Interesting Women in History – The Ones Skipped in Academic Histories

One of my favorite women of history is Liselotte von der Pfalz.

Liselotte was properly styled Princess Palatine Elizabeth Charlotte, or, in German, Pfalzprinzessin Elisabeth Charlotte. She was born in Heidelberg, 27 May 1652, and died at Saint-Cloud, 8 December 1722. She was a German princess brought to France to marry the Duke of Orleans, younger brother of the Sun King Louis XIV. As such they were known as Monsieur and Madame. At the end of her life, her son served as the regent for Louis XV until he came of age.

It’s her letters, a vast, delightfully trenchant collection written in a distinctive, honest voice, that has caused her to gain a steadily growing group of fans. Those letters, so much more interesting than Saint-Simon’s fretful obsessing over courtly minutiae, provide a fascinating glimpse into the personalities and activities at the court of Versailles for fifty years.

Liselotte herself was plain and fat, and also totally uninterested in sex. Here she is commenting on what she sees in the mirror:

Not one of my portraits resembles me very much; my fat is in all the wrong places, which is bound to be unbecoming; I have a horrendous—begging your leave—behind, big belly and hips, and very broad shoulders; my neck and breasts are quite flat, so that, if truth be known, I am hideously ugly, but fortunately for me I do not care one whit.

It was lucky she didn’t care, because she was married to Philippe, Duke of Orleans, who was gay. She was totally unlike Philippe’s first wife, the beautiful, fascinating Minette, sister of Charles II, who had beguiled every man around her, including the king, and had even seduced one of Philippe’s boyfriends away from him. She managed to get another one banished to the infamous Chateau d’If. Dead at 26, she was rumored to have been poisoned by Philippe’s boyfriends.

These men, who counted on lavish gifts from Philippe, eyed the new Madame with wary distrust, but though she distrusted them for how much they conned from her husband, she seems otherwise to have shrugged them off. Sex for her was a duty, and once she’d had her two children, she considered her duty done. Her relationship with Monsieur seems to have been mutually friendly, based on respect, and shared concern for their children.

She had to convert to Roman Catholicism in order to marry into France’s royal family, but she viewed the world mostly through a Protestant’s eye, her religious philosophy an interesting combination of free thinking inside a deistic worldview.

She had no sense of fashion and the courtly flirtation of the elegant ladies bored her, but there was one area in which she excelled: she relished hunting, riding fearlessly next to the king ahead of all his other ladies.

She thought the court physicians were total quacks, and believed in the efficacy of long walks over all their nostrums, blisters, leeches, bleedings, and other horrors. She adored her little dogs; during the terrible winter when the Seine iced over, she describes vividly trying to live in the frigid palace, only getting warm when she was in bed with all her little dogs.

Though in many ways she sounds like a modern woman, she saw the world in other ways like a person of her time. She adored her children, but hated seeing them married off to Louis XIV’s bastards, and she loathed the bourgeoisie Madame de Maintenon as an interfering interloper.

Unfortunately, there is no good biography of her in English, though there is an excellent, sympathetic one in French (and German), by Dirk van der Cruysse. There are also apparently large collections of her letters somewhere in Germany, probably university archives, that I wish I could get to.

If I were forty years younger, she is the one I’d pick to write a novel about. Her fifty years at Versailles covers the most interesting period of Louis XIV’s life there, and the beginning of the next reign. There is such a mix of contemporary thought and seventeenth century thought, such a sense of humor, so vivid an awareness of, and appreciation for, all things, that I would want to share her with the world.



Interesting Women in History – The Ones Skipped in Academic Histories — 10 Comments

  1. I watched the series “Versailles” on Netflix and was utterly bored with Louis. But I loved Liselotte. The script and the actress brought her alive. Most interesting character in the series. I thought her an exaggeration until reading your post. I need to dig further. Any book recommendations?

    • If you happen to read German, I strongly recommend the van der Cruysse bio I mentioned above. It’s excellent, detailed, and has tons of great quotes from her trenchantly funny letters. The only thing in English I know of is alas very short, but what they have of her letters is great: A Woman’s Life in the Court of the Sun King: Letters of Liselotte von der Pfalz, Elisabeth Charlotte, Duchesse d’ Orléans, 1652-1722

      • It is an interesting romp with lots of bared breasts and bedroom shenanigans. It shows kingship at its best and worst. It shows enough of the other side of life to make it seem real enough. But it falls apart toward the end.

        It also lays the groundwork for the French Revolution, part of which was that Louis was so paranoid about revolt from his own aristocracy that he REQUIRED all of the nobles to live at Versailles so he could keep an eye on them. But they then had difficulty managing their lands so they had enough to pay taxes, which led to the average person assuming the tax burden for all of Louis’s improvements, like city lighting and sewers.

        Interesting series. But take it with a grain of salt and use the fast forward judiciously.

  2. Her characters as presented by the actor, Elisa Lasowski, on Versailles, was one of my top four favorites: that of Orleans himself, his lover the Chevalier and Fabian Marchal. Though neither Philippe nor any of the others resembled their originals.

    BTW, it never fails to delight, to recall that the wife of Philippe I’s son — had herself preceded and followed by a squad of heralds with trumpets (or passed as them then) to announce her coming and going. New Orleans was named for him, Philippe II.

  3. I love hearing about these strong and idiosyncratic women in history, thanks! Doubly impressive, as they had to buck such strong tides controlling women.

    • I only have it in German–my French is not nearly up to academic grade. The German title is Madame sein ist ein ellendes Handwerck. Liselotte von der Pfalz – eine deutsche Prinzessin am Hof de