An Excerpt from The Exchange of Princesses by Chantal Thomas
Paris, Summer 1721
In the Regent’s Bath
“No hangover can stand in the way of a good idea,” says Philip d’Orléans to himself, inhaling the strong fragrances of his bath and closing his eyes. Were he to open them, his field of vision would be obstructed by his large, pale paunch, afloat in the hot water; and although the sight of that beached animal’s belly of his, that soft demijohn distended by nights of debauch and gluttony, wouldn’t completely spoil his delight in his good idea, it would certainly diminish it. “My children are big and fat,” declares the Princess Palatine, his mother, who herself is not thin. As the thought of his mother is always agreeable, his corpulence becomes a matter of complete indifference to him. But should he recall the words she’s always happy to add — “Big fat people don’t live any longer than anyone else” — he’d feel a frightful pang of sadness. Two years ago, his adored eldest daughter, the Duchess de Berry, died in a horrifying physical state, her obesity augmented by — or so it was said — the early stages of a pregnancy. The speed at which she’d burned out her young existence, her thirst for pleasure and extinction, the delirium of theatricality and self-destruction in which he had so loved to join her — all that had left her incapable of engendering anything but her own death.
He knows he shouldn’t dwell on the Duchess de Berry. He mustn’t think about her in these evil hours, these leaden, alcoholic hours. Stick to the present, and to whatever fosters belief in a future . . . Yes, it’s a good idea, he repeats to himself, plunging his head underwater. He’s found the solution to two vexing problems: one centers on the political need to neutralize Spain and prevent a new war, and the second results from his secret, crafty desire to put off as long as possible the time when little King Louis XV might beget a dauphin of France. It won’t be tomorrow, since the boy’s only eleven years old and won’t come of age until his thirteenth birthday, and even then . . . But the best course is to address the matter now. If the king has a son when he dies, then that son will naturally inherit the crown; but if the king dies without a male heir, then . . . then . . . perforce . . . the crown would belong to him, to Philip d’Orléans, regent of France, nephew of the late King Louis XIV, who throughout his reign took pains to keep his brother’s son well away from the government, to treat him like a good-for-nothing, and all the more rigorously because the Sun King was aware of the young man’s capabilities. Except in Louis XIV’s service, intelligence was no asset at the court of Versailles.
By a smooth transition, this reflection leads the regent back to his admirable idea. The bathwater’s cooling down, but he doesn’t care, he’s happy with his plans for the future.He’s a man who’s scrupulous and careful in accomplishing his mission, though things aren’t easy, what with the suspicions of poisoning that weigh on him, suspicions incessantly revived by the old court party; but should the occasion authorize him to ascend to the throne in all legality, he can very well see himself as king. Philip I? That title’s already taken; there was a Capetian Philip I. He fought doggedly against William the Conqueror and got himself excommunicated for repudiating his wife, Bertha of Holland, who had been chosen for political reasons . . . as if there were any others, the regent thinks, as if there were any such thing as marrying for love, at least as far as he was concerned . . . and this point, though not so painful as the death of his daughter, still rankles him. Philip II, then? Why not? Philip II, called “the Debauched.” A naive but irresistible vision; power, once tasted, is difficult to give up. It’s no use to be clear-sighted, to know that the more power you acquire the less you count personally, since you’re nothing but a pawn on the chessboard of the ambitious who are working away feverishly below you. No, you hold on, you postpone as long as possible the moment when you must step outside the circle of light and away from the hum of praise and compliments — the moment when you’re going to find yourself alone in the dark, hunted out of the world, stricken from the ranks of the living. Philip II — wouldn’t that complicate relations with the current king of Spain, Philip V? Yes, quite a bit, and not only because the king of Spain’s named Philip too; he would also be in the running for the French throne if Louis XV were to disappear. Of course, Philip II is a title that has been taken before: there was Philip II of Spain, called Philip the Prudent, the gloomy builder of El Escorial, an archpious, slow-moving bureaucrat. From the Prudent to the Debauched, a long story . . .
The regent’s daydreams slowly dissolve in the mists of his bathroom. A single question remains: How will Philip V react to this excellent idea of his? The regent strokes himself vaguely. He starts to doze off in his bath. Two chambermaids take hold of him, one on either side. They lean over and pull him up by his armpits. Their breasts jiggle in the steamy air. The regent smiles, blissfully happy.
But perhaps he’s not giving so much thought to his hangover as he is to Cardinal Dubois . . . Dubois, a man who not only has never stood in the way of good ideas but is positively bursting with them, especially in matters of diplomacy. And the regent’s good idea, the excellent idea he’s congratulating himself for, might have been suggested to him by the cardinal, his former tutor, the doer of his dirty work, a creature who plumbs the depths of degradation and scales the peaks of distinction.
Working with his customary speed and effectiveness, the cardinal sees to it that the king of Spain, Philip V, the former Duke of Anjou and a grandson of Louis XIV, is apprised of the main points of the idea/solution, which will assure a complete reconciliation and a solid alliance between the two kingdoms. And Philip V, under the influence of the French ambassador in Madrid, M. de Maulévrier, vigorously supported by the king’s confessor, Father Daubenton, a Jesuit who can manipulate the king’s will almost as well as the queen, gets enthusiastic about the project. As a rule, Philip V is not given to easy enthusiasms. With his demeanor of an old man worn out before his time, his buckling knees, his pigeon toes, his pallor, the dark circles that enlarge his eyes, he doesn’t give the impression of someone who expects very much from the future. And in fact he’s got no earthly
expectations whatsoever. All his hopes lie in heaven, not in the world. But when he reads the letters from Paris, the thick black cloud customarily hanging over him evaporates. He rereads the letter and then has it read to him by his wife, Elisabeth Farnese. When he writes his reply to the regent, he doesn’t feel he’s responding to the proposition; he has the impression that he’s its source. And he would appear to find the idea breathtaking. So perfect a plan seems to have been conceived not by a human mind, but by Providence.
The Duke de Saint-Simon, Ambassador Extraordinary
In his memoirs, Saint-Simon describes for posterity the “conversation curieuse,” the interview in which Philip d’Orléans, the companion of his childhood, apprises the duke of the brilliant idea. The two men are almost exact contemporaries. The regent is forty-seven, Saint-Simon forty-six. The passing years, war wounds, and nocturnal excesses have left their mark on the regent. His brick-red complexion designates him as a serious candidate for a stroke. The brilliance of his presence, dimmed by his weak eyesight and the stress he operates under, shines through only intermittently.
Saint-Simon, decidedly shorter than the regent and just as imposingly bewigged, looks much younger, and because of his regular life, the heat of his imagination, his passion for analysis, and the fact that he brings the entire weight of his existence to bear on every instant, he is formidably present. Profoundly different though the two men are, they’re united by the duration and sincerity of their friendship and by the pleasures of intelligence, the excitement that comes with quick wit and unspoken understanding. Nevertheless, Saint-Simon seldom departs satisfied from his conversations
with the regent. The scene the two of them play out is always repeated. Saint-Simon, brimming with initiatives and impatient for them to be realized, harasses the regent, who suffers the assault with lowered head and contrite face. It’s not that the duke bores him. Certainly not! Nor that the regent disapproves of the duke. Not in the slightest! On the contrary! But — and here’s the cause of his distress — the regent doesn’t have the courage to go the way of reason, which is namely, in Saint-Simon’s view, his own way. The regent stoops, hunkers down, grows annoyed at himself, but does not act according to reason. He makes the wrong decision every time. And why? Because he’s weak, because he’s already been taken in by Dubois, and because for all the duke’s acuteness, his interventions come too late.
This conversation, however, goes differently. The regent’s in excellent humor, proud of his news, proud of the secret he wants to confide to his friend. Saint-Simon has grievances: he’s never been invited to any of the Palais-Royal dinners given in the pink-and-gold dining room, cushioned like a jewelry casket (no matter that the mere thought of those orgies repels him, especially the fact that His Highness the Duke d’Orléans, a grandson of France, acts as the chef), and his opinions are rarely heeded in the Regency Council — without counting the thousand daily wounds he suffers from barbarians who don’t respect the rules of etiquette and the permanent scandal caused by the arrogance of Louis XIV’s bastards, who are in ascendance everywhere. But Saint-Simon is so flattered and touched by his friend’s demonstration of confidence in him that he forgets all complaints. He takes pleasure in recalling the scene:
Early in June, I went to work with His Highness the Duke d’Orléans and found him alone, walking up and down his grand apartment. As soon as he saw me, he said, “Ah, there you are,” and taking me by the hand continued, “I cannot leave you in ignorance of the thing I desire and prize above all others, which will give you as much joy as it gives me; but I must ask you to keep it utterly secret.” Then he began to laugh and added, “If M. de Cambrai [Cardinal Dubois, archbishop of Cambrai] knew I had told you, he would never forgive me.” Thereupon he informed me of the accord which he had reached with the King and Queen of Spain, of the arrangements by which our young King and the Infanta of Spain were to be wed as soon as the girl came of age, and of the agreed marriage between the Prince of Asturias and Mlle de Chartres [Saint-Simon’s error; he means another of the regent’s daughters, Mlle de Montpensier]. If my joy was great, my astonishment surpassed it.
Perhaps Saint-Simon finds the difference in rank between the betrothed parties surprising, but he’s especially flabbergasted by the spectacular nature of the reversal by which the son of the king of Spain — upon whom, two years previously, the regent declared war — has become his future son-in-law.
Upon learning of these impending marriages between France and Spain, between the French Bourbons and the Spanish Bourbons, this creation of alliances between the continent’s two most powerful kingdoms, uniting two branches of a single family — in other words, the realization of Europe’s worst fears — Saint-Simon’s immediate reaction is to advise keeping the matter a deep secret, so as not to infuriate the other countries. For once, the Duke d’Orléans can give him a guilt-free response: “You are right, of course, but that is impossible, because the Spanish desire to announce the declarations of marriage at once, and they wish to send the Infanta here as soon as the proposal is made and the marriage contract signed.” Curious haste, Saint-Simon points out, given the ages of the four young persons involved. Their betrothals are admittedly premature. The Prince of Asturias is fourteen years of age, the regent’s daughter twelve. Louis XV, born February 15, 1710, is but eleven. And as for Mariana Victoria, the infanta of Spain, her date of birth was March 31, 1718. Louis XV’s future wife, the future queen of France, is not yet four years old!
Saint-Simon doesn’t find the ages of the betrothed parties surprising, in fact doesn’t give them a single thought, and in this he resembles the authors of the agreement. What stuns him is the audacious stroke of marrying a daughter of the House of Orléans to a son of Philip V, a man veritably steeped in hatred for that family and for the regent in particular. A little later in the interview, having recovered from his amazement, Saint-Simon thinks about drawing some personal advantage from the project. He asks the regent to appoint him to bring the marriage contract to the court of Madrid for signing. In the same breath, he proposes to bring along his two sons, Jacques-Louis, Vidame de Chartres, and Armand-Jean, in order to obtain for them and himself the title of grandee of Spain. Saint-Simon desires grandeur. The regent smiles. For if the Duke de Saint-Simon is pas grand — that is, not tall — his elder son, Jacques-Louis, is even shorter than his father. His nickname is “the Basset.” The regent accepts. Saint-Simon, therefore, will be the “ambassador extraordinary” for a far from ordinary marriage.