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.