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.
Pitts writes that one of the principal themes of his study is Mademoiselle’s “lifelong conflict with authority, often at the intersection of the public and private spheres.” Though her birth and wealth allowed her a degree of autonomy exceptional for a woman of her time, Pitts explains that “her rank and visibility gave a public import to what would otherwise have been private matters.” Mademoiselle justified her blatant defiance of royal authority, for example, in the name of the filial obedience she owed her father, who had already taken sides against the crown, and had even sent her in his place to the aid of Orléans. Yet Gaston himself not only shirked his paternal responsibilities but took advantage of his daughter’s legal status as a minor to try to deprive her of much of her inheritance, forcing her to oppose him in order to recover the estate left to her by her mother.
After her father’s death, her relationship with Louis XIV grew progressively worse. As both head of the family, a position he inherited at Gaston’s death, and reigning monarch, Louis XIV had a double authority over Mademoiselle and he readily exercised it by attempting to arrange marriages for the usual royal purpose of furthering his dynastic alliances and political ambitions. This caused Mademoiselle much hardship; she was, for example, sent into exile a second time for refusing to marry Alfonso VI of Portugal. But more painfully, Louis XIV prevented her from marrying Lauzun, the man she loved. Although the Sun King had astonished many by first consenting to a marriage between Mademoiselle and Lauzun, a mere captain in the King’s bodyguard, he quickly retracted his permission after the objections of his wife and his official mistress, Madame de Montespan.
Louis XIV was not only interested in protecting the dignity of his cousin; he had firm designs on the remaining patrimony of Mademoiselle and was willing to use brutal means to obtain it. Not taking any chances, he had Lauzun arrested in November 1671 and imprisoned in the Piemontese fortress of Pignerol until April 1681. Mademoiselle was able to obtain his release only after promising to cede a considerable portion of her property to the duc du Maine, one of the illegitimate children of Louis XIV and Madame de Montespan.
Even in her love affair she could not escape the fact that the advantages of her birth were double-edged. Since she was a princess of the blood, convention dictated that she make the first advances and propose marriage herself, though it seems likely that her looks and personal charm were insufficient to seduce Lauzun. He was won over, it seems, by her enormous fortune and by the prospect of an unprecedented elevation in social rank. No better evidence of the sensation created by their imminent marriage can be provided than a celebrated letter of Madame de Sévigné:
I am going to tell you the most astonishing thing, the most surprising, the most marvelous, the most miraculous, the most triumphant, the most astounding, the most unheard-of, the most peculiar, the most extraordinary, the most incredible, the most unforeseen, the biggest, the smallest, the most rare, the most ordinary, the most dazzling, the most secret (until today), the most brilliant, the most deserving of envy; finally, a thing of which one finds only one example in the past…. Can you guess who M. de Lauzun is going to marry on Sunday at the Louvre?4
When, two days before the wedding, the King told her he would not permit the marriage, Pitts writes, “she returned home in a fury, smashing the windows of her carriage on the way.” For the ten years that her lover was in prison, Mademoiselle remained faithful to him, doing all she could to obtain his release. Yet when Lauzun was finally granted his freedom and returned to Paris, he revealed himself to be anything but gallant toward Mademoiselle. He took over entirely for himself the titles, properties, and castles that she had given him, claiming they were just compensation for the punishment he suffered on her account. Although there was speculation that they were secretly married, it seems the principal conjugal right Lauzun was ready to exercise was to criticize everything from the people she trusted to her expenditures. Confronted with his extreme arrogance, rudeness, and ingrat-itude, Mademoiselle reacted with a show of pride, recovered some of her independence, and broke with him.
In the first part of her Mémoires, Mademoiselle had celebrated her participation in the Fronde as heroic and described how her actions had earned her glory and renown. In the second part, covering the tumultuous years of her relationship with Lauzun, Mademoiselle chose “an ethics of sincerity” and challenged accusations of having been ensnared by the ambitious Lauzun, insisting instead that she had chosen him and had “remained in control of her destiny.” According to Pitts, she recounted how, during her years of involvement with Lauzun, “she refused kings and princes…and endured a second bout of exile…rather than submit to the king’s wishes.” But in the final part of the Mémoires she had to admit that, despite her most desperate efforts, she had lost control over her destiny:
Greatness of birth and the advantages bestowed by wealth and by nature should provide all the elements of a happy life. But experience should have taught us that there are many people who have had all of these things and are not happy; there are moments when one believes oneself happy, but it does not last…. The events of my own past would give me enough proof of this without looking for examples elsewhere.5
With the benefit of hindsight, the defeated Anne-Marie-Louise wrote that she had been forced to recognize that justice is not of this world, that she could not prevail in her lifelong conflict with authority and would find justice “only in heaven.” As Pitts writes, Mademoiselle did not hesitate to denounce her persecutors—Condé, Louis XIV, Madame de Montespan—but
the rage here is mixed with indications of a new level of religious piety and resignation to the divine (as opposed to the royal) will. The conflict between these two positions, a Christian resignation to the injustice of the world and a rage at its consequences, is never resolved in the Mémoires.
Betrayed, humiliated, deprived of her property, Mademoiselle still managed to preserve her most valued possession, her autonomy. She was able to maintain and advocate this independence in her writings, which, Pitts suggests, can be read as an “appeal for vindication…to posterity” whose insistent voice, “even when muted with grief and disillusionment, speaks loudly.”
It is appropriate that her letters, translated by Joan DeJean and published under the title Against Marriage, should be included in a distinguished series dedicated to women’s writing, “The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe,” edited by Margaret L. King and Albert Rabil Jr. Women’s writing, the editors explain, reveals a voice of protest “in contradistinction to ‘the first voice,’ the voice of the educated men who created Western culture…. [This] other voice first appeared when, after so many centuries, the accumulation of misogynist concepts evoked a response from a capable woman defender: Christine de Pizan (1365–1431).” In 1405 Pizan published her Book of the City of Ladies, a justification of her sex and an inspiration to the women who, over the next few centuries, began to express their aspirations and challenge their private and public roles. But a lack of education and access to public discourse, as well as the prevailing views condemning women who spoke out as unchaste, ensured that female writers remained rare. In the slow and difficult process of women beginning to speak for and about women, the eight letters of Mademoiselle de Montpensier can be read as a manifesto.
La Grande Mademoiselle’s discovery of literature coincided with the end of her active involvement in politics.6 In exile at Saint-Fargeau, surrounded by a small court of faithful friends, she acquired with the help of two well-known writers, Pierre-Daniel Huet and Jean Segrais, a taste not only for literature but also for moral reflection and for the psychological introspection typical of the sophisticated culture of the time. She also experimented with different narrative forms and wrote engaging “portraits” of her peers, thereby giving impetus to a literary genre that would become fashionable in France. Though she eventually returned to a life within the royal family, and showed more resolve than ever to regain the honors and inheritance lawfully owed her, she would never forget her experience at Saint-Fargeau during her first exile.
Indeed, while she stayed with the royal court at Saint-Jean-de-Luz, on the Spanish border, in the midst of preparations for Louis XIV’s marriage to Infanta Maria Theresa, she felt a strong nostalgia for the Arcadian atmosphere of Saint-Fargeau, where men and women could cultivate their own interests. Provoked by the royal wedding, Mademoiselle strongly expressed her thoughts regarding women and their place in society in her letters to her friend Madame de Motteville. A lady-in-waiting to Anne of Austria, Madame de Motteville was at the time of their correspondence about to write her own invaluable memoirs of the reign of Louis XIII and Anne’s regency. In her correspondence with Madame de Motteville, Mademoiselle conceived a “utopian vision for a community in which women would be mistresses of their fates and their property,”7 where courtship and love would be banished and marriage abolished:
You will allow me to tell you again that marriage is that which has given men the upper hand, that this dependence to which custom subjects us, often against our will and because of family obligations of which we have been the victims, is what has caused us to be named the weaker sex. Let us at last deliver ourselves from this slavery; let there be a corner of the world in which it can be said that women are their own mistresses and do not have all the faults that are attributed to them; and let us celebrate ourselves for the centuries to come through a way of life that will immortalize us.
These letters outline not just the principles of the community, of which Mademoiselle would naturally be sovereign, but give a detailed blueprint for its daily life. The grounds, she imagines, would be large enough so that each woman could build a house according to her own taste. (Mademoiselle’s would be in a forest, since she didn’t much care for the sea.) The members would visit each other on foot or horseback or in carriages. Each person would have a library and she had “no doubt that we would have among us some who would also write books, each according to her talent, since we all have unique talents if we follow our own instincts.” The community would include a church, a convent of Carmelites, a hospital to treat the sick and the poor, and herds of sheep so that the women could dress as shepherdesses in celebration of the pastoral ideal.
This extraordinary exchange between Mademoiselle and Madame de Motteville began on May 14, 1660, and lasted a little over a year. These letters are all the more remarkable when we realize that they were written ten years before Mademoiselle’s agonizing affair with Lauzun. Until now only four letters were known, but thanks to a meticulous examination by Joan DeJean of a recently acquired manuscript at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, four more letters have been identified, and they give the correspondence a greater intensity. In one of the newly discovered letters, written when Mademoiselle thought she was going to have to abandon her ideals and submit to marriage to Charles of Lorraine, she raises the possibility that, with marriage, her
first duties have such power over me that they take away that which I might have over myself…. Time will put me in a state either to continue with the plan that we made, or to submit myself to the harsh destiny that exposes me to another fate, or to defend our plan as forcefully as I can.
Three months later, however, in her last letter to Motteville, she writes that she has happily avoided marriage once again. “I have triumphed over all the enemies who were persecuting me,” she writes:
My most agreeable hours…are spent dreaming about our plan and thanking God that the obstacles that could have stood in its way in the past have finally been removed…. I breathe the air with incomparable pleasure when I think that I do so with full and complete freedom and that I see almost no possibility of ever losing it.
—Translated from the Italian and French by Mario Pereira and YiLing Chen-Josephson
August 14, 2003
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). ↩
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. ↩
Mémoires de Mademoiselle de Montpensier, edited by Adolph Chéruel, Vol. 4, Part 2 (Paris: Charpentier, 1858– 1859), p. 197. ↩
Madame de Sévigné to Coulanges, December 15, 1670, in Correspondance, Vol. 1 (Paris: Gallimard, 1972), pp. 139–140. ↩
Mémoires (1694), quoted from Pitts, La Grande Mademoiselle at the Court of France, p. 233. ↩
Both Faith E. Beasley (Revising Memory: Women’s Fiction and Memoirs in Seventeenth-Century France, Rutgers University Press, 1990) and Joan DeJean (Tender Geographies: Women and the Origins of the Novel in France) see her literary activity after the Fronde as a new form of protest that was a substitute for political action, a sphere from which women were excluded by order of royal and patriarchal authority. ↩
Joan DeJean, “Introduction: La Grande Mademoiselle,” Against Marriage, p. 13. ↩