If you’re looking for a sterile, fact-forward, speculation-free, scholarly biography of Madame de Pompadour, this is not the book for you. With Nancy Mitford at the helm, Versailles of the eighteenth century comes back to life in all its glory and decadence. The entire biography reads like having a glass of wine with a very intelligent, very gossip-y confidant, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. This is a world that Mitford, of all people, understands a bit more than those of us born outside of the aristocracy. She carries this perspective and insight into the narrative and is able to infuse a sense of empathy and access into one of the most exclusive eras of French history.
This is not to imply that this book is not thoroughly researched. Though it may read more like a novel at times, Mitford did her due diligence research-wise. In fact, her study turned up information that ran contrary to the popular historical opinion of the day; most historians argued that Madame de Pompadour had little political influence, whereas Mitford uncovered that she had more power over the King than previously thought, though Mitford is honest about the scope and scale of de Pompadour’s contributions:
“Madame de Pompadour’s excursion into politics will not give much satisfaction to the feminist…To her, as to most women, politics were a question of personalities; if she liked somebody he could do no wrong–a good friend was sure to make a good general, a man who could write Latin verses, and amuse the King, a good minister. Political problems in themselves were of no interest to her, her talents did not lie in that direction.” (p. 188)
So she may not have always directly weighed in on the issues of the day, but she was primarily concerned with making sure the king was happy and amused, and did exercise the influence she had as to who the King surrounded himself with, which was bound to have political repercussions in a roundabout way. Her power came from her extensive access to the King. She was his confidant and many times, his secretary. Not as much his lover, as one would imagine. Theirs was a relationship built on deep love, affection, trust and friendship.
To give a bit of context (for those of you who may not be French history buffs), Madame de Pompadour was the mistress of Louis XV until her death. In fact, when she was just a young girl, a fortune-teller prophesied that she would “reign over the heart of the king,” and that she did (p. 22). After her death, the King took a new mistress, who held that position until his death, which ushered in the era of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette (and, as we know, that era didn’t exactly end well for the royal family). When reading about Madame de Pompadour’s cultural tastes and hobbies, it was hard not to see the stage being set for Marie Antoinette and the infamous misquote of “Let them eat cake!”
“Croÿ describes a visit to Trianon with the King, who showed him the hot-houses, the rare plants, the hens (which he specially liked), the charming pavilion, the flower and vegetable gardens; all arranged so prettily. Croÿ is full of admiration, but deplores the fact that Madame de Pompadour should have given the King ‘an unfortunate taste for expensive little things which cannot last.’ This view was shared by the public. Madame de Pompadour excelled at an art which the majority of human beings thoroughly despise because it is unprofitable and ephemeral: the art of living.” (p. 128)
One of de Pompadour’s largest contributions to court life was the establishment of a theatre company composed entirely of ladies and gentlemen of the court. It was invitation only, for the actors as well as for the audience, and access to their productions became another huge indicator of status in courtly life. This excess, this emphasis on the importance of pleasure and leisure, is why I find this era of history so fascinating.
When I visited Paris in high school, I fell IN LOVE. With the spirit of the city. With the architecture. With the art. With the romance. With the energy. With Rick, our tour guide (HUGE unrequited crush…he read us POETRY IN FRENCH and knew about ART and LITERATURE, all of which I found incredibly attractive).
My heritage is French, Irish and Iroquois, and when our tour guide read my last name, he told me that there was a good chance that the “de” in my last name indicated that somewhere along the line, my family had received that title from the King. Well, that hooked me. Whether that holds to be true or not, I have found myself completely enthralled by French history ever since. The notion that there was an entire class of people who spent their entire life in service to art and beauty and pleasure…the excess and the courtly rules and the intrigue! And the CLOTHES!!! God, the CLOTHES!!!!
I’ve read quite a few biographical pieces on this era of French history, and I thoroughly enjoyed Mitford’s work. To me, it felt like a great translation reads: she truly captured the spirit and essence of the time.
Rubric rating: 8
I read this title in 2013, so I can’t count it toward my 2014 goals.