by NANCY MITFORD
AFTER the death of the great King, beautiful Versailles, fatal for France, lay empty seven years while fresh air blew through its golden rooms, blowing away the sorcery and bigotry which hung about the walls like a miasma, blowing away the old century and blowing in the new. Louis XIV died in 1715. He had outlived his son, his grandson, and his eldest greatgrandson; had reigned seventy-two years, too long for the good of his country. Even then he was so strong that he could not. die until half eaten away with gangrene, for which Dr. Fagon, killer of Princes, prescribed asses’ milk. At last the Due de Bouillon, wearing a black feather, went out to the balcony and announced to a waiting crowd, curious but not sad, “Le Roi est mort.” He retired into the palace, put on a white feather, came back and announced, “Vive le Roi.”
The reign of Louis XV had begun; like his greatgrandfather he was five years old when he succeeded to the throne of France. He had neither father, mother, brothers, nor sisters; all had been killed by the wretched Fagon. He himself would no doubt have followed them to the grave had not his nurse, the Duchesse de Ventadour, hidden him away during that terrible fortnight when the rest of his family was dying of measles, bleedings, purges, and emetics. His father’s brother was still alive, but useless as an uncle for a little boy; he was the King of Spain, imprisoned in the etiquette of his own palaces and by now far more Spanish than French. They never saw each other. Louis XV was brought up without the natural family love which should surround a child, without hugs and kisses and without slaps. “First of all he must live,” Madame de Ventadour used to say and she never allowed him to be crossed. But at the age of seven he was taken, crying dreadfully, away from her and handed over to a governor. He then retired into a world of his own, concealing all his thoughts and feelings from those around him, and nobody ever knew much about them for the rest of his life. He was an intensely secret man.
The Regent of France, Philippe, Due d’Orléans, was the next heir to the throne, because the Duc d’Anjou had formally renounced his rights to it on becoming King of Spain. People were not wanting who said that the Duc d’Orléans had poisoned the heirs of Louis XIV; if so, his conduct towards the one that survived was very notable. As soon as his uncle had breathed his last he took the little boy, who stood between him and the throne, away from Versailles and established him in the Tuileries Palace, across the road from his own Palais-Royal. For the rest of his life he faithfully served this child. France was at peace; the religious quarrels of the last century had lost their venom; her frontiers were established and no enemy was attempting to cross them; the claim of her King to his throne was unquestionable; the air was full of new ideas. An even greater century than the Grand Siècle might now have been inaugurated, if the Regent had only had the energy to enforce certain changes in the constitution.
Copyright 1954, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston 16, Mass. All rights reserved.
As a young man the Duc d’Orléans had been intelligent and ambitious; it was one of Louis XIV’s grave mistakes that he had allowed him to lake so little part in public life. Determined as he was to make the nobles politically impotent, he kept the Princes of the Blood even more strictly in their place. He was too much blinded by his theories to see what a loyal and honorable man his nephew was and how useful he could have been lo France. So the Duc d’Orléans turned his attention to the pleasures of this life, and a more perfect rake has seldom existed. When, at the age of forty-one, he found himself ruler of France, he was still intelligent, but energy and ambition had boon sapped by years of wenching and the cruder forms of dissipation. He did envisage fundamental const it ut ional changes; he tried to bring back the great nobles into the government of France and to rule by Councils instead of bureaucratic secretaries of state. But these lords had lost the habit of being useful; Louis XIV had trained them so well that they had even lost the habit of being a nuisance. The Councils fell into the hands of officials and the last serious attempt to bring back aristocratic government in France collapsed.
The Regent then settled down lo govern as the old King had governed and to bring up the now King to be as much like his ancestor as possible. It was noticed that he even had the same manner towards him, the same deep respect, tinged, however, with love and humor instead of with haired and fear. He loved the child far more than his own dreary son. He explained every political step to him, saying, “You are the master. I am only here lo tell you what is happening, to make suggestions, to carry out your orders.”The little boy was charmed: he attended the Council meetings, clasping in his arms a pet cat which the ministers called his colleague; he was too proud and too shy ever to say a word. His only attempt at a protest was when the Regent announced his betrothal to a little Spanish first cousin, a baby Infanta of two. The King cried throughout the whole Council, but without making any observation.
WHEN Louis XIV decided, after the civil war known as the Fronde, to keep the great nobles under his eye and to rob them of power, he had cunningly played upon the French love of fashion and fun; all fashion and all fun were gathered together at Versailles. Paris, while it hummed with life and could be enjoyed from time to time as a change from the Court, was a very middle-class society; the provinces were unthinkable. The heaviest blow that could befall a man was banishment to his estates; this did not only mean loss of place and influence: the exile, condemned to live in the country, became ridiculous in the eyes of his friends. Living in iheir beautiful châteaux in the beautiful French countryside, with the administration of huge estates to interest them, these exiled nobles were considered, and considered themselves, as dead. In fact, they generally became either very fat or very ihin, and departed life rather quickly.
This policy, by which the greater nobles had become a noblesse de emir and were cooped up in a perpetual house party at Versailles, divorced from public opinion in their native province, as well as from the sources of their wealth, was disastrous to the French economy. While the Île-de-France was like an enormous park or garden, containing thousands of glorious houses, rural France was a desert. The road between Paris and Versailles was a perpetual double file of carriages being driven at full speed; that between Paris and Orléans was empty but for an occasional post chaise. Agriculture was fearfully neglected; even those landlords who did sometimes visit their estates, in the intervals of duty at Court, took no interest in it whatsoever; their only outdoor pursuits wore hunting and gardening. Game was carefully preserved; poaching was still punishable by death; and as a result the land was overrun with stags, wild boars, wolves, and the hunt itself. Louis XV, when out hunting, was always most careful not to ride over the crops and was furious with anybody who did so, but many sportsmen of the day were quite unscrupulous in this matter.
Most of the great nobles were total absentees from their estates; they revolved round the Court, with a town house in Paris, a country villa within easy reach of Versailles, and, if they were lucky, a flat in the palace itself. About one thousand nobles lived or had a pied-à-terre there, at the time of Louis XV.
Versailles was the heart of France, and here the King lived, like a man in a glass house, visible to, and within reach of, all his subjects. In those days tbi’ palace was even more open to the public than it is now; people wandered in and out at all hours and were allowed into the slate rooms as well as into the gardens. When, at the beginning of the Revolution, a furious mob was known to be approaching, the guards tried to shut the gates in vain, a hundred years of rust having soldered them to their hinges. Louis XIV had practically lived in public, but Louis XV, more highly strung than his great-grandfather, arranged a suite of rooms for himself where he could be away from the crowd. This suite, though it consisted of fifty rooms and seven bathrooms, and was in itself like a country house, was known as the petits appartements; even the courtiers could only go there if they had the privilege of the grandes entrees or by invitation. As time went on, the King arranged other, more private apartments, where he could be entirely undisturbed; and at last the north wing of the palace became a perfect network of secret passages, hidden staircases, and tiny rooms looking onto interior courtyards.
But although Louis XV hated public appearances, he never shirked what he believed to be his duty, He got up, dined, prayed, had his hunting boots pulled off, and went to bod in public. The lever and the coucher were formal ceremonies; he rawer slept in his state bedroom. Everybody knew quite well that he had often been up and working for hours before the lever— lighting his own fire sometimes so as not to wake the servants — and often went to amuse himself in Paris or the town of Versailles after his coucher. If he omitted to say his prayers, it was a sign that he was not going to bed in order to sleep. The fireplace in the state bedroom always smoked, so that in cold weather the lever and the coucher were very uncomfortable affairs.
As for the courtiers, they lived and prayed and hunted and danced and ate to iron rules and a timetable which made the days slip by and gave them the illusion of being always busy. The functions which they were obliged to attend were so near together in time, and so far distant in space, that they spent much of their lives running from one end of the palace to the other. They were like a huge family whose head was the King. They could do nothing, not even go to Paris for the day, or be inoculated against smallpox, certainly not arrange marriages for their children, without his express permission. Their privileges were enormous and their power nonexistent.
Now Louis XV was by very far the most considerable of Louis XlV’s descendants. As a child he was full of promise, religious, pretty, clever, and brave. He grew up to be a charming man and an intelligent ruler with a high sense of duty, loving and, for many years, loved by his people. But the machinery by which he was expected to govern was long since worn out, and neither he nor his counselors had the genius to devise anything better. He knew that something was wrong somewhere, but he was forever caught in the terrible web spun by his terrible ancestor.
Perhaps the fate of the French monarchy was sealed when, in 1722, the Regent took the Court back to Versailles. Kings always live in a cage, but if the cage is in the capital city some echo of public opinion may penetrate its bars. Cardinal Dubois, the Regent’s adviser, insisted on the step, hoping thereby to prolong the life of his master, and thinking that, he might be induced to live more temperately away from the Palais-Royal. The move seems to have been effected with no trouble or fuss; all fell back into the little miseries of etiquette as if they had never been away. A few months later Cardinal Dubois died. The King came of age officially the following year—he was thirteen — and the Regent continued to govern. But the excesses of that strange man had undermined his health. One day, in a mood of black depression, he sent for the little Duchesse de Falaris to gossip, before he went upstairs to work with the King. Sitting in front of the fire, he asked her whether she believed in a future life; she replied that she did, and he said in that ease he found her conduct on this earth incomprehensible. “Well now,” he said, after a silence, “tell the news.” As she opened her pretty little mouth to recount the latest piece of scandal, Philippe d’Orléans rolled to the floor and died.
The King, stunned, shaken, and intensely sad, raised no objection when the Duc de Bourbon came to him and proposed taking over the government of France. He nodded his head without a word. “M. le Duc,” an appellation reserved at Court for the head of the Bourbon Condé family, was not very brilliant, no match for Cardinal Fleury, the King’s tutor; Fleury was determined himself to rule the country, and immediately set on foot a series of intrigues to that end. In three years’ time he stepped into the shoes of M. le Duc, who found himself exiled to his estates at Chantilly. Nobody regretted this, though his mistress, Madame de Prie, had been rather nice and pretty. She, poor woman, killed herself when she realized the full horror of life in the country. Their rule had not been without results. Before he went, M. le Duc had taught the King to love hunting — the Condés were men of the forest, enormous hunters — and was responsible for his marriage.
At fifteen the King was a big strong boy, forward for his age. His fiancée, who lived in the palace, was still only live; a golden-haired darling, she appeared with him at all the state functions, trotted round after him like a little pet, and was considered absolutely sweet. But boys of fifteen loathe sweet little girls and he felt humiliated at having such a small fiancée. He sulked whenever he saw her. The marriage w as to be consummated in ten years’ time, and meanwhile what? The King was obviously quite ready to consummate something at once; the sooner this last descendant of a royal line, this “conjugation of the blood of Henry IV,” five of whose children were his ancestors, was given a chance to breed, the better.
If the King were not married soon, one of two things could be expected to happen. Either he would take a mistress, who at his age would certainly acquire a dangerous influence over him, or he would turn to the boys. Pederasty was by no means unknown in the Bourbon family; there had recently been a homosexual scandal among young dukes attached to the King and very little older than he. The Regent had taken measures at once, and they had received the heavy punishment of exile to their estates, accompanied by wives who had quickly been found for them. When the King asked what they had done he was told that they had torn up railings in the park; he made no comment, but he must have known that they would not have been sent away for that. Thereafter they were always called les arracheurs de palissades.
After a great deal of hesitation, M. le Duc made up his mind that the Infanta must return to Spain and the King be married to somebody of an age to have children; the risk of offending the Spaniards was less grave than that of waiting any longer.
The hurdle of the Infanta’s return having been cleared without mishap, M. le Duc began to study lists of princesses to take her place. There were nearly forty in all, but they boiled down to very few suitable ones. French and Lorraine Princesses were ruled out at once because they all had Orléans or Bourbon Condé blood and neither family would consent to such an elevation of the other. Princess Anne of England was a Lutheran and the English would not allow her to change her religion; the daughter of Peter the Great, the future Tsarina Elizabeth, was too parvenue and was also said to show signs of incipient madness, as did the King of Portugal, who had an otherwise eligible daughter.
Enormous bets were placed on these various ladies, odds lengthening and shortening according to the day’s rumors; the Court seemed to be living on the eve of some important race. At last the choice fell upon a very dark horse indeed, Marie Leczinska, daughter of the penniless, exiled Stanislas Leczinski, King of Poland. A Princess who knew no cosmetics but water and snow, who was seven years older than the King, and who spent her time embroidering altar cloths was not at first sight a very suitable person to reign at Versailles. But she had a sweet nature and regal manner, as even the most disagreeable of her subjects were obliged to admit, when they knew her; above all she was very healt hy.
When Stanislas received a letter asking for her hand he could not believe his luck. He rushed to his daughter’s room crying, “Kneel, kneel and give thanks to God Almighty!”
“What has happened — are you going back, as King, to Poland?”
“Far better than that: you are going, as Queen, to France.”
As soon as she arrived at Versailles the King fell in love with her and fell into bed with her. Nine months later she produced twin daughters, Madame Première and Madame Henriette; by the time the King was twenty-seven they had ten children, of which six daughters and a son reached maturity, He thought, and continually said, that his wife was the most beautiful woman at Versailles, and for years this marriage went very well.
Louis XV was a man of habit, a faithful man at heart, so shy, too, that he found it very difficult to make advances to any woman; he disliked new faces, and beautiful faces intimidated him. His little love affairs with girls of easy virtue, found for him by his valets, meant nothing at all to him, and his family meant a great deal. Unfortunately the Queen, though an exceedingly nice woman, was dowdy and a bore; she was incapable of forming a society that would attract a gay young husband, and she surrounded herself with the dullest, stuffiest element at the Court. After the birth of her children she settled comfortably, and rather selfishly, into middle age; she made no effort to remain attractive to her young husband, to share his interests or to entertain his friends; fashion and fun meant nothing to her. She had no temperament at all, complaining that she was forever “in bed, or pregnant, or brought to bed,”and any excuse was good enough to keep the King out of her bed. As she was extremely pious, he had never been allowed there on the days of the major saints. By degrees the saints for whom he was excluded became more numerous and less important; finally, he was kept out by one so utterly unknown that he flew into a temper. He told Lebel, his servant, to bring him a woman. Lebel went off and found a pretty housemaid, and the result was Dorigny le Dauphin, who became an art dealer of some distinction.
NOBODY quite knows when the liaison between Louis XV and the Comtesse de Mailly began, but the King himself cannot have thought it very serious until 1739. That year he refused to go to his Easter duties. Asked by the Bishop whether he would touch for the King’s Evil as usual on Easter Day, he said no, since this ceremony could only take place after Communion and he did not intend to communicate. His Jesuit confessor, Père de Lignières, wishing to avoid a scandal, suggested that Cardinal de Rohan might say a low Mass in the King’s cabinet, after which nobody would know for certain whether he had or had not confessed. The King absolutely refused to lend himself to such a fraud. He was living in adultery and had no intention, for the present, of mending his ways; but at the same time he was not going to make a mockery of his religion.
Madame de Madly was a daughter of the Marquis de Nesle. Their family name was Mailly; she had married her first cousin. Madame de Nesle, her mother, was a lady in waiting to the Queen, and the King had always known the Mailly sisters. She was not a beauty, or in any way very romantic, but a jolly, downright, sporting woman with whom he felt at ease. She never asked for anything, neither for power nor for money; she loved him. But in 1740 he fell in love with her sister, whom she had unwisely invited to all her suppers and parties. The Marquise de Vintimille was even less of a beauty and much less nice than Madame de Mailly, and behaved with the greatest unkindness to her. The affair did not. last very long; Madame de Vintimille died giving birth to the King’s baby, the Comte du Luc. The King was heartbroken; he went back to Madame de Mailly and she adopted the baby, who was exactly like him to look at, and always known as le demi-Louis. But this lady’s troubles were not yet over. Very soon the King fell desperately in love, much more than he had been with Madame de Vintimille, with yet another sister, the Duchesse de Châteauroux.
Madame de Chateauroux was a beauty, even nastier than Madame de Vintimille, rapacious, implacable, and very ambitious. She made the King work harder with his ministers than he had ever done before. Seeing that he was still rather fond of her sister, she made him exile her from the Court; poor Madame de Mailly went off in floods of tears and was thereafter known as The Widow. The King missed her, and corresponded with her surreptitiously; but Madame de Châteauroux soon found out and put a stop to that. “Madame, you are killing me,” he would say as she insisted that he should give his attention more and more to the dull details of public affairs. “So much the better, Sire. A King should continually die and be resuscitated.” She was odious to the poor Queen and made a breach between her and the King which was never repaired; husband and wife never felt easy in each other’s company again.
Madame de Châteauroux was the central figure in the famous “Metz incident,” which made a deep impression on the King; to the end of his days he could not speak of the scenes of Metz without horror. The War of the Austrian Succession had begun in 1740. Fond of campaigning, as he was fond of hunting, Louis XV went in 1744 to join his army on the eastern frontier and took with him an enormous train, including Madame de Châteauroux. At Metz he fell seriously ill, with pains in the head and a high fever; the usual bleedings and purges had no effect and the doctor announced that his life was in danger. Immediately there was talk of the Last Sacrament, which would, of course, entail confession and the departure of the mistress. She, meanwhile, mounted guard over him, with her great friend the Duc de Richelieu, first Gentleman of the Bedchamber. Nobody else was allowed to see him alone and they pretended to him that his illness was nothing at all. It could not be kept up. He knew that he was very ill indeed, and getting worse all the time; at last he kissed her and said, “Princess [his pet name for her], I think we shall have to part.” lie gave orders that she should go at once, and that the Queen should be sent for; then he confessed.
The Bishops of Metz and Soissons, about to bring the Holy Sacrament from the cathedral to the King’s bedside, heard that Madame de Châteauroux was still in Richelieu’s house in the town; they sent a message to the effect that Our Lord was awaiting the departure of the Duchess, who then had no choice but to leave for Paris. Before communicating, the King was induced by the Bishops to make a public statement of repentance; all those who were in his anteroom — that is to say the officers of state and the high bourgeoisie of Metz — were brought in to his bedside to hear him do so. He was very weak and hardly spoke as if he wanted to recover; he said that perhaps it was God’s will to give his people a better King. When the Queen arrived, he received her affectionately and begged her pardon. He was very civil to the Dauphin, never a pleasant apparition to a possibly dying young King, and seemed in fact to be in a repentant state of mind and to have every intention, should he live, of changing his ways.
But the French clergy, who had taken the affair in hand, made blunder after blunder. To an intensely shy, reserved, and proud man, the thought of his public confession was humiliating enough as he came back to his normal state of health; now it was printed and distributed to every parish in France so that each priest could make a sermon on it, embellished with his own views on the sin of adultery. This proceeding shocked many sensible and God-fearing citizens, who felt that the King should have been allowed to repent in private, and that all the women of the Court should have been sent away together, so that the affair with Madame de Châteauroux could have ended without publicity. As soon as the King was better, a lady in waiting, prompted by his confessor, put a second pillow into the Queen’s bed. Rumor had it that the Queen had taken to rouge again. At the most, frivolous Court in the world, where everything was treated as a joke, all this provoked gales of laughter.
The country, however, felt very differently about the whole matter. The handsome young King was enormously popular and the French had worked themselves up to a state of despair when they believed him to be dying. The reaction to better news caused a mafficking such as has rarely been seen in Paris — people embracing each other in the streets and embracing the horses which had brought the messengers. It was at this time that Louis XV received the name of Well-Beloved. But in their transports of joy his subjects did not omit to underline their detestation of his mistress; and whenever she appeared in public she was booed, hissed, pelted with eggs, and almost lynched. She retired to bed with a complete breakdown.
With his courtiers giggling in his anteroom and his clergy and people moralizing to his face, the King forgot all his good resolutions. He had but one idea: to show that he was not going to be bullied into a new life, to show who was the master; besides, he longed very much for Madame de Châteauroux. As soon as lie got home to Versailles he sent for her. She was in her house in the rue du Bac, feverish and furious. When the King’s message came, not wishing to delay their reunion, she got up, had a bath, and prepared to leave. She was iller than she thought and the effort was too much for her. She collapsed and died of pneumonia.
The King was now thirty-four years old.
VERY little of Paris as we know it today existed in the 1720s; no Place de la Concorde, Madeleine, or rue de Rivoli, the Louvre half its present size, no École Militaire or Panth&$233;on, no bridge between the Pont Royal and the Pont de Sèvres, no big thoroughfares or boulevards. The layout was that of an overgrown village; narrow streets surrounded the houses of rich merchants and of the ennobled lawyers known as the noblesse de robe, very much despised by the noblesse d’epée or old feudal families. The streets were noisier, with even more terrible traffic blocks, than today. They were filthy dirty and it was impossible to walk in them when there had been rain without getting mud up to the knees.
On the outskirts of this town, rich nobles and merchants were building a garden city, the faubourgs, whose wide streets led out to the country. Each house, of a pale honey color, weather and soot not yet having done their horrid work, stood in its own big garden, full, in summer, of orange trees and oleanders. Every house of any size had an orangery. The quays did not exist; gardens went down to the river, where the boats and barges of their owners were moored. Many of these houses are still in existence, but, too often squashed between nineteenthor twentieth-century blocks of flats, they would be unrecognizable to their former owners. A few Hôtels, Matignon, Biron, and the Élysée, for instance, have kept their gardens, and from them we can judge how the others must have looked. The forest was at their door; La Muette, in the Bois do Boulogne, was still one of the King’s favorite hunts.
Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson, the future Marquise cle Pompadour, was not born in one of these splendid new mansions, but in the rue de Cléry, then, as now, situated in the heart of the town. Her mother was a beauty, so she has been accorded various fathers by various biographers, but it is probable that her mother’s husband, M. Poisson, was the real one. He certainly thought so. Poisson was a jolly bourgeois, steward to the Paris brothers, who ran the economy of France.
François Poisson was doing well. He moved from the rue de Cléry to a big house in the rue de Richelieu, with boiseries and modern comfort, sumptuous, up-to-date. But in 1725, when his little girl was four years old, there broke some sort of blackmarket scandal to do with corn supplied to the population by the Pâris brothers. Owing to a succession of cold, wet summers, there was a famine in the capital, tempers were running high, and Poisson seems to have been made a scapegoat. He got over the German frontier only just, in time to avoid arrest, leaving Madame Poisson to cope with his affairs, and saying, rather sadly perhaps, that as she was so very pretty she would surely fall on her feet. He was quite right, she did; but not before she had suffered trials and humiliations, the house in the rue de Richelieu, with all its contents, being seized and sold over her head. She was rescued from her misfortunes by M. Le Normant de Tournehem, onetime ambassador to Sweden, now a director of the Compagnie des hides, and a ferimer général, or collector of indirect taxes.
This very nice, rich fellow cherished Madame Poisson and took charge of the whole family. He saw to the education of the children, Jeanne-Antoinetle and her younger brother Abel, and finally made it possible for François Poisson to come back to Paris, after an exile of eight years. Soon he was completely cleared of the charges against him and was given an important job to do with army supplies. From now on, Tournehem and the Poissons all lived cheerfully together.
Little is known of Jeanne-Antoinette’s childhood. At the age of nine she went to a fortuneteller who told her that she would reign over the heart of a King — in her accounts twenty years later, there is an item of six hundred livres to this woman, “for having predicted, when I was nine, that I would be the King’s mistress” — after this she was called Reinette by her family. By the wish of her father, she spent a year in a convent at Poissy, where his two sisters were nuns. Whatever else the good nuns may have taught the little girl, they certainly failed to give her any understanding of the Roman Catholic religion. After leaving the convent she was educated at home, under the eye of Tournehem and of her mother, and this worldly education left nothing to be desired; a more accomplished woman has seldom lived-
She could act and dance and sing, having been taught by Jeliottc of the Comédie Française; she could recite whole plays by heart; her master of elocution was Crébillon, the dramatist; she played the clavichord to perfection, a valuable gift in those days, when tunes could not be summoned by turning a knob. She was an enthusiastic gardener and botanist, and knew all about the wonderful shrubs which were pouring into France from every quarter of the globe; she loved natural history and collected rare and exotic birds. Her handwriting, curiously modern, was both beautiful and legible. She painted, drew, and engraved previous stones. Last, but not least, she was a superlative housekeeper.
Abel, too, was taught everything considered necessary to a rich young man of the day. What was even more important than lessons, the Poisson children were brought up among people of excellent taste, who had knowledge of and a respect for art in all its forms; honest bourgeois who, when they patronized an artist, paid for what they ordered. Both the children profited in later life from this example, which was not always followed by the highest in the land.
From the earliest days Reinette was a charmer. She charmed her “stepfather” Tournehem; she charmed the nuns at the convent, who loved her tenderly and took an interest in her long after she had left them; her father, mother, and brother worshiped the ground she trod on. She grew up endowed with every gift a woman could desire but one: her health was never good. Without being a regular beauty, she was the very acme of prettiness, though her looks, which depended on dazzle and expression rather than on the bony structure, were never successfully recorded by painters. Her brother always said that not one of her many portraits was really like her; they are certainly not very much like each other. We recognize the pose, the elegance, but hardly the face. More informative are the descriptions by various contemporaries, written in private journals and memoirs, which did not see the light for many years after her death.
Dufort de Cheverny, himself of bourgeois origin, always deeply jealous of her brother, says:—
“Not a man alive but would have had her lor his mistress if he could. Tall, though not too tall; beautiful figure; round face with regular features; wonderful complexion, hands and arms; eyes not so very big, but the brightest, wittiest and most sparkling I ever saw. Everything about her was rounded, including all her gestures.
“She absolutely extinguished all the other women at the Court, although some were very beautiful.
President Hénault, the Queen’s greatest friend, writes: “One of the prettiest women I ever saw.”
Le Roy, a gamekeeper at Versailles, after praising all her features, her figure, and her beautiful light brown hair, goes on: “Her eyes had a particular attraction, perhaps owing to the fact that it was difficult to say exactly what color they were; they had neither the hard sparkle of black eyes, nor the dreamy tenderness of blue, nor the special delicacy of grey; their indeterminate color seemed to lend them to all forms of seduction and shades of expression.”
By the time she was of marriageable age, she was already spoken of in Paris society as fit for a King; and she herself had lived in a dream of love for the King ever since her visit to the fortuneteller; a. dream which was most unlikely to come true, since it was impossible for a bourgeoise to be presented to him, and he had a mistress already. Meanwhile her parents were not finding it easy to marry her; the reputations of both left too much to be desired. Poisson was an amusing rough diamond, but he had been mixed up in shady business; he had never tried to seem other than he was, or bothered the least bit about appearances, and many people would not have cared to have him in the family. As for lovely Madame Poisson, she was clever and cultivated but not, alas, virtuous; alas too, this jolly but doubtful couple was not even very rich. However, M. de Tournehem, who was, now took the affair in hand. He suggested to his nephew, M. Le Normant d’Étioles, that he should marry Reinette. D’EtioIes did not like the idea, but Tournehem offered such excellent terms — an enormous dowry, a guarantee that the young couple should live with him for the rest of his life, all expenses, even ihe wages of their personal servants, paid, and should inherit his fortune when he died —that d’Étioles gave way. They were married in March, 1741.
The young couple and M. and Madame Poisson lived with M. de Tournehem in the Hôtel de Gesvres, rue Croix des Petits Champs, and at the Chateau d’Étioles in the forest of Sénart. Le Normant d’Etioles was no sooner married than he fell passionately in love with his wife and she, for her part, often said that she would never leave him —except, of course, for the King. This seems to have been a family joke, but it was more than a joke to Madame d’Étioles. Yet if, like many women, she had dreams of a different life, her real life was most agreeable. She was young, beautiful, and rich, surrounded by relations whom she loved and who regarded her as the pivot of their world. She did not have to express a wish before it was granted. At Étioles a big theater was built, with proper stage machinery, lor her to act in; soon she was recognized as one of the very best amateur actresses in France. Her horses and carriages were the envy of the country side and so were her jewels and dresses; she was of an extreme elegance, a more difficult achievement then than it is today, as tingreat dressmakers did not exist and each woman invented her own clothes.
MADAME D’ÉTIOLES was a person of decided character who knew what she wanted in life, and generally got it. Now that she was married and “out ” in society she thought that she would like to have a. salon and entertain the intellectuals of her day. This was a career for which her talents and fortune obviously fitted her. The intellectual life of Paris centered on those writers, known as the philosophes, who were presently to compile a great encyclopedia of human knowledge; a spectacular occupation and one that continually got them into trouble with the Church and the Court. They lived in a blaze of publicity, with the eyes of the world upon them, partly because of this encyclopedia and partly because Voltaire belonged to their group and he was one of those people with a talent for attracting the attention of their fellow men. Their ideas produced the moral climate in which the French Revolution finally took place; but had they lived to witness the Revolution, it would have horrified them one and all. They were, for the most part, neither atheists nor anarchists; Voltaire believed in God and Kings. But they did want to prevent the dead hand of the Church from producing, in France, the intellectual paralysis which we see today in Spain and Ireland. Where government was concerned they wanted more justice and less secrecy, a few mild reforms. Unfortunately the system left by Louis XIV was impervious to mild reforms: it had to be blown up by a bomb.
These philosophcs lived and worked in Paris, Voltaire not having, as yet, cast its dust from his feet; and they frequented the houses of certain hostesses, where they were able to exchange ideas in an atmosphere whose component parts, of exalted mutual admiration and miserable little jealousies, proved intensely stimulating. The talk, always good in France, has probably never reached such heights. Madame d’Étioles, with her gifts and her fortune and the liking she always had for clever men, seemed ideally suited to be a hostess and it very soon became her object in life. The potential guests were very well disposed towards her; Crébillon, Montesquieu, and Fontenelle went to her house. Voltaire took an almost proprietary interest in her — “well brought up, amiable, good, charming and talented,”he said. “She was born sensible and kindhearled.”
But Madame d’Étioles had enough worldly wisdom to realize that it is never enough for a young woman to receive; she must also be received. One difficulty that stood in the way was pretty Madame Poisson, who was received by certain hostesses but was considered rather too disreputable by others.
“The mother,”says Madame de la Fert7#233;-Imbault, “had such a bad reputation that we could not possibly have made friends with her; the daughter, however, was quite another story. I had no wish to seem rude, and it. was difficult to see one without the other, but in the end I managed to return Madame d’Étioles’ call and not Madame Poisson’s.”
This obstacle was removed in a very sad way: Madame Poisson was laid low with a cancer. She was forced to give up society and prepare to face an agonizing and lingering death. Madame d’Étioles, on her own, was a highly desirable guest, with her looks and elegance, and possessing as she did that intense love of life, and interest in human beings, which is perhaps the base of what we variously call charm, sex appeal, or fascination. She was not only clever and amusing, but modern in her outlook, quite prepared to “think philosophically" and never likely to be shocked even by the most outrageous sallies of the philosophes.
She was soon asked everywhere; her name began to be known at Versailles, where the love of gossip extended to tales about people who would never be seen at Court. Curiously enough, it seems to have been the Widow Mailly who first spoke of her there, having met her at a party and been so carried away by her singing, and playing of the clavichord, that she gave her an enthusiastic hug. The King soon knew her by name; he also knew her by sight —she was a country neighbor. His favorite hunt was in the forest, of Sénart, where he had a hunting lodge called Choisy, Ins own little house, altered for him by Gabriel, and which he loved more than any of Iris palaces — some said more than any of his mistresses. He came here for privacy and fun, bringing with him six ladies and various men friends, but no spoil-sport husbands; life was so free and easy that the women were allowed to float about without panniers, an unheard-of license in a gentleman’s house. Let nobody think, however, that orgies took place; they were not at all to the taste of Louis XV.
Although the bourgeoisie was never allowed to ride with the King’s hunt, only families noble since 1400 having that privilege, the rule was relaxed in favor of near neighbors, who had permission to follow it in carriages. Madame d;Étioles took full advantage of this opportunity. She drove her own phaeton, knew the forest like the palm of her hand, and was always popping up in the path of the King. Dressed in pink driving a blue phaeton, or in blue driving pink one, a vision of prettiness, a skillful, dashing driver, she could hardly have failed to attract his attention, lie was too shy to speak to a stranger, but he did sometimes send a present of game to her house. Meanwhile somebody else had noticed her, and with no friendly eye. The Duchesse de Chevreuse, who had known Madame d’Étioles from a child, happened to mention her name in front of the King; whereupon Madame de Châtcauroux stepped so hard on her fool that she nearly fainted from the pain. Next day Madame de Châtcauroux called on her to apologize, saying, “You know they talk of giving that little d’Ftioles to the King.” After this, Madame d’Étioles was warned to keep away from the hunt, and had no choice but to do so; it would have been madness to provoke the enmity of Madame de Châteauroux.
FATE now took a curious turn; Madame de Châtcauroux died, the second of the Mailly sisters to be removed from the King by death. As in the case of Madame de Vintimille, he was heartbroken if not inconsolable; this time, however, he did not return to Madame do Mailly. Naturally there was now but one topic of conversation in society, both at Versailles and in Paris: who would be the next mistress?
Every pretty woman in the Île-de-France nurtured a secret conviction that she would carry off the prize. Such was the prestige of a monarch in those days, so nearly was he considered as a god, that very little shame attached to the position of his mistress, while the material advantages to her family were enormous. The monstrous fortunes of the Gramont, Mortemart, la Vallière, and d’Estrées families were founded upon such relationships with various Kings. The Queen having settled into a dreary little life with her unfashionable friends, gaiety and amusement centered on the King’s set and was led by his mistress. Besides all this, Louis XV was extremely attractive. He was tall and handsome, he had a most caressing look, a curious husky voice which nobody ever forgot who had once heard it, and a sexy moodiness of manner irresistible to women; the haughty air, which came in reality from shyness, in no way detracted from his charm. The wives of his subjects had no difficulty in falling in love with him, and Madame d’Étioles was not the only one who had done so. It was put about in Paris that he was tired of aristocratic mistresses, with their political ambitions and their grasping families; the bourgeoises were one and all agog.
But how to meet him? This was indeed a problem. True he often went, masked, to the public balls, both in Paris and in the town of Versailles. It was a pastime of which he was uncommonly fond, but the moment his identity was known, as it always was because of the way he carried his head and the unmistakable timbre of his voice, he would be mobbed; nobody could have a private word with him after that.
At this juncture there were signs that the King would have liked to reform and go back to the Queen. He was a religious man, a family man at heart. The Metz affair had not failed to make an impression on him; he was devoted to his daughters, growing up apace, and had no wish to offer a bad example to them, or to the Dauphin, who was nearly sixteen and about to be married. But he hated being bored, and if he had ever seriously considered a return to conjugal life, one look at the Queen’s existence must have made him realize that it would be more than he could bear.
Marie Leczinska was said by her intimates to be not only very good but also very amusing. People lucky enough to belong to the circle of royal personages are fond of letting it be understood that they are less dull than they look; the friends of Marie Leczinska were no exception, but they cannot persuade us that she was anything but a very nice old bore. Her jovial father, Stanislas, always said the dullest Queens in Europe were his wife and daughter: “When I’m with her I yawn like at Mass.”The amusing element at Court had always avoided her; now, in the midst of the liveliest society France has ever seen, she was living like a nun. Most of her day was spent in prayer, her only outings being to charitable entertainments or the convent where her unfashionable dresses were embroidered.
In the morning, between Mass and her state visit to the King, she read some moral tale or did a little painting, for which her talent was pathetically meager, as we can see by the example of her work which still remains at Versailles. She dined at 1 P.M., in public, eating enormously. After dinner she sewed for the poor until it was time for cards. Gambling was a great feature of the life at Versailles, enormous sums were won and lost, and everybody spent hours at the tables, even the young Princesses. The Queen’s game was Cavagnole, played with dice; it had long been out of fashion; Comète and Piquet were now all the rage. Nothing is so frumpish as last year’s gambling game, and the courtiers complained terribly when they were made to play la triste Cavagnole with the Queen. Two or three times a week her tables were put in the state rooms where the public was admitted, but nobody ever bothered to go and watch. After supper, her evening was given over to social life. Her ladies, who were chosen by the King, because they amused and attracted him, scampered off to the petits appartements and she was left with her elderly friends the Duc and Duchesse de Luynes.
The Duc de Luynes kept a journal in which almost every hour of life in the palace is accounted for. He is not a great writer like Saint-Simon, and three quarters of his journal, devoted to questions of etiquette and usage, is almost unreadable. Enormously rich, he and his wife were also closefisted and dowdy.
The other guests at these suppers were always the same: Luynes’s son and daughter-in-law, the Duc and Duchesse de Chevreuse; his brother, the Cardinal de Luynes; Président Hénault, and Francois de Moncrif; all, except the Chevreuses, were over sixty.
The Duc de Chevreuse, who truly was all piety and goodness, was in love with the Queen and horribly jealous of Président Hénault; the King, the Dauphin, and even the Queen herself, used to make jokes about it. This little company sat sleepily round the fire, evening after evening; one or more of them would generally nod off, lulled by the snoring of Madame de Luynes’s old dog, Tintamarre. Such evenings were not likely to attract the presence of Louis XV.
IN February, 1745, the Dauphin was married to the Infanta Marie-Thérèse-Raphaele, sister of the King’s little rejected fiancée. A great round of festivities celebrated the wedding. Though he and his sisters disliked balls, their father did not; he declared that at their age it was good for them to dance, and during the whole month of February they were given the opportunity of doing so nearly every night. There were balls in the apartments of Mesdames (the Princesses), in the town of Versailles, and in the palace riding school; the King danced continually and always with the same person. She was masked, but rumor had it that she was the lovely Madame d’Étioles. These fêtes culminated in a great ball at Versailles, and another at the Hôtel de Ville in Paris.
The ball for the Dauphin’s marriage was perhaps the most splendid ever known in all the history of Versailles. The palace was illuminated inside and out; it glowed like a great bonfire at the end of the Avenue de Paris, which in its turn was a river of light, from the double line of coaches, all laden with guests, coming from the capital. Candles, torches, brands, and flares cast a warm and variable radiance, very much more beautiful than electric headlights and floodlighting. The guests drove across the great courtyard and got out of their carriages at the foot of the marble staircase in the south wing. Never had there been such a crowd at any previous ball; every pretty woman in Paris was there to try her chances with the King.
When balls were given in the state apartments they were entirely open to the public; it sufficed to be properly dressed to be admitted. The men were obliged to carry swords, bill even this regulation was arbitrary; everybody knew that the palace concierge did a brisk trade hiring out swords to would-be guests. At the top of the staircase one member of each party was required to unmask and give his name; otherwise there were no rules and no invitations were issued. On this occasion, the man who was supposed to take the names very soon gave up the unequal struggle; the crowd surged past him into the great reception rooms, through the Queen’s rooms, including her bedroom, into the Galerie des Glaces. These rooms each had a buffet and a band; it was hoped that too great a crush in the gallery would thus be relieved. But the guests, who behaved in a very free and easy way the whole night, shocking the courtiers with their lack of manners, merely paused to help themselves to food — fish, as Lent was in progress, fresh salmon, and soles, and pâté of trout — and then pushed on, clutching plates and glasses. The prophecy of Nostradamus, that the floor would give way and only the King and the thirty people near him would be saved, was gallantly disregarded.
For a long time the King and other royalties were sought in vain; none had yet appeared. At last, one of the looking-glass doors was thrown open, and in came the Queen; she was unmasked, her dress was covered with bunches of pearls, and the two famous diamonds, the Regent and the Sancy, sparkled on her head. She was followed by the Dauphin and his new wife, dressed as a gardener and flower seller.
The Dauphine danced with a Spanish grandee who knew all the gossip of Madrid and was clearly of great importance; he refused to reveal his identity although she begged him to do so. Presently the Marquis de Tessé, himself a grandee of Spain, had a long talk with him, found him absolutely delightful, and invited him to dinner; the Spaniard never unmasked, and presently he vanished. Next day M. de Tessé’s Spanish cook confessed to him that the mysterious hidalgo had been none other than himself. This story went all around Versailles and was thought particularly enjoyable because of the Dauphine’s character. Like all the Spanish royal family she was extremely stiff, penetrated with the sense of her own importance. The French never liked her. She made it quite clear that she thought many of their customs too common for words—the use of rouge, for instance, and their passion for jokes. She was never seen to laugh at a joke, either with friends or at the play, and made it quite clear that she would not tolerate them from her ladies in waiting. She was, however, elegant and a beautiful dancer; the Dauphin, extremely uxorious like all his family, had fallen in love with her at once.
At last, the door leading to the Œil de Bœuf, antechamber to the King’s apartment, was opened; everybody pressed forward. A very curious procession lurched blindly into the ballroom: eight yew trees, clipped like those in the garden outside, in the shape of pillars with vases on them. The King had made up his mind that, for once, he would be unrecognizable. In the print by Cochin of the scene in the great gallery, lit by eight thousand candles, many fancy dresses can clearly be made out and the yew trees are mingling with the crowd. Presently one of them went off with pretty Presidente Portail to a dark and solitary corner of the palace. She thought, he was the King, and nestled happily among the twigs; but when she returned to the ballroom, what was her fury to see that the real King, who had taken off his headdress, was engaged in a laughing conversation with Madame d’Étioles, dressed as Diana and also unmasked. “The handkerchief is thrown,” said the courtiers. It was now quite clear to them that a love affair was beginning. Before they parted, the King had arranged to meet her the following Sunday at the ball in Paris.
Next morning at eight o’clock the last carriage still had not left Versailles.
(To be concluded)