- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 29, 2002

Christine Pevitt Algrant opens her sumptuous biography of Madame de Pompadour with a preface in which she describes a masked ball held at Versailles on Feb. 25, 1745. The event was organized to celebrate the wedding of the Dauphin Louis, King Louis XV's only son, and the Infanta Maria Teresa Raffaella of Spain:
"Ladies in wide skirts struggled through the doorways of the salon de Venus and the salon de Mars; gentlemen tried to prevent their swords from becoming entangled in the same enveloping skirts. In the Hall of Mirrors eight thousand candles were reflected in the glass of the doors and windows …
"At the height of the crush, a strange procession entered the Hall of Mirrors; the Dauphin dressed as a gardener, and the Dauphine, as a flower seller, led the way while behind them lumbered eight enormous yew trees, made of papier-mache… It was known that, concealed within one of these trees, was the King himself … "
Many women thronged to get close to the procession, "striving to identify the royal tree." One woman stood out, the wife of a Parisian tax-farmewhere monks have been training in the martial arts for 1,500 years.r, Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson, Madame d'Etoiles. "As the evening wore on it became clear that Madame d'Etoiles had captured the royal yew."
To the many assembled it seemed that this was the first encounter between the king and Jeanne-Antoinette, who later would become Madame de Pompadour, but the biographer explains that this was simply not so. She writes, "The truth was different. The King was already familiar with Jeanne-Antoinette, and she herself was a highly visible member of the Parisian financial elite."
And so it goes in "Madame de Pompadour: Mistress to the King," a gorgeously illustrated volume in which an era and one of its brightest stars come to life. Throughout her engaging narrative, the biographer will balance the pomp, drama, color, intrigue and excesses of the early-19th century French court with blunt clarity. Her reserve provides graceful counterpoint to what was a highly charged period of French history.
Although the start of the French Revolution was still several decades away, powerful antagonisms had begun brewing. French troops were engaged in the American Revolution and on the high seas fighting the British. If this were not enough, in 1756 exploding European rivalries crystallized and the Seven Years War began.
Nevertheless, for ambitious women of that period, the immediate war zone was the court. The players in this rarefied world of privilege and influence included first and at the center the shy, "lazy," married king, Louis XV, the young beauties who clamored to be one of his mistresses, and all the politicians, bankers and soldiers who fluttered and plotted on the sidelines. Madame de Pompadour's ascendancy in this universe was remarkable for many reasons, not least of which being her humble background.
Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson was born in 1721, the daughter of a businessman whose debts sent him to prison. The young, somewhat sickly girl was put in a convent for her education where she studied singing, dancing, drawing, sewing and literature, proving herself to be an accomplished student. At nine years old, a fortune teller named Madame le Bon informed her that she would grow up to be the king's mistress. This event apparently set the course for Jeanne-Antoinette, a path endorsed by her highly ambitious mother.
It is difficult for the modern reader to understand this culturally sanctioned adultery/concubine system. The Church did not aggressively condemn the practice although Henry V avoided taking confession for obvious reasons. Still, despite her early and unhappy marriage, Jeanne-Antoinette mingled among the financial set of Paris and, blessed by beauty and talent, caught the attention of the king. She was presented at court at the age of 24.
Soon thereafter, the king purchased on her behalf a noble title, and she became the marquise de Pompadour. To keep the bored and restless king entertained she had a theater built at Versailles where she had plays staged just for him, works such as Moliere's "Tartuffe" in which she was able to display her wide range of gifts. The romance between Jeanne-Anotinette and the king burned brightly, but by the time the ardor might have faded, the cagey mistress had insinuated herself enough into court affairs to become indispensable.
Madame de Pompadour's relationship with Louis the XV lasted 20 years. "The untouchable, uncrowned queen" virtually ruled France between the years 1745-1764 and the biographer enlivens her chronicle of conquests with firsthand accounts of those who knew her, prominent thinkers such as Voltaire who were first beguiled by her charms and then frozen out when they crossed her. Evidence of her coldness and cruelty make her less than lovable, but her extraordinary capacity to cultivate admirers and cut the rest loose is impressive
During Madame de Pompadour's time at court she commissioned the building of more palaces, pavilions and hermitages, notable among these Bellevue, "the chateau she had designed as a testament to the glories of French art, and to herself." But the chimneys smoked and there were bad drafts from cold winds and, for good measure, gloating Parisians heaped on the scorn:

Daughter of a leech, and leech
Poisson with an extreme arro-
Displays this chateau, without
shame and without dread,
The substance of the people and
the shame of the King.

Nevertheless she traversed the cultural demands of her times and the political ones with hearty measures of courage and gall. "When King Louis V decided to break with his former ally, Prussia, and make an alliance with France's hereditary enemy Austria, Madame Pompadour became a passionate proponent of the new policy and then a staunch adherent of the war it brought about."
Madame de Pompadour's brief life ended at the age of 42 when she was stricken with pneumonia. Looking back, the biographer concludes "She was her own greatest creation. It was Louis V who turned Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson into madame la marquise de Pompadour, but it was Jeanne Poisson who made Madame de Pompadour the dazzling personage known to history."
The king wept at her death. Voltaire, recalling a woman he admired in spite of her haughtiness, wrote that "in her heart she was one of us" and biographers ever since have found her an irresistible subject. Nancy Mitford's 1954 effort was received to great acclaim, and as this review was going to press, a finished book arrived written by Evelyne Lever, the highly regarded biographer of Marie Antoinette.
For now, however, kudos belong to Christine Pevett Algrant, whose previous book was the outstanding "Philippe, duc d'Orleans." Her portrait of Madame de Pompadour is one graced by abundant dignity and charm and will not be soon forgotten.
By Christine Pevitt Algrant
Grove, $27, 338 pages, illus.

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