Reviewed in 1999
Pierre-E. Leroy and Marcel Loyau, ed. Mme de Maintenon, Mme de Caylus, et Mme de Dangeau, L'Estime et la Tendresse, correspondances intimes réunies et présentées... (Paris: Albin Michel, l998), 475 pages.
As is well known, Mme de Maintenon launched a major project while in a period of high favor at court, the creation of a religious-educational community for young noble and poor girls, at St. Cyr. Always active at court, and deeply engaged in almost every aspect of her husband's political career, Maintenon nonetheless found time to create her own destiny, her own fulfilment in founding, building, financing, and administering St. Cyr.
What is less well known is the intimate friendship which Maintenon had with two other women, her niece, Mme de Caylus, and a third, mutual friend, Mme de Dangeau. Thanks to the editors here who have pulled together previously known and unknown texts, a tiny intimate world at Versailles and Paris becomes known from about l704 to l7l6. This is, to be sure, private life, but there are constant allusions to the major political and military events affecting the realm. These women may have been in some ways "retired" but they were anything but withdrawn, even after the king died. But it would be incorrect to stress this ancillary — high political resonance — in these letters; they are really interesting for other reasons.
The first is their style. All three women were, in some sense, writers! These letters are carefully constructed, their relaxed air is constructed, as is the conscious pursuit of the personal aphorism, at once so revealing, and so concealing, in classical French literature. Maintenon is brilliant in these apperçus. These letters on occasion reach Sévigné quality, but without the sustained critical nastiness of the latter. Never just tossed off, there is a remarkable synthesis of aristocratic living, religious devotion, and literariness in this highly inflected French.
As one puts downs the book one thinks of what Liselotte writes about Maintenon, and how really malicious it sometimes is, coming as it is not only out of a profoundly different cultural sensibility, but perhaps just a bit of plain old jealousy. Just drawing on Dr. Elborg Forster's selection and translation of Liselotte's letters we find accusations of Maintenon keeping the king from paying more attention to Liselotte, which certainly could have been the case, (p. 128) and then the apparently remarkable shift in attitude by Maintenon toward her (p. 135-36) again something which might actually have happened, or it happened in Liselotte's mind? The point here, of course, is that people do not remain the same all through their lives, and in the volume reviewed here it is clearly a serene woman who has done all she wishes, and accomplished what she has wanted, and is left only to work toward her salvation. Did the competitiveness and jealousy in Maintenon begin to dissipate as early as l704? John Wolf taught us all long ago that the danger for the biographer is to accept a static model of the subject on whom he/she is working. Maintenon recognizes her affective needs, and says she has maternal concerns for her niece, indeed, a need to ‘protect' all her biological family. She could so easily have become overbearing or condescending to Caylus, since the latter had nothing to depend on, especially after her husband's death. In a sense Mme de Maintenon is a constant pedagogue and spiritual advisor to her niece, not only about how to conduct herself at court, but about how to think of herself as a mother, woman, and sinner before God. Maintenon needs Dangeau as well, and through her, her husband, author of the memoirs that Maintenon would enjoy reading so much.
Do see A Woman's Life in the court of the Sun King, ed. by E. Forster (Baltimore, J.H.U. Press, l984, and now out in paperback.
If anyone would like a look at stilted, really quite convention ridden letters, see those of Genevieve de Malboissière to Adelaide Melian (1761-1766) ed. by the Comte de Luppé (Paris, Champion, l925) where more than the later date makes the difference. Here too, many conduct books and epistolary novels have been read and applied to letter writing.
It is also evident that beneath all the expressions of friendship and affection there never was, nor ever could be, a complete sharing of confidences and fears. Maintenon's powers were simply too great, even if she sincerely and deeply sought not to exercise them.
Don't forget that Mme de Caylus is related to the Fabert, of the family that worked so effectively to help Mazarin hold the northeast during the Fronde. Abraham was, if I recall correctly, a Huguenot at some point (also a maréchal de France) and therefore an interesting parallel with the Grand Dame, Maintenon, whose origins were not only Huguenot but from the Antilles.
Instead of writing up all this in review form I supply here a brief Index of themes that were of particular interest to me. I am sure you would find many others:
p. 44— Esternay, Fabert's little chateau not far from Epernay The Dangeau come from around Chartres. They are "bourgeois gentilshommes" in just about the way George Huppert characterizes that group, but clearly when the son has a leg shot off at Malplaquet the family is already not only courtly, but very well connected.
p. 131 — Georges Dandin is presented at court. It's interesting to see how so many works of the earlier reign are warmed over and replayed at court after 1700, really a subject for study, since we often think of the court as being only having very recent or the latest plays or operas presented.
p. 135 — Instead of sending servants with messages, the ladies simply called up and down the chimneys of Versailles to organize their little get-togethers for cards, etc.
p. 140 — Ribbon, etc. It is interesting to see how Maintenon is interested in decoration, and has her own ideas about how rooms should be, and watches the budget carefully.
p. 143 — The devaluation of money, a subject referred to often. Maintenon lost quite a bit in the process, as did St. Cyr
p. 153 — Valincour and Jansenism
p. 159 — Caylus is reading Bossuet's history and Père Daniel's
p. 169 — Money to invest: several notaries about it
p. 170 — Security along the road between Versailles and St. Cyr is not all that it should be
p. 187 — Very interesting use of the words public and particulier
p. 188 — Maintenon is on top of the military and diplomatic situation in the war. Here she is worried about military maneuvers in the Moselle valley, 1705.
p. 198 — The king gives Mme Dangeau a logement. One often thinks that the masters of lodgings actually did the allocations of space, but here it is Louis himself.
p. 207 — Esther
p. 215 — Louis assigned various deeply spiritual names to various gardens and spaces around St. Cyr. It would be fun to explore these by comparing them with the carte du Tendre sometime.
p. 216 — Maintenon does not hesitate to compliment Dangeau for her writing style, but at the same time she doesn't hesitate to say that her spelling is poor.
p. 221 — On the Duchesse of Burgundy's education: it is becoming as complex as that of a male heir.
p. 231— Young Dangeau's war wound
p. 246 — Reading the revolution in Portugal —Vertot
p. 247 — Mirrors and death
p. 256 — Louis's death. What is here on this familiar subject is very touching for its intimacy and poignancy
p. 267 — Caylus fears writing her aunt in this moment of grief
p. 269 — Interesting stylistic features here
p. 272 — Caylus's garden and cow in Avon
p. 274 — Coffres and chiffres — a superb confirmation of my earlier work on the relations between objects and humans who exchange them as friends.
p. 279 — Maintenon and writing in her own hand
p. 279 — "Les enfants gagnent toujours quelque chose aux demenagements." Here is good example of that private, aphoristic style that pervades Maintenon's letters. She once refers to La Rochefoucauld. She asks for the present of a bell.
p. 282 — Maintenon has to cut back on her giving. She's not sure that she will receive the payments she is supposed to receive now that her husband is dead, and that there is such a financial crisis. She gives alms to regulars whom she almost considers to be her household. There is steadiness here, and little fear — adding that she can always live on Maintenon, meaning, of course the revenues from the estate
p. 284 — These women are on good terms with the prominent dukes, especially Noailles, whose influence can be crucial in obliging treasurers to pay pensions, etc.
p. 286 — A meal
p. 302 — Fagon is installed in the jardin du roi
p. 303 — On English and Scottish politics (there are numerous others, all of which suggest some naïveté about the possibilities for a rising in Scotland on behalf of the Stuarts.
p. 344 — Jansenism: it's evident that these three women are all against it, and do not respect the trimmers about the subject at court, notably the Princesse de Conti. The chancellor, who would be Pontchartrain, is highly respected by these ladies for his firmness on the subject. There are also allusions to the Parlement of Brittany, and to my surprise, it seems that Maintenon saw nothing wrong in the remonstrances of that recalcitrant body at this time. Torcy makes cameo appearances, not really enough to trouble John Rule with. John Hurt may find what is in here about Brittany as confirming what he has already discerned in other sources, namely a split court over Brittany.
p. 349 — Bien public et bien particulier (I'm interested in how these words are used)
p. 349 — Her coach (the damask will go in 4-5 years)
p. 350 — Number the pages of a letter
p. 351 — Churches are dangerous in February: they are filled with beggars, etc. getting out of the cold.
p. 357 — Noailles (the archbishop) on Athalie
p. 365 — On the gates of the Luxembourg
p. 368 — On Maintenon reading Dangeau's memoires, cf also, 370,373,375, 381
p. 375 — On the chambre de justice
p. 381 — On her writing, and beautiful handwriting
p. 382 — On the poor in Montchevreuil
p. 388 — Gibier coming into the gardens of Versailles
p. 393 — Reading the Histoire de la Ligue
p. 394 — On the young king's opiniatre, which is going to last
p. 397 — Port-Royal
p. 403 — Maintenon does not really maneuver to have her agent Gignonville's fine cut back; she just talks about doing it.
p. 410 — L'abbe Dubois a de l'esprit
p. 412 — Charity and the sense of household
p. 415 — Price of bread is now low
p. 417 — The visit of the Czar
p. 419 — Her daily routine. Maintenon carries on writing almost right up to her death, but with no real allusion to her deteriorating health. She says she has a fever, but that is just like the one she almost always has. She is withdrawn from all court life, concentrating on her salvation, and enjoying the little pleasures of teaching and watching teach, the girls at St. Cyr. The pain in announcing the number of smallpox cases in the little community certainly was there, but she kept going in considerable serenity.
ps. In the fall of 1959, while looking for papers from Richelieu's
"creatures," I found (was it in H. Stein's book on private archives???)
that there were Bouthillier papers in the chateau of Esternay, somewhere
near Epernay. I wrote the chatelain and received a most
courteous reply saying that he knew there were a lot of old papers, and
these had been kept in chests up in the attic, but that during the war
the papers had been taken out of the chests so that fire wood could be
stored in the chests. Upon d'Adhémar's suggestion I wrote the
departmental archivist, who was at the time, I believe, M. Gandihlon,
who got in touch with the châtelain, picked up the papers
himself in his car, took them to the archives and classified them,
photographed some, and then returned them to the owner. It turned out
that there were no longer any Richelieu-Chavigny letters (I believe that
the letters that come on the market now and then, and that have arabic
numeral classification numbers at the top, come in fact from Esternay by
way of a sale that took place some time in the l9th century). Caylus, in
the the western Aveyron, is a short drive from Panat. Once a thriving
market city it is now just hanging on — its principal streets having
boarded up shops and à louer signs all over. There is a slightly
sauvage quality to the region, largely because the stone is a dark
tan-green, but the houses are elegant. Here is a town where one could
buy a splendid late medieval house for a few thousand dollars, and live
happily ever after. I should like to see what the departmental archives
have on Caylus sometime. I end by noting the absolutely brilliant work
by M. Fumaroli on the Comte de Caylus (Anne-Claude Philippe) academician
and proto cultural minister who launched a return to "masculine"
virtuous history painting in a counter offensive against the more
feminine, private sensual painting of Watteau and his followers. The
rise of neo-classicism in the late 18th century occurred in no small
measure as a result of the philosophical and archeological foundations
given to it by Caylus.