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Monday, December 14, 2009

Of Wives and Courtesans

The Husband and I are back in Paris again. For the first time, it is neither in transit, nor for work, nor to study. We're here to see Paris with the children. I've known this city for more than 25 years and still I discover things about it that I didn't know.

At Versailles yesterday, I saw for the first time, the Petit Trianon and Marie-Antoinette's Hamlet. For those who are curious, Marie-Antoinette was the unfortunate Queen at the time of the French Revolution. The poor lady was beheaded at the guillotine. The story goes around that when told that the peasantry had no bread to eat this Queen responded callously to her Ministers, saying "Well... then let them eat cake."

The Petit Trianon was a welcome change from the main palace at Versailles. The one was a man's way of showing the world that France was a powerful country and the French king was someone to be reckoned with. It was breathtaking in its grandeur. Everything was gold, brocade and every inch of stone was sculpted. In contrast, the Petit Trianon was a woman's way of living her life contentedly and far more simply, away from the heavy pressures of a regimented court life. The decor was light and feminine. The stonework was unadorned and the garden communed intimately with the house in a manner too casual for royalty. Just looking at the Petit Trianon gave one a sense of the woman who lived there (Marie-Antoinette).

She was a carefree spirit who fled the heavy protocol of her husband's palace... and she stayed very much a little girl at heart. I don't think she was at all suited to the heavy responsibilities of a Queen. All my life, I had thought her to be a wastrel of a Queen who splurged on dress after dress to the detriment of her nation. The Petit Trianon seemed to portray a different woman altogether... She was a merely girl who never grew up, and who was still playing with make-believe doll houses after bearing 4 children - except that her doll houses were life-sized and constructed within her very own estate. Gosh... the lady constructed a village complete with cottages (with thatched roofs) for her to play in!! I once thought very badly of this Queen. I thought her evil, unkind and wasteful. It turns out that she was merely immature.

Then I figured out why the French psyche tolerates the peaceful co-existence of wife and mistress. Indeed, no one in France batted an eyelid when Francois Mitterand claimed both wife and mistress as his own. My moment of epiphany came in when I learnt of the existence of Mme du Barry (mistress of Louis XV) and Mme de Maintenon (mistress and later wife of Louis XIV). French kings married for political expedience but that didn't stop them from falling in love, and very often, they were faithful to their mistresses till death. Both mistresses wielded considerable influence on royal decisions and were given lands and titles to keep and enjoy. In such cases, I think being the mistress is probably more advantageous than being the Queen. One has all the informal privileges without any of the formal duties. When push comes to shove, the Queen is beheaded and the mistress is spared. However, the most awful thing about being a Queen would certainly have to be giving birth in public. 19 royal children were born on this bed in full view of the entire court standing behind the gilded balustrade. Ewwwwwwwwwwwww!

Not surprisingly therefore, the French psyche has never denigrated the courtesan. Courtesans were celebrated for their brains and their beauty. With both, they had access to immense personal wealth and power. These were women who succeeded in a man's world and it is upon their legacy that women like Coco Chanel built their success. After all, Coco Chanel started her design house with money from her lover who had married another for expedience, but had loved her openly and well.

It is a very French mental model of the man-woman relationship and one that I never understood because I come from a culture where women were possessions (you know, bond maids etc...). To be the mistress of a man is to be a slave to the first wife. In France, that was not so. In France, women are cherished, spoiled, loved for our beauty and respected for our brains. And in a country such as this, being a mistress is sometimes better than being the wife, simply because the mistress is loved till death do them part... and the wife is sometimes not.


Blur Ting said...

Thanks for the history lesson. It's very interesting. I am pinching myself for missing out on the Petit Trianon and Marie-Antoinette's Hamlet when I was at Versailles. I should have opened my eyes wider.

Open Kitchen Concept said...

Wow.. I love this post! Would love to go Paris once again..

petunialee said...

Ting - I almost missed it myself this time too!

petunialee said...

OKC - I actually found a Larousse encyclopedia on the Wives and Mistresses of France. I have it in my luggage down at the Lyon train station. I think it'll be an interesting read. Imagine that people actually bother to research on this topic! Hee!