Madame Louise, Venerable Mother Thérèse de Saint-Augustin, daughter of Louis XV
Born on July 15, 1737, Louise-Marie was the last of the children of Louis XV and Marie Leszczynska. She was only eleven months old when, with her elder sisters Victoire, Sophie and Thérèse, she left Versailles for the faraway the Abbey of Fontevraud. That is to say she knew of no other world than the convent where she spent all of her childhood.
Did this early religious influence shape her later choices? What is certain is that she had no illusions as to the academic quality of the education she received at Fontevraud. She later said frankly that, upon her return to Versailles at the age of 13, she could not read fluently. Again Fontevraud, prestigious as it was, was not a teaching institution.
She was ten when this lovely portrait was painted in Fontevraud by Nattier (as the same time as those of Victoire and Sophie, reproduced in their respective posts.) When the portrait was brought back to Marie Leszczynska, the poor Queen, who had last seen her daughter as an infant, exclaimed that she had “a singular face: touching, sweet and witty.” The future would prove Marie Leszczynska quite right.
When Louise returned to Versailles at last, she immediately realized the deficiencies of her education and set out on a thorough, one could almost say a passionate course of reading, in particular on history.
This is where we meet again the ubiquitous Madame Campan, who was precisely reader to the royal daughters. Madame Louise, unlike her sister Madame Sophie, did not make the mistake of offending Madame Campan by reading alone in the privacy of her apartments.
The great memoirist describes Louise as “deformed and very short.” Madame Campan somewhat forces the trait, but it is true that Louise suffered from scoliosis, and she deliberately emphasized the problem. She had long felt a religious vocation and feared nothing more than being forced into marriage. It seems that Louis XV considered Charles Edward Stuart, pretender to the English throne. Madame Louise, however, was utterly immune to the romantic appeal of Bonnie Prince Charlie. She is reported to have said: “Don’t I have good reason to be worried to be destined to a husband, when I want no other than Jesus Christ?”
But Charles Stuart’s failure to regain the English throne led Louis XV to abandon any matrimonial plans between the Pretender and Madame Louise, who was no doubt very relieved. She remained quietly in Versailles in the company of her elder sisters, Mesdames Adélaïde, Victoire and Sophie. Madame Campan left us an affectionate portrait of the gentle tyranny imposed by Louise:
I read to her five hours a day. My voice frequently betrayed the exhaustion of my lungs; the Princess would then prepare sugared water for me, place it by me, and apologize for making me read so long, on the score of having
prescribed a course of reading for herself.
Her aspirations were lofty; she loved everything sublime; often while I was reading she would interrupt me to exclaim: “This is beautiful! This is noble!” There was but one brilliant action that she could perform,–to quit a palace for a cell, and rich garments for a nun’s habit. She achieved it!
Indeed, Louise took her devoted reader, and everyone else except her father King Louis XV, by surprise one fine day in 1770. Let’s listen again to Madame Campan:
One evening, while I was reading, she was informed that M. Bertin [one of Louis XV’s ministers] wished to speak with her; she left out abruptly, returned, resumed her silks and embroidery, and made me resume my book; when I retired she ordered me to be in her salon the next morning at eleven o’clock.
When I got there the Princess was gone; I learnt that she had left at seven in the morning for the Convent of the Carmelites of Saint-Denis, where she wished to take the veil. I went to Madame Victoire; there I heard that the King alone had been acquainted with Madame Louise’s project; that he had kept it faithfully secret, and that, having long previously opposed her wish, he had only on the preceding evening sent her his consent; that she had gone alone into the convent, where she had been expected; and that a few minutes afterwards she had made her appearance at the grating, to show to the Princesse de Guistel, who had accompanied her to the convent gate, and to her equerry, the King’s order to leave her at the convent.
This is, by the way, Madame Campan at her best, as a witness to the inner workings of the royal family. Mighty Adélaïde throwing a tantrum (are you surprised?) and taking her father to task for keeping Louise’s secret, dear Victoire bemoaning her own weakness for her downy chair… But let’s go back to our memoirist’s account:
As soon as I obtained permission to do so, I went to Saint-Denis to see my former mistress; she deigned to receive me with her face uncovered, in her private parlor; she told me she had just left the laundry room, and that it was her turn that day to attend to the linen. “I much abused your youthful lungs for two years before the execution of my project,” added she. “I knew that here I could read none but books tending to our salvation, and I wished to review all the historians that had interested me.”
She told me that the King’s consent for her to go to Saint-Denis had been brought to her while I was reading; she prided herself, rightly so, upon having returned to her room without the slightest mark of agitation, though she said she felt so keenly that she could scarcely regain her chair.
She added that moralists were right when they said happiness does not dwell in palaces; that she had proved it; and that, if I wanted to be happy, she advised me to come and enjoy a retreat in which the liveliest imagination might find full exercise in the contemplation of a better world. I had no palace, no earthly grandeur to sacrifice to God; nothing but the bosom of a united family; and it is precisely there that the moralists whom she cited have placed true happiness… The Princess said no more on the subject.
I must say the idea of Madame Campan as a Carmelite strikes me as rather odd… Madame Louise took her final vows one year later, in 1771, under the name of Sister Thérèse de Saint-Augustin. Later she was elected Mother Superior of her community. She did not hesitate to use her connection with the royal family to help those she deemed deserving. Marie-Antoinette in particular, according to Madame Campan, seemed to have manifested some exasperation at Louise’s frequent requests.
She [Louise] continued to solicit favors, as I knew from the complaints of the Queen, who often said to me, “Here is another letter from my Aunt Louise. She is certainly the most scheming little Carmelite in the kingdom.”
The Court went to visit her about three times a year, and I recollect that the Queen, intending to take her daughter there, ordered me to get a doll dressed like a Carmelite for her, that the young Princess could be accustomed, before she went into the convent, to her aunt’s nun habit.
I saw Madame Louise two or three times more at the grating. I was informed of her death by Louis XVI. “My Aunt Louise,” said he to me, “your old mistress, is just dead at St. Denis. I have this moment received intelligence of it. Her piety and resignation were admirable,
and yet the delirium of my good aunt recalled to her recollection that she was a princess, for her last words were, ’To paradise, haste, haste, full speed.’ No doubt she thought she was again giving orders to her equerry.”
Louise was 50 and the time was 1787, two years before the French Revolution.