Sunday, August 2, 2009

Madame de Guéménée

At the French court in the Old Regime the office of governess of the royal children was among the most coveted and influential in the land. La Gouvernante des Enfants de France had the duty of raising the heir to the throne which meant that in the future she (and her family) would have a unique connection to the King. Now before the reign of Louis XVI the royal governess was only chosen from certain high families. Madame de Guéménée was originally made the governess of the young Madame Elisabeth chiefly because she was born a Rohan. The Rohans were a tremendously important family and their members were usually picked for the chief positions in the royal household, whether they were qualified or not. Cardinal Louis de Rohan was appointed Grand Almoner in spite of his scandalous personal life and the Queen's repugnance for him. It was among one of the more frustrating traditions which Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette sought to get rid of, to the outrage of many courtiers.

Although it was indeed an inefficient practice to install someone in an office based upon their family connections rather than their qualifications, Madame de Guéménée was not completely unqualified. She was kind to Madame Elisabeth, who spent many happy hours at Montreuil, which belonged to the Guéménés before they went bankrupt. When Madame Elisabeth no longer needed a governess and when Madame Royale was born, Madame de Guéménée continued as royal governess but of the king's children rather than of his sister. Madame de Guéménée was a charming and elegant lady, not unkind to children.

Nesta Webster admits that the young Marie-Antoinette frequented Madame de Guéménée's extravagant card parties because the stakes were high and the crowd boisterous. The governess was seen as belonging to the Queen's circle of friends although Marie-Antoinette had no deep affection for her. Madame de Guéménée had some odd views, such as her conviction that spirits communicated with her through her dogs. In addition to her dabbling in spiritualism, she had a lover, the Duc de Coigny, factors which may have disqualified her from being a governess had she not been a Rohan. According to a biography of the Austrian ambassador Comte Mercy:
The Royal Governess was the Princesse de Guemenee, who received this appointment by virtue of her relationship to Madame de Marsan, the function of instruction being considered vested in the family of de Rohan. There was no doubt that the Princesse de Guemenee was capable of instructing upon many matters. She was a great lover of little dogs, and invariably appeared surrounded by a multitude of them. "She offered to them a species of worship, and pretended, through their medium, to hold communication with the world of spirits." She had been convicted of cheating at cards on several occasions. She was distinguished for the urbanity of her manner towards the ladies honoured by her husband's preference, paying the most delicate attentions to each in turn ; thus she compelled admiration for her exemplary fulfilment of a wife's highest duty. She entertained magnificently, royally, outshone the whole Court by her dress, and paved the way for the greatest bankruptcy known in France— the failure that affected all classes of society and plunged France into ruin; for all, from dukes to poor Breton sailors, had invested their moneys in the house of de Guemenee. "Only a King or a Rohan could have made such a failure," was the consoling sentiment of the Princesse, as she contemplated her bootmaker's bill of 60,000 livres [£2,400], or the amount of 16,000 livres [£640] owed to her paper- hanger. And the ruin of the Rohans hastened the Revolution.
After the Guéménés left court, the Queen insisted upon choosing a governess for her children not from one of the great families but from an impoverished, unknown family called the Polignacs. Madame de Polignac had by that time become Marie-Antoinette's best friend, a friendship encouraged by Louis XVI, since Madame de Poliganc had a calming and steadying influence upon the highstrung and easily distracted Queen. The choice of Madame de Polignac as the new royal governess and the subsequent rise of her family to power caused outrage among the nobility, especially those who thought they had a better claim upon the job. Trouble and tragedy would come of the Queen's choice of Madame de Polignac as governess.

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3 comments:

Matterhorn said...

Such a tightrope the Queen had to walk! Explosive politics on every side.

elena maria vidal said...

Indeed!

spanishbolero said...

Poor Empress Maria Therese had no idea what she was sending her beloved child into!!

How were two little children expected to solve problems that required the wisdom of King Solomon??