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.’

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