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Madame De Maintenon

ISSUE:  Winter 1930

That a poor girl who had kept geese in the fields should come to marry the greatest king in the world sounds like a fairy tale, and the story of Madame de Maintenon has much of dream quality about it. Yet the heroine does not give the impression of anything fairylike. She was just a creature of plain, cool common sense and enormously determined will, set upon getting the best that life had to give and getting it, yet all the time proclaiming and probably feeling the utter worthlessness of this life compared to another.

Francoise d’Aubigne was born in Niort, France, in 1635. She was the granddaughter of Agrippa d’Aubigne, a great Huguenot fighter and writer. Her father was a worthless scamp, who was often in prison, martyred her virtuous but narrow-minded mother, and died Governor of Martinique in 1647. After her return to France, Francoise was tossed about among different relatives and had a rude battle with poverty, even to the goose-tending. For a time she was in a convent, and though she long stuck to her Protestantism, she at last succumbed. To escape dependence or religion, she married the paralytic poet Scarron and with him she lived for years in a wild set, but she kept a steady, cool head through all the wildness. After Scarron’s death she was poor again, but she made powerful friends and fought her way up, till King Louis XIV and Madame de Montespan induced her to assume the care of their illegitimate children. In this function she was magnificently devoted, and though the King did not take to her at first, she charmed him, as she did every one, till he made her Marquise de Maintenon, gave her a great estate, abandoned Madame de Montespan and every one else for her, and finally beyond a doubt married her, in 1684, though no actual record of the marriage exists. For thirty years she was practically queen, though never publicly recognized. For thirty years she maintained her position with a tact, a patience, a dignity, an infinite resource and an infinite weariness that no born queen ever surpassed. Then in 1715, when she was eighty, years old, the King died, and her glory went out like a snuffed candle. The remaining four years of her life were passed in retirement in the Convent of Saint-Cyr, which she had established as a refuge for young girls, who like herself were of good families but poor, and to which she had turned in her later years with ever increasing interest and devotion.

In this extraordinary and almost unparalleled career the fascinating thing is the study of the twisted tangle of motives, and vast as the material is, to untwist that tangle is so difficult that one is sometimes tempted to accept Madame de Maintenon’s own remark, that she wished “to remain an enigma to posterity.”

It cannot be questioned that there was a steady purpose, or perhaps we should rather say an instinct, to rise, to get ahead in the world, to get power and prominence and public consideration and esteem. Gleams of these things shine out with indubitable clearness in her own words: “I have never seen any one who was like me in that respect: I was sensitive to the praises of the King and I was just as sensitive to those of a laborer, and there is nothing that I should not have been capable of doing or suffering to get well spoken of.”

The curious thing is that she steadily and persistently disclaims any ambition or desire whatever for position and power. And no doubt this is usual with all who seek the good things of the world, but with few is it so marked and so assertive as with Madame de Maintenon. She deprecates all attribution of greatness. As she puts it, in one of her admirable phrases, “I am not great, I am only elevated.” She subdues herself, she withdraws herself, she effaces herself, keeps in the background, as if she were a saint rather than a queen. For not only was she indifferent to the glamor of high station and the splendors of the moving world, she professed to despise and hate them, even in the earlier days before her marriage with the King. In the height of her grandeur she bewails the emptiness of it: “Don’t you see that I am dying of grief and melancholy in the midst of a good fortune that could hardly have been imagined? I protest to you, my dear child, that all these varied conditions leave a horrible void, a disquiet, a lassitude, a longing to know something different, because none of them is adequate to satisfy us: there is no repose unless one gives oneself to God.” So all through her long career, early and late, there is a continual outcry, or more properly murmur, for repose, tranquility, escape, and peace.

And one naturally asks oneself, if she wanted these things, why did she not have them? During the years when she was most restless, up to the time of her marriage with the King, she could surely have retired, if she had wished, and even later, not being formally recognized, she might have secluded herself in Saint-Cyr or elsewhere, and let the King come to her. The answer she gives us, and no doubt gave herself, is duty and the call of God. These Montespan children were her charge, to be cared for and saved, if she could save them. Still more, as her influence with the King grew, she saw her duty to save him, to pull him out of his debaucheries and make him the savior of his people, and a child of heaven. Such passages as the following bring out the complication with fascinating clearness: “I regard myself as an instrument in the hands of God to do good, and all the credit that he permits me to have must be employed in serving him, in helping everybody I can help, and in bringing all these princes into harmony.”

For, under all the duty and all the religion, you feel an immense and constant contentment in her station and her power over “all these princes” and an almost avid enjoyment of it. Who can blame her? She had begun life in poverty and misery, tossed about from one relative to another, a burden to all, and patronized and pitied by all alike. Now she was at the top. Kings bowed down to her. Rival ladies flattered her. Ministers and generals deferred to her opinion. It seemed at times as if the world could not go on, if she withdrew her consent. She felt the hollowness of it all. She doubted very much if she could save herself in such a whirlwind life, let alone any one else. She often and often wished she were well out of it. Yet if she had been out of it, she would have perished with longing to be back, and she enjoyed it enormously: what woman would not? Or what man either?


We shall get somewhat more light on all these complications when we look a little more closely into the general elements of Madame de Maintenon’s character, though it may also seem as if the complication increased.

She had a clear, logical, vigorous intellect. There was no very substantial education behind it, nor was she ever an eager reader, though she had a gift of absorbing what she wanted. Her intelligence had its marked limits. She cared nothing for abstract thinking, nothing for history or philosophy, and this limitation impaired the value of her larger influence. But she had magnificent common sense, as Louis well knew when he called her “Votre Solidite.” Perhaps the two words that occur most frequently with her are reason, reasonableness, and simplicity. She would have liked to combine the wisdom of the serpent with the simplicity of the dove. And like many people with good minds, she was much less interested in using her intelligence for itself than in training others to use theirs. That is, she was what would be called an educator, and educating was her passion early and late.

If she cared little for the abstract aspects of intellectual life, she cared even less for what may be called the ornaments of it. Art meant nothing to her. To painting she was quite indifferent, to music almost as much so. Ardently as she longed for retirement, she never turned to nature. She wanted a great country place, and she got it, but she wanted the sense of proprietorship, not the charm of out of doors, and in this respect, as in so many others, she is strikingly contrasted with her charming contemporary, Madame de S6vign6. Even literature was unimportant. She had great poets in her circle, notably Racine, who wrote “Esther” and “Athalie” for her protegees to act. But this bred passion and worldliness, and she regretted it. She disposes of the whole business of literary art and mental activity generally in one swift, fierce sentence: “Do not seek what pleases the intelligence: it is nothing but vanity.”

With these views, it would not be likely that she would 1 be much tempted by authorship. Nor was she, though she occasionally, wrote verses, like almost everybody else in that day. But she did write letters, enormously, and she was proud of her letters, and had reason to be. They have not the charm of Madame de Sevigne, because the writer had not. But all the critics praise them as the perfection of seventeenth century French, and for us they have the value of an extraordinary richness and variety of self-revelation. One not inconsiderable element of this is the singular adaptability to different correspondents. This multiple and complicated spirit, who prided herself on being sincere and un-’ questionably was so, could write to a saint with all the fine flavor of saintliness, and to a sinner, not indeed with a flavor of sin, but at least with a suggestion that human weakness was not alien to her.

For, though her intelligence may not have been alert in regions of speculation or ornament, it was immensely active, acute, and penetrating in what concerned the daily life that crowded and flowed about her. And, alas, the result of such long experience of the world was too often disillusion, not to say bitterness. “I see passions of all sorts,” she says, “treasons, baseness, limitless ambition; on one side horrible desire, on the other people with rage at heart, who seek only to destroy each other; in sum, a thousand evil devices, and often for objects that are utterly, trifling.”

Yet it was a principle with her not to allow the bitterness to appear. Gentleness, kindness, above all reticence, were absolutely necessary to success in life, and any cynicism that developed in her heart was not permitted to affect her tongue. But whether, after all, the motive of such reticence was kindness or caution we are left somewhat in doubt, as with so many of the aspects of her spirit.

For she applied the same keen vision to herself that she had ready for others, and she analyzes her own defects with surprising acuteness and merciless severity. Yet it is curious to see how, in this analysis of faults, she manages, as we so often do, deftly to turn faults into virtues. Indeed, it must be admitted that she has a rather flagrant gift of self-commendation. This is partly explained by the never failing teacher’s instinct to set an example and to edify. Yet the reiteration of it, even though graceful and tactful, is a little wearying. “God gives me grace never to vex anybody.” It may, be true, but the compliment would have more savor if it came from some other source.

If she had a vast knowledge of life, there was every reason why she should have, for few persons have seen more of it. And her position was peculiar in that she had seen the darker lining before she was confronted with the glittering outside. Queens are generally flattered and courted from their birth; but she had been kicked and buffeted and pitied before she was adored, and it made her somewhat sceptical about the adoration. She came into contact with all sorts of human beings by hundreds, but there is no sign that she greatly enjoyed it. The diversions that excite ordinary men and women did not appeal to her. She played cards, and when she was old and solitary a game of trictrac was better than her thoughts, but she detested gambling, did not like to lose her own money or win others’, and, in general, amusements were a weariness.

So with conversation. She was an adept at it. She had wit, and variety, and color, and gayety, when she chose. Madame de Sevigne, who lived intimately with her in earlier days, says that her company was “delicious.” The most curious story bearing on this point is that of the confessor who, appreciating the brilliancy of her speech, urged her to control it and practice silence for the good of her soul. Her friends could not understand her dumbness and bewailed it, until she explained the cause, adding that it had almost disgusted her with religion for good. But as life went on, she grew more and more mistrustful of the tongue, and she urged her protegees to bridle it, to mortify it, to forget it.

Yet, however she may have disapproved of conversation or any other social agency, there is no doubt that she availed herself of them with exquisite skill to win, to conquer, and to retain admiration and affection. She had sympathy, she had understanding, she had tact, could see what people wanted and needed, and she was ready to efface herself in the effort to give it to them. As to these qualities and her success in the use of them there is abundant and universal testimony, but I do not know that it would be possible to find any keener analysis of this success than her own: “I had an excellent disposition, a kindly heart, in other words I was really what is called a good child, so that everybody loved me and that even the men and maid servants of my aunt, with whom I then lived, were charmed with me, and simply because I thought only of making myself agreeable to them. When I was a little older, I lived in convents: you know how much I was beloved by my mistresses and my companions; I have often told you that they were delighted to have me and always for the same reason: It was because I did them services, and I thought of nothing but obliging them and doing things for them from morning till night.” The statement may, be somewhat astonishing, but the fact seems indisputable.

How far her charm came from merely physical attraction it is difficult tq say. In the portraits, mostly dating from later life, she seems to us dignified and imposing but somewhat stiff and heavy of feature and of figure, perhaps in part owing to the stiffness of garb. But contemporaries found a beauty of expression which we can hardly divine. As one of them describes it: “At first sight she was imposing and as it were somewhat veiled with severity; but the smile and the voice broke through the cloud.”

At any rate, whatever the nature or the analysis of the charm, it is admitted by, everyone, even by those, like Saint-Simon and the German Duchess of Orleans, who detested her most.


It was the charm that made her queen and kept her queen for thirty years. And it is most curiously interesting to watch, to trace, to divine the gradual steady, growth of her position and influence. The influence involved Madame de Montespan first, and it was not qualified by jealousy, so long as the King seemed indifferent or almost averse. But as he discovered the stranger’s good qualities and turned to her for comfort and guidance, Madame de Montespan became irritated, and there were furious scenes between the two; yet Madame de Maintenon quietly held her own, and she forestalled any criticism of treachery to her former benefactress by alleging to her confessor, to others in later life, and no doubt sincerely to herself, that she was doing her best to save the King’s soul and that of Madame de Montespan also.

When the children outgrew her, she accepted a court position, and always her influence quietly increased. The King turned to her more and more, but she resisted everything of an illicit nature in the spirit of her own maxim, which irritated Sainte-Beuve so much for its cold-blooded, if profoundly practical wisdom: “There is nothing so clever as not to be in the wrong and to bear oneself irreproachably at all times and with all sorts of people.”

With infinite tact Madame de Maintenon made herself as indispensable to the Queen as to the King, for there was an insignificant Queen, though one might never suspect it. The wise lady drew King and Queen together as they had not been for years, and the Queen was duly, grateful. Then, by a strange freak of fortune, which could not have been looked for, the Queen was removed from this world. Madame de Maintenon spoke of leaving the Court at once, but she did not, and after a few months of debate and hesitation, Louis offered her his hand and crown, and she became queen in all but the name.

Did she use her power for her own purposes ? Apparently 1 with the utmost moderation. She helped her relatives where she could. For herself she asked comparatively little. There was no trace of greed about her, or of grasping for gain any more than for glory.

Did she use her power for the good of France? Her enemies say she was a baneful influence, turning the King to narrow views and measures that were disastrous. Her admirers insist that she did not meddle at all, that the King would not have listened to her and that she did not wish him to. The truth is probably, as usual, between the two views. It seems certain that the bitterest accusation of her I enemies, that she urged the Revocation of the Edict of j Nantes, which drove the best of the Huguenots out of the country, is quite unfounded. But on the other hand, it is impossible not to believe that, she being what she was, and Louis being what he was, and their relation being what it was, her influence was not constant and very great.

It is true that it was subtle and obscure. She took the utmost pains to keep herself in the background, and repeated and reiterated that she had no concern with public affairs whatever. This appears so often that many of her apologists insist upon her being taken at her word. But it requires very little knowledge of the world to give such assertions their true value and no more. One of her humble, conventual friends artlessly unveils the secret in a brief sentence: “It never appeared that she had the slightest desire to be declared queen. . . . It was her humble and hidden life that made her power.”

For, however delicate the method of management was, or precisely because it was delicate, the management was solid, lasting, and effective. Almost any wife will understand the nature of it. Are there not millions of American wives, apparently considerate and deferential, keeping suavely, and deftly within their own province, yet at the same time having their little, dainty fingers on every pulse of their world? So it was with Madame de Maintenon. And King Louis the Fourteenth was just an ordinary husband. He liked his royal, masculine authority. He liked to assert and maintain it. No one should teach him or show him what to do, Yet a quiet word in the right place at the right moment, the light touch of a suggesting hand, would do wonders.

As it is obvious that the lady possessed a wifely and so a queenly power, it is equally obvious that she enjoyed it. She liked to be present at the councils of state, and she usually, was, oh, unobtrusively, sitting in a corner with her embroidery, but she was there. She liked to have the ministers and the generals visit her and talk over their plans and get her suggestions and advice. Above all, she liked to have princes and nobles and priests and great ones bow down to her and flatter her, she whom in the old days even little ones had trampled on. And there was the great scene of triumph when that rude old Duchess of Orleans, who hated her, was humbled so completely. The Duchess swept down upon her with abuse and complaint. Madame de Maintenon quietly produced a letter, written home to the Duchess’s relatives in Germany, scolding about everybody, from the King down, and the old woman wept and trembled and apologized, with abject dread. And Madame de Maintenon was magnanimous and gentle and forgiving, with what a wave of triumph in her heart, and how the old woman must have hated her then!

Which was all very well, but there were terrible drawbacks. There was a lot of this hatred and jealousy and spite, which no gentleness or tact could overcome. And the King himself was difficult. He really loved his wife, but he was accustomed to having his own way, and he had little consideration. He taxed her strength and her patience and her good-nature. He had no regard for fatigue or discomfort, when they were not his own. He wanted fresh air, and Madame de Maintenon hated the cold. He wanted attention when she was tired, when she was hungry, when she was ill. The court routine was infinitely complicated and infinitely wearisome. As she puts it in one splendidly effective phrase: “You can’t arrange your room as you like, when the King comes to it every day, and you have to perish with symmetry.”

So, when the glory of the world palled upon her, she turned more and more to retirement at Saint-Cyr, the group of teachers and pupils who had been absorbing her affection and attention for so many years. At a very early period she had persuaded the King to let her found an educational institution for poor girls of good families, and with time the establishment, moving into ampler quarters, had become an important affair. At first she had wished it to be secular in organization, but as she went on and found how great and troublesome the worldly temptations and surroundings were, she finally succeeded in putting the school on a conventual basis, and as such it continued for many years after her death.

Here, as everywhere, she reveled in management. She advised and suggested and directed, and looked after every detail with loving, persistent care. Above all, she had the chance to let loose all her educational proclivities. She not only dictated what the girls should study, but what they should read, and what they should wear, and what they should eat, and, as far as possible, what they should think. The minuteness, the constancy of her control is astonishing. And every now and again it comes over me, what did the teachers and the girls really think about it? We have their formal expressions of love and gratitude. Was their inner judgment the same? Did they resent such perpetual dictation? Or were her tact and sympathy sufficient to make her beloved through it all? In any event one sees everywhere the devoted woman, always intent on managing the affairs of those she loves.


And one asks oneself how far she was a woman, in her tastes and habits and interest? For instance, did she care for those household affairs, which, in former days at any rate, were supposed to be a woman’s main concern. Apparently she did. When she went to Saint-Cyr, she could go right into the kitchen, put on an apron, and cook. She was a good housewife, careful and orderly in everything. She sums up all these feminine matters with a delicate touch when she describes herself as “moi qui suis tres-femmelette.”

So with servants. Necessarily she had a large staff of them, and she emphasizes the importance of being mistress and avoiding undue familiarity. But also she is profoundly and broadly human. Servants are men and women and should be treated as such: you must not expect perfection, for it does not exist: “one should use people according to their gifts and consider that none are perfect.” Consequently, her servants were quiet, swift, and efficient, as even the hostile Saint-Simon grudgingly concedes. And, if one may believe her own testimony, they were devotedly attached to her.

As to dress, she was a woman also. She was interested in the little details of it, and writes with minute care about the change of fashion and the choice of stuffs. But for herself she dressed with a severe simplicity, almost to the point of making a parade of it. Here again we have those delightful touches of self-commendation, which are so simple, so earnest, and so revealing: “People were never tired of wondering how a young girl, in the full tide of society, had the courage to keep up so modest a fashion of dressing.” And once more Saint-Simon bears her out. Yet the flutter of feminine coquetry creeps and peeps under all the modesty, as in the charming anecdote of the confessor, who complained of her elegance. But, she protested, see how simple my dress is. And he shook his head: “When you go down on your knees, a flood of stuffs falls about you at my feet, and it is all so graceful that somehow it strikes me as too attractive.” Still and always the woman’s mystery and mastery of sex!

As to money she is the same thrifty, careful housewife that she is in other matters. Her large establishment required a fairly abundant supply, and she always had it. But she did not spend on herself, did not care to, and she was true to her own saying, “The longer I live, the more I grow in the opinion that it is useless to pile up wealth.” What she most wanted money for was to give away. She had been poor herself, she knew what poverty was, and so far as she had means, she meant to get rid of all the suffering she could. Yet even here she did not propose to be duped, and the calm, clear judgment was always at work. She would help only those who were worth helping, and she took pains to find out who the worthy were: “I am determined to aid those who aid themselves, and to let the good-for-nothing suffer.”

As to her human relations, her affections, her friendships, the question is more complicated. She herself insists that she was profoundly affectionate and deeply and permanently loyal. She had a sensitive, loving heart, and craved response from others. In a sense she appears to have got dt; yet, once more, I would give a good deal to know what her friends really thought of her in this connection. There is no doubt about her enemies, and Saint-Simon makes it one of his most severe charges against her that she was quite unreliable, would adore you today and forget you tomorrow. No doubt he exaggerates. Yet she did get rid of those whom she had loved, in a rather unfortunate fashion. Her conduct to Madame de Montespan is hard to forgive. Madame de Brinon, the head of Saint-Cyr, she caressed and flattered, and then turned her out, no doubt for good reasons; but still—. Fenelon she worshiped, and abandoned, and the Cardinal de Noailles in the same way. It is a curious thing that she managed to keep friendly relations with them all, but the break was there. Perhaps there is much human truth in Sainte-Beuve’s remark that she “busied herself with people without loving them.”

What she really and undeniably did love was children. Of course she liked to care for them and educate them, with her pedagogic disposition. But there was more to it than that. She clung to them and they to her, with a real tenderness that peeps out everywhere. How moving is her plaint about one of her royal charges, the Duke of Maine: “Nothing can be more foolish than to pour out this excess of love on a child who is not my own.” One sees in a flash what it would have meant to her to have had a real husband and a flock of children. Perhaps she would have found it better than a court and a king.

If she had no children of her own, she had relatives, and she gave them almost as much care and attention as if they were her children. She watched over the nephews and nieces and cousins, advised them, provided for them, and was so interested in their spiritual welfare that she even kidnapped a niece to make sure of getting her into the true church. But the most profitable element of Madame de Maintenon’s family affection for us is the long series of letters to her brother, d’Aubigne He was a wild fellow, like his father, and his sister had a hard struggle to keep him upright in the world. She got positions for him, she got money for him, and above all, after much nice financial calculation, she got a wealthy wife for him. And then she added the most intimate domestic counsel, after a fashion which seems somewhat odd when she herself admits that she had never been really, married.

For what interests us most in this varied and complicated tangle of affections is the question of Madame de Mainte-non’s attitude towards the supreme affection, that of sex. Apparently it meant little to her. She herself tells us that “thanks to the goodness of God, I have no passions, that is to say, I love no one to the point of being willing to do anything that God would not approve.” And one of the ladies from whom she tried to wean the King remarked to her indignantly: “Madame, you talk of changing a passion as you would talk of changing a shirt.”

It is true that her enemies piled up scandal about the gay years in the Scarron circle. Madame de Maintenon was an intimate friend of Ninon de Lenclos, the great lover of the time, and the association was dubious, to say the least. Yet it seems highly probable that a strong foundation of religious principle, powerfully aided by a cold temperament and especially a determination to keep credit with the world, sustained her virtue all through. As Jules Lemaitre says, it is somewhat hard to believe that she came to King Louis at fifty quite intact, and one always remembers the remark of the witty lady, whose husband was loudly, proclaiming Madame de Maintenon’s innocence, “My dear sir, how do you manage to be so sure of these things?” Yet her character and her history in general inspire a reasonable amount of confidence.

At any rate, from her vast contact with life she had extracted a disgust for marriage and a horror of men. She cannot warn her pupils often enough against those scheming creatures who make it their first object to caress and to betray. And of marriage the best she finds to say is, that it is “a state that causes the misery of three quarters of the human race.”

Which immediately makes one curious about her relation to her own royal husband. As to his feeling there can be no question. By some magic that we can hardly understand he adored her for the whole thirty years and came to depend upon her more and more. There is a touching veracity and force in her own account of his dying words and her comment on them: “He himself said to me when he was dying: T have not made you happy,’ at the same time assuring me that I was all he regretted and that he had loved me always. . . . It is true that he loved me, and more than he loved any, one else; but he loved me only so much as he was capable of loving; for men, when passion does not carry them away, are not very tender in their affection.” And the further account of that death-scene reveals with a wonderful delicacy and clarity some of the intertwining strands of feeling in both of them, as there is nothing for revelation like these great crises of life. When the end drew near, the King began to mourn because she was not sufficiently provided for. “What will become of you?” he said. And she answered passionately: “What is all that now? Your own future is the only thing that counts.” Then, with the sober second thought so characteristic of her, she murmured that perhaps he might say a word to the Duke of Orleans, who would be regent, to see that she was properly looked after.

And this suggests the much more subtle and difficult question of her feeling for him. It can hardly be maintained that she was passionately fond of him. A sort of maternal tenderness, a long regard she had. And further, there was that old puzzle, which none of us can ever quite solve, the relation of affection and need. Her power, her fortune, her happiness, so far as she had any, her life, depended on his: how was she to tell what was need and what was love? How are any of us to tell? When he was taken from her, her world went to pieces. After this, her old age in the solitude of Saint-Cyr was total eclipse. She bore it all with courage, with patience, with a sort of dreary serenity of grief, finding her greatest comfort in doing good to those about her, so far as she could. But the King, and the husband, and the glory, and the power, were all gone together, and it would have taken a shrewder wit than even hers to distinguish one from the others.


It was fortunate that through this arid waste of desolation she had God to comfort her, as she always had. In her Protestant youth she had established a personal relation with the Deity, and she maintained it through all her change of creed, reading the Bible, especially the New Testament, especially Saint Paul, more perhaps than is usual with Catholics. Through all the misery and gayety of her earlier years, through the vicissitudes of her middle life, through the wit of Scarron and the wiles of Montespan and the worldly wisdom of King Louis, she thought of God, she talked God, and as was her nature, she preached God to others.

Her enemies called it hypocrisy, but there is no doubt whatever that she was absolutely sincere. She herself insists, probably with justice, that she had a simple, direct, frank nature, to which dissimulation was abhorrent. The hard ways of the world, of which she had traveled so many, forced her at times to deceive others for their good. But she hated it, and would have preferred to say right out what she thought about everything. When she spoke of God, she meant what she said. Rarely has anything finer been written about sincerity than her simple words: “Frankness does not consist in saying a great deal, but in saying everything, and this everything is soon said when one is sincere, because there is no need of a great flourish and because one does not need many words to open the heart.” But if her religion was genuine, it was also perfectly practical, redolent of the common sense which characterized her in all things, and extremely shy of the fantastic or extreme. In this connection it is most interesting to study her dealings with the great Fenelon. At first his earnestness, his purity, his elevation, charmed her. She thought of making him her spiritual director. But when he became involved with Madame Guyon and mysticism and Quietism, when she saw that these notions were working havoc in her flock at Saint-Cyr and that the King distinctly disapproved, she shifted at once. Firm earth was good enough for her. She left these airy regions to others, and Fenelon and Madame Guyon were laid aside. So with the Archbishop, afterwards Cardinal, de Noailles. For a long time she turned to him for everything, but when he clung to the heresies of Jansenism, against the decrees of the Church and the wishes of the King, she abandoned him with regret, but with swift and sharp decision.

For an unfailing reasonableness governed her spiritual concerns as well as her worldly. The ways of rapture, of high-wrought, supra-mundane forgetfulness, were not for her. Her religion had at all times a bread and butter flavor, and what interested her supremely was to save herself, to save others, especially the King, to save everybody.

In short, her instinct for managing the world was just as marked in religion as in everything, indeed even more marked. There may be some question as to how much she interfered in the politics of this world: they did not interest her. There can be no doubt whatever as to the part she took in the politics of another. She had Fdnelon made Bishop of Cambrai—and regretted it. She had Noailles made Archbishop of Paris—and regretted it. But such things did not discourage her, and she advised the King, in her quiet, thoughtful, cautious way, as long as he lived. If it seemed to her that too many bishops were hanging about the Court, instead of attending to their dioceses, she said a word in the royal ear—and there was a speedy exodus of bishops.

If she enjoyed general religious politics, she enjoyed even more the detail of religious management with individuals. To look over the vast mass of letters that she wrote to her various teachers and pupils gives an extraordinary sense of intimate personal direction, much as one gets it from the correspondence of Fenelon or Saint Francis. She guides the spiritual as well as the temporal affairs of all these girls, whom she evidently loves, with a closeness of intimate personal touch that is almost incomprehensible in a woman who was so desperately entangled in all the bustle of the great world. She chides, she cheers, she warns, she encourages, she instructs, with tireless patience and a flow of words that seems absolutely inexhaustible. And the tone is so sincere and so affectionate that it does not weary. Yet, as always, one does wonder how her correspondents took it. Were they, responsive and grateful? Or did they occasionally rebel against the long sermonizing of a tedious old woman? If they did, they had to keep it to themselves, and we shall never know.

At least it must be remembered that she managed herself with the same discretion, the same reasonableness that she applied to others. Yet perhaps it is on this very account that she attracts us so little. For the lack of attraction is undeniable. We admit her virtue, we admire her achievements, we recognize the charm that she must have had. Only somehow the charm has evaporated with the passage of years. And always one compares her with Madame de S6vign6, so fresh, so spontaneous, so human, so budding and gurgling with constant gayety and instinctive joy. After three hundred years you can read Madame de SeVigne^s letters and fall in love with her. But no matter how much you read Madame de Maintenon, no man, not even a king, could fall in love with her now. Yet a king did once, and she had the world at her feet, and found it vanity, which perhaps is just the reason why she gets our respect and not our love.


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