After a long gap, Part 2.7 of A Childhood at Versailles is now finished.
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 grandnephew. 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 2.7, the author addresses the importance of wit at the Court of Versailles, which she illustrates with several anecdotes.
A Childhood at Versailles, Chapter Two, Part 7 (2.7)
It was during one of these conversations in her rooms that Mme Adélaïde recounted to my father how her curiosity about the Man in the Iron Mask had been checked. She had talked her brother, the Dauphin, into asking the King who he was. The Dauphin duly asked the King, who said: “My son, I will tell you if you like, but you will have to swear the same oath that I swore myself never to divulge this secret to anyone.”
The Dauphin admitted that he only wanted to know it in order to tell his sister Adélaîde, and said that he would forego hearing the secret. The King answered that it was just as well, for the secret, which he set store by keeping because he had sworn to do so, had never been of any great importance and was therefore of no interest. He added that there were only two men living who knew the secret, himself and M de Machault.
The princess also explained to my father how M de Maurepas got himself made chief minister.
On the death of Louis XV, his daughters, who had nursed him during his smallpox, were separated from the new King by an iron rule of etiquette. Louis XVI, to whom his father the Dauphin had recommended always to take the advice of his aunt Adélaïde, wrote her to ask to whom he should entrust the care of the kingdom that had fallen into his arms. Madame Adélaïde replied that the Dauphin would not have hesitated to call for M de Machault. A courier was duly sent to M de Machault.
A new letter from the King to his aunt: What was to be done about the funeral? What was the protocol? To whom could he turn? Madame Adélaïde’s response: No one would be more fitting to take charge of these details than M de Maurepas, thanks to his long memory and knowledge of the traditions.
The courier for M de Machault had not yet left. M de Machault’s estate at Thoiry was three leagues beyond Pontchartrain on awful roads. He was told to deliver M de Maurepas’ letter on the way.
M de Maurepas, an old courtier bored in his exile, arrived immediately. The King was waiting for him with impatience and had him shown into his study. While he was speaking to him, it was announced that the council was assembled. The custom was that each minister was notified each time by the usher. The omission of this formality closed the door of the council; it was the equivalent of a dismissal. The usher of the council, seeing M de Maurepas in this private colloquy with the King, and knowing that he had been sent for, looked at him hesitantly. The King said nothing, but looked troubled. M de Maurepas bowed as if he had received the notification, and the King passed by him without daring to say farewell. M de Maurepas, took his seat at the council, and governed France for ten years.
When M de Machault arrived a few hours later, the position had been filled. The King addressed a few commonplaces to him, made him some compliments, and watched him go away again. Madame Adélaïde was upset and complained, but she and her nephew were Bourbons, as she said, and had enough energy neither to resist the will of others, nor to fully associate themselves with it.
If Thoiry had been closer than Ponchartrain, perhaps there would not have been a revolution in France. M de Machault was a wise man who would have been able to make better use of Louis XVI’s virtues than the witty but frivolous and immoral courtier to whom he entrusted his fate. M de Maurepas was the man best suited to the taste of the time, even if only for the needs of the moment.
I have said that in those days one could, with some wit, get away with anything. Wit played the part then that talent plays today. I want to report some examples recounted by my mother, who pushed morality almost to the edge of prudery without, many years later, the acts in some of these anecdotes seeming to her anything other than witty pranks.
The Vicomte de Ségur, the most fashionable man of the time, used to compose some rather pretty little verses, of which his position in society was the chief merit. M de Thiard, annoyed and perhaps envious at their success, in his turn composed a piece of verse in which he counselled M de Ségur to send his efforts to a confectionary, having, he said, proved that he had just enough wit to fit into a lozenge.
M de Ségur feigned laughter at this epigram, but resolved to take his revenge.
Now there lived in a Normandy a certain Madame de Z—-, a very beautiful woman, living in her chateau decently with her husband, and enjoying a rather good reputation despite her relations with M de Thiard, which were said to be highly intimate and had lasted for several years. The latter was said to love her passionately. The Vicomte exercised his influence, his father being Minister of War, to have his regiment sent to a garrison in a town near Mme de Z—-’s chateau. He played his role perfectly, feigning a delirious passion, and after some assiduous courting that lasted for several months, managed to win favour, and finally achieved success.
Mme de Z—- soon found herself pregnant in the absence of her husband and even that of M de Thiard. She informed the Vicomte of her misfortune. Just the day before he had given her signs of the most ardent love, but on that day he answered that his goal had been achieved and that he had never cared for her. He had only wanted to avenge himself for M de Thiard’s sarcasm, and to show him that his wit was good for something other than devising confectioner’s couplets. Consequently, he would kiss her hand and she would never hear from him again. Indeed he left straight away for Paris, where he told the story to anyone who wanted to hear it.
Mme de Z—-, shamed by her husband, dishonoured in her province, and rejected by M de Thiard, died in childbirth. M de Z—— was obliged to recognize the unfortunate child, Mme L——de—-, whom we have seen in society and whose instinct for intrigue was worthy of her father’s. The Vicomte de Ségur was never able to grasp that such an affair, of which he boasted openly, would be shocking to anyone.
Here is another anecdote of a different kind:
M de Créqui was soliciting a favour at Court, and, consequently, paid his own court to M and Mme de Maurepas. One of his obsequiousnesses was to play every evening at the table of the old and very dull Mme de Maurepas; accordingly, she supported him keenly, and her importunities had the desired effect on M de Maurepas. The very day that the favour was granted, M de Créqui came to see Mme de Maurepas. Mme de Flamarens, the niece of Mme de Maurepas, who did the honours of the house, offered a card to M de Créqui, as usual. The latter, bowing, replied icily, “Excuse me, I never play.” And, indeed, he did not join Mme de Maurepas’ game. This unkindness, covered by the piquancy of its expression, did not wound, and no one laughed more heartily than the old minister.
M de Maugiron was the colonel of a superb regiment, but he was filled with horror, or rather boredom, by everything to do with martial matters, and was considered to be not very brave. One day on the battlefield, the French grenadiers, with whom he had once served, charged in rather dangerous circumstances. M de Maugiron voluntarily took his place in their ranks and conducted himself in such a way as to be noticed. The next day, at dinner, the officers of his regiment complimented him. He replied, “My God, gentlemen, you see that when I wish to, I acquit myself as well as the next man. But doing so seems so disagreeable, and above all so stupid, that I have promised myself it will never happen again. You have seen me under fire, so remember it well, for it was the last time.”
He was as good as his word. When his regiment charged, he kept back, wishing his officers a good journey and saying quite loudly, “Look at these imbeciles who want to get themselves killed!” Despite this, M de Maugiron was not a bad officer. His regiment was well turned out and conducted itself marvellously well in every action, and this odd colonel was loved and even respected.
It was to him that his wife, a very witty person, wrote this famous missive:
“I write to you because I know not what to do, but I close because I can only say that I am
Sassenage de Maugiron
And quite put out to be so!”
No one could resist the temptation of a witty rejoinder. The Maréchal de Noailles made a very poor show at the war, and his reputation for bravery was in considerable doubt. One day it was raining and the King asked the Duc d’Ayen if the Maréchal was coming out to hunt. “Oh, no, Sire, my father fears water as much as the enemy’s fire!” This epigram enjoyed great success.
I only wanted to relate these various exchanges, which could easily be multiplied, in order to prove how much, in those times that we are told were more moral than ours, times that society, it was said, was a tribunal that had jurisdiction over everyone, wit and impudence sufficed to avoid the heavy sentences that it would otherwise probably have passed on misdeeds less wittily flaunted.
17. Mme de Boigne spelled out the names that I have replaced with Z—— and X——. They belong to two great families whose descendants are extant. The motives behind this discretion will be understood.
This concludes Part 2.7. Part 2.8, the final part of Chapter Two, will appear before 28 March.