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17th-Century Sisters the Kardashians Might Admire

CAS prof talks about The Kings’ Mistresses

The Kings’ Mistresses: The Liberated Lives of Marie Mancini, Princess Colonna, and Her Sister Hortense, Duchess Mazarin book by Elizabeth Goldsmith, Boston University College of Arts & Sciences professor of French literature and language

17th century sisters Marie (left) and Hortense Mancini are the subject of a new biography by Elizabeth Goldsmith, The Kings’ Mistresses: The Liberated Lives of Marie Mancini, Princess Colonna, and Her Sister Hortense, Duchess Mazarin.

Two sisters born to wealth and position use their well-connected uncle to introduce them into the highest echelons of society. One falls in love with a teenage monarch. The other becomes a mistress of the king of England. The aforementioned uncle arranges marriages for both that prove disastrous. Fearing for their lives, they don disguises and flee their jealous husbands, all the while evading kidnappers. Their quest for independence takes them across a continent and spans decades. Along the way, both write explosive memoirs about their very public lives and find themselves instant celebrities, courtesy of the tabloids of the times.

No, we’re not talking about the Hilton sisters or the Kardashian clan, not the latest fictional plot of a Lifetime television movie. This is the story of real-life sisters Marie and Hortense Mancini, the subject of Elizabeth Goldsmith’s engaging new biography, The Kings’ Mistresses: The Liberated Lives of Marie Mancini, Princess Colonna, and Her Sister Hortense, Duchess Mazarin (PublicAffairs, 2012).

The Mancinis were born in Italy during the mid-17th century. Marie, the older, drew the amorous attention of King Louis XIV of France while both were mere teenagers. Her sister Hortense, who could have given Lindsay Lohan a run for her money, went on to become a lover of England’s King Charles II and develop a fondness for alcohol and gambling. But beneath this story of lives on the run, smuggled jewels, and imprisonment in convents lies a deeper tale about two women’s relentless pursuit of freedom and refusal to bow to social conventions.

Goldsmith, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of French and an expert on literature in the age of Louis XIV, first stumbled upon the Mancini sisters nearly 20 years ago while researching another book. The women have held sway over her imagination ever since. The recent discovery of a trove of letters written by Marie, as well as other documents that chronicle the sisters’ exploits, proved irresistible.

BU Today spoke with Goldsmith about her new book and the impact these two women had on society.

BU Today: How did you first become interested in the Mancini sisters?

Goldsmith: I was first drawn to them through the story of the romance between Marie and the young Louis XIV, and the way that their forced breakup was given a media spin by pamphleteers, news gazettes, and commentators writing memoirs of the court. The end of the romance was depicted as the beginning of Louis’ mature capability to reign. He had to sacrifice his affections and shed his last tears in order to achieve the superhuman status that awaited him. This huge propaganda effort interested me. But it led me to take a closer look at Marie and read her own memoirs. From that point on I realized that there was so much more to her story than simply her identity as the sacrificed love of the young king.

What about the sisters fascinated you?

There are so many different angles to their story, and each time I have started down one path in my research I have discovered new aspects of their adventures and reputation that I wanted to investigate further. As early media figures, they keep popping up in the gazettes and news pamphlets of their time, in many different countries and languages. As women who decided to go public, in print, with their lives, they reflect on the challenges of trying to make their own voices heard among all the others. As runaways, they explore the new possibilities for clandestine travel afforded by road and postal systems that were being developed across Europe. Hortense became a cultural icon as painted portraits of her were circulated to many different cities and were greatly prized. And then there are their own letters, the many letters written about them during their lifetime, and the conflicting interpretations of their behavior that the public has made from the beginning.

Elizabeth Goldsmith, The Kings’ Mistresses: The Liberated Lives of Marie Mancini, Princess Colonna, and Her Sister Hortense, Duchess Mazarin

Originally drawn to the Mancini sisters through the story of the romance between Marie and Louis XIV, Goldsmith became fascinated by the many different aspects of their adventures, reputation, and life in the public eye as “arguably the first media celebrities.” Photo by Vernon Doucette

What was revealed in Marie’s recently discovered private correspondence?

For centuries, her husband’s family kept a huge collection of her correspondence and letters relating to her life in the library of their residence in Rome, until the late 1990s when all the Colonna family papers were deposited in an archive managed by the Benedictine monastery in Subiaco, Italy. Once I found out that this material would be available to researchers, I had to go see it. I was originally hoping that I would find the first manuscript of Marie’s memoirs. Instead, I found all of these letters. What amazed me at first was that after running away from her husband, she continued her correspondence with him and other members of her household, including her sons. It was as though everyone was involved in trying to figure out how to manage the extraordinary circumstances. So it became a kind of slow process of discovery for me, of all the different characters involved—spies, household servants, family members, political figures, friends—and their motives.

These women were renegades—each left an unhappy marriage in a quest for freedom and independence. What led them to embark on such daring lives?

Their motives were different in some respects. Hortense was the first to flee her husband. She was running away from a man who was deranged, obsessively jealous, a religious fanatic who tried to control every aspect of her life, dragging her away from everyone and everything she loved and controlling all of her contacts with the outside world. She tried to negotiate a legal separation but decided to run away, with the help of her brother, when she realized that she was not likely to win her case. Marie was clearly inspired by her sister, but could not have been encouraged by her example, since Hortense’s husband pursued her relentlessly. What finally inspired Marie to run away was that she came to fear that her husband was trying to poison her. That was a pretty urgent motive to leave.

What was life like at the time for women of means who found themselves in unhappy marriages?

Other noblewomen had famously separated from their husbands. It was not difficult to live apart from one’s husband if both spouses agreed to it. But if a woman wanted to leave a husband who was mistreating her and who would not permit her to leave, she needed to appeal to her own family for protection. Sometimes she could return to her father’s household. Marie and Hortense were in an unusual situation. Their parents were dead and the patriarch of the family had been their uncle, Cardinal Mazarin, who had brought them to the French court from Italy and arranged their marriages. They had no family ‘house’ to which they could flee.

What were some of the qualities of these women that you came to admire?

I was struck by how they had to invent and improvise their survival tactics as they went along, and how difficult that must have been for women whose lives had been so shaped by others who insisted above all else on the importance of their family name and their proper place in the world. One survival tactic that became quite clear to me as I read the letters was their so-called impulsiveness or unpredictability. They learned how to deal with constantly being spied upon. You don’t want to be predictable if even your servants are informing on your every move. So I admire their courage and their inventiveness. They had to knock on a lot of doors to try to get the protection they needed in order to survive, and everyone watched to see how they might be able to manage that. It became a complicated political game, and they learned to be skillful players in it.

You write that the sisters were “arguably the first media celebrities.” What about their story captured the public imagination?

Their daring, their rootlessness, their beauty and intelligence, the fact that they left their wealth and status in the name of liberty, the many dangers of their travels. Everyone wanted to see how their story would develop, whether or not they would end up in prison, how the different authorities in different countries would deal with them.

A reviewer characterized Marie and Hortense as “the 17th-century version of the Kardashian sisters.” Do you agree?

The only similarity is that they are all media figures, but in very different times and for very different reasons. One important distinction is that Hortense and Marie left. I have said that it would be as though the Kardashians were to leave Los Angeles with only their jewelry and some cash on them and go to the coast of Somalia pursued by agents of their husbands, rent a sailboat and navigate through pirate-infested waters, and somehow arrive in Yemen, where one of them would become the mistress of a sheikh and the other would push on across the desert, passing armies and warlord territory, to Syria, where she would temporarily be given shelter by a high government official, in the middle of a civil war.

What impact did the sisters have on women’s rights and the institution of divorce?

The period in which Hortense and Marie were trying to live legally apart from their husbands was one in which there was a lot of discussion about women’s rights and about what conditions would make it legitimate for a woman to leave her husband. Their story spurred that discussion. In England, the political philosopher Mary Astell wrote a treatise on marriage in which she discussed Hortense’s case, and the writer Aphra Behn dedicated works to her in which she expressed sympathy for her and admiration for her courage. French and English freethinkers and feminists were arguing for women’s rights to own property and live independently. Hortense’s husband brought a legal case against her in 1689 to try to force her return from England, and many of the public arguments about a woman’s rights within marriage were aired by the lawyers on both sides of the case, who published their debate in pamphlet form. But divorce was not legalized in France until the Revolution, 100 years later, then it was outlawed again in 1816 and not legalized until 1884. In England, divorce could only be granted by an act of Parliament until 1857, and in Italy divorce was outlawed until 1971.

What do you think Marie and Hortense’s ultimate legacy will be?

Their legacy seems to change with the times. When they were alive, they inspired the imaginations of writers and artists, and they also served as examples to women—examples that they weren’t supposed to follow, of course, but their escapades and their writings showed other women that it was possible to break out of the constraints imposed on them by family and class if they wanted to. Later, they became objects of moral condemnation for having abandoned their families and children, and they were also treated as tragic, fallen figures. Today I hope we can look at their lives more fully and appreciate their courage, be amazed at their tenacity and the way they learned to manage the risks that were forever confronting them, and not be obliged to relegate them to the status of either victims or frivolous women.

Your author’s note says that every time you’ve written about the Mancinis, you’ve thought you were done, only to be drawn back. Do you think this book represents the end?

That may depend in part on how much more time I spend in the Colonna archive and other manuscript libraries in places where Hortense and Marie lived. I’m still curious about so many unanswered questions in their lives. And then there is the rest of the family, many of them very fascinating characters as well. But I am trying to get away from them.

john o'rourke, editor, bu today
John O’Rourke

John O’Rourke can be reached at orourkej@bu.edu.

3 Comments on 17th-Century Sisters the Kardashians Might Admire

  • Nathan on 08.27.2012 at 9:28 am

    It sounds like the Mancini sisters were fighting for their own personal rights and survival. In this way they seem as little concerned with social justice and the needs of wider society as Paris Hilton or the Kardashians. Besides the titulation to society of their story, they sound ilke just another pair of rich and well-connected aristocrats. –

    Is there anything deeper here than what appears in People magazine?

  • Anthony on 08.27.2012 at 12:48 pm

    One can look at these aristocrats in a deeper sense if one looks at the struggles women had in the 17th century. Women did not have political or legal rights, and, although divorce and separation were possible, it was neither a normal procedure nor a feminine one. Women relied on the man to initiate the process of separation or divorce– it was legal for a man to do so, but illegal for a woman, in most countries.

    In addition, seeking separation, for two aristocratic women deeply connected to the public eye and fashion and culture, would be figurative suicide. Such actions would lead to public dissastisfaction– it was not “right”.

    In other words, to see the significance of all three woman, would be to put oneself in their shoes, in the lives of a gender with little rights, relying solely on men; of women who challenged this social norm in pursuance of their lives and their careers. For men and women equally, such actions should be both interesting and inspiring.

    • Nathan on 08.28.2012 at 9:23 am

      Anthony, I challenge you to look at it deeper.

      In most of Europe and America, widows had significant rights. Both poor women and merchant class women had considerable property rights and could aquire near equitable social standing once their husbands died or were sent packing.

      These rights did not acrue as easily to the Upper Class.

      My point is the same as for Paris Hilton: If these women had not been rich, their stories would have been ordinary and no one would have cared.

      I am not totally uninformed about women’s struggles and am empathetic and supportive of the struggles they still face today. I have, for example, read the earliest known auto-biography of a European woman(available at Mugar Library.)

      The focus on the wealthy, of any era, does a disservice to the non-wealthy who face different challenges. To hold forth that these women represent a significant step forward in the struggle for women rights (as in the rights of ordinary women) is, I believe. disingenuous.

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