How to Catch a King: Madame De Pompadour

NANCY MITFORD has lived happily in the heart of Paris since the war. The first novel she wrote there was Love in a Cold Climate; her next, The Blessing, was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection in 1951. Now from wide reading and the liveliest observation she has drawn her gay, enchanting portrait of Madame de Pompadour, which is to be published by Random House this month and from which the Atlantic has been privileged to draw two installments. In the May issue Miss Mitford told us of the King’s coming of age in that most amazing of apartment houses, Versailles; of his marriage; of his eventual boredom with his Queen from Poland, who was seven years his senior; and of his meeting with the attractive and accomplished Madame d’Étioles, the future Madame de Pompadour, at a famous masked ball.



AFTER the various balls celebrating the marriage of the Dauphin, Madame d’Étiolcs was frequently observed flitting in and out of the palace. Nobody knew whether she slept there, and if so in which room, but the King often supped alone at this time and her carriage was constantly on the road to Paris. Her husband was quite unaware of these goings-on. His uncle, M. de Tournehem, whom Reinette could twist round her little finger, had sent him on a business journey to Provence. By the time the poor man, quite unsuspecting, came back to Paris, the affair with the King was sufficiently advanced for Tournehem to break the news to him that he had lost his wife forever. D’Étioles fainted away, was stricken with terrible grief, and wrote a pathetic letter imploring her to come back to him. Madame d’Étioles, who had an extremely frank and open nature and never could keep anything to herself — out it all came, with her, it was part of her charm — immediately showed this letter to the King, at first sight not a very clever move. Ever since the Marquis de Montespan had driven up to Versailles in a coach draped in black, with a pair of stag’s antlers wobbling about on its roof, the Kings had had a healthy respect for husbands and their possible reprisals. Louis XV thought it very indelicate of Madame d’Étioles to show the letter, bad form, exactly what one would expect of somebody with her upbringing, and handed it to her saying coldly, “Your husband seems to be a very decent sort of man, Madame.”

However, the letter, indicating that d’Étioles was back in Paris and knew all, gave the King food for thought. The moment had clearly come when he must decide whether he was going to install the lady as his titular mistress or allow her to go back to a husband who was still ready to receive her but would not be so indefinitely. The King was in love; he had seen enough of her by now to feel certain that she would never bore him, and she could soon be taught not to embarrass him. “It will amuse me,” he said, “to undertake her education. Besides, she worshiped the ground he trod on, a fact to which no man can ever be quite indifferent. The upshot was that Madame d’Étioles remained at Versailles, lodging in a little flat which had once belonged to Madame de Mailly, a former mistress, and which was connected with the King’s room by a secret staircase. The first, time she was publicly seen at Court was on April 3, when she appeared at the Italian comedy in the palace theater.

The King and Queen were there in two boxes, one above the other; Madame d’Étioles was in a box on the opposite side of the stage, clearly visible to both. Naturally all eyes were upon her, and the Due de Luynes, in attendance on the Queen, was obliged to admit that she was wonderfully pretty and well-dressed. After the play the King supped with his two great friends, the Duc d’Ayen and the Comte de Coigny, Madame d’Étioles making a fourth. She began to appear at small supper parties given by the King to his intimates. Surprisingly little adverse comment seems to have been made on her at this time — all agreed that they were passionately in love with each other. An adulatory letter arrived from Voltaire, who obviously hoped great things of his little friend in her new position. Her parents were in the seventh heaven and so was Uncle Tournehem; only the husband was distracted with grief, but nobody seems to have given him another thought. Louis XV was quite right when he said that Le Normant. d’Étioles was a very decent fellow; he sought no advantage from his wife’s position and always answered any communications she chose to make him with perfect dignity. The rest of his family remained on excellent terms with her; his sister, Madame de Baschi, was always one of her greatest friends. She took her husband’s cousin, Madame d’Estrades, with her to Versailles as a sort of unofficial lady-in-waiting; nothing was ever too much for her to do for any member of the Le Normant family. But d’Étioles never spoke to his wife again.


THE War of the Austrian Succession was now in its fifth year. The French army, led by Maurice de Saxe, was enjoying a period of victories. The King had recently created him Marshal of France and had promised his new Marshal that he and the Dauphin would go campaigning with him in the spring; the time had nearly come for them to be off. The King had a plan for his mistress. She was to retire to Étioles in the company of two courtiers, chosen by himself, who would teach her the customs, manners, and usage of Versailles. Some such education was quite necessary if she was not to make a series of appalling solecisms and to become the laughingstock of a society on the lookout for any excuse to mock and be disagreeable.

The Court was always referred to, by those who belonged to it, as ce pays-ci, this country, and indeed it had a climate, a language, a moral code, and customs all its own. It was not unlike a public school; and just as, at Eton, a boy cannot feel comfortable, and is, indeed, liable to sanctions, until he knows the names of the cricket eleven, various house colors, who may or may not carry an umbrella, or on which side of a street he may or may not walk, so, at Versailles, there were hundreds of facts and apparently meaningless rules which it would be most unwise to ignore. People sometimes broke them on purpose, hoping thereby to gain a little more privilege for their families; a Princess of the Blood would arrive in the chapel followed by a lady-in-waiting with her purse on a cushion, or a Duchess be carried to the royal rooms in an armchair — thin end of the wedge for a sedan chair — but somebody always reported it, and a sharp message from the monarch would bring the culprit to heel. To break the rules out of sheer ignorance would be thought barbarous.

Madame d’Étioles would have to learn the relationships of all the various families: who was born what, married to whom, and ennobled when. The two different sorts of nobility, the noblesse de robe and the old feudal aristocracy, must be clearly distinguished and their connections known. This was becoming complicated because the old nobility, unable to resist the enormous fortunes of the new, had swallowed its pride and married wholesale into plebeian families. Very important it was to know who had done so. There were not a few in the same case as M. de Maurepas—who, with a mother born a la Rochefoucauld and a bourgeois father, was, like the mule, more ready to remember his mother the mare than his father the ass. So others had to remember for him.

There was a special salute for every woman at the Court, according to her own and her husband’s birth; the excellence of her housekeeping, the quality of her suppers, also entered into the matter. Variations of esteem were expressed in the curtsy. A movement of the shoulder practically amounting to an insult was a suitable greeting for the woman of moderate birth, badly married, and with a bad cook, while the well-born Duchess with a good cook received a deeply respectful obeisance. Few women, even when brought up to it, managed this low curtsy with any degree of grace. The most ordinary movements, the very look and expression, were studied as though on a stage; there was a particular way of sitting down and getting up, of holding knife, fork, and glass, and above all of walking. Everybody could tell a Court lady from a Parisienne by her walk, a sort of gliding run, with very fast, tiny steps so that she looked like a mechanical doll, wheels instead of feet under her skirts.

The look and general demeanor must be happy. Cheerfulness was not only a virtue but a politeness, to be cultivated if it did not come naturally. If people felt sad or ill or anxious, they kept it to themselves and showed a smiling face in public; nor did they dwell on the grief of others after the first expression of sympathy. It was estimated that each human being has about two hundred friends; out of this number at least two must be in some sort of trouble every day, but it would be wrong to keep worrying about them because the others also had to be considered.

It was all quite meaningless, and so was much of the Court etiquette which had come down through various dynasties and whose origins were long since forgotten. An usher opening a door stood inside it when certain people passed through, and outside for others. When the Court was campaigning, the Maréchal des Logis allotted rooms. On certain doors he would write pour le Duc de X, whereas others would merely get le Duc de X; people would do anything to have the pour. The occupant of a sedan chair must stop and get out when meeting a member of the royal family. The occupant of a carriage, however, must stop the horses and not get out; people who got out of their carriages showed ignorance of Court customs.

The four months of the King’s absence would not be too long for Madame d’Étioles to learn the hundreds of details of which these are a very few examples. Her teachers — and she could not have had better — were the Abbé de Bernis and the Marquis de Gontaut. Bernis was one of those men whom every pretty woman ought to have in her life; a perfect dear, smiling, dimpling, clever, cultivated, with nothing whatever to do all day but sit about and be nice. Presently he was just enough in love with his beautiful pupil to add a flavor to their relationship. At the age of twenty-nine he was already a member of the Académic française — to which, however, he had been elected more for his agreeable company than for his literary talent; his verses were excessively flowery.

Bernis was a real abbé de cour — that is to say, a courtier first and a priest second; cadet of a good old country family, he was so poor that his greatest ambition was to be given a small attic in the Tuileries palace. A hen somebody approached him on the King’s behalf, and asked whether he would consent to see a good deal of Madame d’Étioles during the next few weeks, he really could not resist. He did go through the motions of hesitating and asking advice; his friends strongly urged him to accept — he had so much more to gain than to lose, they said, thinking perhaps of the longed-for attic in the Tuileries. When he spoke of his cloth, they pointed out that the affair between Madame d’Étioles and the King had been none of his making, and nobody, not even the Almighty himself, could pretend that it was in any way his fault. It was now an accomplished fact, and the plain duty of one and all was to make the best of it.

The Marquis de Gontaut was quite a different sort of person. He belonged to the Biron family, the very highest aristocracy, and was a member of the King’s intimate circle. Nobody ever had a word to say against this charming man; he was a faithful friend to Madame d’Étioles until the day of her death.


REINETTE spent a very happy last summer at Ktioles. She was savoring the joys of anticipation without the possible disappointments and weariness of fulfillment. The rest was good for her after all her recent emotions; she felt really well only in the country, where she could keep reasonable hours and live on a milk diet. To one so devoted to her family the company was perfect; she had her parents with her as well as her brother Abel and M. de Tournehem. Madame Poisson was ill, getting worse every day, but extremely courageous and sustained by the joy she fell at her daughter’s new position.

Voltaire wrote and suggested himself: “I have your happiness at heart, more perhaps than you imagine, more than anybody else in Paris. I’m not speaking now as an ancient old lady-killer, but as a good citizen when I ask you if I may come to Étioles and say a word in your ear, this month of May.” He stayed, off and on, most of the summer, in one of those good-tempered moods the charm of which comes to us down the ages, making it impossible not to love him. He wrote to Président Hénault, from Étioles, “At her age she has read more than any old lady of that country where she is going to reign and where it is so desirable that she should reign.”The philosophes were naturally enchanted that their young friend and admirer should queen it at Versailles.

This charming house party was not without various excitements as the long summer days went by. Collin, a young lawyer, said to have a dazzling career in front of him, came from Paris with a deed of separation between Le Normant d’Étioles and his wife. It had been effected, by decree of the Parlement, at six o’clock one morning; there was no publicity. D’Étioles was away, as usual, on some interminable journey having to do with M. de Tournehem’s business. A few months later Reinette asked Collin if he would give up his practice and devote himself to looking after her affairs; she told him to think it over well, as, should the King get tired of her, he would find himself out of a job. He took the risk, and never regretted having done so.

Every day a courier arrived from the Grande Armee with one or two letters from the King: à Madame d’Étioles it Étioles, sealed with the motto discret et fidèle. One night a powder magazine blew up at the near-by town of Corbeil; there was a tremendous bang and the drawing-room door was blown in. Was it an omen? The very next letter disced et fidèle was addressed àMadame la Macquise de Pompadour, à Étioles. It enclosed title deeds to an estate of this name and an extinct marquisate revived in her favor. Her new coat of arms, also enclosed in the same thrilling packet, was three castles on an azure ground. Voltaire and Bernis wrote poems for the occasion in which Étioles and Étoiles were synonymous and Pompadour rhymed with Amour; everything was as merry as a marriage bell.

The King too was enjoying himself. He slept on straw, sang ditties with his soldiers in his curious loud, cracked voice, all out of tune, and wrote his letters to Étioles on a drum. The campaign went very well; Ghent was taken and the battle of Fontenoy was a resounding victory.

Fontenoy marked t he apogee of Louis XV’s popularity; never again was the mystical link between him and his people of all classes to be so strong. Voltaire pounced upon the occasion to write a laudatory poem, La Bataille de Fontenoy, dedicated to Notre Andorable Monarque, for which he dug out ;i good many epithets and mythological allusions formerly applied by Boileau to Louis XIV. Richelieu, a great friend of Voltaire’s, got even more praise in it than he deserved, and the cunning old poet mentioned a lot of other people who might be useful to him. Soon he was besieged by women begging a line or two for sons and lovers. This poem sold ten thousand copies in ten days, mostly to the army; subsequent editions brought in so many sons and lovers that the thing became a farce.

The population of Paris arranged fetes and ceremonies, lasting three days, to welcome the King on his return from the front, and received him with delirium. The Queen, the Princesses, and all the Court came up from Versailles and stayed at the Tuileries with him. He had not one moment to himself, but sent various friends to call on Madame de Pompadour at her uncle’s house. During the great banquet at the Hôtel de Ville she and her family dined upstairs in a private room; the proud Dukes of Richelieu, Bouillon, and Gesvres left the king’s table in turns with messages for the newlymade Marquise.

On September 10 the Court returned to Versailles; and that same evening one of the royal carriages drove up to a side door. Madame de Pompadour got out of it, accompanied by Madame d’Estrades, and went quickly upstairs to an apartment which had been prepared for her. Next day the King supped there with her alone; her reign of nearly twenty years had begun.


AND which of our trollops is going to present this adventuress to the Queen?" An abbé de cour threw the question at the tittering, twittering company in general. “Shut up, Abbé, for it’s me.” It was indeed the disreputable old Princesse de Conti, who would at any time perform any service for her cousin the King so long as he would go on paying her gambling debts. She had covered herself by going to see the Queen and explaining that it was hardly her fault if she was obliged to be a party to something utterly repugnant, so much against both her wishes and her principles. Alas, she had received the royal command; no more to be said. Fontenoy, as a topic, had now entirely lost interest and nothing was spoken of but the presentation; everybody was busily making plans for the great event. They flocked to Versailles to see the fun; there had seldom been such an enormous crowd in the state apart merits.

At 6 P.M. the Princesse de Conti left her room accompanied by her own lady-in-wailing, as well as by the new Marquise, the Comtesse de LachauMontaubon, and the Comtesse d’Estrades, whose presentation had taken place the day before. They all wore thickly embroidered satin skirts over enormous panniers, short muslin sleeves, small white feathers held in place on their lightly powdered hair with diamonds, and narrow trains. Their little sliding footsteps took them through lanes of sightseers in the state rooms to the King’s council chamber. His Majesty stood by the chimney piece, deeply embarrassed, scarlet in the face, and looking very sulky indeed. When the Marquise de Pompadour was named he muttered something which nobody heard and dismissed her with a freezing nod. She, too, was seen to be very nervous; but her three curtsies were impeccable, and masterly was the kick with which she got her train out of the way so that she could walk backwards, the most difficult part of the whole proceeding.

The intimidating journey now continued to the Queen’s room. This was even more packed with people than the King’s, as everybody was curious to know what the Queen would say to her new rival; no doubt she would compliment her on her dress in one sentence, or at the most two, before dismissing her. It was the usual way, at Versailles, of saying nothing at all. But the Queen was quite well aware that the interview had been settled for her, and preferred to take a line of her own. She spoke to Madame de Pompadour of Madame de Saissac, asking if she had seen her lately, and said that she herself had been so delighted to have a visit from her the other day in Paris. Now the Marquise de Saissac was one of the few aristocrats whom the Poisson family had always known; by speaking thus, in such a natural and friendly way, of a mutual acquaintance the Queen gave the onlookers to understand that, in her view, Madame de Pompadour was perfectly admissible at Court. She must have known that it would annoy the courtiers, and was perhaps not averse to doing so; she had many a little score to pay back herself.

As for the Marquise, she was quite thrown off her balance by the unexpected kindliness of this opening; she seems to have become almost hysterical, and burst out, not at all as a noblewoman would have done, with assurances of love and respect for the Queen, and her determination to do all that she could to please her. The Queen seems to have been gratified rather than annoyed by this vehemence, and the two women then exchanged no fewer than twelve sentences (eagerly counted up, and reported that very night to Paris). The bystanders were, of course, longing for Madame de Pompadour to make some fearful gaffe, but the only small incident that occurred was when she removed her glove to take the Queen’s skirt and kiss it; she tugged too nervously and pulled off a bracelet which fell onto the floor. The Prineesse de Conti picked it up for her. She was then conducted downstairs to the Dauphin’s apartment, where she was coldly received; he spoke of her dress in one sentence only, dismissed her, and — some say—put his tongue out at her as she went.

Her ordeal was over. She had come out of it pretty well; her grace, her beauty, and her extreme elegance could not be denied, even by those who could hardly bear to think of a bourgeoise in the sacred purlieus. As for the Queen, she was much relieved that this new mistress was at least respectful, perhaps really rather nice; she had suffered from the Maillys, who had subjected her to every sort of petty humiliation and had done all they could, only too successfully, to estrange her from the King. Any change from such hateful, if wellborn, women was for the better as far as she was concerned.


MADAME DE POMPADOUR settled down to her new existence. She had to make acquaintance with those who were to be friends and enemies, as well as with those who would form the back cloth of faces against which all the scenes of her life would be played from now on — hundreds of courtiers who hung about the King without ever getting to know him. But she did not forget or in any way modify her behavior to old friends and relations now that she was so grand.

Twice a year the whole Court moved off, for six weeks at a time, to Compiègne for army maneuvers, and Fontainebleau for hunting. Madame de Pompadour had her father to stay at Fontainebleau and, in spite of the fact that he was a real fish out of water at the Court, she was perfectly natural with him; the idea that she might be ashamed of him never crossed her mind. The King gave him a property called Vandières, and though Poisson himself said that nothing would induce him to change his name, at his age, Abel, Madame de Pompadour’s brother, was henceforward known as M. de Vandières (avant hier, said the wags). In 1750 the King gave Poisson another estate, Marigny. Again the old boy refused to change his name, but Abel became M. de Marigny and in 1754 was made a Marquis.

The courtiers, always on the lookout for any sign that the King might be cooling off towards his new mistress, began to say that she would bore him to death with her family; she never seemed to talk of anything else. But he was not bored; the fact is that the King liked family life and could hardly have enough of it. This the courtiers, who saw him so regal and terrifyingly aloof, could never understand. As for the bourgeois idiom of his mistress, he thought it quite delightfully funny.

She was indeed a change from the women of the Court, who — with certain notable exceptions — were self-conscious, artificial, preoccupied with their rank and privileges, and very dull. She gave herself no airs; on the contrary she hardly bothered to change her bourgeois ways at all. Her loud, forthright voice, using a language which would seem much more familiar to us than the almost Racinian idiom of the Court, never altered its tone or lessened its emphasis. Her laugh — an enchantment, says Croÿ — rang out. freely, very different from the discreet and smothered giggles to be heard in the galleries and antechambers when the King was about.

Members of the Queen’s little set, even the Duc and Duchesse de Luynes, were soon forced to admit that, given the painful though not surprising circumstances, Madame de Pompadour’s behavior was perfect. She was exceedingly polite, never said horrid things about people or allowed them to be said in her presence; at the same time she had high spirits and was excellent company, gay and amusing. Whenever she could do a good turn to anybody she did it, and she put herself out to any extent to please the Queen. The Queen was fond of flowers; so was she. They were one of her passions in life, and very soon the hothouses of all the royal gardens were reorganized under her supervision. As soon as flowers in profusion filled her rooms, they filled the Queen’s rooms too. The poor lady had never received so much as a bunch of daisies before.

While she was at Fontainebleau she found out that the Queen was tormented by her gambling debts, which were enormous; she was not very good, it seemed, at Cavagnole. If she did have a little win she spent it all on charity. Madame de Pompadour made the King pay up, a thing he had never yet done for his wife. The Marquise seemed to take a genuine interest in the Queen’s affairs, listening with breathless attention when a lady-inwaiting expounded upon some detail of the royal health. When she was herself not well and unable to go to a tedious charity bazaar organized by Her Majesty, she sent her deepest apologies, with a louis for the cause, saying over and over again how dreadfully disappointed she had been. Nobody else ever bothered about the Queen’s feelings in this way; she had no influence whatever with her husband and therefore the courtiers neglected her entirely. As time went on and the King felt less guilty, he became much nicer to the Queen, and altogether she had cause to bless Madame de Pompadour. “If there has to be a mistress,” she would say time and time again, “better this one than any other.”

But in spite of her charm, good nature, and desire to please, Madame de Pompadour had and always would have enemies. To the aristocrats she was the incarnation of Parisian bourgeoisie. While the nobles, living in a delightful insouciance at Versailles, neglecting their estates, gambling all of every night for enormous sums, spending far more than they could afford on horses, carriages, and clothes in order to impress each other, were getting steadily poorer and more obscure, the bourgeoisie was getting richer and more powerful. They hated it, and hated her for belonging to it. Those who knew her well seem to have loved her, some of them quite against their will; but the ordinary courtiers would have done anything to bring about her downfall.


IT isn’t you he loves,” the Maréchale de Mirepoix used to say. “It’s your staircase.” And very naturally indeed the King loved the staircase at the top of which he found this delicious creature, this lively clever companion, waiting to concentrate on him and his entertainment. The rooms to which the staircase leads are on the second floor of the north wing; the visitor to Versailles, coming into the garden through the usual entrance, should turn left and count the nine top windows from the northwest corner; they were Madame de Pompadour’s at this time. The rooms, so empty today, so cold with their northern light, were crammed to bursting point when she lived in them; crammed with people, animals and birds, pictures, bibelots, curiosities of all sorts, furniture, stuffs, patterns without number, plans, sketches, maps, books, her embroidery, her letters, her cosmetics — all buried in flowers, smelling like a hothouse; it is a mystery how they can have held so much. The walls, which were originally lacquered by Martin in the bright delicate colors she loved, have been painted white, but the paneling is still the same and the structure of the flat unchanged. The little room where her maid, Madame du Hausset, lived is still there, with the funnel through which she listened to the King’s conversation — greatly to our advantage, as she used to write it down word for word. We can still see the elevator shaft which contained a flying chair; the Marquise was hauled up in this by her servants to save her the long, steep drag upstairs.

Madame de Pompadour was hardly settled at Versailles before she began to direct and inspire the artists of her day. She had all the gifts of a great amateur: perfect taste, tireless energy in searching for perfection, and an intuitive understanding of the creative temperament, which enabled her to make an artist do better than his best, and to impose her own ideas on him without hurting his feelings. Until the outbreak of the Seven Years’ War she also had unlimited credit, since the King, who had hitherto been regarded as rather closefisted, never seemed to care how much she spent. Probably this was because she knew how to approach him. “He doesn’t mind signing for a million,” she told her maid, “but he hates to part with little sums out of his purse.” When she died she left enough works of art to fill several museums; the sale of them took eight months; and she had lived in the middle of an intense artistic activity which was meat and drink to her. Unlike her successors, Madame du Barry and Marie Antoinette — and vastly superior to them — she always looked after her artists and never owed them a penny.

Soon the King began to share her love of beautiful objects, and nothing could have been more felicitous for him. Up to now his private life had been devoid of serious interests. He did not care for literature, nor had he that passion for music shared by all his children. Politics occupied much of his attention, but he never talked about them outside the council chamber because he knew that everything he said would be repeated, and this applied also to gossip. As the only pastime he really cared for was hunting, and as it was a perfectly safe topic, he ended by talking of little else — not enough for an intelligent man. Madame de Pompadour, following her own inclinations, had found him a hobby which he could discuss with perfect safety. Houses were bought or built, altered, decorated, and surrounded with beautiful gardens; at the big palaces the King’s private rooms were always being redecorated; furniture, pictures, statues, vases, and bibelots were chosen and ordered; rare materials were brought from all over the world to be mounted in gold or bronze or silver; roof gardens and aviaries were filled with curious plants, birds, and beasts.

The King ran up her staircase knowing that, in her warm and scented rooms, he would find some fascinating new project on foot, plans and designs waiting for his approval, bibelots and stuffs for him to buy if he liked them. Then there were the hours of chat, and here Madame de Pompadour had an enormous asset in his eyes: she was very funny. Hitherto the King’s mistresses had told few jokes and the Queen even fewer—he had never known that particularly delightful relationship of sex mixed up with laughter; all the laughter in his life had been provided by his men friends, especially by Richelieu and Maurepas. He was a great tease and used to read sermons on chastity aloud to the Maillys, who never thought it at all amusing; with Madame de Pompadour he could laugh away to his heart’s content. Chat was the pastime of the age, cheerful, gossipy, joking chat, running on hour after idle hour, all night sometimes; and at this the Marquise excelled. She knew a hundred stories to amuse him; she read the police reports from Paris, the equivalent of our yellow press, and told him all the titbits she found in them; she also read quantities of private letters abstracted from the post, and no doubt their contents gave rise to many a joke. If he felt inclined for a tune, she played and sang better than anybody else. She knew whole plays by heart and could recite speeches from them for hours on end. He had never cared much for the theater but she began to interest him in it. She provided exactly the right company for his supper parties; a few congenial friends, no surprises, and no new faces, and added a gaiety and a lightness all her own.

Sadly enough, the only thing that wras not perfect in this relationship was its sexual side. Louis XV was a Bourbon, and had their terrible temperament, while Madame de Pompadour was physically a cold woman. She was not strong enough for continual love-making and it exhausted her. However, in those pre-Freudian days the act of love was not yet regarded with an almost mystical awe; it had but a limited importance. Like eating, drinking, fighting, hunting, and praying, it was part of a man’s life, but not the very most important part of all. If Madame de Pompadour were not physically in love with the King, being constitutionally incapable of passion, it would not be too much to say that she worshiped him; he was her God. She had other interests and affections, but she made them all revolve round him; rarely can a beautiful woman have loved so single-mindedly.

With the King she was perfectly happy — often puzzled by his strange nature, which she never quite understood and which, she told the Duc de Choiseul on her deathbed, was undecipherable, but fascinated and happy. We have only to read the diaries of the day, in which we see her with the King walking, talking, and alive, to recognize the unmistakable signs of true love. “Put not your trust in Princes" has never been less to the point than in her case; she put her trust in him and he did not fail her.

This love affair took its course. After a few years of physical passion on his side it gradually turned into that ideal friendship which can only exist between a man and a woman when there has been a long physical intimacy. There was always love. As in every satisfactory union, it was the man who kept the upper hand; Madame de Pompadour was far too strong a character herself, far too clever and downright, to have been happy for long with a man whom she could not respect. She could say exactly what she liked to him; in some ways he spoiled her; but she never ceased to be a little bit in awe of him. She was always terrified of losing him; she strained every nerve to keep up with him in all his activities, he so strong and she so delicate, and in the end it. killed her. Seldom in bed before two or three in the morning, she was obliged to be up again at eight, dressed as for a ball, to go to Mass in the unheated chapel. For the rest of the day, not one moment to herself. She must pay her court to the Queen, the Dauphine, and Mesdames, receive a constant succession of visitors, write sometimes as many as sixty letters, and arrange and preside over a supper party. At least once a week there would be a voyage of one or two nights with a house party to entertain, often in a house full of workmen where improvements, landscape gardening, and so forth, were in progress and needed supervision. It was too much for her.

The King’s mistress was a traditionally unpopular figure in France. She was also a convenient scapegoat. The French could thus love their monarch while laying his more unpopular actions at her door.

Only those who have known what we call now a bad press can realize what a perpetual source of irritation it is, nearly always, to its victim. Nowadays the victim can at least answer back, with a dignified letter or a less dignified libel suit, or he can hire a publicity agent. But the bad press of the eighteenth century was impossible to combat, taking, as it did, the form of horrid little poems and epigrams passed from mouth to mouth, posters, pamphlets, and leaflets, all anonymous. Hundreds of these were directed at Madame de Pompadour. They were called the Poissonades; dull and dirty, they are untranslatable, since they nearly all depend on a play of words round her maiden name. Most of them originated at Court, with courtiers too stupid to realize that in thus attacking the monarch they were casting opprobrium on their own way of life. The Parisians lapped up the Poissonades, added to them, and eagerly distributed them; the King was not spared, and the two names were bandied about with evil intent. Nothing they could do was right. If they entertained they were wasting money; if they did not, it was her fault because she wanted to prevent him from meeting other women.

Each taxpayer felt that Madame de Pompadour’s houses, furniture, and works of art were paid for out of his own pocket; and to make matters worse, her taste was for small things of an impermanent nature. Instead of great monuments like those of Louis XIV, the King’s money was being frittered away on such toys as little wooden pavilions in the forest, built and furnished with amazing elegance, surrounded with large groves of exotic trees and aviaries of tropical birds, visited once or twice and then taken down again so that the next year it was impossible to see where they had been. The truth is that Madame de Pompadour excelled at an art which the majority of human beings thoroughly despise because it is unprofitable and ephemeral : the art of living.


IN September, 1749, the King decided to inspect his fleet at Havre and to take Madame de Pompadour with him. His popularity among the Normans was still as great as it had been at the time of Fontenoy and they do not seem to have been at all put out by the presence of a mistress instead of a wife; a double line of people waited to cheer them the whole way between Rouen and Havre. The only slight setback was when the Bishop of Rouen, the Queen’s chaplain, indicated, by a respectful silence, that he would prefer not to have Madame de Pompadour under his roof for the night. They were obliged to make other arrangements. The account of this journey shows what enormous physical endurance Louis XV expected of his friends. The party left Crecy in the. morning, Mesdames de Pompadour, du Roure, de Brancas, and d’Estrades in a berlin, the King and the Duc d’Ayen tête-à-tête in a smaller carriage. They took riding horses and some hounds with them and hunted most of the way. That evening they arrived at the Château de Navarre, where the Duc de Bouillon gave a big party. All next day the King hunted in the forest; after supper they got back into their coaches and traveled through the night, arriving at Rouen at eight in the morning. They did not stop, but went straight on, through cheering crowds, to Havre, where they arrived at 6 P.M.

After an enthusiastic reception, the governor took them up a tower to look at the sea, which most of the party had never seen in their lives. A bitter wind soon drove them back to the Hôtel de Ville, where supper for twenty-eight was prepared. Next morning t he King got up early to go to church while Madame de Pompadour received presents and compliments from the municipality, exactly as if she had herself been royal. All that day there were ceremonies, lasting well into the night, when two hundred ships were illuminated in the harbor. Next morning the party left for Versailles, only stopping once on the way.

Except with the Normans, this journey was very unpopular; it was supposed to have cost a fortune and the King was blamed for taking his mistress with him so openly.

From now on Louis XV shut himself up in his houses and hardly ever left them again, never even going to Paris unless absolutely obliged to. He felt himself criticized unjustly and misunderstood, and a serious riot which broke out in Paris confirmed him in this feeling.

As for Madame de Pompadour, who loved Paris so much, she almost gave up going there. When she did so, it was at the risk of an embarrassing incident. If she went to the opera she would be greeted with ironical cheers, too loud, and lasting too long, to sound quite real; and on one occasion when she went to dine with M. de Gontaut, such terrifying crowds gathered that he was obliged to hurry her off by the back door. But none of this in any way affected her rise to power: she was regarded at Court as paramount. Only God or another woman, it was felt, could now bring a term to her ascendancy; no man could hope to do so.

Her enemies bided their time and bided it in vain, for it never came. Henceforward the King, though very faithful to his old friends, made no new ones except through the Marquise; favors and advancement could only be obtained through her. The courtiers assumed a new attitude towards her, as she did towards them. Her staircase was thronged with people who wanted her to do something for them; she received them kindly and patiently and always tried to help them if she possibly could.

Marmontel describes calling on her, at her toilette, with Duclos and the Abbé de Bernis. “Bonjour, Duclos. Bonjour, Abbé,” with an affectionate tap on his cheek, and then, in a lower, more serious tone of voice, “Bonjour, Marmontel.” He was, at the time, a penniless, unknown, unsuccessful young writer; he took her a manuscript which she promised to read. When he returned for it she got up on seeing him, and leaving the crowd of courtiers standing there, she led him into another room. They talked for a few minutes and she gave him the manuscript covered with penciled comments. Back among the courtiers, Marmontel saw that the effect of all this on them had been prodigious. Everybody pressed forward to shake his hand, and one nobleman, whom he scarcely knew, said, “Surely you’re not going to cut your old friends?”

As in the Queen’s room, there was no chair for her visitors, who were therefore obliged to stand, whatever their rank, even if they were Princes of the Blood. In the whole history of France no other commoner had ever dared to behave thus, and yet there only seem to have been two protests: the Prince de Conti dumped down on her bed one morning, saying “That’s a good mattress,” and the Marquis de Souvré perched on the arm of her chair while talking to her. “I didn’t see anywhere else to sit.” But these daring actions were not repeated, and the Marquise got her way in this as in most other things. She began to study Court usage of the previous reign and modeled herself on Madame de Montespan, sitting in the former mistress’s box at the theater and in her place in the chapel. It was noticed that she spoke of “we,” meaning herself and the King.

“We shall not see you for several weeks,” she said to the Ambassadors on the eve of a voyage. “For I suppose you will hardly come all the way to Compiègne to find us.” Guests at her country houses were obliged to provide themselves with uniforms as at the King’s little houses. Her retinue of fifty-eight servants included two gentlemen decorated with the order of St. Louis, and ladies of quality. She built the Hôtel des Réservoirs in Versailles to house them and as an overflow for her collections; it was almost an annex to the palace and joined to it by a covered passage.

All these signs of power came gradually; gradually the courtiers understood that there were now two Queens of France within the walls of Versailles, that it was not the wife of the King who reigned.

(The End)