Though bodices are ripped at the outset, French historian and biographer Lever (Marie Antoinette, not reviewed) settles down to offer an astute portrait of Madame de Pompadour in the court of Louis XV.
It was no mean feat for the parvenu Madame Le Normant d’Etiolles to become the “favorite” of Louis XV, the recognized mistress to the king. She had wealth—and a husband and child, for that matter—but she was no aristocrat. Louis’s ministers were wary, the court frowned, yet she was just the breath of fresh air the king needed, someone who was sensual enough to match his cravings, who tended his melancholia and kept him amused, who respected the Queen and the court’s way of doing things. Lever sings her charms from the start: “flawless white teeth and dimpled cheeks . . . the bewitching, tender, insistent gaze of her gray eyes, which burned at times with an incandescent light.” She also had brains and poise, learning the nuances of court etiquette, finding her way through the tangle of rites and intrigues. Louis admired her joie de vivre, and soon found he desired her mediation when granting favors as well. Gradually, Lever explains, Madame de Pompadour lost her role as lover but emerged as a power in the political sphere because she kept Louis’s favor. Despite Lever’s feeling that her initiatives were “motivated as much by her love for the monarch as by her resentment for personal enemies,” her influence with Louis was felt keenly in the wars with England and Prussia, the conflict between Parliament and the clergy, and negotiations with the pope. Lever details why Madame de Pompadour was never a favorite with the common folk, whose resentments ran the gamut from the gifts lavished on her to her association with French military defeats and woeful treaties.
Artfully observed, the bawdy and political wiles—for better and worse—of Madame de Pompadour. (8 pp. color illustrations)