Mademoiselle Melanie De Salignac

Blind Girl by John Everett Millais

Melanie de Salignac was born blind in 1744. In his Memoirs, Baron de Grimm remembers this young woman who, despite her blindness, had taught herself to read using cut out cards. This was before the invention of Braille, which occurred in 1829, decades after her death (Mademoiselle de Salignac died young in 1766). And reading wasn’t her only accomplishment. She achieved so much more, and was admired by all those who knew her:

She had an unusual fund of good sense, the utmost mildness and sweetness of disposition, an uncommon penetration in her ideas, and great simplicity of character. […] The sound of the voice produced the same effect on her as the physiognomy has upon persons that see. One of her relations, a receiver-general of the finances, behaved very ill to her family, in a way extremely unexpected, on winch she remarked,”Who could have conceived this with so sweet a voice!” When she heard any one sing, she distinguished between the voice of a fair and of a dark person. When any one spoke to her, she judged of their height by the direction in which the sound came.

She had no wish to see; and one day, when I asked her the reason of this, she answered me, “I should have nothing then but my own eyes, and now I enjoy the eyes of everybody. By this privation, I am an object of constant interest and commiseration. I am obliged in some way at every moment, and at every moment I am grateful. Alas! if I wear to see, people would think of me no more.” The errors of sight very much diminished its value in her ideas. “I am,” she said “at the entrance of a long avenue; at the extremity of it is some object; to one of you it appears in motion; to another it appears still; one says that it is an animal, another that it is a man, and, on approaching it, it appears to be the stamp of a tree. No one knows whether the tower they perceive afar off be round or square. I brave the clouds of dust, while those around me shut their eyes, and are miserable; sometimes they even suffer a whole day, for not having shut them soon enough. An almost imperceptible atom is sufficient to hurt them cruelly.”

At the approach of night she used to say, ” that our reign was at an end, and her’s was just then beginning.” It will easily he conceived, that living in constant darkness, with the habit of acting and thinking in an eternal night, lying awake, which is so tormenting to us, was scarcely felt by her. […] She was passionately fond of hearing any body read, and still more of music. ” I think,” she said, “that I could never be tired of listening to people who sing or play in a superior manner. If this happiness be the only one we are to enjoy in heaven, it will be sufficient for me. You think justly when you say, that it is the most powerful of all the fine arts, without excepting either poetry or eloquence.” […]

“I persuade myself,” she continued “that those who see, distracted by their sight, can neither hear nor understand as clearly as I do. Why does the elogium of music, which I hear from others, always appear to me poor and feeble? Why could I never express myself as I feel? Why, in the midst of what I would say, am I obliged to stop, seeking in vain for words which can paint the sensations I experience? Is it that no adequate words are yet invented? I cannot compare the effect that music has upon me, but to the sort of intoxication I experience when, after a long absence, I throw myself into the arms of my mother, when my voice fails me, all my limbs tremble, tears stream down my cheeks, my knees will no longer support me, I seem dying with pleasure”.

She had the most delicate sense of modesty that I ever witnessed. Asking her the reason of it, “It is,” she said “the effect of my mother’s good counsels. She has said so many things to me on this subject, that I will own I could scarcely comprehend them for a long time; and perhaps, in comprehending them, I have ceased to be innocent.” She died of an inward tumour, which her modesty prevented her ever mentioning. In her dress, in her linen, in her person, there reigned a neatness, which is so much the more extraordinary, as not seeing herself, she could never be sure that she had done all that was requisite to avoid disgusting people of the opposite quality. If they were pouring out drink for her, she knew from the noise of the liquor in falling when the glass was full enough; she took her food with a surprising circumspection and address. Sometimes, as a joke, she would place herself before a glass to dress, imitating all the manners of a coquette, who is arming for conquest. This mimicry was most exact, and most truly laughable.

From her earliest youth, it had been the study of all about her to improve her other senses to the utmost possible degree, and it is wonderful how far they had succeeded. By feeling she could distinguish peculiarities about the person of any one which may easily be overlooked by persons who had the best eyes. Her hearing and smell were exquisite; she judged, by the impression of the air, the state of the atmosphere, whether it was cloudy or serene, whether she was in an open place or a street; and if a street, whether it was a cul-de-sac; also whether she was in the open air or in a room; and if in a room, whether it was large or small. She could calculate the size of a circumscribed space by the sound which her feet produced, or by that of her voice. When she had once gone over a house, the topography of it remained perfect in her head to such a degree, that she could warn others of any little danger they were likely to incur. “Take care the door is too low. — Do not forget that there is a step.” She observed a variety in voices of which we have no idea, and when once she had heard a person speak she always knew the voice again.

She was little sensible to the charms of youth, or shocked at the wrinkles of old age. She said that she regaled nothing but the qualities of the heart and mind. One advantage which she always enumerated in being deprived of sight, particularly for a woman, was, that she was in no clanger of having her bead turned by a handsome man. She was exceedingly disposed to confide in others; it would have been no less easy than base to deceive her. It was an inexcusable cruelty to make her believe that she was alone in a room. She was not subject to any kind of panic terrors; seldom did she feel ennui, solitude had taught he to be every thing to herself. […] Of all the qualities of the heart and mind, a sound judgment, mildness, and cheerfulness, were those which she prized the most.

She spoke little and listened much. “I am like the birds,” she said, “I learn to sing in darkness.” In comparing things which she heard one day with those she heard another, she was shocked at the contradiction of our judgments; it seemed to her a matter of indifference whether she was praised or blamed by beings so inconsistent. She had been taught to read by means of letters cut out; she had an agreeable voice, and sung with taste; she could willingly have passed her life at the concert or the opera, nothing but noisy music was disagreeable to her. She danced delightfully, and had learned to play on the violin; from this latter talent she derived a great source of amusement to herself in drawing about her the young people of her own age, to teach them the dances that were most in fashion. She was exceedingly beloved by all her brothers and sisters. “This,” she said, “is another advantage which I derive from my infirmities. People attach themselves to me by the cares they render me, and by the efforts I make to deserve them, and to be grateful for them. Added to this, my brothers and sister are not jealous of me. If I had eyes, it would be at the expence of my heart and mind. I have so many reasons to be good — what would become of me if I were to lose the interest I inspire?”

In the reverse of fortune experienced by her parents, the loss of masters was the only one she regretted; but the masters of geometry and music had contracted so great an attachment and esteem for her, that they earnestly entreated permission to give her lessons gratuitously. “What shall I do, Mamma?” said she, “they are not rich and have occasion for all their time.” She had been taught music by characters in relief, which were placed in raised lines upon the surface of a large table. These characters she read with her hand, then executed them upon her instrument, and after a very little study could play a part in a piece however long or complicated. She understood the elements of astronomy, algebra, and geometry. Her mother sometimes read to her the Abbe de la Caille’s book, and asked her whether she understood it– “Oh perfectly,” she replied. Geometry, she said, was the true science for the blind, because no assistance was wanting to carry it to perfection. “The geometrician,” she said, “passes almost all his life with his eyes shut.”

I have seen the maps by which she studied geography. The parallels and meridians were of brass wire; the boundaries of kingdoms and provinces were marked out by threads of silk or wool, more or less coarse; the rivers and mountains by pins’ heads, some larger others smaller; and the towns by drops of wax, according to the size of them. […] She wrote with a pin, with which she pricked a sheet of paper stretched upon a frame, on which were two movable metal rods, that left between them only the proper space between one line and another. The same mode of writing served in answer; she read if by passing her finger over the inequalities made by the pin on the reverse of the paper. She could read a book printed only on one side; Prault printed some in this manner for her use. One of her letters was inserted in the Mercury, of the times. She had the patience to copy with her needle the Abrege Historique of M. Heinault, and I have obtained from Madame Blacy this singular manuscript. […]

She would thread the smallest needle with great dexterity, placing the thread or silk on the index finger of her left hand, and drawing it to a very fine point, which she passed through the eye of the needle, holding it perpendicularly. There was no sort of needle-work that she could not execute; she made purses and bags, plain or with fine open work, in different patterns, and with a variety of colours; garters, bracelets, collars for the neck, with very small glass beads sown upon them in alphabetical characters. […] She played perfectly well at reversis, at the mediator, and at quadrille. She sorted the cards herself, distinguishing each by little marks she had formed to herself, and which she knew by the touch, though they were not perceptible either to the sight or touch of any other person. The only attention required from the rest of the party was to name the cards as they played them. If at reversis the quinola was in danger, a gentle smile spread itself over her lips, which she could not restrain, though conscious of the indiscretion.

Further reading:
The Repository Of Art, Literature, Commerce, Manufactures, Fashions and Politics, for May 1814

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