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A Very Grand Girl


Only three living members of the royal family in seventeenth-century France were given the title “Grand,” a word that historians would later apply to the entire age, the Grand Siècle. Two of the three were men. Louis XIV, known as Louis Le Grand, was the supreme embodiment of absolute monarchy. His cousin the Prince of Condé, known as Le Grand Condé, was perhaps the greatest military commander in the France of his time. The third member of this exclusive trio was a woman: Anne-Marie-Louise d’Orléans, duchesse de Montpensier, who would pass into history as La Grande Mademoiselle. Famous during her lifetime, a leading figure in the insurrection known as the Fronde, and France’s richest woman, La Grande Mademoiselle was also a writer of considerable ability; she brings to her memoirs the unique double perspective of a woman and an insider, and they provide a rare portrait of aristocratic life during the most tumultuous and dazzling decades of the century.

At least initially, the word “Grande” served only to clarify Anne-Marie-Louise d’Orléans’s position within the royal family; the never-married du-chesse de Montpensier was the first woman in the French royal court to be addressed by the honorific title Mademoiselle, without a proper name following it. As the daughter of King Louis XIII’s only living brother, Gaston d’Orléans, known simply as Monsieur, she alone, she felt, had the right to be called Mademoiselle, and have the title serve as an explicit symbol of her royal status. Only later, with the death of Louis XIII and the succession of Louis XIV, did it become necessary to add La Grande to her title in order to distinguish her from a new, younger Mademoiselle, whose father, Philippe, duc d’Orléans, brother of Louis XIV, also had the rank of Monsieur. Yet because of the remarkable personality and life of La Grande Mademoiselle, what was merely an identifying label became an acknowledgment of her formidable qualities. This appraisal is amply confirmed both in the admiring recent biography by Vincent J. Pitts and in an earlier, important study in French by Jean Garapon.1

Anne-Marie-Louise d’Orléans (1627– 1693) was the daughter of Gaston d’Orléans (1608–1660), himself the son of Henri IV and Marie de’ Medici, as well as the brother of Louis XIII. An incorrigible schemer, he was involved, throughout his life, in a series of unsuccessful revolts against both royal authority and the policies of the King’s ministers, particularly those of Cardinal Richelieu. In 1626 Gaston married Marie de Bourbon-Montpensier, who died shortly thereafter while giving birth to La Grande Mademoiselle, leaving her daughter her immense fortune. This inheritance quickly transformed Anne-Marie-Louise d’Orléans into the most prized catch in France and probably the richest heiress in Europe. Not even the King could claim to be more Bourbon or more French than Mademoiselle. From a young age she developed a pride in her lineage that would in time come to be the dominating passion of her life and a decisive influence on her destiny.

With her mother dead and her father often forced into exile because of his conflicts with both Louis XIII and Cardinal Richelieu, Anne-Marie-Louise was raised within the royal family. She called the King, her uncle, petit papa; Anne of Austria, the queen consort, petite maman; and her cousin, the future Louis XIV, who was eleven years her junior, her petit époux. But while she waited to make an illustrious marriage—the future Charles II of England, the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand III, and even Louis XIV were potential candidates—her charming and capricious father was the only person she truly cared for. When in 1652, after Louis XIII’s death, her father took up the cause of the Fronde against the regency government of Anne of Austria and Cardinal Mazarin, Mademoiselle did not hesitate to follow his example.

The Fronde was the major civil crisis of seventeenth-century France and the last time the country’s nobility would rise in armed rebellion against a king. Its immediate cause was widespread discontent with mounting taxes and other financial burdens incurred by a lengthy period of war with France’s neighbors. More deeply, however, it was an expression of the nobility’s frustration with the growing power of the crown and particularly the current regency government, which had begun five years earlier when Anne of Austria annulled her husband’s will and, in alliance with Cardinal Mazarin, enlarged the powers of her regency for the nine-year-old Louis XIV. Historians usually divide the Fronde into two distinct parts—the Parliamentary Fronde (1648– 1649), set off by the regency’s proposal that government officials give up four years’ salary, and the Fronde of the Princes (1650–1653), characterized by conflicting personal grievances and ambitions among the nobility.

The nobles were united only in their opposition to the increasing centralization of power in the monarchy and to Mazarin, whom they considered corrupt, duplicitous, and despotic; more generally they also felt that their allegiance should be to a king and not to a regency government. The Fronde would end disastrously: after years of fighting between the insurgents and the royal troops, the country was in worse shape financially than before the rebellion had begun, while the absolute power of the monarchy had only been strengthened. By January 1652, when Gaston decided to join a fragile coalition of forces, led by the Prince de Condé, in opposing Mazarin, the movement was already entering its final and most dramatic phase.

While royal and rebellious troops threatened to transform the entire country into a battlefield, the city of Orléans, determined to remain neutral, turned to Gaston, as its titular prince, in an appeal for help. But Gaston, who, for all his other qualities, lacked “only courage,” according to Cardinal de Retz, sent his twenty-five-year-old daughter in his place. For Anne-Marie-Louise, who did not lack courage, this proved to be the beginning of an adventure that would secure her lasting fame. Immediately after receiving word from her father, she dashed off to Orléans. On March 27, 1652, she took control of the city in the name of the rebels and continued on, triumphantly, to Paris.

From the moment of her arrival in the capital, already occupied by insurgents, Mademoiselle took an important part in the final days of the Fronde. She not only allowed Condé and his men into Paris but saved his army from certain defeat when she ordered the cannons of the Bastille to fire on the royal troops laying siege to the rebellious capital. The young Louis XIV witnessed for himself this unprecedented scene, watching it in disbelief from the top of a nearby hill; from then on, he understandably held a grudge against her.

It has been said that the Fronde was a war made by women, and numerous women from the upper nobility did in fact throw themselves into the battle attempting to defend the interests of their husbands, their brothers, and their lovers, and to pursue their own personal ambitions.2 Yet none of these motives can be attributed to Mademoiselle. A “princess of the blood,” she fought because she believed that, as a member of the royal family, she had a personal obligation to do so. As she saw it, she was defending a just and noble cause, the interests of crown and country, which were threatened by Mazarin, a “foreign” minister who, it was charged, had illegally seized power. She would not hesitate to remind her father, who was less intransigent than she in matters of honor:

By birth, I do nothing but great and noble things in all that I involve myself with, and one can call it what one will; for me, I call this following my inclination, and following my path; I was born not to take any other.3

Once the unrest and excitement of the Fronde uprising passed and Louis XIV asserted royal order and control, Mademoiselle found herself abandoned by her father and forced into exile. For almost five years between 1652 and 1657 she was banished to her castle at Saint-Fargeau in Burgundy, where she continued to cultivate the loisirs that distinguished the leisured nobility—conversation, reading, hunting, theater, patronage of the arts—and, more significantly, began to take a serious interest in literature. It was at Saint-Fargeau that she started to compose her Mémoires with the explicit intention of justifying her insubordination to the crown. Her obsession with providing her own version of events, frequently and unsurprisingly in blatant disagreement with royal historians, had a longstanding aristocratic precedent and was even more marked in the seventeenth century as the monarchy consolidated its absolute power.

Numerous dissident peers and other contemporaries of Mademoiselle, including the Marshal of Bassompierre, the Duke of La Rochefoucauld, and the Cardinal de Retz, had for similar reasons written in their own defense. But in her case it was not so much the validity of the facts and the reconstruction of historical events that interested Anne-Marie-Louise as, rather, the moral and emotional effect they had on her and on what she saw as her destiny. This shift in perspective sets her Mémoires apart from most other memoirs of the time, which were presented as accounts from which history could later be written. By imposing a distinctive point of view, the Mémoires of Mademoiselle are more than an account of known facts; they can be seen as a precursor to the kind of moral autobiography Rousseau would later become known for.

Though it was at first the need to defend her motives and actions during the Fronde that drove Mademoiselle to compose her Mémoires, she went on to tell the story of a life in which the Fronde was only an episode. In fact, the Mémoires were not written consecutively, but were composed during three separate periods of her life under widely divergent psychological and physical circumstances. She first began writing her autobiography when she was twenty-six and in exile at Saint-Fargeau; this draft covered her infancy, childhood, and participation in the Fronde. Her writing was interrupted by the end of her exile and her return to court, and she didn’t resume her work on the Mémoires until 1677, when she was fifty. Covering the years from 1659 to 1676, the second phase concentrates on her long love affair with Antoine Nompar de Caumont, marquis de Puyguilhem, later Duke of Lauzun, who was eventually imprisoned by Louis XIV. In 1689 and 1690 Mademoiselle drafted the final part of her Mémoires, concluding with Lauzun’s release from prison, his return to Paris, and her break with him.


Vincent J. Pitts takes Mademoiselle’s autobiography as the point of departure for his biography, writing that “the reader can follow the development and emergence of a personality” in her memoirs, which are recounted “by a narrator who separates the ‘self as actor’ from the ‘self as retrospective commentator.’” Her understanding of the world and her position in it, he writes, changes as she tells her story. He has attempted, as he puts it, “to see matters as Mademoiselle saw them, giving people and events the importance [she] assigned them,” but this approach does not mean his book is lacking in critical perspective. As Pitts puts forward Mademoiselle’s point of view and explains why her life and what she says about it is of exceptional interest, her story becomes open to different interpretations—political, re-ligious, and feminist. Pitts is also diligent about clarifying obscure passages, supplementing omissions, and correcting inaccuracies, as well as relating the events of Mademoiselle’s life to their historical setting. Indeed, during the seventy years covered, the French monarchy, thanks to the faithful pursuit of its political goals by Louis XIII and Richelieu, Mazarin, and then Louis XIV, emerged in its definitive, absolutist form.

  1. 1

    Jean Garapon, La Grande Mademoiselle mémorialiste: Une autobiographie dans le temps (Geneva: Droz, 1989). Before Garapon’s study and recent feminist scholarship highlighted the importance of La Grande Mademoiselle, two biographies had already appeared in English in the 1950s: Francis Steegmuller’s The Grand Mademoiselle (Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1956) and Vita Sackville-West’s Daughter of France (Doubleday, 1959).

  2. 2

    See Joan DeJean’s statement, “More than any other conflict in French history, the Fronde can be seen as a woman’s war,” in Tender Geographies: Women and the Origins of the Novel in France (Columbia University Press, 1991), p. 37.

  3. 3

    Mémoires de Mademoiselle de Montpensier, edited by Adolph Chéruel, Vol. 4, Part 2 (Paris: Charpentier, 1858– 1859), p. 197.

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