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Fly High & Fall

Benedetta Craveri, translated from the Italian by Miranda Robbins
Louvre, Paris/Réunion des Musées Nationaux/Art Resource
Madame de Maintenon; seventeenth-century enamel miniature by Jean Petitot the Elder

At Versailles during the night of October 9, 1683, three months after the death of his wife, Maria Teresa of Spain, Louis XIV, King of France and Navarre, married Mme de Maintenon, the former governess of his children by his recently discarded mistress, the marquise de Montespan. The marriage was intended to remain secret, but this did not prevent rumors from spreading, throwing the court into a state of utter amazement.

How can we explain Mme de Maintenon’s extraordinary rise from a questionable past to become the wife of Europe’s most powerful sovereign? She would remain at the side of Louis XIV for the next thirty-two years, until his death in 1715, continually provoking such questions. The King never publicly admitted that he was married to her, so she was an ambiguous figure, courted as well as resented and feared for her closeness to him. Despite her outward piety, even prudishness, many at the court, the duc de Saint-Simon among them, saw her as an unscrupulous, ambitious, scheming, and sanctimonious hypocrite. Mme de Maintenon herself preferred to keep her relationship with the King something of a mystery. “I want my life to be an enigma,” she is reported to have said when she burned all their correspondence.

Veronica Buckley’s biography, like other recent studies, looks beyond the prejudices that have long surrounded Mme de Maintenon. Buckley sets out to reconstruct her complex and elusive personality and to understand her often contradictory behavior against the political, cultural, and religious background of the society in which she moved up, step by careful step.

Françoise d’Aubigné was born in November 1635 in the prison of the French town of Niort, where her father, the degenerate son of the great Huguenot poet Agrippa d’Aubigné, was serving a sentence for counterfeiting. Baptised a Catholic—her mother’s religion—she was entrusted in 1638 to her paternal aunt, Louise d’Aubigné, and her husband, Benjamin Le Valois de Villette, both fervent Huguenots who brought up their niece in their own faith. In 1644, however, Françoise had to follow her parents to the West Indies, where her father hoped to make his fortune; instead he lost everything there and then died in France. When her mother returned to France an impoverished widow, she forced her daughter to beg in the streets before abandoning her to the guardianship of Mme de Neuillant, the wife of the governor of Niort. Determined to wrest Françoise away from Protestantism, Mme de Neuillant twice sent her to Ursuline convents, where she eventually became a Catholic; but she developed a lasting distaste for the convent mentality.

Françoise’s years with the Neuillants were unhappy and full of humiliations. And yet it was also in their house at Niort that she had the good fortune to meet the chevalier de Méré, the first and most illustrious theoretician of honnêteté—the aristocratic art of courtliness, elegance, and mutual pleasure. Françoise made excellent use of his advice in order to reinvent herself, win the respect of people she met, and begin her astonishing ascent.

Françoise joined Mme de Neuillant in Paris in late 1650 and started to become acquainted with high society. She was a beautiful young woman, but she lacked a dowry, and at the age of sixteen, in order to avoid ending up in a convent, she accepted the proposal of the libertine writer Paul Scarron, who was twenty-five years her senior. He was irascible, beset by debts, and deformed by a crippling arthritis. He was also brilliant, cultivated, and amusing, and Parisians were drawn to his salon for his jokes, verses, and anecdotes. His young wife became, in effect, his nurse while also making her way in fashionable circles.

We don’t know whether Scarron’s physical condition ruled out conjugal intimacy. As Buckley writes:

Françoise’s devoted care of Scarron, which did not flag over the eight years that their marriage was to last, suggests that in any case, he did nothing, or asked nothing, that she did not accept.

If her reserve toward men protected her from slander, her apparent suppression of sexuality was also in keeping with the idea of “preciousness” then spreading through the salons of the capital. The précieuses exalted platonic love and female friendship; they shared a passion for conversation, psychological subtlety, and refined manners, and saw themselves as uncompromising in matters of taste.

Years later, in a vitriolic portrait in his memoirs, the duc de Saint-Simon accused Mme de Maintenon of clinging to the precious and prim qualities that had been fashionable during her youth. But it was these very qualities, along with her apprenticeship in honnêteté, that earned her the “fine reputation” to which she had so fervently aspired and made it possible for her to start afresh when she was widowed at age twenty-four. After Scarron’s death, his wife once more found herself penniless. But she was finally free, still a great beauty, and had a quick wit.

Françoise immediately showed skill and prudence in climbing the social ladder. Some old friends persuaded the pious Queen Mother, Anne of Austria, that poverty might tempt the virtuous widow into the life of a kept woman, so Anne granted her a pension that gave her independence and enabled her to continue the social life she had enjoyed during her marriage. At the same time she became a close friend of Ninon de Lenclos, a refined, cultivated courtesan who had scandalized proper society. Ninon generously turned over to Françoise one of her own lovers, the handsome marquis de Villarceaux. Was it a major affair, as Buckley claims? Certainly the extremely discreet rela- tionship with Villarceaux did not prevent the doors of Parisian high society from opening wide to her.

Françoise would later recall this period—in which she wished for nothing more than to cut a “fine figure and win the respect of honnêtes gens “—as the best in her life. We find evidence of her success in Mme de Sévigné’s letters, where she is often remarked upon for her “amiable and marvelously upright mind,” her gift for storytelling, and the great tact with which she “knew how to flatter.” It was precisely these qualities that led an old acquaintance, Françoise-Athénaïs de Rochechouart, marquise de Montespan, to make her an offer that would radically change the course of her life.

Mme de Montespan, Louis XIV’s mistress since the summer of 1667, asked Françoise to take charge, in the utmost secrecy, of the children she bore to the King. Pressed by her confessor Père Gobelin to accept the assignment and serve the King, Françoise thus found herself, beginning in the spring of 1669, at the head of a nursery that, thanks to Athénaïs’s fecundity, would keep growing. There were two boys and a girl in December 1673, when they were declared the King’s legitimate children and joined the court, and four more to come. Françoise was deeply attached to them, especially Louis-Auguste, the future duc du Maine. By that time, moreover, she had fallen in love with their father, and after a protracted struggle with her conscience yielded to his advances, probably in November 1674. Louis XIV had already given her pensions and gifts of money in appreciation for her care of his children, and in February of the next year he conferred upon her the title marquise de Maintenon.

Mme de Maintenon’s first problem was to avoid joining the ranks of the many sexual conquests that the indefatigable sovereign relegated to the margins of his relationship with Mme de Montespan. Françoise was now thirty-eight, three years older than Louis, and well aware that her physical charms would not long sustain the King’s interest. He had been struck by her dedication to his children and the qualities that he had discerned during his visits to them: her sweetness, reserve, tact, and modesty; her understanding of life; her emotional balance. It was by impressing him with her character that she made herself indispensable to the King, earning the playful epithet “Your Steadiness” and becoming a source of strength and stability to him. Not satisfied, however, she became more ambitious beginning in 1680. As Buckley writes:

She would forge a stronger bond with him, a bond that would ensure a lasting, indeed an everlasting glory, for him and also for herself. She was not going to be counted as just one more royal mistress. Her goal was far, far higher. Françoise had decided to save the King’s soul.

Mme de Maintenon’s plan to persuade Louis XIV to end his scandalous succession of maîtresses en titre—his official chief mistresses—and reconcile with the Queen, despite her own illicit relationship with him, has been one of the most controversial aspects of her life. Dazzled by the vertiginous heights to which she had risen (“my life…has been a miracle,” she is said to have confided to a friend in her old age) and, according to most accounts, strongly influenced by her confessors, Françoise grew convinced that she was Providence’s instrument for persuading Louis to abandon conduct unworthy of the “Most Christian King.” Buckley does not share this interpretation. She is inclined to believe that Françoise manipulated her confessors and that her goal was purely strategic: to conceal her embarrassing past beneath the veil of faith. Her decision, in short,

did not reflect any genuine new-found piety on her part. Rather, it revealed her need for a serious aim in life, and no doubt, too, a tactical accommodation to the increasingly dévot tone of the times, with its accompanying elevation of her own public reputation.

This interpretation of Mme de Maintenon as a religious hypocrite indicates how badly Buckley’s account stumbles when Françoise enters the Sun King’s court. Buckley is severe in her judgments of Louis XIV’s policies and style of governing. As might be expected, she mentions his harsh imprisonment of Nicolas Fouquet, the superintendent of finance and an enormously rich patron of the arts, whose grand style Louis found intolerable. More generally, she challenges the King’s entire reign (especially by comparison with the achievements of England’s parliamentary monarchy), including his economic and military policies, and above all his quest for supremacy in Europe. Again, this criticism is familiar, if more controversial. But Buckley’s claims about seventeenth-century religiosity are much more doubtful, and she fails to understand the centrality of a theological culture that has all but disappeared today. For example, Jansenism, one of the century’s main theological movements, was certainly too important and influential to dismiss as “a rather grim sect,” even if it found little official approval either by the Church or by the court.

Let us take the case of Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet. Court preacher, theologian, and uncompromising champion of orthodox Catholicism, the bishop of Meaux was a charismatic spiritual figure and enjoyed the respect and trust of Louis XIV, who chose him to serve as tutor to the dauphin. (Mme de Maintenon made every effort to win his esteem.) Buckley makes no mystery of her antipathy to him, presenting him with unsparing sarcasm as “a fanatical proponent of absolute monarchy, ordained by God: the divine right of a king to rule.” This characterization is indubitably incisive, but it fails to take account of the fact that the expression droit divin des rois (divine right of kings) is, as Jean Mesnard has demonstrated, nowhere to be found in Bossuet’s work. As another distinguished scholar, Gérarde Ferreyrolles, has specified, moreover,

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