Life Lessons

Madame du Barry & Me: What an 18th Century Courtesan Taught Me about Modern Life

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If you’ve ever wondered where writers get their ideas, sometimes it’s when they were looking for something completely different.

Case in point: I’ve been reading the biography Du Barry by Stanley Loomis, as part of my research for the sequel to The Romanov Legacy. The book is a fascinating glimpse at Louis XV’s last mistress. I related to her in a way I never expected. She grew up under the Ancien Regime, and had no reason to think the fundamental pillars of her world, from politics to culture, would ever be any different. But then the French Revolution swept it all away.

  • King? Gone.
  • Kingship in its entirety? Also gone.
  • Social structure? Yeah, that’s effed up, too.
  • Culture? Pretty much wiped out.
  • Religion? Outlawed.
  • Common human decency? Hello, September Massacres.

The tools Madame du Barry had for coping with her world were of no use. She couldn’t seduce her way out of it. She couldn’t bribe her way out of it. Appealing to the people in power didn’t work, either—and she tried. It just wasn’t the old system anymore. That’s how I feel about life in general, albeit on a smaller and less violent scale.

I was born in 1977. Computers? There were a few, mostly on big college campuses or government think-tanks.

The economy? Kinda crappy, but the crappy turns were relatable to major world events, like the oil shortage. Now, it seems they’re tied to a few greedy investment banks and big companies so beholden to shareholders and the relentless PR machine fed by their quarterly earnings statements that the letter and spirit of the law both got flushed down the toilet. (Sorry, Montesquieu.)

Buying a house? Do-able, if you had a steady, decent job. You got a steady, decent job by going to college, which was also expensive but do-able. It was all very do-able.

What’s Changed?

Everything. Now, you’re in debt up to your eyeballs for an undergraduate degree that won’t get you anything but a job at the Gap or a temp agency. You’ll never be able to afford a house because prices are skyrocketing again and you have no job and too much student debt to qualify for a loan.

Health insurance? Back in the day, most employers offered it and it didn’t cost an arm and a leg. You didn’t have to fear every twinge or cough because you can’t afford your deductible. Your doctor didn’t prescribe you mood-altering medication with more side effects than chemotherapy because he gets a free trip to the Caribbean if he prescribes it 1,500 times a year.

Everything in the whole world has gotten worse, except now people have smartphones, so we’re supposed to feel good about progress.

Everything in the whole world has gotten worse, except now people have smartphones, so we’re supposed to feel good about progress.

I do not have a smartphone. I do not feel good about progress. That’s probably why so many of my stories are about people who are no longer at home in the world they live in.

What Happens When You Resist Change

To find out, all we have to do is look at what happened to Madame du Barry. It took her quite a while to realize just how much her world had changed—until the morning of her execution, in fact. It wasn’t when a roving bloodthirsty mob tossed her lover’s decapitated head into her living room. It wasn’t when she returned from a trip to England to find her home locked up, her possessions decreed property of the state. It wasn’t when she got arrested, or tried, or condemned. Nope.

It was when her last bargaining chip (promising to reveal the location of valuable gold, jewelry, plate, and other possessions buried on her property) failed that she had that cosmic oh shit! moment. And it broke her. That’s why they had to drag her out of the cart, up to the guillotine, and strap her down to the board.

She begged them not to hurt her. She tried to run away. She screamed and cried, to the point where spectators made comments  appreciating how the other aristocrats went to their deaths with dignity. But you know what? Madame du Barry wasn’t born an aristocrat. And her screaming and crying likely just reminded all the Madame de Farges in the audience what a cruel, evil thing they were doing.

It’s easy to kill someone who sucks it up and takes it without a whimper. It’s a lot harder to kill one who squirms and wriggles out of your grasp, asks for help, and never stops trying to live. Madame du Barry never stopped trying to live. She couldn’t internalize or accept the fact that she was about to be killed. That’s how we know she was broken.

“Neither emotionally nor physically did she go to the guillotine a dying woman. To the last moment she was alive and like a trapped animal every instinct caused her to struggle for life.”

Stanley Loomis

Were all those other aristocrats who walked calmly up to the blade broken? I don’t know. I don’t think so.

Maybe they knew their gains were ill-gotten, even if not by them, and they were just getting the cosmic ass-kicking earned for their bloodline 10 generations ago. But Madame du Barry wasn’t one of them. She was a peasant. And the reason they killed her was probably basic jealousy. Hers was a sort of sordid Cinderella story, that ended with her owning a house that looked a museum, and a jewelry collection that could have bought any country in Europe a brand-new navy.

Why You Should Resist Change Anyway

So, to get back to the title of this post, what did Madame du Barry’s story teach me about modern life?

There are ten-year-olds who can code their own websites. It takes me half an hour to send a one-sentence text message on my flip phone. Guess who’s the Madame du Barry in this equation.

But if you turn this problem around, what if there are certain things being lost? I can walk down the street without being glued to a screen. I can entertain myself without batteries. I played board games, not video games. I ran around outside instead of jumping on the carpet and waving a Wii controller. I can read a map instead of using GPS. Small comfort, perhaps…until there’s a power outage.

Who’s Madame du Barry now?

I’m going to take a page from Madame du Barry’s playbook: live in the country, live the way you want, surround yourself with beautiful things, be nice to everyone, and keep a low profile while doing so.

But I’m also going to take a page from the revolutionaries’ playbook: know what’s going on around you and adapt when the situation calls for it. I don’t have the kind of blind faith in humanity that Madame du Barry had.

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I write thrillers, romance, historical fiction, tiara posts, and more. Right now, I'm working on a nonfiction trilogy: Grand Duchess Hilda of Baden, Grand Duchess Elizaveta Mikhailovna of Russia, and Princess Augusta of Brunswick.


  1. I was born in 1966 and yes, so much has changed. I have tried to stay up on technology (I do like my smartphone – smile), but a quick conversation with my nephews (in their twenties) and I realize what a dinosaur I really am. But then I take a harder look and realize that being a dinosaur isn’t all that bad. Like you said, I can entertain myself without batteries and play sports for real (not via a Wii). The more complex life via technology gets, the more I crave simplicity. Not a bury-your-head-in-the-sand type simplicity (no Madame du Barry’s blind faith for me either), but a purposeful slowing down. Enjoyed the post, Jenni. It made me stop and think.

    1. Author

      Thanks, Diane! I crave simplicity for most things, too. Except when it comes to writing…I think I’ve lost the ability to write a story by hand. My brain just doesn’t turn on unless I’m at the keyboard. So I guess that’s one thing I have to stay high-tech for. But for most other things, I just want the technology to stop causing me problems. (Yay, rural internet.)

  2. Thanks for introducing me to Madame du Barry. Until now, I had a vague recollection that she was someone wealthy who lived some centuries ago. You made her story relevant to today.

    I don’t own a smartphone: just a dumb old $5 flip phone that can break without breaking me, and that I can lose without losing my mind. I had more energy (and fitness) than my kids until 2 years ago. (I became ill, and I’m regaining my abilities without a Wii or TENS unit, or other such technology. I prefer other therapies that require personal, mental and spiritual interaction.)

    However, I heavily depend on the internet (yes, I, too, depend on rural access, via satellite dish). It reaches beyond the limited resources in my rural community, and connects me with people in my new global community who share perspectives outside of my own. Perspectives on what’s right and wrong, good and bad, important and not. It gives me access to some of the world’s finest educators via MOOCs. It connects me with writers like you. I am more internet-savvy than my kids. You write, “The tools Madame du Barry had for coping with her world were of no use.” You remind me to be fearful of when the internet highway is narrowed by corporate interests.

    You are ten years older than my oldest child. I hope my three kids will see what you see, and worded so concisely: “major world events are tied to a few greedy investment banks and big companies so beholden to shareholders and the relentless PR machine fed by their quarterly earnings statements that the letter and spirit of the law both got flushed down the toilet.” My oldest may be the closest: she and her husband became more fit than I ever was.

    What do you think about the following recent conversation? I was talking with a young adult, referring to my dear online friends, and she said, “that will never happen in my generation. We were taught to be scared of strangers.”

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