Shelved Dolls: Madame de Pompadour – She Is Your Role Model, Now

Louis XV - kind of a great guy

Obviously, the man Madame Pompadour was interested in was no regular guy in a coffee-shop. He was King Louis XV of France. Who was, delightfully, a really nice guy, and one who I think is wrongly remembered principally for having an enormous sexual appetite. I mean, it’s true that he really loved sex, but he also had a lot of other qualities going for him.

I know this isn’t precisely relevant to her story, but I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for Louis the XV. So often when I write these pieces I feel I end up doing a little song and dance of “yes, this dude probably date raped her, but hey, at least he wasn’t imprisoning chambermaids and beating them! It was the Victorian age! He was okay!” So it’s nice that, whatever the era, Louis XV, at least in his personal life, comes off really well.

Of course, you could say he was no Louis XIV. Right. Everyone at the time said that as well. That’s because Louis XIV, Louis XV’s great grandfather, was, legit, a genius. He ended feudalism in France and ushered in an age of art and culture. That said, he also had an exceptionally intelligent council, and a very brilliant mother who served as regent until he was of an age to reign. And he had an IQ estimated to be around 180. Louis XIV was just absurdly smart.

Louis XV, on the other hand, knew he was going to be king at the age of 5 (though he was not officially appointed King until he was 13). His entire family died of diptheria within a week of one another. The rumor is that Louis XV was saved simply because his nurse wouldn’t allow doctors to treat him.If you happen to time travel back to the 18th century, I want to take this opportunity to remind you to tell doctors to wash their hands.

But then, there were rumors that it hadn’t been diptheria at all. In his works, the Marquis de Sade referred to one plant as le poison royal, speculating that many members of Louis XV’s family had died from ingesting it. That’s another reason to let your nurse just lock you in your room.

Though, to be fair, if you learned anything from Quills, other than “censorship is bad” it’s that you can’t really trust the Marquis de Sade. However, it is certainly true that Louis XV’s childhood was filled with people – particularly his uncle, Philippe d’Orleans, duc de  Chartres – rumored to be plotting to poison him. Probably most of them weren’t, but, well, it’s actually likely that someone in the court was trying to poison him.

Louis XV was a really quiet kid. Understandably. It is hard to make friends when everyone might be trying to poison you. He spent a lot of time lying in the hall of mirrors at Versailles looking at the ceiling. Visitors would occasionally trip over him as they went in, and people worried that Louis XV was not well adjusted. Have you seen that hall of mirrors, though? Its stunning. The panels tell the story of the early years of Louis XIV’s rule. Here:

At the age of 7, Louis asked to be allowed into Council meetings, and, though he never said a word, he carried with him his pet cat who he referred to as his “colleague” and he became an avid reader and a great student. He was particularly interested in sciences, and advocated for departments of physics and mechanics to be opened at the College of France so that the topics could be studied further.

The fact that, in spite of his work ethic and natural intellect, he could ever live up to his great grandfather really upset Louis XV (this is what happens when the story of your Grandfather’s entire life is surrounded by chandeliers). To that end he decided that he would just work harder than everyone else. He often subsisted on five hours of sleep a night, and rose at dawn to go to work, lighting his own fire so he didn’t have to wake any of his servants. Then, as the protocol of Versailles dictated, later in the day he would go back to bed, and pretend to be asleep so that the Princes of realm could greet him. The protocol for this rising ceremony is one of the only genuinely funny moments in Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. In it, Marie Antoinette,who would marry Louis XV’s grandson, Louis XVI, remarks “this is ridiculous” as a princess hands her a nightgown, to which a princess replies “madame, this is Versailles.” I can’t find the clip, but if you go 23 minutes in, you can watch it here.

That said, if you’re going to watch Marie Antoinette, know that Louis XV is only going to get portrayed as someone who is all sex with Madame du Barry, all the time. Which… well, that came later.

Despite rumors that still persist about his enormous sexual appetite – and it was true that he would spend a lot of nights in whorehouses – Louis remained a very shy man, and one who believed greatly in chivalry. After he won the War of Austrian Succession, he returned all of the land and properties to his defeated enemies, saying “I’m the king of France, not a shopkeeper.”

His favorite recreational activity though, was hunting. And that is how Madame Pompadour caught him.

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    • Megan

      Loved this! I’ve read a little about Louis XV in various and sundry history classes, but next to nothing about Madame de Pompadour. Now I’m heading to the library to see if I can find her biography :-)

    • B

      She was still essentially a prositute – don’t think you can call her a role model.

      • Jennifer Wright

        I think you are wrong. Good talk.

      • whiteroses

        Considering her social class, the options avaliable to women in the 18th century, and her geographic location- yes, you can call her a role model. Just because she was the king’s mistress doesn’t make her less so. Ever heard of Diane de Poitiers? Anne Boleyn? Heck, Camilla Parker Bowles?

        Being someone’s mistress probably shouldn’t be celebrated, but darned if Madame Pompadour didn’t make the best of her opportunities. We could all use a little bit of that in our lives.

    • Tya

      First time commenting on The Gloss, but have been reading for over a year and never tire of it! Shelved Dolls is my favourite section-I can never wait for the new one! So much cool stuff and so many cool women written in a way that’s easy to understand (and damn funny)-it’s fantastic! Keep up the good work and please, keep these coming! (though, if you run out of women you have extremely detailed accounts of at your fingertips, I understand)

    • JenniWren

      I’m sorry, did I miss a memo? I didn’t think the Shelved Dolls were supposed to be role models, I just assumed they were interesting stories about interesting women who lived interesting lives that the reader may not have been aware of. I’ve enjoyed every one of them as such.

      And frankly, reading about people who messed up IS more interesting than reading about those who did everything right! Think of all the famous men who achieved brilliant things but managed to be alcoholics, drug addicts or just general cocks in their private lives. Very few perfect people have walked the earth- it’s far easier to empathize with the imperfect.

      Anyway, lovely article as usual. Is it okay to make suggestions for the future? Because I’d love to see your take on Cora Pearl.

    • Alle C


      Nancy Mitford–also known as my favourite Mitford–wrote a really excellent book about her, which I love to this day. And this article was wonderful!

    • MadameDakar

      Also worth checking out, if you are geek-minded, is the Doctor Who episode where David Tennant finds a portal between a spaceship and Madame de Pompadour’s fireplace, and pops in and out at various stages of her life. All kinds of awesome.

      • JenniWren

        Loved that episode! I thought Sophia Myles was wonderful and I especially loved that she was actually dating David Tennant at the time!

      • Jennifer Wright

        So, I am dedicating the rest of the day to watching this episode (I have also never seen Dr. Who before, but I feel like this could really destroy my entire life). For everyone else who wants to watch, here’s a link to the episode:

      • Jennifer Wright

        But wait – the revolution happened after Louis XV and Pompadour were dead. IS THIS SHOW HISTORICALLY INACCURATE?

      • Jennifer Wright


      • scarlett

        Thank you MadameDakar!!!! That’s actually my favorite episode!!! Im a geek and a romantic. Also thanks JenniWren I didn’t know that they were dating at the time!! Amazing!

      • Renee

        YESSSS! Doctor Who!

      • jen

        hahah Jennifer Wright’s reaction to the Doctor Who episode actually made me laugh out loud.

    • Beth

      Other interesting reading: Sex with Kings by Eleanor Herman and Antonia Fraser’s bio of Marie Antoinette.

    • Cheri

      She was obviously very intelligent and all that good stuff, but I just can’t get behind the whole mistress thing. I know I’m lame and old fashioned but I don’t think using sex to become successful is actually empowering.

      Also, I didn’t like that episode of Doctor Who. I know, I’m ridiculous.

    • Amy

      How interesting that mistresses were just an expected part of life and that no one saw anything off about it or about the necessity of the queen’s approval!

      Jennifer Wright, reading your writing tastes like strawberry ice cream.

      • Eagle Eye

        Its interesting to think about them in some ways as being the Kings “real” wife in terms of a relationship in which two people come together who like one another and decide that they’re going to make a go of it, so to speak.


    • Tania

      Aaah, nothing like applying modern day puritanical values to the decadence of French nobility.

    • Renee

      I love this series. So looking forward to du Barry next week!

    • Eileen

      Does anyone else look at Mercedes Bass and think, “You are the reincarnation of Mme. de Pompadour”?

      Just me?

      • Jennifer Wright

        But the Bass’s incredibly amicable divorce was because he was tired of the social circuit/tired of going to the opera! SHE IS LOUIS XV. If the opera is like a sexy young woman? I feel like I’m reaching on this.

    • Jenn

      This is the best Shelved Dolls yet, I love them, please never stop writing them!!!!

    • June

      I used to be a fan of hers, but I just can’t admire her anymore. The more I learn, the more I don’t like her. Pompadour had some qualities, but her tenure as “Prime Minister”of France was disastrous. I guess she had good intentions, but she was easily manipulated by unscrupulous opportunists and supported France changing alliances from Prussia to Austria, which resulted in the Seven Years War (which France lost). By the time of her death, France’s finances were in serious, serious trouble. Louis best years as king were when she wasn’t around. The first years mostly because of Fleury and his lasts because he finnaly managen to implant important reforms and dissolved the incredibly corrupt Parlement of Paris. Reforms which were promply reversed when Louis XVI became king (some people wonder that if Louis XV managed by be king for more years there wouldn’t be a revolution, since he was walking through the right path when he died).

      Plus, she was the person behind the creation of Parc-aux-Cerfs, Louis XV private brothel (you probably know about that). Pompadour was a cold woman sexually, and Louis XV obviously didn’t find that fun, so to keep her reins over him and keep out any pontential threating woman (she almost lost her position twice througout her year’s as king’s mistress) , she begin procuring for him ver young girls of the age 14, 12, and some sources say even 9. Marion Sigaut says she basically corrupted the king turning him into a pedophile and I agree with her. She wasn’t te only one, many people were working for the kings corruption years before that. I can’t admire her anymore, what she did for power, the France treasury’s money she spend keeping her ridiculous extravagant lifestyle, I just can’t.

      However, I like this piece. It’s well written and keeps our interest.

    • tee

      This series is fascinating! I have been completely unproductive (at least physically, I am learning, right?) today.

    • Melannie

      I like Madame Du Barry more than Madame De Pompadour.