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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.