Against Marriage: The Correspondence of La Grande Mademoiselle

Against Marriage: The Correspondence of La Grande Mademoiselle

by Anne-Marie-Louise d'Orléans, Duchesse de Montpensier

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In seventeenth-century France, aristocratic women were valued by their families as commodities to be married off in exchange for money, social advantage, or military alliance. Once married, they became legally subservient to their husbands. The duchesse de Montpensier—a first cousin of Louis XIV—was one of very few exceptions, thanks to the vast wealth she


In seventeenth-century France, aristocratic women were valued by their families as commodities to be married off in exchange for money, social advantage, or military alliance. Once married, they became legally subservient to their husbands. The duchesse de Montpensier—a first cousin of Louis XIV—was one of very few exceptions, thanks to the vast wealth she inherited from her mother, who died shortly after Montpensier was born. She was also one of the few politically powerful women in France at the time to have been an accomplished writer.

In the daring letters presented in this bilingual edition, Montpensier condemns the alliance system of marriage, proposing instead to found a republic that she would govern, "a corner of the world in which . . . women are their own mistresses," and where marriage and even courtship would be outlawed. Her pastoral utopia would provide medical care and vocational training for the poor, and all the homes would have libraries and studies, so that each woman would have a "room of her own" in which to write books.

Joan DeJean's lively introduction and accessible translation of Montpensier's letters—four previously unpublished—allow us unprecedented access to the courageous voice of this extraordinary woman.

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Other Voice in Early Modern Europe
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The Correspondence of La Grande Mademoiselle

Copyright © 2002 The University of Chicago
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ISBN: 978-0-226-53490-9


In this world, although one can distinguish what is permanent from what is only a passing breeze, one should nonetheless heed the breeze, for sometimes it is more prudent to do so than to neglect it. -Anne-Marie-Louise d'Orléans, duchesse de Montpensier, Mémoires


In seventeenth-century France, these three rules were ironclad:

1. The life of any individual important enough to be received by the king was centered around court activities.

2. A woman who had the family connections and the financial assets necessary to enable her parents to negotiate a marriage on her behalf was obliged to accept their proposition-no matter how unappealing she found the man who had been selected for her.

3. Once married, the woman's life became, in legal terms, completely subservient to that of her husband. If she had any intellectual or artistic aspirations, she forgot them: a truly remarkable number of women writers were publishing in seventeenth-century France; not one of them managed to do so while maintaining a traditional marriage.

To break even one of these unwritten rules of conduct was already bold. To break all of them was quite simply unthinkable. And yet that was exactly the plan of action advised by the correspondence published for the first time in its entirety in this volume.

In early modern Europe, the marriage of an aristocratic woman was always a thoroughly political matter: it was understood by all concerned that she was first and foremost a commodity. She belonged to her family, whose role it was to negotiate the exchange of her hand for whatever it needed most-money, social advancement, a military alliance. The higher her rank, the higher the stakes of these negotiations. And when great wealth and extensive property were added to the equation, such a marriage became truly an affair of state.

In seventeenth-century France, at the moment when the Bourbon monarchy was moving ever closer to absolutism, Anne-Marie-Louise d'Orléans, duchesse de Montpensier, was without rival as a marital commodity. To begin with, her lineage was the most noble of any contemporary French princess: she was the granddaughter of Henri IV and the daughter of Gaston d'Orléans, the brother of Louis XIII. In addition, she was by far the richest woman in France, wealthier than almost any French prince, and indeed she was probably the wealthiest woman in all Europe. It is impossible, therefore, to overestimate her value to the French state.

That value, however, was not negotiable in the usual way, for Montpensier was, to an extent otherwise unheard of in her day, a free agent in the marital system. Almost all of her inheritance had come to her directly from her mother, Marie de Bourbon, duchesse de Montpensier-sole heiress to several fortunes amassed by the Montpensier family in the sixteenth century-who died within days of the birth of her only child. Montpensier was therefore thoroughly her own mistress, able to decide completely independently what would become of her person and her estates. True, her younger first cousin, Louis XIV, proposed, as kings traditionally did for all royal princesses, marriages that would have exchanged her hand for alliances strategic to the French state. In her case alone, however, he was unable to force her to accept any of his propositions. Montpensier was mindful of family concerns-what she calls in this correspondence her "first duties" (see p. 61)-but she refused to let her fate be dictated by them.

It is to Montpensier's control over her inheritance that we owe the correspondence published here, the only extended reflection on what the alliance system meant for the women who were the principal pawns in its game. That control made it possible for her to take a more personal view of royal unions: to meditate on the institution of marriage, its disadvantages as well as its advantages for women, and, most importantly, to consider how women might spend their lives if they did the unthinkable and decided not to marry. The following correspondence is the result of that meditation. Very much an "other" voice, it is a unique example from the early modern period of a wealthy, independent woman's dreams of how she might improve her existence and that of other women if she were to refuse to allow herself to be exchanged as a marital commodity. It can be thought of as a feminist counterpart to Thomas More's celebrated political essay Utopia (1516): Montpensier imagines the ideal government as one under female control and the ideal state as one perfectly responsive to women's concerns.


On the scene of seventeenth-century France, the woman referred to by her contemporaries most often simply as Mademoiselle or La Grande Mademoiselle was truly a figure who was larger-than-life. Beginning with her birth at the Louvre, on May 29, 1627, her entire existence was played out as public spectacle. Virtually from the start, the foremost question on her contemporaries' minds was the choice of her future husband. Debate on this issue was especially intense upon the birth of the future Louis XIV in 1638: his mother, Anne of Austria, apparently suggested that the two cousins might one day marry. Commentators usually dismiss this possibility as little more than a joke. The fact remains, however, that it continued to be repeated, virtually until 1660 and the king's marriage, the event that initiated the correspondence edited here.

Beginning in 1644 when Montpensier was seventeen and Philip IV of Spain became a widower, other candidates began to appear on the scene, such as the Holy Roman Emperor, Ferdinand III, who was also widowed at about this time. No possible alliance was more seriously or more often proposed than that with Charles Stuart, future King Charles II of England, who joined his mother Henrietta Maria in her exile in France in 1646. All the proposed alliances failed to materialize for a variety of reasons: the emperor, for example, settled on another choice. Nevertheless, beginning with the possibility of a Stuart alliance, it becomes evident that the politics of marriage were shaping the young duchess's character. With Charles Stuart, we have the first example of a phenomenon recurrent during the next years of Montpensier's life: the match did not come off because she herself was against it. She quickly understood the attraction of her immense wealth for an impoverished exile dreaming of recapturing the English throne. She just as quickly concluded that the cost of that dream might prove prohibitive, that the carefully accumulated Montpensier assets could well be decimated in the process. In this way, the notion of personally taking control over her fate first became a reality for Montpensier.

Then, as of late 1648, another type of history came to dominate French political life so thoroughly that would-be alliances were suddenly sidelined. From the beginning, Montpensier was an eyewitness to the unfolding of the Fronde, the civil war that polarized French society until 1653. The Fronde was an unusually complicated uprising, during which various factions, all of which were allegedly united in their opposition-if not always specifically to the Crown, at least to royal authority in the person of the king's representative, Prime Minister Mazarin-sometimes reinforced but more often undermined one another's efforts. Certainly, the different factions never managed to work together in the way that would have been necessary for their cause to be successful. Any civil war profoundly destabilizes a society, making many things impossible, but at the same time making possible things that would never otherwise have taken place. Among the least expected consequences of the Fronde was surely the fact that during those tumultuous years, women from the highest ranks of the nobility participated in military actions to a degree unheard of in France before or since.

Among them, three duchesses-the duchesse de Chevreuse, the duchesse de Longueville, and the duchesse de Montpensier-were by far the most visible: all three rode at the head of armies and played key strategic roles. Their military daring was so striking that their contemporaries referred to them as Amazons, as though they were the legendary women warriors come to life. Thus, Montpensier managed to enter the city of Orléans by battering down the only gate no one had thought to fortify and thereby won that city over to the rebel cause. Later, in an exploit that quickly became the stuff of legend, in July 1652 she gave the rebels, known as frondeurs, their final victory. The battle was raging throughout the streets of Paris between the vastly outnumbered opposition forces, led by their finest general, the prince de Condé, and the royal army, under the command of their leading general, Turenne. Louis XIV and Mazarin were watching from high ground just outside Paris, awaiting the seemingly inevitable massacre-when Montpensier issued orders to turn the cannon of the Bastille, which normally faced inward on the city, against the royal forces. Condé and the rebels were saved. And, as if to make certain that her first cousin the king would know who was responsible for his defeat, Montpensier-in this case, every inch the "grande" Mademoiselle-dominated the scene from the towers of the Bastille: she even added a large hat and long plumes to make her already notable stature more impressive still and guaranteed that she would be visible from a great distance.

We do not know exactly how the great frondeuses dressed when they led troops into battle. (When they were traveling incognito, fleeing the enemy, they often wore men's clothing.) Near the time of the Fronde and even much later in life, when Montpensier sat for portraits, she had herself represented in a quite dazzling mix of attire. Witness, for example, the portrait, clearly from her frondeuse period, by Charles and Henri Beaubrun (fig. 1). On the one hand, she cuts a stylish, even a glamorous figure, as if ready to take part in court festivities: she wears sweeping, diaphanous garments, an elaborately plumed hat, and magnificent, luminous pearls. On the other, she is also prepared for battle, since she carries both a shield and a lance and, artfully camouflaged by the swirls of lush fabric, she wears a breastplate (although it is hard to imagine how a breastplate so low-slung could have done much good!).

As he stood at the king's side during Montpensier's ultimate rebellion, the episode at the Bastille, Mazarin is reported to have remarked that when she redirected the cannon, she "killed" her husband-that is, any chance that might have remained for that much-discussed marriage with Louis XIV. In fact, she had killed her chances for much more than that. By October Louis was once again firmly in control of his capital. Among his first initiatives upon regaining power, the king ordered all the rebel leaders into exile: thus it was that Montpensier found herself forcibly removed from the court, from public life, and from a chance at any alliance sponsored by the king. She would only be allowed to return to court in 1657, by which point-in a period in which aristocratic women generally married before they turned twenty, and often much sooner-at age thirty, she had become a decidedly less attractive commodity.

Montpensier chose as the site of her exile one of her properties she had never before laid eyes on, the château at Saint-Fargeau. The years she spent in compulsory isolation from the place those of her rank considered the center of the universe were hardly wasted: she developed new interests, architecture in particular, when she had the dilapidated château remodeled to her specifications. She surrounded herself with a true miniature court: she had the latest plays staged for her followers; she organized all the activities typical of contemporary court life-from dancing to hunting. Most important of all, by the time her exile had ended, she had discovered a literary talent, one she might never have explored had she continued to live in the midst of all-consuming court intrigue. Montpensier even had a printing press set up in her château, and she was thus able to publish her early efforts herself.

Among those Montpensier frequented during her exile were two of the leading scholars of her century: Pierre-Daniel Huet and Jean Regnault de Segrais. By serving as intellectual mentors and collaborators to Madeleine de Scudéry and Marie-Madeleine Pioche de La Vergne, comtesse de Lafayette, the seventeenth century's most influential novelists, these two men-truly among the unsung heroes of the early modern tradition of French women's writing-played a decisive role in the development of prose fiction in France. Almost without exception-and Montpensier was most emphatically not one of those rare exceptions-women of her day had no formal education to speak of. Those women who became writers found either a male relative who oversaw their education or, when they were already adults, a scholar willing to help them make up for lost time. Without the collaboration of men such as Huet and Segrais, the most influential women writers of early modern France would never have been able to gain the familiarity with literary tradition that any author needs to acquire in order to produce his or her own fiction. In Montpensier's case, scholars encouraged her to read widely, to learn Italian (above all, in order to read Tasso in the original), and to begin to take her own writing seriously. Segrais in particular-who was a central member of Montpensier's court in exile-worked with her so closely during her authorial apprenticeship that today's specialists of French literature are still debating, on the one hand, the extent of Montpensier's participation in Les Nouvelles françaises (1657), an influential collection of short stories generally attributed to Segrais alone, and, on the other, of Segrais's collaboration on Montpensier's Mémoires.

The question of who wrote exactly how much of each work is clearly unanswerable today. The fact remains that it was during her exile that Montpensier began the experiments with prose fiction that would continue to occupy her until the 1670s. More important still is the fact that it was at Saint-Fargeau that she began the composition of her major authorial achievement, the manuscript of the memoirs of her life on which she worked, off and on, virtually until her death in 1693.

By the end of her four years of political exile, Montpensier had become the woman we find in her correspondence with Françoise Bertaut de Motteville: someone who had thought a great deal about whether it was essential to live at her society's political and cultural nerve center, someone who had come to understand that it was important to her own sense of self not only to witness the unfolding of history, but also to bear witness to this process in writing. Thus, her memoirs-a canny blend of the narration of key events, the Fronde in particular, and personal reaction to those events-open with a detailed account of the process that had led her to shift her energies from the battlefield to the writing table:

In the past, I had great difficulty imagining how anyone who was used to the court and born into the rank I was given at birth could occupy her mind, if she were reduced to living in the country: it had always seemed to me that nothing could take one's mind off things when one had been forced to leave [the court] and that, for great nobles, to find oneself outside the court meant to be completely alone.... However, since I have retired to my estate, I have been very happy to realize that ... this time spent in seclusion is far from the least agreeable period of my life.... One finds there the leisure one needs to put things into writing. (C. 1:1-2, P. 40:367, B. 1:21)


Excerpted from AGAINST MARRIAGE Copyright © 2002 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Joan DeJean is a Trustee Professor of French at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the author of a number of books, most recently Ancients against Moderns: Culture Wars and the Making of a Fin de Siècle and The Reinvention of Obscenity: Sex, Lies, and Tabloids in Early Modern France, both published by the University of Chicago Press.

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