Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Madame du Barry by Stanley Loomis

Madame du Barry was the last of a long line of official royal mistresses of the French kings. She followed Madame de Pompadour into the affections and the lit of King Louis XV, and lived splendidly with him at Versailles for the last six years of his life, from 1768 to his death in 1774. The monarch was succeeded by his grandson, the unfortunate King Louis XVI, who for a variety of reasons not least of which was marriage to Marie Antoinette, seems to have kept no mistresses of his own.

When Louis XV and Madame du Barry met, he was in his late fifties and she was in her early twenties. The circumstances of their meeting, the role she played, the whole course of her life, all was so extraordinarily alien to us and our world that it seems one can't really write a review of a biography of her. One must muddle along and almost rewrite the biography, not because it wasn't good enough but simply to get all the information straight.

The position of royal mistress at Versailles was virtually a ministerial one. Exactly as in the Tudor court of sixteenth century England, powerful or merely grasping or merely needy people scouted out beautiful women to place before the king's eye, hoping that a new and grateful "Favorite" would be able to persuade him to grant favors, lands, incomes, religious sanctions, best of all official government posts, among the faction to whom she owed her elevation. (In Madame du Barry's case, this was one Jean du Barry, called "the Roue," a provincial comte who was making a living in Paris by schooling and then essentially selling pretty girls to wealthy men.) A difference between Tudor England and eighteenth-century France was that Henry VIII would never find himself seriously baited with a woman who was not herself of some genuinely powerful landed family; Louis XV, in contrast, met Madame du Barry because the palace of Versailles was open to the public. One spring day, because her patron, the Roue, had a kind of small-claims-court issue to pursue with the royal bureaucracy, she arrived, and his Majesty saw her in the crowd.

She was breathtakingly beautiful, voluptuous, ash-blond, large-eyed, and it seems sweet- natured and gentle, too. (It's a pity really that she should have been portrayed in Sofia Coppola's film Marie Antoinette as a belching gypsy.) Within a few months, she was ensconced in that vipers' nest of a palace, where every faction faced a counter-faction fighting to the death for position and power, and the personal really was political. She lived in a blazing whirl of jewels, glorious dresses, fabulously appointed private chateaux, gambling parties, hate and gossip. And like all previous "Favorites," her position ultimately depended on the health of the king. As long as he lived in sin, his Catholic Majesty could not hear Mass or take Communion. Yet, he could not die without having returned to the forgiveness and sacraments of the church, and he could not return to them unless he first dismissed the Favorite forever. In those days of sudden mortal illness, La Dubarry, like all her predecessors, never knew when a royal "indisposition" might become a "maladie," and spell the end of her "Left-handed" reign. When the time came, etiquette required that she leave instantly, without goodbyes.

It happened in the spring of 1774. The king died after a horrific two week siege of smallpox, professional bleeding, and finally it seems gangrene. Madame du Barry lived most of the next two years in a local exile, put under house arrest in a convent because the new king and especially his queen, Marie Antoinette, took a high moral line about the former Favorite's purpose at the former court. Once forgiven and released, however, she next entered into what was perhaps the happiest part of her life. King Louis XV's settlements on her had been generous and she still owned a fortune in jewels as well as her lovely and famous home of Louveciennes, not far from Versailles. She had many friends, a busy and elegant social life such as only the eighteenth century French aristocracy ever enjoyed, and a long and happy love affair with the handsome and noble duc de Brissac.

Then came the Revolution. A few years into the turmoil, Madame du Barry's house was broken into, and almost all her jewelry stolen. Her lawyer made the mistake of circulating a kind of "reward" poster throughout Paris, inventorying the hoard in great detail. The virtuous revolutionaries who wanted everyone to be equal got a new look therefore at "the woman DuBarry's" lifestyle. And when the jewels turned up in London she made the mistake -- if it was a mistake -- of traveling there not once but four times in the next few years, ostensibly to recover her property and settle lawsuits about it. While there, she happened to make large donations to exiled French aristocrats and churchmen allied with the foreign powers ready to surround and destroy republican France. Most of the stolen jewelry seems never to have been found.

On her fourth return home, she found her house confiscated. The last months of her life were spent battling a mysterious figure, an Englishman named George Greive who had turned up at Louveciennes and its local village, and had set about agitating the populace and Madame's own servants against her. In those days when revolutionary violence had become the norm and its scythe had in turn put government into the hands of less and less experienced men, anybody could bring death to a neighbor by publishing any article in any broadsheet accusing him of "aristocratic tendencies" -- or simply by calling him an aristocrat. Greive pursued Madame du Barry with "wolfish ferocity." She evaded him for a while by carefully defending her legal rights under the new legal systems of the country, but when in September of 1793 the government was captured by the Jacobin party -- the left-est of the left -- she found herself doomed. Greive asked for her arrest on grounds of aristocratic leanings, and the Committee of General Safety agreed. In her letters written from prison, she hints that Greive raped her when he took her into custody.

She was tried and condemned to death, along with her bankers, in December of 1793. Her shrieks of terror and her struggles on the guillotine have often stood in marked contrast to the " 'icy disdain' " (more likely the shocked stupor, the author thinks) of other victims. But in her very last hours Madame du Barry had tried to save herself by telling her jailers the locations of buried treasure at her chateau, in exchange for her life. She believed she had succeeded in the bribe, up until the executioner came to her cell to cut off her hair and bind her arms. "The merciful drug of resignation did not have time to paralyze her senses," Loomis writes. "Neither emotionally nor physically did she go to the guillotine a dying woman." She was fifty.

It's an excellent book filled with what must be some of Loomis' best prose. The passage describing "the last of the great Versailles receptions," on the occasion of the wedding of the Dauphin to Marie Antoinette in 1770, is especially beautiful. Historians of the ancien regime are always at pains, and usually at a loss, to fully convince us of the incomprehensible sophistication of this civilization. " 'Of their kind they were perfect,' " -- he quotes Taine -- " 'there was not a gown, not a turn of the head, not a voice or turn of phrase which was not a masterpiece of worldy culture and the distilled quintessence of everything exquisite which the social art has ever elaborated.' "

The very fact that we need to have this explained to us -- good grief, they were people, how otherworldly can they have been? -- probably shows how divorced we are from any real understanding of it. For me it finally comes through, faintly, in excerpts from Madame du Barry's letters. She writes to her friends with a calm simplicity on all sorts of occasions, each word a simple pulse beat of meaning, whether she is announcing a party or saying "I love you." She writes to her lover's daughter, with whom she is of course on good terms: "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 to you of it. Mine is complete ...."

This was a few days after the duc de Brissac had been murdered outside her chateau by a mob, his body mutilated and partly eaten, and his head thrown through a window into her living room where it rolled to her feet. " 'One does not die of grief,' " she wrote, simply, a little later.

In the end, I am surprised by one thing, and that is the last two paragraphs of Loomis' book. After writing a lyrical and sympathetic biography, he nevertheless regretfully but officially condemns Madame du Barry on behalf of his modern reader. She slept with the king for money, he says, and also she was unforgivably rich when others were poor.

True. But that is not the same thing as hurting other people. Even the king was a widower when she met him. It's a tricky thing to judge whether it was criminal of her to, perhaps, aid the enemies of her country, when her country had transformed politically and legally into something entirely new and continually free-forming. And fantastically, officially violent. It was the cusp of a new world; which explains why an upcoming monarch of France's future would be "king of the French," not king of France. Loomis does not explore this in his last two paragraphs. He only acknowledges: in the end, "she was kind."

More importantly, since we live now under a deep-dyed leftist President whose disciples are legion, who also hates bankers and wants everyone to be equal, I can't help but read La Du Barry's story with a certain funny chill. A new and free-forming government is not particularly a good thing. Under the veneer of any civilization, human beings are all alike. But surely it can't happen here.

1 comment:

  1. The eighteenth-century French court was such a fascinating hotbed (bed being a pivotal word here) of intrigue and amour, a place of masks and masques. Thanks for the very readable post.