Thursday, June 5, 2008

Madame Campan

Jeanne-Louise-Henriette Campan was the femme de chambre, the chamber maid, of Queen Marie-Antoinette. She was author of the famous memoirs, detailing life at Versailles. Madame Campan was an educated lady from a bourgeois family who began her career at Versailles as the Reader to the daughters of Louis XV, from whom she had an earful of gossip. As Marie-Antoinette's maid, she attended to the details of the running of the queen's household. Madame Campan has often been accused of exaggerating her role, especially where the diamond necklace scandal is concerned. That may very well be; it is easy to picture Madame Campan as an old lady at the finishing school she ran for the daughters of revolutionaries, carried away by memories of a glittering past. I do not, however, think she deliberately softened her portrayal of Marie-Antoinette, in order to get back into the good graces of Madame Royale. In that case, she would not have been so critical of Louis XVI, since it was well-known that the princess idolized her dead father. Here are some passages in which Madame Campan does not speak too highly of the queen:
Marie Antoinette took little pains to promote literature and the fine arts....The most indifferent artists were permitted to have the honour of painting the Queen. A full-length portrait, representing her in all the pomp of royalty, was exhibited in the gallery of Versailles. This picture, which was intended for the Court of Vienna, was executed by a man who does not deserve even to be named, and disgusted all people of taste. It seemed as if this art had, in France, retrograded several centuries.

The Queen had not that enlightened judgment, or even that mere taste, which enables princes to foster and protect great talents. She confessed frankly that she saw no merit in any portrait beyond the likeness. When she went to the Louvre, she would run hastily over all the little “genre" pictures, and come out, as she acknowledged, without having once raised her eyes to the grand compositions.

It sounds like a fairly honest assessment, with which one is free to disagree. Madame Campan made the following comments about Louis XVI:
Who would have dared to check the amusements of a queen, young, lively, and handsome? A mother or a husband alone would have had the right to do it; and the King threw no impediment in the way of Marie Antoinette’s inclinations. His long indifference had been followed by admiration and love. He was a slave to all the wishes of the Queen, who, delighted with the happy change in the heart and habits of the King, did not sufficiently conceal the ascendency she was gaining over him.
I fail to see how such observations were supposed to win the favor of the daughter of the murdered royal couple, who viewed her parents as holy martyrs. If Madame Campan was trying to ingratiate herself to the Duchesse d'Angoulême, she was taking the wrong tact. Her descriptions of the various personalities seem to be balanced, shrewd and detailed, rather than an attempt to curry favor. Share


Anonymous said...

Hi! I'm far behind in reading my favorite blogs ...I truly loved Tea at Trianon and look forward to your next book.

Thrilled to see the Novena to St. Anthony. And did I know you read Taki?

Hope you are well.

Keep the faith!

elena maria vidal said...

So glad you enjoyed my novel Trianon, Mary Jo!

Looks like we read a lot of the same things.

Catherine Delors said...

Great post, Elena!
I too consider Madame Campan a generally reliable (and often indispensable) witness, and relied heavily on her Memoirs for my novel.
She was a woman of great strength, common sense and loyalty. Such a pity the latter was called into question during the Restoration.

elena maria vidal said...

Yes, indeed. People do not have to agree with Madame Campan. Like any memoir, there are things in her account that time and memory could have colored. It has been found that she exaggerated some of her personal role in the Diamond Necklace affair. However, I do not think that she deliberately altered her portayal of people and events in order to ingratiate herself with Marie-Antoinette's daughter.