Saturday, January 18, 2014

La Maîtresse en Titre, an enduring French tradition

As the BBC is fond of calling him lately, "the man said to be the President of France" was—"perhaps"—infamously photographed in a crash helmet, leaving a purported love nest shared with a well-known actress while his chauffeur-driven moto waited at curb. The chauffeur of the Presidential Scooter, Closer magazine reported in an explosive seven-page exposé, also delivered fresh croissants in the mornings.

Hollande, a committed bachelor, has refused to explain himself, citing a longstanding French tradition of not delving too closely into the private lives of its public servants (with good reason), and the implicated actress has now sued Closer for libel, another longstanding French tradition for public figures who find themselves facing the unwelcome glare of unwanted publicity.

Meanwhile, in a dramatic development worthy of a soap-opera plot twist, the current Somewhat First Lady of France, Hollande's companion Valerie Trierweiler, has precipitously secluded herself in a Parisian hospital, suffering from "shock."

Unsurprisingly, President Hollande's abysmal poll numbers have rebounded by several percentage points, since en ce pays-ci respect is axiomatically accorded a virile leader, whatever his politics or abilities. With the latest revelation that he had managed to keep the alleged affair secret for over two years, including a hotly contested presidential campaign, the thinking goes that Hollande may indeed have hitherto unremarked managerial skills. And after all, Hollande presides over a country which actually has a name for the just-after-work hours so propitious for infidelity—l'heure bleue—and which also has a tradition of selecting iconic sex symbols such as Brigitte Bardot and Catherine Deneuve as models for Marianne, the official state muse.

During the Ancien Régime, mistresses, most famously Madame de Pompadour, lover of Louis XV, were routinely ennobled and held a high official rank—Maîtresse en titre—and often wielded great sway over affairs of state. Madame de Pompadour not only reigned over patronage of the arts in the Rococo age but also influenced the choice of ministers and the strategy of the Seven Years' War. Her brother, the Marquis de Marigny, was appointed to the coveted post of Superintendent of Royal Buildings and so oversaw all government construction in the realm. A woman of considerable acumen, Pompadour created the infamous Parc aux Cerfs, an exclusive royal bordello in the town of Versailles, to satiate the king's voracious appetites and secure her position once her own charms had waned.

After her death, Madame du Barry, a nubile denizen of the Parc, ascended to la Pompadour's position but never her station. (Below, François Boucher's odalesque of Jeanne Bécu shortly before she became a countess.)

But the quintessential concubine was Madame de Montespan, l'Athenée—well-born, clever, scheming, haughty and ambitious—who had bewitched Louis XIV in his early middle age (quite literally and scandalously with a love philtre procured from a satanist who also brewed very efficient poisons, but that is another story). The king sired four illegitimate children with her, all later ennobled, one of whom was later exiled as an insurrectionist. While in royal favor, "La Montespan" reigned as de facto queen, with a suite of rooms at Versailles that eclipsed those of the actual queen, the homely and devout Infanta, Maria Theresa.

Louis XIV's German sister-in-law, la Princesse Palatine, in her posthumous letters reported that during the Dutch Wars, Louis XIV dutifully spent much of each campaign season at the front, presiding over war councils and generally being deferred to, though “he took quite a long time dressing; he had his moustache curled and sometimes spent half an hour before the mirror arranging it with wax.“ (With victory in sight, the undertaking degenerated into showmanship and farce, as when the king invited his decorator and gardener to tour the siege of Cambrai in 1677, instructing his minister Colbert to pay Le Brun and Le Nôtre each 1500 livres for their pains.)

And it was at Cambrai—a jump-the-shark moment if ever there was one—that the king joined his armies with the queen and two mistresses in tow like a band of gypsy camp followers. German mercenaries heckled Madame de Montespan as they marched in revue, whistling and shouting, “Konigs Hure!" At dinner that evening, the king inquired how she had liked the maneuvers and Montespan replied, “Perfectly lovely, only I find the Germans far too naïve for insisting upon calling everything by its proper name.“

It was also understood that Madame de Maintenon, a late and pivotal mistress of Louis XIV, controlled state affairs by forcing all ministers and petitioners to pass through the gauntlet of her appartements at Versailles if they hoped to gain access to the king. She was known at court as "Madame de Maintenant" (Madame Now), and had doubtless married the king privately, though this was never officially acknowledged.

Like just about everything else during the Ancien Régime, the changing of the guard was also handled with aplomb. In one of those almost-too-good-to-be-true moments of history which are nonetheless true, Madame de Montespan, on her way out, and Madame de Maintenon, on her way in, first met on a staircase in Versailles. Madame de Maintenon was ascending and Madame de Montespan descending. The former remarked, "I see that you are going down, Madame, while I am going up."

Upon her fall, which was both spectacular and precipitous, la Montespan exiled herself to a nunnery and occupied herself with expiatory good works, in keeping with another longstanding tradition of discarded royal mistresses, as hospitals in that century were where the destitute were brought to die.

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

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