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,


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.

This Issue

March 25, 2010