Madame de Pompadou by Nancy Mitford, Foreword by Amanda Foreman

Madame de PompadorAt eight o’clock one morning, the Comte de Maurepas, Louis XVth’s Minister of the Navy, was called from his bed to receive a Royal messenger. Maurepas did not even bother to read the letter handed to him. Its timing, and the Royal seal on the back, could mean only one thing. His long-running battle with the Marquise de Pompadour, the King’s official mistress, was over. Maurepas dressed, gave directions to his servants, and then set off to begin his rustic exile far, far away from Versailles. Such was the definite and unyielding power of the Marquise.

It says something about the two countries, that in Britain we admire our ruling Queens while in France they celebrate their royal mistresses. It was the French, after all, who invented the word chauvinism. Indeed, the idea of legitimate female power never crossed the Channel. There was no legal provision for a daughter to inherit the throne. And, as for royal consorts, they were foreigners and therefore deeply under suspicion. Nevertheless, what was officially denied to the Kings’ wives was unofficially granted in abundance to the women who held the post of ‘maitresse en titre’. Of this select group, the most dazzling was Madame de Pompadour. It is no wonder that she is the inspiration behind two museum exhibitions, at the Wallace Collection and the National Gallery. During her twenty year tenure, the very best of French culture either flowed out of her largesse or came to her door.

The Marquise was not unique in her encouragement for the arts. Of the seven great mistresses of Versailles, only one was profoundly if not stubbornly middlebrow. This was Madame du Barry, the last maitresse en titre of France, who escaped to England before the Revolution only to return at its height and, not surprisingly, end up on the guillotine. The others all took great pride in their role as benefactors of the arts. Racine and Moliere, the finest playwrights of the seventeenth century, were just two of the many who owed their success not to Louis XIV but to his mistresses. And, while it is true that a number of second-rate artists also received encouragement it must be remembered that the mistresses belonged to a class which considered itself above such bourgeois things as expertise.

Mme de Pompadour, however, was an unusual woman in this respect. Although she had conquered the aristocracy, she did not belong to it. There was no disguising the fact, and nor did she try, that her family was middle class. Her upbringing, therefore, was different from her peers. She knew many writers and intellectuals before her elevation to maitresse, and among her best friends was the philosopher Voltaire. She supported and promoted him, even though he infuriated the King by doing things that no Courtier would dare, such as grabbing his arm or interrupting his conversation.

But it was de Pompadour’s mastery of her position rather than her salon which impressed Versailles. The maitresse en titre was expected fulfill a set of clearly defined duties. Every waking hour had a purpose. When she was not amusing the King, there were hundreds of requests to answer, plans to execute, and scores to be settled. Although most tourists came away thinking that life at Court was simply about pleasure, its one thousand occupants knew better. The palace had not changed since the Sun King, Louis XVth’s great-grandfather had made it the primary residence of the Court. Under his baleful eye, Versailles evolved into a terrifying, competitive place where honesty and kindness were rare and exotic qualities. The aristocracy only put up with Versailles’s miserable accommodation because the alternative meant being an outcast. They were little better than serfs in silk and, behind the bows and curtsies, was a deadly struggle for the King’s favour.

Since real power, meaning access to the King, lay not with the Queen but with the maitresse en titre, the whole of Versailles buzzed around the Royal Mistress like bees in a hive. During her tenure she was the focus of attention, constantly flattered, constantly importuned, and constantly in danger from her enemies. The rules governing Versailles were solipsistic and arcane. Like all closed societies, it thrived on nuances which are second nature to the initiated and hidden traps for the unwary. It was the height of bad manners, for example, to use the familiar ‘tu’ instead of the formal ‘vous’ in front of the King. Husbands and wives, siblings, old friends all had to address each other as if for the first time. Royal etiquette was so complicated that Mme de Pompadour’s presentation at Court required several months of preparation. The dress, the walk, the curtsey, even her choice of words: on every minute action teetered a lifetime of ridicule. Knowing this, she went to the country and practiced until she was ready.

However, it was not enough that the Maitresse know how to behave herself, it was vital that she understood Versailles’s pecking order and act accordingly. One of de Pompadour’s predecessors, Madame de Montespan, the most flamboyant of Louis XIVth’s mistresses, side stepped the problem entirely by treating all of Versailles as beneath her. While successful in its way, it had the affect of uniting all her enemies. They waited for her to become vulnerable and were rewarded by a sordid scandal involving witchcraft and rumours of poison. De Montespan was implicated – apparently she had tried to buy a potion which would make the Queen infertile – and the King was forced to dismiss her from Court.

Mme de Pompadour was not afraid to imitate de Montespan, although she exhibited a little more tact than her fiery predecessor. Instead of insisting that guests stand in her presence, for example, which was a custom reserved only for the King and Queen, she simply removed all the chairs. Just once did someone call her bluff. The Marquis de Souvré perched himself on the arm of her chair, remarking, ‘all the chairs appear to be missing.’ However, people forgave her these little displays of pomposity because she was the most good-natured and generous hearted mistresses Versailles had ever known. Even the Queen was fond of her. It took a great deal to make the Marquise show her claws. The banished Maurepas had tortured her for years before she finally executed swift revenge.

Where historians fault Mme de Pompadour is over her meddling in political affairs. It is said that she convinced Louis XVth to shift France’s alliance from Prussia to Austria, which precipitated the Seven Years’ war. While the shift was her idea, none will ever know quite where her persuasion ended and the King’s own sentiments began. The royal mistresses have always been credited with either too much influence or none at all. For a long time Madame de Maintenon, the only maitresse en titre who switched roles and became Louis XIVth’s wife, was accused of encouraging him to revoke the Edict of Nantes in 1685. This ending of official toleration of Protestantism led to a mass exodus of Huguenots to Britain. However, the truth is that de Maintenon, who was herself born a Protestant, was guilty of quiescence rather than instigation. But what is not in dispute is that she had a system whereby the Ministers always visited her before they saw the King. Thus she could let them know her wishes so that the names or choices presented to Louis were already predetermined. The King had no idea and simply thought how fortunate he was to have a companion who agreed with him on every issue.

This sort of political interference was simply unknown in Britain. Two events, the Civil War and the Glorious Revolution of 1688, had radically curtailed the power of the monarchy. Therefore there was little opportunity for a royal mistress to shine like her French counterparts. During the roughly one hundred and thirty years when Versailles was in its splendour and its maitresses at their peak, there is only one British royal mistress who is remembered today – Nell Gwynne.

The rest have left behind their portraits and some dukedoms, but little else. In general, they were either beautiful and greedy, like Charles II’s Louise de Keroualle and Barbara Villiers, or devoted and somewhat downtrodden like George II’s Countess of Suffolk. Some, either through circumstance or character were incapable of making their mark on British cultural life. George I’s mistresses, for example, known as the Elephant and Maypole because one was fat and the other was skinny, never learned to speak English properly. While dear Nell Gwynne, who did succeed in establishing the Chelsea Pensioners, was far too removed from the King’s world to have any influence on his ministers. The only woman who consciously tried to imitate the miatresse system was Louise de Keroualle, who engineered the downfall of the King’s favourite, the Duke of Buckingham. She also attempted to persuade Charles II to become a Catholic. However, once she realised that her influence went only so far, Louise concentrated on amassing a huge fortune instead. By the time Charles II had grown tired of her, Louise had accumulated a nest-egg of over £9 million in today’s money.

Although Napoleon restored the monarchy after the Revolution, the glorious era of the maitresse en titre never returned. While Britain’s royal mistresses arguably became more interesting in the 19th and 20th centuries, France’s declined into obscurity. Madame de Pompadour and her colleagues achieved extraordinary power at time when a single individual controlled the destiny of millions. They are proof of the old adage, that behind every great man, there is indeed a great woman.

Copyright© Amanda Foreman

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Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman

ABOUT THE BOOKBUY THE BOOKREVIEWSMULTIMEDIAPHOTOS

WINNER OF THE 1998 WHITBREAD BIOGRAPHY OF THE YEAR AWARD

 

FINALIST FOR THE GUARDIAN FIRST BOOK AWARD

 

A12h5zK8VzLAs one of the most flamboyant and influential women of the late 18th century, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire was an icon of her time. Born Lady Georgiana Spencer, she married the fifth Duke of Devonshire in 1774. She was thrust into public life at the age of sixteen, unprepared for the pressures that quickly followed and unsupported in a cold and loveless marriage. Though most of her contemporaries adored her because she seemed so natural and vibrant, only a few knew how tormented she was by self-doubt and loneliness. Georgiana was not content to lead the fashionable set nor merely to host soirées for the Whig party, instead she became an adept political campaigner and negotiator, respected by the Whigs and feared by her adversaries. She was the first woman to conduct a modern electoral campaign, going out into the streets to persuade ordinary people to vote for the Whigs. She took advantage of the country’s rapidly expanding newspaper trade to increase the popularity of the Whig party and succeeded in turning herself into a national celebrity. Georgiana was a patron of the arts, a novelist and writer, an amateur scientist and a musician. It was her tragedy that these successes were overshadowed by private and public misfortune. Ambitious for herself and her party, Georgiana was continually frustrated by restrictions imposed on Eighteenth-Century women. She was also a woman who needed to be loved, but the two people whom she loved most – Charles Grey and the Duke of Devonshire’s mistress Lady Elizabeth Foster – proved incapable of reciprocating her feelings in full measure. Georgiana’s unhappiness expressed itself destructively in her addiction to gambling, her early eating disorders, and her deliberate courting of risk. Her battle to overcome her problems was an achievement equal to the triumphs she enjoyed in her public life.

Cover painting of The Duchess of Devonshire by Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788) from the Devonshire Collection, Chatsworth; produced by permission of the Chatsworth Settlement Trustees.

Read the Introduction to Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire here.
Read an extract from Chapter 2: Fashion’s Favourite, pp. 33-37 here.
Read Georgiana’s medical file by I. G Schraibman here.

 

“Well written, extensively researched and highly readable”

Stella Tillyard, Daily Mail

 

“Not only a pungent, intimate blend of biography and history, but a provocative contribution to our understanding of women of the past”

Jenny Uglow, Independent

 

“Georgiana Devonshire was much the most fascinating woman of the age, and Foreman has written a biography to match her”

Ian Gilmour, London Review of Books

 

“Sumptuously produced, accurate and eminently readable”

Economist

 

“Georgiana bursts from the pages of Amanda Foreman’s dazzling biography like the force of nature she undoubtedly was passionate, political, addicted to gambling, and drunk on life. This is a stunning book about an astonishing woman.”

Simon Schama

 

“A most impressive debut. I predict a great future for Amanda Foreman. She is a scholar who matches her learning to a sense of adventure and writes with engaging vitality.”

Michael Holroyd

 

“A mesmerizing read …. The charm of Amanda Foreman’s Georgiana is that it gives you all the fascinating detail you want …. and is at the same time a serious, scholarly work, based on exhaustive archival research.”

Antonia Fraser, Literary Review

 

“Stunning historical research plus feminine acuity yield a vivid portrait of a shrewd, seductive ancestor of Princess Diana’s in an age before democracy or contraception.”

Brenda Maddox, author of Yeats’s Ghosts and Nora: The Real Life of Molly Bloom

 

“I put this book down entranced by the woman. This is an outstanding debut by a young biographer fully in control of her sources, and with an easy, elegant writing style. She tells a tale that calls not only for our admiration but for our compassion.”

Roy Strong, London Sunday Times

 

“This is an accomplished and well written biography, remarkably mature for a first effort; diligently researched and entertainingly presented. Amanda Foreman is a writer to watch and one from whom much can be expected.”

Daily Telegraph

 

The Sunday Times – 18 May 1998
Hostess with the mostest
By Roy Strong

“Outstanding . . . a young biographer fully in control of her sources, and with an easy and elegant writing style.”

 

The Daily Telegraph – May 1998
Legendarily extravagant
By Philip Ziegler

“This is an accomplished and well-written biography; remarkably mature for a first effort; diligently researched and entertainingly presented. Amanda Foreman is a writer to watch and one from whom much can be expected.”

 

The Evening Standard – May 1998
Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire
By Roy Porter

“Georgiana is a capital biography and a splendid debut for Ms Foreman. Her writing has strength and pace, and her portrayal of the Georgian queen of hearts carries a conviction deriving from deep research into many a country-house archive. What a pity that Victorian prudes destroyed most of Georgiana’s love letters and cancelled out other intimate passages in the blackest of black inks. The evident shockingness of this courageous lady is commendation indeed of this engaging study.”

BBC Radio 4  – 30 July 2014
The Georgians: Restraint, Revolution and Reform: Part 2
In the final part of a series examining the political impact of the Georgian era, Amanda Foreman looks at politics on the ground as she considers the structures of British life that created both control and freedom. She asks why Britain experienced political evolution, not revolution.

 

BBC Radio 4 – 23 July 2014
The Georgians: Restraint, Revolution and Reform: Part 1
Amanda Foreman examines the formative years of British politics when the most important structures of British life – still valued and recognised today – were established in the shadow of revolution.

 

Secrets of the Manor House (PBS) – 14 July 2013
The Secrets of Chatsworth
In its 500-year history, Chatsworth has been home to some notable inhabitants, among them the 5th Duke of Devonshire, his wife, Lady Georgiana Spencer, and Lady Elizabeth Foster, who lived together in a ménage à trois. King Edward VII enjoyed shooting parties on the estate and was often entertained by Duchess Louisa, one of Britain’s foremost political hostesses.

Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire and Lady Georgiana Cavendish, by Joshua Reynolds.

Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire and Lady Georgiana Cavendish, by Joshua Reynolds.
Georgiana gave birth to Lady Georgiana. ‘Little G’, at Devonshire House in the summer of 1783. In 1804, Little G, by then a mother of two children, told Georgiana, ‘one cannot know until one has separated from you how different you are from everyone else, how superior to all mothers, even good ones.’

John 1st Earl Spencer, by Thomas Gainsborough, c.1763.

John 1st Earl Spencer, by Thomas Gainsborough, c.1763.

Lord Spencer ‘seems to be the man whose values few people know’,’ wrote Viscount Palmerston. “The bright side of his character appears in private and the dark side in public.”

Georgiana, Countess Spencer, by Pompeo Batoni c.1764.

Georgiana, Countess Spencer, by Pompeo Batoni c.1764.

Georgiana was waiting disconsolately in Amsterdam for her parents to return when this portarit was painted. It shows Lady Spencer surrounded by her interests: books, a musical instrument and classical ruins.

Lady Elizabeth Foster, 'Bess', by Reynolds, 1787

Lady Elizabeth Foster, ‘Bess’, by Reynolds, 1787

Painted after she had been with the Devonshires for six years.

Fifth Duke of Devonshire, by Pompeo Batoni.

Fifth Duke of Devonshire, by Pompeo Batoni.

The trip abroad failed to improve his manners: ‘To be sure the jewel has not been well polished,’ wrote Mrs Delaney. ‘Had he fallen under the tuition of the late Lord Chesterfield he might have possessed les graces, but at present only that of his dukedom belongs to him.’

 

Gender in Eighteenth Century England by Hannah Barker and Elaine Chalus

gender_1CHAPTER ONE

INTRODUCTION
HANNAH BARKER AND ELAINE CHALUS

The Sexes have now little other apparent Distinction, beyond that of Person and Dress: Their peculiar and characteristic Manners are confounded and lost: The one Sex having advanced into Boldness. As the other have sunk into Effeminacy. 1
(John Brown, 1757)

Women must be understood …… in terms of relationship – with other women, and with men …..2
(Michelle Zimbalist Rosaldo, 1980)

For John Brown, England’s dismal performance at the beginning of the Seven Years’ War was the result of a deterioration in national character that he attributed, at least in part, to changes in manner and sexes. Like other eighteenth-century moralists and conduct-book writers who attempted to coax, cajole or chastise their readers into complying with idealized notions of masculinity and femininity, he believed that clearly defined gender roles were central to the stability of English society, and by extension, to England’s status as a world power.

In general, eighteenth-century prescriptive texts argued that men and women were ‘naturally’ different, and that these differences not only shaped their characters but suited each sex to specific activities and roles in society. Authors mustered powerful religious, philosophical and scientific arguments to explain, rationalize and legitimize implicit and explicit inequalities between the sexes. While men and masculinity were occasionally the subjects of such texts, the overwhelming majority of this literature was aimed at women, who were, by nature, considered to be in need of closer supervision.

  1. John Brown, An Estimate on the Manners and Principles of the Times (1757), p.51
  2. Michelle Zimbalist Rosaldo, ‘The use and abuse of anthropology; reflections on feminism and cross-cultural understanding’ Signs 5,3 (1980), p.409

Copyright© Hannah Barker and Elaine Chalus

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