When Karen and Simon announced the #1954Club and I looked up options only to be bewildered by the sheer number of appealing titles published in the year, the one title I was absolutely sure I would read was Madame de Pompadour by Nancy Mitford, especially since I’d read and enjoyed her fiction but hadn’t so far picked up any of the bios.
The oldest of the six Mitford sisters, each fascinating in themselves, Nancy was a ‘bright young thing’ who went on to write eight novels, numerous articles, reviews, and essays, as well as four biographies of historical figures, among them Louis the XIV and Voltaire. During the war, Nancy met and fell in love with Gaston Palewski, chief of staff to de Gaulle, and in 1946 moved to Paris to be closer to him. She adored everything French, and from 1950 began to write about French history, describing characters as one would friends and acquaintances. These writings went on to be published as biographies, the very first being Madame de Pompadour, with a life as fascinating, in fact, perhaps more so, than Mitford’s herself.
In this book, written in a light, friendly tone, with plenty of humour, and some stinging (but candid) observations, Nancy Mitford not only tells the absorbing story of the life of Madame de Pompadour but also takes us right into Versailles (with which of course her life was intertwined), with its opulence and beauty, many interesting inhabitants, its intrigues and politics.
Madame de Pompadour, opens though, not with Jeanne Antoinette Poisson but with the death of the Roi Soleil, Louis the XIV, and the coronation of his great grandson, Louis the XV, who came on the throne at age five, with a regent (for a change, not the stereotypical evil one of history), ruling in his stead. We learn a little of his early years, his marriage, and first few mistresses (some of whom were downright ‘nasty’, as Mitford describes them). Then we move on to Reinette, who got her nick-name after a prophecy when she was aged 9 that she was destined for a king, getting some glimpses of her childhood and marriage, her beginnings in society, meeting and becoming mistress to Louis XV, but then going on to become much more—friend, advisor and helpmate in matters of state and much else.
Madame de Pompadour was not only beautiful, elegant and charming, she also was highly accomplished—she could act, dance, and sing (in fact, had an amateur theatre which performed before the King and select invitees at Versailles); draw, paint and engrave precious stones; was a keen gardener with a knowledge of all the new plants and shrubs coming into the country from foreign shores; and played the clavichord perfectly—and was extremely well read. In fact, Voltaire at one point claimed, At her she has read more than any old lady of that country where she is going to reign, and where it is desirable she should reign. Her library was enviable, and at the time of her death consisted of over 3,000 volumes with novels, poetry, biographies, history and philosophy. She cultivated the society of philosophers and writers, encouraged artists and architects, and went on to become absorbed in acquiring and decorating new homes. She loved real flowers, but also porcelain ones, as also animals—real and porcelain.
But despite her accomplishments, being established at Versailles was no easy task; especially since being bourgeoise, opposition was far stronger than would otherwise have been. Before she was even named official mistress, she underwent months of training on the aristocracy, observances, their relationships and squabbles, so that not one wrong foot would be placed. She placated the Queen to some extent by her genuine friendliness, but court politics and intrigue were constant, and daily life even if interesting was never easy. (Alongside, she always suffered bouts of ill health.) It was interesting to watch these intrigues, where there may have been friends and enemies, but enemies could band together against a common foe (for instance, Madame de Pompadour worked with the Duc de Richielieu, one of her strongest opponents in one instance, while the Queen took Madame de Pompadour’s side on one occasion against her own daughters). But court politics was not the only politics that Madame de Pompadour was involved in, for she soon became the King’s adviser and confidant in broader politics as well, and continued to do so until almost the end of her life.
I very much enjoyed Nancy Mitford’s account of Madame Pompadour’s life; she tells it in a light, humorous manner, almost like a friend telling one the story. Consider this bit from the opening passages,
[Louis the XIV] had outlived his son, his grandson, and his eldest great-grandson, and reigned seventy-two years, too long for the good of his country. Even then he was so strong that he could not die until half eaten away by gangrene, for which Dr Fagon, the killer of princes prescribed asses’ milk. … [Louis XV] had neither father, mother, brothers nor sisters, all killed by the wretched Fagon.
But the lighter tone doesn’t imply a lightweight biography by any means. Mitford gives us a fairly detailed account dealing not only with Madame Pompadour’s life but also the broader scenario and historical developments in France in many of which she played a role, relying on a fairly solid bibliography.
Madame de Pompadour come across as a genuinely nice and kind hearted person, who tried to do well by most people, and who in her way truly loved the King and wished always to be with him. (As indeed was her family; they benefitted from her position which isn’t unexpected, but none were greedy or took advantage of it to enrich themselves]. One can feel that Mitford quite likes her subject, but while she defends her against unfair accusations that she had to face, particularly for her role in politics but also elsewhere, she also acknowledges her mistakes where she made them. The same is true of the other historical figures who come into the account as well, be they royals, or the nobility or others. Mitford doesn’t hold back her opinions
It is a pity that Madame de Pompadour did not live long enough to direct this new trend [in architecture], and that it should have fallen into the incompetent hands of the uneducated Madame du Barry and the feather-brained Queen Marie Antoinette.
But she is never unfair, for she brings out both the merits and faults of most of whom she writes of, presenting them as real human beings as they were. It is interesting that all the other three subjects of her biographies—Louis XIV, Frederick the Great, Voltaire make an appearance in the book (Voltaire seems perpetually to bring about his own perils—But Voltaire, as usual, gave the ladder under his feet a good, sharp kick—This made me want to pick up his bio next 😊]
I loved her descriptions of court life—the lavish balls, like The Ball of the Clipped Yew Trees, among them—but also the picture one is able to get of how things worked in France; all the aristocrats living permanently (more or less) at Versailles, away from their estates (where they were sent only if banished), but which also impacted the economy and relationships between the aristocracy and common people leading eventually to the revolution. One also gets an idea of the broad politics of the day—alliances and enmities—and major developments.
This was a rich, entertaining and informative account of a fascinating person, who had so much more to her than I knew about (the only parts where my interested waned a little were the bits about the Seven Year War where I felt I was losing track of some of the persons being talked of). It has left me wanting to explore more about her as well as to read more of Mitford’s bios.