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A sumptuous new biography of one of the most famous dangerous liaisons
When Jeanne Antoinette Poisson was a child, a fortune-teller predicted that she would one day be the mistress of a king. Born into the financial bourgeoisie that was a world apart from the royal court, the beautiful Jeanne Antoinette nonetheless fulfilled this prophecy by becoming Madame de Pompadour, the most famous and influential mistress of Louis XV. In this sumptuous biography, Evelyne Lever traces the ...
A sumptuous new biography of one of the most famous dangerous liaisons
When Jeanne Antoinette Poisson was a child, a fortune-teller predicted that she would one day be the mistress of a king. Born into the financial bourgeoisie that was a world apart from the royal court, the beautiful Jeanne Antoinette nonetheless fulfilled this prophecy by becoming Madame de Pompadour, the most famous and influential mistress of Louis XV. In this sumptuous biography, Evelyne Lever traces the enduring friendship between the monarch and his favorite, and the far-reaching implications-both personal and political-of their relationship.
Pompadour was devoted to Louis XV, and her contribution to the culture of the age was significant: she was an outstanding singer and actress, entertaining the King and the court in impressive stage productions, and was a longtime patron of the visual arts. She commissioned paintings by Boucher, Nattier, Van Loo, La Tour, and Pigalle, and she formed friendships with many of the philosophers and writers of the period, including Fontenelle, Crébillon, and Voltaire. In effect, she was France's minister of culture at a time when no such position existed. But she was loathed for her role in France's disastrous military losses, and was the victim of persistent court gossip and intrigues.
This vibrant biography sheds new light on the talented and resilient woman who influenced, for better and worse, the fate of a nation.
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The Court is in turmoil and Louis XV is in despair. In her mansion in Paris, on the rue du Bac, Madame de Châteauroux is dying. Ever since his mistress's condition has become critical, the King has avoided appearing in public. Confined to his private apartments in Versailles, he anxiously awaits every bit of news. The Duc d'Ayen, the Duc de Luxembourg and the Marquis de Gontaut take turns giving him the latest health bulletins; the banker Pâris de Montmartel sends him four messengers a day from the patient's antechamber where he is keeping watch. Unfortunately, the messages are more and more alarming and the masses celebrated on the sovereign's orders fail to bring mercy from Above. On December 7, 1744, while Madame de Châteauroux receives the last sacraments, the King quietly leaves Versailles for the Château de La Muette, at the edge of the Bois de Boulogne. It is there, the following day, that he receives the dreaded news. He had asked to be disturbed only in an extreme emergency, and only a few intimate friends had been given the order to join him.
The King has been obsessed with death since childhood. Indeed, death had carried away all the males in the royal family prematurely and made him, a fragile two-year-old prince, the successor to the most illustrious of monarchs. In 1715, when his great-grandfather, the Sun King, died, he ascended to the throne under the name of Louis XV. He was only five years old, but the anxious solicitude with which he was surrounded soon made him aware of both his omnipotence and vulnerability. At the slightest cold, people worried that his life might be in danger, and he was brought up in fear of the devil and hell. He thus became accustomed to the idea of his own death at a very early age and liked to allude to it, perhaps the better to ward it off. He would often talk about death, the dying and the punishments of the afterlife. One day, when the Duc de Luynes advised him to banish such images from his mind, he replied: "Why should I? Isn't that moment bound to come?"
The sudden passing away of Madame de Châteauroux rekindled past sorrows in this intensely melancholic man. He could not fail to be reminded of the loss of Madame de Vintimille, his previous mistress, who died in childbirth on September 9, 1741. Devastated by that blow, he had refused to see anyone for an entire day, and had taken refuge at Saint-Léger, in the home of the Comtesse de Toulouse, his confidante. Now he remained listless and despondent in his La Muette retreat; he barely ate and found comfort only in the company of four or five people who had been close to Madame de Châteauroux. The days went by, weighed down with grief. However, eventually he had no choice but to end this isolation and return to Versailles. Grown pale and thin, on December 14, the sovereign took up residence, not at the château, but at Trianon, as a way of guarding against his inevitable obligations.
Still "very preoccupied by his grief," he rose at ten or ten-thirty, heard mass, and presided over the Council or conversed with his ministers until two o'clock. He then lunched with the close friends who were always by his side since Madame de Châteauroux's death. After the meal, which he ate without any appetite, they indulged in a few languid quadrilles until the King went out for a walk in the grounds adjoining his apartment. He returned at around six and worked until supper, at nine, with the same guests with whom he had had lunch. They talked until two in the morning. Social intercourse required much tact, as the latest news was far from cheerful: Madame de Ventadour, who had been like a mother for the sovereign, had also just died. She was ninety-two and the King had always shown her a great deal of affection.
It wasn't until Christmas that Louis XV agreed to return to his apartments in the château. He seemed disconsolate, and the new year began as sadly as the one that had ended. In deference to their master's grief, the courtiers were elegantly bored when at Versailles, but in Paris they enjoyed themselves. Besides, the favorite's death had set tongues wagging. At first, the suddenness and violence of her illness had spread fear. As always, when there was a sudden, unexplained death, everyone spoke of poison. Some people truly believed this; others were doubtful; however, no tears were spilled over Madame de Châteauroux, for she had not been very much liked. At Court the dead are always at fault and quickly forgotten. They leave behind a position to be filled. And the position of official mistress is the most coveted of all. Being loved by the King is the greatest conceivable honor; and this particular monarch, in the full splendor of his thirty-fifth year, is considered the handsomest man in his kingdom. Adored by his subjects, who have nicknamed him the Bien-Aimé (Much Loved), he stirred many hearts, and wakened the wildest ambitions. The beloved of this king would not only gain glory and pleasure from her elevation, but she would also secure many advantages for herself, her family and her inevitable protégés: nominations to the most enviable positions, pensions and bonuses of various kinds. Her power might reach even further: she might hold sway over the King's mind and influence major decisions. Since the rise of a favorite brought all her relatives in tow, all the Court clans were on the alert. They each had their candidate, for the conquest of the King was impossible to achieve without a powerful lobby-a well-organized cabal, based on an alliance of noble families united in the defense of their interests.
Louis XV was not at all like Louis XIV. He did not choose his mistresses. He waited to be seduced and showed more shyness and distrust of the fair sex than might be expected. Cardinal Fleury, his tutor and later his Prime Minister, had warned him against the dangerous temptresses who lead men-particularly kings-into sin. A sensible adolescent, obedient to Fleury's wishes, he was married at fifteen to ensure the dynasty's posterity. In the beginning, he was a faithful husband to the devout Marie Leczinska. This modest Polish princess, his elder by seven years, was undivided in her love for him. She idolized him and spoke to him in a humble, submissive voice. Almost always pregnant, she gave him two sons, though only one survived-the Dauphin, Louis-Ferdinand-and eight daughters, six of whom reached adulthood. However, after several years of a somewhat dull conjugal life, the King wanted to experience other pleasures. Worn out by her successive pregnancies, his wife gave herself to him only reluctantly. She even reproached him for smelling of champagne when he joined her in her bed, where she lay buried under a heap of eiderdown quilts.
Bachelier and Le Bel, the King's loyal valets, secretly brought him a few casual mistresses whose caresses he could enjoy without any commitments. But these dalliances no longer satisfied him. He was bored. His merry late-night supper companions urged him to take a favorite. The virtuous Cardinal Fleury had to accept reality. But to be certain that the sovereign (or his friends) did not choose an ambitious woman who might exert too much influence, he took it upon himself personally to find a woman he found suitable. It was he who asked Bachelier and Le Bel to go along with the scheme of putting Madame de Mailly in the King's bed. Gentle and reserved, she was not beautiful, but she was extremely elegant and knew how to exploit the advantages nature had given her. Above all, she loved the King passionately and ambition played no part in her love. She never asked him for anything, either for herself or anyone else. Their affair, which was kept secret for three years, became official in 1737 after the Queen had turned the King down and he had completely given up asking her "to do her duty."
Uninterested in intrigues, Madame de Mailly was enthralled by the sovereign, who lavished affection on her in spite of being assailed every once in a while by religious scruples. Louis XV seemed happy and Fleury was satisfied with a plan that did not hinder the course of government. He would soon be disillusioned. Madame de Mailly was the daughter of the Marquis de Nesle and she had several sisters who did not resemble her in the least. In all innocence, she gave in to the entreaties of her younger sister, Mademoiselle de Nesle, who was still in the convent. She arranged to have her come to Versailles, unaware that this proud and brazen young woman had made plans to replace her with the King, get rid of the Cardinal-Minister, and reign in the shadow of the monarch. Ambitious and intelligent, she seduced Louis XV with her biting repartees. He enjoyed himself with her. Though she was far from beautiful, he fell in love with her and made her his mistress, without ceasing to honor her older sister. When Mademoiselle de Nesle became pregnant by him, he immediately married her off to the accommodating Marquis de Vintimille. The romance had been short-lived, and the King returned to Madame de Mailly; he moved her into a secret apartment above his own and their liaison continued-but not as happily as before. Madame de Mailly was no longer able to enliven the informal suppers in the private apartment. She wept often, and so did the King. When he shared her bed, he would sometimes get up in the middle of the night to recite an act of contrition. Then he would get back into bed with her-a mistress decked out like a shrine, for she never slept without her jewels. As always, Versailles sensed the master's mood and, foreseeing the imminent end of the affair, the courtiers schemed to find a new favorite for the sovereign. "Who will hold sway over the King's mind? In whose arms will he fall? For he must fall somewhere. I don't know and this worries me," wondered the Duc de Richelieu. This great libertine nobleman, born in 1696, was the King's irreplaceable companion in pleasure. But he was not content just being the King's minister of love. He expected a lot more from the sovereign, whose weaknesses he intuitively understood. His dream was quite simply to succeed Fleury, who was going on ninety.
In September 1742, the arrival of Madame de Mailly's three other sisters revived the hopes of a restless and bored Court. Louis XV was immediately struck by the beauty of the two youngest sisters, Madame de Flavacourt and Madame de La Tournelle. But to his great surprise, neither one ventured to make overtures to him. Madame de Flavacourt had no intention of being unfaithful to a jealous husband, whereas Madame de La Tournelle, recently widowed and hence free from all marital ties, was known to be very much in love with the Duc d'Agenois. She had just been made a lady-in-waiting by the Queen and aspired to no other favor. Though he did not declare his love, the King had eyes only for her.
To satisfy his own ambitions, Richelieu had to place a woman who was devoted to him by the King's side. The ambitious and intelligent Madame de La Tournelle, who was his relative, had, he felt, all the qualities of the ideal favorite. Hence he decided to take the matter in hand. He had to convince the King to be more forward with the young woman and put an end to her affair with the Duc d'Agenois. Louis XV followed his mentor's advice and sent the attractive young man to Languedoc. The Court was all eyes and ears for several days. Richelieu could frequently be seen leaving the King's quarters and going straight to Madame de La Tournelle and later to Madame de Mailly. Anticipating the fate that awaited her, the unhappy favorite wept all the time. Exasperated by her tears, the King was blunt with her: "I promised to speak plainly with you. I'm madly in love with Madame de La Tournelle; I haven't had her yet, but I will." However, the coquette had to be coaxed. In his impatience, Richelieu spoke firmly to the King: "Given how beautiful she is, she must be conquered. Your generals will not conquer her for you. She will not be conquered unless you conquer her yourself. Your rivals have advantages, but the greatest advantages in love are being young and handsome like Your Majesty and especially being outgoing. François I, Henri IV, Louis XIV went to a lot of trouble to be loved. This should be easier for Your Majesty than for anyone else. A mistress is not a portfolio and while your ministers can bring their portfolio to your Council, I doubt they can put Madame de La Tournelle into your arms. You must make yourself attractive to her and start by telling her you are in love." The King listened to his master in libertinage, who then arranged secret meetings for him, in disguise, with the woman he coveted. Madame de La Tournelle held out for a long time and set down her conditions. Following the example of Madame de Montespan, she wanted to be the King's "maîtresse déclarée" (official mistress) and insisted that he hold court in her quarters. Moreover, she demanded that the unfortunate Mailly be sent away from Versailles permanently. Louis XV gave in to all her demands and, in early December 1742, he could enjoy his new lover's prerogatives. Richelieu was triumphant. As Madame de La Tournelle did not love the King and he seemed very taken with her, her influence might be all the greater.
Louis XV's passion did not cool. In October 1743, Madame de La Tournelle received the duchy-peerage of Châteauroux, with an annual revenue of 86,000 livres. The new Duchesse was as witty as she was beautiful and gaiety returned to Versailles. The King's sadness had vanished as if by magic, and he yielded to the delights of his new love affair. His mistress presided over the suppers in the private apartment with elegance. A free and gallant circle of intimates had formed around the monarch and his favorite that included the Princesse de Conti, Mademoiselle de Charolais, Mademoiselle de La Roche-sur-Yon, Madame d'Antin and several noblemen with loose morals, led by Richelieu. "Head of the fashionable set," he still hoped to play a major role in government, even though the King had not given him Fleury's position when the latter died on January 29, 1743. His disappointment had not been too bitter, as Louis XV had decided to do without a Prime Minister and govern on his own. Richelieu consoled himself with the position of First Gentleman of the Bedchamber, which put him in charge of organizing all the Court festivities and spectacles.
When she became a duchess, Madame de Châteauroux adopted superior airs that made her insufferable, particularly to the Queen. She liked splendor and sought jewels and clothes that would make her more glamorous. The King, who gave in to all her whims, called her "Princesse." The only fly in the ointment was that she had to put up with her royal lover's weakness for one of her sisters, the stout Madame de Lauraguais who seemed not to have anything particularly seductive about her.
Excerpted from Madame de Pompadour by Evelyne Lever Copyright © 2003 by Evelyne Lever. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted March 10, 2006
This book happens to be very historical in its reference, and before you buy it you should know that the above description for the book is not accurate to its main characters. This book is about Jeanne-Antoinette (and her dedication to Louis XV), not Marie. But it is very nice, and it is a fitted part of my collection.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.