AFTER the death of Marie Thérèse (July 30, 1683), the uncrowned Queen of France was the “Widow Scarron,” the Marquise de Maintenon, governess of the King’s bastards, soon (January, 1684?) his morganatic wife, and henceforth the strongest personal influence in the reign.
It is difficult today to know her real character, and historians still debate it. She had many enemies who resented her rise and power; some of them wrote history, and handed her down to us as a selfish, scheming villain. However, when she might have replaced Mme. de Montespan as royal mistress—with all the influence that this would bring—she refused, and, instead, persuaded the King to return to the bed of the Queen (August, 1680). The Queen was then forty-two, three years younger than La Maintenon, and there was no reason to expect her early death; at this point, apparently, the Marquise preferred virtue to power. When death took the Queen the governess still refused to become a mistress; she played for higher stakes, risking her present place. If her virtue was ambition, it was no more sullied by it than the modesty of a prudent maiden who has only her charms to bargain for her life, and thinks a night’s lodging less security than a wedding ring. When Louis married Maintenon she was forty-eight years old; Mignard pictured her as an amiable matron long past the age of physical allure. At best she was sincerely pious; at worst she took a brave gamble, and won.
Placed now in an apartment near the King’s, she lived in the Palace of Versailles with an almost bourgeois simplicity. “Court life was irksome to her, and she had no pleasure in ostentation.” 1 She did not accumulate wealth; even at the crest of her curve she owned little more than the Château of Maintenon, which she left unfurnished and unused. In their later years Louis is reported to have said to her, “But, madame, you have nothing, and if I die you will be destitute. Tell me what I can do for you.” 2 She asked some modest favors for her relatives, and considerable sums for her pet enterprise, the college that in 1686 she established at St.-Cyr for girls of good family but straitened means. It was not her vanity, but the King’s that conscripted labor and money for the abortive aqueduct that took her name.
In many ways she was a good wife. Her constant occupation, through a busy day, was to serve as a buffer between the King and the world, to maintain peace amid the ambitions and intrigues of courtiers, to humor a swarm of place-seekers, to serve as a kindly aunt to her husband’s grandchildren, to meet his masculine needs, to comfort him in his failures and defeats, to amuse “the man most difficult to amuse in all his kingdom,” 3 and to bring an atmosphere of domestic calm into a life that in almost every hour had to make decisions affecting a million lives. Among her private papers found after her death was this prayer, apparently composed soon after her marriage:
Lord God, Thou hast placed me where I am, and I submit myself to Thy providence without reserve. Grant me grace that as a Christian I may support its sorrows, sanctify its pleasures, seek in everything Thy glory, and . . . help the salvation of the King. Prevent me from giving way to the agitations of a restless mind. . . . Thy will, O God, not mine, be done; for the sole happiness in this world and the next is to submit to it without reserve. Fill me with this wisdom, and all other spiritual gifts necessary to the high place to which Thou hast called me; make fruitful the talents Thou hast been pleased to give me. Thou who holdest in Thy hands the hearts of kings, open that of the King that I may set therein the good that Thou desirest; enable me to please, console, encourage, and even, if it be necessary to Thy glory, to sadden him. Let me hide none of the things he might learn from me which others have not the courage to tell him. Let me save myself together with him; [let me] love him in Thee and for Thee; and let him love me in the same way. Grant that we may walk together in Thy paths without reproach until the day of Thy coming. 4
This is beautiful, as beautiful as any letter of Héloïse to Abélard, and, we hope, more authentic; such a prayer can give strength regardless of any external response. Perhaps there is a secret will to power in the desire to reform and guide others; but Maintenon’s remaining years proved the sincerity, as well as the narrowness, of her piety. “She found a King,” said Saint-Simon, “who believed himself an apostle because he had all his life persecuted Jansenism. . . . This indicated to her with what grain she could sow the field most profitably.” 5
Did she encourage the persecution of the Huguenots? Saint-Simon thought so, 6 but later investigation tends to clear her of this inhumanity, in which Louvois, her consistent enemy, was the protagonist. Lord Acton, a Catholic historian seldom pro-Catholic, judged her
the most cultivated, thoughtful, and observant of women. She had been a Protestant, and retained for a long time the zeal of a convert. She was strongly opposed to Jansenists, and was much in the confidence of the best men among the clergy. It was universally believed that she promoted persecution and urged the King to revoke the Edict of Nantes. Her letters are produced in evidence. But her letters have been tampered with by an editor who was a forger and a falsifier. 7*
Like Fénelon, Mme. de Sévigné, and nearly all Catholics at the time, she approved the Revocation, but she used her influence—often successfully, says the Protestant Michelet—to check the cruelty of the persecution. 8
Lest a romantic tendency to idealize woman should color the picture with roses, let us look at the Marquise through other prejudices. Saint-Simon’s ducal pride could never forgive the rise of the lowly bourgeoise to be mistress of France:
The distress and poverty in which she had so long lived had narrowed her mind, and abased her heart and her sentiments. Her feelings and her thoughts were so circumscribed that she was in truth always less even than Mme. Scarron. . . . Nothing was more repelling than this meanness [low origin] joined to a situation so radiant. 9
Even so the Duke found some virtues amid her faults:
Mme. de Maintenon was a woman of much wit, which the good company in which she had at first been merely suffered, but in which she soon shone, had much polished and ornamented with knowledge of the world, and which gallantry had rendered of the most agreeable kind. The various positions she held had rendered her flattering, insinuating, complacent, always seeking to please. The need she had of intrigues, those she had seen of all kinds, and been mixed up in for herself and for others, had given her the taste, the ability, and the habit of them. Incomparable grace, an easy manner, and yet measured and respectful, which, in consequence of her long obscurity, had become natural to her, marvelously aided her talents; with language gentle, exact, well expressed, and naturally eloquent and brief. Her best time, for she was three or four years older than the King, had been the dainty-phrase period—the superfine gallantry days. . . . She put on afterwards an air of importance, but this gradually gave place to one of devoutness that she wore admirably. She was not absolutely false by disposition, but necessity had made her so, and her natural flightiness made her appear twice as false as she was. 10
Macaulay, from the pathos of distance, took a more chivalrous view; perhaps he felt that much could be forgiven in a woman who was both “eloquent and brief”:
When she attracted the notice of her sovereign she could no longer boast of youth or beauty; but she possessed in an extraordinary degree those more lasting charms which men of sense . . . prize most highly in a female companion. . . . A just understanding, an inexhaustible yet never redundant flow of rational, gentle, and sprightly conversation; a temper of which the serenity was never for a moment ruffled; a tact which surpassed the tact of her sex as much as the tact of her sex surpasses the tact of ours: such were the qualities which made the widow of a buffoon first the confidential friend, and then the spouse, of the proudest and most powerful of European kings. 11
Finally, see her through the eyes of Henri Martin, a French historian of inadequately recognized excellence:
There was a harmony of mind and manners between them [the Marquise and the King] which was destined to increase with age; and her regular, gentle, and serious beauty, heightened by rare natural dignity, was essentially fitted to please Louis. She lovedconsideration as he loved glory; like him reserved, circumspect, and yet full of attraction and grace, she had the same charm of conversation, and sustained this charm longer by the resources of a richer imagination and a more varied education. Like him she had the individuality of vigorous and self-seeking organizations, yet she was capable of lasting and solid, if not ardent, affections. She was at once less passionate and more constant than the King, who was to be, in friendship as in love, truly constant to her alone; but she had never known what it was to sacrifice to her feelings either her interests or her repose; contrary to Louis XIV, she was devoted in small things and devoid of generosity in great ones. . . . Her calm reflective, reasoning character, incapable of impulse and of illusion, aided her to defend a virture often besieged. 12
In any case there must have been many admirable qualities in a woman whom so masterful a king could choose as his wife, and whom he trusted with cognizance of the most intimate affairs of state. Usually he met his ministers in her private room, in her presence and hearing; and though she maintained a discreet distance and silence, busying herself with her needlework, Louis “sometimes turned to her and asked her judgment” 13—which he valued so highly that he called her “Votre Solidité.” Skeptics called her “Madame de Maintenant” (Madame Now), presuming that she would soon be joined or displaced by rivals; on the contrary, the King remained her loving husband till his death.
Her influence grew with every year, and was as beneficent as her piety would permit. She tried to moderate the King’s extravagance, and to divert him from war; hence the hostility of Louvois. She secured royal support for charities—hospitals, convents, help for bankrupt nobles, dowries for demoiselles. 14 None but good Catholics could win her recommendation for office. She had vines or drapes drawn over the more vital nudities in the art that decorated Versailles. 15 She changed St.-Cyr from a college to a convent (1693), whose doors were henceforth closed to the world. She herself became almost a nun in a palace; “with her shut-in life, spending hours in solitude, she seemed to have one foot in a nunnery.” 16
The King began by laughing at her piety, he ended by imitating it this side of humility. The priests about him rejoiced to see the regularity with which he performed the rituals of devotion, but she understood him well; the King, she said, “never misses a station of the cross, or a penance, but he cannot understand the necessity of humbling himself and acquiring the true spirit of repentance.” 17 Pope Alexander VIII, however, was satisfied, and congratulated Madame upon reforming the once antipapal Gallican. Perhaps the decline of his physical energy after 1684, and his sufferings from an anal fistula, furthered the King’s piety by reminding him of his mortality. On November 18, 1686, he submitted to a painful operation, which he bore with class-conscious courage. For a time the anti-French coalition rejoiced in the rumor that he was dying. 18 He survived; and when he went to Notre Dame (January 30, 1687) to thank God for his cure, all Catholic France hailed his recovery with festive joy.
“From that time,” said Voltaire, “the King no longer went to the theater.” 19 The gaiety-in-dignity that had characterized the earlier half of his reign gave way to a seriousness that sometimes neared austerity, but permitted occasional excesses of bed and board.20Prompted by fatigue, seconded by Maintenon, he reduced the parade and ceremony of the court, and retired to a more private life, content with the domesticity to which his wife had accustomed him. He was still extravagant in his expenditures on palaces and gardens, still as proud as his scepter and as sensual as his jowls. In March, 1686, he allowed an obsequious courtier, François d’Aubusson, later Duc de La Feuillade, to erect on the Place des Victoires a statue dedicated to him as “the immortal man”; we must add, however, that when d’Aubusson wished to provide a votive lamp to be kept lighted before the statue night and day, the King forbade this premature assumption of divinity.
An inner circle of devout aristocrats, led by the Duke and Duchess of Chevreuse, the Duchesses of Beauvilliers and Mortemart, and the three daughters of Colbert, formed around the King and his wife a cordon sanitaire of dévots, many of them sincerely religious, and some of them adopting the mystic quietism of Mme. Guyon. The world-famous hymn “Adeste Fideles” was composed by an unknown French poet about this time. The remainder of the court joined, only outwardly, in the new mood of the King. It abandoned its frivolity, went more frequently to Mass and Communion, less and less to the opera and the theater, which now rapidly declined from their heyday under Lully and Molière. Hunts, costly banquets and balls, and card-playing for high stakes went on, but in an atmosphere of moderation touched with reminiscent gloom. The roisterers and freethinkers of Paris hid their heads, waiting for revenge under an impatiently expected Regency. But the people of France rejoiced in the saintliness of their ruler, and silently bore, in death and taxes, the swelling levies of war.