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(Yolande Martine) Gabrielle de Polastron, duchesse de Polignac

Duchesse de Polignac
Born 8 September 1749(1749-09-08)
Paris, France
Died 9 December 1793 (aged 44)
Vienna, Austria
Occupation aristocrat, socialite
Political party ultra-Monarchist faction
Religious beliefs Roman Catholic
Spouse(s) Jules, comte de Polignac
Children Aglaé de Polignac
Armand de Polignac
Jules de Polignac
Camille de Polignac
Parents Jean François Gabriel, comte de Polastron, and Jeanne Charlotte Hérault

(Yolande Martine) Gabrielle de Polastron, Duchesse de Polignac (8 September 1749 – 9 December 1793) was a French duchess and the favourite of Marie Antoinette, whom she first met when she was presented at the Palace of Versailles in 1775, the year after Marie Antoinette became the Queen of France. She was considered one of the great beauties of pre-Revolutionary high society, but her extravagance and exclusivity earned her many enemies.[1]

Contents

Biography

Yolande-Martine-Gabrielle de Polastron was born in Paris in the reign of King Louis XV. As was customary with aristocrats, most of whom bore more than one Christian name, she was generally known by the last of her names (Gabrielle).[2] She was born into a family of ancient aristocratic lineage, however by the time of Gabrielle's birth, despite their exalted ancestry, the family were encumbered by many debts and their lifestyle was far from luxurious.[3]

Whilst Gabrielle was still an infant, the family relocated to a home in the Languedoc. There, at the age of three, she lost her mother, Jeanne-Charlotte (née Hérault) and following aristocratic custom at the time, the young Gabrielle's welfare was therefore entrusted to a female relative. In this case, it was an aunt, who arranged for her to receive a convent education.

At the age of sixteen, Gabrielle was betrothed to Jules François Armand, comte de Polignac, whom she married on 7 July 1767, a few months short of her eighteenth birthday.[4] Jules de Polignac's family had a similarly "well-bred" ancestry to Gabrielle's, but they were in equally uncomfortable financial straits. At the time of his marriage, he was serving in the French army, on an annual salary of 4000 livres. [5] Within a few years of the marriage, Jules and Gabrielle had two children: a daughter, Aglaé, and a son - the future prime minister of France - who was named Jules, in honour of his father. Two more sons followed several years later.

Appearance

Although most surviving portraits show her in a generally pretty or attractive light - one historian said that in her LeBrun portraits, Gabrielle generally looks "like some harvested and luscious fruit."[6] - most of her contemporaries were far more enthusiastic about her appearance than surviving portraits would lead modern observers to suspect.[7] She had dark brunette hair, very pale white skin and, perhaps most unusually, lilac or violet-coloured eyes.[8]

Compiling the contemporary accounts of her, one modern historian has summarised her physical appearance as: -

"Her particular freshness of appearance [gave] an impression of "utter naturalness" ... with her cloud of dark hair, her big eyes, her neat nose and pretty pearly teeth, [she] was generally likened to a Madonna by Raphael."[9]

Versailles

When her sister-in-law invited her to the Court at Versailles, she came with her husband and was presented at a formal reception in the Hall of Mirrors in 1775. During the course of the party, she was formally presented to the Queen of France, Marie-Antoinette, who was instantly "dazzled" by her.[10] and invited her to move permanently to Versailles. The cost of maintaining oneself in the decadent world of Versailles was ruinous and Gabrielle replied that her husband did not have the money to finance a permanent move to the palace.[11] Determined to keep her new favourite by her side, the Queen agreed to settle the family's many outstanding debts and to find an appointment for Gabrielle's husband.

Once she was installed in the palace, near the Queen's Apartments, Gabrielle also won the friendship of the king's youngest brother the comte d'Artois and the approval of King Louis XVI himself, who was grateful for her calming influence on his wife, encouraging their friendship.[12] She was, however, resented by other members of the royal entourage, particularly the queen's confessor and her chief political adviser, the Austrian ambassador. In a letter to the Queen's mother, Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, the ambassador wrote: "It is almost unexampled that in so short a time, the royal favour should have brought such overwhelming advantages to a family."[13]

Charismatic and beautiful, Gabrielle became the undisputed leader of the queen's exclusive circle, ensuring that few entered without her approval.[14] She was considered by many of her friends to be very elegant, sophisticated, charming and entertaining.[15] The entire Polignac family benefited enormously from the queen's considerable generosity, but their increasing wealth and lavish lifestyle outraged many aristocratic families, who resented their dominance at Court. Ultimately, the queen's favouritism towards Gabrielle and her family was one of the many causes which fueled Marie-Antoinette's unpopularity with some of her husband's subjects (especially Parisians) and members of the politically-liberal nobility.[16]

By the late 1780s, thousands of pornographic pamphlets alleged that Gabrielle was the queen's lesbian lover, and although there was no evidence to back up these accusations[17] they did immeasurable damage to the prestige of the monarchy, especially given the deep-rooted suspicion of homosexuality held by the bourgeoisie and urban working-classes at the time.[18]

It has been suggested by several historians that Gabrielle's extravagance has been greatly exaggerated and point out that, during her fourteen year residency at Versailles, she spent as much as Louis XV's chief mistress, Madame de Pompadour, had spent in one.[19] Others have contended that to some extent she deserved her negative reputation, because despite the inaccuracies of the claims that she was sexually disreputable, other criticisms of her were valid - that she was cold, self-centred, self-indulgent and masked a love of gossip and intrigue behind a sweet-toned voice and flawless manners. This argument was particularly championed by the historian, Stefan Zweig, who wrote: "Not even Madame de Maintenon, not even the Pompadour, cost as much as this favourite, this angel, with downcast eyes, this modest and gentle Polignac. Those who were not themselves swept into the whirlpool, stood at the marge contemplating it with astonishment ... [as] the Queen's hand was invisibly guided by the violet-eyed, the lovely, the gentle Polignac."[20]

Governess

With the Queen's support, Gabrielle was eventually appointed Governess to the Royal Children, including the future Louis XVII of France and Marie-Thérèse Charlotte de France, Madame Royale. At the time, her appointment generated further outrage at Court, where it was felt Gabrielle was unsuitable for the post.[21]Her husband was later promoted through two rungs of the aristocratic ladder, thus making him a duc and Gabrielle a duchesse - a further source of irritation to the courtiers at Versailles.

A more formal portrait of the Duchesse de Polignac by Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun

Due to her position as Gouvernante des Enfants de France, she was given a thirteen-room apartment for herself in the palace. Technically, this was within the acceptable limits of etiquette, but the size of the apartments was unprecedented, particularly in a place as overpopulated as Versailles. Subsequent and previous royal governesses had usually been quartered in four- or five-bedroom apartments. Gabrielle was also given her own cottage in Marie-Antoinette's Queen's hamlet, the Hameau de la reine, built in the 1780s on the ground of the Petit Trianon.

Gabrielle's own marriage was cordial, if not successful; in other words, it was typical of aristocratic arranged marriages. For many years, she was apparently in love with the captain of the Royal Guard, Joseph Hyacinthe François de Paule de Rigaud, Comte de Vaudreuil (1740-1817), although it was felt by many of her friends that Vaudreuil was too domineering and too uncouth for the kind of society Gabrielle now moved in.[22] It was rumored at Versailles that Gabrielle's youngest child was actually fathered by Vaudreuil. However, the exact nature of her relationship with Vaudreuil has been questioned by some historians, who feel it was almost certainly not a sexual liaison - this theory has recently been resurrected by Catholic novellist and commentator, Elena Maria Vidal.[23] Moreover, despite the claims that they were lovers, she showed no hesitation in leaving him to visit friend in England and from distancing herself from him when she felt her own social position threatened by the Queen's dislike of him. There are also almost no letters surviving from the couple, suggesting either that they were not sufficiently close in reality to write to each other when separated, or that any letters were subsequently destroyed.

Historians are thus currently divided about whether or not Gabrielle and the comte de Vaudreuil were lovers.

Children

  • Aglaé Louise Françoise Gabrielle de Polignac (7 May 1768, Paris; 30 March 1803 in Edinburgh).
  • Armand Jules Marie Héracle de Polignac, duc de Polignac (11 January 1771, Paris; 1 March 1847 in Paris. Second duc de Polignac
  • Jules, prince de Polignac, prince de Polignac (10 November 1780, Paris; 30 March 1847 in Saint-Germain-en-Laye). Married first Barbara Campbell (1788-1819); second Mary Charlotte Parkyns (1792-1864); was French Prime Minister from 1829-1830, under the government of Gabrielle's friend, Charles.
  • Camille Henri Melchior de Polignac, comte de Polignac (27 December 1781 in Versailles; 2 February 1855 in Fontainebleau). Married Marie Charlotte Calixte Alphonsine Le Vassor de la Touche (1791-1861)

Note: Source for children's birthdates Gastel Family Database

In England

Perhaps due to the Queen's intense hatred of the comte de Vaudreuil, who she found rude and irritating, Gabrielle's influence over Marie-Antoinette temporarily waned after 1785, when the queen's second son was born. [24] The queen was becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the ambition of her favourites, especially when they championed a politician whom the queen herself despised.[25] She confided to another lady-in-waiting, Henriette Campan, that she was "suffering acute dissatisfaction" over the Polignacs - "Her Majesty observed to me that when a sovereign raises up favourites in her court she raises up despots against herself".[22] Eventually, Gabrielle felt Marie-Antoinette's displeasure and decided to visit friends in England, particularly Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, who was the leader of London high society and one of Gabrielle's closest friends.[26] During her time in England, she earned the nickname "Little Po," due to her delicate physicality.

Revolution

The months leading up to the outbreak of the French Revolution in July 1789 saw the queen and the duchesse de Polignac become close again. Politically, Gabrielle and her friends supported the ultra-monarchist movement in Versailles, with Gabrielle becoming increasingly important in royalist intrigues as the summer progressed, usually in partnership with her friend and the king's youngest brother, Charles, the comte d'Artois.

The marquis de Bombelles, a diplomat and politician, remembered her ceaseless work to promote hardline responses against the emergent revolution. Together with Bombelles' godfather, the ex-diplomat and politician baron de Breteuil, and the comte d'Artois, Gabrielle persuaded Marie-Antoinette to help work against the king's liberal chief minister, Jacques Necker. However, without the necessary military support to crush the insurrection, Necker's dismissal fuelled the already-serious violence in Paris, culminating in the attack on the Bastille Fortress.

After the storming of the Bastille on 14 July 1789, several members of the Polignac family decided to emigrate. On Louis XVI's express orders, the comte d'Artois left, as did Breteuil; Gabrielle went with her family to Switzerland, where she kept in contact with the Queen through letters. After she had left, the care of the royal children was entrusted to the Marquise de Tourzel.

Later life

Gabrielle developed a terminal illness while living in Switzerland, although she had arguably been in poor health for several years. Most historians have concluded that the disease which killed her was cancer, although consumption was equally possible. She died in Austria in December 1793, shortly after hearing of the execution of Marie-Antoinette. Her family simply announced that she had died as a result of heartbreak and suffering. Contradictory royalist reports of her death suggested consumption as an alternative cause of death, but no specific mention of her disease was made in the various allegorical pamphlets which showed the Angel of Death descending to take the soul of the still-beautiful duchesse de Polignac. Her beauty and early death became metaphors for the demise of the old regime, at least in early pamphlets and in subsequent family correspondence, the duchess's beauty was a much-emphasised point.

Legacy

Gabrielle was the mother of Jules, prince de Polignac, who became Prime Minister for Charles X (the former comte d'Artois) in 1829. She was also the mother of Aglaé de Polignac, duchesse de Guiche, who died in 1803 in an accidental fire. Two of her grandsons were Camille Armand Jules Marie, Prince de Polignac and Prince Edmond de Polignac. Her descendants can also be found in France and in Russia, where her granddaughter, daughter of "Guichette", married a nobleman, Aleksandr Lvovich Davydov.

Gabrielle de Polastron has left her mark in history and it can be seen in history books, novels, movies and other media. In 1979, she was one of the major characters (albeit a scheming one) in "The Rose of Versailles", a shōujo manga/anime created by Riyoko Ikeda. More recently she has been portrayed by Rose Byrne in the recent film Marie Antoinette

She is the great-great-great-great grandmother of Princess Caroline, Prince Albert, and Princess Stéphanie of Monaco [27]

Critics

Her critics among historians have argued that the duchesse de Polignac typified the aristocratic hangers-on at the court of Versailles before the French Revolution and that she embodied the exclusivity, the obliviousness and the selfish extravagance of the ruling class. However, more sympathetic historians, such as Pierre de Nolhac and the marquis de Ségur, agree that most of the problems originated with her entourage and that she was certainly no worse than any of the aristocrats or socialites who had preceded her at Versailles.

Assessments of her character aside, it is generally agreed that she was one of the key figures in the ultra-monarchist movement throughout the early summer of 1789, acting under the influence of her friend, the comte d'Artois.[16] [28]

References

  1. ^ S. Schama, Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution, p. 181-3; S. Zweig, Marie Antoinette: The Portrait of an Average Woman, pp. 121-4.
  2. ^ Zweig, Marie Antoinette,' Chapter 15: "The New Society."
  3. ^ E. Lever, Marie-Antoinette: The Last Queen of France, p. 99-100
  4. ^ Gastel Family Database
  5. ^ V. Cronin, Louis and Antoinette, p. 133
  6. ^ Schama, Citizens, op. cit. p. 183
  7. ^ Zweig, Marie Antoinette, p. 121; Cronin, Louis and Antoinette, p. 133
  8. ^ Zweig, Marie Antoinette, p. 124
  9. ^ Lady Antonia Fraser, Marie Antoinette: The Journey, p. 155
  10. ^ Zweig, Marie Antoinette,' p. 122
  11. ^ Cronin, Louis and Antoinette, p. 132
  12. ^ For the King's support of Gabrielle, see J. Hardman, Louis XVI: The Silent King, and for Madame de Polignac's impact on Marie-Antoinette, see Lady Antonia Fraser, Marie Antoinette: The Journey, p. 155-6.
  13. ^ Cit. Zweig, Marie Antoinette, p. 121
  14. ^ Mossiker, The Queen's Necklace, p.132-3
  15. ^ Cronin, Louis and Antoinette, p. 149-150
  16. ^ a b Price, Munro (2003). The Road from Versailles: Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, and the Fall of the French Monarchy. Macmillan. pp. 14–15, 72. ISBN 0312268793. http://books.google.com/books?id=u7GTMH8lFA8C&pg=PA169&dq=%22marquise+de+tourzel%22+varennes.  
  17. ^ Fraser, Marie Antoinette, p. 238; Cronin, Louis and Antoinette, p.138-9; Mossiker, The Queen's Necklace, p. 167
  18. ^ Lynn Hunt, Eroticism and the Body Politic (John Hopkins University Press, 1991)
  19. ^ Cronin, Louis and Antoinette, p. 139
  20. ^ Zweig, Marie Antoinette, op. cit. p.122, 124. Another critic is Elisabeth de Feydeau, A Scented Palace: The Secret History of Marie-Antoinette's Perfumer.
  21. ^ Fraser, Marie Antoinette, p. 239
  22. ^ a b Campan, Jeanne-Louise-Henriette; Jean François Barrière, (1823). Memoirs of the Private Life of Marie Antoinette: To which are Added Personal Recollections Illustrative of the Reigns of Louis XIV, Louis XV, and Louis XVI. University of Michigan: H. Young and Sons. pp. 195–196, 185–191. ISBN 1-933698-00-4. http://books.google.com/books?id=V8JnAAAAMAAJ&q=The+Private+Life+of+Marie-Antoinette:+A+confidante+account&dq=The+Private+Life+of+Marie-Antoinette:+A+confidante+account&pgis=1.  
  23. ^ http://teaattrianon.blogspot.com/2007/12/madame-de-polignac-and-politics-of.html
  24. ^ In her memoirs, Marie-Antoinette's First Lady of the Bedchamber, Madame Campan, recounted that the Queen had finally abandoned all pretence of being pleasant to Vaudreuil, after he broke one of her ivory billiard cues at a party in Gabrielle's Apartments. In the American edition of Madame Campan's memoirs, her account of the Queen's reaction can be found on p. 195-6
  25. ^ For the dispute over the Polignac's support of the vicomte de Calonne, see the memoirs of Madame Campan, The Private Life of Marie-Antoinette: A Confidante's Account, Chapter XII
  26. ^ See A. Foreman's, Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire, sometimes published as The Duchess.
  27. ^ Jamie Allen's Family Tree & Ancient Genealogical Allegations
  28. ^ Bombelles, Marc Marie; Grassion, Jean and Durif, Frans (1977). Journal: marquis de Bombelles. Genève: Droz. p. 297. ISBN 2-600-00677-X.  

In Film

Further reading

  • Jones, Colin (2002) The great nation : France from Louis XV to Napoleon, London : Allen Lane, ISBN 0-7139-9039-2
  • Zweig, Stefan [1938] (1988) Marie Antoinette : the portrait of an average woman, Paul, E. and Paul, C. (transl.), Cassell biographies, London : Cassell, ISBN 0-304-31476-5







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