, and her journal recounting her stagecoach experiences contains frequent allusions to the unfailing courtesy of the people of that country. In Italy her knowledge of the language of the land again made her the spokesman of her little party, and with beneficial results. In Florence she had the pleasure of meeting the Brownings, and the interest they inspired in her seems to have been mutual. Mrs. Browning, whose health did not permit her to go out in the night air, broke the rule it had entailed upon her and went to a party given in honor of Madame Le Vert on the eve of her departure, that she might once more have the pleasure of seeing and talking with her. During one of her visits to Rome she had one of those peculiar experiences that evinced the friendliness she everywhere inspired. She had gone with her daughter to St. Peter’s to attend the ceremony known as the Apostle’s banquet. At the termination of the exercises there began an awful struggle for liberty in the packed isles of the great church. Madame Le Vert was well-nigh overpowered, when suddenly she felt herself lifted from her feet, raised high in the air, and safely ensconced on a window-ledge, while a reassuring voice whispered, in French, ” There, little woman, don’t be afraid; you’ll be safe there.” Her rescuer was a powerful Russian woman, who, when she had placed Miss Le Vert beside her mother, said, simply, “Do not forget me when you think of the Apostle’s banquet,” and moved away with the surging crowd.

In all her journeys, both in her own country and in Europe, she was accompanied by her colored maid Betsey. “North, South, East, and West,” wrote one of her friends, “goes Betsey with her mistress through bristling ranks of abolitionists, up the Rhine, over the Alps, everywhere goes Betsey.”

“If you would see the ideal relationship between a lady and her female slave,” said Frederika Bremer, ” you should see Octavia Le Vert and her clever, handsome, mulatto attendant^ Betsey. Betsey seems really not to live for anything else than for her mistress Octavia.”

At the Austrian border they were put through a series of questions, all of their responses “being recorded,” said Madame Le Vert, “for the benefit of posterity.” Betsey was put down as a Moor, much to her dismay, and she besought her mistress to assure them that she “had nothing but pure American blood in her veins, and was a slave from the South.”

During her second visit to Europe, in 1855, Madame Le Vert spent the summer in Paris, the governor of Alabama having named her Commissioner from that State to the Paris Exposition of that year. His gallantry was a frequent subject of comment and appreciation, for she was the only woman among the commissioners. The position, however, seems to have been purely honorary, for she lamented that when asked to point out the products of Alabama in her department, she could only indicate her daughter. “If there had been even only a few cotton-seed,” she said, “it would at least have served to swear by.”

She witnessed the enthusiastic reception tendered by the French nation to the Queen of England, was present at the ball given by the Emperor in her honor, and was at the opera the night the royal party visited it, when the whole audience rose en masse at the first note of England’s national anthem, sung by Roger, Alboni, and Cruvelli. She heard with a thrill of enthusiasm the “Vive la Reine Victoria” that burst from a thou-sand lips, and saw the Emperor lead the gracious queen three times to the front of the box to acknowledge the tumultuous tribute. In her own box sat, on that memorable night, an ex-President of the great republic across the water, Millard Fillmore.

A visit made during her stay in Ferrara, Italy, to the home of the poet Ariosto so impressed Madame Le Vert that it was productive of a notable result after her return to America. His house had been purchased by the government, and everything in it was preserved in the order in which he had left it at the time of his death. Realizing that it was regarded as a shrine, and devoutly visited by those who would honor the memory of the immortal poet, her thoughts reverted to the home of the great American general, Mount Vernon, then falling into decay, whereas it might be similarly preserved by the patriotism of the people. She took up the question earnestly after her return to America, and did for the cause at the South as much as Mrs. Harrison Gray Otis did for it at the North. In one day she received at her home in Mobile, in small contributions, upward of a thousand dollars.

Many of Madame Le Vert’s most charming letters were written to her mother. After a long day of travel or sight seeing she frequently sat up far into the night that she might not neglect the pleasant duty of writing these letters.

Her parents’ home in Mobile, of which city her father was for a time mayor, was near her own, and she continued to be much with them until their lives closed, which they did in close succession, shortly before the outbreak of the war. Her husband’s death occurred during the last year of that melancholy period which shook the homes of the South to their foundation. She went North and remained for over a year after the close of the war, accompanied by her two daughters. She returned to the South for a time, but eventually removed to New York, disposing of her home and many of her possessions, the losses she had sustained and the altered conditions of her life rendering Mobile no longer to her a place of happy existence.

Having been so long a leader, she continued to exercise various queenly prerogatives, which to many people at the North seemed eccentric. She had not the prestige there that would have made them possible, though she was never without her coterie of admirers.

Her later years were not affluent, and she was obliged to put her talents to bread-winning purposes. She died in the city, in which she had been born, Augusta, Georgia, on the 13th of March, 1877.