Between the bookends of birth and death, the Comtesse du Barry's story was a rags to riches tale. Her days began humbly, ended tragically, and were recorded vividly in Du Barry, the biography, by Stanley Loomis whose books are descriptive, full of detail, and like this one, about Louis XV's final mistress, available on Amazon. Maybe you will read it and love it and I'll have a new best friend.
In 1743, a young woman named Anne Bécu gave birth to a daughter in the village of Vaucouleurs in the Provence of Champagne. The identity of baby Jeanne's father is unknown, but is believed to be a monk named Gomard who was known (rather creepily, under the circumstances) as Brother Angel. His name appears and disappears throughout the story of her life including as a witness to her hurriedly prepared wedding contract.
Of Jeanne's unmarried mother, Anne, Loomis writes, " Life is brief and life is earnest and there is every indication that the baby's mother supplemented the meagre income which she earned as a seamstress, by an occasional sale on the side of certain riches with which nature had conspicuously provided her." Oh, that Loomis could turn a phrase.
When Jeanne was five years old, she and her mother moved to Paris. When she was seven, like many girls of the time, she was placed in a convent. The charges of the Convent of Saint-Aure were raised simply and austerely and taught the skills that would serve young ladies of their station - needlework, reading, writing, and housekeeping. "The sisters kept a sharp eye turned for such symptoms of incipient worldliness as affected airs or taste for frippery." writes Loomis. Jeanne lived at the convent until she was sixteen.
After her education was complete, she reemerged into Paris society. At this point, she didn't travel in an elite society, but rather one of shopkeepers and merchants, bakers and servants...... Her unusual beauty and sweet nature didn't go unnoticed and she was involved in a couple of liaisons that ended poorly; one with the hairdresser of the woman for whom Jeanne's aunt served as maid and another with the sons of a woman to whom Jeanne was a (paid) companion. In both instances, territorial mothers stepped in and made a fuss about the sons' too enthusiastic involvement with the teenaged lovely that the mothers apparently saw as a threat, or found wanting in some way, ending the relationships with "muffled explosions," as Loomis put it.
Loomis offered this observation on the drawbacks of physical beauty:
"Because it promises so much and generally returns so little, personal beauty is the most tragic of the gods' gifts. Unless it has been decently transmuted into a portrait or piece of statuary, the world affects to despise it, whereas far from actually despising it, one half of the world is likely to be inflamed by lust at the sight of it and the other half by envy. Unlike virtue - and the virtuous have seen to this - it is rarely its own reward.... For how many farm girls has the Hollywood contract never come? For how many Jeanne Bécus no Louis XV?"
I like that line, "Unlike virtue - and the virtuous have seen to this..." Loomis had a dry sense of humor. "Most tragic" of the gods' gifts? Well, I don't know about that, but the point of view has a ring of truth.
Jeanne's exceptional beauty profited her little during these years as she moved from job to menial job. She worked for a time in a millinery shop, Maison Labille, living above the store with the other salesgirls. She had her girlfriends, her boyfriends, and her adventures, but little worth mentioning until she crossed paths with Comte Jean-Baptiste du Barry. Technically, his elder brother carried the title, but was far away in their provincial hometown. Jean-Baptiste du Barry had left Gascony for Paris and it probably seemed a waste not to use the title to his advantage while building his reputation and fortune among the high born and wannabes of the capital city.
Again, without shameless plagiarism, I can't say it as well as Loomis did. So, here, I'll toss a couple of quotation marks around his description of Comte Jean du Barry to enhance my post with the words of Stanley Loomis.
"... an extraordinary man and so perfectly the Eighteenth Century rake and adventurer that he seems almost a caricature of his type. Brazenly unscrupulous, a cardsharp, a wencher, a fop, this dapper, witty man about town seems to have redeemed some of his many faults by his insouciant tolerance of the same faults in others. He was a liar; never a hypocrite, In the glittering world which he frequented, where the raciest element of the Court met the most dissipated of Paris he was affectionately known as the Roué and such hardened old libertines and the Ducs de Nivernais and Richelieu, the most notorious men of the century, were awestruck by the excesses of the Comte du Barry."
Madame du Barry was practically a pariah when she first arrived the at Court of Louis XV. There was difficulty in even finding someone willing to present her. Louis XV forged forward in getting his way, though. He was King after all. By this time, he was an aging debauche, but with enough religious core to realize the error of his ways (The du Barry was by no means his first foray into self-indulgence.) but there were plenty of sycophants at his feet encouraging him to indulge. His last maitresse-en-titre was probably the most well-suited to ease him through his final years. She had no political aspirations, wasn't an intriguer, and felt genuine affection toward the King.
Her arrival set the wasps abuzzing at the Château de Versailles. The various entities were scheming to fashion this latest turn of events to their advantages. For instance, the Austrian Ambassador, Comte Mercy-Argenteau, in a letter to Marie Antoinette's mother, reported of the Louis XV's new mistress was "lodged in the court called des fontaines near the apartment which Madame de Pompadour used to occupy; she has a number of liveried servants and on Sunday one sees her at the King's Mass in one of the chapels which is reserved for her. I have ascertained that this woman expects to be presented at Court and that a cabal of some persons of very high rank favors this project.... The serious turn this affair has taken finally prompted me to speak of it to the Spanish Ambassador Señor Fuentes....
Mercy then goes on to describe the scheme that the two Ambassadors hatch in hopes that the King will be pressured to "enter into a fresh marriage" in order to "liberate himself from all these disorders which are a source of intrigue disturbing to the Ministers and injurious to the proper conduct of affairs." The "fresh marriage" he has in mind? He'd like the King to marry Marie Antoinette's sister, Marie Elizabeth. He says he is "trying to turn this affair to good use" and "As soon as it could be done without exciting suspicion, I insinuated my views into every quarter." So good at his job.
Because I failed to look before I leapt, I accidentally deleted a post that took an embarrassing amount of time to write. It had to do with Madame du Barry's life at Versailles and its culmination at Louis XV's death, her exile to a convent and transition to private life. Writing the post a second time would be a frivolous waste of time and I'm at an age where I don't have time to waste.
Now there's a hole in the Madame du Barry story. Waaah.
The high points are that she left Versailles, stayed in a convent for a year, lived someplace else temporarily, her fortune was returned to her and she was allowed to return to Louveciennes where she led a relatively quite life, entertained friends old and new. Stanley Loomis describes the period in detail - all very interesting.
Having said that, it's clear that the bulk of the lost post was unnecessary. You get the point. She transitioned.
Oh, one point that would be of interest to anyone familiar with the du Barry... According to Loomis, who referenced reliable documentation that I'm not in the mood to look up right now, it was Louis XV, not XVI, that delegated the Comtesse to the convent. Maybe he thought it might appease God, maybe he thought he was saving her from a worse fate at XVI's hand. I don't know. But the fact remains. (Loomis claims that) Louis XV was responsible for sending her to the convent. It wasn't a terrible experience, though, and she and the nuns shared a mutual respect and affection.
Château de Louveciennes
gifted to Madame du Barry by Louis XV
previously owned by the Princesse de Lamballe's husband who'd died there of the syphilis he'd contracted while hanging out with the Duc d'Orleans and his crowd
Forty-nine years old
painted in England by Richard Cosway
It could have been of this, my favorite du Barry likeness, that Stanley Loomis was thinking when he expressed the opinion that the Madame du Barry of mature years was fascinating and, in many ways even more beautiful than the version that lived at Versailles. He said that one cannot help but feel that Louis XV was a bit cheated.
As her final love, the duc de Brissac was able to benefit from the woman that Jeanne Bécu became. They'd become acquainted during her time at Versailles when he, as the Duc de Cossé, was a member of her (and Louis XV's) inner circle. They remained friends as she transitioned from King's Favorite to her quiet life at Louveciennes. Their romantic relationship probably began in 1782. Brissac was tall, blond and blue-eyed - a gentleman, a gentle man, a member of the Ancien Regime with idealistic views of a new order, and the Governor of Paris. He loved art, opera, theatre and books. Though the duc was married, in a typical 18th century way, he and Madame du Barry were a couple. He appropriated a portion of his Hôtel de Brissac in Paris to the Comtesse, she became friendly with his daughter, and theirs was a peaceful, happy existence.
As the economic noose tightened and as more and more people embraced the new philosophies of Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, tensions rose in Paris. On July 14, 1789, the Bastille was overrun and
all seven of its prisoners released (yes, seven) and the Revolution was off and running.
Right after the fall of the Bastille, Brissac returned to his estates in Angers to take the pulse of the peasants and villagers in his domain. He was immediately arrested as "being under suspicion," but the matter was resolved quickly and he was released. He wrote to the Comtesse, telling her that but for a few malcontents with whom he simply needed to be patient while the higher ideals of Liberty manifested themselves, the situation was tranquil. He optimistically ended his letter, "Yesterday my birthday was celebrated here with much noise and martial display. I felt that my fellow citizens [the villagers] put their heart into this demonstration. The feudal system has been destroyed, but this should not deprive us of respect and love..." Well, we'll see...
The Comtesse du Barry to the Duc de Brissac's daughter, the Duchesse de Mortemart, shortly after his murder:
No one has felt more than I the great loss which you have just suffered. I hope you will understand the reason for my delay in mingling my own tears with yours. The fear of adding to your grief prevents me from speaking of it. Mine is complete. A life which ought to have been so splendid and glorious! My God, what an end! The last wish of your father was that I should love you as a sister. This wish is very close to my own heart. Never doubt the love which will attach me to you for the rest of my life.
And, the Duchesse's reply, dated September 30, 1792, three weeks after her father's murder:
"Your letter reached me this morning. You have lessened my anguish and brought tears to my eyes. I have been meaning to write you and speak of my grief; my heart is torn and broken. I have been suffering ever since that day when my father was taken from Paris. I still suffer more than I am able to say, but I felt it wiser to wait until I could have a grip on some of my feelings. I must open my heart to you. Only you can understand my grief. I am eager to fulfill the last wish of him whom I shall mourn forever. I will indeed love you as a sister. The smallest of my father's wishes is a sacred command to me. Excuse this scrawl. My head is aching so that I can scarcely see..."
Two weeks after this exchange of letters the two women both traveled to England. The du Barry, ostensibly, returned to England to continue in her quest to recover her jewels. Her movements and associations were tracked and reported back to the Committee of Public Safety. Circumstantial evidence (I watch too much true crime tv) makes a case for the eventual crimes for which she was later tried - of being a courier, spy, and of anti-Revolutionary activities. She gifted and loaned large amounts of money to men of the Church and to displaced Royalists. Though her lawyers denied it, the Comtesse du Barry was accused of helping fund anti-Revolutionary uprisings.
In England, she was welcomed into the most distinguished society, French and English. The Marquis de Bouillé wrote of her in his memoirs.:
"During the time in London when I used to dine with the mistress of the Prince of Wales, I used to see much of a lady who herself had one been honored with royal favors. She had come to London to follow a lawsuit of the theft of her diamonds which had been occupying her for several years, and to flee the bloody scene where her lover the Duc de Brissac has some months earlier been murdered almost in front of her eyes, a scene to which she had the temerity and misfortune to return shortly after and where she herself suffered a fate no less cruel than his... Madame du Barry was then about forty-seven years old [she was actually fifty]. Although the freshness and first bloom of her charms had long since vanished, enough remained for one easily to imagine how lovely they must once have been. She had blue eyes with an expression of the greatest sweetness, her hair was chestnut colored, Her elegant and noble figure, despite a tendency to embonpoint, had about it much suppleness and grace. Her clothing, especially that which she wore in the morning, could not conceal her still-voluptuous form. There was nothing at all common about her still less was there anything vulgar. We were all of deeply concerned of the situation of the King and Queen, and I was much surprised and touched to find that this lady whom they had treated so harshly upon their succession to the throne could now think of little but their sufferings. The tears she shed for them were as sincere as they were constant."
Let me stop for a second and defend Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette who, according to Stanley Loomis, treated Louis XV's mistress better than might've been expected given the circumstances. It may not have been widely known, at the time, but Loomis says that the lettres de cachet that sent her to the Pont-aux-Dames convent were ordered by Louis XV the day before he succumbed to smallpox, not XVI when he began his reign.
The Comtesse set sail for France, for reasons that remain a mystery, on March 1, 1793. Surely, she, of all people, knew the potential for danger. She arrived home to find her château under seal and herself considered an outlaw. She appealed to authorities and the seals were removed, but a man named George Grieve had it in for her and laid in wait for the opportunity to strike again.
Back at Louveciennes, the Comtesse du Barry entertained friends, former aristocrats, in the grand manner of the Ancien Regime, where they addressed each other by their forbidden titles and spoke openly about the situation in France. Careless behavior in such a political climate. Behavior, maybe, of a woman so naive and lacking in unkindness as to imagine that members of her household would turn against her.
Spies among her servants betrayed her and Grieve appeared before the Convention to denounce her, "Despite her notoriously unpatriotic associations, she has managed by her wealth and her caresses to evade the spirit of the Declaration of the Rights of Man.... By her luxury she has insulted the sufferings of the unhappy people whose husbands, brothers, fathers, and sons are shedding blood for the cause of Equality..." followed by a laundry list of her offenses. Still, for the time being, authorities rebuffed his efforts to have her arrested.
You'll have to read Stanley Loomis' detailed account of the time period, if you're interested. He tells of the Princesse who was executed because she'd written a letter of support to the Comtesse after her arrest; the Comtesse's last love (as she'd written a friend after the Duc de Brissac's murder, "One does not die of grief."); the male friend who was denounced for coming to her aid, then committed suicide; the various villagers and servants to whom she'd been kind and generous who sold her out when the time came; the list of treasures that Zamore had helped bury on the grounds of her château, then reported to Grieve. With the cooperation of villagers and servants, Grieve eventually succeeded in amassing accusations sufficient for her arrest.
Grieve was there, Johnny on the spot, when she was taken into custody at her home. Authorities burst in, smashing doors and wreaking havoc. From prison, she wrote a letter to authorities accusing Grieve of assaulting her that day... "My pen refuses to describe the horrors and outrages which he perpetrated..." She didn't specify exactly when, but the speculation is that he did it during a scuffle in her bedchamber where she rushed to try to burn correspondence and documents that would incriminate herself and others, or when they were alone in a carriage en route to the Sainte-Pélagie prison in Paris.