Her father, Constant d'Aubigné, was the son of Agrippa d'Aubigné, the famous friend and general of Henry IV, and had been imprisoned as a Huguenot malcontent, but her mother, a fervent Catholic, had the child baptized in her religion, her sponsors being the duc de la Rochefoucauld, father of the author of the Maxims, and the comtesse de Neuillant.
In 1639 Constant d'Aubigné was released from prison and took all his family with him to Martinique, where he died in 1645, after having lost what fortune remained to him at cards. Mme d'Aubigné returned to France, and from sheer poverty unwillingly yielded her daughter to her sister-in-law, Mme de Villette, who made the child very happy, but converted or pretended to convert her to Protestantism. When this became known, an order of state was issued that she should be entrusted to Mme de Neuillant, her godmother. Every means was now used to convert her back to Catholicism, but at the last she only yielded on the condition that she need not believe that the soul of Mme de Villette was lost. Once reconverted, she was neglected and sent home to live with her mother, who had only a small pension of 200 livres a year, which ceased on her death in 1650.
Coming to the Royal Court
The chevalier de Mere, a man of some literary distinction, who had made her acquaintance at Mme de Neuillant's, discovered her penniless condition, and introduced his "young Indian," as he called her, to Scarron, the famous witty and comic writer, at whose house all the literary society of the day assembled. Scarron took a fancy to the friendless girl, and offered either to pay for her admission to a convent, or, though he was deformed and an invalid, to marry her himself. She accepted his offer of marriage, and became Mme Scarron in 1651. For nine years she served not only as his most faithful nurse, but as an attraction to his house, where she tried to bridle the licence of the conversation of the time.
On the death of Scarron, in 1660, Anne of Austria continued his pension to his widow, and even increased it to 2000 livres a year, which enabled her to entertain and frequent the literary society her husband had made her acquainted with; but on the queen-mother's death in 1666 the King Louis XIV refused to continue her pension, and she prepared to leave Paris for Lisbon as lady attendant to the queen of Portugal. But before she started she met Madame de Montespan, who was already, though not avowedly, the king's mistress, and who took such a fancy to her that she obtained the continuance of her pension, which put off for ever the question of going to Portugal. Mme de Montespan did yet more for her, for when, in 1669, her first child by the king was born, Mme Scarron was established with a large income and a large staff of servants at Vaugirard to bring up the king's children in secrecy as they were born.
In 1674 the king determined to have his children at court, and their governess, who had now made sufficient fortune to buy the estate of Maintenon, accompanied them. The king had now many opportunities of seeing Mme Scarron, and, though at first he was prejudiced against her, her even temper contrasted so advantageously with the storms of passion and jealousy exhibited by Mme de Montespan, that she grew steadily in his favour, and had in 1678 the gratification of having her estate at Maintenon raised to a marquisate and herself entitled Mme de Maintenon by the king. Such favours brought down the fury of Mme de Montespan's jealousy, and Mme de Maintenon's position became almost unendurable, until, in 1680, the king severed their connection by making the latter second lady in waiting to the dauphiness, and soon after Mme de Montespan left the court. The new arnie used her influence on the side of decency, and Queen Maria Theresa openly declared she had never been so well treated as at this time, and eventually died in Mme de Maintenon's arms in 1683.
Marriage with Louis XIV
The queen's death opened the way to yet greater advancement; in 1684 Mme de Maintenon became first lady in waiting to the dauphiness, and in the winter of 1685-1686 she was privately married to the king by Harlay, archbishop of Paris, in the presence, it is believed, of Père la Chaise, the king's confessor, the marquis de Montchevreuil, the chevalier de Forbin, and Bontemps. Due to the large inequality of social statuses, she could not marry the King openly and become queen, and their marriage was morganatic. No written proof of the marriage is extant, but that it took place is nevertheless certain.
Her life during the next thirty years can be fully studied in her letters, of which many authentic examples remain. As a wife she was wholly admirable; she had to entertain a man who would not be amused, and had to submit to that terribly strict court etiquette of absolute obedience to the king's inclination, which Saint-Simon so vividly describes, and yet be always cheerful and never complain of weariness or ill-health.
Influence and legacy
Her political influence has probably been exaggerated, but it was supreme in matters of detail. The ministers of the day used to discuss and arrange all the business to be done with the king beforehand with her, and it was all done in her cabinet and in her presence, but the king in more important matters often chose not to consult her. Such mistakes as, for instance, the replacing of Catinat by Villeroi in 1701 may be attributed to her, but not whole policies - notably, according to Saint-Simon, not the policy with regard to the Spanish succession. Even the revocation of the edict of Nantes and the dragonnades have been laid to her charge, but recent investigations have tended to show that in spite of ardent Catholicism, she at least opposed, if not very vigorously, the cruelties of the dragonnades, although she was pleased with the conversions they procured.
She was apparently afraid to imperil her great reputation for devotion, which had in 1692 obtained for her from Innocent XII the right of visitation over all the convents in France. Where she deserves blame is in her use of her power for personal patronage, as in compassing the promotions of Chamillart and Villeroi, and the frequent assistance given to her brother Comte Charles d'Aubigné. Her influence was on the whole a moderating and prudent force. Her social influence was not as great as it might have been, owing to her holding no recognized position at court, but she always exercised it on the side of decency and morality, and it must not be forgotten that from her former life she was intimate with the literary people of the day. Side by side with this public life, which wearied her with its shadowy power, occasionally crossed by a desire to be recognised as queen, she passed a nobler and sweeter private existence as the foundress of Saint Cyr. Mme de Maintenon was a born teacher; she had so won the hearts of her first pupils that they preferred her to their own mother, and was similarly successful later with the young and impetuous duchess of Burgundy, and she had always wished to establish a home for poor girls of good family placed in such straits as she herself had experienced. As soon as her fortunes began to mend she started a small home for poor girls at Rueil, which she afterwards moved to Noisy, and which formed the nucleus of the splendid institution of St Cyr, which the king endowed in 1686, at her request, out of the funds of the Abbey of St Denis. She was in her element there. She herself drew up the rules of the institution; she examined every minute detail; she befriended her pupils in every way; and her heart often turned from the weariness of Versailles or of Marly to her "little girls" at St Cyr.
It was for them that Racine wrote his Esther and his Athalie, and it was because he managed the affairs of St Cyr well that Michel Chamillart became controller-general of the finances. The later years of her power were marked by the promotion of her old pupils, the children of the king and Mme de Montespan, to high dignity between the blood royal and the peers of the realm, and it was doubtless under the influence of her dislike for the duke of Orléans that the king drew up his will, leaving the personal care of his successor to the duke of Maine, and hampering the duke of Orléans by a council of regency. On or even before her husband's death in 1715 she retired to St Cyr, and had the chagrin of seeing all her plans for the advancement of the duke of Maine overthrown by means of the parliament of Paris. However, the regent Orléans in no way molested her, but, on the contrary, visited her at St Cyr and continued her pension of 48,000 livres. She spent her last years at St Cyr in perfect seclusion, but an object of great interest to all visitors to France, who, however, with the exception of Peter the Great, found it impossible to get an audience with her. On 15 April 1719 she died, and was buried in the choir at St Cyr, bequeathing her estate at Maintenon to her niece, the only daughter of her brother Charles and wife of the maréchal de Noailles, to whose family it still belongs.
La Beaumelle published the Lettres de Madame de Maintenon, but much garbled, in 2 vols. in 1752, and on a larger scale in 9 vols. in 1756. He also, in 1755, published Mémoires de Madame de Maintenon, in 6 vols., which caused him to be imprisoned in the Bastille. All earlier biographies were superseded by Théophile Lavallée's Histoire de St Cyr, reviewed in Causeries du lundi, vol. viii., and by his edition of her Lettres historiques et édifiantes, etc , in 7 vols.