The Life of the State


MME. DE POMPADOUR was among the casualties of the war. For some time the charm of her personality kept the King in thrall while the nation mourned; but after the attempt of Damiens to assassinate him (January 5, 1757) Louis XV, suddenly conscious of God, sent word to her that she must leave at once. He made the humane mistake of coming to say goodbye; he found her quietly and sadly packing. Some surviving tenderness overcame him; he asked her to remain.1 Soon all her former privileges and powers were restored. She negotiated with diplomats and ambassadors; she raised and lowered ministers and generals. Marc-Pierre de Voyer, Comte d’Argenson, had opposed her at every step; she had sought to appease him and had been repulsed; she had him replaced by the Abbé de Bernis as minister for foreign affairs, and then by Choiseul (1758). Reserving her tenderness for her relatives and the King, she faced all others with a heart of steel within an ailing frame. She sent some enemies to the Bastille, and let them stay there for years.2 Meanwhile she feathered her nests, adorned her palaces, and ordered a stately mausoleum for herself beneath the Place Vendôme.

She bore, among the people, in the Parlement, and at court, the chief blame for French reverses in the war, but she received no credit for the victories. She was held accountable for the unpopular alliance with Austria, though she had been only a minor factor in that mating. She was condemned for the disaster at Rossbach, where her man Soubise had commanded the French; her critics did not know—or considered it irrelevant—that Soubise had advised against giving battle, and had been forced into it by the precipitancy of the German general. If Soubise had had his way, if his plan of wearing out Frederick with marches and desertions had been followed, if Czarina Elizaveta had not died so inopportunely and left Russia to a young idolator of Frederick—perhaps the Prussian resistance would have collapsed, France would have received the Austrian Netherlands, and Pompadour would have been carried on a sea of blood to national acclaim. She had failed to placate the great god Chance.

The Parlement hated her for encouraging the King to ignore the Parlement. The clergy hated her as friend of Voltaire and the Encyclopédistes; Christophe de Beaumont, archbishop of Paris, said he would “like to see her burn.”3 When the Paris populace suffered from the high price of bread they cried out that “that prostitute who governs the kingdom is bringing it to ruin.” “If we had her here,” said a voice in the mob at the Pont de la Tour-rielle, “there would soon not be enough left of her to make relics.”4 She dared not show herself in the streets of Paris, and she was surrounded by enemies at Versailles. She wrote to the Marquise de Fontenailles: “I am quite alone in the midst of this crowd of petits seigneurs, who loathe me and whom I despise. As for most of the women, their conversation gives me a sick headache. Their vanity, their lofty airs, their meannesses, and their treacheries make them insupportable.”5

As the war dragged on, and France saw Canada and India snatched from her, and Ferdinand of Brunswick kept French armies at bay, and returning soldiers, wounded or maimed, appeared in the streets of Paris, it became clear to the King that he had made a tragic mistake in listening to Kaunitz and Pompadour. In 1761 he consoled himself with a new mistress, Mlle, de Romans, who bore him the future Abbé de Bourbon. Gossip said that Pompadour revenged herself by accepting Choiseul as her lover,6 but she was too weak, and Choiseul too clever, for such a liaison; to Choiseul she surrendered her power rather than her love. Now, it may be, she uttered the despondent prophecy, “Après moi le déluge” 7

She had always been frail. Even in her youth she had spit blood; and though we are not certain that she had tuberculosis, we know that her coughing increased painfully as she turned forty. The singing voice that had once thrilled King and court was now hoarse and] strained. Her friends were shocked by her emaciation. In February, 1764,/she took to her bed with high fever and bloody inflammation of the lungs. In April her condition became so serious that she summoned a notary to draw up her last testament. She left gifts to her relatives, friends, and servants, and added: “If I have forgotten any of my relatives in this will I beg my brother to provide for them.” To Louis XV she deeded her Paris mansion, which, as the Élysée Palace, is now occupied by the President of France. The King spent many hours at her bedside; during her last days he seldom left the room. The Dauphin, who had always been her foe, wrote to the bishop of Verdun: “She is dying with a courage rare for either sex. Her lungs are full of water or pus, her heart is congested or dilated. It is an unbelievably cruel and painful death.”8 Even for this last battle she kept herself richly attired, and her parched cheeks were rouged. She reigned almost to the end. Courtiers thronged around her couch; she distributed favors, and nominated persons to high office; and the King acted on many of her recommendations.

At last she admitted defeat. On April 14 she accepted gratefully the final sacraments that sought to solace death with hope. So long the friend of philosophers, she tried now to recapture the faith of her childhood. Like a child she prayed:

I commend my soul to God, imploring Him to have pity on it, to forgive my sins, to grant me the grace to repent of them and die worthy of His mercy, hoping to appease His justice through the glory of the precious blood of Jesus Christ my Saviour, and through the intercession of the Virgin Mary and all the saints in Paradise.9

To the priest who was departing as she entered her final agony, she whispered, “Wait a moment; we will leave the house together.”10 She died on April 15, 1764, choked by the congestion in her lungs. She was forty-two years old.

It is not true that Louis took her death with indifference; he merely concealed his grief.11 “The King,” said the Dauphin, “is in great affliction, though he controls himself with us and with everybody.”12 When, on April 17, the woman who had been half of his life for twenty years was carried from Versailles Palace in a cold and driving rain, he went out on the balcony to see her depart. “The Marquise will have very bad weather,” he said to his valet Champlost. It was not a frivolous remark, for Champlost reported that there were tears in the royal eyes, and that Louis added sadly, “This is the only tribute I can pay her.”13 By her own wishes she was buried by the side of her child Alexandrine, in the now vanished church of the Capucines in the Place Vendôme.

The court rejoiced to be freed from her power; the populace, which had not felt her charm, cursed her costly extravagance, and soon forgot her; the artists and writers whom she had helped lamented the loss of a gracious and understanding friend. Diderot was harsh: “So what remains of this woman who cost us so much in men and money, who left us without honor and without energy, and who overthrew the whole political system of Europe? A handful of dust.” But Voltaire, from Ferney, wrote:

I am very sad at the death of Mme. de Pompadour. I was indebted to her, and I mourn out of gratitude. It seems absurd that while an ancient pen-pusher, hardly able to walk, should still be alive, a beautiful woman, in the midst of a splendid career, should die at the age of forty. Perhaps, if she had been able to live quietly, as I do, she would be alive today. … She had justice in her mind and heart.... It is the end of a dream.14

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