Femme of the Week: Madame Campan | Marie Antoinette's Gossip Guide to the 18th Century: Femme of the Week: Madame Campan

May 21, 2010

Femme of the Week: Madame Campan

Lady writer Madame Campan, born Jeanne Louise Henriette Genet, is responsible for the well written and entertaining title: The Memoirs of the Court of Marie Antoinette.  Aside from the book she had many other accomplishments, including securing the position as lectrice to the daughters of France,  lady in waiting to Marie Antoinette, governess to the Bonapartes and later Napoleon would place her in charge of the Imperial Educational Establishment of the Legion of Honour at Ecouen! Quite the resume!

She was born on October 2, 1752, as the eldest daughter of what would become a large family. Her father was responsible for her very strong education; he had been schooled at the College de Navarre in Paris, the University of Paris and spent several years abroad in Germany and England. She was a quick learner, and by age fourteen was reciting scenes by Racine to her father's friends and associates.

Some of these associates included playwrights, musicians and even Goldoni, who taught Louis XV's daughters the Italian language.  In time these men would share their great knowledge with Henriette, expanding her already long list of accomplishments.  Ironically, she would soon become the reader to Goldoni's prized pupils. By age fifteen, some women at court knew of Henriette and her remarkable talents, which led to gossip.  All good of course!

She could sing, play the harp and speak several languages. She was sweet and was a skilled reader.  This was her ticket to an interview for the position of lectrice to mesdames.  At just fifteen years old she left her home for a new home at Versailles (sound familiar?) She would live at the palace until the Revolution forced everyone out.  Before she left a regretful father advised her:

"Do not allow their [mesdames] compliments to elate you too much; rather be on your guard. Whenever you receive flattering attentions, you may be sure that you will gain an enemy. I warn you my daughter against the inevitable trials which you in your new career will have to face; and I swear on this day, when you are about to enjoy your good fortune, if I had been able to choose another profession for you, never would I have abandoned my beloved child to the torments and dangers of Court life."

She did something right, and survived the intriguing court of Louis XV, and thrived in that of Louis XVI not to mention the revolution. She notes one embarrassing moment, age fifteen, her first conversation with Louis XV, who was about to go on a hunt:

Louis: Mademoiselle Genet, I am told you are very learned-that you know four of five foreign languages.
Henriette: I only know two, Sire. 
L: Which are they? 
H: English and Italian. 
L: and can you speak them fluently? 
H: Yes, very fluently. 
L: Well, that is quite enough to drive any husband quite crazy!

After her career she claims that a book inspired her to collect her memories for publication. Surely aware of her special status (survival?) in a very turbulent country, she writes:
"I became privy to some extraordinary facts, the publication of which may be interesting, and the truth of the details will form the merit of my work."

The focus of her Memoirs is just as stated; they are memoirs of the court of Marie Antoinette.  The book is full of snapshots of those who ruled the cliques, interesting facts and memorable stories.  Madame was a strong Royalist and her memoirs drip with devoted loyalty to the Royal family.  The warm light constantly cast on them is clear, and we can safely say the bias certainly paints a pretty picture.

"I have put together all that concerned the domestic life of an unfortunate Princess, whose reputation is not yet cleared of the stains it received from the attacks of calumny, and who justly merited a different lot in life, a different place in the opinion of mankind after her fall."

You can read my review of Campan's Memoirs of the Court of Marie Antoinette.  If you would like to read the book you can download the e-book for free in several formats thanks to Girlebooks.com!

Click here to download a free copy of Memoirs of the Court of Marie Antoinette

Love Paperback? Get it here at Amazon.com 


  1. This sounds really great. Thanks for the link!

  2. Fascinating! I have The Secret Diary of the Princesse Lamballe: this book will be interesting to compare and contrast.

  3. Madam Campan is a particularly interesting woman of her era, I think. She was certainly unusually well educated for a woman of her class and country. What fascinates me though is that she managed to not only survive but thrive while equally intelligent women - Madame Roland and Lucile Duplessis Desmoulins for instance - lost their heads quite literally.

  4. OOOO!!! Can't wait to read!!! Merci!

  5. id be interested in reading her book. I do have to say though, that I absolutely love her dress in the picture.

    1. Did you get a chance to read the book?

  6. @Marquis Jacques I do too! The white and lace is lovely!

  7. Marie-Thérèse, once free of the Temple, approached several people who had served her parents. But not Madame Campan. She seemed to view Madame's position as governess to Napoleon's famille as a betrayal. A pity, but her imprisonment at the behest of so-called revolutionaries (self-interest seemed to drive most of those who brought the terror to the people of France) had to have turned her views into either black or white, no grey, of any tone.