Saturday, 22 September 2018

The Frailty of Madame de Pompadour

Although Madame de Pompadour cemented her position as the most influential of Louis XV's mistresses, her health was far from strong. Such frailty might have gone somewhat unnoticed if she had not been catapulted into the all-seeing court of Versailles.

One of her most constant complaints was that of migraines. On more than one occasion her head-aches became so severe that she had to retire from her beloved performances in her theatre. Such an incident occurred when the company were about to perform "Le Merchant"; she had to refrain from taking her part and it took her well over a month to be fully herself again. Apparently, these bouts were both frequent and well-known; a letter from her friend the Comtesse de Baschi of 1760 asked of the Marquise what she spent her days doing - when not suffering from migraines or bad company. 

These attacks of migraine did lessen in either frequency or intensity as she grew older; one time at Choisy she experienced such a horrible migraine that according to her attendants, she did not know where she was.

Relateret billede
Madame de Pompadour

Furthermore, the position as the king's mistress naturally enough raises some expectations of illegitimate children. But those who foresaw another Madame de Montespan were sadly mistaken. Through her life, Jeanne-Antoinette had only two living child: a boy and a girl who died in their childhoods. As she grew more secure in her position she could afford to eschew the king's more intimate advances but before that she, too, had to fulfil the more essential part of being a mistress - with the consequences that entailed.
Her problems had become evident already in 1741 when she became pregnant for the first time (by her husband, mind you). She quickly experienced bouts of fever but managed to cure them with plentiful quantities of quinine. 

Once she became the king's mistress her pre-natal problems returned. Twice she suffered miscarriages  - in 1746 and 1749 - but it is likely that she had more than these. For instance, the Duc de Luynes (a friend of hers) attributed a migraine as the result of another miscarriage; however, he lists it as her third.

As if these two were not damaging enough to her health, the Marquise appeared to have suffered from anaemia too. This was unfortunate in itself but even more so considering that the go-to cure for most doctors when it came to complaints such as a headache was to bleed the patient.
Several sources - including Emile Campardon - mentions that she suffered from a heart condition. Unfortunately, given the limited knowledge of that particular type of disease in the 18th century it is hard to say exactly what this entailed.

It is only natural that a person suffers bouts of ill-health throughout their life but what is interesting in Madame de Pompadour's case, is that these minor illnesses were often described as "fevers". It should be mentioned that the doctors of the day were more liberal with the word than we are today, so it can often be hard to know what exactly ailed the Marquise. What is more certain is the effect of these small periods spent in the sickroom. Since Jeanne-Antoinette and Louis' relationship ceased to be physical rather early on she relied on her talent for dispelling the king's natural melancholy. However, if she was ordered to remain in bed she obviously could not do so - but someone else might. The stress and fear that she might lose her position seems to have done its share to damage her health even further. 

Billedresultat for docteur de quesnay
François Quesnay, Madame de Pompadour's
doctor. He was ennobled for his continuous
services to the king's dear friend

Although the king did have other mistresses during his liaison with La Pompadour, it was still her company he sought. The king became so dependent on her that his need for her would occasionally outweigh his consideration for her health. The Marquis d'Argenson - who did not believe Madame de Pompadour was always really sick - tells of a time when the court was at Choisy and the maitresse-en-tître did not join the company due to illness. When the king asked if her absence was due to fever he was answered in the negative and immediately ordered her to come down - she did.

More than one of her contemporaries - both friends and foes - argued that she had sacrificed her health for her station. While her natural talents for amusing the king were plain for all to see, they took their toll on her bodily well-being. The thing was that Louis XV suffered from a rather melancholy temper which sometimes descended into downright depression. It was a full-time job keeping him distracted and thus in a better mood. Full-time and exhausting. To name a few, Madame de Pompadour had to stay up very late with theatricals, dinners or coach-rides and be up again early to resume a full day of often physically draining exercises. The lack of rest did little to alleviate her complaints.

In her final years, her ill-health had done away with most of her formerly famous beauty. Only her eyes was still widely held to be very beautiful. Her position was still intact though which was largely due to the dependency the king had on her. So, she might have fatally weakened her health - but she retained her position to the end.

No autopsy was performed on her body following her death in 1764 which might otherwise have given an insight into why she suffered so continuously. 

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