Thursday, December 6, 2007

Madame de Polignac and the Politics of Calumny

The closest confidante of Queen Marie-Antoinette was Madame de Polignac. Gabrielle de Polastron, Duchesse de Polignac, also referred to as "Yolande," is usually portrayed in books and films as Marie-Antoinette's "bad girl" friend, responsible for leading the young queen of France into a wild, decadent lifestyle. Often depicted as a greedy, spendthrift slut, Gabrielle preferred simplicity, was a devoted mother and loyal friend of both Louis and Antoinette. Part of the rehabilitation of Marie-Antoinette's reputation is a careful look at her relationship with Gabrielle.

Gabrielle, born in September of 1749, came from an old family of Languedoc. After her mother's death when she was three, Gabrielle was given to the care of an aunt, Madame d'Andlau. While still a small child Gabrielle was placed in a convent school, where she grew up. Many girls of high and low estate were educated by nuns in those days, including Louis XV's mistress, Madame du Barry. In Gabrielle's case, perhaps because she was separated from her family at such an early age, there seems to have some influence of the religious life in her personal habits. She wore simple, tasteful clothes, never wore perfume or flashy gems, such as diamonds. Cheerful and discreet, a lover of music and the outdoors, Gabrielle grew into a refined lady of enchanting grace and beauty.

At the age of eighteen, Gabrielle was given in marriage to Comte Jules be Polignac of an ancient clan of Auvergne. Since the twenty-two year old bridegroom was a captain in the Royal Pologne regiment, they moved to Paris. According to Edmond Giscard d'Estaing in the June 1977 Historia magazine (translated by a Belgian friend):

This young couple had a fortune, but they also had the charge of the poor members of their family, so that they could not afford Versailles.... So they remained with Polignac's father or Madame d'Andlau, in the Louvre or at Claye. This young woman enjoyed living in the country, and would have stayed there for her entire life without Diane de Polignac's intervention. Diane, her sister in law, was not very pretty, but she was clever, ambitious, and gifted for intrigues.
In 1774, in the beginning of the reign of Louis XVI, Gabrielle met Marie-Antoinette, and as Diane had hoped, Gabrielle's charming, easy-going manner captivated the eighteen-year-old queen, who was struggling with the iron restraints of the court etiquette. Antoinette had been sent to France as Louis' bride in order to further Austrian interests. Louis XVI, however, did not want his wife to meddle in politics, knowing that as a foreigner it could lead to her unpopularity. He feared to replicate the pattern of his grandfather Louis XV's reign, in which at times it seemed like Madame de Pompadour was ruling France. He also wanted to keep her from manipulation by the various factions at court, especially the liberal Orleanist clique. Authors such as Philippe Delorme, the Coursacs, and Bernard Fay maintain that Louis XVI encouraged his wife to befriend Gabrielle, and so created for her a circle of politically "safe" friends.

Marie-Antoinette also needed a calm, motherly companion, older than herself, to advise her about her difficulties in her marriage, her fears about pregnancy and childbirth. Gabrielle was such a friend, soothing the queen in her moments of hysteria and depression. Louis XVI held her in high regard, and gave a high office to her husband so that the Polignacs could afford to live at court. Madame de Polignac was the only person Louis XVI ever visited in a private home; he sat with her at the opera, and wrote to her when she left Versailles. As the royal family grew, the king and queen entrusted Gabrielle with their children, being that she had showed herself to be an exemplary mother of her own three. Gabrielle influenced the queen to adopt simpler styles. At Gabrielle's home and with her family, Marie-Antoinette said, "Here I truly feel at home."

According to Giscard d'Estaing, the "salon Polignac" soon provoked envy and calumny among the courtiers who were excluded from the queen's circle.
Among men in this circle, the first place was for "divine Vaudreuil," the most faithful of knights and adorers of Yolande de Polignac. This 40 year old Creole, with his face marked by smallpox, was noticeable for his entire devotion, but also for his sparkling wit, and his constantly imagining new parties, new spectacles... .Another lively person was Besenval, this greyheared Swiss, somewhat heavy, however so flexible and smart, and loyal. Fersen, this young romantic Swede, so elegant with his languid eyes, was among the most frequent too. "Handsome Fersen" and "divine Vaudreuil" played, the one towards the queen, the other one towards the duchess Jules, the same roles, that calumny arose, without convincing anyone other than those who wanted to be convinced.

But sumptuous Versailles was not built for this light existence.... this isolated little circle provoked rumors, that would soon get venomous. If the whole court was invited to the great balls organized at Versailles, only a few intimates were allowed in Madame de Polignac's salon, and this even more when the queen stayed at Trianon. Soon arose terrible criticisms and awful calumnies....The necklace affair is the most characteristic way calumny was used... The whole city of Paris was passionate about this affair, pamphlets went from hand to hand and, while the queen was so obviously totally innocent, public opinion considered her guilty, so that, even today, the queen seems to have been part to this scandal.

Marie-Antoinette was terribly upset. Madame Campan told what happened when she heard that the Cardinal had been released. "The queen cried and sobbed. 'Ah ! I feel like dying ! Ah ! Those wicked people ! What have I done to them ? If you love me, you'd better kill me !' Then, she asked for 'her friend, her dear Polignac,' who would console her. Within ten minutes, Madame Campan wrote, she was beside the queen. She immediately entered the room. The queen stretched her arms towards her, and she ran to her. I still heard sobbing, and I went out.
The Polignacs were accused of greediness, but they were probably not greedier than any other family. As Giscard d'Estaing writes:
The gifts [Madame de Polignac] received were insignificant besides those which courtiers, lords and, a fortiori, members of the royal family, were massively given. Sums Louis XIV and Louis XV spent for favorites or for palaces that were liberally distributed are considerable, and we are astonished to see how legend focuses on Yolande de Polignac only, and reproaches her, the most innocent of all, forgetting about all the other people.
The calumnies grew uglier as the propaganda machine, aimed at provoking the revolution, produced pornographic pamphlets depicting Antoinette and Gabrielle as lesbian lovers, engaged in orgies at Trianon. Gabrielle became universally detested and was blamed for depleting the royal treasury, although it was war that had caused the bankruptcy. She "often asked to retire from the court. 'I am not made for living at Versailles,' she kept repeating."

The king wished to reform the feudal tax system and get rid of the deficit by taxing the nobility, and so he called the Estates-General in May 1789. The opening of the Estates General coincided with the death of the king and queen's seven year old son, the Dauphin Louis-Joseph. The royal couple were devastated and with difficulty met the escalating crisis. When violence erupted on July 14, 1789, Antoinette begged her friend to leave, fearing that she would be assassinated. Gabrielle begged not to abandon Louis and Antoinette in their hour of need, but the queen said, "Remember that you are a mother." On July 16, the Polignac family left Versailles for a life of exile.

Gabrielle's health deteriorated. She had cancer as well as being consumed with horror and anxiety as she heard of the imprisonment and tragedies that befell Louis and Antoinette.
One of her friends wrote: "She did not stop crying. For six months, a deep sadness, great sufferings without certain causes weakened her each day more." A last blow hit her when they were forced to announce to her this horrible news: on October, 16th, 1793, Marie-Antoinette had been beheaded in Paris. This was the true beginning of Madame de Polignac's agony. She could not survive the queen, and she herself died on December, 9th, 1793, one month and a half, precisely, after her friend.

A witness told of her death: "Her last sigh was but her last breath, and to tell this in one word, her death was as sweet as she herself had been. She was buried in Vienna and they wrote on her tomb her name only, followed by this mention: 'Dead from suffering' on December 9th, 1793."
I am more and more convinced that Gabrielle has been just as maligned as the queen. What went on with the Polignac relations and friends was a common occurrence in a every court of Europe - when you rose, your family rose with you, it was almost expected. If there had been no revolution, no one would have given a second thought to the Polignacs, except perhaps to find them annoying, as many did. But with the complete upheaval of society in the Revolution, contemporaries and historians alike were/are grasping for straws to see what the queen did that made herself so hated by the French people. They think it must have been the problems with La Barry, or the queen's dress allowance, or her Trianon, or Gabrielle's grasping relatives, etc.

However, Marie-Antoinette was hated because she was deliberately maligned by a careful campaign on the part of political enemies, which included dissimulating false and exaggerated rumors to the people, as well as every form of the most vile pornography. Gabrielle was routinely included in the pornographic depictions. People were scandalized and believed that some of it must be true. Gabrielle must have done something wrong. To this day Gabrielle is seen as the naughty, greedy friend, when in reality she probably saved Antoinette's sanity. The powerful tools used to destroy the French monarchy and transform society into a totalitarian state are with us still, but on a much larger and more pervasive scale.



Terry Nelson said...

"People were scandalized and believed that some of it must be true."

This is the purpose of hate filled propaganda in every age, but as you say - it is much more pervasive in our time - due to the variety of media.

elena maria vidal said...

How hard it is for someone to clear their name once they have been calumniated!

Anonymous said...

I recall her mentioned frequently in your novel Trianon.

elena maria vidal said...

Yes and if I had it to do again, I would probably have more about her. I think I might write another novel about life at Versailles or even a biography.

Anonymous said...

What a great idea, another novel about life at Versailles, through the eyes of "Yolande"! I would SO love that!

I also loved your article on the history of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, particularly your points about the timing of the declaration of the dogma as it addressed the ever-growing influence (and impact on society) of Modernism. And I can't help but link the ideas in these two articles.

You said:
"Handsome Fersen" and "divine Vaudreuil" played, the one towards the queen, the other one towards the duchess Jules, the same roles, that calumny arose, without convincing anyone other than those who wanted to be convinced.

I can't help but think that surely in the OLDEN olden days, say, before the Renaissance and so-called "Enlightenment", that men and women would, as a rule, not mingle together so freely (especially not behind closed doors where closely watching eyes cannot see but only imagine all sorts of things) in the European courts, for the sake of avoiding giving any hint of impropriety which might cause a blemish on the queen's modesty and reputation. And I suspect that, unfortunately -- to this degree at least -- Louis and Antoinette had given in to this aspect of Modernism. Perhaps it was the fashion of the day, and they wouldn't have given it a second thought. But in hind-sight, and quite ironically, the Modernist propagandists would not have had anything to base their rumors on if the Royal couple had not been so "Modern" in this regard. N'est-ce pas?

elena maria vidal said...

Thanks for the kind words, Georgette! Good point! Louis and Antoinette tried to be "Enlightened" rather than "Modernist;" they pre-dated modernism by a generation or so. However, while some formalities of the old etiquette were set aside, both the king and queen were strict about the proprieties being observed. Charles Duke Yonge points out in his biography how the queen worked to restore the morals of the court, which had fallen into quite a lackadaisical state during the reign of Louis XV.

The problem is that Louis tried to protect his queen from a court hostile to a foreigner by isolating her with a set of carefully chosen friends. The backlash was that this came to be seen as an exclusive set; and people not included were offended.

Anonymous said...

Was Polignac's real name, I mean the name people called her Gabrielle or Yolande?

elena maria vidal said...

Hi, Linda! At the royal court she was referred to as "la Comtesse Jules" since her husband was Jules de Polignac. I think her friends may have called her both "Yolande" and/or "Gabrielle, " her name being Yolande Gabrielle Martine. In one of the better biographies-- can't recall which one at this moment-- she was called "La Belle Gabrielle" which was why in "Trianon" I referred to her that way.

Anonymous said...

Interestingly, Marie Antoinette's perfumer Jean-Louis Fargeon did NOT like Yolande de Polignac, and said she "loved to target peoples' reputations with her poisonous arrows." I understand it's not fair to malign her as much as others do, but she was undoubtedly a social climber, and made it clear to the queen on several occasions that if her friendship was to be retained it was essential for her hangers-on to receive special posts or "charges". She relied on Marie Antoinette to pay her own debts, and once sent a rather cold reply when Marie Antoinette made a remark about the dubious nature of some of Yolande's companions at a party the Duchesse was hosting (a party that Marie Antoinette was paying for). All friendships have ups and downs, but Yolande took advantage of her friendship with the Queen. She is not as innocent as Marie Antoinette.

elena maria vidal said...

Thank you for your thoughts, Maria. I have no doubt Fargeon did not care for Madame de Polignac. For one thing, she was not one for wearing perfume, which would would not have endeared her to him. I do not regard him as a totally reliable source for estimating her character. But yes, like every friendship, it had its ups and downs. It was more her family, especially her sister-in-law Diane, who tended to be the rapacious social climbers. Their ambition indeed reflected upon Gabrielle; the family was widely detested at court. Louis XVI, however, always had very high personal regard for Gabrielle, which is telling.

elena maria vidal said...

And true, she was not as innocent as Marie-Antoinette.

Unknown said...

That's another reason why I didn't like the Kirsten Dunst movie. They show Polignac as some kind of annoying airhead materialistic socialite (what's up with that accent?) The scene where she is choosing clothes and diamonds is almost an insult to Gabrielle's simplicity. According to Madame de Campan she never wore any jewelry and her dresses were always simple. No make up or perfume either...Just some powder in her hair pieces like the pastel by Vigee Le Brun shows.

elena maria vidal said...

Dianainvasion, I could not agree with you more. It is why Louis thought Gabrielle would be a good influence on Antoinette, and she was, for the most part.

Unknown said...

And Maria...I'd hardly call Marie-Antoinette "innocent". She was warned over and over by her mother and Mercy about the dangers of her friendship with the Polignacs.
There were times even when Antoinette got fed up with all the demands of the Polignac clan. But like Nathalie Colas des Francs says in her recent bio of the Duchess, the Queen always yielded to Polignac's wishes. Marie-Antoinette was weak and easy to manipulate but it seems she was truly obsessed with Yolande. It was as if the Queen was addicted to the Duchess, which gave birth to rumors of lesbianism.

Christina said...

Thank you for such a lovely post on such an interesting and beautiful blog.

elena maria vidal said...

Thank you!