Not what you would consider the world’s most formidable arsenal of seduction, is it? And yet that combination won Mme. De Maintenon the heart of a king, and not just any old king either but Louis XIV, the Grand Monarque himself.
How do we know all this? Letters. Mme de Maintenon wrote letters all her life in a beautifully correct French the rhythms of which are comparable to the stately music of Lully. They are not, unfortunately, very amusing letters because just before she died she decided to pile up all the interesting ones, all the ones which might have made us see Mme de Maintenon the prissy boots differently, and burn them. “I wish to remain,” she remarked with that tone of slight superiority which marred her flawless French-“an enigma to History.”
And so she has. Louis almost certainly married her when they were both middle aged, and loved her very much, usually referring to her as “Your Solidity”, which goes to show that Louis was a realist even in matters of the heart. And she wore a combination of marjoram and rosewater.
This presumably was in contrast to the scents that Louis must have associated with his previous mistresses. When he began his long dalliance with Maintenon’s seductive predecessor Mme. de Montespan, the floral tributes came in the form of orange trees. Louis had a life long affection for orange trees and had them in enormous numbers in tubs lined up in military formations around the gardens of Versailles. When he gave the manor of Clagny (regrettably subdivided out of existence) to de Montespan he kept her supplied with a similarly generous number. ” I am very pleased,” he wrote to his minister of Finance Colbert, ” to hear of your purchase of orange trees for Mme. de Montespan: if Mme de Montespan wishes it, continue to buy the best you can.” The smell of orange flowers, heavy, indolic, sweet in a narcotic way, complimented the overt sexuality that Athenais displayed. She also went in for dosing her royal lover with aphrodisiacs that may have been the source of Louis’ recurring headaches, and certainly the source of her downfall.
The more respectable De Maintenon came with a smell of her own, and it was a rustic, if pleasing, recipe. Anyone with a still room and a few bushes of Gallica roses and an herb patch could concoct it. I admit to trying to myself once long ago. The trick is keeping the ratio of rose to marjoram very high. Otherwise the whole thing smells medicinal rather than pretty, but if you put something like ten parts rose otto to one part marjoram, then it works.
Incidentally, or maybe not so incidentally in those days when poison was referred to casually as “inheritance powder,” marjoram is an antidote to hemlock and opium poisoning. This piece of trivia I picked up from the old source of Gerard’s Herbal. Very useful in cases where people had been dosed with one of those poisons. Gerard says you take a decoction with a glass of white wine. Just in case you’re ever poisoned, now you know what to do.
I wondered after reading about Mme de Maintenon if there was anything at all like her simple old recipe on the market these days? The closest thing that I could think of was Crown perfumery’s old Crown Rose, now discontinued but findable. It’s supposed to have a slight musty rose water scent to it, and that might replicate the favorite’s perfume.
But who knows, if she were alive today I’m guessing that the sensible Maintenon would wear something moderately priced and pretty and certainly not sexy (she complained about sex to her confessor: honestly, why did her husband seem so keen on it?) so possibly CB I HATE PERFUME’s Tea Rose would have fit the bill? Mme de Maintenon would have wanted to keep it clean at all costs.
Look at the clean up job she did on her life.