Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson, dame Le Normant d’Étiolles, marquise de Pompadour, duchesse de Menars (born December 29, 1721 Paris; † April 15, 1764 in Versailles), short Madame de Pompadour, was a mistress of the French King Louis XV.
Madame de Pompadour. — Her political power and general influence.
However degrading for society it may be to confess it, it is nevertheless true, that, besides the democratic influence of the bureaux d’esprit, there existed another power in French society during the eighteenth century—the power of royal mistresses; exercised, not because they were clever or intelligent women, but because they were the acknowledged favourites of a profligate monarch.
On the death of Madame de Chateauroux, Richelieu, anxious to console the king for her loss, and to have the honour of procuring him another mistress as attractive, went to seek the beautiful Madame de Flavacour, and offered her the post which had been successively occupied by her four sisters. She coldly listened to his proposals, and merely replied, “I prefer, to what you offer me, the esteem of my contemporaries.” Several other ladies of equal virtue were found, even at the court of Louis XV.; but too many eagerly sought the disgraceful honour a simple bourgeoise was destined to win.
Before the king left Versailles for his army in Flanders, the keen eye of Madame de Chateauroux had noticed a singularly beautiful woman who always placed herself in the path of Louis XV. whenever he hunted in the forest of Senart. The instinct of jealousy led her to suspect in this unknown lady (for she did not belong to the court) a future rival. Her surmise was correct ; and, when the king’s grief for her loss was somewhat abated, Madame de Chateauroux was succeeded in the post of royal favourite by the intriguing Madame le Normand d’Etiolles, better known as Madame de Pompadour.
According to some accounts, Jeannette Poisson (It is suspected that her biological father was either the rich financier Pâris de Montmartel or the tax collector (fermier général) Le Normant de Tournehem) had been early destined by her parents to the rank of the king’s mistress. Circumstances not favouring this project, she was married to a young and wealthy financier. She shone for a while in the Parisian literature and philosphical circles; till having, by her private intrigues, succeeded in securing the king’s favour, she suddenly deserted her husband, and, residing openly in the palace of Versailles, she received the badge of her degradation in the title of Marchioness of Pompadour. M. d’Etiolles, disconsolate at the loss of his wife, whom he idolized, vainly offered to forgive her everything if she would only come back. She refused in the most peremptory manner to return to his house. Unprincipled and aspiring, she not only intended to rale Louis XV. completely, but, though both the queen and her own husband were still living, she even entertained the ambitious hope of becoming the king’s wife at some future period, and thus rivalling the power and fame of Madame de Maintenon.
Besides the exquisite grace and beauty of her person, the loveliness and regularity of her features, and that ever-varying expression which gave them an irresistible charm, Madame de Pompadour possessed all the versatility of talent, and the meretricious arts, necessary to the favourite mistress of a king already blase in his tastes. She not only played and sang admirably, but danced with singular grace and elegance. Her acting was equal to that of the most celebrated actresses of the day; her conversation easy, brilliant, and fascinating. From the time that she became the king’s mistress to the epoch of her death, to please and amuse her royal lover was the sole study of her life. Lest even her admirable beauty should lose its fascinations, she was ever surprising Louis XV. by presenting it to his gaze under a new aspect. Sometimes she appeared before him clad as a peasant girl, assuming all the simplicity and rustic grace of this character. She took with equal ease the voluptuous appearance of a languishing Venus, or the proud beauty of a Diana. To these disguises often succeeded the modest garb of a nun, when, with affected humility, and downcast eyes, she came to meet the king. What was such a life but one of endless, degrading slavery?
The character of Madame de Pompadour may be traced in her conduct towards her husband. She was cold, selfish, and ambitious. She had no sooner secured a firm hold on the king’s heart than she resolved to govern the State. Her penetration showed her that Louis XV. might not love her long, but that, if she could render herself necessary to him, her position would nevertheless remain safe. It was for this that she did not scruple to encourage and assist his obscure intrigues, from which she felt that she had little to fear. The foundation of that infamous establishment where Louis XV. kept young girls, whom he had in many instances caused to be forcibly taken from their parents, is even attributed to Madame de Pompadour. From the first, she resolved to be, not only the king’s mistress, but also his prime minister. The indolent monarch willingly yielded up to her the reins of the State. Madame de Pompadour soon acquired great tact in the management of affairs ; but she was reckless and unprincipled, and her political power hastened the ruin of monarchy, whilst it increased the evils of France. She abhorred the very name of Fleury, and did her best to destroy the good which the cardinal had effected.
The men whom she successively called to govern the country with her, Bernis and the Duke of Choiseul, were too completely her tools to counteract her folly, had they been desirous of doing so. Bernis was the same abbe to whom Fleury had refused a living, and who had prophetically replied, “J’attendrai I”. On learning the favour of Madame de Pompadour, with whom he was slightly acquainted, he went to see her, and repeated to her some flowery verses in her praise. Madame de Pompadour, greatly pleased, gave him a pension, and received him into her intimacy. He ingratiated himself so much into her favour by his gaiety and versifying talents, that, after making him an ambassador, she ended by raising him to the post of minister. The conduct of Bernis was such as might have been expected from “Babet Bouquetiere du Parnasse” (the name his rosy cheeks had earned him from Voltaire, whilst he was only a needy abbe). The most important negotiations were intrusted to men of his own stamp, and whose sole recommendation was that of having pleased Madame de Pompadour, by talents similar to those which had won him her favour.
France thus lost the alliance of Prussia. It is also asserted, that the ridicule with which Frederic II. thought fit to speak of Bernis’ poetry, and the appellation of Cotillon II. which he bestowed on Madame de Pompadour — in allusion to her having succeeded Cotillon I., that is, Madame de Chateauroux — deeply irritated these two powerful personages. Through neglect, intentional or not, they at least allowed themselves to be forestalled by England in the alliance of Prussia. When these two powers had concluded the treaty of Westminster, Madame de Pompadour was induced, by her own personal vanity, to engage France in an alliance with Austria. Maria Theresa, learning her favourable intentions, lost no time in writing her a friendly letter, in which she named the royal courtesan her chère amie. Filled with pride at this mark of distinction, Madame de Pompadour found it easy to work on the feelings of Louis XV. His personal dislike and jealousy of the Prussian monarch, whose great talents seemed to cast a reproach on his own degrading life, made him lend a willing ear to the proposal of allying himself with Austria. A treaty was secretly drawn up in Babiole — Madame de Pompadour’s country-house — between Bernis and Stahrenberg.
This treaty — so fatal to the best interests of the nation; created universal indignation and astonishment. Austria had for several centuries been the open enemy of France; and, only a few years previously, the French had done everything to precipitate from her throne the empress-queen they were now bound to support. Then, it is true, Madame de Chateauroux wished to have the glory of making an emperor, and now Madame de Pompadour had been called the “dear friend” of Maria Theresa.
These were a few amongst the great motives which decided the Seven Years’ war, covered the military glory of France with shame, and led to the fatal marriage of Marie-Antoinette and Louis XVI. Madame de Pompadour had also other reasons of her own for her conduct in this matter. It was war which secured her power: as long as it lasted, her talents rendered her necessary to the king, and she need fear no rival. All the European powers, who had adopted her line of policy towards Frederic II., were also interested that she should continue to be at the head of affairs. If Louis XV. had then taken another mistress, with sympathies in favour of Prussia, instead of Austria, this great event might have changed the aspect of Europe. But the chains of habit, far more than those of love, riveted him to Madame de Pompadour. Conscious of her power, the proud and imperious favourite assumed the style of a queen. Her femmes de chambre were ladies of noble birth, and she caused her steward to be made a knight of the order of Saint Louis. Her esquire, the Chevalier d’Henin, a relative of the Princes of Chimay, and a member of one of the most noble families of the empire, might be seen walking respectfully by the side of her sedan chair, with her cloak on his arm, in order to cover her shoulders with it as soon as she should alight. He accompanied her, for the same purpose, when she went visiting, and waited for her in the antechamber, if it was necessary to do so.
It would have been well for France if Madame de Pompadour had remained satisfied with such marks of distinction. But this unprincipled woman, who named bishops and generals as well as ministers — who gave instructions to ambassadors, and addressed them in the first person plural, as though she had become identified with royalty or France — asserted her power, and seemed doomed to cause the misfortunes of her country, by her unhappy and capricious choice of men. Richelieu and Soubise were not only favoured by her in every respect, but, to the military shame of France, entrusted with the highest posts in the army. She was, however, keenly alive to the disgrace their errors brought down on her judgment, and unreasonably charged them with the consequences of her folly. When De Bernis ventured to oppose a line of policy so fatal to France as that which she adopted, Madame de Pompadour greatly resented this act of independence, and obliged him to withdraw from the ministry; reminding him, with a taunt she had no right to inflict, that another sort of talent than that of versifying was necessary in order to govern a nation. Cardinal de Bernis—for the favour of Madame de Pompadour had gained him this dignity—retired to Rome, and was sueceeded in the management of affairs by Stainville, afterwards Duke of Choiseul, and another of the creatures of the royal favourite.
The court of Louis XV. and Madame de Pompadour
Louis XV. also indulged in another amusement. He always affected to separate the king from Louis of Bourbon; and whilst he allowed his mistresses and ministers to give their instructions to the ambassadors he sent to foreign courts, he employed secret agents of his own to counteract their designs by pretty artifices; the pleasure of teasing those to whom he had yielded up his power being the sole object of this contemptible conduct. The truth was that the king had grown profoundly ennuie and selfish. Life had lost its illusions for him, and he was annoyed by the sight of pleasure or happiness in others. A sardonic smile disfigured his still handsome features; to inflict pain or annoyance had become a real pleasure for him. If a courtier affected a youthful tone no longer in accordance with his years, the king, whose memory was unerring in this respect, never failed to remind him of his age: he was the first to detect in others wrinkles and all the signs of declining years. To those who were afflicted with illness, the king spoke of their end as inevitable, or at least as approaching. Often, when he travelled with Madame de Pompadour, he caused the carriage to stop near a churchyard, in order to learn if it contained any newly-made grave. Notwithstanding the horror such subjects gave her, the king delighted to speak to his mistress of death. Like many voluptuaries, he was of a melancholy, and even morbid disposition.
The court over which Louis XV. and Madame de Pompadour presided was fully worthy of them. That confusion which is inseparable from a great convulsion reigned there, as well as in every other portion of society. The old noblesse were cast into the shade by a new and more wealthy aristocracy, sprung from the bourgeoisie, and which bought lands, vassals, and feudal titles. When ranks are thus displaced in a nation, owing to the decay of one class and the rise of another, it is a proof that the institutions are no longer fitted to the age; and from that moment they necessarily become despised and unjust. A greater feeling of equality sprang from this state of things; though, as it did not result from the natural tone of society, but, on the contrary, from its corruption, it only proved another sign of evil.
Both the new and the old nobility joined in the common pursuit of pleasure before their final fall. Bad taste and frivolousness marked their amusements. Titled ladies, who eagerly sought the favour of being allowed a seat in the presence of Madame de Pompadour, visited in secret the popular ball of the Porcherons-, or amused themselves by breaking plates and glasses in obscure cabarets, assuming the free and reckless tone of men. Their husbands in the mean while embroidered at home, or paced the stately galleries of Louis XIV. at Versailles—a little painted figure of cardboard in one hand, whilst with the other they drew the string which put it in motion. This preposterous amusement even spread throughout the whole nation, and grave magistrates were to be met in the streets playing, like the rest, with their pantins. This childish folly was satirized in the following epigram: “D’un peuple frivole et volage, Pantin fut la divinite. Faut-il être s’il cherissait l’image Dont il est la réalité ?”
The general degeneracy of the times was acknowledged even by those who shared in it. The old nobles ascribed it to that fatal evil — the want of female chastity. Never, indeed, had this social stain been so universal or so great. “Had our race remained pure from the intermixture of plebeian blood,” they argued, in their pride, “we could not have fallen so low.”
With all this profligacy, there was mingled a strong philosophic tone. Towards the close of Louis XV`s reign, and to the king’s infinite displeasure, the Anglomania assumed a marked popularity. The ingenious possessors of “pantins” visited England, in order, as they said, “to learn how to think.” The progress of this spirit was visible even in those whose position bound them most to resist it. Madame Louise, the daughter of Louis XV., when she had determined on embracing a monastic life, chose the Carmelite order, because, in this order, there is no perpetual abbess, but a superior elected every three years: a custom which the daughter of an absolute king thought more in accordance with the spirit of equality.
Her brother, the dauphin, and who was considered the foe of the philosophers, whilst he approved the condemnation of Rousseau’s “Emile,” observed of the Contrat Social,” — “The case is different with this work; it only treats of the rights of kings, and these can be discussed.“ When institutions begin to know their own weakness, is not their hour nigh ? The royal and aristocratic element was declining, whilst the popular and philosophic power rose in the ascendant; and both parties felt that it was so.
Whilst monarchy was thus swiftly and surely undermined by society itself, the weak and vacillating power seemed anxious to hasten its own ruin. The mass of “the nation had become more intellectually enlightened, and more immoral than it had ever yet been; and yet the court persisted in its weak, despotic course of conduct. Government alternately yielded to the spirit of the age, or vainly sought to control it. Scepticism was abroad, and practical intolerance was still exercised by the clergy. State prisons were filled with untried captives, the victims of favourites and royal mistresses, at the very time when democratic philosophy was most popular.
The right of a nation to govern itself was already discussed, yet Choiseul ministered to the extravagance of the king and his mistress, as though the wealth of the kingdom were their own private property. At the same time, no one was unconscious that a great crisis was inevitable. The subject was even discussed in the drawing – room of Madame de Pompadour, and in the hearing of her confidential attendant, Madame du Hausset, who thus alludes to this remarkable fact: – “This kingdom” said Mirabeau (the father of the celebrated tribune), “is in a deplorable state. There is neither national energy nor the only substitute for it — money.” ‘It can only be regenerated,’ said La Riviere, ‘by a conquest like that of China, or by some great internal convulsion: but woe to those who live to see that! The French people do not do things by halves.’ These words made me tremble, and I hastened out of the room.”
Madame de Pompadour herself was aware that the actual system was doomed to perish, but satisfied with her favourite exclamation, — “Apres nous, le déluge” — Let the flood come when we are gone, she did nothing to effect a radical change. Her caprices increased the evils which were ruining the State: favourites and ministers succeeded one another under her sway ) they knew the unstable tenure of their power, and hastened with their creatures to drain the resources of the country before their day was past. But if Madame de Pompadour’s guilt was great, so was the retribution by which it was attended.
The most rigid moralist could not have desired a severer punishment for the king’s mistress than that brought down upon her by her own vices. The last years of this woman who governed France —who received more than queenly honours from the courtiers, and who lived surrounded by all the pleasures boundless wealth can give — were literally poisoned and abridged by a soul-devouring ennui. The death of her daughter by her husband, and whom she had destined to marry one of the first nobles in the land, filled her with grief.
The loss of her beauty, and the increasing indifference of the king, added to her melancholy. She often declared that, for a handsome woman, death itself was better than to see her charms fading away.
With all her vices, Madame de Pompadour was not insensible to the unhappy state of France. She saw and lamented that very degeneracy of the times which she had aided, and to which she owed her elevation. She had imbibed enough of the philosophic spirit to perceive that the country was on the brink of ruin; and not even her selfish exclamation, “After us, the flood,”—could always stifle the voice of her conscience.
It was no slight addition to her grief, that the general hatred of the nation ascribed to her all the misery of France. Every unpopular measure of the cabinet; every reverse in war, was laid to the detested name of Pompadour. If to these causes of melancholy be added general ill-health, and the consciousness that habit and pity were the only feelings the king now felt for her, it need scarcely be wondered that Madame de Pompadour should term the life she led “a continual death.” At the same time, she had not enough courage or principle to leave the scene of her splendid misery. Pride kept her chained to her throne, and made her reign to the last. It is, however, probable that if Madame de Pompadour had lived longer, she might have edified the world with the sight of her conversion. The unaffected piety of the injured queen inspired her with involuntary admiration and respect for religion.
Very different, indeed, were the declining years of Maria Leszczyńska and those of the Marchioness of Pompadour. The patient and pious queen laid her sufferings at the foot of the Cross: insulted by her husband and his mistresses; neglected by the courtiers; deeply afflicted by the loss of her children, whom she had loved most tenderly, she still found in religion the courage necessary to support her grief, and effectual consolations in the practice of a boundless benevolence. Ennui, shame, and remorse, marked the last days of Madame de Pompadour. The king, indeed, was induced by compassion to pay her the greatest attention during her last illness. She was, contrary to the usual etiquette in such cases, allowed to die in Versailles — the exclusive privilege of royalty. Her will remained, to the last, the law of France, and she issued forth orders even from her deathbed.
But scarcely had she ceased to exist when her remains were unceremoniously hurried out of the palace, and the king, looking from his window, coolly remarked that the marquise had rainy weather for this her last journey. It was to be thus honoured and thus loved that Madame de Pompadour had sacrificed all that woman should hold most dear and revered.
Though the social influence of Madame de Pompadour was far from being great or extended, it is worthy of consideration. The mistresses of Louis XV. had more direct political action than those of his predecessor, but their general power on society was infinitely less. Notwithstanding her talents and the good education she had received, Madame de Pompadour never lost the tone of a bourgeoise.
She gave evident proofs of vulgarity in the coarse nicknames which she bestowed on her female friends. She was imitated in this by the king, who called his daughters by appellations little remarkable for either delicacy or euphony. The taste of Madame de Pompadour was essentially bad: as her admiration of Bernis’ verses would suffice to show, did not the school of art she encouraged prove it more clearly still. The shepherdess in hoops of Watteau and Boucher, and the corrupt style which distinguished the fashions in dress and furniture of the period, owe much to her patronage. She exaggerated the defects of her contemporaries, and never endeavoured to substitute for them anything of pure artistic beauty. She had, however, the merit of having led to the establishment of the manufactory of Sèvres porcelain.
Madame de Pompadour was desirous of securing a literary influence; which, vith her power of giving places and pensions, would have been an easy matter, had she known how to act. She, indeed pensioned such second-rate authors as Marmontel, Duclos, and Bernis; but though Voltaire unblushingly protested that he was devoted to her, because it was his duty, as a good citizen, to be so—apparently considering the existence and position of a royal mistress as a sort of national institution—she did not care to influence the king in his favour. Louis XV. always disliked that intellectual monarch, whose reign, he felt, eclipsed his own. Both he and Madame de Pompadour were so blind to their real interests as to neglect the power they might have secured, until it was beyond their grasp, and fell into the hands of Parisian ladies and farmers-general. Madame de Pompadour did, indeed, attempt to tame, as she said, Rousseau, and accordingly sent a hundred louis to the proud and irritable author.
He declined her present in a letter of such haughtiness that she was wounded to the quick, and protested she would have nothing more to do with that owl. The truth was, that the literary and philosophic party expected more than pensions from Madame de Pompadour; the time was gone when they could be so easily satisfied: they aimed at receiving from her no less than the same degree of flattery and consideration awarded to them in every Parisian circle.
But, though she could venture to direct the destinies of France, Madame de Pompadour shrank from the responsibility of encouraging, too openly, the formidable philosophic power: at the same time, she committed the great error of bestowing on that power, the sort of encouragement which entitles the receiver to expect more.
Through her favourite medical attendant, Quesnay, she often communicated with Diderot, D’Alembert, Duclos, Helvétius, Turgot, and Buffon — freely mingling with them when they visited Quesnay’s entresol in Versailles, but never asking them up into her own drawing-room.
The men whom Frederick and Catharine had accustomed to the praise of crowned heads, were not likely to be highly flattered by the indirect notice of Madame de Pompadour. Another error which she committed, was to endeavour to place Crébillon, the tragic poet, above Voltaire (Prosper Jolyot Crébillon 1674-1762, was a French author. He was considered around 1710 in France as the greatest dramatist of his generation.). Crébillon was poor; she wanted a poet to patronize and exalt; she chose him. Voltaire, deeply irritated, never forgave her this offence. Madame du Maine, who, in matters of taste, was still influential, zealously defended her former protege; and Madame de Pompadour had the mortification of perceiving that, though no one denied Crebillon’s tragic power, Voltaire, in spite of all she might do, was still the great idol of the age.
Madame de Pompadour was more successful when, entering into the views of the philosophers, she aided them in the expulsion of the Jesuits. Notwithstanding the disinclination of the king, and the opposition of the whole royal family, she succeeded, with the aid of her creature, Choiseul, in banishing the Jesuits from France, ten years before their order was expelled from the other European states. It has been said that she was actuated in this by a motive of personal animosity; and, though the assertion is not, perhaps, sufficiently proved, there is nothing in the life and character of Madame de Pompadour, to justify the belief that she acted from a feeling of principle.
The expulsion of the Jesuits was a very serious blow given to religion in France. Choiseul, the philosophers, and the Parliament, united their efforts to those of Madame de Pompadour, in order to carry a measure they all desired, though through widely different motives. The Parliament unwisely yielded to their old prejudices, as Jansenists, and eagerly aided the philosophers; for whom, on other occasions, their only feeling was one of bitter hostility.
Whatever opinion may be held of the Jesuits — and it is not our intention to discuss here the merits of this celebrated order — their expulsion was certainly not justified then. They had possessed no real power in France since Louis XIV. and Madame de Maintenon; they were, indeed, protected by the Queen, Marie Lecsinska; but she was utterly without influence. It was precisely because they were so weak, that they were attacked. Institutions perish when the strength against which violence would have been of no avail has long been spent. It is not when they stand in the evil pride of their power; but it is when they grow feeble and decayed, that the memory of past hatred rises up against them, and their fall seems then less an act of justice than one of vengeance.
Madame de Pompadour was less successful when she attempted to exercise her power in favour of the parliaments, who were then openly protected by Choiseul. “Do not mention them!” once hastily observed Louis XV., starting up from the apathy with which he usually acceded to the plans of his mistress, “I tell you they are an assembly of republicans.” Madame de Pompadour interfered with more success when she encouraged the doctrines of political economy: one of the results of the new philosophy. She did not, indeed, modify these doctrines by any original views of her own, but she did much by favoring their free development.
Madame de Pompadour and the death of Louis XV.
Clever, though too light and volatile—haughty, and yet supple — the Duke of Choiseul had early learned the art of ingratiating himself in famale favour; thus carrying into practice the advice of Madame de Montmorin to her son: ” If you wish to succeed in France, fall in love with all the women.” His light, caustic wit, and skilful flattery, compensated for the insignificance of his personal appearance. The universal, and not very disinterested desire, which then existed, of making gallantry a means of success in ambition, had reacted on the character of the men by whom it was employed.
Women are excellent judges of a certain species of individual merit. An elegant address, natural manners, taste, wit, and eloquence, generally find favour with them. The superficial nature of their education renders them less capable of appreciating gravity of thought and solidity of judgment. The men whose task and interest it was to please women, naturally adopted the manners most likely to accomplish this purpose. But, though female influence thus gave an undue importance to mere externals, the frivolous tone of society, and the tendency which therefore existed to govern it by the laws of ridicule, were not exclusively the work of women: these characteristics of the last century may more fairly be attributed to the want of political rights, which induced men to win by favour and intrigue what they might have sought openly in a free country.
Whilst Madame de Pompadour governed the State, Louis XV. continued his life of indolence and shameless profligacy. He was by far too clear-sighted not to perceive that monarchy was declining, and that a great change must necessarily take place in the condition of the nation; but not even this knowledge could rouse him from his selfish apathy. He felt tolerably certain that no serious disturbance would occur during his lifetime: “the rest concerns my successor he often observed. It did, indeed, concern the hapless Louis XVI. The prestige which had so long environed Louis XV. vanished; for his people saw what sort of a king was on the throne. Louis XV. the beloved, was now named thus only in the almanacks, published every year: the endearing epithet had long been erased from every heart in France. When he appeared, in public, he was received with ominous silence,— contempt and hatred were the secret feelings of those who gazed on him. A life of voluptuous indulgence soon bred satiety: ennui, as well as a feeling of inquisitiveness natural to unoccupied minds, made Louis XV. seek for amusement in an acquaintance with all the scandalous news of the day.
To know the minutest details of the private life of his courtiers and ministers, as well as to be informed of all the intrigues that took place in Paris, was one of the greatest pleasures and most earnest occupations of the king. For this purpose he kept a private police of his own; being too suspicious to trust entirely to the lieutenant of police. This functionary was, however, summoned every Sunday to the presence of the king, with whom he spent several hours. He then laid before his majesty every fact of importance or interest which numerous spies, of every rank, had discovered in the course of the week. It was also his task to read to him the extracts from letters which had been unsealed and read by the post-office authorities,— an infamous custom, first introduced under Louis XIV. by the minister Louvois. Louis XV. sometimes communicated to his ministers these extracts from the private correspondence of his subjects. The Duke of Choiseul was often favoured thus; but, being naturally indiscreet, he divulged amongst his acquaintances matters affecting the honour of individuals, or exposing them to scorn and ridicule. The king, besides the information he thus gained, also heard every morning five classes of police reports, concerning the princes of the blood, the courtiers, bishops, ministers, clergymen, women of dissolute life, &c.
The deep, heart-rending misery of the working classes had at length forced itself on public attention. Persons of every rank began to consider the best means of alleviating a wretchedness to which even the king and Madame de Pompadour could not remain wholly insensible. Quesnay, their favourite surgeon, was one of the most popular economists: his views were inserted in the ” Encyclopédie,“ with the chief writers of which he was on intimate terms. He had also many influential friends among men of rank: one of his adherents was Mirabeau the elder, that “friend of man” who wrote twenty volumes of philanthropic works, and behaved like a fierce tyrant to all those over whom he had power. Louis XV. took some interest in his physician’s system, and indulged in the novel amusement of causing his essays to be printed, revising the proofs with his own royal hand. Gournay (Jean Claude Marie Vincent, Marquis de Gournay 1712-1759, was a French economist. Gournay came from a family of Breton ship chandlers and was the son of a rich merchant) opposed the views of Quesnay ( François Quesnay 1694-1774 was a French physician and economist. He is considered the founder of the school of economics physiocratic and encyclopedist.) by a system based on wholly different principles. This difference of opinion led to a bitter controversy between their respective partisans. The women, as usual, took an active share in the matter: most of them imperiously proscribed in their circle any views but those they had chosen to adopt; those who would willingly have remained indifferent on such subjects were not allowed to do so; so deeply and universally felt was the necessity of some radical change.
None showed more zeal in the cause of political economy than the pretty and agreeable Madame du Marchais, a relative of Madame de Pompadour’s, and the wife of the dauphin’s valet de chambre.
Though this lady held a somewhat subordinate position, her connection with Madame de Pompadour, and the great charm of her conversation, drew around her the most eminent men of the day, and rendered her little apartment in the palace of Versailles the rendezvous of the most intellectual society of those times. There was much in Madame du Marchais, afterwards Madame d’Angivilliers, to fascinate and attract. She was diminutive in person, but pretty and graceful as a fairy. Her mind was remarkable for two high and rare qualities; an extreme clearness of understanding and a complete impartiality, even with regard to those subjects which interested her most. Madame du Marchais was thus admirably adapted to the part she had taken on herself as expounder of the rival systems of the day. The elegant perspicuity of her language, the precision with which she conveyed, in a few words, the substance of whatever treatise or discourse she wished to condense for the benefit of her hearers, were invaluable to her friends, at an epoch when the fate of the most important questions often hung on the manner in which they were discussed. The comprehensiveness of her intellect enabled Madame du Marchais to abstract herself whenever she pleased from ordinary cares, without neglecting them in the main. Her mind was stored with all that had been written for or against the science she favoured; she was an authority to be consulted with perfect safety, for no party spirit ever disfigured the clearness and calmness of her statements. The letters of Turgot to Terrai, Necker’s treatises, the dialogues of Galiani, and Morellet’s refutations were alike read and consulted by the dispassionate Madame du Marchais.
Though she saw persons of every class, Madame du Marchais chiefly received academicians and political economists. La Harpe, Diderot, Marmontel, D’Alembert, Duclos, Thomas, and Quesnay constantly met at her house. Such was her influence that she not only named academicians whenever vacant seats occurred in the academy, but she had even the occult power of directing the motions of that body; whom she once caused to propose an eulogy of Sully for the “concours” of eloquence. The essay of Thomas had the prize; but the triumph he obtained was less his own than that of Madame du Marchais’s friend, Quesnay, whose principles he had developed under the name of Sully. Never, indeed, was literature less free and independent than in those times, when even the fairy tales of Duclos took a philosophic turn.
Death of Dauphin
The inclinations and great talents of Madame du Marchais entitled her to do for political economy in France what Madame du Chatelet had effected for Leibnitz and Newton before her such, indeed, was her aim, and she devoted her whole energies and attention to the purpose of aiding the progress of doctrines she believed calculated to rescue her country from its unhappy condition. Time showed that deeper changes than those it was in the power of political economy to effect for France were needful; but the aim of Madame du Marchais was not the less noble or pure. Madame du Deffand, incapable of appreciating anything elevated or unselfish, sought to chase her ever-renewing ennui by attacking all the economists with the utmost coarseness and vehemence. She partook, however, of Madame du Marehais’s excellent suppers, in company with the hated tribe, but did not fail to turn her friend into ridicule on every favourable occasion. Undeterred by her satirical remarks, Madame du Marchais steadily persevered in her object. Many women of those times shone more than she did by the exercise of frivolous talents, but none had an aim so disinterested and so useful.
Disgrace of Choiseul.
The favour, and consequently the power of the Duke of Choiseul (Étienne-François de Choiseul d’Amboise 1719-1785) continued even after the death of Madame de Pompadour. His light frivolous manner of treating the most important state matters amused without ever wearying the king. As long as Choiseul remained minister, the philosophic party—especially that worldly epicurian portion which met at the house of Madame du Deffand (Marie de Vichy-Chamrond (ou Champrond), marquise du Deffand 1697-1780, was a famous French salonière in the Age of Enlightenment. Her culturally and historically interesting letters were received not only in the history of literature, but they have also found to be one of the most astute minds of her century.) — raised their patron to the skies, and enjoyed a considerable degree of his countenance. Thus encouraged, they expressed their opinions with still greater freedom than they had been in the habit of manifesting. The death of Louis XV.’s only son was also a great subject of triumph to the philosophers. They supposed the dauphin, as a moral and religious prince, to be their natural foe: he was, indeed, the foe of their errors; but he had a virtue of which they knew nothing, and that was a singular tolerance for opinions the most opposed to his own. But he was the partisan of the Jesuits, and very much opposed to the power of Choiseul: these were the real causes of the dislike of the philosophers. He died at Compiègne, where the court was delayed until his decease, which was hourly expected, should have taken place. The prince, who remained sensible to the last, could see from the window of his room the preparations which all the courtiers were making for their approaching departure. “They are getting impatient; it is time for me to be gone,” he observed to his doctor, with a bitter smile. The agony of this last hour was, however, soothed by the devotedness of the dauphiness: a pure, noble-minded woman, who waited on her husband, through his long and painful illness, with unwearied love, and who died of grief for his loss. The death of his son was announced to the king by his eldest grandson, the Duke of Berri (Louis XVI.), being introduced into his presence as Monseigneur le Dauphin. This event appeared to rouse the sovereign from his usual apathy. “Poor France!” said he, with a deep sigh, “thou hast now got a king of fifty, and a dauphin of eleven!” And as he cast a sad and troubled look on the child before him, the future woes of his posterity seemed for a while to be revealed to, and to appal, the guilty soul of Louis XV. Choiseul thought himself fairly consolidated in his power by the death of the dauphin. The king was getting old, and it seemed scarcely probable that he would take another acknowledged mistress. Such was not the wish of the handsome and unprincipled court ladies; who, on the death of Madame de Pompadour, strove to succeed her in the favour of the monarch. Their blandishments were, however, lavished in vain: a common courtesan was destined to succeed the bourgeoise, and to rule over the court of France.
The beauty of Madame du Barry
All the sermons that could be preached on the increasing immorality and shamelessness of the times, would never speak so eloquently as the love of Louis XV. for Madame du Barry. The first mistresses of the king had been comparatively modest women: they were highly born, clever, and educated ladies, who knew how to sin with a proper regard for the bienseances: some of them even possessed high qualities, and strove to make a worthy use of a corrupt power.
Madame de Pompadour, a bourgeoise and a parvenue, though she served the passions of the king in an infamous manner, and was deservedly hated for her insolence and tyranny, was still an immaculate woman, if compared to her successor. To the pure and modest beauty of a Madonna, Madame du Barry united the language and manners of a common courtesan. It was this contrast and this licentiousness that fascinated the corrupt heart of Louis XV. Even in the choice of royal mistresses may be traced the descending tendency so characteristic of the times. From the daughters of nobles to the wife of a bourgeoise, and from her again to a woman of the people, the differences were sufficiently striking.
When Madame du Barry was declared the mistress “en titre” of Louis XV., all the high-born ladies—who construed it into an open insult that none of them should have been thought worthy of the place bestowed on her—opposed her favour with violent and bitter hostility. At the head of this party were the Duchess de Grammont (Béatrix de Choiseul-Stainville, duchesse de Gramont 1730-1794) and the Princess of Beauveau (Marie Charlotte de La Tour d’Auvergne 1729-1763).
Both were former favourites of Madame de Pompadour. Madame de Grammont, a reckless, despotic woman, the sister of Choiseul—over whose mind she possessed great influence—had vainly attempted to succeed Madame de Pompadour in the favour of the king. Exasperated and blinded by her wounded pride, she prevented her brother from accepting the protection Madame du Barry was at first willing to offer. Not satisfied with being, through Choiseul, the arbiter of every important state affair, and the distributor of places and favours, Madame de Grammont urged her brother to use his ascendancy over the mind of the king, in order to banish Madame du Barry. As it long remained doubtful which, of the minister or the mistress, would retire vanquished from the contest, Madame de Grammont and the Princess of Beauveau enlisted almost the whole court in their cause.
Whilst the saloons of the Duke of Choiseul and his sister were daily thronged with courtiers, Madame du Barry saw herself almost wholly deserted. The vindictive Madame de Grammont even caused libels to be circulated and songs to be sung against her rival, wherever the royal favourite might go: even at Marly, and in the presence of the king, she was followed with insults. The nobles, through a spirit of caste; the philosophers, because they were protected and encouraged by Choiseul and his sister; the people, from hatred to the royal profligacy,— all took up the cry against Madame du Barry whose only crime was, that she was fit for the degrading position to which the love of the king had called her.
She patiently endured these insults; and Louis XV., with still greater patience, put no stop to the insolence of M. de Choiseul. The minister became convinced that the king could not dispense with his services. In order to render himself still more necessary to him, he married the young dauphin (Louis XVI.) to Marie Antoinette, the favourite daughter of Maria Theresa: he also hoped, by this alliance, to give himself a hold on the future sovereigns of France.
The chief consideration which kept Louis XV. faithful to his minister so long, was, in fact, his own extreme indolence. Madame du Barry, seeing at last that the warfare waged against her was a deadly one, took up the struggle in good earnest, by attacking the philosophers and the parliaments, and protecting the religious party. Selfpreservation rendered her active: she teazed the king incessantly to send away Choiseul. Louis XV. still hesitated between his love for his mistress and his value for his minister: the imprudence of Madame de Graminont precipitated the catastrophe.
With the secret connivance of her brother, the duchess travelled through France, entering into communications with the chief agitators of the provincial parliaments. Her design, and that of Choiseul, was to establish a powerful link between all the parliaments and that of Paris, and thus, in case of necessity, to renew the times of the league and the Fronde. This was enough to doom both Madame de Grammont and her brother in the mind of the king. When he saw that, not satisfied with interfering with his pleasure, Choiseul and his audacious sister sought even to rouse the nation against him, Louis XV., yielding to the representations of Madame du Barry, suddenly dismissed the daring minister. M. de Choiseul was sent into exile; in consideration of his amiable wife, the king allowed him to retire to Chanteloup, where he possessed a magnificent residence. Madame de Grammont, banished from the court, became a provincial canoness, and lived in a state of mediocrity, until she ascended the scaffold, in the time of the Revolution.
The disgrace of Choiseul was a real triumph, and showed not only the weakness of royal authority, but the immense progress the philosophic party had made. All that the land held of noble and distinguished flocked around the minister in his exile; and, as though to brave the monarch more openly still, there was erected at Chanteloup a column, on which all the names of the visitors were inscribed, in order to perpetuate the memory of this protest against the personal will of the sovereign. Never was the powerlessness of absolute monarchy more clearly manifested.
Madame du Barry made a moderate use of her triumph. Though so much hated and reviled, she was indifferent to revenge. If she had caused Choiseul to be dismissed, it was because his ruin or hers was necessary. This natural kindness of heart, and the perfect good humour which she always displayed, greatly contributed to fascinate the king. “We must shut up the bastille; you will send no one to it,” he often observed to her. One of Madame du Barry’s first acts was to make her lover, the Duke of Aiguillon (Emmanuel Armand de Vignerot du Plessis de Richelieu 1720-1782), minister. It is asserted—on somewhat doubtful authority, indeed, but the temper of Louis XV. renders the fact probable that Madame du Barry ordered D’Aiguillon to go and thank the king for the foreign ministry, though it had never been given to him; and that, with his usual apathy, Louis XV. submitted to the will of his mistress, and allowed D’Aiguillon to enter on the duties of the office she had thus bestowed on him of her own authority.
The political power of Madame du Barry led to what had been the constant aim of monarchy since Louis XIV., the suppression of the parliaments. This coup d’etat, the work of a capricious favourite and of her lover,—for it was D’Aiguillon, who, whilst governor of Brittany, had rendered himself so notorious in the affairs of La Chalotais,— did not produce a very deep or real effect on the philosophic power of society. The parliaments represented Jansenism: there was no real sympathy between them and the philosophers ; who looked upon them as an old and worn-out form of opposition, and whose aim was far more bold and destructive. The influence of Madame Du Barry was extremely slight. On society at large she had no power: nor, indeed lid she seek to exercise any. Her own conversation was free from wit or delicacy: it was bold, and even licentious.
At court, Madame du Barry exercised, however, some power. The opposition, which had been raised as long as Choiseul was in authority, ceased when the power of the royal favourite was fully consolidated. The most noble names in the land were, ultimately, inscribed at the door of Madame du Barry, as they had formerly been inscribed on the column of Chanteloup. It was on these persons that the freedom of speech of Madame du Barry — a freedom in which the king evidently took pleasure—reacted. In order to win a few favours, and pay their court to the monarch, Richelieu and other old courtiers entered, as they said themselves, on the ways of perdition, and relinquished that elegant phraseology, for which they had been remarkable so long, in order to adopt the language which Madame du Barry had picked up among abandoned women and chevaliers d’industrie, the companions of her youth.
DEATH OF LOUIS XV.
Though the necessity of her position had made Madame du Barry enter into the views of the devout party since she opposed the philosophic supporters of Choiseul, whom they naturally disliked — there existed no real sympathy between her and the religious portion of the nation. Never, perhaps, was there so uncompromising a reproof administered, as that which Louis XV. received, in the presence of his favourite and of the whole court, from the Bishop of Senez; who, when preaching before him, reproached him with the numerous errors of his life, and with that last scandal of all, the favour of Madame du Barry, in terms which might well have made the monarch blush with shame, if shame had not long since ceased to colour that withered cheek.*
Notwithstanding the audacity of his reproofs, or perhaps on that very account, the same Bishop of Senez was called upon to preach before the king during the Lent of the year 1774. He chose for one of his texts the words of the Prophet: “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!“ and when the forty days were past, Louis XV. was lying dead in the royal abbey of Saint-Denis.
* “Qu’il avait été ramasser dans le ruisseau les vestes de la corruption publique,” was the expression used by the Bishop of Senez.
A sudden attack of the smallpox carried off the guilty king in the sixty-fourth year of his age. As long as there seemed any chance of his recovery, the death-bed of the sick monarch witnessed a struggle as disgraceful as that of Metz. The set of devotees, who had submitted to the degrading protection of Madame du Barry, delayed, as long as decency would allow, the religious rites which must necessarily have caused her removal from court; whilst, on the contrary, the atheistical and philosophic friends of the ex-minister Choiseul, sought by their intrigues to terrify the dying king, and hasten the ceremony that was to ruin Madame du Barry. Religious terror at length prevailed once more over the mind of Louis XV.
He ordered D’Aiguillon to take away Madame du Barry; and, after a tender and final adieu to his mistress, he delivered himself over to his confessor. As it was not yet quite certain whether the king would recover or not, several persons of the court thought fit to call on Madame du Barry in her retirement; and, in consequence of this were, for several years afterwards, looked upon with disfavour under the reign of Louis XVI.
When doubt no longer existed with regard to the approaching death of the king, the event was expected with general apathy. Prayers were offered up for him by the clergy in the churches; but few of his subjects joined in these petitions. The poissardes kept their vow: Louis XV. had neither a “pater” nor an “ave” from them. With the exception of the partisans of Madame du Barry, none of the courtiers cared to conceal their entire indiiference on the subject of the life or death of their sovereign. The neglected daughters of Louis XV. alone had sufficient courage and devotedness to attend on their father; whose loathsome disease, aggravated by a dissolute life, filled all who approached him with horror.
On the 10th of May, 1774, the whole court was hourly expecting, in the “oeil de boeuf” of the palace of Versailles, the dissolution of the king. The dauphin, and the rest of the royal family, were to leave the palace as soon as Louis XV. should have breathed his last. Everything was in readiness, and one of the few attendants who lingered in the chamber of the dying monarch had placed a lighted taper behind one of the windows, to act as a signal. It was known beforehand, that when that feeble light vanished, Louis XV. would have ceased to exist.
The taper was extinguished. The dauphin was then with his young wife in a remote part of the palace. A sound, like that of loud thunder, was heard: it was the rush of innumerable courtiers, eagerly pressing forward to do homage to the new king. Louis XVI. and Marie Antoinette trembled and turned pale. An instinctive and irresistible impulse made them both fall down on their knees: a feeling of dread seemed to usher in for them their most inauspicious reign. With heads humbly bowed, clasped hands, and gushing tears, they exclaimed, in a faltering tone, “Guide us, oh Grod! Protect us! we are called to reign too young.”
How often, yet, whilst reading the history of that fatal reign, will human wisdom ask, Oh, why did not Heaven hear that prayer?
The Countess of Noailles entered the apartment, and was the first to salute the new sovereigns. All the grand officers of the crown followed in succession. When this duty was over, Marie Antoinette, leaning on her husband’s arm, entered the carriage in waiting, and rode off with the rest of the royal suite. As soon as it was known that the young king and queen were gone, the courtiers deserted the royal palace. Every one now dreaded to stay any longer near the deceased monarch, whose decaying remains exhaled a contagion as foul as the foul corruption of his reign.
A few attendants watched by the corpse, which was placed in a coffin without being embalmed, and conveyed as speedily and privately as possible to Saint-Denis. There it rested; until the people, maddened with hatred, caused by ages of misery, rose in their wrath, and, after immolating the living, spent the last efforts of their vengeance on the senseless dead.
Source: Woman in France during the eighteenth century by Julia Kavanagh. Publisher. Lea and Blanchard. Philadelphia 1850.