Madame du Barry went to live at the Château de Louveciennes. She had a few affairs – one particularly awful one with Henry Seymour who ended the affair by sending her a portrait with “leave me alone” written on the bottom – and remained there until the revolution. Since she didn’t pay much attention to affairs of state, du Barry did not know about the revolution until a mob of angry citizens chopped off the head of one of her lover’s and brought it to her door.
Which was surprising, as, by all account, du Barry had been very kind to the villagers. The portrait painter Madame Vigee-Lebrun wrote in her memoirs that:
She did a lot of good at Louveciennes, where all the poor people were helped by her. We often went together to visit some unfortunates, and I still remember the fury into which she flew, one day, at the home of a poor woman who had just given birth and was in need of everything. “What is this,” said Madame du Barry, “you have been sent neither linen, nor wine, nor broth?” “Alas! nothing, Madame.” We returned immediately to the chateau; Madame du Barry summoned her housekeeper and the other servants who had failed to carry out her orders. I cannot tell you how she stormed at them, as she commanded them to make up a packet of linen in front of her, which she made them take to the sick woman immediately, with broth and Bordeaux wine.
Remarkably, she was able to flee to England – and, more remarkably (stupid, stupid, stupid) returned to France. She was immediately arrested for crimes against the revolution. Thinking she could save her life by revealing the location of her considerable jewelry collection, she told her jailers where to find them, saying, at least, “does not each word give me a second of time?”
Not enough time, as it turned out.
She is largely remembered today for the scene she made before she was guillotined. At a time when stoicism was expected of aristocrats on their way to death, Madame du Barry screamed, wept, and implored the crowd to help her, asking why they wanted to hurt her. Her last words to the executioner were “encore, un moment!” (one more moment). I cannot imagine what it is that made Madame du Barry want to live so desperately – her life was one fraught with abandonment and cruelty – but she did. She really did.
Dostoyevsky wrote of her execution in The Idiot and said:
After all this honour and glory, after having been almost a Queen, she was guillotined by that butcher, Samson. She was quite innocent, but it had to be done, for the satisfaction of the fishwives of Paris. She was so terrified, that she did not understand what was happening. But when Samson seized her head, and pushed her under the knife with his foot, she cried out: ‘Wait a moment! wait a moment, monsieur!’ Well, because of that moment of bitter suffering, perhaps the Saviour will pardon her other faults, for one cannot imagine a greater agony.
Dostoyevsky captures this so beautifully, but this is what I always remember about her:
When she was at Versailles, Madame du Barry had a pet bird she named Fifi. Never happy in its cage, Fifi was constantly trying to escape by flinging itself against the sides. One day, Madame du Barry came home to see that it had bashed its head in against the walls of its cage and died. Madame du Barry claimed she was that bird. She had it entombed in a glass pyramid.
Poor Madame du Barry. There was never, I don’t think, a period when she got to be happy, even if the King did love her. She tried so hard to get out of that cage, and she only succeeded in having her head lopped right off. Sometimes people are more fascinating for their failures than their successes. All that said, I think we come to the final question which is…
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Madame du Barry: The Wages of Beauty