A French Revolution blogger recently remarked on the portrayal of Louis XV’s mistress, Jeanne du Barry, in many fiction books about Marie Antoinette. Madame du Barry is shown as an uncouth woman with little to no manners, an inferior to the fresh, polished dauphine Marie Antoinette, who takes great pleasure in slighting her. The rivalry between Louis XV’s maitresse-en-titre and the young dauphine was the talk of Versailles in the last years of his reign, but many works of fiction tend to take Marie Antoinette’s part in it. After all, Jeanne du Barry was nothing more than the king’s whore, whereas Marie Antoinette was the daughter of the Austrian empress and a member of a family who could trace themselves back to the Roman nobility.
Born in 1743, Marie Jeanne Becu was the illegitimate daughter of a priest and a seamstress. She was working as a milliner’s assistant when she made the career change to prostitute, She started out working at a brothel, but soon she rose to become one of the most desired courtesans among the French nobility. King Louis XV, still mourning the death of his beloved Madame de Pompadour four years previously, became smitten with the beautiful Jeanne, who was said to have hair of “a beautiful golden color and…wide blue eyes that looked at one with an engaging frankness.” Unlike many women of her time, Jeanne still had all of her teeth, and she bathed a few times a week in rose-scented water.
The king had his agents scour the brothels and taverns for Jeanne’s pimp’s brother, the comte du Barry, who was an impoverished nobleman, and Jeanne was immediately married off to him. The comte was given a handsome sum to very conveniently disappear, leaving his wife to become mistress to the king. Madame du Barry was presented at court,and soon she became the king’s mistress.
Unlike Madame de Pompadour, Jeanne was “more successful as a patron of arts and letters” than influencing the king’s politics. The king was enamored of her, and she was “all women to him–a delightful child, a talented whore, a comforting mother.” Despite how much the king adored her, though, Jeanne was still slighted by many members of the court. When the young dauphine Marie Antoinette refused to acknowledge her, it started a feud that would make Regina’s and Cady’s in Mean Girls pale in comparison.
Marie Antoinette’s mother, Maria Theresa, prevailed upon her young daughter to be kind to the king’s maitresse-en-titre and to keep in mind that things in France were done differently than things in Austria. Still, Marie Antoinette was revolted that the king dared to parade his mistress in front of the entire court. She followed the example of Louis XVI’s aunts in their disdain for Madame Pompadour, which turned into hatred after she discovered that Jeanne had laughed at some slanderous joke about her mother. She refused to even acknowledge Jeanne, until she bent to pressure from her mother and the Austrian ambassador and remarked to Jeanne, “There are a lot of people today at Versailles.” While the act soothed some of the tensions between the two women at the court, Marie Antoinette still loathed Jeanne. When Louis XV was ill with smallpox, it was Jeanne who nursed him. After his death, at his behest, she went to a convent for a year, during which time Marie Antoinette prevailed upon Louis XVI to banish Jeanne from court, which he did. Jeanne spent the final years before the Revolution at her small chateau in Louveciennes. She entertained lavishly and surrounded herself with luxury as she had during her glory days at Versailles, but she also was personally very charitable and did what she could to alleviate the plight of the poor in her area.
Du Barry seems to be a woman who was confident about her sexuality and is was perfectly comfortable with it at a time when women weren’t necessarily supposed to enjoy it. While she may not have had the upbringing that Marie Antoinette or even Madame Pompadour might have had, she would have eventually learned what manners were expected of her during her time as a courtesan whose clients numbered among the most illustrious men in France at the time.
In many books about the Versailles court of Louis XV, you see people exult Madame de Pompadour as gracious and refined, but she was a bourgeoise while du Barry was, to many, from below the bottom of the barrel. In truth, du Barry is rather an admirable woman, for she rose from a life of poverty and difficulty to hold a high position both at court and in the king’s heart in a time when it was very difficult for women to do so.
We also see this with Louise de la Valliere, who was very devout and penitent and who wanted only Louis XIV’s love, and Athenais de Montespan, who was outspoken and ambitious and used the position for her benefit. Athenais was known to enjoy sex as well, unlike Madame de Maintenon and unlike Louise, and can you really blame her for using the position for her benefit? She gave up a lot of things to become maitresse-en-titre, and she knew she would be giving these things up because she wanted the position, but she was also putting her health at risk by sleeping with Louis. There were not only the risks associated with pregnancy and childbirth, but also venereal disease (his cousin Charles II and his mistresses basically played a game of VD hot potato), so she had every right to get what she could from the position?
Also, patriarchal society of the time put women into the categories of either Madonnas or whores. Not that it was right, and Marie Antoinette should never have treated Madame du Barry as she did, but much of her attitude came from the society she was raised in. Sex within the confines of marriage was perfectly acceptable; however, sex beyond those boundaries was considered to be sinful. It very easily turned what could be considered respectable women into whores, and these women were shameful and therefore undeserving of the compliments paid to respectable women. And these attitudes still linger in our society today.
Source: Herman, Eleanor. Sex with Kings, 2004.