Title: Madame de Pompadour
Author: Nancy Mitford
Where to buy: Barnes & Noble link
Nancy Mitford is perhaps better known today as one of the infamous Mitford sisters and for her works of fiction. However, she was also an enchanting biographer. I would not recommend her biography of Madame de Pompadour for someone strictly interested in a stuffy history full of dates and data. The tone is intelligent and chatty, one of a friend who loves to gossip and knows her topic well. Mitford is witty, and one might come away from the book with the feeling that she shares a spirit in common with the topic of this particular biography.
Madame de Pompadour was the mistress of King Louis XV of France. In her youth, a fortune teller predicted that she would one day reign over the heart of a king. Her family, fond of nicknames, called her Reinette, or Little Queen. Mitford describes Louis XV as shy and reserved, regal and handsome, fun-loving yet very fond of his family, with a dull wife incapable of holding his attention. Reinette filled the void of a smart, funny companion, one who remained essential to the King even after their physical relationship fizzled out.
The only thing I knew about the Marquise de Pompadour prior to reading this is that she played a prominent role in an episode of the new incarnation of Doctor Who. During that episode, Reinette is haunted by clockwork creatures. She is also visited by the Doctor via a revolving fireplace. During a crucial moment, Reinette remains strong when everyone else is collapsing around her. And it is no accident that she was written that way. The real Madame de Pompadour, although not always respected during her time, was an amusing, intelligent, accomplished woman.
She was responsible for a professional-quality theatrical company, which entertained the King and his court. She knew some of the leading intellectuals of her day. Although she is blamed for some bad foreign policy, Mitford explains how various factors actually contributed to the failures. Mitford balances the good and the bad, portraying Madame de Pompadour as a powerful woman, one who loved her daughter and the King.
The bittersweet ending is perfect, with the last lines describing Reinette’s final journey from Versailles. Mitford writes about Madame de Pompadour in an informal, chatty way that makes her personality come alive for modern readers.