Monday, May 25, 2015

Madame du Barry: At the Side of the King

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.

Alas, Mercy's practiced espionage and the maneuverings of others came to naught and on April 22, 1769, Madame du Barry was officially presented at Court.

Madame de Genlis (who attended the ceremony) expressed the opinion years later, that Louis XV's previous mistress, Madame de Pompadour ,"was married to nothing but a tax-farmer, but it was still more terrible to see a woman of the streets [Madame du Barry] presented with pomp to the whole Royal Family.  This, with many other instances of unparalleled indecency, cruelly degraded Royalty, and consequently contributed to bringing about the Revolution."  Must've slipped her mind that the man to whom she served as Mistress was Duc d'Orléans/Philippe-Égalité.  I can think of no individual more responsible than he in bringing about the Revolution and participating in it even to the point of voting for the death of his own first cousin, Louis XVI.

Deep breath.  Don't get started on Philippe-Égalité.

When Marie Antoinette arrived on the scene not too long after the Du Barry, she nearly launched an international incident by her refusal to speak to the King's Favorite.  The newly arrived Dauphine's conservative upbringing and religious training at a much different Austrian Court didn't prepare her for acceptance of an official mistress.  She was egged on by the Duc de Choisel, the King's spinster daughters, and others who hid behind the fifteen-year old rather than risk their own positions by taking sides against the reigning King's new woman.

The King enlisted Mercy's help in persuading the young Dauphine to warm to the Favorite.  Louis XV hated conflict and, I imagine, didn't want to be seen to be lowering himself to ask for help from the Austrian Ambassador or anyone else, so the situation required subtlety.  Mercy was invited to the Comtesse's Versailles apartments where she greeted him.  They chatted, seemingly without intent, as they waited for the King to return from the hunt.  At some point, the Comtesse confided that it wasn't the Dauphine with whom she was upset, but those who incited her and with his usual smooth gallantry, Mercy soothed her and made it clear that he would encourage Marie Antoinette to soften the hard line she had taken.  Before too long, the King entered and took the ambassador aside and said of the Dauphine, something along these lines...  "I  love her with all my heart and I find her charming.  But she is young and vivacious.  Her husband is in no condition to control her.  She has been unable to avoid the many traps which intrigue has laid for her and has become the victim of prejudice and unfortunate counsel, in consequence treating rudely certain people who have are admitted into my private circle."  The du Barry's name wasn't mentioned, but the meaning was clear.

Afterwards, Mercy reported on his interview with the Madame du Barry:  "She has a fine enough appearance, but her conversations smack of her former condition.  She is utterly without spite, malice or other such disagreeable qualities of character.  Knowing how to do so, it is very easy to converse with her.  All she wishes it that the Dauphine speak to her just once."

Marie Antoinette tended toward stubborn and, for a time, neither the Austrian Ambassador nor even her Austrian Empress mother's remonstrances could budge her.  She eventually directed a vague comment about the size of the crowd at Versailles in the direction of the King's Favorite, then, backtracked and refused to acknowledge her again, then found a way to soften her stance without giving in and crisis was averted.  Nonetheless, she and her coterie remained firmly anti-Du Barry throughout the Favorite's reign.

Madame de Genlis may've been a "wolf in sheep's clothing," as the Princesse de Lamballe called her, but she was on target when she wrote that Madame du Barry was a factor in the Revolution.  If the people's respect for the sovereign could sink any lower than it already had, it did.  Her spending on jewels (the necklace for which Marie Antoinette took a fall, completely innocently, in the Diamond Necklace Affair was actually designed by the royal jewelers for Madame du Barry) and clothing rivaled the mistresses and royalty that came before and after.  Every luxury was at her disposal, no questions asked.  The King gifted her with a young Senegalese slave to serve as a page. She pampered the boy, Zamore, educated him, and kept at her side for the rest of her life.  I'm not implying that Zamore's cost to the State caused a dent in the Treasury.  I don't know it for a fact, but suspect diamonds were more expensive than a human life. How's that for twisted?  This particular young man was intelligent, became well-read and, unfortunately for the Comtesse, a revolutionary who would play a central role in her eventual end.

Zamore du Barry 
Marie Victoire Lemoine

For the King, Madame du Barry was an uncomplicated, undemanding companion.  A comfort in his loneliness.  A distraction from his morbid fear of death.  She had to entertain him, avert his gaze from mortality and steer him from thoughts of his sinful life and the payback he might owe.  And, then, there was the more obvious service that she provided.  Two stories in Loomis' book, published at the time and probably as fictional as the rest of the libelles of the era, illustrate her primary role.

"One such story tells of a certain morning when Madame du Barry imperiously summoned the Archbishop of Paris and the Papal Nuncio to her bedside.  When the King and his notary had entered, the trollop suddenly flung aside the covers and stark naked arose from her nest of lace and satin, demanding to receive her slippers from the astonished dignitaries.  "The two priests," smirks the chronicler, "considered themselves well repaid for the humiliation they had suffered by the ravishing glimpse they had of the Beauty's secret charms."

I wouldn't think Madame du Barry, knowing Louis XV's sensitivity about religion, would've thought that stunt would appeal to him.

Loomis continues, "Another story, as interesting, no doubt, to the psychologist (with its hints of Rousseau and the Marquis de Sade) as it is to the satirist, tells of the fate of a certain Marquise des Rosses.  Outraged by the impertinence of this lovely but saucy peeress toward the King, Madame du Barry commanded her attendants to spank her.  Transported by the squeals and struggles of the wriggling Marquise, the Son of Saint-Louis seized his Favorite and then and there the "two mad creatures" poured a libation to Venus."

Not much left to add to that...

No comments: