Monday, May 25, 2015

Jeanne Bécu: The Making of a Maitrêsse en Titre

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."

The Comte had his finger in many pies, but it was his development and promotion of the young women he seduced then trained in the social arts and other skills handy to girls who wanted to advance in that world at which he excelled.  He found them, cultivated them, enjoyed them, then passed them on to someone else at a profit.  Police reports of the day hint at a respect and, even a touch of envy at the Comte's little enterprise... "When he begins to weary of a woman he invariably sells her off.  But, it must be admitted that he is a connoisseur and his merchandise is eminently salable."

Louis XV and Madame du Barry by Gyula Benczúr
Is that a riding crop in her hand?

So, Jeanne Bécu, who'd by now adopted the fancier surname of Beauvarnier, came to the attention of the Comte du Barry, probably among the reckless crowd at the gambling house of a "Marquise" de Duquenoy. It was from here that she set off on the path that led to the guillotine.  Though to be fair, she may have ended up on the guillotine even if had life taken her in a different direction.  So many of her contemporaries did. Association with the Roué thrust her into the limelight as she was driven about in his fabulous coach, dripping with diamonds and swathed in beautiful gowns.  She moved into the Comte's house and acted as hostess and courtesan.  Police took note of the Comte's most recent acquisition:  " The Marquis [sic] du Barry who was responsible for having brought La Belle Dorothée to Paris and for having given the Demoiselle Beavoisin her start in life, exhibited his latest mistress in his box at the Comédie Italienne last Monday night, the Demoiselle Beauvarnier.  She is a person nineteen years old, tall, well-made and of distinguished appearance and with an extremely pretty face.  No doubt he intends to dispose of her advantageously."

On an errand at Versailles, Jeanne Beauvarnier caught the eye of the King who happened to be between official mistresses and was having to make do with the nymphs from the Parc-aux-Cerfs for his entertainment.  They met, he was smitten.  The Comte du Barry was hitting the big time now. He swung into action.  These things, as the Wicked Witch of the West would say, have to be handled delicately. Even the acquisition of a maitrêsse en titre had to follow protocol.  In order for her to be presented at Court, etiquette required that she be married.  Jean-Baptiste arranged for his brother, Guillaume (Loomis describes him as a "clodhopper.") to come in from the country to marry Jeanne, so she would be eligible to be presented at Court and soon Jeanne Beauvarnier became Madame du Barry, or as she was subsequently known at Court, the Comtesse du Barry.  The Comte would've jumped at the chance to himself be the husband of the King's mistress but, alas, he was married already to (and had already burned through the fortune of) an heiress who lived in the country.  The bride and groom went their separate ways as soon as the ceremony was over, never to meet again. The du Barry family, though, continued to appeal to, and benefit from, the generosity of the well-placed bride for the entirety of her life.

The timing of Madame du Barry's arrival at Court coincided (unintentionally) with the marriage of the Austrian Archduchesse, Marie Antoinette, and the Dauphin of France, Louis-Auguste. The man most instrumental in arranging that union, and the Franco-Austrian alliance it represented, was the Duc du Choisel who was riding high at Court and very much in the King's good graces. Choisel's sister, the Duchesse du Gramont, though, had set her sights on the position of maitrêsse en titre which would've further cemented Choisel's position of power at Court, so Choisel set out to ostracize and alienate the King's choice of companion.  I could get all off-topic here and write about the Duc and Duchesse's especially, some felt oddly, close relationship and the Duchesse's vindictive nature, but I'll stay the course.  Others, too, especially the King's pious, neglected daughters, opposed the Comtesse...

Next Post:  The Comtesse du Barry's Versailles years

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