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Madame de Pompadour : mistress of France /
Christine Pevitt Algrant.
First edition.
New York : Grove Press, c2002.
xii, 338 pages, 8 unnumbered pages of colour plates : colour illustrations ; 24 cm.
More Details
New York : Grove Press, c2002.
catalogue key
Includes bibliographical references (pages [323]-327) and index.
A Look Inside
First Chapter

"She charms everyone who sees her ..."

Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson was born in Paris on December 29, 1721, the first child of Louise-Madeleine de La Motte, wife of François Poisson. Her birth went largely unremarked; the Poissons, living in modest but comfortable circumstances in the rue de Cléry, were simply a middle-class family lost in the anonymity of the great city. And yet, there were powerful forces taking an interest in this child. Things were not quite as they seemed in the Poisson household.

The couple had married in October 1718. The bride was the daughter of Jean de La Motte, an official of the War Ministry responsible for supplying the Invalides with meat and other provisions. The La Mottes lived at the Invalides and were a very respectable family; one of Louise-Madeleine's sisters was a nun, another married to the fruiterer to the royal household. But Louise-Madeleine herself, not yet twenty when she married, was already remarked in Paris not only for her beauty (she was a handsome brunette with dazzling white skin, "one of the most beautiful women in Paris," according to a contemporary), but also for her high spirits ("she was as clever as four devils"). The capricious young woman had found a husband of similar social standing, but considerably less élan. François Poisson was in his forties, recently widowed. A procurement agent for the army, he was not a glamorous prize, a suitable, if not exciting, match.

As the couple settled into married life, the city around them was experiencing a social and economic upheaval. Since 1715, and on the death of the great King Louis XIV, France had been ruled by Philippe d'Orléans, regent for the five-year-old King Louis XV. D'Orléans had immediately moved the court from Versailles to Paris, installing the little king at the Tuileries, and beginning the transformation of the capital. An application of money and energy stimulated the development of an entire new district of the city, the faubourg Saint-Germain, where the nobility, freed from the constraints of life at Versailles, began to build elegant new town houses; Parisian society turned to the pursuit of pleasure, buying beautiful clothes and objets de luxe , discovering the delights of fine cuisine and lavish entertaining, and all the joys of la vie mondaine . Restaurants and coffee-houses began to appear, art and antique dealers thrived, makers of fine furniture could not keep up with demand. Life took on a joyous, if often riotous, tone.

Regency society was at once licentious and refined; it was characterized not only by an undeniable grossness of morals, but also by the seductive fêtes galantes of Antoine Watteau. The Regent d'Orléans himself exemplified the dichotomy; he was a very intelligent, creative man, but dissolute and coarse in his private affairs. Despite his buffoonery and philandering, however, he kept France peaceful and increasingly prosperous. Until, that is, he entrusted the finances of the country to a Scottish adventurer called John Law, in part responsible for the great financial crash known as the "Mississippi," which ruined everything for which d'Orléans had worked.

In 1720 a dizzying series of events threw Paris into uproar. John Law, with the approval of the regent, had started a commercial bank, which became so successful at promoting the idea of the use of credit and paper money-ideas which were revolutionary in France at the time-that the regent made it the "royal" (that is, officially approved) bank. At the same time, Law took over several moribund French trading companies, amalgamated them into the giant Compagnie des Indes, and embarked on a campaign to encourage the public to bring their gold and silver to his bank in exchange for banknotes, and then invest their notes in the soon-to-be-discovered wealth of the faraway and mysterious land of Louisiana, hence the "Mississippi." Share prices rose, an open-air stock market was set up in the rue Quincampoix in the center of Paris, and frenzied scenes of buying and selling took place against a backdrop of petty crime and violence.

Then, inevitably, at the end of 1720, the whole fragile edifice collapsed. John Law fled the country. Those who had invested in the "Mississippi" saw their savings gone, their security vanished, their hopes destroyed. Philippe d'Orléans had failed in his great attempt to modernize the financial system of France. The failure had a devastating effect on the regent. He retreated from new policy initiatives and, in 1722, he retreated from Paris, taking the court back to Versailles, and choosing to focus his time and energy on the education of the eleven-year-old King Louis XV. The unfortunate separation of king and capital would have heavy consequences for the future. The regent himself would die suddenly at the end of 1723, at the age of forty-nine, worn out by his excesses and by the failure of his cherished scheme to make France prosperous.

While all this was taking place, the Poissons must have observed the frantic atmosphere in the city, the crowds of provincials and foreigners possessed with the desire for riches, the violence in the nearby rue Quincampoix. But they did not join the hysteria. They had better advice; François Poisson was employed by some very grand and important people, men who were John Law's most bitter foes, men who would certainly not have advised their employee any participation in his outlandish ventures.

These men were the four Pâris brothers, bankers to the government and much more besides. They were originally from Grenoble, and had made their fortune during the constant wars of Louis XIV by supplying the French armies with food, water, forage, and munitions. This fortune put them at the center of the French financial system, a network of financiers, bankers, and businessmen who lent money to the government, farmed the taxes, and made vast profits along the way. Their power and influence became paramount.

But the brothers were never ministers; they preferred to stay in the background and control events through their protégés. They have been called "black holes in the history of the eighteenth century," because their dealings, personalities, and modus operandi were mysterious at the time and are still so today. But even if one cannot pinpoint exactly how and where they exercised their power, one cannot dispute the fact that it was theirs to exercise.

The two elder brothers died before the events of this book took place. It was the younger brothers, Joseph and Jean, who in 1722 were successfully established in the Parisian financial world. François Poisson worked directly for the third brother, Joseph, known as Pâris-Duverney, whose field of activity was the original family business of supplying the armies. He was also close to the youngest brother, known as Pâris de Montmartel, a banker and financier. It was the protection and advice of these two men which saved the Poissons from the ruin that awaited many of their friends in the turbulence of the Mississippi.

When Jeanne-Antoinette was born in December 1721, the family lived in a modest neighborhood close to the church of Saint-Eustache. From the first days of the marriage, François Poisson was often away on business; when a brief war broke out between France and Spain in 1719, he was sent south to start to amass the necessary mules, wagons, foodstuffs, and other vivres . His job was made difficult, and his stay extended, because of a disastrous outbreak of bubonic plague which spread across southern France.

His wife was not one to stay uncomforted. In the corrupt world of regency Paris, where it was not uncommon for rich men to purchase the virginity of young girls, and where every man kept a mistress if he could, Madame Poisson's looks and temperament guaranteed her success. The gossip of the day attributed many lovers to her, and this gossip became more widespread and more prurient in later attempts to blacken her daughter's name. Dozens of men were linked to her, with little or no evidence; suffice it to say that both her contemporaries and later historians have mostly refused to accept the fact that a low-born functionary like François Poisson could have fathered Madame de Pompadour. It is of course perfectly possible that he did.

One of the most reasonable alternatives to Poisson as the father of Jeanne-Antoinette is Pâris de Montmartel, who stood as her godfather at her baptism, and who had known Madame Poisson very well at the Invalides before her marriage. The most reasonable, however, is a man called Charles Lenormand de Tournehem, a tax farmer, a director of the Compagnie des Indes, and a member of the financial élite, although he was by no means as wealthy as Montmartel. Tournehem was in his mid-thirties in 1721, a widower with no children. The ties between Tournehem and Madame Poisson seem to have gone back a long way. In April 1720 he had attempted to rent a house in the rue Vivienne from one of her relatives. But it is impossible to reconstruct the course of their relationship, or to confirm his paternity. Only from subsequent events can one draw conclusions.

And so, when the baby girl was baptized at Saint-Eustache on December 31, 1721, François Poisson held her proudly in his arms, Pâris de Montmartel stood as godfather, his wife (and cousin) Antoinette-Justine Pâris as godmother, and Tournehem mingled with the congregation. Whatever was in doubt that day, one thing was clear: Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson came into the world with powerful connections.

François Poisson was doing well. The family lived in comfortable circumstances in the rue de Cléry, with servants and a carriage. In 1725 a baby boy, Abel-François, was born. But Poisson, one of Pâris-Duverney's most trusted agents, was rarely at home; he was usually out on the French frontier or in the provinces, scouting supplies and establishing contacts. In his absence, Madame Poisson maintained a close relationship with Tournehem and, with a sound head for business, benefited from his advice to help improve the family finances by shrewd investments.

This settled way of life ended abruptly in 1726 when François Poisson fled the country. He was accused of speculating in wheat and bearing some responsibility for a grievous famine in Paris that year. His employers were also accused of malfeasance; Pâris-Duverney was sent to the Bastille on charges of corruption and embezzlement. After a trial, Duverney was cleared of all charges and soon rose again to become commissioner-general of supplies. And yet François Poisson, Duverney's loyal employee, remained in exile for almost ten years. Here was a mystery: the Pâris brothers could easily have rescued their employee once they themselves regained favor, but they did nothing. Poisson languished in Germany all that time, and arranged his return to France only through his own resources. For whatever reasons, it was deemed prudent that François Poisson not rejoin his wife and children.

At her husband's flight, Madame Poisson was at first left in some embarrassment. She and her two children were forced to move to modest rooms in the rue des Bons-Enfants, near the Palais-Royal. But she was a brave woman with good connections. She kept her head and kept afloat. She might not have had the ton du monde , as a contemporary observed, but she had wit and charm, ambition, and courage. She would not be easily defeated, and she would teach her daughter the necessity for ambition and resilience in an unpredictable and perilous world.

Her first concern, however, was to find the five-year-old girl a haven from the uncertainties of the times. Jeanne-Antoinette was a good-natured and amiable child, already known as "Reinette" ("little queen") to her family. Madame Poisson's way of life did not easily accommodate the presence of children; it would be better for all concerned if her daughter were sent to more salubrious surroundings. François Poisson, although far away, was also anxious to see Jeanne-Antoinette safely settled. He made it clear that he wished to play a part in the decisions affecting the girl's future; it was mainly at his prompting that she was sent to the Ursuline convent at Poissy, some miles out of Paris, where she could be supervised by her father's cousin, Sister Elisabeth, and by Sister Perpetua, her mother's sister. She was there for almost three years, spending those impressionable years, from the ages of five to eight, under the benevolent eye of the nuns.

The Ursulines had as their mission the education of the daughters of the bourgeoisie, and brought up their charges to be good and gentle wives and mothers, to respect God, their family, and the king. Theirs was an ordered, secure world for a little girl caught up in a family crisis, and Jeanne-Antoinette seems to have flourished within it. The nuns were the first of many who knew her to find her charming. They also made it a point to keep the distant father, no doubt at his request, informed of his daughter's activities. A letter from the convent to Poisson in Germany paints a pleasing picture of the girl in August 1729: "Your amiable daughter, monsieur, is well and pretty, and feeling altogether at her ease. Monsieur de La Motte sends someone every market day for her news, and has her taken out from time to time with her cousin Deblois to have dinner with him.... She is not at all bored with us, quite the contrary....


Excerpted from Madame de Pompadour by CHRISTINE PEVITT ALGRANT Copyright © 2002 by Christine Pevitt Algrant
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Publishers Weekly on 2002-07-22:
It's impossible to read Algrant's relatively reserved study (compared with that of Evelyne Lever, [see review on p. 166]) without thinking, at least fleetingly, of Monica Lewinsky. Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson (1721-1764) too set her sights on winning the affections of a head of state, in her case, King Louis XV of France. She succeeded and became as famous as her paramour but far more reviled primarily because Pompadour actively sought to be the power behind the throne. Algrant (Philippe, duc d'Orlans) does a terrific job portraying a woman driven by a potent combination of ambition, insecurity and a dogged determination to fulfill the destiny set forth for her at age nine, when a fortune teller predicted she would become the mistress of the king of France. According to Algrant, there's no doubt that Pompadour loved the king, but it's never quite clear how much of that love was pure and how much was motivated by her almost pathological need for power. And power she had: by the time she died, at age 42, Pompadour had overseen the hiring and firing of government officials and military officers. Armed with objectivity and a wealth of facts, Algrant either because she shows without telling or refuses to speculate lets readers draw their own conclusions about Pompadour's true character. The result is a comprehensive but detached portrait that provides plenty of food for thought. 8 pages of color illus. not seen by PW. (Sept.) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Appeared in Library Journal on 2002-05-15:
Algrant follows up her celebrated Philippe, duc d'Orleans, with this biography of Louis XV's favorite mistress who was, quelle horreur, a bourgeoisie. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
This item was reviewed in:
Library Journal, May 2002
Kirkus Reviews, July 2002
Publishers Weekly, July 2002
Library Journal, September 2002
New York Times Book Review, December 2002
To find out how to look for other reviews, please see our guides to finding book reviews in the Sciences or Social Sciences and Humanities.
Table of Contents
List of Illustrationsp. ix
Prefacep. xi
1721-1745 "She was born with good sense and a good beart."p. 1
1745-1751 "Sincere and tender Pompadour."p. 47
1751-1756 "Louis XV is letting himself be guided by her advice."p. 113
1756-1759 "The marquise is Prime Minister."p. 185
1759-1764 "What miseries are attached to ambition."p. 245
Afterwordp. 293
Epiloguep. 299
Acknowledgmentsp. 303
Source Notesp. 305
Bibliographyp. 323
Indexp. 329
Table of Contents provided by Syndetics. All Rights Reserved.

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