Thus begins this biography of the principal mistress of Louis XV of France, a lady who was a focus of the court of Versailles for twenty years, her 'reign' lasting until her death at the end of the Seven Years War. As a young girl her father was the steward of the Duverney brothers, the Court financiers. At some stage he had to flee abroad to escape a financial scandal. Her mother soon found a ‘protector’ (another rich financier) who became Jeanne’s step-father; when her real father returned the three parents lived together amicably. Even before becoming the first commoner to become maîtresse-en-titre Jeanne-Antionette Poisson was friends with some of the leading philosophes of France including Voltaire, a life-long friend. Late in her life she met the Comte St Germain, the charlatan who claimed to have an elixir which was the secret to eternal life.
As often in such books, it is the throwaway details that fascinate me. Here are some:
- The Palace of Versailles was ‘open house’: “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.” (C 1)
- “The lever and the coucher were formal ceremonies; he never 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.” (C 1)
- “As for the courtiers ... They could do nothing, not even go to Paris for the day, or be inoculated against smallpox, ... without his [the King's] express permission. Their privileges were enormous and their power non-existent.” (C 1)
- “On their wedding night he [Louis XV] gave her [his new Queen] a proof of his love seven times.”
- The Duc and Duchesse de Chartres “were so fond of making love that they could hardly bear to take any time off; when they dined out they generally asked for the use of hostess’s bed during the course of the meal.” (C 3)
- “Everybody could tell a Court lady from a Parisian 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 panniers.” (C 4)
- “Her three curtseys were impeccable, and masterly was the kick with which she got her train out of the way so that she could walk backwards.” (C 5)
- Voltaire had a room in Versailles and asked that the public privies at the bottom of the staircase should have doors fitted to them. (C 5)
- “Madame de Pompadour ... had the rare capacity of understanding a creative artist; she saw that underneath the grimaces, the pushfulness, the frantic giggles, the pretensions and follies of man like Voltaire lay an inferno of uncertainty and sensibility.” (C 5)
- “ The Comte de Charolais was a ripsnorting oddity; he dressed like a gamekeeper and ordered his coachman to run over any monks he might see on the road.” (C 5)
- “The first boy was born, with one pain, in about ten minutes; very inconvenient as it was absolutely vital that they should be witnesses of the birth. tThe doctor, who was sleeping in the Dauphine’s room, told her she must hold everything, while the Dauphin rushed out in his nightshirt to find somebody. ‘Well then hurry up’, she said, ‘it's kicking me’. A sleepy Swiss guard was very much surprised when the Dauphin seized him by the arm, said: ‘Quick, go in there and see my wife having a baby’, and went on to look for one more witness.” (C 9)
- “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.” (C 10)
- “Jansenism proper had practically died out under the persecutions of Louis XIV. The plough had been driven over the ruins of Port Royal, the inhabitants of its graveyard been dug up, hacked into suitable joints and removed to some spot where was no danger that they would attract pilgrims.” (C 15)
- One church door contain the graffiti: “By order of the King, God is forbidden to perform miracles on this spot.” (C 15)
- After the Duc de Richelieu took Minorca from the English with a brilliant assault on the fort at Mahon his chef discovered that there was no butter or cream on the island and had to create a sauce using only eggs and oil: the Mahonaise. (C 16)
- “An empire is like a tree’, said Montesquieu, ‘if the branches spread too far they drain the sap from the trunk’.” (C 18)
- The Encyclopedie called Canada “a country inhabited by bears, beavers and barbarians, and covered, eight months of the year, with snow.” (C 18)
- “The Comte St Germain ... has been accused, by French writers, of belonging to the English intelligence service and of being the father of Freemasonry. The English thought he was a Jacobite spy. But his own claim to fame was that he had lived for thousands of years and had known Jesus Christ.” (C 18)
A beautifully written (despite the presence of untranslated French at times, a practice I abhor) and diverting biography of a lady who lived at a fascinating moment in the history of Europe.
Nancy Mitford also wrote The Sun King a biography of Louis XIV, the preceding monarch.