The Poet's Princess

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Portrait of a fraud

François, Prince de Marsillac, the future Duke de La Rochefoucauld, is born on the 15th of December 1613. He is handsome. He is brilliant. He is well-educated. To let nobody in doubt about his excellence he flaunts it at us on the pages of his “Memoirs”.

“I am of medium height, slim and well-proportioned. My complexion is dark, though smooth enough. My forehead is high and reasonably large. My eyes are black, small and sunken. My eyebrows are rather thick and well-shaped. I seem to be sad and disdainful. This makes most people think that I am arrogant, even if this is not the case. Firstly, as for my mental disposition, I am a melancholic. For the most part, I either dream without uttering a word or I do not care what I am saying. I am rather reserved with those that I do not know and I am not very open with those I am acquainted with. I am a witty man and I do not deny it, though my mind is affected by melancholy. Even if I am a brilliant talker, have a good memory and can think logically, I have such an overwhelming inclination to melancholy that I often express myself rather poorly. One of my greatest pleasures is conversation with educated people. I like serious conversation. Morality should be its most important ingredient. I write well in prose. My poems are none too bad either and, if I were sensitive to any glory, I suppose that, with some effort, I could acquire a fair reputation in writing. Generally I like reading. Above all I get great satisfaction from sharing my reading with an educated person.”

What is it that irritates me in this coolly phrased self-portrait? To what extent am I influenced by my bond with Anne de Bourbon? I feel a certain dryness of heart piercing through this elegant display of fine mind and, for this once, I am fairly sure to be impartial. When I encountered La Rochefoucauld for the first time through his “Maxims”, I was unaware of Anne’s de Bourbon very existence. Nevertheless, I found his reasoning questionable and the writer to be of a dubious character. Above all, I objected to his self-righteousness. Anne de Bourbon could have spared herself much trouble had she met the writer before she encountered the man. Alas, when Anne met François, none of La Rochefoucauld’s works was yet written.

François de Marsillac has all Anne can wish for. Everything, except the generosity and the understanding of her true character. She fell for him on sight, assuming, according to the conceptions of the Blue Room, that a large brow, is teeming with noble thoughts, inevitably. And, of course, nothing suits a handsome man better than a light touch of melancholy, interrupted occasionally and, preferably when ladies are present, by flashes of inspired awakenings. La Rochefoucauld has also that absolutely necessary “je ne sais quoi” which ravishes the précieux to the extent that even La Rochefoucauld’s fiercest enemy, Cardinal de Retz, feels obliged to mention it in his “Memoirs”:

Just as a flower dying of thirst in an arid climate abandons itself to rain, Anne opens up to this love until a hail storm beats her down. She could have spared herself many a grief, if only she had had the calculating mind of a Madame de Motteville that could help her to recognise the true nature of her beloved, a man more interested in his own person than in loving her. In fact, La Rochefoucauld uses his mistress to take his revenge on the Queen who refused his wife the “right of stool” which allowed a lady to be seated in the Queen’s presence, a legitimate privilege for the social standing of his spouse.

La Rochefoucauld gains absolute power over Anne. He forces her to give up Conti and deny Condé. Now she is alone, at the mercy of this ruthless man. He turns her in his hand like a dagger in the heart of her own family and causes them a lot of hardship by encouraging them to rebel against the Court.

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