Voltaire in favour, temporarily.

In my haste to get down my thoughts on Nancy Mitford’s Voltaire in Love I failed to mention that I was only halfway through the book. The second half begins rather depressingly. Voltaire, who has spent much of his life in flight from official persecution for his writings, around the age of fifty itches to be accepted by court society. He devotes his energies to fawning over Louis XV (who nevertheless doesn’t take a shine to him), kissing the Pope’s ass (with greater success), and writing dull encomiums to the glories of France. These chapters are an embarrassing record of social climbing and hypocrisy. At one point, when some literary enemies get under his skin, Voltaire uses his influence to get them arrested. “I am glad to think,” he smugly records, “that this affair will serve to distinguish those who deserve the protection of the government from those who deserve its displeasure and that of the general public.”

Luckily for the reader, our hero is too tactless to remain in favour with the King for very long. Our heroine, too, manages to get in trouble over her casual manners. Because her husband (the Marquis du Châtelet, content to have his wife more or less permanently taken off his hands by Voltaire) has a high rank in the military, Mme du Châtelet enjoys “certain privileges usually reserved for Duchesses … One of these was to travel in the Queen’s retinue.” She arranges to catch a ride with the Queen and a passel of important ladies. As Mitford describes it:

The Queen herself left with Mme du Luynes and three other Duchesses straight from the chapel as soon as Mass was over. Two more coaches were waiting in the Cour d’Honneur to bring Mesdames de Montaubon, Fitzjames, Flavacourt, and du Châtelet. Hardly had the Queen driven off than Mme du Châtelet hopped into one of them, settled herself comfortably into the corner, and called out something like: “Come on, plenty of room!” The other women, outraged by this lack of manners, all got into the second coach, leaving [du Châtelet] alone in hers.

Unhelpfully for those readers not at home with the etiquette of 18th-century Versailles, Mitford doesn’t explain just what was so offensive about the Marquise’s conduct. I’m guessing it’s a question of precedence; she was supposed to wait until her social superiors, the Duchesses, had taken their seats before she took hers.

It’s frustrating that instead of sharing witty observations about the books I read, I instead must expose my puzzlement over archaic customs and turns of phrase. On the other hand, I’m glad I was born into a era where I can afford to be mystified by the obscure social rules of our forebears.

M.

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