The Poet's Princess

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On the angels' side

Anne de Bourbon, an ash-blonde angel, one of the ornaments of the Hôtel de Rambouillet, is delightful. Creamy and plump, she knows how to dress beyond perfection.

“Her eyes are a source of light. Her complexion dims all others’. Her mouth is of such a shape that others’ mouth would not know how to praise it enough. It opens to emit thoughts full of wit and judgement.”

This is how Vincent Voiture presents Mademoiselle de Bourbon. A banal portrait which, nevertheless, reveals the essential truth: her passivity.

Anne de Bourbon is not a striking beauty. Hers is not a sparkling, diamond perfection. She reflects light. She does not radiate it. Her face is large. Her locks are silky. Her eyes seem dull to those whom they have not made welcome.

Thanks to the wistful delicacy of Madame de Motteville we can still cherish the pastel charm of this rose, preserved between the pages of her “Memoirs.”

“It was impossible to see her without desiring to please her and to love her. Nevertheless, her beauty consisted more in her colouring than in the perfection of her features. Her eyes were not large, yet lovely and soft, and of an admirable turquoise blue. Poets have compared the white and crimson of her complexion to lilies and roses. Her blonde and silvery hair made her resemble an angel, as our human imperfection allows us to imagine it, rather than a woman.”

The dedication in the “Great Cyrus”, the novel that Madeleine de Scudéry wrote and her brother Georges signed, gives the same impression. Even if the style is grandiloquent and the trimming worthy of a précieuse, the substance stays the same: Anne de Bourbon is not a ravishing beauty. Madeleine de Scudéry admires the colouring of her face, hair, eyes, mouth, teeth, not forgetting to mention “the enticing plumpness” of her bosom, arms and hands and “a certain stately elegance” of her movements, not astonishing for a princess of royal blood. Nevertheless, the description is tame, especially in the context of unlimited exaggeration of this stylish century.

Cardinal de Retz considers Anne de Bourbon one of the nicest persons in France and he praises “the particular charm of her languor”. Which woman, laying claim to beauty, would not feel offended by this lack of acclaim?

In 164O, the princess commissions a portrait to Dumontier, a painter in vogue. A dull portrait painted by an uninspired artist. Yet, it comes astonishingly close to Voiture’s description: the same plump blonde stares at a wearisome world with the vacant glance of a short sighted woman. One would like to shake her to obtain those “luminous and surprising awakenings” of hers of which Cardinal de Retz spoke with wonder.

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