John Hardman

The curious similarities between Carrie Symonds and Marie Antoinette

The curious similarities between Carrie Symonds and Marie Antoinette
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What is Carrie Symonds’s status? She seems to have a lot of influence but its extent is undefined. People find the lack of clarity unsettling. Nic Conner of the Bow Group observed in the Times that unlike ministers or civil servants she ‘cannot be sacked’ — a questionable point given Boris Johnson’s alleged amatory record. It is true however that she was neither elected nor appointed.

So what is she — mistress, partner, girlfriend, fiancé or (perish the thought) first lady? We have to raid the historical locker to find the mot juste: maîtresse-en-titre - the official mistress of the French kings. The mistress that seems most relevant is Madame de Pompadour (1721-64) the maîtresse-en-titre of Louis XV. She was the de facto prime minister — making ministers (Choiseul) and breaking them (Maurepas) just as Ms Symonds is rumoured to have seen off Dominic Cummings. Both women also had their own agenda. In the case of Pompadour it was alliance with France’s hereditary enemy Austria. In return the Habsburg empress condescended to call Pompadour ‘Madame ma soeur’ — an appellation usually reserved for monarchs. However the Austrian alliance led to disastrous defeats in the Seven Years War when France lost many of her colonies to Britain. For her own part, Ms Symonds seems to be pushing an expensive green agenda further than many people want to go. 

When Mr Johnson marries Carrie Symonds, the nearest equivalent for her will be Marie-Antoinette. Her power stemmed from the fact that her husband Louis XVI never took a mistress so that Marie-Antoinette combined both roles — mistress and queen. There is an interesting parallel between Madame de Pompadour and Marie-Antoinette: they both only began to exert major influence on their respective kings after sexual relations had ceased. In Madame de Pompadour’s case this was circa 1750; in that of Marie-Antoinette, it was after she became pregnant with Sophie, her last child who was born on 9 July 1786. She told her brother the emperor Joseph II that ‘she was annoyed at being pregnant because she thought she had enough children’. Joseph sent her a scolding letter in which he ‘brought home to her the disastrous consequences of such a conduct if she ever wanted (whether for comfort or convenience) to separate from the king in order to avoid having any more children’. Joseph clearly means separate beds rather than divorce.

She ignored his advice, but not before she consummated her long friendship with the Swedish Count Axel Fersen who, whatever the rumours, was not the father of any of her four children. The end of Marie-Antoinette’s sexual relations with the king happened to coincide with the collapse of his confidence and a nervous breakdown after the defeat of his major reform programme in the Assembly of Notables (1787) which marked the beginning of the French Revolution. She said that ‘hard necessity’ had forced her to step into the breach.

All these women were unpopular and not just because they were associated with unsuccessful policies. Marie-Antoinette was credited with stopping the king from gracefully accepting the French Revolution and with causing the deficit which led to it, hence one of the more printable epithets applied to her: Madame Déficit. Partly their unpopularity stemmed from a dislike of ‘women wearing the trousers’ — apparently leather ones in Symonds’s case. Partly it was the paradox of the unofficial, official position. Marie-Antoinette acknowledged all this: ‘Every woman who concerns herself with matters beyond her knowledge and the limits of her duty is nothing but an intriguer’. But her wish to ‘deploy just enough influence to set up... [her] friends and a few zealous servitors’ was ultimately incompatible with that of avoiding political engagement. 

‘So what have I done to them’? Marie-Antoinette asked rhetorically, in a manner that was uncomprehending and angry rather than seeking an answer. Carrie Symonds may be asking the same question.

Finally there are parallels between the flat above No. 10 (which Ms Symonds is accused of lavishly furnishing) and that occupied by the maîtresses-en-titre which was crammed under the eaves of Versailles above the king’s apartments. Both gave direct access to power but neither was commodious so that one minister thought the price paid for influence represented the 'refined essence of all human vanity and ambition.' On his accession Louis XVI booted out Louis XV’s last mistress Madame du Barry and installed Maurepas there — the one Madame de Pompadour had sent into internal exile. The reign of mistresses ended and that of spouses began. History is about to repeat itself.