Madame de Pompadour - By Nancy Mitford - NYRB Classics
I wonder how many people out there were finally provoked to curiosity about Madame de Pompadour by the famous Doctor Who episode, "The Girl in the Fireplace," in which an ailing spaceship named for her has opened multiple time windows into various points in her life in order to check to see if she is "done" enough for them to harvest her brain to use as a CPU for the ship. When the TARDIS lands on it, The Doctor gets involved and blunders into becoming "Reinette's" semi-imaginary friend (pre-figuring what his next incarnation will be to Amy Pond) as he explores those windows. It's a charming episode which I treated myself to just the other day again, and this time I was left definitely wanting to know more about this woman.
A few mouseclicks, and I find that none other than Nancy "Highland Fling" Mitford wrote a biography of her! I had Mitford pigeonholed as a satirist and a Jazz Age "Bright Young Thing" so this came as a pleasant surprise. I expected a breezy tour of late Ancien Regime France as well as a celebration of a woman whom history has often seemed to revile -- and that is exactly, delightfully, what I got.
I must say, though, that were it not for two happy accidents in my life, this book would have been much more opaque to me than it was. The first is that I was lucky enough to grow up in a most rare household, one in which resided a nearly-complete collection of old Horizon magazines. I have long maintained that these are a liberal arts education in themselves, lovely, slim hardbound (!) volumes through which a dazzling array of thinkers omnivorously surveyed history, art, politics, literature, philosophy, architecture, even, occasionally, space, in greater depth and with greater knowledge than any magazine I've ever found before or since. Our modern Smithsonian occasionally comes somewhat close to what Horizon did so well, but never at such length or completeness. It was in the pages of Horizon that I first learned about the Sevres porcelain manufactory, whose great patron Pompadour was, for instance. I have these magazines still; they are one of my greatest treasures, and I have added to the collection over the years they've been in my care.*
The other happy accident is that I became a devoted fan of Neal Stephenson and have read his amazing Baroque Cycle several times. A modern reader could not ask for a livlier or more entertaining (or thoroughly researched) guide to 17th Century England and Europe, and the court of Louis XIV, the famous Sun King and predecessor of Madame de Pompadour's beloved Louis XV, is the site of many scenes, historical and invented. Stephenson goes into great depth to explore how much of our own society and institutions harken back to those extraordinary times, with a great deal of wit and style -- which means what the reader learns from these books sticks with her long after she has closed and shelved them.
I had cause to turn to both of these sets of sources a few times as I read Mitford's book on Madame de Pompadour, for it would otherwise have been rather a bewildering experience.
Mitford was very much a child of her age and class, which meant she knew what she knew and expected that anyone who cared to converse with her would, also. Not big on explaining herself, was Mitford, at least not in her books; her narration conveys the impression that one has sidled up to her at a large and fancy party to hear from her perspective what is going on there. She is a wealth of information and perspective and, above all, gossip, but does not consider it her job to tell you who all those Ducs and Comptes are so much as what they've done to help or hinder her heroine. The effect is rather like watching a play or opera (a thing Madame was famous for staging in Louis XV's private theater at Versailles) in a foreign language (Mitford also assumes you have at least a passing command of French) with no libretto handy. Figures march on and march off, bow and curtsey and fight, all maintaining a definite orbit around Pompadour but never quite seeming real or fleshed out.
Which is to say that NYRB Classics would have served its buying public well to include a family tree or two, or, even better, a dramatis personae. Despite this lack, the book is a most pleasant read, sympathetic to its heroine, orderly in its presentation of the facts and anecdotes of her life (which is to say not baldly chronological: orderly. Chapters detail her various sub-careers as courtesan and lover of the King of France, as builder and taste-maker, as politician, ranging back and forth in history a bit in the service of clarity, which I applaud), a little bit wry, informative in its way, and always charming.
*My Own Dear Personal Mother, the Little Old Lady with a Computer will call me out quickly if I do not disclose that my first "use" of these magazines was as building blocks rather than as reading material. Flat and slim and sturdy, they made perfect and colorful "floors" for the bizarrely complex houses my sister and I built out of wooden blocks and legos for our Tonka Toy people to live in. She used to admire those and dream that one of us would become an architect. Sorry, Mom! But at least you found someone to treasure the books!