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The Pompadour's Book: A Mystery Manuscript Owned by Madame de Pompadour


Pompadour, by Augustin de Saint-Aubin, after Charles-Nicolas Cochin, filsPompadour, by Saint-Aubin, after Cochin, fils. The Goncourts wrote of this portrait, "It is one ... in which the expression of her physiognomy is the wittiest, in which the smile of her glance and mouth, half opened in dainty laughter, best reveals the man of wit in the lovely woman"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."

Pompadour, by Boucher (from Munich's Alte Pinakothek)Pompadour, by Boucher (from Munich's Alte Pinakothek)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... 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.

The manuscript volume titled "Zeneyde"The manuscript volume titled "Zeneyde"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.

A 19th-century artist's idea of a 5th-century Merovingian warrior.A 19th-century artist's idea of a 5th-century Merovingian warrior.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."

Childeric I, King of FranceChilderic I, King of France

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. 

The first page of the manuscript. The word "Abrégé" has been clipped from the topThe first page of the manuscript. The word "Abrégé" has been clipped from the top

The beginning of "Anecdotes de la cour de Childeric, roi de France"The beginning of "Anecdotes de la cour de Childeric, roi de France"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. 1v. 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 Childeric, roi de France. A Paris: Chez Prault père, 1736. Available online via Google Books (v. 1; v. 2)

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.

At NYPL: Books about Pompadour in English, to borrow or read online.

I would be remiss not to mention, 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.


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Great post, Kathie, my favorite this year, so rich w/ links. Like reading a bibliophilic mystery, and I love how your detective work is part of the story.

Zeneyde (Zénéide) from the Pompadour's library

Madam, I can't answer to your question about the mysterious title "Zeneyde" of Lussan's Anecdotes sur la Cour de Childéric, but I can say one word about the comedy Zénéide. This comedy was first wrote by Claude-Henri Watelet (1718-1786), a poem in prose, in 1743, and after that, Cahusac asked to him the right to write a poem in worms which was edited in 1744 for the first time. You can find the Watelet's Zénéide text in prose online on the website, by entering "Recueil de quelques ouvrages de M. Watelet, de l'Académie française et de celle de peinture, Paris, Prault,1784". Until the page 55, Watelet explains his relations with Cahusac and write " I made this comedy in 1743 after i read Hamilton's Zeneide ". Watelet knew madame de Pompadour before she was married with Lenormand d'Etioles. He wrote for her in 1755 a poem, "l'Art de peindre" (manuscript and printed book under no. 404 of her library catalogue). Marguerite de Lussan also dedicated to the marquise a book named " Marie d'Angleterre, reine-duchesse" in 1749 and received from her in november 1750 a pension of 2000 livres. I don't know more about "des trois premiers livres de Zeneyde", but I continue to search ! Sincerely yours, Noël GARRIGUE, Nice, France

Zeneyde (Zénéide) from the Pompadour's library (2)

To Kathie Coblentz, You will maybe be interested by this additionnal information : Madame de Pompadour owned a printed version of the "Anecdotes de la Cour de Childeric", in the 8th volume of "Amusemens de la Campagne, de la Cour et de la Ville", Paris, 1743, 8 vol. (no. 2176 in the catalog of Pompadour's library). This 1743 edition is not available online, but a 1740 edition (8th volume) and a 1760 edition (8th volume) are available on Google Books. Sincerely yours, Noël GARRIGUE, Nice,France

Zeneyde (Zénéide) from the Pompadour's library (3 and last)

To Kathie Coblentz. Here is what i definitivly found about this manuscript : 1) in 1746, Marguerite de Lussan wrote a theatrical piece with this title : " The nymph of the Seine river or the nymph of Versailles". 2)In the 1736 printed version of "Anecdotes de la Cour de Childéric, roi de France", you can read page 9 : "Childeric fut envoyé à Rome où il était appelé pour épouser la belle Zeneyde, petite-fille de Clodion". 3)I founded the biographical sketch of the auction sale of this manuscript at Drouot, Paris, in november 2010. This notice says nothing about Marguerite de Lussan but says (I translate in english): "This manuscript is an adaptation of a story of Antoine Hamilton. In this manuscript, the fairy tale of the nymph Zeneide (daughter of the emperor Maximus)is telling as a pretext to narrate the heroic deeds of Pharamond, then of Mérovée, before Zeneide was kidnapped by Genséric, king of the Vandales". It can (perhaps)explains the binder's title of this work of Lussan. Sincerely yours Noël GARRIGUE, Nice, France

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