The Revolution often lent a retrospective significance to trivial events. One such was the chance encounter which took place between the former royal mistress Madame du Barry and the then unknown Jean-Paul Brissot on the stairs to the Voltaire's apartment in Paris shortly before his death 1778. It would appear that Madame du Barry's spontaneous kindness on this occasion won her an unlikely admirer in the future Girondin leader...
Madame du Barry
Madame du Barry's cordial relations with Voltaire illustrate well Robert Darnton's idea of a "patrician Enlightenment" accepted by the ruling elite in the latter part of the century. At Madame Denis's insistence, the Comtesse had even requested to Louis XV unsuccessfully that Voltaire be allowed to return to France.
|Madame du Barry|
Portrait by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, dated 1781
In the Spring of in 1778, the whole of Paris was outside Voltaire's door but few were admitted to see the ailing old man. On February 20th, the day he celebrated his birthday, he was startled shortly after lunch, to learn that Madame du Barry was on his doorstep At first he refused to see her, as he was not properly dressed, but she persisted and in due course he assented to a brief interview.
|Pastel portrait of Brissot -|
frontispiece to the Mémoires
I had almost reached the antechamber where there seemed to be less commotion than on the previous afternoon when I heard a noise and the door opened. Assailed by my foolish timidity I hurriedly ran downstairs but, ashamed of myself, I retraced my steps. A woman, whom the master of the house [presumably the marquis de Vilette] had just shown out, was at the foot of the stairs. She was beautiful and had a kind face. I did not hesitate to address her and inquired if she thought it was possible for me to be introduced to Monsieur de Voltaire, telling her frankly of the purpose of my visit. Monsieur Voltaire has received scarcely anyone today, she answered kindly. However it is a favour which I have just obtained myself, Monsieur, and I have no doubt that you will obtain it also. Through my embarrassed air she seemed to guess at my shyness for now she returned to the master of the house who not yet closed the door upon her and I was admitted. She answered my deep salutations with a warm smile full of kindness which seemed to recommend me. . .
I must reveal the identity of this amiable woman that I met at Voltaire's door: it was Madame du Barry. Recalling her smile, so full of warmth and kindness, I become more indulgent towards the former favourite; though I leave to others the task of excusing the weakness and infamy of Louis XV.
Following an interview with Villette, Brissot renounced his plan to meet Voltaire in person, though he subsequently receives a flattering letter from him.
Later, in the Revolutionary years, Brissot was to find himself in conversation with Mirabeau and Laclos on the subject of royal mistresses and spoke up in Madame du Barry's defence:
I laughingly besought some indulgence for the Du Barry, who, though also vile, was to my mind a hundred times less odious than her rivals. After all, she had no more in common with them than an influence which she did not despotically abuse, and morals which I scarcely thought culpable." "You are right,' said Mirabeau ; . . . ' she never issued lettres de cachets against those who slandered her virtue. She was certainly no vestal, but 'the Fault lies with the gods who made her so fair'."
In 1790 Mirabeau (and possibly Laclos) published a curiously generous portrait of Madame du Barry as "Elmire" in a satirical collection called La galerie des États-généraux:
Stanley Loomis, Madame du Barry (1959) p.196-9.
The original sources can be found on the internet:
J.-P. Brissot, Mémoires (1754-93), p.145-9.