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Madame de Pompadour by Nancy Mitford
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"Nineteenth century historians, shocked by the contemplation of such a merry, pointless life, have been at great pains to emphasize the boredom from which, they say, the whole Court and the King suffered. No doubt a life devoted to pleasure must sometimes show the reverse side of the medal and it is quite true that boredom was the enemy, to be vanquished by fair means or foul. But the memoirs of the day and the accounts of the courtiers who lived through the Revolution .. do not suggest that it often got the upper hand; on the contrary they speak on and all, of a life without worries and without remorse.. of perpetual youth, of happy days out of doors and happy evenings chatting and gambling in the great wonderful palace... If ever a house radiated cheerfulness, that house is Versailles; no other building in the world is such a felicitious combination of palace and country house..."

"..The case of the Duc de Richelieu illustrates the fact that once a man has been convicted of treachery, he is better dead; the traitor will always betray...If, when the Regent had enough proof to cut off four of M. de Richelieu's heads, he had cut off just one, the history of France might have been different indeed."

If you guys read those paragraphs and aren't smiling or shaking your head or clapping your hands or some other expression of delight, then perhaps this book isn't for you, but I'm doing all of those things and LOVING IT. I absolutely adored this book from start to finish, and Nancy Mitford's narrative charm is the reason entire. It is of course helpful that her subject is fascinating in her own right, and her cast of supporting characters were leading men and ladies in many other stories and indeed can't help but steal the spotlight from time to time (if the Duc de Richelieu is playing sidekick #2, you've got a damn good thing going is all I'm saying). But this biography reveals two women, not one, and it is a picture of two times and two mindsets, and the primary one is not the one that takes place in the 18th century.

What is it about these early 20th century women? These British women writers in particular? There's something about their assurance, their ability to opine and pronounce and tell a tale with such utter confidence and pull it off without the slightest self-consciousness. There's a way some of these women have of staring you down with utter unconsciousness that anyone could sensibly feel anything different that makes you blink even when you know there's something wrong with that reasoning.

I think part of it really does have to do with the fact that so many of them descended from the aristocracy. It might have been an aristocracy whose material rights had in many ways long since gone, but please do let's remember that it is just possible for women of that generation to have had grandfathers who fought Napoleon. The values being imbibed, the educational program, and the history being taught was not so different, and the society was still to a great degree closed. It still mattered who you were born... but of course there is a consciousness that that is all fading away, so quickly. And you know that when things are falling away, oftentimes that is the first time you see them, clearly.

Nancy Mitford's book was all about this. It manifested itself in two ways: the first was the way that she approached the world of Versailles, the nobles, the King, and Madame de Pompadour herself. She approached her as an equal, and actually rather as her sympathetic superior. While other historians might have spent a great deal of painstaking time explaining the social codes of Versailles and entangled family trees and have lists of names and navigational charts, Nancy Mitford's book assumes a warm familiarity with her readers and her subjects. She is not intimidated by Versailles, and she expects that you will be equally comfortable walking about the ancient pile while she waves her hand at "oh that old Hall of Mirrors, it really is just too dusty I keep telling Mother the maids really do forget to dust in there, oh mind your dress darling the step is just a bit uneven there, this way loves, we'll have a picnic lunch by the lake today, shall we, it's lovely outside..."... as we pass on easily from room to room, watching the men and ladies come and go, confident that the people we meet will be in perfect accord with us. The dresses might be different, and the wigs, but Mitford makes that all seem a matter of fashion- as if we had been out of the country for a year and just needed to pay a morning call to our good friend the Duchess who would fill us in. We just need to make sure our friends don't see us in this shocking state before we've had time to get rigged up properly.

As the quotes above might show, her aristocratic ease and sense of belonging to this world means that she feels free to make many pronouncements on it. In telling the story of La Pompadour, she lets us know when she feels the lady has gone wrong, when she's been clever, and what she could have done better- the same judgement and really the same understanding is applied to the other characters in the story. For instance, she sets up a careful contrast between the marriage of the King and the Queen and how the Queen was a clearly inferior creature to Madame de Pompadour because she hadn't the least idea of how to manage a man- and nor should she poor lamb, taken out of poor obscurity with her poor Polish king father, with her dowdy religiousity and her frigid refusal to sleep with the King (who otherwise, apparently, might have been faithful)... much better to have stayed at home. When Madame de Pompadour ceased sleeping with the king, by contrast, Mitford applauds how well she manages to keep his love despite it all, though she is realistic about the nearby brothel that develops to replace her. She has a fairly down to earth view of things and when she is sentimental, it is well hidden behind a practical argument.

What I loved about this whole viewpoint was that she successfully individualizes history to the extent that she makes it all seem a matter of "person X was rather cranky that day and lady Y just didn't quite know how to manage him properly, and person Z was a nasty little beast who should have been strangled at birth and made things very much the worse..." It's a personal view of history that makes the work of deciding the fate of millions, declaring war and peace, dealing with complex financial matters as just another damn thing that must be done after inspecting what's on for dinner and sorting out a dispute between the cook and the housekeeper. There's really no reason to make it a bigger drama than that and those who do well... loves, perhaps that is a sign you don't really belong here, isn't it?

So this is the second thing that fascinated me about this one. Similar to the work of Isak Dinesen, to Vita Sackville-West and Evelyn Waugh (in Brideshead at any rate), this is a lament for the decline of the aristocracy. It might seem an odd approach to celebrate the life of one of the world's most successful bourgeoisie social climbers while also making a case for why the aristocracy has been unjustly maligned and why it should still exist, but it's actually a rather clever way of doing it. I don't think it was necessarily a conscious agenda of hers, but her opinions on the subject seemingly couldn't help but come through. Mitford presents Jeanne de Poisson (as yes, the poor lady was born before she became La Pompadour) as a good upper middle class girl who never forgot her roots or pretended to be anything other than she was (both a prime English virtue and something the class conscious aristocrat would have been on the lookout for), and yet as someone who was "naturally" born with an upper class feeling and point of view and taste- she is fiercely loyal to her friends, a lovely, warm person who doesn't gossip behind other people's backs, a lady who throws wonderful parties and makes even shy people feel welcome, a woman who can discuss important issues with men, but knows when to retire, a woman who knew how to keep her looks and her friends as she aged. An unusual case, but much like Cinderella hiding in her dirty clothes, a case where the way we are born nonetheless does tell. She constantly defends Madame as having gotten a bad rap, and completely unfairly too- she rather mindblowingly and continuously argues for why she may have gotten a lot of money from the King but a) it wasn't as much as has been thought (oh, you know fifty million, not a hundred million, so that's totally okay!), and b) that what money she did have was well spent. Nancy Mitford rather crushingly tells us that she was skilled "in the art of living," and people who were starving for their bread just can't properly appreciate that apparently. She goes on rapturously about the beautiful houses she built and decorated with her exquisite taste, and seems to save the greatest of her pity for these troubled times for how her houses didn't last long after her death- after all, beauty and art are what should be appreciated above all. (Once again, the starving and the bread and the oppressed peasants with no rights get no mention- or if they do, it is in mentions of Madame's charity or her helpfulness in certain sticky political situations to save an innocent.) With regards to the King, she takes him to task when she feels he is not fulfilling his proper role in the world, and honestly blames a lot of what comes after on the fact that he does not know how to lead properly.

There are some mentions of the Revolution to come, of course. How she approaches this though is to phrase the problems as a peculiarly French extreme of oppression and particular problems of the personalities at the top. She does once or twice acknowledge that Louis XVI was rather shut off from the world in Versailles, and speaks of the political abuses that went on in France. However, she phrases it as if there really would have been no need for the overthrow of the system, which is perfectly fine in theory, thank you, if France hadn't gone about it all the wrong way.

I don't mean to present this as a political program of a book- that's not the dominant feeling of it, just something that underpins the approach. More of a viewpoint, really- her biography dominating Madame's biography. I wouldn't have it any other way. It's incredibly well written- relatable and warm, sparkling and close. She knows how to tell a story in just the right way to make you laugh, how to deploy an anecdote to tell you all you need to know about a situation. Her knowledge about her subject is clearly deep, but she is able to use it in the way that only the most eminent of scholars do these days- without footnotes, without careful demonstration of knowledge and self-conscious admissions of "I could be wrong"- just one long, continously flowing story that is written not to prove she knows something, but because it's a story worth telling and perhaps it will pass the evening until you go to bed. One could picture her as a good hostess handing these out to her guests to busy them at a house party rather than gossiping to them herself all night long since she has a cold in her throat.

Her ultimate verdict on the story of Madame de Pompadour and its meaning really is that of a hostess, or someone who has been a guest for many years. As her funeral cortege leaves the palace, and the King turns to go inside with tears streaming down his face, she remarks only: "After this a great dullness settled over the Chateau of Versailles."

By that point in the book, you know what that means- and bells ringing out and a Requiem blasting at full strength couldn't have said it better.
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Reading Progress

January 23, 2009 – Shelved
June 8, 2011 – Shelved as: history
June 8, 2011 – Shelved as: grande-dames
June 8, 2011 – Shelved as: examined-lives
Started Reading
October 1, 2011 – Finished Reading
October 16, 2011 – Shelved as: tres-francais
October 16, 2011 – Shelved as: londonreadinglist
October 25, 2011 –
page 95
37.11% ""Madame Adelaide (daughter of Louis XV) was eleven when war broke out with England; they found her leaving Versailles with a few louis in a little bag. 'I am going to make the English lords sleep with me in turns, which they will be honored to do, and bring their heads to Papa.'""
October 29, 2011 –
page 200
78.13% "In spite of victories, Bernis went on bleating his despair. 'I am on the rack!' 'Nous avons ete trahis de partout!' The Marquise could hardly bear the sight of his depressing little face. Stainville wanted to replace him and after a perusal of Bernis' long-winded whines to Vienna it is difficult to blame him. The Empress was reading the letters too: "The French it seems are only invincible when they are fighting me.""
November 1, 2011 – Shelved as: 18th-century
November 1, 2011 – Shelved as: shes-quite-an-original-my-dear
November 1, 2011 – Shelved as: partialprejudicedandignorantopinion

Comments Showing 1-14 of 14 (14 new)

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message 1: by Rebecca (new)

Rebecca I have this, too.

Kelly Reading it soon?

message 3: by Rebecca (new)

Rebecca I read half of it last year, but was unimpressed with Madame. She seemed a dispassionate dilettante. Not really my kind of girl.
Plus, I had some residue resentment from this dalliance...

message 4: by Wealhtheow (new) - added it

Wealhtheow Rebecca, I knew without even clicking on the link that you were talking about The Girl in the Fireplace. I love when Doctor Who makes me love or hate historical personages. (I've never much liked Queen Victoria after finding out she created Torchwood just because the Doctor was rude to her about killing a werewolf.)

Kelly I'm fascinated by Pompadour, and love Nancy Mitford so I think in this case my history love is going to outweigh my geek experiences. :)

message 6: by Wealhtheow (new) - added it

Wealhtheow Her history of the Sun King was good, so I'm hoping this is too!

Kelly Is it? I was deciding between those two at the bookstore. Perhaps I shall go for Louis next time. Thanks for the rec!

message 8: by Wealhtheow (new) - added it

Wealhtheow No problem. It's a terrible life, having all these books to choose amongst.

message 9: by Kelly (last edited Oct 16, 2011 11:18AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Kelly We're such tragic figures. Later generations will study us and marvel at how we managed to muddle through.

message 10: by Paul (new)

Paul Bryant great review...

Kelly Thanks! Mitford is very entertaining and has such a distinctive voice. I'm looking forward to reading her Sun King biography too.

Rashmirekha Basu One of the very best and most resonant reviews of any book I've read so far.

Rashmirekha Basu One of the very best and most resonant reviews of any book I've read so far.

Kelly Thank you! That's so kind. I love this book.

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