The Dauphin’s diary, started in 1766, rarely mentions outings and distractions. Pierrette Girault de Coursac speaks of a “sort of incarceration”. This was his father’s wish, and his mother continues to apply it. Mr de La Vauguyon’s intercession is necessary for the child to obtain permission to take a riding lesson or follow a hunt in an open carriage.
But soon, the Dauphin will no longer have to obey the Dauphine’s orders. Just when the child was beginning to conquer, through his piety and his uprightness, the affection and confidence of his mother, destiny sets off the first signs of alarm.
Although the doctors wanted to hide the fact, the state of health of Marie-Josephe of Saxe could no longer conceal the cruel truth. While caring for her husband, she had caught pulmonary tuberculosis. The symptoms are unmistakable: continual coughing, suffocation, fever, extreme thinness… A visitor will even write:
“I thought that I was talking to death itself, she was so disfigured.”
Her entourage watch, powerless, her terrible demise. Friday 13 March 1767, having used up her last strength, she falls into a fainting fit after having drunk a cup of chocolate.
On this day, there is only one line in the Dauphin’s diary:
“Death of my mother at eight o’clock this evening.”
However, we must not make the mistake of drawing hasty conclusions about the dryness of this note. It is in a jagged writing, hiding extreme suffering and inerrable pain.
In the weeks which preceded the death of his mother, there are many mentions of the Dauphin which show his sickly aspect and his sombre expression. His red eyes even lead some people to think that he is suffering from a precocious myopia. As for his general allure, it is no better. The boy is thin, even skinny, his walk is clumsy. All of these elements combined start a rumour that the child will soon join those who have preceded him into the kingdom of the dead.
In fact, this rumour demonstrates the secret wish of the whole court. The death of the prince would leave the position free for the Count of Provence, loved by all. Xavier of Saxe writes at this epoch:
“My Lord the Dauphin is very delicate and Monsieur the Count of Provence will always be a great catch… “
This rumour is so amplified that it will influence even those who, later, will search through the prince’s Journal. There where it is written: “I was confirmed”, they will think that they have read: “I was infirm”. And, in the list of expenses written in the book, you would never guess that the “glasses” acquired are… astronomical glasses, or telescopes.
Mr de La Vauguyon profits again from the circumstances. From this moment on, there will be no more obstacles to the application of his educational theories. In the diverse manuals which he used, he highlights virtue as being the most important. He affirms that “if he ignores firmness” the sovereign will call down upon his person “the anger of the heavens, the hate of his subjects and the scorn of nations”. He insists:
“Firmness is for all men, and particularly for Princes, a virtue so absolutely necessary that without it all others are nothing. In fact, however Pious, however Good, however Just you may be, if you are not Firm, you will understand no principle, your best dispositions will have no effect… Born virtuous without really being so, you will accept that vice triumphs and dares to oppress merit and innocence.”
He also warns the prince against indecision, which is the consequence of weakness. Absolute monarchy cannot pactise with these faults: the king is the only master, it is up to him to make all the decisions. He incites his pupil not to confuse this virtue with its corresponding vice: stubbornness, which
“persuades a prince that he can do anything that he wants and everything that he has conceived without allowing him to listen to reason and submit his projects to a considered examination; this makes him a sort of monster who becomes the flayer of the peoples whom God has given to his care”.
It has been concluded from this teaching that the virtue of firmness, so exalted by his preceptor, must have been lacking in the prince. And this suspicion is not without some foundation. The perspective of governing uncontestably causes him some fear. Mr de La Vauguyon even evokes one day “a way of diminishing his terrors and weaken in him the idea of difficulties”. But this doesn’t mean that the virtue of firmness is totally foreign to the prince.
In all of his writings, he places this quality above all others. And it is not just vague theoretic elucubrations. He insists also on its practical application and on the necessity, consequently, of preserving the absolute character of the French monarchy. Gradually, he prepares himself for the duties to which he will be called. He describes the arguments to which he will try to conform his conduct:
“I sense that I owe to God, to the choice that he has made for me to reign, to the virtues of my ancestors, to immediately leave childhood and make myself worthy of the throne on which one day I could be seated; that for this reason, I should neglect nothing to become a really pious, good, just and firm prince; that I can only acquire these qualities by hard work, and that I make the resolution to give myself up to it completely.”
In another Entretien, he even affirms that firmness is a natural character trait for him, of which he must avoid the excesses. Gradually, he forges his character and believes himself ready to affront the tempests that the heavens might wish to send him…
Is he really? His masters have certainly taught him the principles which should guide his reign. But they painted him a picture of a paternal monarchy, while keeping him far away from the preoccupations of their times. The education given to him, based on moralistic and rigoristic theories, show the flaws which will shake his timid authority… This is why the pedagogy of Mr de La Vauguyon has been particularly criticised by posterity.
Apart from the contents of this teaching, the educator has been reproached with having voluntarily kept the prince in ignorance and fear to reinforce his own influence. It would seem that the Duke of Berry was not deceived by this. In fact, later on, when he had to choose a preceptor for his son, he will decline the services of the young Duke de La Vauguyon, saying to him: “I am upset to have to refuse you, but you know that you and I have been raised very badly.”
To be continued.