Madame de Maintenon – Queen of Versailles

Already the King was coming more and more under the influence of the widow Scarron ; already de Montespan had grown afraid of ” those quiet black eyes.” The gradual capture of Versailles by a woman with no mean ambition and whose genuine piety, despite Saint-Simon’s sneers, is now generally recognized, is one of the most amazing incidents in royal history. In 1675 the governess of the King’s illegitimate children became Mme. de Maintenon, mistress of a wide domain, and possessor of a considerable income. ” Mme. de Maintenant,” the courtiers called her, setting their sails to the wind. The King was growing serious, and weary of the brilliant ” flies ” -the word is Mme. de Sevigne’s-about his Court. At Easter, before the King made his Communion, he listened patiently to a sermon from a Jesuit who boldly urged him to repent and set his people a good example. ” What a charm might it not work on certain disheartened sinners who have fallen back into despair if they could say to themselves : ` Behold this man whom we have seen in the same debauchery as our own, behold him now converted and submitting himself to God.’ ”

But the complete conversion was not yet, and de Maintenon herself planned to leave Versailles and to live at Maintenon the quiet life of a lady bountiful, spending her time in the service of the poor. But she stayed on through the Fontanges episode, and then, with one mistress dead, and her predecessor permanently out of favour, her undisputed hour came at last. She held an amazing position-nominally lady-in-waiting to the Duchesse de Richelieu, actually the confidante of the King as well as the friend of the Queen, ” the machine that drives the whole thing.” Her influence was so thoroughly understood by Pope Innocent XII. that he sent her a letter written with his own hand, with the relics of a holy martyr. And her influence was for good. ” Never,” said the Queen, ” has the King been so affectionate to me as since he has listened to her.”

In 1683 the Queen died, and very shortly afterwards, though exactly when and where no one knows, the King and de Maintenon were secretly married. The new position was accepted by de Maintenon with a characteristic quiet composure. Perhaps she might have prevented the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, and it cannot be forgotten that she was born a Huguenot. But heresy and revolution were convertible terms in seventeenth-century France, and heresy to de Maintenon was fatal to order. Her solicitude for the King was at times tiresome, but never really resented. Her great work was the foundation of the school for girls at St. Cyr, near the palace. Here is her own account of a day in her life at Versailles :

” They begin to come into my room at about half-past seven. First of all it is Monsieur Marechal (the King’s first surgeon). He is hardly gone out of the room when Monsieur Fagon comes in; he is followed by Monsieur Bloin, or some other person sent to inquire how I am. Sometimes I have extremely urgent letters which I am obliged, by sheer necessity, to put aside. Then come the more important people : one day it will be Monsieur Chamillard, another it will be the Archbishop ; to-day, some general just departing to the armies, to-morrow some audience I am obliged to give, and that has been specially asked for, with this peculiarity, that these are almost always persons whom I cannot put off seeing, for of course it must be done in the case, for instance, of officers just going away, and so with others. . . .

” Once the King comes, they have to go. The King stays with me till he goes to Mass. I do not know if you have remarked that in the midst of all this I am not yet dressed. If I were, I should not have had time to say my prayers. So I am still in my nightcap. All this time my room is like a church with people passing through it like a procession; everybody comes through, and there is a perpetual coming and going.

” When the King has heard Mass, he comes back to my room ; afterwards the Duchesse de Bourgogne comes with a number of ladies and they remain while I dine. It seem as if that time, at all events, might be spent for myself ; but you will soon see what really happens. I am anxious to know whether the Duchesse de Bourgogne is doing anything unsuitable, whether she is treating her husband properly ; I try to make her say a word to this lady, to see whether she is behaving with kindness to that other. I have to talk to all the company and contrive to bring them all together. If anybody commits an indiscretion, I feel it. I am embarrassed by the manner in which people take up what is said ; in short, I am in a state of mental disturbance than which nothing can be worse.

” I am hemmed in so closely by a circle of ladies that I cannot ask for anything to drink. Sometimes I turn round and say, looking at them, ` You do me great honour, yet I really should like to have a serving man.’ When I say that, every one of the ladies wants to wait on me, and hurries to fetch me whatever I may want, which involves me in another sort of discomfort and inconvenience.

” At last they go away to dinner-for I dine at noon with Madame d’Heudicourt and Madame de Dangeau, who are not in good health. So I am left alone with them, at last ; everybody departs. If ever there was a time during which I might amuse myself for a moment, it would be now, either by talking or playing a game of backgammon. But Monseigneur generally chooses just at that time to come and see me, one day because he is not going to his dinner, and another because he has dined early before he goes out hunting. So after all the others, he arrives ; he is the most difficult man in the whole world to entertain, yet entertain him I must, for I am in my own house. If it were to happen in another person’s house I should only have to sit myself down on a chair and say nothing at all, if I chose ; the ladies with me can do that if they please, but I, who am in my own room, must make myself agreeable, I must find something to say ; that is not particularly delightful. After that we leave the table.

” The King and all the Princesses and the Royal Family come into my room, and bring the most tremendous heat with them. We talk, and the King stays about half an hour; then he goes away, but nobody goes except him ; all the rest of them are still there, and as the King is no longer present they all draw closer to me. They gather all round me, and there I have to stay, and listen to the jests of Madame la Marechale de C-, to one person’s joke, to another’s story ; none of these good ladies have anything to do, their complexions are quite fresh and they have idled their whole morning away. But in my case things are very different, for I have other things to do beside making conversation, and very often my heart is heavy over some trouble, some bad news – the attack that was to be made on Verrue, some little time ago for instance ; all that is on my mind ; I keep thinking there may be a thousand persons perishing, at that very moment, and others in suffering as well. . . .

” To come to the end of my day. When they have stayed some time longer, each person retires to his or her own apartment, and then do you know what happens ?

One of these ladies is sure to stay behind because she wants to speak to me in private. She takes me by the hand and leads me into my little room, frequently only to tell me a number of unpleasant and very tiresome things. One has had a disagreement with her husband, another wants the King to do something for her, and I have to listen to it all, and the lady who has no love for me does not allow that to restrain her more than any other. I look on myself as an instrument that God uses for the good of others. Ah ! How happy a thing it is to leave it all to Him, to give oneself up to Him, to live on from day to day, doing all the good one can !

” When the King comes in from hunting he returns to me again ; the door is shut and nobody else comes in. Then I am alone with him. I have to endure his sorrows with him, if he has any, his depressions, his nerves ; sometimes he has a fit of crying that he cannot control, sometimes he is not well. He has no conversation. Often some Minister will bring him bad news; the King will sit down to business. If he wishes me to make a third in this council, he calls me ; if I am not wanted I withdraw to a little distance, and at that moment I often say my afternoon prayers. I pray for about half an hour. Though the King may wish me to hear what is said, I cannot do anything at all. I learn sometimes, in this way, _ that things are not going well ; some courier may come in with bad news. All that weighs on my heart and prevents me from sleeping at night.

” While the King is transacting business, I sup. But I am not able to do it in comfort oftener than once in two months. I know the King is all alone, or that he was depressed when I left him; or else, when Monsieur Chamillard has nearly finished, the King will send to beg I will make haste. Another time he will want to show me something, so that I am always in a hurry, and then I can only think of one thing-to eat quickly. I have my fruit brought up with my meat, so that I may make more haste. I leave Madame d’Heudicourt and Madame de Dangeau at table, because they cannot do as I do, and sometimes it makes me ill myself.

” After all that, it has grown late, as you will imagine. I have been up since six o’clock in the morning, I have not been able to breathe freely the whole day long, I have fits of weariness and yawning, and, above all, I begin to feel the effects of age ; I end by being so tired that the King will sometimes, notice it and say, ` You are very weary, are you not ? You ought to go to bed ! ‘ So I go to bed, my women come to undress me, but I feel the King wants to speak to me, that he is waiting for them to go, or else some one of his Ministers is there, and he is afraid he might hear. That worries him and me too. What am I to do ? I hurry till I almost faint away-and you must know that all my life long I have hated to be hurried. At last, there

I am in my bed. I dismiss my women; the King comes and sits beside me. Try to think what I feel like there ! … ” You know my maxim is to keep a curb on oneself and think of others. The great ones of the earth are not generally like that ; they never place any restraint on themselves, and it does not even occur to them that others do it on their account ; and they are not obliged to them for doing it, because they are so accustomed to seeing everything done to suit them that the fact does not strike them, and is not even noticed by them. It has happened to me, when I have had one of my terrible colds, to be almost strangled by the cough, without being able to give myself any relief. . . .

” The King remains with me till he goes to his supper, and before the King sups, Monseigneur the Dauphin, the Due de Bourgogne, and the Duchesse de Bourgogne all come to see me. At ten o’clock, or a quarter after ten, everybody departs ; I am alone at last, and I take the relief I need. But often the anxieties and fatigue of the day prevent me from sleeping.”

That was life at Versailles ! Well might the great lady regret that she was not a nun !

The King was quick to resent any want of respect shown to his wife. A company of Italian comedians invited to Versailles were imprudent enough to act a piece called The Mock Prude, in which Madame de Maintenon was held up to ridicule, and they were promptly packed out of the country. Her position was sometimes made difficult by her brother’s extravagances and ingratitude, but with common sense and a sense of humour she provided him with a keeper to prevent him from being troublesome. She was the unquestioned mistress of the Court. With Madame, a German princess with a shrewish tongue and an overwhelming sense of her own importance, she had many scenes, but in the end the royal lady was always compelled to apologise and plead for forgiveness.

As the years went on Versailles became a gloomy enough residence. The winter of 1709 was one of unprecedented severity. The rooms at Versailles were cold and draughty; nothing could heat them. The cold indeed was so great that the wine froze in the bottles and bread hardened on the table. The poor were dying of cold and hunger, and deep and bitter were the murmurs against the King. The glory of earlier victories was forgotten when the news came of military reverses, and there was already talk of revolution. Then death came to the royal family, first the King’s brother, then his son, and there was the usual talk of poison, and the gloom grew deeper. The Roi Soleil had become a silent, gentle old man.