From the portrait painted by Madame Lebrun, Gabrielle de Polignac gazes out at the world with bambi-eyed complacency. She looks so comfortable in her disarmingly simple white linen gown, there is a little poesy of flowers in her hand and on her head; she wears a wide-rimmed straw hat, like any country housewife. The portrait gives the impression that Lebrun managed to capture the beautiful duchess unexpectedly, on a lazy summer afternoon in the gardens. It has the feel of a photograph, snapped suddenly, capturing and preserving a fleeting moment like a fly caught forever in amber. It all looks so effortless - the governing maxim of Gabrielle de Polignac's social existence.
But, of course, it wasn't effortless. Portrait painting was a lengthy and time-consuming business. Artist and subject must have spent hours negotiating one another's schedule - finding the right outfit, the right style, the right look, the right time of day, the right light and, for Lebrun, the right price. Gabrielle must have known that she was taking a risk by appearing in such a revealing, faux-peasant ensemble. She knew that the more rigidly pious and conservative members of the French court, not to mention the woman-loathing, sexuality-fearing neo-puritans of the French revolutionary emergent "Left", were going to criticise her for appearing in what they saw as such a fundamentally indecent gown. Duchesses were not supposed to be painted looking like shepherdesses - but Gabrielle was indifferent to the criticism of those outside her charmed palace-dwelling clique. Her one nod to conventional portrait etiquette was that she appeared wearing a wig - had she appeared showing her own gorgeous brunette tresses au naturelle, it's likely that her (many) opponents would have had a collective aneurysm.
So there she stands - two hundred years later - fresh-faced, pretty, elegant, simple. Lebrun, apparently, for what it's worth, didn't like the portrait very much and felt that she had failed to capture the one quality everyone could agree upon about Gabrielle - her beauty.
In his account of the French Revolution, the historian Simon Schama describes this portrait of Marie-Antoinette's favourite friend in her diaphanous shift as the painting of a woman who was "by any standards, strikingly comely ... looking like some freshly harvested and luscious fruit." Perhaps Gabrielle's most unusual feature were her lilac-coloured eyes, but her alabaster skin, youthfulness, pearly straight white teeth and brunette hair also combined to make her a devastatingly beautiful young woman. It was the first thing anyone commented on when describing her and the only thing they all seemed to agree upon. The Duc de Lévis, who didn't particularly like her, said she looked like a Raphaelite Madonna; Marie-Antoinette's chief perfume maker, Fargeon, choked out that Gabrielle's ravishing good looks masked her hateful personality; the first adjective used to describe Gabrielle by another of Marie-Antoinette's ladies-in-waiting was "beautiful", another said "lovely". When Gabrielle lay dying, her own daughter was at pains to stress that her mother's face had remained "beautiful" up to the very moment her life ended. Beauty and the strange affect it has on other people flowed through Gabrielle de Polignac's life, like a silent stream that slowly shaped the course of her destiny. De Lévis rather nastily remarked that her beauty had ruined her; she had come to rely solely on it and she therefore had no other personality, no other interests, beyond simply being beautiful. Many would have agreed. The fact that her own child seemed preoccupied with stressing their mother's beauty, even in extremis, suggests how frighteningly inextricable it had become to how people, even her close loved ones, perceived her. How she would have coped without her looks, we shall never know. She died before they had begun to fade.
Gabrielle de Polignac was born Gabrielle de Polastron, the daughter of an impoverished family of the French aristocracy. She was married-off, whilst still a teenager, to Jules de Polignac, the son and heir of an equally well-bred and equally down-on-their-luck noble clan. It was a conventionally satisfactory aristocratic marriage - Jules and Gabrielle did not make each other miserable, but nor is there any sign of great love between them. They had four children together - their daughter, Aglaé, and three boys, Armand, Jules and Camille-Henri. Gabrielle's pushy sister-in-law, Diane, was a courtier at Versailles and it was through her that the couple were invited to a new year's party at the palace in the first year of Louis XVI's reign. It was there that Gabrielle was introduced to the new Queen of France, Louis's twenty year-old Austrian wife, Marie-Antoinette. The two women struck up an instant rapport and Marie-Antoinette was fascinated by Gabrielle's unshakable self-confidence, her poise, her charisma and, almost certainly, her other-worldly beauty. Years later, it would be suggested that Marie-Antoinette had a lesbian or bisexual crush on Gabrielle; a version of their relationship that was recently revived in the new French movie Farewell, My Queen where Diane Kruger plays Marie-Antoinette and Virginie Ledoyen plays Gabrielle (below.)
There is nothing to suggest that Gabrielle's relationship with the Queen was a sexual one, or even romantic in the way that we would now understand it. It is by no means impossible, of course, for otherwise-heterosexual people to develop intense 'crushes' on a particularly interesting or attractive individual of the same sex; or for otherwise-homosexual people to do so vice-versa with the opposite sex. Marie-Antoinette's most recent biographer, Lady Antonia Fraser, concludes that, in the early years of their friendship, this is the best way to describe Marie-Antoinette's devotion to Gabrielle. She writes, "None [of their behaviour] corresponded to an active lesbian relationship, if the test of that is physical consummation. But it is plausible to believe that Marie Antoinette was in some romantic sense in love with [Gabrielle] de Polignac (or, in girlish language, had a crush on her), at least in the early years of their relationship." For those familiar with the world of Brideshead Revisited, there was a relationship between the Queen and the Duchess which was not so very different to the one between Charles and Sebastian in Evelyn Waugh's novel. Intense, passionate, almost certainly platonic in the physical sense, but romantic in the emotional sense. To extend the metaphor even further, in Brideshead Revisited Sebastian was the desperately lonely son of an absent marquess and Charles was a middle-class social climber dazzled by Sebastian's wealth and ineffable charm; Marie-Antoinette was the desperately lonely wife of a foreign king, crushed and depressed by the stultifying conservative court etiquette at Versailles, homesick for her sisters and prone to hysterical bouts of crying, shortness of breath and general unhappiness. Gabrielle de Polignac was the impoverished wife of an impoverished aristocrat, who was smart enough to know that friendship with the young queen could lead directly to the golden fountain of royal favour - i.e. money.
From the moment they met, Gabrielle and Marie-Antoinette were inseparable. Gabrielle was cool, chic and glamorous; unlike everyone else at Versailles, she seemed indifferent to things like money, position, etiquette and power. In reality, there's absolutely no doubt in my mind that Gabrielle de Polignac was anything but indifferent to any of those things. Gabrielle rose quickly in the Queen's favour and in the King's, who, like his wife, found her to be a breath of proverbial fresh air. (There is no truth in the rather ridiculous theory recently put forward that the devoutly Catholic King Louis was sexually interested in Gabrielle himself; Louis XVI had a famously low sex drive and an extremely conservative Christian faith.) Gabrielle became an integral part of the royal couple's lives and, with her, came her family. Gabrielle managed to get them all jobs, pensions, generous salaries, good marriages and positions at court. She became the metaphorical centre of a rather fast, hard-partying clique of young courtiers, socialites and aristocrats who helped alleviate Marie-Antoinette's crushing sense of boredom. As Antonia Fraser writes, Gabrielle helped banish the ennui - "People enjoyed themselves in her company; her manner was gently pleasing and she had a delightful laugh." But, "For one seemingly lacking in avidity, she would amass an amazing amount of positions and rewards for herself, her large family [and] her connections".
One historian, Vincent Cronin, who wrote a dual biography of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, has admittedly sprung to Gabrielle's defence, arguing that it was only natural that the Queen should provide jobs and funds for a down-on-her-luck friend. Furthermore, given that Gabrielle was now expected to host various entertainments and parties because she was living at Versailles, Louis and Marie-Antoinette were "duty-bound" to help her afford it.
There is some truth in Mr. Cronin's arguments, but the sheer amount of money that poured into Gabrielle's pretty little hands in the 1770s and 1780s went far, far beyond what was either prudent or necessary. Another one of Marie-Antoinette's biographers, Stefan Zweig, was infinitely more critical of "la belle Gabrielle," fulminating in his 1933 biography, "Not even Madame de Maintenon, not even the Pompadour, cost as much as this favourite, this angel with downcast eyes, this modest and gentle Polignac." That, too, is perhaps an exaggeration. Gabrielle de Polignac was no more responsible for damaging the French economy than Marie-Antoinette was. In the grand scheme of things, the amount of money being paid to the Polignacs and their dependents was a drop in the metaphorical ocean compared to the ludicrous sums being spent on frequent (and inevitably failing) recession-busting initiatives, in funding the American revolutionaries' fight against Great Britain or on trying to fix France's federalism-run-amok, creaking, out-of-date taxation system. But you can't get mad at federalism and you can't get mad at long-term socioeconomic trends, either. You can, however, look at the violet-eyed duchess and her Versailles crew and apportion all blame to them. She's visible and she's memorable. Gabrielle de Polignac, to put it mildly, was therefore loathed within a few years of joining Marie-Antoinette's circle.
Within the palace, the reasons for her unpopularity sprang mainly from jealousy. With Gabrielle monopolising Marie-Antoinette's time and affection, no-one else could climb the social ladder and become the Queen's new favourite. Many a failed socialite would utter the cry of the insidious and vile Madame de la Motte, who complained in her memoirs, "To be sure, one could hope for presentation to the Queen only through the Polignac clique, but the Duchess, jealous and fearful of losing the royal favour she monopolised, disdainfully repulsed any outsider who sought so much as a smile or a glance from the Queen... I was outraged by the attitude of this haughty and imperious woman. Well could I remember the Polignacs in Paris when they were impoverished nonentities". Gabrielle therefore became a useful scapegoat for any aristocrat who wanted to say they didn't enjoy the Queen's favour because the Duchess controlled all access to her; not because they themselves were too boring, annoying or unpleasant to actually win Marie-Antoinette's much-coveted friendship.
Gabrielle also managed to tick people off with her (rare) displays of political sympathies - she was almost alone at Versailles in being pro-British and anti-American and she was rather too fond of drawing-up lists of people like the Duc de Brissac or Baron de Breteuil who had annoyed her. People on that list soon found their social lives at the palace being severely restricted and, in doing so, their opportunities for political advancement correspondingly dwindled. One palace servant likened Gabrielle to a steel dagger in a silken glove; another noted that the sweeter her tone got, the meaner her sentiment was likely to become.
Outside the palace, Gabrielle took the place of the royal mistress in public opinion. The French had a tradition of blaming all the mistakes of their government on the King's mistresses, rather than on the kings themselves. Even today, we have an ugly tendency to get angry when a woman, no matter how capable, seems too close to a powerful man - as poor Hillary Clinton found to her cost during her husband's presidency. However, both Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette were too clean-living to provide the country with paramours to blame. In Marie-Antoinette's case, anti-monarchists responded by simply making up hundreds of accused lovers - including animals, children and transvestites. They also, increasingly, insisted that she was having affairs with Gabrielle de Polignac and another close friend, the Princesse de Lamballe. Marie-Antoinette, with rather touching innocence, wrote to her mother that she was mainly being criticised in the gutter press for having a taste for lovers and a taste for women. Which rather suggests to me that the sheltered young royal wasn't aware that she was actually being accused of combining the two categories.
As they grew-up, Gabrielle and her queen remained close, but the girlish, co-dependent infatuation of the early days was long gone. They did, occasionally, quarrel. Marie-Antoinette loathed the Comte de Vaudreuil, a pushy military man whom Gabrielle was terribly fond of and who many believed she was having an affair with. The possibility that Gabrielle did have an affair with Vaudreuil cannot be disproved, nor should it be too easily dismissed; although, for what it's worth, my money is that they probably were not lovers. Marie-Antoinette also began to resent Gabrielle's numerous, parasitical relatives and their constant demands for more money and more favour, particularly at a time when the Queen herself was making drastic economies within the royal household. Sensing that time apart might do them good, Gabrielle went on a visit to England, where she stayed at Chatsworth with another close friend, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, whom she had first met at a Belgian spa a few years earlier. By the time she returned, French politics was teetering on the brink of its most epic crisis. Gabrielle hurled herself into supporting the agenda of what we would now recognise as the far-right. The diplomat, Marc de Bombelles, noted that he found her "working hard" with the King's younger brother, the Comte d'Artois, to have the liberal chief minister, Jacques Necker, dismissed from office.
Gabrielle de Polignac died in Austria on 9th December 1793, less than two months after the guillotine claimed the life of Marie-Antoinette. The cause of her death has variably been suggested as heartbreak, cancer or tuberculosis. In the two centuries since her death, historians have generally dealt harshly with her. At a time when many felt the French monarchy was in urgent need of reform, Gabrielle had actively supported the harshest possible measures against reformers and revolutionaries. In an age of great philosophers and the emergence of new political ideologies, the pretty duchess had laughed at intellectuals, mocked politicians and excluded anything too serious or too unpleasant from conversation at Versailles. She came to symbolise the corruption of the ancien regime - a government for blue-bloods, by blue-bloods. She was the last of the royal favourites. As more and more evidence was uncovered that Marie-Antoinette was nothing like the money-burning bimbo of popular legend, it was still possible to hurl all the blame onto Gabrielle de Polignac. Gorgeous, self-centred and wilfully isolated, Gabrielle became the historical poster girl for what had been wrong with a gorgeous, isolated, out-of-touch monarchy. She has, admittedly, had her defenders, too. Apart from Vincent Cronin, there have also been passionate rebuttals of her critics - beginning, understandably, with her friends and family in the early nineteenth century. Recently, a "trad" Catholic royalist got rather carried away, I'm afraid, and compared her to Saint Nathaniel, which rather seems to be overegging the proverbial pudding.
Gabrielle de Polignac was not a "bad" woman - either by the standards of her own day or, really, by ours. She was a conventionally observant Roman Catholic, she was not promiscuous and she conformed to the general political beliefs of her religion and her class. She was not murderous, nor was she an ideologue. Whilst she was certainly selfish, vain and capable of petty nastiness, she was also gracious, elegant and had moments of great tenderness, as shown by her ability to soothe Marie-Antoinette's intermittent bouts of depression. But apart from the extraordinary times in which she lived and the extraordinary queen whose friendship she won, there is nothing too intrinsically fascinating about Gabrielle de Polignac - beyond two things. The first, as has been mentioned, is her great beauty. Beauty is, in itself, a fascinating topic. Good looks can both improve and bedevil the life of their holder. Beauty, which is good looks magnified, can also cut both ways like a double-handed sword. In Gabrielle's case, it propelled her into the spotlight, but it also led to people instinctively disliking her. Then and now, people don't like someone to "have it all". To be that beautiful, that confident and to have acquired the eighteenth century holy grail of royal patronage was quite simply too much for most of Gabrielle's contemporaries to stomach.
The second point of interest is her astonishing success. It might seem strange to say that. After all, what did Gabrielle de Polignac really contribute to the world? She had no discernible talents and she produced nothing that impacted on French or European culture; even her letters are few and far between. By our standards, she did nothing except happen to be very rich and very pretty. Furthermore, she ended her life as a refugee from the bloody revolution that had destroyed the world she had grown-up in. But, by the standards of her own era, I do believe firmly that Gabrielle de Polignac not only succeeded but did so spectacularly. To an eighteenth century aristocrat, there were fewer obligations higher than family. Using nothing but her charm and self-belief, Gabrielle de Polignac dragged two families - her own and her husband's - from the genteel poverty that they had languished in for nearly a century. Regardless of the cost to her own personal reputation, she took the Polignac family and skyrocketed them into the upper echelons of the French nobility - a position that they hold to this day. Gabrielle's descendants included future prime ministers, Confederate generals, composers, mathematicians, socialites and royalty. Today, some of her surviving jewels nestle in the collection of the Grimaldi royal family of Monaco - who are also her descendants. She was, quite simply, the most spectacular social climber of her century and the trick behind her success was that she hid it so well. Gabrielle seemed so perfectly well-mannered, so at ease in herself and so completely indifferent to the usual mechanisms of "high society," that for decades after she was dead, she was still held up as the ultimate icon of the old aristocracy's wealth, supreme indifference to the outside world and entrenched privilege. She made it look effortless, just like the supremely affected unaffectedness in the Lebrun portrait of her. No-one ever saw Gabrielle's little feet paddling desperately beneath the water - all they saw was the gorgeously self-confident swan representing "all the glories of those set apart by privilege and wealth, flaunting themselves once more like the last beacon of an expiring world."