September 21, 2003

Madame de Pompadour, Nancy Mitford

Pompadour was a long-term mistress of Louis XV of France; Louis XV was stuck with the court set up by his great-grandfather Louis XIV; France was therefore stuck with a government run far too personally. Mitford makes a case for Madame de Pompadour being personally a charming woman, and one who wanted to see the country run well and worked hard to help do so. Still, an education heavy on playwrights and singing did more to make her likable to her king than useful to her country.

He [Louis XV] grew up to be a charming man and an intelligent ruler with a high sense of duty, loving and, for many years, loved by his people. But the machinery by which he was expected to govern was long since worn out, and neither he nor his counsellors had the genius to devise anything better. He knew that something was wrong somewhere, but he was for ever caught in the terrible web spun by his terrible ancestor.

The "terrible ancestor" is Louis XIV, great-grandfather of Louis XV, and the terrible web is the centralization of power and status in the court. Mitford repeatedly has to remind us that an aristocrat of the period, however beautiful his or her estate, would wither if exiled from court - literally; they generally became either very fat or very thin, and departed life rather quickly. She didn't get across to me why this should be so, although some of the force must have been the closed society judging itself on its own rules, and another part the luxury of a court that had a state department of Les Menus Plaisirs.

Oddly, the king at the top of the closed society was not cut off from non-aristocratic France. Madame de Pompadour was born a bourgeois with scant noble connections, and iffy banking ones. She was probably first noticed by the King when driving her carriage to follow his hunt; the affair came to a point at the balls celebrating the Dauphin's marriage, where anyone arriving properly dressed was admitted. Fortunately her elocution and grace were enough to make her acceptable at court; she seems to have been kindly to almost everyone, though not always tactfully so, especially to the poor dull Queen.

Also, of course, she was devastatingly pretty in an age that loved prettiness. Not beautiful, nor was she sensual; it seems she always found sex exhausting enough to damage her health, and maybe never liked it, and anyway she had a long reign as his official mistress and obvious comforter after she and the King stopped committing adultery. Her great talents were also prettifications: she sang and acted well enough to support rôles by the great writers of the day; she designed lovely comfortable little houses, with little home farms; she commissioned artworks made of fragile pretty precious materials. Hardly any of this survives, as Mitford explains (with late-English-aristocrat regret).

Mitford's writing is light and charming, good at explaining the unspoken that 'everybody knows' and breezily asserting the unlikely - The Princess of Hesse Rhinevelt would have done very well if her mother had not been in the habit of giving birth alternately to daughters and hares. It's all a prettification of minor pleasures; the Continental wars that made way for the English empire, laid out as personal struggles between potentates mostly related to each other; unbelievably ornate parties, some of which came off; improbable minor characters, like the comfortable and luxurious exiled King of Poland.

United Europe has seldom been so nearly realized as it was after the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle, in 1748. The King of England was a German, the King of Spain was French. The Empress of Austria was married to a Lorrainer with a French mother, the King of France was half Italian and his Dauphin was half Polish with a German wife. ... During the last campaign of the War of the Austrian Succession in 1747 ... it so happened that none of the generals engaged was anative of the country for which he fought. ... the peace...left Europe divided by allegiances into two halves, the Austrian Empire, Russia, England, Holland and Sardinia, against France, Spain, the Two Sicilies, Prussia and Sweden; since it would clearly be an unprofitable venture for one of these halves to make war on the other, a long peace might have ensued, had it not been for a new factor. America and Asia were now entering into the calculations of statesmen. The English, who were determined to possess as vast an Empire in these continents as possible, were very anxious to keep their only rivals, the French, fully occupied in Europe while they acquired it.

Mitford, Nancy. Madame de Pompadour, New York: Random House, 1954.

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