A Childhood at Versailles consists of the first 5 chapters of the memoirs of Mme de Boigne (1781-1866), née Adèle d’Osmond, who was a French salon hostess and writer. She was born in the Château de Versailles and lived at the court of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette until her family fled to England during the Revolution. Later in her long life, she married a rich soldier of fortune 30 years her senior, hosted a brilliant salon in Paris, and became an intimate of the last French queen, Marie-Amélie, consort of King Louis Philippe (r. 1830-1848). Childless herself, Mme de Boigne addressed her memoirs to her nephew. The memoirs were not published until 1907, under the title Récits d’une tante, or An Aunt’s Tales. They’ve never been published in English, as far as I know, so I’ve decided to translate the first 5 chapters, the ones that take place mainly at Versailles, and post them here on this blog for interested readers to enjoy for free.
The chapters are quite lengthy, so I’ve broken each one into several parts. In Part 1.6, Mme de Boigne describes the influence of Mme de Polignac and her coterie on the Queen, and also gives us brief pen portraits of her royal siblings-in-law.
Chapter One, Part 6 (1.6)
Mme de Polignac was much more fatal to her. This was not because she was a bad person, but she was indolent and little wit; she intrigued out of weakness. She was dominated by her sister-in-law, the Comtesse Diane, who was ambitious, as disorderly in her morals as she was greedy, and who wanted to win all possible favour for herself and her family. She was tyrannized by her lover the Comte de Vaudreuil, a man as frivolous as he was immoral, and who, using the Queen as a tool, pillaged the public treasury for himself and his companions in dissoluteness.
He made scenes to Mme de Polignac whenever the satisfaction of his demands suffered some slight delay. The Queen would find her favourite in tears and immediately busy herself to have his demands met. As for her own fortune, Mme de Polignac, without asking too much, limited herself to accepting nonchalantly whatever favours the intrigues of the Comtesse Diane produced, and the poor Queen vaunted her disinterestedness. She believed in it, and loved her sincerely. On her side, her confidence was without limit for some years.
M de Calonne’s appointment restricted it somewhat. He was one of Mme de Polignac’s intimates, and the Queen did not want a member of the King’s council to be caught up in that cabal. She said so out loud, but the Polignac coterie, preferring first and foremost a comptroller-general of like mind, highlighted the benefits that would accrue to the Comte d’Artois himself. It was indeed through him that M de Calonne was appointed, despite the Queen’s repugnance. She nursed some discontent from this, which cooled her towards Mme de Polignac, and all of M de Calonne’s eagerness to please her failed to restore him to her good graces. Nonetheless, he replied to her one day when she made a request of him: “If what the Queen desires is possible, it is already done; if it is not possible, it will be done somehow.” Despite such politic words, the Queen never pardoned him.
If there were disadvantages, this desire to please was not without some advantages; it rendered the Queen charming. Once she was able to forget her role as a woman of fashion, which so absorbed her, she was full of grace and dignity. It would have been easy to make an accomplished princess of her if someone had had the courage to speak sense to her. However, her entourage proved the English poet’s phrase:
‘All who approach them, their own ends do pursue.’
In the bosom of her family, the Queen was loved and loving, and her only concern was to smooth over the small vexations that reared their heads. Alas, she was too much the confidante of the Comte d’Artois’ silliness, and procured for him the indulgence of the King, who, completely subject to her charm, would have adored her if the fashion had permitted her to suffer it.
Monsieur,8 an ambitious and sly courtier, did not like the Queen at all. He foresaw that the day she became less frivolous, she would take on the sort of political importance that he aspired to himself, and he feared compromising himself by showing this desire to plainly. He was fairly removed from affairs, whilst at the same time building for himself the reputation of a man capable of intervening in them usefully.
The Comte d’Artois9 was at this time starting down the path towards the fatal destiny that would sink his family and his country. He had the tastes and eccentricities of the young men of his time, but he displayed them on a stage that was high enough for the crowd to see, and valour, that banal expedient of men of the world, did not sufficiently cover them.
At the siege of Gibraltar,10 which it was his whim to attend, he had a deplorable attitude, to the point that the commanding general had taken to warning the English batteries, and no shots were fired when the prince was visiting the fortification works. It was said that this was done without his knowledge, but such things can always be made known when one does not prefer to ignore them. I know that M de Maillebois was reproached, and he responded: “But that was still better than the grimaces he made on the first day.” The ridiculous spectacle of his duel with the Duc de Bourbon was further proof of a disposition that his subsequent conduct has only confirmed.
Madame,11 Monsieur’s wife, had a great deal of character and a certain gracefulness of manner, despite a quite remarkable ugliness. In the early years, she had got on quite well with Monsieur. However, from the time that he became attached to Mme de Balbi, he hardly ever went to Madame’s apartments, and she consoled herself in private with her women of the bedchamber and, dare one say it, the bottle, to the point that the public was able to discern it.
Her sister, the Comtesse d’Artois, was even uglier, and perfectly stupid, disagreeable, and uncouth. It was with guardsmen that she sought consolation for her husband’s frivolities. A pregnancy that seemed a little suspect, of which the result was a girl who died at a young age, decided the Comte d’Artois to give no further pretext for the augmentation of his family, which already consisted of two princes.
Despite this precaution, a new pregnancy of the Comtesse d’Artois’ forced her to confide in the Queen, in order that she beg the indulgence of the King and the prince. The Queen, much agitated by this mission, sent for the Comte d’Artois, shut herself up alone with him, and embarked on a long circumlocution before coming to the point. Her brother-in-law was standing in front of her, hat in hand. When he realized what it was all about, he threw it on the ground, put his two fists on his hips, the better to laugh, and exclaimed:
“Oh, the poor man, the poor man, I pity him; he is sufficiently punished.”
“My word,” replied the Queen, “since you’re taking it like this, I regret the pounding heart with which I awaited you. Go find the King, and tell him you forgive the Comtesse d’Artois.”
“Oh, as for that, with all my heart. Oh, the poor man, the poor man.”
The King was more severe, and the presumed guilty party was sent to serve in the colonies. However, as Mme Adélaïde said to my mother the next day while telling her the story, “But, my dear, they would have to send every company of the guards away!” The Comtesse d’Artois went to take the waters, I believe; in any case, no more was heard of the child.
Mme Élisabeth12 played no part at Court before the Revolution. Afterwards, she earned the title of saint and martyr. Her household was of an unsuitable composition. The Comtesse Diane de Polignac, scandal personified, was her lady-in-waiting, and then Mme de Canillac, the cause of the duel between the Comte d’Artois and the Duc de Bourbon, was added as lady-in-waiting. Her intimacy with the Comte d’Artois was known, but she honoured it with great disinterest. She loved him for himself, had no fortune, and lived in the greatest mediocrity, bordering on indigence, without deigning to accept the most trifling present from him. There was a kind of distinction in this conduct, and though she was not an immoral person, it was nonetheless unsuitable to place her so near a young princess.
8. Louis Stanislas Xavier, Comte de Provence, born at Versailles in 1755.
9. Born at Versailles in 1757.
10. In 1782, during the American war.
11. Marie Joséphine Louise de Savoie, daughter of King Victor Amadeus III and sister of the last three kings of the elder branch of the House of Savoy: Charles Emmanuel IV, Victor Emmanuel I, and Charles Felix. Another sister, Marie Thérèse, was Comtesse d’Artois.
12. Born in 1764.
There will be one more part to complete Chapter One. In Part 1.7, we will hear the strange story of two adventurers who impersonated Greek princes at Court, and got away with it for years.