Madame Élisabeth – a Versailles childhood

22 February 2010

The orphaned children of the Dauphin and Marie-Josèphe de Saxe were a diverse bunch. At the time of their mother’s death, the eldest was the twelve year old Dauphin Louis-Auguste, a serious, sombre boy with low self esteem and a diffident manner. Next was the eleven year old Louis-Stanislas-Xavier, Comte de Provence, already overweight with a cruel, sarcastic yet indolent nature. Next was the nine year old Charles-Philippe, Comte d’Artois, the only one of the trio of boys to have inherited his handsome grandfather, Louis XV’s good looks, in particular his sparkling dark eyes, inherited from his mother Marie-Adélaïde de Savoie.
The two girls followed: seven year old Marie-Adélaïde-Clotilde-Xaviere, who was known as Madame Clotilde, an overweight child with a sweet, endearing nature and a genuine love of music who was known at court as ‘Gros Madame’ (Madame Fatty) and then finally, the baby of the family, two year old Madame Élisabeth.

The young Madame Élisabeth was a delightful, wilful toddler who ran rings around her governess, Madame de Marsan. She didn’t care much for her lessons and preferred instead to play outside in the grounds of Versailles (to be fair, who wouldn’t?), accompanied by her beloved pet dogs for even the royal children were surrounded at all times by a coterie of delightful pugs and spaniels.

Madame de Marsan was one of the Rohan family and was not considered to be a very good influence on her young charges with Mercy later warning the young Marie Antoinette that she was both vindictive and dangerous.

As she grew bigger and ever more stubborn, Madame de Marsan found her young charge to be increasingly awkward and disobedient and was at her wit’s end as to how to control her until she hit upon the notion of taking the two young princesses to the royal convent and school at Saint-Cyr, which had been founded by Madame de Maintenon in 1684.

At length the seventeenth century red brick building designed by Mansart came into sight. All the bells were pealing. The footman leapt off his seat and let down the footboard. At the front door were the Ladies of Saint Louis, soberly dressed in that harmonious costume which Louis XIV himself had helped to design on a miniature doll. Their dresses were of a beautiful thin black stuff, with a white collar, their slippers were of marocain and their bronzed gloves were lined with white. They wore white taffeta bonnets, ruched with white gauze around the face, the whole covered with a white veil coming very low. A silver fleur de lys crucifix adorned their bosoms.’ – Madame Élisabeth – Margaret Trouncer.

The two little princesses were over awed by their surroundings. Upon being asked what they would most like to see, Madame Clotilde requested a visit to the bedchamber in which Madame de Maintenon had died whilst Élisabeth asked to see the convent kitchens, saying simply that she had never before seen a kitchen.

The little princesse was taken to the kitchens and there allowed to stir a vanilla sauce as well as cutting out some pastry and playing with the spices and flour. The memoirs of Saint-Cyr then record that she decided to play hide and seek, saying: ‘But of all the amusements which pleased her most, and which she desired more passionately than anything else, was hide and seek (cligne musette). Usually she chose for this game the tallest demoiselles, as much to appear grown up as to make a strong rampart against those who were looking for her; she wrapped herself around their clothes and their persons, enchanted that they should seek her a long time.

Gradually, the young Madame Élisabeth became an easier charge for her long suffering governess, mainly because she fell ill which knocked some of the wind out of her sails for quite some time and also because of the introduction to her circle of the Baronne de Mackau and her pretty daughter, Angélique who was to share Élisabeth’s lessons at Versailles and who exerted a very good influence on the other little girl.

The royal children were housed in apartments on the ground floor of the palace, close to the Parterre de Midi and with views across the gardens, park and orangerie. They were taken once a day to the rooms of their aunts, Mesdames Adélaïde, Victoire, Sophie and Louise who had never married and remained as close as possible to their father. Élisabeth had a dutiful love for her aunts, but seems to have been closest of all to the youngest, Louise who would later abscond from the court in secret in order to become a Carmélite nun and who shared her love of horse riding.

The little princesses were taken to visit their aunt Louise shortly after she left Versailles and Élisabeth was very much struck by her aunt’s obvious happiness in her new life where she was now known as Soeur Thérèse de Saint-Augustin and is said to have expressed a wish to also become a Carmélite when the time was right.

In her turn, Madame Louise adored her tiny niece and requested that a friend who was a priest pray for Élisabeth: ‘She has, by God’s grace, a firm determination to belong to Him; but I know too well the world she lives in; the purest virtues need most firm support therein.