Hidden historical heroines (#20: Marie-Louise O’ Murphy)

 

Boucher's famous painting of the young Marie-Louise

Marie-Louise O’ Murphy de Boisfaily (21 October 1737 – 11 December 1814) was the youngest child of an Irish army officer. She was a celebrated French beauty, one of the younger mistresses of Louis XV. 

The youngest of seven, Marie-Louise was born to ex-Irish army officer Daniel O’ Murphy and his French wife. Daniel had taken up shoe-making in Rouen, France, after leaving the army. Her father died when Marie-Louise was in her teens, at which point her mother relocated the family to Paris.Through trying to make ends meet, the O’ Murphy family had to become a little disreputable: Marie-Louise danced, her mother traded in secondhand clothing and one of Marie-Louise’s elder sisters became an actress.

 

It was at the home of this actress sister that the young Marie-Louise first came into contact with Giacamo Casanova – the famous and infamous Venetian adventurer and womaniser. Although in his memoirs he remembers her as a “pretty, ragged, dirty little creature”, Casanova was sufficiently impressed with the beautiful face and figure of the girl that he introduced her to his friend, the celebrated painter, Francois Boucher. Boucher proceeded to paint a rather erotic, terribly successful nude of the young Marie-Louise.

 

The famed painting was soon brought to the attention of Louise XV, a man for whom the phrase “had an eye for the ladies” doesn’t quite seem to cut it. He had a queen, of course, the Polish princess Marie Leszczyńska, but had so many mistresses that they had a tiered system and there was even a formal court position for his favourite (“maîtresse-en-titre”). The Head Mistress from 1745 to 1764 (her death) was Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, better known as Madame de Pompadour. Such was ‘Madame’s’ hold over Louis that even when their sexual relationship had to cease due to a gynaecological issue, she retained the title of the maîtresse-en-titre. Part of the reason for this was that she queued up pretty young things to satisfy Louis’ more physical urges, whilst she provided companionship and conversation.

 

Madame de Pompadour

 

Marie-Louise was soon installed as a second tier mistress. This is probably exactly what Boucher – if not also Marie-Louise herself – had intended by way of the explicit painting; it ‘advertised’ Marie-Louise and her services, if you will, the 18th Century equivalent of ‘escorts’ leaving postcards with their photograph in the phone boxes outside more upmarket hotels.

 

Marie-Louise’s youthful beauty and natural way with the king soon made her a favourite. She suffered a difficult miscarriage in 1753 that almost claimed her life, and this resulted in Louis becoming closer and closer to her. She became known as “La Belle Morphise” (a play on her Irish surname and also the modern Greek for ‘beautiful’). The following year she had a successful pregnancy, a daughter that Louis recognised as his, Agathe Louise de Saint-Antoine (an unfortunate girl who wasn’t to be as lucky as her mother, dying very young when her first pregnancy resulted in a miscarriage).

 

After two years as one of Louis’ favourites, and with his illegitimate child as proof, Marie-Louise was obviously feeling rather confident and superior. She tried to have herself made maîtresse-en-titre; it was a drastic mistake. The affronted Madame de Pompadour immediately had a marriage arranged that would remove Marie-Louise from court. She married Jacques Pelet de Beaufranchet in November 1755 and gave him two children, the younger posthumously, as Pelet died during the battle of Rossbach on the 5 November, 1757.

 

Two years later, Marie-Louise married a widower, François Nicolas Le Normant, the comte de Flaghac. She gave him a daughter in January 1768 – Marguerite Victoire – although many historians hold her to have been a second illegitimate daughter of Louis XV, due to the high level of interest that Louis and his Bourbon heirs had in the girl – providing her with money throughout her life and attending her wedding.

 

After the death of Le Normant in 1583, the still rather eligble Marie-Louise remained ‘single’ for twelve years. In 1795 though, at the age of 58, she was compelled into a third marriage, with one Louis-Philippe Dumont. Dumont was, by contemporary accounts, a rather handsome rogue, and – impressively – 28 years younger than Marie-Louise; she still must have been quite the catch. The marriage ended in divorce after three years; it was to be Marie-Louise’s last (although three marriages and an elongated affair with a king isn’t bad going).

 

Louis XV

 

During the French Revolution (1789–1799), her royal connections meant that Marie-Louise was imprisoned. Although most of the royal family and their favourites were guillotined (including Madame du Barry, the consort who had taken over the title of maîtresse-en-titre after Madame de Pompadour’s death in 1764), Marie-Louise came through the Terror with her head still attached. She went on to outlive not only the Revolution, but also the majority of her contemporaries and detractors, dying in 1814 at the grand old age of 77.

 

The eventful life and rags-to-riches tale of Marie-Louise O’ Murphy was dramatised in Duncan Sprott’s historical novel, Our Lady of the Potatoes.

 

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