Madame de Pompadour

The other day, I picked up one of the recent biographies of Jeanne-Antoinette d'Etioles, née Poisson (1721-1764), a woman known to history by the title with which she was invested when Louis XV chose her as the first maîitresse déclarée in French royal history to come from the third estate. Because a commoner could not be presented at court - even nobility wasn't enough, if you couldn't trace your title back to 1400 - the lawyers were set to work, and they eventually hit on the defunct marquisate of Pompadour. A couple of old ladies belonging to this family were still living, but no men, so the title was transferred to the twenty-two year-old fascinator. Dressed in a black robe de cour, the new marquise was presented to the King (already her lover) and the Queen (the pious but not altogether unworldly Maria Leszinska, daughter of a Polish King-for-a-Day) by the princesse de Conti, a dame of the bluest blood. Mme la Princesse was persuaded to participate in what many courtiers regarded as a disgrace by the payment of her considerable gambling debts. Forget whatever you've read about who really ran the ancien régime; money was king at Versailles.

Christine Pevitt Algrant, author of Madame de Pompadour: Mistress of France (Grove, 2002), writes for what one of the blurbs calls 'an intelligent popular readership.' The word 'popular' is what distinguishes this book from Nancy Mitford's insiderish consideration of Mme de Pompadour's career. There is none of Mitford's fine malice, and Ms Algrant does not appear, as Mitford so often does in the pages of her book, to identify with her subject. If you know little or nothing about French high life in the eighteenth century, Ms Algrant's is the book to begin with. Reading aloud to Kathleen last night, while she knitted, I found that I had to put down the new book and read from Mitford instead. Horrified by the ceremonies - daily, protracted, and quite meaningless - surrounding the King's Levers and Couchers, Kathleen couldn't say often enough how glad she was that life had spared her the ordeals of Louis XV's courtiers.

But then Kathleen doesn't wear very high heels, either. Stylish in her own way, she is quite immune to glamour, that elixir compounded of beauty, money, and power that motivates so many of our fellow islanders. The intoxication of glamour is an anesthetic for discomfort, and without that intoxication, all you have is very sore feet. In this regard, the mysteries of court ceremonial at Versailles are not so very hard to unpack. Built as a cage for the fighting aristocracy, Versailles created an addiction to royal handouts among France's historical troublemakers. Having taken care of insurrection-prone princes, however, the three Bourbons who ruled from Versailles failed to note the growth of other sources of trouble, and the crisis of 1789 took Versailles completely by surprise. And ever since the downfall of the old monarchy, Mme de Pompadour's name has been a byword for everything corrupt and decadent at the great old palace.

Ms Algrant's straightforward narrative never develops the political outlook that I think ought to distinguish a biography of her remarkable subject; her account of Mme de Pompadour's political activity rarely amounts to more than mere intrigue. (Louis XV himself loved intrigue, and had a secret diplomatic service that often, as if only for his perverse amusement, worked at diametrical odds to government positions.) The marquise lived in an era of prodigious political writing, and corresponded with many of the leading thinkers, especially Voltaire. While she could not have been expected to discuss political theory with what we would call academic rigor, she certainly understood how the French state operated (or didn’t), and she perceived the obstacles that self-interest, particularly among the lesser nobility, threw in the government’s way. A trained actress, she was a magnificent negotiator, never overplaying her hand but often managing to tempt her rivals into doing so. She knew that everybody looked down on her background – it was typical of the time that Parisian populists could denounce the king for taking a common mistress – and she braved an incessant hailstorm of condescension. That she loved Louis can’t be doubted, but what’s overlooked is that he incarnated a love of France itself. Mme de Pompadour was in love with the king.

This is Nancy Mitford's great subject. Republished, after the success of The Sun King, in 1968, in a handsomely illustrated edition (and now recently reissued in its original format by NYRB Books) , Mitford's 1954 Madame de Pompadour is, like her other two 'royal' books (Frederick the Great is the third), sui generis. It's not history at all, but rather a kind of displaced memoir, written as if, going through a grandmother's letters and diaries, Mitford were attempting to recreate the look and feel of a vanished life. Sparkling anecdotes dot almost every page, with plenty of dazzling psychological insight. But Mitford could hardly be bothered to describe how anything actually worked. Her books are indispensable once you’ve got the basic history under your belt, because they do more to bring the past alive than any books I know, including historical novels. But they’re flawed by a profound irresponsibility. Mitford is as arrogant in her way as Pompadour was, and just as determined to avoid tedium. Her Versailles is ‘a felicitous combination of palace and country home.’ That it is also the situs of a powerful government doesn’t much interest her.

Your opinion of Mme de Pompadour's morals will almost certainly be determined by how you feel about her complicity in the arrangement and operation of the Parc aux Cerfs, a modest house in the town of Versailles, where alleged virgins were brought to satisfy the king's carnal cravings. Before taking possession of a girl, Louis and his 'date' would kneel in prayer, thanking God that both were free of venereal disease. The bordello was run very discreetly, but although all the world knew of it, the ecclesiastical authorities remained unpersuaded that the marquise and the king had transcended sexual attachment. Not very interested in sex, by her own admission, Mme de Pompadour nearly killed herself with ineffective aphrodisiac diets and potions, but in the end - or rather, instead of the end - the king and the marquise became, simply, fast friends. Critics overlook this uncanny deviation from the norms governing such relations; the fact that Jeanne-Antoinette could hold onto the king's love and admiration - and a very great deal of royal power into the bargain - without having to 'put out' is at least as unprecedented as her exaltation from commonerhood. Louis XV was not the greatest of kings by a long shot, but he was intelligent, humorous, and almost obsessively decorous. It's thanks to his great friendship for Mme de Pompadour that the 'style Louis Quinze' remains perennially appealing, an elegant blend of light curves and formal clarity that has become the default style for embassies around the world.

Louis XV was an attractive man but a weak monarch, and in middle age he succumbed to a melancholy anomie – his motto might well have been ‘What’s the use?’ Attempts to reform taxation came to nothing, while pointless wars bankrupted the treasury and set the stage for the showdowns that would usher in the Revolution. Unlike his great-grandfather, moreover, Louis XV was shy and preferred small groups of familiar faces. It was bad enough that the monarchy had withdrawn from Paris to Versailles; now the monarch withdrew from the full court to the charm of his cabinets particuliers. He and Pompadour built ‘Hermitages’ – tiny pavilions – at each of the major palaces, and were always trying to escape to them. Devoting his days to the hunt (like all the Bourbons), Louis really can’t be said to have done his job as king. Although he did go through the paperwork, Louis was constitutionally averse to making decisions. By degrees, Pompadour took on the job of making up his mind for him, and in the process became a gatekeeper. She certainly had more influence than anyone else with the king. By and large, she appears to have been honest, patriotic, and reasonably sensible about appointments, but she can’t be excused of playing favorites. She arranged for the amateur Bernis to serve as prime minister, only to realize almost at once that he was in over his head; she was luckier with her next choice, the duc de Choiseul, a genuinely able man.

In an earlier version of this page, I wrote that she was 'trained by members of France's financial elite to become exactly what she became,' but this is not correct; she became something more than a conduit for the influence of tax farmers. It will be argued against her that she had no training for political authority that she wielded by virtue of the king's default, but this, I suspect, is simple sexism. I should like to know what kind of training the duc de Choiseul had had. In the hopelessly sclerotic system of Louis XV's Versailles, the government depended on the chance emergence of talented men from the crowd of courtly aristocrats, and this at a time when France's livelier minds preferred the more casual urbanity of Parisian salons. Mme de Pompadour had not been schooled in statecraft, but if she made a mess of French foreign policy and interfered with military appointments, it's unclear that anyone else at Versailles would have pursued a more intelligent course. It was hard, from Versailles, to see the world as it really was, and although she was a Parisienne to her fingertips, the marquise, imprisoned along with all the other courtiers at Louis XIV's theme park, necessarily lost touch with the social currents that made the Paris of her day the center of the Enlightenment. As the crow flies, Versailles is eighteen miles outside of town, but several galaxies separated it from the Paris of human society.

It was always Mme de Pompadour's ambition to be the source of glamour, or as close to the source as anyone not the king could be; she was a leader, not a follower. As discreet as the king, she was assiduously respectful of the Queen, and she generally resisted the temptation to flaunt her position. (Eventually made a duchess, she never used this title.) Like the king, she preferred intimate gatherings to glittering ceremonies, and in this she was in the van of fashion, for only in the middle of the eighteenth century did it become chic to retire to luxurious private quarters with a few congenial souls - the king was fond of making coffee himself - instead of vaunting one's magnificence as publicly and ostentatiously as possible, as the king's great-grandfather did tirelessly for over fifty years.

The friendship between king and commoner lasted for nearly twenty years, until, worn out from keeping the king's long hours, the marquise died at forty-two. A disastrous war into which France was sucked by its neighbors' ambitions had humiliated the nation, and Mme de Pompadour, who had sold most of her jewels, was one of the parties responsible for France's fighting on the wrong side. She had been unwise to carry the king off for so many private chats – he was no longer a popular king in 1764 – but she did it to hold his attention, and he can’t be excused from knowing better, either. She adored the attention of the powerful men who sought her patronage, and showed no inclination to take common people into account; a bourgeoise herself, she did not always rise to noblesse oblige

Louis XV survived his great friend by ten years, all of them downhill. In 1769, he presented another trumped-up bourgeoise as his official mistress, but this lady, known to history as Mme du Barry, was a vulgar fool - indeed, she was caught up in the Terror and guillotined because she had greedily returned to France from exile in an attempt to repossess her diamonds. One suspects that, had her predecessor lived, Mme de Pompadour would have managed to make a success of the royal family's failed flight, aborted at Varennes in 1791, either by counseling against it or by arranging for greater discretion. One wonders what Jeanne-Antoinette might have done with Marie-Antoinette. Possibly, nothing. Like most German-speaking aristocrats, the Austrian Queen of France held all commoners in absolute contempt. The foolishness of this outlook is her lasting testament.

Mme de Pompadour's testament is more than the litter of lovely things that she caused to be made by France's finest artists and craftsmen. Her patronage of the arts was a sideline. Although she will never be a poster girl for feminism, or even for the equality of women, the fact remains that she rose to the pinnacle of power and remained there on the strength of her very intelligent charm. This was something new, and it ought to be regarded as such. It's a mistake, in other words, to regard the marquise as an exceptional mistress. She was something else, something altogether beyond a conniving sex toy, and I suspect that she established a type of womanly success about which men and women alike remain ambivalent. What, I find myself wondering, is the standard by which her career ought to be judged? (September 2003)

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