A Life Too Short
August 11, 2010
We fear that which we desire. That which we fear, we strive to diminish. As much as human beings have achieved a position of top predator in our environment, we are still, in our individual and undefended-from-the-hungry-night vulnerabilities as much prey as we ever have been. The life and death of Madame du Barry etch a story of social achievement, predatory rivalries, and a life ended without acquiescence.
Jeanne Bécu came into this world on April 19, 1743. Her mother, Anne, declined marriage, even after she became a single parent. While many members of her family took employment in established households, Anne continued a path of independence and flirtatious opportunistic survival.
Joan Haslip's biography of Jeanne paints a picture of a young girl raised in non-conventional environment where she was loved, protected, and encouraged by non-family members, outside of proper family organization. She came of age in a convent, but in a world filled with new and daring ideas.
In England, the Henry's Anglican's defied the weight and might of the Catholic church. Newton dared describe the order of the universe. A completely new land was solid in the imagination of those living when she was born. The New World was land of savages, strange beasts, from whence came exquisite poisons like sugar and cocoa came from. Thomas Jefferson was born in the same year as Anne Bécu. Her age was a time of the ascendancy of human freedom and self-determination. That she would reach for all that she could attain only made her a person of her age.
Louis XV did not sparkle like 'The Sun King'. He didn't die like his grandson, Louis XVI. He supported the arts primarily through the efforts of Madame de Pompadour, not from any driving need of his own passions.
He seems to have been a mild man, less inclined to winning battles by degree and more inclined to simply reasoning with people. Choiseul, who governed France for twelve years, even if he were Chief Minister in everything except the official title, opposed Madame du Barry with his strongest efforts.
Even though Louis XV was king and his minister was simply a minister, Louis XV wrote him reassuring him that he trusted him, pleading in away for Choiseul to accept du Barry on the grounds that the king liked her company.
Cowardice is not the only motive to prompt negotiation. Sometimes negotiation arises from internalized values that recognize the equality and value of others. The attempt to achieve consensus, to esteem practical pleasures above the need to support the absurdities of previous generations seems to echo a modern mind.
In du Barry there was not to be found the powerful and managerial mind of du Pompadour. Critics of du Barry accused her of being a small minded creature longing only for extravagant pleasures, treasures, and comforts. At various times she has been written about in the most disparaging ways. In 'the Women of the Court of Louis XV' .... writes about Louis XV's mistresses, of which du Barry was the last one, "...on all sides I see dissipation and debauchery, no signs of real love."
That this book is titled, 'The Women of the Court of Louis XV,' it is a morality tale of lurid accusations put into print in Boston, of all places, in 1892. The French nobility had long since lost what hold they had to 'the divine right of kings', they were a continent away at a time when that meant something, and the dead mistresses of a seemingly unimpressive king were easy targets to complain about the morality of a different time. It is useful to point out the appropriation of characters in one time for the use of another time's myths and morality because that is what history is made of. If the history read is not written in the hand of the person who lived it, we are likely to know as much about the person who writes the history as we do about the events and personages they write about.
At her trial, Jeanne Bécu, who was listed as 'the woman called La Dubarry' she struggled and maintained hope, attempting with all her resources and creativity to find a path to continued life.
The woman born to a willful seamstress and a handsome monk, who had married the brother of her pimp, and nurtured the heart of a king, she embraced life in a most human of ways, through sexuality, companionship, and survival.
She may well have been guilty of the royalist sympathies which contributed to her death, but the life she lead, sensual, hedonistic, kind, loyal, and daring epitomizes the willful and chaotic spirit of the age which was to follow her. France would not settle into a steady government until de Gaul's presidency after WWII. Each struggling movment in the soul that was France could have claimed Jeanne's supposed last words, "Encore un moment, monsieur le bourreau, un petit moment."
One more moment, please. Far from casting her as a harlot or dismissing her successes in life or her desire for life to continue as that of a mere woman or of an unbeliever, she a genuine voice for the human condition. A person can rise from nothing to the pinnacles of power, only to fall into danger again and what is most desirable is simply one more moment of life.
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Caffieri, Jean Jacques. Portrait of Madam Du Barry. The Hermitage Museum. Photo of a sculpture, marble. http://www.hermitagemuseum.org/fcgi-bin/db2www/descrPage.mac/descrPage?selLang=English&indexClass=SCULPTURE_EN&PID=N.SK.-376&numView=1&ID_NUM=1&thumbFile=%2Ftmplobs%2FIZGB865NLWHXNT3Q6.jpg&embViewVer=noEmb&comeFrom=quick&sorting=no&thumbId=6&numResults=2&tmCond=du+barry&searchIndex=TAGFILEN&author=Caffieri%2C%26%2332%3BJean%26%2332%3BJacques (August 11, 2010)
de Saint-Amand, Imbert. The Women of the Court of Louis XV. Cambridge: University Press,1892.
G. Goyau. Etienne-François, Duc de Choiseul. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03694a.htm (August 12, 2010)
Haslip, Joan. Madam du Barry: The Wages of Beauty. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1991.
de Saint-Amand, Imbert. The Women of the Court of Louis XV. Cambridge: University Press, 1892.
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Williams, H. Noel. Madam du Berry. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1909.