Archives, Biblio File, Women's History Month
The Pompadour's Book: A Mystery Manuscript Owned by Madame de Pompadour
It's a small volume, neatly but unostentatiously bound in mottled calf. The gilt ornamentation is discreet, except for an impressive coat of arms on both boards. That becomes even more impressive when we identify it as the blazon of one of the standout personalities of 18th-century France, Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, marquise de Pompadour — elevated from her haute-bourgeois background and a boring union with a certain M. Lenormand d'Étioles (nephew of her mother's lover) to become the official maîtresse-en-titre to King Louis XV, who ennobled her under the ancient (but extinct) title of Pompadour.
The brothers Goncourt wrote of young Mlle. Poisson/Mme. d'Étioles as she was when she burst onto the French social scene in the 1740s:
"Marvellous aptitude, a rare and learned education, had given this young woman all the gifts and graces which made of a woman what the eighteenth century called a virtuosa, an accomplished model of the seductions of her sex... All the talents of grace seemed to meet in her. No woman was a better rider; none could dance more lightly; none more quick to excite applause with the notes of her voice or the strains of an instrument ... There was no one, again, who could tell a story in a more piquant way. And where others might compete with her in the field of coquetry, she took the palm over all by her genius of dress, by the turn she gave to a bow, the air she gave to the nothing which adorned her, the signature that her taste set upon all that she wore. ...
"To please and charm, Mademoiselle Poisson had again her face, a complexion of the most extreme whiteness, lips somewhat pale, but eyes with the vivacity of fire, glances which seemed of flame, and which veiled in lightning the languid air of her lymphatic nature ... Again she had her magnificent chestnut hair, ravishing teeth, and the most delicious smile ... her figure, rounded but not large, curved admirably, her perfect hands, the play of gesture from all her vivacious, passionate body, and, above all, a mobile, varying physiognomy, marvelously animated, which the soul of the woman ceaselessly moved, and which, with incessant renewals, displayed turn by turn a moved or imperious tenderness, noble seriousness, or wanton graces."
It's no wonder the King was bewitched. Pompadour would remain his Number One Mistress from 1745 until the day she died, aged just 42, in 1764. In this role, she occupied one of the few positions of power available to women of her era. Her influence reached beyond the King's bedchamber to ...
Matters of state and of might,
Things that great ministers do...
...as the Victorian poet Austin Dobson would write in a ballade about a pretty trinket of hers, "On a Fan,"
She was also a friend and patroness of Voltaire's, which explains why the Rare Book Division of The New York Public Library acquired the volume we're discussing here. The Rare Book Division has a large collection of Voltaireana, the Martin J. Gross Collection, acquired during the administration of the former Library president, noted Voltaire scholar Paul LeClerc. (Browse the collection here.)
La Pompadour counted acting upon the stage among her plethora of accomplishments, and to please and amuse the King and herself, she installed a small but fully-equipped theater at Versailles. One of the roles she performed, on December 30, 1747, was that of the title character in Zéneïde, a trifling one-act comedy by Louis de Cahusac that may or may not have been inspired by an episode in Zeneyde by Count Anthony Hamilton. Hamilton was a writer of Scottish ancestry who lived in France and wrote in French, and his Zeneyde was to be found in his Œuvres mêlées en prose et en vers, published posthumously in 1731. An English version appeared in 1760 in Select Tales of Count Hamilton.
It was presumably around the time of this performance that the Marquise acquired the present manuscript volume, which is identified in the captions of its three sections and on the spine of its binding as "Zeneyde." It has always been assumed to be a version of Hamilton's Zeneyde. In the catalog of Pompadour's books offered for sale after her death, it was listed immediately following her copy of Hamilton's Œuvres.
However, upon closer examination, the manuscript appears to bear little or no relationship to Hamilton's Zeneyde. For one thing, there is no character by that name in all of its 487 pages, and none of its major characters appear in Hamilton's conte, a short historical tale left incomplete at his death. There is a bit of overlap in the period. The subtitle (inscribed in another hand) of the manuscript's first section is "Anecdotes du règne de Childéric," and Hamilton's Zeneyde is also set in part among the half-mythical early Merovingians.
I have been able to establish the manuscript's true identity. The text is word for word the same as that of a work by Marguerite de Lussan that appeared anonymously in 1736 under the title Anecdotes de la cour de Childeric, roi de France. This work was indeed once ascribed to Hamilton, who died 16 years before it was published. The Bibliothèque du roi (predecessor of today's Bibliothèque nationale de France) listed it under Hamilton in its catalog of 1752. However, A.A. Barbier, in his classic Dictionnaire des ouvrages anonymes et pseudonyms (the 1822 and later editions) declares this attribution to be without foundation, and adds, "I have found the name of Mademoiselle de Lussan inscribed by hand in a copy."
Who was Marguerite de Lussan?
She was born in 1682, some say to a fortune teller named La Fleury and a coachman, while others declare her to be the child of Louis Thomas, Count of Soissons and Prince of Savoy, and an unknown courtesan. Or perhaps the child of La Fleury and the prince — modern research would seem to support this theory. At any rate, the prince, who was the older brother of the more celebrated Prince Eugene of Savoy, took a special interest in her education and permitted her to bear his arms. Feted and encouraged by older men of letters, she never married, but found a long-time companion in the minor dramatist, royal censor, and compulsive gambler Jean-Louis-Ignace de La Serre, to whom some of her works were, at times, unfairly attributed (a similar fate has befallen women writers in many eras).
Mining a vein uncovered by earlier French female romanciers, such as Madame de La Fayette and Madame de Villedieu, Lussan wrote a string of successful historical novels, mostly dealing with the tribulations of true love against the background of court life under various French monarchs. Such works were the "chick lit" of their day, popular but critically scorned — "except," writes Doris Cuff, "among enlightened people who favored literature in any form, such as, for example, Mme. de Pompadour." Indeed, Pompadour is said to have thought highly of Lussan, and possibly granted her a pension. Lussan's Anecdotes de la cour de François I (1748) is dedicated to the Marquise. She died in 1758.
I am still seeking an explanation as to why this manuscript bears the wrong title. If anyone reading this has any ideas, please tell me! In the meanwhile, the little volume keeps its secret. I've already quoted from the Austin Dobson ballade about another beautiful object that belonged to the Marquise de Pompadour. It concludes:
Where are the secrets it knew?
Weavings of plot and of plan?
— But where is the Pompadour, too?
This was the Pompadour’s Fan!
This was the Pompadour's book!
For further reading:
I've cited English translations of French works, when available.
Cahusac, Louis de. Zénéïde: comedie, en un acte, en vers, avec un divertissement. A Paris: Chez Prault fils, 1744. Available online via HathiTrust.
Catalogue des livres de la bibliothéque de feue Madame la Marquise de Pompadour, dame du palais de la Reine. A Paris: Chez J.T. Herissant, et J.T. Herissant fils, 1765. Available online via HathiTrust; Google Books.
Cuff, Doris A. "Introduction à une étude sur Marguerite de Lussan et le roman historique au commencement du XVIIIe siècle." Revue d'histoire littéraire de la France. 43e année, no. 1 (1936), pp. 1-19. Available online via JSTOR at all NYPL locations. Most of my information on Lussan is derived from this source.
Goncourt, Edmond de, and Jules de Goncourt. The Confidantes of a King: The Mistresses of Louis XV. Translated by Ernest Dowson. London: T.N. Foulis, 1907. Available online via HathiTrust; Google Books (v. 1; v. 2).
Hamilton, Anthony. Select Tales of Count Hamilton. London: Printed for J. Burd, 1760. "The History of Zeneyde": v. 2, pp. 154-230. Online resource; available onsite at the Library's research locations.
Jones, Colin. Madame de Pompadour: Images of a Mistress. London: National Gallery Company, 2002.
Jullien, Adolphe. Histoire du théâtre de Madame de Pompadour, dit Théâtre des petits cabinets. Paris: J. Baur, 1874. Available online via Google Books.
Lussan, Marguerite de. Anecdotes de la cour de François I . A Londres: Chez Jean Nours, 1748. Available online at the Library's research locations, and via Google Books; dedication to Pompadour follows the title page.
Salmon, Xavier, editor. Madame de Pompadour et les arts. Paris: Réunion des musées nationaux, 2002. "Madame de Pompadour bibliophile," by Isabelle Conihout: pp. 268-279.
I would be remiss not to mention madamedepompadour.com, a Madame de Pompadour "fan site" maintained by Lorenzo Crivellin, in Italian, French, and English. It's a great source of miscellaneous information, documents, links, and pictures of everything Pompadour, including dozens of portraits.