- Yolande Martine Gabrielle, Duchesse de Polignac
- Roleplaying the part of the much-maligned Duchess and favorite of Marie Antoinette in the Versailles community of Second Life. In "real life", I am a history geek with a love of 18th century aesthetics, a friend, a wife and a mother.
Tuesday, November 10, 2009
Yolande Martine Gabrielle, Duchesse de Polignac
I think it is fitting to begin my first post with a bit of background on "Comtesse Jules"- the more I read about her, the more I fall in love with her character and find aspects of it with which I identify. In contrast to the propagandised view of her as an aristocratic hanger-on with extravagant tastes and loose morals, the reality of her is one of a gracious, unaffected and sweet-tempered woman. I am not inclined to praise myself as highly as that, but I would like to think that I am, above all, a very "what you see is what you get" sort of girl. Her agenda at court did not seem to go beyond an honest friendship with Marie-Antoinette, and rather it was those attached to her that sought to increase their own fortunes through her proximity to power. I am glad she escaped the horror that befell the Princesse de Lamballe, but her end seemed nonetheless pitiable, ill and devastated by the fates of those close to her.
Yolande Martine Gabrielle was born 8 September 1749, in Paris, France. She was a daughter of Jeanne Charlotte Hérault and Jean François Gabriel, comte de Polastron. Her maternal grandparents were Marguerite Durey de Vieuxcourt (1700-1729) and René Hérault, Seigneur de Fontaine-l'Abbé et de Vaucresson (23 April 1691 – 2 August 1740). René Hérault served as Lieutenant General of the Police of Paris, between 1725 and 1739. The Polignac were of ancient lineage, an aristocratic and well-respected family, but encumbered by many debts. Yolande Martine Gabrielle grew up in Languedoc. She lost her mother, Jeanne Charlotte, at the age of three and went to her aunt, who put her in a convent, a common practice for the education of young aristocratic girls. The convent was attended only by the wealthiest aristocrats. Yolande Martine Gabrielle left the convent at the age of eighteen years, she was then engaged to Jules Francois Armand, Comte de Polignac (7 June 1745- 21 September 1817). He was the son of Diane Marie Adelaide Zephirine Mazzarini-Mancini (3 February 1726 - 27 June 1755) and Marquis Louis Heracle Melchior of Polignac (31 January 1717- 1792). The couple were married on 7 July 1767. He was like his wife a descendant of a noble family, but equally poor.
When her sister-in-law invited her to the French Court, she came with her husband and was presented at a formal reception in the summer of 1775. The young woman of twenty-six years charmed Queen Marie Antoinette (2 November 1755 - 16 October 1793) with her elegance and beauty. For Yolande Martine Gabrielle was indeed a beautiful woman; she had an angelic face, with the complexion of the white lily, sincere blue eyes, an charming and innocent smile, splendid teeth, a melodious voice and was even praised by rosy fingertips. She was admired for her intelligence and her wit, she was cheerful and had pleasant ways to participate in discussions, not behave as selfish or to eclipse the others and was always sincere and spontaneous, her comments were always the point. According to the Memoirs of Marie Antoinette by Madame Campan, "A year after the nomination of Madame de Lamballe to the post of superintendent of the Queen's household, balls and quadrilles gave rise to the intimacy of her Majesty with the Comtesse Jules de Polignac. This lady really interested Marie Antoinette. She was not rich, and generally lived upon her estate at Claye. The Queen was astonished at not having seen her at Court earlier. The confession that her want of fortune had even prevented her appearance at the celebration of the marriages of the Princes added to the interest which she had inspired."
"The Countess was induced to come to Court by her husband's sister, Madame Diane de Polignac, who had been appointed lady of honour to the Comtesse d'Artois. The Comtesse Jules was really fond of a tranquil life; the impression she made at Court affected her but little; she felt only the attachment manifested for her by the Queen. I had occasion to see her from the commencement of her favour at Court; she often passed whole hours with me, while waiting for the Queen. She conversed with me freely and ingenuously about the honour, and at the same time the danger, she saw in the kindness of which she was the object. The Queen sought for the sweets of friendship; but can this gratification, so rare in any rank, exist between a Queen and a subject, when they are surrounded, moreover, by snares laid by the artifice of courtiers? This pardonable error was fatal to the happiness of Marie Antoinette."
The Queen became instantly attached to her and agreed to settle the family's many outstanding debts. According to Madame Campan, "The retiring character of the Comtesse Jules, afterwards Duchesse de Polignac, cannot be spoken of too favourably; but if her heart was incapable of forming ambitious projects, her family and friends in her fortune beheld their own, and endeavoured to secure the favour of the Queen." Yolande Martine Gabrielle also won the friendship of the King's younger brother the comte d'Artois. Sensitive and indolent by nature, they were all fascinated, the older members of the Court suffered the charm of the Countess, and even King Louis XVI (23 August 1754 – 21 January 1793), usually very cold with the ladies at Court, was well prepared to attend the celebrations of the Countess. He was grateful for her calming influence on his wife, thus encouraging their friendship. She was, however, resented by other members of the Royal entourage, particularly the Queen's confessor and her political adviser, the Austrian ambassador.
Marie Antoinette was very taken by this friendship, she said, "When I am alone with you I am no longer a Queen, I am myself!" But Yolande Martine Gabrielle was a simple person, and she soon said to the Queen that she did not want to go on in the Court and that she prefered to leave her before she felt too attached to her. Then, the Queen burst into tears, and begged Yolande Martine Gabrielle to stay with her. So, Yolande Martine Gabrielle accepted, by affection for the Queen. In Madame Campan's words, "The Comtesse de Diane, sister of M. de Polignac, and the Baron de Besenval and M. de Vaudreuil, particular friends of the Polignac family, made use of means, the success of which was infallible. One of my friends (Comte de Moustier), who was in their secret, came to tell me that Madame de Polignac was about to quit Versailles suddenly; that she would take leave of the Queen only in writing; that the Comtesse Diane and M. de Vaudreuil had dictated her letter, and the whole affair was arranged for the purpose of stimulating the attachment of Marie Antoinette. The next day, when I went up to the palace, I found the Queen with a letter in her hand, which she was reading with much emotion; it was the letter from the Comtesse Jules; the Queen showed it to me. The Countess expressed in it her grief at leaving a princess who had loaded her with kindness. The narrowness of her fortune compelled her to do so; but she was much more strongly impelled by the fear that the Queen’s friendship, after having raised up dangerous enemies against her, might abandon her to their hatred, and to the regret of having lost the august favour of which she was the object."
"This step produced the full effect that had been expected from it. A young and sensitive queen cannot long bear the idea of contradiction. She busied herself in settling the Comtesse Jules near her, by making such a provision for her as should place her beyond anxiety. Her character suited the Queen; she had merely natural talents, no pedantry, no affectation of knowledge. She was of middle size; her complexion very fair, her eyebrows and hair dark brown, her teeth superb, her smile enchanting, and her whole person graceful. She was seen almost always in a demi-toilet, remarkable only for neatness and good taste. I do not think I ever once saw diamonds about her, even at the climax of her fortune, when she had the rank of Duchess at Court."
Marie Antoinette spent much time with her new favourite, beginning to neglect the other friends, including Marie-Thérèse Louise de Savoie-Carignan, Princesse de Lamballe (8 September 1749 - 3 September 1792), to the great displeasure of the latter. The Queen, in fact, met the Countess de Polignac much more often in the living rooms of the Princesse de Guéménée than in those of the Superintendent of the Royal House. Talented and beautiful, Yolande Martine Gabrielle became the undisputed leader of the Queen's exclusive society circle. The entire Polignac family benefitted enormously from the Queen's generosity, but their increasing wealth outraged many aristocratic families, who felt they didn't deserve it. The Queen's favouritism towards Yolande Martine Gabrielle and her family was one of the many causes which fuelled Marie Antoinette's unpopularity with many of her subjects. "The Polignac Set" were despised by Royalist and republicans alike. According to Madame Campan, "I have always believed that her sincere attachment for the Queen, as much as her love of simplicity, induced her to avoid everything that might cause her to be thought a wealthy favourite. She had not one of the failings which usually accompany that position. She loved the persons who shared the Queen’s affections, and was entirely free from jealousy. Marie Antoinette flattered herself that the Comtesse Jules and the Princesse de Lamballe would be her especial friends, and that she should possess a society formed according to her own taste. “I will receive them in my closet, or at Trianon,” said she; “I will enjoy the comforts of private life, which exist not for us, unless we have the good sense to secure them for ourselves.” The happiness the Queen thought to secure was destined to turn to vexation. All those courtiers who were not admitted to this intimacy became so many jealous and vindictive enemies."
Madame Campan continued, "It was a long time before the Comtesse Jules maintained any great state at Court. The Queen contented herself with giving her very fine apartments at the top of the marble staircase. The salary of first equerry, the trifling emoluments derived from M. de Polignac’s regiment, added to their slender patrimony, and perhaps some small pension, at that time formed the whole fortune of the favourite. I never saw the Queen make her a present of value; I was even astonished one day at hearing her Majesty mention, with pleasure, that the Countess had gained ten thousand francs in the lottery. “She was in great want of it,” added the Queen. Thus the Polignacs were not settled at Court in any degree of splendour which could justify complaints from others, and the substantial favours bestowed upon that family were less envied than the intimacy between them and their proteges and the Queen. Those who had no hope of entering the circle of the Comtesse Jules were made jealous by the opportunities of advancement it afforded. The Comtesse Jules was fully engaged in gratifying the young Queen. Of this the Marquis de Vaudreuil was a conspicuous member; he was a brilliant man, the friend and protector of men of letters and celebrated artists. The Baron de Besenval added to the bluntness of the Swiss all the adroitness of a French courtier. His fifty years and gray hairs made him enjoy among women the confidence inspired by mature age, although he had not given up the thought of love affairs. He talked of his native mountains with enthusiasm. He would at any time sing the “Ranz des Vaches” with tears in his eyes, and was the best story-teller in the Comtesse Jules’s circle. The last new song or ’bon mot’ and the gossip of the day were the sole topics of conversation in the Queen’s parties. Wit was banished from them. The Comtesse Diane, more inclined to literary pursuits than her sister-in-law, one day, recommended her to read the “Iliad” and “Odyssey.” The latter replied, laughing, that she was perfectly acquainted with the Greek poet, and said to prove it: "Homere etait aveugle et jouait du hautbois." ( Homer was blind and played on the hautboy). The Queen found this sort of humour very much to her taste, and said that no pedant should ever be her friend."
She was eventually appointed Governess to the Royal Children, including Marie Thérèse Charlotte (19 December 1778 - 19 October 1851) and Louis Charles, later Louis XVII, King of France and Navarre (27 March 1785 - 8 June 1795). At the time, her appointment generated further outrage at Court, where it was felt that she was unsuitable for the post. Her husband was later promoted through two rungs of the aristocratic ladder, thus making him a Duc and Yolande Martine Gabrielle a Duchesse, a further source of irritation to the courtiers at Versailles. She also secured a thirteen-room apartment for herself in the palace, at a time when other courtiers were grateful for a garret, because of its proximity to the Royal family. She was also given her own cottage in Marie-Antoinette's private village, Le Petit Trianon, built within the palace complex in the 1780s.
Yolande Martine Gabrielle's marriage was cordial, if not successful. It was genereally believed at Versailles that her second child was actually fathered by her lover, Joseph Hyacinth Francois de Paule de Rigaud, Comte de Vaudreuil. His mother, nee Guiot de la Mirande, came from a family of wealthy Creole landholders in the Caribbean and his father was commander-in-chief of the Isles-sous-le-vent. His most famous ancestor was his grandfather, the Marquis Philippe de Vaudreuil, a Governor of Canada. At the age of nineteen, Vaudreuil entered the army, and during the Seven Years War, served as a staff officer under the Prince de Soubise. When peace was declared, he devoted his energies to the pursuit of the epicurean delights he found at court and in fashionable Parisian society. Income from his far-off plantations provided him with the wherewithal to live on the grandest of scales. He acquired impressive collections of art, furniture, and curiosities, arranging them in his Paris house and at his Chateau de Gennevilliers. His mistress, Yolande Martine Gabrielle was a distant cousin. As a favorite of Queen Marie Antoinette, she was able to obtain for him very remunerative appointments. In 1780, he was made Marechal de Camp, Governor of the citadel of Lille and Grand Falconer of France. At Versailles, he became the guiding spirit of the Polignac faction. Vaudreuil was also a close companion of the King's profligate youngest brother, the Comte d'Artois, whom he accompanied to the siege of Gibraltar in 1782. Politics interested Vaudreuil only to the extent that it allowed him to place his friends in high governmental posts. Three royal ministers, Calonne in Finance, Segur in War, and Castries in Navy, were all beholden to him in this connection. He was reputed to be the finest amateur actor in France, and on the stage of Trianon on 19 August 1785, he created the role of Count Almaviva in Beaumarchais's Marriage of Figaro. Of the writers he patronized, most were liberals who, after the Revolution, took aim at the old order from which they had previously benefited: Chamfort, Ginguene, Ecouchard Le Brun, Beaumarchais and Etienne Vigee belonged to this group. Her beautiful sister-in-law, Louise, became the life-long mistress of Louis XVI's youngest brother, the Comte d'Artois. This only increased Yolande Martine Gabrielle’s importance to the ruling family.
By the late 1780s, thousands of hostile, pornographic pamphlets alleged that Yolande Martine Gabrielle was the Queen's lesbian lover, and although there was no evidence to back up these accusations 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. Vaudreuil's expenses surpassed his enormous personal revenues, and he frequently had recourse to the Royal treasury to pay off his creditors. When Calonne fell from grace, Vaudreuil's credit dried up. The Queen turned resolutely against him. On the brink of financial ruin, he was obliged to sell off his collections. In 1787 he traveled to England and Rome but was back in Paris by the end of the following year. Along with Comte d'Artois and the hated Polignacs, he left Paris precipitously during the night of 16-17 July 1789, thus giving the signal for the emigration to commence and weakening whatever chance the monarchy had to defend itself from within. Yolande Martine Gabrielle's influence over Marie Antoinette began to wane after 1785, when the Queen's second son was born. The Queen was becoming increasingly unimpressed with how much the Polignacs were costing her. She confided to another lady-in-waiting, Henriette Campan, that she was, "suffering acute dissatisfaction" over the Polignacs. According to Campan, "Her Majesty observed to me that when a sovereign raises up favourites in her Court she raises up despots against herself." Eventually, Yolande Martine Gabrielle deemed it wise to leave Versailles for a while, and she went to visit friends in England.
The months leading up to the outbreak of the French Revolution in July 1789, saw the Queen and the Duchesse de Polignac set became close once more. Politically, Yolande Martine Gabrielle and her friends supported the ultra monarchist movement in Versailles, with Yolande Martine Gabrielle becoming increasingly important in royalist intrigues as the summer progressed. Together with the diplomat, Louis Auguste le Tonnelier, Baron de Breteuil, and the King's brother the Comte d'Artois, they persuaded Marie Antoinette to help depose the King's finance minister, Jacques Necker. This proved to be a catastrophic decision, especially since de Breteuil had argued that they delay the move for a few weeks. It is generally believed that it was the Comte d'Artois who rushed ahead with the plot, before it was the right time to do so.
After the fall of the Bastille Prison on 14 July 1789, Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI advised several members of the Court to emigrate. The Polignac set to emigrate abroad. The Comte d'Artois left on the King's orders, as did de Breteuil. According to the Memoirs of Marie Antoinette by Madame Campan, The Comte d'Artois, the Prince de Conde, and their children set off at the same time with the troops. The Duc and Duchesse de Polignac, their daughter, the Duchesse de Guiche, the Comtesse Diane de Polignac, sister of the Duke, and the Abbe de Baliviere, also emigrated on the same night. Nothing could be more affecting than the parting of the Queen and her friend; extreme misfortune had banished from their minds the recollection of differences to which political opinions alone had given rise. The Queen several times wished to go and embrace her once more after their sorrowful adieu, but she was too closely watched. She desired M. Campan to be present at the departure of the Duchess, and gave him a purse of five hundred Louis, desiring him to insist upon her allowing the Queen to lend her that sum to defray her expenses on the road. The Queen added that she knew her situation; that she had often calculated her income, and the expenses occasioned by her place at Court; that both husband and wife having no other fortune than their official salaries, could not possibly have saved anything, however differently people might think at Paris. M. Campan remained till midnight with the Duchess to see her enter her carriage. She was disguised as a femme de chambre, and got up in front of the Berlin; she requested M. Campan to remember her frequently to the Queen, and then quitted for ever that palace, that favour, and that influence which had raised her up such cruel enemies. On their arrival at Sens the travellers found the people in a state of insurrection; they asked all those who came from Paris whether the Polignacs were still with the Queen. A group of inquisitive persons put that question to the Abbe de Baliviere, who answered them in the firmest tone, and with the most cavalier air, that they were far enough from Versailles, and that we had got rid of all such bad people. At the following stage the postilion got on the doorstep and said to the Duchess, "Madame, there are some good people left in the world: I recognised you all at Sens." They gave the worthy fellow a handful of gold. Yolande Martine Gabrielle and her family went to Switzweland, where they kept in contact with the Queen and King through letters. After she had left, the care of the Royal children was entrusted to the Marquise de Tourzel. In a letter from Marie Antoinette to Yolande Martine Gabrielle, she wrote.
August, 23th, 1789
They assure me the way this letter will come to you is safe. I can so tell you, my dear heart, that I love you tenderly. My health keeps on, but my soul is overwhelmed with pains, sorrows and worries. Each day we hear about new misfortunes, and the biggest of all for me is that I am parted from all my friends. I see, I meet no eyes, no heart that can hear me... at least could I be happy should I know they are secure! Hainaut, that was quiet, gets on agitating since two days. I'm worried about it. I wrote to your cousin. I couldn't let her go with her mother without telling her goodbye. However the journey is long and difficult for this last one, I'm very happy she gets away from a place where everything is afflicting for her. I don't know how long my letter will take for arriving. I tell you nothing about the children; the person who will take care of this letter will bring you news from them. Farewell, my dear heart, only death can make me stop loving you. Speak of me often to your husband, your daughter and Armand. I love them with all my soul.
Yolande Martine Gabrielle contracted cancer while she was living in Switzerland. She died 44 years old, on 9 December 1793, in Vienna, Austria. Shortly after hearing of the execution of Marie Antoinette, her family simply announced that she had died as a result of heartbreak and suffering. During twenty-five years of exile, Vaudreuil vainly worked to organize a counter-Revolution and reestablish the regime he had so unwittingly helped to undermine. When the Duchess died he shed many tears. Two years later in England, he married his twenty-year-old cousin, Marie Josephine Hyacinthe Victoire de Vaudreuil (1774-1851). Two sons were born to them, Charles Philippe Louis Joseph Alfred (1796-1880) and Victor Louis Alfred (1798-1834). He returned to Paris after the collapse of the First Empire and Louis XVIII appointed him to the Chambre des Pairs and to the Institut. He was also given the rank of Lieutenant General in the army and made Governor of the Tuileries. In his apartments in the Royal palace, he received guests as he had in his halcyon days. He died at the age of 77. Yolande Martine Gabrielle's husband, Jules Francois Armand, Comte de Polignac died 21 September 1817, in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Source: The Memoirs of Marie Antoinette by Madame Campan.