The Hall of Mirrors in the Palace at Versailles is the most frightening room in all of Western Civilization. In this room some of the cabinets are doors. Some of the mirrors are windows. In a time when mirrors were the most expensive thing a king could possess, 17 arches tiled with 21 mirrors each lined a narrow corridor gilded by as many courtiers begging an audience with the passing king. Some of the kings were enamored by costumes, spying, and punishment. All of their names were Louis. The painted ceiling shows Louis winning one battle and Louis winning another.
The dauphiné lands were purchased in 1349; henceforth the eldest son of the king was called dauphin, which also means dolphin. There are no dolphins in the Rhone or the Seine or the Rhine. The kings of Britain and Spain owned the seas. Nevertheless, the candelabra are dolphins, as are the mantle clocks. The drawer pulls on the swivel desk are interlaced with dolphins, so too the ewers, the ink wells, the door handles, the towel bars, the crest, the flag, the fountains (of course the fountains), the frames, the tasterin, the table legs, the dinner knives, forks, and spoons, the tea pots, even the chenets that hold the fire logs.
His name means dolphin. His name means sun. His name means two cockerels fighting. His name means lily of the valley. His name means crystal. His name means silver. His name means brass. His name means king who will be king.
Louis XV had a mistress who would buy him little dolphin knick-knacks to show she’d been thinking of her king and the boy he’d once been. The mark of excellence in her position was that he should never once contemplate the precise nature of her thoughts or why she had them. Have you ever tried to erase yourself? I think about her choice to assume the position of official royal consort as being very much like a nun’s in terms of the extremes of self-sacrifice.
Louis XV loved Jeanne Antoinette Poisson to her death. He gave her many names, among them mistresse and madame and marquise, but it seems she always preferred Poisson, which meant fish and which she had received from her father, an untitled merchant in the upper tier of the third estate.
Louis first seduced her disguised as a yew tree among yew trees dancing through the Hall of Mirrors at Christmastime. To be seduced by a King of France was to sign and see signed documents that made your husband rich enough and titled enough that the king could be permitted to know you in public. A woman who ran one of the most highly regarded literary salons in Paris knew what was coming, and chose for her costume Diana, Goddess of the Hunt. The Bal des Ifs, as it came to be known, was like a wedding made out of whispers. After, the king went to battle Austria, and she spent months learning the accents and nods and titles and corsets that were part of the duties of a woman in her position. She learned how to address differently a duchess with an adequate chef from a duchess with an excellent chef.
I’ve heard the arc of history is long, but bends towards justice. Which is another way of saying that you’re going to have put up with a whole lot of bullshit.
In her favorite portrait, made by Delatour in 1788, her hand rests on a folio from the Encyclopedia, which her lover had banned for its seditious challenge to the principles of the divine rights of kings. To a point, it was erotic to be so provoked by a woman.
Jeanne had tried early in her career to interest her lover in her friends the writers, but they only knew how to bore and incense. She could hardly contain her disappointment at how they squandered the opportunities she tried to create for them. Once Voltaire took Louis by the sleeve (the sleeve!) to tell him something. Once Voltaire insisted the privies in his apartment at Versailles have doors put on them. Once after a performance of his opera on the victory at Fontenoy, he asked of the king, “Is Trajan pleased?”
And then there was Diderot. In the article in his Encyclopedia on “Political Authority,” credit is given not to God or heritage, but to the people and their natural rights. In “Economic Politics” he lectures, “When the means of growing rich is divided between a greater number of citizens, wealth will also be more evenly distributed; extreme poverty and extreme wealth would also be rare.” What more could the official royal consort do after that but turn the King’s eye instead towards architecture and the stage and try to keep it there for the next twenty years?
Jeanne described herself as cold by nature. She was terrified the king might find out and tried to work herself up for his ardors using every known means. Her friends worried over the effects of so many dubious concoctions and elixirs. For a time she subsisted on a diet of nothing but vanilla, truffles, and celery. That she was always ill was a secret she kept well.
I ascribe to a brand of feminism I like to call You Don’t Know Me. It’s the wave that waved right after or maybe just before You’re Not the Boss of Me. I have to remind myself Jeanne Poisson didn’t know what her end game was either.
There were many who hated her and feared her for the control they thought she wielded. They called her a spendthrift and a whore.
“It is curious,” the Duc de Nivernois said at one of the little salons she organized now in her apartment in the king’s attic at the top of the king’s secret staircase for the entertainment of the king himself. “We amuse ourselves in killing a partridge at Versailles, and sometimes killing men, and getting killed at the front, without knowing precisely how the killing is done.” This according to Voltaire, who was not there but heard of the evening third-hand. A writer in an Age of Enlightenment couldn’t risk ignoring the gossip from court if he wanted to keep his head and his wits about him. To hear him tell it, this remark was how Nivernois skillfully incited that little debate about the way to make gun powder – equal parts saltpeter, sulfur, and charcoal; or one part sulfur, one part charcoal, and five parts saltpeter?
Jeanne interrupted then to exclaim, “We are all reduced to that about everything in the world. We are reduced to that about the rouge on our cheeks and the stockings on our feet.” She was the only woman in the room and she always knew which part was hers to play. She directed the king’s eye to her ankle.
“It is a shame,” sighed the Duc de la Vallière, in a way that could only have reminded everyone of Diderot’s Encyclopedia locked up in some cellar of the castle. Who hadn’t heard that Dennis had gone underground after his life’s work was seized by armed men? Before supper was over, Louis had called for the volumes, which fourteen footmen delivered with dignity and flourish, each like a duck on a platter.
Among Voltaire’s salon, the writers admired Jeanne, then missed her, then wondered who she had become after so many years in that palace of privilege. They may have heard the rumors that her private rooms in the attic were gilded all over with fish, that every document she signed included a flourish of carp. She put the fish of herself on everything, as if she was trying to remember herself and worried the effort was not working.
“Sire,” she said, after they passed the evening amusing themselves with that remarkable compendium of human knowledge and achievement. “If one possesses it, one has all the wisdom of your realm.”
Indeed, the Encyclopedia was very nearly comprehensive in its catalogue and the entry on kings is only a few pages, hardly more than what was devoted to an ocean of ice at the end of the world or the construction of a mechanized loom. Some have said the lifting of the ban, followed by widespread printing and distribution was what undid the monarchy. To read – to even know that you could read – so much of the world, had the effect of snapping the peasants to their senses. If that is true, then Jeanne Poisson, Madame de Pampadour and the king’s whore, did something extraordinary with that little jewelry box of a life she had.
Kathryn Nuernberger is the author of two poetry collections, The End of Pink and Rag & Bone. Her collection of lyric essays, Brief Interviews with the Romantic Past, will be released by OSU Press in Fall 2017. Recent work appears in 32 Poems, Crazyhorse, Diagram, Field, and Poetry International. She is an associate professor of creative writing at University of Central Missouri, where she also serves as the director of Pleiades Press.