The Virgin and I

Elisabeth Ladenson

In her 1675 memoir – one of the first autobiographical accounts to be published by a woman during her lifetime under her own name – Hortense Mancini begins by noting that she is writing at the request of her patron, Charles-Emmanuel, duc de Savoie, and that she is doing so despite her ‘natural reluctance’ to talk about herself. She apologises in advance for telling a story that may ‘seem like something out of a novel’, and protests that she is well aware that ‘a woman’s glory lies in not giving rise to gossip.’ Pericles said as much in his funeral oration of 431 BCE as reported by Thucydides, but seldom can that bit of wisdom have been more spectacularly flouted than it is here. Not only do the lives of Hortense and her sister Marie, who published her own memoirs not long afterwards, resemble fiction: the two generated about as much gossip as any two noblewomen could have managed (their contemporary Ninon de Lenclos gave them a run for their money, but then she was a courtesan). Echoes of their adventures are to be found in many memoirs and letters of the time. Mme de Sévigné turned their name into a generic term for renegade wives.

The memoirs make fascinating reading, and not just because they tell the bracingly transgressive story of two aristocratic women who spent most of their adult lives on the lam from their husbands. Their memories of childhood at the French court are just as absorbing. Hortense reports her sister Marie’s flirtation with the young (and as yet unmarried) King Louis and the way everyone teased her about it, but she’s more interested in recounting a practical joke played by their uncle, Cardinal Mazarin, on their youngest sister, Marie-Anne, who was then about six. (Marie-Anne was to marry Maurice-Godefroy de la Tour d’Auvergne, duc de Bouillon.) The cardinal, who doesn’t otherwise come across as a fun-loving sort, begins by teasing Marie-Anne – always referred to here as Mme de Bouillon – about having an admirer, and then ups the ante by accusing her of being pregnant. The entire court, finding the idea hilarious, gets in on the act. The bewildered child’s clothes are secretly taken in to make her believe she has put on weight, and when the time comes she wakes up to find a newborn infant – presumably supplied by a servant, as the baby’s provenance isn’t commented on – in her bed. Marie-Anne responds by saying: ‘The Virgin and I are the only ones to whom this has happened, because it didn’t hurt a bit.’ Anne d’Autriche, the queen mother, joins in: ‘The queen came to console her and offered to be a godmother, many people came to celebrate with the new mother, and what had begun as a private joke eventually became a public entertainment for the whole court.’ Pressed on the identity of the father, Marie-Anne suggests that the only plausible candidates are the king and the comte de Guiche, ‘because those were the only two men who had ever kissed her’. Hortense, who was three years older than Marie-Anne, concludes the anecdote with the observation that she herself ‘was very proud to know the truth of the matter, and I never tired of laughing about it, just to show that I knew it.’

This episode, which begins Hortense’s narrative, sets the tone for an illuminating glimpse of life at the court of the young Louis XIV. It is at once recognisable – the cardinal and the queen enjoyed a good laugh as much as anyone – and entirely strange, not least for its ringside view of pre-Rousseau notions of childhood. Apparently no one worried about the effects of such merriment on the psychological health of the future duchesse de Bouillon, who for that matter seems not to have been adversely affected by it. She eventually followed family tradition by leaving her husband, and was briefly implicated in the affaire des poisons, the notorious scandal that caused her older sister Olympe, comtesse de Soissons, to be sent into exile. Marie-Anne went on to become a patron to La Fontaine, lived to spend eight years with Hortense in London at the court of James II, and eventually died in France in 1714.

The three girls were among the eight children of Cardinal Mazarin’s sister Hieronyma, who were brought from Italy to the French court to consolidate his power after the debacle of the Fronde and to found the dynasty he couldn’t establish through progeny of his own. (It has long been suspected that he was secretly married to Anne d’Autriche, but whether or not this is true, the union for obvious reasons could not bear legitimate fruit.) His plan backfired in a variety of ways that are indirectly detailed in these memoirs. The idea was to marry off the girls, referred to as Mazarinettes or Mancinettes, to members of the French nobility, and to this extent the project was mostly successful, but Mazarin hadn’t bargained on a number of complicating factors, including the vagaries of royal infatuation and a collective temperament among his nieces as intractable as his own. ‘My childhood having been spent among these various amusements,’ Hortense writes, ‘people began to discuss my marriage. Fortune, who wanted to render me the unhappiest person of my sex, started off by pretending to want to make me a queen, and she did her very best to make the match she had destined for me seem odious by comparison with those with whom she flattered me at first.’ Charles II, in exile, had repeatedly asked to marry the beautiful and charming Hortense, as had the duc de Savoie, but Mazarin had other plans for his favourite niece.

He married Hortense off to Armand-Charles de la Porte de la Meilleraye, the son of a respected maréchal and a relative of Richelieu. La Meilleraye did indeed prove to be odious in comparison with her previous swains, with each of whom she ended up having an affair once she’d fled her husband. There seem to have been a great many others as well – including, by some accounts, a number of women – but of course none of this comes out in the memoir, which tells relatively little of her story, not only because it was written in self-defence but also because she lived another 24 eventful years after it was published. Mazarin died shortly after Hortense’s marriage, leaving her – or rather her husband – not only almost all of his fabulous wealth and property, but also his name; through a stipulation in his will they became the duc and duchesse de Mazarin. As she puts it, her uncle ‘left me the richest heiress and the unhappiest woman in Christendom’. The new duc de Mazarin swiftly proved to be less than ideal as a husband: he spent a great deal of time touring his new properties, and because he was intensely jealous refused to let his wife out of his sight, dragging her along on arduous journeys even during her pregnancies. She bore him four children, three girls and a boy, who are not mentioned in the memoir except indirectly, in bitter complaints about having to travel while pregnant, and later when she insists that the legal measures she took to try to stop her husband from squandering her uncle’s inheritance were motivated solely by maternal feeling, as the money was meant for her son. Since marriage was explicitly a contract designed for the transmission of names, titles and property, we can only believe her.

The duc de Mazarin appears to have been not merely unpleasant but deranged, prey to devouring jealousy and to a degree of religious fanaticism that provoked general derision. It’s said that he destroyed many of the priceless works of art in the cardinal’s collection by knocking the genitals off ancient statues, slashing tapestries and covering offending elements of paintings with black paint (the memoirs of the cross-dressing Abbé de Choisy, among others, depict this extravagant madness with cool irony). He is also said to have had his servants’ – and in some accounts, his daughters’ – teeth extracted or filed down to spoil their beauty and keep them chaste. Hortense’s memoir contains only a passing allusion to all this: referring to the man she ‘had the misfortune to please’ in her girlhood, she reports that ‘people jeered that he was even in love with the beautiful statues of the Palais Mazarin; and the love of that man truly must have brought bad luck, since those poor statues have been so cruelly punished for it, just as I have, although they were no guiltier than I.’ Since she wrote her memoir to defend herself against her husband’s formal accusations, she is obliged to address some of his wilder slanders, including the ‘foul accusation’ that she had an incestuous relationship with her brother Philippe, duc de Nevers.

Hortense and her husband each repeatedly appealed to the king, she to obtain a legal separation, he to force her to come back to him. The duc’s religious fervour didn’t serve him well, as he’d felt it necessary to inform the king that the angel Gabriel had enjoined him to tell Louis to get rid of his mistress, Mlle de la Vallière. A satirical poem, recorded by Hortense, ends with the king telling Mazarin to ask the angel Gabriel for advice on how to get his wife back. At one point Hortense ends up in a convent with the equally high-spirited Mme de Courcelles, and the two play practical jokes on the long-suffering nuns; she recounts the stories told about their exploits with some relish, while insisting that the reports were greatly exaggerated. But this too, not surprisingly, is unacceptable to her husband, who turns up at the convent door to drag her back to him (rumour had it that Hortense and Mme de Courcelles were lovers; Hortense notes merely that her friend was ‘very attractive and very amusing’).

In 1668, having arrived at something of a legal stalemate, Hortense decided to cut her losses and take off, fleeing Paris with her maid in the middle of the night, both dressed in men’s clothing. They took refuge with her sister Marie and her husband in Italy, where they were joined by their brother Philippe, and for a while they all had a grand old time. Eventually Marie’s marriage soured and she and Hortense returned to France together in 1672 hoping for protection from the king. This was not forthcoming, and Hortense took refuge in the château de Chambéry under the protection of the duc de Savoie (much to the displeasure of his wife). It was here that she wrote her memoirs, and remained until Charles-Emmanuel’s death three years later. She then settled in London, where she became a colourful figure at the court of Charles II, her other early soupirant, and then James II, remaining there for the rest of her life.

In the meantime the duc de Mazarin continued his single-minded efforts to win her back. His most remarkable litigious move was an attempt in 1689 to strip her of her dowry and either force her to return to France or, failing that, confine her to a convent. He won his case, but Hortense had incurred considerable debts, and the English court decreed that she could not leave the country until they were settled. The duc argued that he should not be held responsible for his wife’s debts since he had not authorised her expenditures – so she stayed in England, and remained there until her death in 1699. At that point her husband agreed to pay off her debts in order to gain possession of her remains, which he had repatriated. He then took her, in her coffin, on a tour of his properties; she was finally interred alongside her uncle, and Mazarin was buried next to her when he died in 1713. All three ended up in the Seine, where their bones were tossed during the Terror.

Hortense’s fatal flaws, it would seem, were her beauty and her charm. Marie, on the other hand, was the ugly duckling of the family, so it’s surprising that the covers of both the French edition of the memoirs and the translation sport (different) portraits of Marie. It may have to do with the fact that the painting of Hortense by Mignard reproduced in this volume shows her right nipple popping out of her dress (but at least one other decorous lithograph of her is available). The point is, though, that while Marie was, by her own account, an awkward, ugly, unlovable girl, disliked by both her mother and her uncle the cardinal, she grew into an attractive, intelligent woman, and it is difficult now to see a difference in beauty between the portraits of Hortense, the pretty one, and Marie, the supposedly unlovely, bad-tempered bluestocking.

Marie’s story is very different from that of Hortense, although both of them spent years trying to escape their husbands. The central element of Marie’s story, passed over lightly in Hortense’s memoirs, was her love affair with the young Louis XIV. The year was 1656; both were 18. Louis and Marie fell deeply in love, by all accounts, and he wanted to make her his queen, but Cardinal Mazarin (suspicious of his niece’s temperament) and Anne d’Autriche put an end to this idyll by marrying the young king off to his cousin, the Spanish Infanta Maria-Teresa, in 1660. Marie read the Remedia amoris in an effort to get over Louis, but even Ovid proved unequal to the task. The cardinal then married Marie off to the connétable Lorenzo Onofrio Colonna, an eminent Roman nobleman, who was astonished to discover that his bride was a virgin. Marie is too demure to mention this, but Hortense addresses the subject with delicate periphrasis: ‘The constable, who did not think there could be any innocence in the loves of kings, was so delighted to find evidence to the contrary in the person of my sister that he cared but little that he had not been the first master of her heart.’ For a while their marriage seems to have been perfectly happy. Lorenzo even defended the French custom of according a measure of independence to women in the face of Italian derision, citing his wife’s virtue as an example.

With time, however, they got on less well, apparently because of his infidelities, and Marie demanded a separazione di letto, which displeased Lorenzo greatly. This is where her story rejoins that of Hortense. When the two sisters left Italy together for France, they hoped to win the favour of the court and be welcomed back, but – perhaps unsurprisingly, given Marie’s history with Louis – they were rebuffed by both king and queen. The sisters parted ways, Hortense to Savoie and then England, Marie to a variety of places in the South of France, Savoie (Charles-Emmanuel seems to have been susceptible to the charms of both sisters), Northern Italy, Germany, Flanders and Spain. She stayed in various convents and became a novice, but never actually took vows. She refused her husband’s demands that she return to Rome until after his death in 1689, but even then she did not stay long; by this time she must have been accustomed to life on the road. The end of her life was spent travelling in France and Italy, and she died in Pisa, shortly before Louis, in 1715.

Marie’s autobiography, published in 1677 under the title La Vérité dans son jour, ou les véritables mémoires de M. Mancini, Connétable Colonne, was inspired not merely by her sister’s memoirs but, in the manner of the second volume of Don Quixote, by a false version written by someone else in the interim. The success of Hortense’s memoirs, in conjunction with the superficial similarity between the two narratives, led an unscrupulous author to bring out a book purporting to tell Marie’s story. This spurious version of her life, which sold like hot cakes – that is, like Hortense’s memoirs – prompted Marie to write her own account. In recounting her early episode of royal favour, she notes:

In the midst of so many blessings, I was not satisfied, precisely because I had too much satisfaction. I complained that I had nothing left to desire. And I would have liked some slight misfortune, in order to appreciate by contrast the good fortune I enjoyed. Fate proved all too compliant with that wish a short time later, as I will soon relate.

And relate she does.