The Nieces of Madame De Montespan

MADAME DE THIANGES, the eldest sister of Madame de Montespan, had two daughters, the Duchesse de Nevers and the Duchess Sforza; and two other duchesses and a marquise were daughters of her brother, the Maréchal Duc de Vivonne. They were all charming women, and well worth knowing not only by name, but by sight; and any one who will read with us a few pages of two or three of the most entertaining books in the world may have the pleasure of seeing them more vividly than if he had beheld them a thousand times with his own eyes.

It is of Diane-Gabrielle, Mademoiselle de Thianges, that Madame de Sévigné speaks in writing to M. de Grignan (December 10, 1670): “ My daughter begs me to tell you of the marriage of M. de Nevers, — the M. de Nevers so difficult to bind, the extraordinary M. de Nevers who slips through people’s fingers when they least expect it; he marries at last, — guess who ? It is not Mademoiselle d’Houdancourt nor Mademoiselle de Grancei; it’s Mademoiselle de Thianges, young, pretty, modest, educated at l’Abbaye-aux-Bois. Madame de Montespan celebrates the wedding festivities Sunday; she does it quite as if she were the mother, and receives all the honors of them. The king confers on M. de Nevers all his official positions, so that this beauty, who has not a sou, is worth more to him than the greatest heiress of France.”

The view of this last sentence is not quite borne out by Saint-Simon, who represents the duke as much more inclined to get rid of official positions than to seek them. He was a nephew of Cardinal Mazarin, and brother of the five famous Mancini sisters. His uncle left him very rich and highly connected, and he could have made his way in any direction; but he cared neither for military nor court life, and dropped out of one career after another through indolence and love of pleasure. He got rid of the government of La Rochelle and the Pays d’Aunis, according to Saint-Simon, and married, in 1670, the most beautiful person at the court. Beautiful she must have been to have that said of her, for it was the very moment of her most beautiful aunt’s supreme radiance. Six years later, Madame de Sévigné says she “ is beautiful as the day, and shines brilliantly without any painstaking;” while Madame de Caylus observes about her adoring mother, “ Madame de Thianges was not in the wrong in admiring Madame de Nevers ; all the world admired her, too; but no one saw the resemblance between them which she imagined.”

When the arrangement for the marriage was made the duke was at Rome, amusing himself with his sisters, the beautiful Hortense and the vehement Marie; and although he soon set out thence in company with Hortense, they lingered six months on the way, and the fair Diane must have wondered more than once whether her fiancé would not, in Madame de Sévigné’s phrase, “slip through her fingers.” But M. le Retardataire put in his appearance at last, and then—was it a characteristic exhibition of his pronounced fraternal devotion to his famous sisters ? — he chose, as a part of his wedding celebrations, to have performed the Bérénice of Racine, the play which illustrates and immortalizes the love passages between Marie Mancini and the king. The drama had taken place in real life some ten years before, but the poetic presentation of it was at that moment but lately composed. Whatever personal interest the piece possessed for the duke, it. seems an odd thing to grace his nuptials with.

Married in December, poor Diane (as we find by a little accidental sentence in one of Madame de Maintenon’s letters) was obliged, the next September, to go to Italy “to find her husband,” who was in all ways très Italian. With artistic tastes, cultivated by the works of art bequeathed to him by his uncle, he was full of intelligence in many directions, and wrote verses with sufficient ability for Voltaire to include him in his list of writers of that day ; but Voltaire’s comment on them is that their taste is peculiar. Madame de Sévigné found them admirable, and calls their author “ a true son of Apollo and the Muses.” She uses precisely the same word, singulier, about them as Voltaire, but she adds another epithet, relevé, which suggests the pungent quality they possessed; and she says, ‘‘I have made a little collection of them, which I would not part with for much money; . . . all that comes from him has a character so special and so excellent that it throws all others into the shade.”

He sometimes ventured, unfortunately, into the region of satire, and dared to attack not only Racine and Boileau (on occasion of the cabal against Racine in favor of Pradon), but to throw stones at Bossuet, audaciously styling him charlatan. This was at the time of the great quarrel of Quietism, when the duke was on the side of the Mystics.

It was not his verses only that were unlike others. “ Il étoit on tout extrêmement singulier,” says Saint-Simon (always the same word). One of his eccentricities — in the eyes or ears of Saint-Simon — was that he always called his wife by her name, Diane, instead of Madame de Nevers. A greater oddity, to modern minds, was that he was in the habit of setting off for Rome, Madame de Caylus says (and Saint-Simon also), “in the same manner in which one goes to sup at what is now called a guinguette [a small country-house] ; and Madame de Nevers has been seen entering her carriage, supposing that, she was only going to drive, and hearing the direction given to her coachman, ‘To Rome.' ” Saint-Simon declares such departures happened three or four times. It is no wonder that “ one could not weary of hearing her relate the adventures of her Italian journeys.” Her domestic adventures must have been peculiar, too, for her husband was excessively miserly, and “ very often went himself to the market and elsewhere to buy what he wished to eat, and usually made his bed-chamber his pantry.”

It need scarcely be said that the duke was often jealous, — “fort inutilement,” adds Saint-Simon. But be never quarreled with his wife. “ Il ne l’appeloit jamais quo Diane.” Of course she had a lover, and of course he was of the highest; none less than M. le Prince, the son of the great Condé. He had the appearance “ more of a gnome than a man,” as Madame de Caylus says, but his looks were hidden by his wit, his gallantry, his magnificence. A story regarding his devotion is told both by Madame de Caylus and Saint-Simon, but, curiously enough, at the point they diverge into differences. They go along together smoothly on these facts: The prince, to prevent an anticipated rush to Rome, wished to give Madame de Nevers a fête at Chantilly, and veiled it under the pretext that it was for Monseigneur. His knowledge of the tastes and character of M. de Nevers made him resolve, as he was not less malin than amoureux, to induce the husband to write the verses (a necessary part of the brilliant gayeties of those days) which should express the lover’s passion for the wife. M. de Nevers fell into the trap, and — so continues Madame de Caylus — “the fête was given ; it cost more than a hundred thousand crowns. Madame de Nevers did not go to Rome,” Saint-Simon’s version is : “The fête was prepared, . . . but four or five days before it came off M. de Nevers discovered the trick played upon him. He said nothing, hut set off the next morning for Rome with his wife, where he remained for a long time, and in his turn discomfited M. le Prince.”“ Il glisse des mains alors qu’on y pense le moins.” Madame de Sévigné’s phrase makes us give faith to SaintSimon.

Their sojourns at Rome were passed in their palace on Monte Cavallo or at their numerous villas ; and they were always surrounded by a few gay and brilliant friends, — among them, often, “ little ” Coulanges (the cousin of Madame de Sévigné), the chansonnier, who sings: —

“ Rome était amiable,
Plaisante, agréable,
Pendant le règne de Nevers;
Toujours de jolis vers,
Tonjours un table
De peu de converts.”

They lived after the same fashion in France. Chaulieu, writing to La Fare, says: “ We have had the best and most delicate suppers possible with M. le Duc de Nevers. The company select and small, combining the Mortemart graces with the Mancini imagination.” In his own phrase, the duke was one of those

“ Qui sait goûter la vie
En paresseux sensé qui pond sur ses plaisirs ; ”

a man who lazily and contentedly enjoys the sunshine and broods over his pleasures. It was the same tone of thought, the same views of life, that controlled the existences of his brilliant sisters, the Duchessede Mazarin and the Duchessede Bouillon. He was a truer, a more refined Epicurean than they, but he seems also to have been more feminine, to have had more delicacy and less strength. His relations with them and with la Connétable Colonna were always those of more than fraternal admiration and sympathy, His social circle and that of the Duchessede Bouillon were identical; ana after Hortense took up her abode in England, and their personal intercourse came to an end, he held frequent communication with her by letter. Those on her side were often written for her by SaintEvremond, who had a high appreciation of the duke’s talents, and evidently enjoyed an interchange of courtesies with him. The correspondence hardly amounts to more than that.

The most attractive side of the duke’s nature is his tender attachment to his youngest daughter, “ la belle Api,” as she was styled at Sceaux, the little pseudo-court of the indomitable, disagreeable little Duchesse de Maine, where M. and Madame de Nevers were habitués. His verses to this dear child are full of sweetness, and have a touch of melancholy that may be felt more or less in all his later writings. He addresses her as “ Thou to whom belong all my wishes, — dear creature, in whom I delight.” Soon after her marriage he died quietly.

The married life of the duke and duchess lasted for thirty-seven years; she survived him eight years, and died past sixty. ” still perfectly beautiful.” “Few women,” Saint-Simon says, “had surpassed her in beauty. Hers was of every kind, with an enchanting individuality.”

The sister of Madame de Nevers was also the wife of an Italian, and also lived at Rome; hut Duke Sforza. some forty years older than she. died only eight years after their marriage, and she returned to the French court, belle, sage et spirituelle. It was after the decadence of the favor of Madame de Montespan. yet it was always something to be her niece, and it was still more to have inherited that langage singulier of which Saint-Simon so often describes the charm. Madame de Caylus denies that Madame Sforza was beautiful. “ She had only a white skin, and fine enough eyes, with a nose pendent over a very red mouth, which made M. de Vendôme say that she resembled a paroquet eating a cherry.” Beautiful or not, she pleased the king enough for Madame de Maintenon to find it best to maintain a distance between them ; but an intimate union was formed between Madame Sforza and her cousin the Duchesse de Orléans, an intimacy which Saint-Simon considered “ fortunate for this princess, for M. le Duc d’Orléans, and for all that branch of the royal family.” The cousins passed their lives together, and dined almost every day tête àa tête. “ Madame Sforza,” SaintSimon says, “ had cleverness, but of a judicious, sensible, prudent, considerate kind ; she was good and kindly by nature, remote from all evil and tending toward all good. . . . Her bearing had something repellent; it was stiff, dry, cold, and haughty. She liked to govern. She was a weaker Princesse des Ursins. But penetrate this shell and you found only good sense, moderation, kindness, politeness, reasonableness, the desire to oblige, to conciliate, and, above all, truth, sincerity, uprightness, entire trustiness, inviolable secrecy, — an assemblage very precious and very rare, especially at court and in a woman. She held herself high without pride and without meanness ; that is to say, she felt her own power, and she bore herself with reserve and dignity far apart from all that was degrading at court, where nevertheless she was a person considered, although she frequented it little.”

The Maréchal Duc de Vivonne, whose daughters are our next personages, held high offices. He did good service in Spain, where he was viceroy of Messina, and afterward he was general of the galleys in France ; but he is chiefly memorable for the countless jests regarding his extreme stoutness, of which he was alternately the author and the audience. Madame de Sévigné, with whom he was on familiar terms, and whom he called maman mignonne, has her little word about the trouble it was de l’embrasser.. But his esprit was not less than his size, and he had a strong love of letters. The king, who never cared for books, asked him one day what was the use of reading ; the duke pointed to his own well-complexioned face, and answered, “ Reading gives to the mind what your Majesty’s partridges give to my cheeks.” He was a friend of La Rochefoucauld, and Madame de Sévigné mentions meeting him with Madame de Thianges, Madame Scarron, M. le Duc, and M. de La Rochefoucauld, when, on one of her visits to Saint-Germain, she went to sup in the “ enchanting apartment” of M. de Marsillac (La Rochefoucauld’s son). And she entertains her daughter, in continuation, with the account of a quarrel M. le Chevalier de Vendôme had tried to pick with M. de Vivonne, who, just recovering from wounds he had received at the passage of the Rhine, entirely refused to be insulted. “ I, gentlemen,” he cried to the courtiers who flocked to see him, “ I fight! He may fight me if he chooses, but I defy him to make me fight! First let him break his shoulder, and receive eighteen cuts ; and then — every one thought he was going to say, “ then we will fight ; ” instead he added— “then we will make it up. But is he jesting in thinking of firing at me ? That’s a fine project; it would be like firing into a parte, cochère. I greatly regret having saved his life at the passage of the Rhine ; I won’t do any more such actions before having the horoscope drawn of those for whom I do them. Could you ever have believed that I had reseated him in his saddle, merely that he might pierce me through the body?” All this, without the tone and manner which Madame de Sévigné says made it most amusing, would be hardly worth quoting, did it not give so vivid an impression of the quality of the gayety of those days. Before long the Chevalier de Vendôme asked mercy from his jests of M. de Vivonne, who was never weary of proclaiming his horror of fighting, and the quarrel was made up.

The Duchesse de Vivonne, though she never could perpetrate a joke herself, was one of those who most enjoyed her husband’s raillery, and seemingly nothing could be more gayly careless than their lives, spent in squandering their immense wealth. All the gayety came to an end with his death; the duchess, in the ruin of their affairs, found herself obliged to live in the house of their intendant, and Madame de Montespan was obliged to befriend the daughters. The eldest lacked neither beauty, wit, nor charm, but, by some fatality, her aunt found much difficulty in obtaining an establishment for her; and with that curious interlacing of interests which for some years existed, Madame de Maintenon stepped in and secured for Mademoiselle de Vivonne the Due d’Elbeuf. It was a marriage of the kind that she was not averse to making; witness that of her own charming niece, Madame de Caylus, — the union of an honest young girl to a disreputable debauchee.

In after-days “ Madame de Maintenon [it is Madame de Caylus herself who relates this] retained with the Duc d’Elbeuf a freedom of intercourse which she had begun in the house of Madame de Montespan, where, jestingly, he was never called anything but le goujat [the blackguard], to indicate the life that he led and the company that he kept; and she often gave him reprimands that were as useless as they were well received.” Naturally, Madame sa femme was not very happy, and Madame de Caylus thinks that Madame de Montespan did not sufficiently “ sustain ” her, support her, in her domestic troubles. Madame de Montespan apparently did not like her, but never blamed her except for not having l’air assez noble. It was perhaps this very quality that endeared her to Madame de Maintenon, towards whom she, in return, was always grateful and admiring. In the letters of Madame de Caylus to Madame de Maintenon there are constant references to Madame d’Elbeuf of the friendliest kind ; one day she tells her she (Madame de Maiutenon) “shall have what makes the pleasure of your game [of piquet]. I will bring you Madame d’Elbeuf.” After the king’s death, she writes, “ Madame d’Elbeuf,” and some half dozen other people whom she names, “ ask me news of you with the same eagerness as if you were still queen of the universe.” But we receive little impression of Madame d’Elbeuf, except that she had beaucoup d’esprit; and nothing is known of the details of her life.

Her next youngest sister had also “ much cleverness, virtue and birth,” and also not a sou vaillant, and also lived with Madame de Montespan, who gave her even her clothes. Her marriage was not easier to make than her sister’s ; but when she was no longer young, an old gentleman of seventy-five appeared on the scene, a nice old gentleman,— a M. Canaples, afterward Duc de Lesdiguières, — who by the death of a nephew had become the last of his family. He wished to marry pour continuer la race. He was a man excessively borné and constantly doing absurd things, always very much dressed and very tiresome, but the best creature in the world. His wishes turned to Mademoiselle de Vivonne, and her aunt brought the matter to a happy conclusion. “ When it began to be reported,” says Saint-Simon, “the Cardinal de Coislin spoke about it to Canaples, who seemed to him very old to marry. Canaples told him he wished to have children. ' Des enfants, 'monsieur ! ’ exclaimed the cardinal ; ‘ mais elle est si vertueuse ! ’ The bystanders burst into laughter, all the more that the cardinal, very pure in his character, was singularly so in his speech. His saying was true, and the marriage was sterile.”

The year after his marriage Canaples became duke by the death of another nephew, and lived for eight years more. When this courtisan imbécile, as SaintSimon calls him, died, “ his wife, who possessed much of the esprit des Mortemarts, had the folly to mourn him. She was well laughed at. ' What will you? ’ she said. ' I respected him as if he were my father, and I loved him as if he were my son.’ She was still more ridiculed ; she did not dare to weep.” This is one of the few occasions when Saint-Simon does not seem to have understood ” good feeling.” Poor woman ! " With Madame de Montespan she had passed her life in great constraint; her husband constrained her even more; with all her esprit she was embarrassed by being at liberty.”

The third sister, Madame de Castries, was like her mother, a little woman in size. She was a quarter of a woman, [it is always Saint-Simon], as it were an imperfect bit of porcelain, — extremely small, but well proportioned; she could have passed through a common-sized ring; she had neither back, nor front, nor chin ; she was very ugly, with an air of always being astonished and in trouble, and yet with a face which was brilliant with wit, and she kept its promise. She knew everything,1 — history, philosophy, mathematics, the learned languages.—yet it never appeared that she knew anything beyond how to speak French; but her talk had a justness, a vigor, an eloquence, a grace even in the most common things, with that unique turn of phrase which belongs only to the Mortemarts; she was amiable, amusing, gay, serious, everything to all, charming when she wished to please, naturally jocular, with the utmost acuteness without aiming at it, and dealing such jests as could never be forgotten ; holding herself high, offended by a thousand things, with a querulousness that carried all before it. cruelly malicious when so inclined, yet a very good friend, and in general polite, gracious, obliging, with no galanterie, but delicate in regard to intellectual qualities, and in love with cleverness when it was to her taste ; with all this a charming talent for narration, and, when she was inclined to invent a story, an originality, a variety, and a delightfulness which were astonishing. With all her vainglory she considered herself well married through the friendship she felt for her husband ; her self-complacency extended over everything that was his, and she demanded as much for him as for herself. She received in return the same regard from him, and all sorts of consideration and respect.”

She was dame d’atour to the Duchesse d’Orléans, who was her cousin, as they both were also of Madame Sforza; and Madame de Castries, who had the same turn of wit as Madame Sforza, but much more of it, was as jealous as possible of her intimate relations with the duchess.

The portraits of which these pages are imperfect sketches from the originals are, when those originals are studied, seen to be more than portraits ; they seem to breathe and move as we look at them, and they lead the way into the Past.

Hope Notnor.

  1. Huet (Bishop of Avranches) says that when at the baths of Bourbon with Madame de Fontevrault and Madame de Castries he found the niece to be as learned as the aunt, and he surprised her one day reading secretly a book that she tried to hide, and which proved to be a volume of Plato. Afterward he and she read together Plato’s Crito, and the bishop knew not which to admire most, her intelligence or her modesty.