* * * * *
A. D. 1635-1719.
THE POLITICAL WOMAN.
I present Madame de Maintenon as one of those great women who have exerted a powerful influence on the political destinies of a nation, since she was the life of the French monarchy for more than thirty years during the reign of Louis XIV. In the earlier part of her career she was a queen of society; but her social triumphs pale before the lustre of that power which she exercised as the wife of the greatest monarch of the age,—so far as splendor and magnificence can make a monarch great. No woman in modern times ever rose so high from a humble position, with the exception of Catherine I, wife of Peter the Great. She was not born a duchess, like some of those brilliant women who shed glory around the absolute throne of the proudest monarch of his century, but rose to her magnificent position by pure merit,—her graces, her virtues, and her abilities having won the respect and admiration of the overlauded but sagacious King of France. And yet she was well born, so far as blood is concerned, since the Protestant family of D’Aubigne—to which she belonged—was one of the oldest in the kingdom. Her father, however, was a man of reckless extravagance and infamous habits, and committed follies and crimes which caused him to be imprisoned in Bordeaux. While in prison he compromised the character of the daughter of his jailer, and by her means escaped to America. He returned, and was again arrested. His wife followed him to his cell; and it was in this cell that the subject of this lecture was born (1635). Subsequently her miserable father obtained his release, sailed with his family to Martinique, and died there in extreme poverty. His wife, heart-broken, returned to France, and got her living by her needle, until she too, worn out by poverty and misfortune, died, leaving her daughter to strive, as she had striven, with a cold and heartless world.
This daughter became at first a humble dependent on one of her rich relatives; and “the future wife of Louis XIV. could be seen on a morning assisting the coachmen to groom the horses, or following a flock of turkeys, with her breakfast in a basket.” But she was beautiful and bright, and panted, like most ambitious girls, for an entrance into what is called “society.” Society at that time in France was brilliant, intellectual, and wicked. “There was the blending of calculating interest and religious asceticism,” when women of the world, after having exhausted its pleasures, retired to cloisters, and “sacrificed their natural affections to family pride.” It was an age of intellectual idlers, when men and women, having nothing to do, spent their time in salons, and learned the art of conversation, which was followed by the art of letter-writing.