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Archive for December 29th, 2014

François Boucher (1703 - 1770), "Madame de Pompadour", 1759.  oil on canvas, at the Wallace Collection, London. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

François Boucher (1703 – 1770), “Madame de Pompadour”, 1759.
oil on canvas, at the Wallace Collection, London. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Madame de Pompadour was born on this day in 1721. She started out in life as Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, from age nine nicknamed Reinette (meaning “little queen”), because, as she told it, a fortune teller foretold her one day being loved by the French King. Nancy Mitford’s wonderful biography of Reinette states that six hundred livres were paid to the fortune teller, ‘for having predicted … that I would be the King’s mistress’ (Nancy Mitford, Madame de Pompadour (Vintage Digital, 2011)). It was at a masked ball where Reinette and Louis XV met in 1745 ; while she soon became physically unable to have sex with the King, or with any man, the strength of their relationship was such that they remained close until her death. Her wit, her intelligence, her advice, were all important to the King. Such wit and intelligence are the light which I wish to celebrate in this post, in honour of her birthday. Look again at the picture – yes, this woman is beautiful, stylishly and gorgeously dressed, but the light which illuminates her blazes forth from her own person. François Boucher, to my mind, clearly recognised the brains and spark of his subject. She fostered the talents of such as Voltaire, although their relationship was tempestuous, and he came and went from court, and was careful to look after those who had played a part in her own education, such as the playwright and poet Prosper Jolyot de Crébillon, to whom she gave a pension and a situation in the royal library. She was an early supporter of Diderot’s Encyclopédie, thus showing herself to be a true woman of the Enlightenment.

Her own library survives – at the very least – in the form of a bibliography of her books, and you can read it at Archive.org, by clicking here ; I don’t know how many of the actual books are yet extant. To give you an idea of the scope of her reading, here are the headings from the contents page:

  • Theology ; Jurisprudence ; Sciences and Arts ; Belles-lettres ; History ; Music ; Prints
  • Trying to read through at least some of these titles may need to be my second reading project for 2015. For the interminably curious, the first project is picking up on my reading of the Discworld series in order of publication. I started this in London a year or so ago, but as my aim was to read them all by borrowing them from libraries, I came a cropper with Pyramids, and had to stop there. Now I have a new range of public libraries at my disposal, and I hope to start again from the beginning in January.

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