Monday, 16 September 2019

The Education of Mesdames

Despite being the daughters of the king of France, the education afforded to Mesdames varied greatly. The eldest daughters of the king - Louise Élisabeth, Henriette and Adélaïde - were given a thorough education at court but as the birth of one princess succeeded another, it became necessary to reevaluate the situation. Financial concerns eventually prompted Louis XV to send his four youngest daughters - Victoire, Sophie, Thérèse (died at the age of 8) and Louise - to the Abbey of Fontevrault. 

Of all the king's daughters, Madame Adélaïde was the one who was the most eager to learn. She threw herself enthusiastically into her musical education and acquired the ability to play on a large variety of instruments "from the horn to the Jew's harp". She certainly had the opportunity to excel in that area; Beaumarchais was appointed as her music teacher. Besides French, she was taught Italian. 

Billedresultat for daughters of louis xv
Madame Adélaïde, whose wish to learn was the greatest

At Fontevraud, the education of the royal children was apparently not considered too much of a priority. Madame Campan relates that Madame Louise could not recite the alphabet at the age of 12 and that she had only really learned to read after her return to court. However, there was certainly a degree of exaggeration to Madame Louise's claim. Casimir Stryienski points to the fact that documents exists from their time at the abbey which appears to have at least been signed by Madame Louise. Nevertheless, there is quite a leap from being able to write ones own name to being completely literate.

The complete lack of devotion to the young ladies' education was typical of the time. Most people - royal and commoner alike - believed that females did not require the same level of education as their male counterparts. Instead, they were to focus on more courtly virtues such as dancing, good manners, hunting and religious studies. Cardinal Fénelon - one of Louis XV's closest advisors - openly shared this view which can only have contributed to the neglectful education of the royal daughters. This point of view is clearly illustrated in the small entourage that was dispatched to the benefit of Mesdames. It only included a doctor, a music teacher and a dancing master. Consequently, the arts of dancing and music were the only ones that the three surviving princesses were said to have been properly instructed in.

The nuns at Fontevrault were probably not able to provide what was lacking in their charges' education. Their lives focused on religious devotion and as such - including their being females - they were not given extensive educations themselves.

Once they were all back at Versailles, Victoire, Sophie and Louise endeavoured to correct their faulty education. Luckily for them, their brother - Dauphin Louis Ferdinand - was more than willing to share his extensive knowledge with them. According to Madame Campan, the three spent hours and hours improving themselves and succeeded. Before long, they could all write French without mistakes which was not necessarily a given for a woman of the nobility. More subjects were added to their self-imposed syllabus: Italian (probably aided by Adélaïde), history, mathematics, some sciences and even English!

It is certainly to the credit of Mesdames that they wished - and did - improve themselves. Their fellow courtiers definitely noticed their initial lack of instruction. With biting irony, the Marquis d’Argenson recalled that the princesses had gone to Fontevrault where they "received their excellent education".

Madame Louise, who may have exaggerated her own

Once Mesdames had mastered the art of reading, they found it to be a true passion. When they were given the Château de Bellevue, they established an impressive library there which counted several thousand volumes in different languages. The inventory of Madame Adélaïde's personal books was drawn up in 1786 and accounted for over 5000 books.

It has been argued that Mesdames opposed Madame de Pompadour, not only due to the moral aspects of her relations with their father but also because she was a very well-educated woman. It is definitely  not unlikely that the royal Mesdames felt something of an inferiority complex when faced with a bourgeoisie woman who - besides her social standing - had received a far better education than they.

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