Hortense Mancini was born in Rome on 6 June 1646, the daughter of Hieronyma and Lorenzo Mancini, and died in London on 2 July 1699. She was a ‘Mancinette’ or ‘Mazarinette’ – the endearing term used to designate the nieces of Mazarin at the court of Louis XIV. These nieces belonged to the Roman minor nobility and were destined for the best matches in Europe.
In 1653, following their elder siblings, the younger Hortense and her sister Marie disem-barked in Marseilles, where they were received with the greatest honour and ceremony. The Mancini girls were among the most capricious, the term ‘foolish’ (‘folles’) even being used countless times by their contemporaries when describing them. More so than all the others, Hortense was extravagant, remarkably beautiful, a born libertine in spite of the education she received at the convent of the Visitandines after arriving in Paris and her early introduction to the court. With Hortense and Marie, Mazarin’s matrimonial plans experienced their first setbacks. The duke of Savoy and the king of England, Charles II, requested Hortense’s hand in marriage; Mazarin declined these matches that were certainly advantageous but went against the interests of France. Hortense, his dearest niece, was married on 28 February 1661 to Armand-Charles de La Porte, marquis de La Meilleraye, grand master of the artillery, Richelieu ’s cousin, on the condition that he replace his titles with that of duc de Mazarin. The cardinal made him his adoptive nephew and heir. This union was a disaster.
Many letters and memoirs provide abundant anecdotes about this duc de Mazarin who, according to Saint-Simon, was obsessively prudish and devout and endlessly jealous and avaricious. Hortense, the object of her strange husband’s harassment and mad ideas, saw no other option than to request a separation after five years of an unbearable marriage that gave her four children. She fled on 13 June 1668. A series of trials then began, which were widely discussed in society. Her bigoted husband succeeded in obtaining a warrant for the arrest of his wife. Although in France women of the aristocracy enjoyed relative freedom and illuminated salon life with their conversation, it was a crime to desert the family home, punished by imprisonment in a convent and sometimes by the loss of civil rights. Hortense was forced to leave France. Her first refuge was Italy, where she joined her sister Marie. In Rome, Marie’s household was collapsing since her husband, the constable of Naples, Lorenzo Colonna, had become tyrannical. They fled together in May 1672, dressed as knights, once again provoking widespread discussion in all the courts.
There was a code of propriety and civility to which Hortense paid no attention. Hortense and Marie Mancini were, according to Madame de Lafayette, ‘of a libertine spirit and far removed from any form of civility and politeness’ (‘d’esprit libertin et éloignées de toute sorte de civilité et de politesse’). Madame de Scudéry , in a letter to the comte de Bussy-Rabutin, took offence (letter dated 26 June 1672). Only Madame de Sévigné found reasons for this insanity: ‘It is impossible to calculate the extravagance of this man [the duke]: he is insane: he is dressed like a beggar; devotion is entirely askew in his head’ (‘On ne saurait faire un bon compte de l’extravagance de cet homme [le duc]: c’est un fou: il est habillé comme un gueux; la dévotion est tout de travers dans sa tête’). She reached the following conclusion: ‘Ah! Let us say, with Saint-Évremond , that she [Hortense Mancini] is exempt from ordinary rules and that we can see her justification when we see M. de Mazarin’ (‘ah ! disons avec, Saint-Évremond, qu’elle [Hortense Mancini] est dispensée des règles ordinaires, et qu’on voit sa justification en voyant M. de Mazarin’ – Letter, 13 August 1689). Hortense requested asylum with the duke of Savoy, her former suitor, and settled in Chambéry in August 1672. There she led the libertine life she knew best and began a romance with the abbot of Saint-Réal , former historiographer of Louis XIV. She wrote her memoirs there (supposedly with his help) and these were published in 1675.
Charles-Emmanuel, duke of Savoy, died on 12 June 1675. Without any fuss, Hortense disappeared on 22 October and requested asylum from her other former suitor, Charles II of England. The ambassador of France described her arrival thus: ‘She is spoken of everywhere, the men with admiration and the women with jealousy and disquiet’ (‘On parle d’elle partout, les hommes avec admiration, les femmes avec jalousie et inquiétude’ – 20 January 1676). Hortense was fêted; Charles II was seduced. She was given a pension and protected by the king. Through the letters written by the ambassadors of France to the minister M. de Pomponne, we can imagine the fascination exerted by Hortense. Her London salon was the liveliest, the most popular, and the most cultured. Saint-Évremond, forced into exile in England, was her most fervent visitor. There he associated with Pierre Coste , translator into French of both Locke and Newton, as well as of La Fontaine and La Bruyère into English, and with all the English aristocracy curious to become familiar with this original French spirit. The salon was a place of real intellectual exchange between France and England.
Despite the political upsets and the arrival of William of Orange in 1689, Hortense succeeded in keeping her small pension. She died on 2 July 1699 in a haze of gin, which had become her definitive pleasure; she refused the Catholic priest who was sent to her. Armand de La Porte could at last take possession of his wife through her remains; he crossed France, unable to find a burial place, always prevaricating, unable to let go (October 1699). In the end, he had to resign himself to burying her with her uncle, Mazarin, at the Collège des Quatre Nations.
Hortense’s memoirs, which constitute her justification to the world, were instantly successful. Discreet on the matter of her many lovers and never vulgar, she manages to make use of the novelistic framework of her own existence, portray it and paint a portrait of her conjugal difficulties that is often comical despite her husband’s sinister madness, thereby stating the reasons for her own conduct. The seventeenth century abounded with memoirs and a female literature developed, but Hortense’s memoirs, followed by her sister’s, belong neither to the ‘littérature précieuse’ nor to critical observations and chronicles. Hortense strongly and publicly expresses her desire for self-determination in the face of a husband’s disordered authority. She knew that expressing this publicly would discredit her but the narrative ‘I’ lends the book real strength and summons the reader as a witness. Hortense does not hesitate to reveal the motives and calculations that drive the famous protagonists of her story, a story that shows the aristocracy in all its meanness and turpitude. In this sense she was a worthy pupil of Saint-Réal, who assigned to the historical account the role of revealing the secret motives that made historical characters act and thus brought them close to ordinary people. She plays on this double register, that of her narration and that of the reality behind the narration, with a view to condemning, in a caustic tone, marital tyranny and the allegiance owed to order and power. This same principle enabled her to make of her existence, which had become a scandal, a plea in favour of a woman’s right not to be a mere subjugated being, both under parental authority and in marriage, and to have the right to self-determination. Saint-Réal has been credited with editing Hortense’s memoires: in fact, from 1722 onwards, they featured in most of the editions of his complete works. Nevertheless, although the text was revised by a cultured person, it does seem that the piquant, insolent tone belongs to Hortense herself and that, whatever Madame de Lafayette, deploring her lack of vivacity, might have said on the matter, Hortense knew how to combine a fine quickness of mind with an insolent, libertine temperament. Saint-Réal and Saint-Évremond always lent their support to this unclassable libertine who had a talent for making light of everything and a singular turn of mind, which brings her close to someone like Ninon de Lenclos. Hortense’s memoirs are bold since a great lady’s struggle for freedom is at stake and in this self-affirmation she displays the same virile strength as Christina of Sweden, whom she knew and admired.