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Madame de Pompadour by Nancy Mitford

Madame de Pompadour (1954)

by Nancy Mitford

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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7211020,103 (3.75)36
When Madame de Pompadour became the mistress of Louis XV, no one expected her to retain his affections for long. A member of the bourgeoisie rather than an aristocrat, she was physically too cold for the carnal Bourbon king, and had so many enemies that she could not travel publicly without risking a pelting of mud and stones. History has loved her little better.Nancy Mitford's delightfully candid biography re-creates the spirit of eighteenth-century Versailles with its love of pleasure and treachery. We learn that the Queen was a "bore," the Dauphin a "prig," and see France increasingly overcome with class conflict. With a fiction writer's felicity, Mitford restores the royal mistress and celebrates her as a survivor, unsurpassed in "the art of living," who reigned as the most powerful woman in France for nearly twenty years.… (more)
  1. 00
    Marie Antoinette: The Journey by Antonia Fraser (nessreader)
    nessreader: I know these represent two different generations at Versailles, but both books are about women at the french court, and are as readable as novels

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» See also 36 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 10 (next | show all)
Reading Nancy Mitford's biography of "Reinette" Poisson, whom history knows as Madame de Pompadour, is like sidling up to a knowledgeable guest at a vast party full of strangers and asking her what's what. She's happy to tell you, but being Mitford, a Jazz Age aristocrat, a Bright Young Thing, she'll assume you know who all the people are already, and that you have a passing command of French, and focus on how they relate to the one she came to admire, La Pompadour.

In other words, it's a shame that NYRB Classics neglected to include a family tree or, better still, a dramatis personae, for the casual reader unfamiliar with the late Ancien Regime of Pompadour's lover, King Louis XV's France will likely be lost in a sea of unfamiliar names, political issues, and bewildering Versailles ettiquitte. I was fortunate to have numerous secondary sources at hand to answer my questions and help me remember what I did already know; those without such will want to have a browser window handy, as even just Wikipedia will be a help for which they'll be grateful.

That is not to say this is at all a bad book. Mitford is great fun to read, breezy, well-informed and opinionated. She feels her subject has been unfairly maligned by history and wants to redress that, in the process giving us all a wonderful look at a most fascinating woman. ( )
  KateSherrod | Aug 1, 2016 |

If you’re looking for a sterile, fact-forward, speculation-free, scholarly biography of Madame de Pompadour, this is not the book for you. With Nancy Mitford at the helm, Versailles of the eighteenth century comes back to life in all its glory and decadence. The entire biography reads like having a glass of wine with a very intelligent, very gossip-y confidant, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. This is a world that Mitford, of all people, understands a bit more than those of us born outside of the aristocracy. She carries this perspective and insight into the narrative and is able to infuse a sense of empathy and access into one of the most exclusive eras of French history.

This is not to imply that this book is not thoroughly researched. Though it may read more like a novel at times, Mitford did her due diligence research-wise. In fact, her study turned up information that ran contrary to the popular historical opinion of the day; most historians argued that Madame de Pompadour had little political influence, whereas Mitford uncovered that she had more power over the King than previously thought, though Mitford is honest about the scope and scale of de Pompadour’s contributions:

“Madame de Pompadour’s excursion into politics will not give much satisfaction to the feminist…To her, as to most women, politics were a question of personalities; if she liked somebody he could do no wrong–a good friend was sure to make a good general, a man who could write Latin verses, and amuse the King, a good minister. Political problems in themselves were of no interest to her, her talents did not lie in that direction.” (p. 188)
So she may not have always directly weighed in on the issues of the day, but she was primarily concerned with making sure the king was happy and amused, and did exercise the influence she had as to who the King surrounded himself with, which was bound to have political repercussions in a roundabout way. Her power came from her extensive access to the King. She was his confidant and many times, his secretary. Not as much his lover, as one would imagine. Theirs was a relationship built on deep love, affection, trust and friendship.

To give a bit of context (for those of you who may not be French history buffs), Madame de Pompadour was the mistress of Louis XV until her death. In fact, when she was just a young girl, a fortune-teller prophesied that she would “reign over the heart of the king,” and that she did (p. 22). After her death, the King took a new mistress, who held that position until his death, which ushered in the era of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette (and, as we know, that era didn’t exactly end well for the royal family). When reading about Madame de Pompadour’s cultural tastes and hobbies, it was hard not to see the stage being set for Marie Antoinette and the infamous misquote of “Let them eat cake!”

“Croÿ describes a visit to Trianon with the King, who showed him the hot-houses, the rare plants, the hens (which he specially liked), the charming pavilion, the flower and vegetable gardens; all arranged so prettily. Croÿ is full of admiration, but deplores the fact that Madame de Pompadour should have given the King ‘an unfortunate taste for expensive little things which cannot last.’ This view was shared by the public. Madame de Pompadour excelled at an art which the majority of human beings thoroughly despise because it is unprofitable and ephemeral: the art of living.” (p. 128)
One of de Pompadour’s largest contributions to court life was the establishment of a theatre company composed entirely of ladies and gentlemen of the court. It was invitation only, for the actors as well as for the audience, and access to their productions became another huge indicator of status in courtly life. This excess, this emphasis on the importance of pleasure and leisure, is why I find this era of history so fascinating.

When I visited Paris in high school, I fell IN LOVE. With the spirit of the city. With the architecture. With the art. With the romance. With the energy. With Rick, our tour guide (HUGE unrequited crush…he read us POETRY IN FRENCH and knew about ART and LITERATURE, all of which I found incredibly attractive).

My heritage is French, Irish and Iroquois, and when our tour guide read my last name, he told me that there was a good chance that the “de” in my last name indicated that somewhere along the line, my family had received that title from the King. Well, that hooked me. Whether that holds to be true or not, I have found myself completely enthralled by French history ever since. The notion that there was an entire class of people who spent their entire life in service to art and beauty and pleasure…the excess and the courtly rules and the intrigue! And the CLOTHES!!! God, the CLOTHES!!!!

*catches breath*

I’ve read quite a few biographical pieces on this era of French history, and I thoroughly enjoyed Mitford’s work. To me, it felt like a great translation reads: she truly captured the spirit and essence of the time.

Rubric rating: 8 ( )
  jaclyn_michelle | Apr 1, 2014 |
Prior to reading this book, all I knew about Madame de Pompadour came from an episode of "Doctor Who" (Which is to say, given the episode involved a space ship that opened into her fireplace, I knew next to nothing.) So I can't really comment on the historical accuracy of Nancy Mitford's "Madame de Pompadour."

I can say that I was delighted by the coffee-table style of the book and Mitford's ability to pick out little, insightful details (a hallmark of her fiction as well.) The book has an almost gossipy style that is well-suited for a mistress of a king.

I've been absolutely spoiled by Alison Weir's wonderful books on the Tudors, where she backs up each and every detail and supposition with evidence from source material. Mitford makes a lot of snooty pronouncements but never produces any evidence, which drove me nuts. She also drops a lot of names but in a way that is still readable.

Overall, a pretty book that is better when it focuses on the more frivolous aspects of the lives of Louis XV and Madame de Pompadour. Still, it made for an interesting read. ( )
1 vote amerynth | Feb 10, 2013 |
VG copy in VG DJ
  Hawken04 | Nov 18, 2012 |
I knew almost nothing about the person who would become known to history as Madame de Pompadour despite having walked through the halls of Versailles where she spent a good twenty years of her life. Oh, this painting or that objet d’art was pointed out as hers but who was she, this French woman who had won Louis XV’s heart and had managed the affairs of France at his side?

Mitford first introduces us to Louis XV himself, from his childhood through his marriage and various mistresses. A shy man whose parents had died while he was very young (he had only lived because his nurse, the Duchesse de Ventadour, hid him away from the doctor who successfully killed his entire family with his treatment of their measles) Louis was a handsome and intelligent man but one who had virtually no training in the art of kingship. He got married off to the daughter of the exiled King of Poland, Marie Leczinska, who after producing a son and some daughters, decided to become prematurely middle-aged, completely uninterested in sex and boringly religious. So Louis, although he disliked change and was of a temperament to settle comfortably with one woman, went through a series of mistresses, none of whom treated the Queen particularly well. Louis himself ignored the Queen as much as possible.

Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson (the future Marquise de Pompadour) was born into a solidly bourgeois family, her mother a great beauty but with a bit of a loose reputation and her father the steward to the Paris brothers who ran France’s economic matters. She was comfortably wealthy, very well educated across a broad spectrum which included music and dance. At the age of 9, she was told by a fortune teller that she would reign over the heart of a king, hence her nickname “Reinette”. She was skilled at acting and her elocution was impeccable. She was enthusiastic about gardening, botany, birds; she painted well and was considered a superior housekeeper (managing the running of, not wielding the mops in). And she was very, very pretty.

In due time she was married off to Le Normant d’Etioles and produced a daughter, despite knowing herself destined for greater things. She loved the King with all her heart from that age of 9! When they met and connected with each other at the Ball of the Clipped Yew Trees, the rest really did become history. It wasn’t considered particularly shameful to be the King’s mistress but was rather a position of some pride and influence. However, her husband took it very hard as he had been very much in love with her. They never spoke again.

Mitford is nothing if not thorough, taking us through the early days of their relationship, the trials and tribulations of the petty, vicious world of the Versailles court. She emphasizes frequently how honest and direct Pompadour was, seemingly incapable of lying, and how she sought to rise above the political games being played out at the low courtier level. But France was changing. The bourgeoisie of Paris and the court at Versailles were worlds apart. Political power struggles were going on which involved religion, economics, and war, especially the Seven Year war with England, which pretty much bankrupted the country. The King was no longer sacred, no longer adored without question. And of course, as his mistress, Pompadour bore the blame for all the ills of the country, even when the opposite was true, according to Mitford.

Madame de Pompadour, with her common sense and intelligence, played the game better and longer than most, aiding the King but also making some big mistakes. It was the war which undid her, particularly emotionally, with its loss of lives, money and prestige for France. She died a hard death at forty, in the cold of winter, broken-hearted and broken in spirit. Louis was verklempt and, in Mitford’s words, “After this a great dullness fell upon the Chateau of Versailles”.

Although I sometimes had to grit my teeth when my egalitarian Scots-Canadian sensibilities ran headlong into the defense Mitford unconsciously seemed to be making for the privileged classes, I enjoyed this book very much indeed.
14 vote tiffin | Jan 27, 2012 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Nancy Mitfordprimary authorall editionscalculated
Beaton, CecilCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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High rouged, unfortunate female of whom

it is not proper to speak without necessity.

Thomas Carlyle
Sincere et tendre Pompadour

Dedicated to the memory of Dolly Princess Radziwill
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After the death of the great King, beautiful Versailles, fatal for France, lay empty seven years while fresh air blew through its golden rooms, blowing away the sorcery and bigotry which hung about the walls like a miasma, blowing away the old century and blowing in the new.
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