The Ages of Sin
IF THE INFAMOUS MISTRESSES of France's famous Kings were fallen women, it was for years possible to envy them for having fallen in so lush a spot as the Palace of Versailles. Then historians began discovering that Versailles was a drafty place, where the public privies had no doors. Now along comes a Frenchman named Jacques Levron with a revised portrait of Mme. de Pompadour, probably the richest and most celebrated courtesan of all time, as a woman harassed almost beyond human endurance by illness and intrigue. To hear Levron tell it, the poor girl might just as well have been married.
Grasshopper King. Life with Louis was just one damned thing after another. As the first member of the middle class ever to become an official mistress to a French King, Pompadour was target for the gibes of high-born courtiers from the day she was installed in the palace in 1745 until the day she died there—after dutifully getting the King's permission to do so—in 1764. At first her intellectual mentor, Voltaire, had to correct her in a whisper at state dinners because her middle-class turn of phrase was so foreign to the phony formulas of the court. Her surname (Poisson, which means fish) was an endless source of cruel merriment.
Where women were concerned, Louis combined a grasshopper's attention span with the appetite of a tiger. Pompadour, who suffered from tuberculosis, desperately sought to divert him to less athletic pursuits, like amateur theatricals, at which she was gifted, and small dinner parties where the king could "pour his own coffee" and see a few friends. It was a great relief when, as her adviser, the Abbé de Bernis, related with exquisite courtliness, the King's "friendship took the place of gallantry." But then Pompadour had to be doubly on guard against being driven from favor by more lusty ladies —among them a curvaceous Celt with the improbable name of Louise O'Murphy who "looked like a naughty Rubens." The strain was terrific. "When in private she could remove her mask," Levron writes, "she was, at thirty-seven, already an elderly, exhausted and haggard woman who spat blood."
Loyalties of the Purse. Inevitably, much of Author Levron's material is not new. Nancy Mitford nine years ago produced a lighthearted biography sympathizing with Pompadour's difficulties and praising her good taste, which, since she was the major patroness of the arts in France, set the age's style in painting and sculpture and architecture.
What sets Levron's work apart is that he approaches Pompadour not merely as an apologist and admirer but as an archivist—he is curator of all the historic papers at Versailles. Delving into little-known notebooks and letters, he supports his assessments of her character with elaborate documentation of her daily housekeeping and the worthy causes she supported.
Occasionally Levron seems to suffer from biographer's lens, a distorting disability that makes the writer's subject loom through history at elephant size while other personages appear as ants. Describing the Seven Years' War, in which Austria and France were eventually drubbed by England and Prussia, Levron somehow creates the impression that Mme. de Pompadour was fighting the war singlehanded—writing almost daily letters to generals on all fronts, conniving with the Viennese court, desperately trying to put a little pluck into her King and his flagging ministers, many of whom, Levron admits, she had chosen personally.
If this seems ridiculous now, at least one potentate of the time saw things Levron's way. In 1757, Frederick II of Prussia secretly wrote offering her the "principality of Neuchatel and Valangin" if she would see that peace was signed. Pompadour ignored him.