Madame du Barry: The Wages of Beauty by Joan Haslip (1991)

Review by Peter Kingdon Booker

Joan Haslip (1912 – 1994) was not an academic, but she wrote many books on the lives of individuals who interested her. For example, her The Emperor and the Actress (1982) describes the platonic relationship between the Emperor of the enormous Austrian Empire (Franz Josef reigned 1848 – 1916) and an actress out of the Viennese theatre, one Katharina Schratt (1853 – 1940). This relationship was encouraged by the Empress Elisabeth, and Schratt benefited enormously from it. She became the owner of two houses in Vienna (one not far from Schönbrunn Palace), one in Bad Ischl and the Emperor always paid her gambling losses. Schratt was able to provide the friendship and support needed by that lonely and desperate figure, in the place of his Empress, who was bored silly by him.

In one important respect, the life of Jeanne du Barry (née Jeanne Bécu; 1743 - 1793) was different. Her relationship with Louis XV was not platonic, and once the King had died, she had other relationships too. She was the last maitresse-en-titre of that king, and having supped generously of aristocratic delights, she suffered the fate of many aristocrats during the French Revolution, and she was guillotined during the Reign of Terror.

Joan Haslip does much to expose the essentially venal life at the French court, and the difficulty of political life, when the source of all power, the autocrat King, was susceptible to influences which had nothing to do with politics, or with the life of the nation. It takes a mind more focused and extraordinary than that of Louis XV to separate the interests of his family, his mistresses and the nation (it was his grandfather and predecessor Louis XIV who famously exclaimed, L´état, c´est moi.)

So what do we look for in such a biography? In this book, we certainly have an accurate picture of the subject´s life. We also get a feel for the essential irrelevance of the court at Versailles, and for the reasons for the political changes which swept away the old aristocracy. Madame du Barry was collecting sculptures and paintings right up to the moment when she was arrested. She seemed oblivious of the political and social turmoil surrounding her, despite the difficulties she had encountered in her three journeys to England to recover her jewels. We appreciate that untutored in the ways of power, uneducated and unaware of the world she lived in, La du Barry was surprised by the fate which overtook her.

Madame du Barry was the daughter of Anne Bécu and an unknown father, but her mother´s family was renowned for its good looks. Jeanne inherited the best looks in her handsome family. When Anne moved to Paris, and Jeanne through her beauty and good nature earned a place at the side of a rich bourgeoise, she found a taste for wealth. She soon became too much of a threat to her benefactor, and she had to go to a convent school. Emerging at the age of sixteen, she became highly sought after as a shop girl (grisette) who attracted trade for her employers through her beauty and her engaging personality.

She became a high class prostitute, numbering among her clients many of the most powerful men in France. Eventually her pimp, the licentious gambler Jean du Barry managed to present her to the King, who at age 58 was immediately smitten by her golden locks and blue eyes. She was not at the time married, nor did she have a noble background. Jean du Barry arranged for her to marry his brother, Comte Guillaume du Barry in 1768, at which time she reduced her age by three years and created a false aristocratic descent.

Being presented at court was still difficult, and Mme du Barry spent her first months at Versailles stuck in her attic rooms awaiting the King´s visits. Her eventual sponsor at her presentation was Mme de Béarn, whose gambling debts were suddenly settled. King Louis confided in the duc de Noailles that he had discovered so much more pleasure in the bedroom. Noailles responded Sire, that is because Your Majesty has never been in a brothel.

Mme du Barry was a beauty, and she spent ages every morning in gilding the lily, but
interfering in court affairs was almost expected of her, and after the disastrous Seven Years´ War, in which France lost control of Canada, the Duc de Choiseul, Minister for Foreign Affairs, chose to support Spain against Britain for the possession of the Falkland Islands. Louis XV in particular did not want another war, and Jeanne du Barry was instrumental in engineering his dismissal, and Choiseul and his family never forgave her. But her influence in politics was minimal; she chose to spend inordinate amounts of money on dresses and jewellery, and the King´s extravagance in supporting her lifestyle attracted enormous unpopularity.

In the spring of 1774 Louis XV contracted smallpox, and he died in May 1774, after having been nursed by La du Barry. She was put away in a convent, but was released after a year and continued to live at the Chateau de Louveciennes, given to her by her royal lover. She became the mistress of the Duc de Brissac, governor of Paris, who loved her desperately, and looked after her interests and paid her debts.

La du Barry was eventually denounced by her Bengali servant Zamor, among others. In the morning of her execution day, she revealed the hiding places of much of her wealth, in the fond belief that the information given would save her. This information bought her only the three hours which it took for her to give it, and it was in the afternoon of 8 December 1793 on the scaffold in the Place de la Concorde that she uttered her most famous words, Encore un instant, Monsieur le bourreau.

Joan Haslip´s book is not an academic work, and possibly for that reason is very enjoyable. Other reviewers have said that it is unputdownable. Joan Haslip succeeds well in portraying this precociously pretty woman, her life in the most sumptuous of surroundings and her friendship of both the arts and the artists of her day. She gives a vignette into the world of the ancien régime and one of the victims of the Revolution, who like Icarus, from lowly origins, contrived to fly too high.