The Salonist and the Gay King

March 1, 2012

She was shortly named Jeanne Louise Armande Élisabeth Sophie Septimaniede Vignerot du Plessis (1740 – 1773), the interesting offspring of the age’s most notorious womanizer, duke de Richelieu, with an equivalently devoted wife, Élisabeth Sophie de Lorraine, and he was a Northern God, Gustav III,  King of Sweden, Grand Prince of Finland, heir to Norway bla bla.

She was born in Languedoc county and sent to the Benedictines for a conventional education, marrying the elderly Don Casimir Pignatelli, Count of d’Egmont (loutish, plump, clumsy, the best match ever) when barely turning 15, as the 18th century fashion dictated.

He had troubles with a sort-of Oedipus complex/ annoyingly shy consort, half-English Sophia Magdalena and the embarrassing  rumors about his vacillating sexuality all his woman intimates spread around from quite trivial reasons, which, summing up, wouldn’t have harmed his public image if it weren’t for the two sons, Crown Prince Adolf (1778–1837), and Prince Carl, Duke of Småland (1782 – 1783)  many proclaimed the King couldn’t have fathered due to his  “anatomical problems” that, in the court twisted language, meant homosexuality.

Gustav III

She, as most bored and sexually frustrated girls in her age (thanks to their hubby’s impotence), used the only appreciated thing her spouse possessed, money, obviously, to became a famous salonist, gathering notable voices like that of Enlightenment writer Voltaire or the Romantic Jean-Jaques Rousseau in the privacy of her Paris Hotel. Unable to cheat physically, Jeanne Sophie committed all the impieties of adultery through long colloquies with these brilliant men who, like her, condemned Louis XV’s weakness for the vulgar Madame du Barry. Not beautiful or gripping in the carnal way that incites poets to prize woman’s “virtue” but certainly charming and seasoned with a witty mind, she was pretty appreciated at Versailles, where the Swedish painter Alexander Roslin first laid eyes on her, the result being a crafty work of art, her 1763 portrait in an ivory gown mixing elements of the previous dressing style (the pearl netting) with the modern, Marie Antoinette-ish one, and a dog at her side, symbolizing marital fidelity (a trait inherited from her mother).

jeanne sophie

And Roslin wasn’t the only Swed in her varied entourage: it was through ambassador U. Scheffer, her dear friend,  Jeanne Sophie came to know Gustav III during his visit to Paris, in 1771, a meeting that connected the two so powerfully they continued corresponding long after he returned to Stockholm, exchanging political views and common ideologies, the platonic relationship she had always yearned to have if we judged by her fondly calling him “the hero of my heart”.

She encouraged Gustav to “repress the strife of the raging parties”, advocating a “monarchy restrained by laws”  and gladly welcomed his 1772  coup d’état as it skilfully avoided bloodshed.

Her great influence on him makes us wonder pensively whether our King, engaged in profound personal connections with courtiers Count Axel von Fersen (the guillotined queen’s alleged lizard) and Baron Gustav Armfelt, was genuinely attracted to masculine grace or romantically involved with the Countess. One can never be sure when it comes to palace rumors in th1 1700s.

My romantic propensities, though, tend to imagine a lovely affair between the two parties at a certain point, especially because, let’s face it, vice imbued that epoch and it was near to impossible for a sane high-class lady to remain chaste and exemplary among so colorful delights.


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