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Fly High & Fall

Benedetta Craveri, translated from the Italian by Miranda Robbins
Louvre, Paris/Erich Lessing/Art Resource
‘Racine reading Athalie before Louis XIV and Madame de Maintenon’; painting by Julie Philipaut, 1819

not only is the expression absent, but its very meaning is unthinkable in the seventeenth century…. For to speak of the divine right of kings is to return to affirming that God’s express will is for all men to be ruled by a royal government…. And yet, even for those who profoundly favored the monarchy, nothing could be less true in the eyes of the period’s political thinkers, … and especially in the eyes of Bossuet.

Even if Bossuet was convinced that the French model of hereditary monarchy was the best form of government—a government of which he was a subject and for whose future responsibilities he was actively preparing the dauphin; even if he recognized his King as the absolute authority (quite literally “untied by chains”); this does not mean, as Buckley believes, that he was a “fanatical” proponent of the alliance between throne and altar.

This could well be forgiven as a simple oversight about one of the many characters populating this highly enjoyable biography of more than four hundred pages, except that Buckley continues undaunted. She affirms that Bossuet,

with his famed, mighty theological intellect, was a complete ignoramus as far the Church’s mystic tradition was concerned: it appeared that he had never read a word of Saint François de Sales or even of the great mystic theologian, Saint John of the Cross.

Quite apart from the fact that Bossuet would have been the only cultivated Frenchman of the seventeenth century not to have read de Sales’s Introduction à la vie dévote, whose importance Buckley is absolutely correct to stress—and quite apart from the fact that Bossuet was most certainly familiar with the bishop of Geneva’s mystical summa Traité de l’Amour de Dieu, as is clearly shown by his “Préface sur l’Instruction pastorale donnée à Cambray le quinzième de septembre 1697”—Bossuet’s Panégyrique du bienheureux François de Sales alone puts the lie to the accusation that he was such an “ignoramus.” As for Saint John of the Cross, a rapid check reveals that Bossuet cites him frequently—and always approvingly—in his Instruction sur les états d’oraison (Book VII) and in his Latin treatise Mystici in tuto.

What is true, however, is that Bossuet reserved his full faith for the Church fathers. As a theologian convinced of the unambiguousness of Christian concepts, he distrusted the poetical expressions of mystics because they were equivocal, as is shown by the unforgiving position he took toward Quietism—a querelle in which, as we shall soon see, Mme de Maintenon was herself dangerously implicated.

To take another example, Françoise wrote to her confessor Père Godet des Marais (Père Gobelin’s successor): “I take communion only out of obedience…. I experience no union with God…. Prayers bore me…. I meditate poorly.” Buckley interprets this passage as demonstrating that “she felt within her no real spirituality.” But in fact it suggests the exact opposite. The entire spiritual correspondence of the great theologian François Fénelon is a variation on the theme of sécheresse de l’esprit (dryness of spirit), a subject dear to the religious thinkers of the time. Fénelon exerted a strong fascination over Mme de Maintenon. He wrote to her:

It is He [God] who causes dryness, impatience, and discouragement to arise within us in order to humiliate us through temptation and reveal us to ourselves just as we are.1

And when Buckley sarcastically cites Père Godet’s invitation to his penitents to thank God for a toothache—“He afflicts those whom He loves. Pain is His gift to His cherished children”—as an example of “the petty, restraining, pious exercises” that Françoise found useless, she misunderstands the fact that in the seventeenth century, physical and moral suffering were interpreted as God’s own language.

Buckely ignores an important aspect of Françoise’s character by failing to take into account the central spiritual problems of the age or to grasp the importance of the influence on Mme de Maintenon of such charismatic religious thinkers as Fénelon and Bossuet. She shows that Françoise’s pragmatic approach to morality sustained her up until her arrival at Versailles. From that point on, however, pragmatism was no longer sufficient to guide her through the labyrinth of her own conscience, which was divided between sacred and profane love; between her mission of saving the King and the sin of concupiscence; between her need to safeguard the dignity of her public persona and her feelings of loneliness. Nor did it help her confront the vanity of her ambitions.

The success of Françoise’s campaign to reform the life of the King—he reconciled with his wife in 1680 and abstained from further sexual conquests—did not put her problems of conscience to rest. And if religion did not prevent her from continuing in a compromised situation, it nonetheless taught her many lessons: to distrust herself and others; to live with an awareness of her own sinfulness; and to strip herself progressively of worldly illusions. In the late 1680s Mme de Maintenon was drawn toward quietism, the spiritual movement being spread, with Fénelon’s blessing, by the visionary mystic Jeanne-Marie Bouvier de la Motte Guyon. Quietism held that prayer should be as silent and passive as possible while one awaited illumination by the Holy Spirit. It encouraged abandoning the self completely to God’s will. Quietism became the subject of a theological debate in which Bossuet and Fénelon were locked in bitter confrontation and resulted in the Church’s condemnation of the movement and Mme Guyon’s arrest. Reprimanded by Louis XIV for involvement in what he took to be unorthodox and possibly seditious ideas, Françoise quickly returned to strict Catholic observance.

If Mme de Maintenon’s religious fer-vor enabled her to gain the King’s intimate confidence, it was, as Buckley writes, the Affaire des poisons that cemented his attachment to her.2 Beginning in 1677, a judicial inquiry revealed the existence of a vast criminal network of “witches,” fortune-tellers, abortionists, and peddlers of drugs and poisons who made their services available to the capital’s upper classes, and from whom Mme de Montespan obtained aphrodisiacs to give to the King. There were also darker rumors that she had participated in satanic rites and black masses to liquidate her rivals. The King, much distraught, realized that the “Affair of the Poisons” would not have come about without the complicity of a profoundly amoral society, and that he himself—at least insofar as his own sexual appetites were concerned—had set the example. He ended his relationship with Mme de Montespan and, with Mme de Maintenon’s encouragement, changed his life. When he was abruptly widowed in July 1683, the King, who had grown accustomed to Françoise’s support, decided to assuage his conscience and secretly married her that October.

In this extraordinary way, Françoise d’Aubigné, on the threshold of turning forty-eight, began what might have seemed at first the most successful period of her life. But the marriage brought her little happiness. Not only was it never officially acknowledged, she had no official title or status at the court, where protocol and position were rigidly defined. The secret arrangement exempted the King from all gestures of formal recognition while depriving his wife of all guarantees of security, making her entirely dependent on his benevolence. The prisoner of a “humiliating duplicity,” neither official wife and queen nor maîtresse en titre, Mme de Maintenon now saw her “fine reputation”—the very attribute that had brought her to such heights—vanish. In the eyes of the court and the entire country, she was an adventuress who hid her guilty relationship behind a façade of prudishness.

Their insurmountable differences in rank, not to mention the King’s egotism, would have made an official marriage impossible. But Buckley detests the Sun King too much to content herself with these explanations. She maintains that Louis wanted deliberately to mortify the pride of the woman he loved because he harbored an inferiority complex toward her. He feared being dominated: “in human terms, in intellect and character, it was she who was the stronger.”

Even if we accepted all of Buckley’s views of Louis XIV—she accuses him of “meanness of spirit” and claims that he was “not especially clever” and “egocentric and vain”—it is anachronistic psychologizing to say that he feared “a new ‘Queen Françoise’” who was “more astute, perhaps,” than he and who might be capable of “interfering in public affairs.” With the exception of widows who governed as regents in the names of their underaged sons, queens had no power in the French monarchy of the ancien régime. This was especially true in the reign of the Sun King, who jealously guarded his authority and always enforced the strictest separation between affairs of state and affairs of the heart.

Certainly, however, Louis XIV’s marriage to Françoise coincided with his premature physical decline as well as with the beginning of the downward turn of his reign.3 From 1685 on, he was plagued by gout, “vapors,” gastric disturbances, migraines, eczema, anal fistulas, and frightful surgical interventions. He withstood this suffering with the same stoicism with which he faced the long series of family losses and the military reversals that marked his last years on the throne. Beginning with the revocation of the Edict of Nantes (1685), which forced many thousands of Protestants either to convert or face exile, the Sun King made a series of decisions that had terrible consequences. His attempts to dominate Europe brought the other European states into coalition against him, and the ensuing series of interminable wars left France exhausted and nearly bankrupt.

Mme de Maintenon hated war as much as she detested violence and, contrary to what has long been believed, she was not responsible for the renewed religious persecutions. At the same time, she was not averse to using her influence with the King, especially in promoting the careers of those close to her. She also wished to restore her family’s honor and used her new position to do so. She commissioned the fashionable author La Chapelle to write a biography of her illustrious grandfather, Agrippa d’Aubigné.4 Unfortunately her remaining brother, Charles d’Aubigné, proved a continual source of worry and embarrassment. That left her Protestant cousins, who stubbornly refused to embrace Catholicism even though this was the indispensable precondition for any kind of professional success. And so, even before the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, the marquise contrived to wrest the children of her beloved cousin Philippe de Villette from their parents, forced them to convert, and took charge of their educations. The boy was started on a brilliant military career, and the girl—the future Mme de Caylus—grew up under the vigilant eye of her cousin and emerged as an unusually well- educated young woman.

Not content with supervising the education of her own relations and that of her royal consort’s legitimate and illegitimate descendants, Mme de Maintenon founded, with Louis XIV’s official support, the Royal Institute of Saint-Louis at Saint-Cyr in 1686. The institute was to educate some 250 young women from the impoverished nobility and furnish them with dowries. As the daughter of fallen nobles herself, she could attest to the importance of education and knowledge of social propriety. Saint-Cyr, moreover, represented the sole official homage paid to her by Louis XIV and, as its founder and benefactor, it was only there that she could enjoy complete legitimacy. After the King’s death in 1715, she retired to Saint-Cyr until her death on April 15, 1719.

Saint-Cyr was the first state-run institution dedicated to the systematic education, from childhood through adulthood, of girls of good family. Inspired by ideas that Fénelon would soon espouse in his treatise De l’éducation des filles (1687), Mme de Maintenon showed ingenious insight in developing a forward-looking and lasting pedagogical model. She handpicked the instructors and, at least at the beginning, wanted them to be laypeople (both she and the King distrusted the educational methods practiced in the convents), while also insisting that the institute’s first objective was to provide the girls with a Christian education. She divided the students by age into four forms, selected their readings and their leisure activities, and decided how their days would be organized. Jean Racine wrote his last two religious tragedies—Esther (1689) and Athalie (1691), both based on biblical stories—on her commission for recitation by the pupils. She placed great importance on dialogue between teachers and students and on the priority of reason and reflection over memorization, while also insisting on the necessity of taking into account each student’s character and personal outlook.

Still more important than the institution of Saint-Cyr and the vast ensemble of pedagogical writings she devoted to it,5 Françoise d’Aubigné’s most enduring monument is her correspondence. At more than five thousand letters, it is not only one of the seventeenth century’s most ample collections; it is also among the most remarkable for the diversity of those whom she addressed (friends, relatives, and the women of Saint-Cyr, as well as royalty, popes, papal nuncios, bishops, cardinals, and civil servants) and for the variety of subjects it touches on. Her letters can be admired for their elegant language and their masterful use of an entire spectrum of diverse stylistic and linguistic modes applied, time and again, to each correspondent in accordance with the rules of the epistolary art of the classical age.

It is therefore important that after three centuries of unreliable and incomplete editions, the letters of Mme de Maintenon will finally appear in a complete and rigorous scholarly edition, with Hans Bots and Eugénie Bots-Estourgie heading a team of excellent researchers.The first of the seven volumes, published in Paris last fall, includes 667 letters—accompanied by precise dates and extremely valuable historical notes—which span the years 1650 to 1689 and allow us to follow the crucial years of Françoise’s adventure, through what Bots and Christine Mongenot have defined as an epistolary style “in the service of action.”6 The new edition of the Lettres, by greatly enhancing our awareness of the complexity of the strategies she used to make herself impenetrable, offers new sources for fresh inquiry into the enigma of Mme de Maintenon.

  1. 1

    C’est lui [Dieu] qui fait naître au-dedans la sécheresse, l’impatience, le découragement, pour nous humilier par la tentation, et pour nous montrer à nous-mêmes tels qui nous sommes.” See François Fénelon, “Des croix qu’il y a dans l’état de prospérité, de faveur, de grandeur,” in uvres, edited by Jacques Le Brun (Paris: Gallimard/Pléiade, 1983) Vol. 1, p. 569.

  2. 2

    See Anne Somerset, The Affair of the Poisons: Murder, Infanticide, and Satanism at the Court of Louis XIV (St. Martin’s, 2003).

  3. 3

    An interesting essay by Stanis Perez, La Santé de Louis XIV: Une biohistoire du Roi-Soleil (Seyssel: Champ Vallon, 2007), draws on the Journal de Santé kept by his doctors to show that the King was highly respectful of the authority of those responsible for watching over his physical health in the interest of the country, whatever his personal reservations may have been.

  4. 4

    Composed after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, during a period of renewed persecutions against the Huguenots, the Mémoires pour servir à la vie d’Agrippa d’Aubigné glorify the courtier, warrior, man of action, and servant to the king and furnish an image consistent with his descendant’s wishes. The Mémoires remained in manuscript and were only published recently, edited by Gilles Banderier (Paris: Éditions Honoré Champion, 2008).

  5. 5

    In the US, see Mme de Maintenon, Dialogues and Addresses, superbly edited by John J. Conley, S.J. (University of Chicago Press, 2005) as part of “The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe,” a series dedicated to texts and writings by women.

  6. 6

    Lettres de Madame de Maintenon, Volume 1: 1650–1689, critical edition edited by Hans Bots and Eugénie Bots-Estourgie, with a preface by Marc Fumaroli and an introduction by Hans Bots and Christine Mongenot (Paris: Éditions Honoré Champion, 2009).

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