The Secret Wife of Louis XIV
In The Secret Wife of Louis XIV: Françoise d’Aubigné, Madame de Maintenon, Veronica Buckley combines a biography of Françoise d’Aubigné with a comprehensive presentation of the political, social, economic, religious, military, and cultural history of seventeenth century France. Françoise d’Aubigné’s life was so interwoven with every aspect of the seventeenth century that her biography is the biography of seventeenth century France, if the term biography may be applied to a country during a particular period. Born in 1635 and living until 1719, she lived through the major events and changes of the century. Through her grandfather Agrippa d’Aubigné, a Calvinist poet and satirical writer, and her father Constant, her life was also intimately linked to the early years of the century.
By including detailed history of the various events of the time, Buckley recounts Françoise d’Aubigné’s life in context and makes it understandable. Her inclusion of detailed accounts of the Fronde, of the West Indies Company, of the machinations of Colbert and Louvois, of political maneuvering by the European dynasties, of the salons, and of court ritual place the biography of an exceptional woman living in a very precise time and place. Her lucid portrayal of d’Aubigné’s role in Louis XIV’s life once she had become Madame de Maintenon and his morganatic wife does much to exonerate her in relation to the revocation of the Edict of Nantes and the stifling piety of the court during the last years of Louis’s reign.
Buckley presents d’Aubigné’s life in two parts. The first chapters of the book recount her family history, her impoverished childhood and adolescence, her arrival in Paris and success in becoming part of the intellectual salon society, and her involvement with Louis XIV as governess of his illegitimate children. The second part portrays her life with Louis XIV. Buckley begins the biography with a brief prologue announcing the birth of Louis XIV and that of Françoise d’Aubigné. The former was born in a palace near Paris, the latter in a prison cell in western France. This prologue immediately makes readers aware of the gulf separating Louis XIV and Françoise d’Aubigné and sets the tone for the tale of an incredible rise in society by a very determined woman. Buckley then devotes the majority of her first three chapters to the situation and activities of d’Aubigné’s parents, her Protestant aunt and uncle, the Le Vilettes at Mursay, and her exiled grandfather Agrippa d’Aubigné. During this time, the young Françoise d’Aubigné lived first with her mother, sometimes on the charity of others, then at Mursay and eventually in convents in Paris.
Unlike her grandfather, Françoise’s father, Constant d’Aubigné, was an unreformable scoundrel who, once released from the prison where his daughter was born, became involved in schemes to make a fortune in the West Indies. He sailed to the West Indies with his family and, leaving his wife and children to fend for themselves, returned to France. There, disinherited by Agrippa d’Aubigné and involved in fradulent schemes, he was soon forced to flee and disappeared from Françoise’s life.
Buckley emphasizes the uneven life that d’Aubigné experienced. Her mother Jeanne de Cardhilac, embittered by the poverty and problems caused her by her husband, was harsh and unloving toward her daughter to the point of abuse. She eventually returned to France with her children and left her daughter at Mursay, where life was quiet, gentle, and idyllic. Françoise was shifted between the relaxed ambiance of her Protestant aunt and uncle’s home and the regimented life of the convents. Taken ill in the Ursuline convent, she was befriended by one of the nuns, who helped the young woman make the transition to Catholicism, the dominant religion of France. In these early chapters of d’Aubigné’s formative years, Buckley emphasizes how she developed into a compassionate yet self-protecting individual and learned carefully to evaluate her situations and to profit from them. Buckley never portrays her as a cold, ruthless opportunist but rather as an individual who was ready to benefit from the opportunities offered to her.
(The entire section is 1737 words.)