In the Face of a Royal Pain

Among the armfuls of books I pillaged from the closing of the local Borders was one I first read over five years ago, Sex With Kings, which tells the story of various royal mistresses in various European countries over the last 500 years. It’s not quite as salacious as it sounds, and I found it even less glittering when rereading it.

You see, royal mistresses sometimes weren’t very pretty, and even the most beautiful woman at court might not hold the king’s interest for more than a few weeks. (Madame de Pompadour, the quintessential royal mistress who held the attention of Louis XV for 19 years, didn’t even have sex with him for most of that time.)

To be the maîtresse en titre (“official mistress,”), a formal position that was usually held for years, even decades, required intelligence, loyalty, creativity, and, most often, a sweet disposition that put the king above all else.

In her early years as royal mistress, Madame de Pompadour was often required to accompany Louis on his frequent hunts… in all kinds of weather. Despite the fact that these excursions often gave her pneumonia, she put on her riding habit and omnipresent smile and went off to join the king.

Perhaps her best role was that of royal listener. The king had the unfortunate habit of recounting the same stories innumerable times, of discussing the same themes – hunting, illness, and death. And his mistress, who hated talk of hunting, illness, and death, concealed her yawns behind a smile….

Nor could she leave her apartments for exercise or a change of scene lest the king suddenly appear wanting food, conversation, or sex. Despite the daunting challenges of her schedule, she never permitted herself to show fatigue, boredom, or illness, never expressed frustration, anger, or crankiness.

Two incidents in particular show her remarkable self-control under constant and extreme stress:

In one case, Madame de Pompadour, suffering from a horrendous migraine, sent the king word that she was ill and unable to attend dinner. He insisted she come down anyway. And so she went, and was pleasant to him when she got there.

Later, her 10-year-old daughter and only child died at school. Within two weeks, Madame de Pompadour’s father also died. But it would be fatal to bore the king with her grief. Someone who saw her soon after reported:

“I saw the Marquise for the first time since… a dreadful blow that I thought had completely crushed her. But because too much pain might have harmed her appearance and possibly her position, I found her neither changed nor downcast.” Though the prince saw her chatting cheerfully with the king, he thought that she “was in all likelihood just as unhappy inside as she seemed happy on the outside.”

In fact, there is only one recorded incident of Madame de Pompadour losing her temper at the king, and I suspect that was a deliberate strategy to make her point.

In the end, her reign over the king ended only with her early death – likely hastened by the constant strain on her health for those 19 years.

My point? Yes, she chose her career and evidently thought the rewards were worth the suffering, and while I might not agree with her weighting of those things, the fact remains: if she could show that kind of patience, forbearance, and calmness of temper for that long, and in the face of that kind of unreasonableness – how do I ever think I have any excuse for showing my annoyance?

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