The only reason I read this engaging and pleasant book about 18th century France and Versailles was because it is an NYRB title. I had a glancing knowledge of the Mitfords, and was reading something about Nancy Mitford not too long ago, so Amanda Foreman’s (she wrote the Duchess of Devonshire biography) introduction was vaguely familiar, at least as far as the Mitford family story goes. The key here, however, was definitely the NYRB stamp of quality and approval, along with an assist from Foreman. It promised to be an enjoyable read about the 18th century, something I was hankering for without knowing it.
One of the book’s primary qualifications, made clear by Foreman, is that it’s not a particularly good historian’s history book, which ironically makes it a good history book. The scholarship is substantial but worn lightly, and it’s hardly the work of a lifetime or a decade. Mitford clearly knows French history extremely well and she’s interested and intrigued by the life of the court and the culture surrounding it, and that was enough for her to want to write a book about a singular and crucial character at the heart of that world. It’s all meant to be readable and informative, aimed at the general reader (of English, who might know french or have in interest in France, or the 18th century), and not the specialist. It’s a product of the taste and publishing practice of its time, 1953. The Marquise (as she’s called throughout) is a worthy and wonderful subject. I learned all sorts of things I didn’t know about 18th century France. Most importantly, this book was never dull.
Pompadour seems like a well-known name, but prior to reading this book I wouldn’t have been able to answer the simplest Jeopardy question about her, or Louis XV. I had a vague sense of the consolidation of French monarchical power under Louis XIV and the building of Versailles, but Mitford tells the story of the aftermath and its effect. The Marquise undoubtedly shows up, probably as a different character, in discussions of Voltaire and the Encyclopedists, of 18th century French art and architecture, and of political history, the 7 years war (our French and Indian War), and the sources of the French Revolution. It would be interesting to see how she fares in a standard account of Louis XV. Foreman mentions that Mitford began her study intending to condemn Pompadour as absurd and destructive, but she came around to her poise and charms and heart as the story evolved and struggled to its finish. It all shows how timing and cultural circumstance lead humanity on occasion to fashion absolutely extraordinary lives and stories, and in this case it’s all the more remarkable because it’s the life of a woman, a royal mistress who attained seemingly unimaginable power and wealth through the sheer force of her character.
I’ll also mention that there’s a fine dramatic story of intrigue and betrayal nestled in the middle of this book, one which captures the world of the court and the life of the Marquise, with a fantastic cast of secondary characters. It’s all in chapter 14, the Affaire Choiseul-Romanet. Mitford’s handling of it is a perfect set piece that shows how measured and delicate her book is as a whole–all very 19th century as well. I want to look into this story, and check out some other views of Mme. de Pompadour and Louis XV. I’m not sure I want to read Mitford’s novels, even though the writing here is so good, but I suppose I’m a lot closer to doing so than I ever was before. But mainly I’d like to look at the NYRB history list, where I’m hoping there might be a few other gems.