Montesquieu, Mme de

Catherine Volpilhac-Auger

1We know almost nothing about Jeanne de Lartigue, baroness of La Brède and Montesquieu: there subsists no correspondence between husband and wife, and no one said anything about her. This article therefore does not pretend to offer new revelations; rather, its object is to review a certain number of legends which over time have constituted a vulgate, as biographers attempted to fill the void, generally aided by imagination. Better to separate out only what can provide some solid elements.

The reasons behind the marriage

2Montesquieu (who was then called Secondat de Montesquieu, being baron only of La Brède) was married at the age of twenty-six: it was his responsibility to prolong the lineage and assure the posterity of the patrimony. On 22 March 1715 he signed a marriage contract with Jeanne de Lartigue, aged about twenty-three, whom he married on 30 April at the St. Michel church, having broken the contract signed on 12 February with Marguerite Denis, daughter of a recently-ennobled wine merchant from Les Chartrons, who was to furnish a dowry of 75,000 livres. Mlle de Lartigue had 100,000, and was moreover a single daughter, the Lartigue properties in Martillac (they also owned considerable land in Clairac, in Agenais county) adjoining those of La Brède. The Lartigues’ nobility was neither more ancient nor more exalted than that of the Denises: Pierre de Lartigue, ennobled in 1704, was an officer several times wounded, most recently in the siege of Namur, who had come up through the ranks to end up a lieutenant-colonel. Moreover, the family was Protestant, which was forbidden since the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. But the alliance with the Denises was desired by Montesquieu’s uncles, as is explained in the Mémorial de Savignac (p. 414); the choice of Jeanne de Lartigues thus appears as a break and as the affirmation of personal will – moreover, no member of the Secondat family attended the marriage (as for the Huguenot Lartigue family, it could only avoid churches); but Dalat points out that in his testament Jacques de Secondat, Montesquieu’s father, invited his son to seek a wife in the vicinity of La Brède (Dalat 1972, p. 30).

3The alliance was to prove ultimately less advantageous than expected: the 100,000 livres were in part constituted by recovery of debts, one of which was instantly doubtful, which entailed an open war beginning in 1717 between Montesquieu and his parents-in-law (Dalat 1984). We do not know the attitude of his wife, caught between the two sides; but the question cannot be eluded, all the more so marriage that at this social level, far from being based on sentiments, was above all an association of interests. In any case, it fulfilled the requirements, for a son, Jean-Baptiste, was born in February 1716, followed by two daughters, Marie Catherine in 1717 and Denise in 1727.

4There are numerous documents bearing the trace of Jeanne de Lartigue’s hand (particularly the signature, under the form “Lartigue de Montesquieu”, on notarized acts in function of her husband’s proxy). But no element reveals the personality or the particular events of her life; we know only that she died at seventy-eight on 13 July 1770, as she had lived, in the Protestant religion: the baroness de Montesquieu was buried in the Protestant cemetery in Bordeaux (Archives historiques de la Gironde).

5There is no testimony regarding the relations between the two spouses which is reliable, and surely no inference is to be drawn from a remark relative to Homer about the “coldness of conjugal love” (OC, t. XVII). In March 1725, Montesquieu wrote: “There is a woman I love very much because she never answers back when I talk to her, because she has already slapped me five or six times for the reason, she says, that she is in a bad mood.” Now this quotation is taken from a letter in which Montesquieu declares his love to Mme de Grave (Correspondance; [15-20 mars] 1725); the confidence is therefore suspect, or at least self-interested. Two months later the tone has changed: “I shall remain here for a few months, lover of my woods, my garden, my isolation, and my wife” (Correspondance, to [Mme Berthelot de Jouy], end of april 1725?)); but that confession is of equally little credibility, for the letter, to another great lady, is all banter. The gallant writer is playing the peasant of the Danube, withdrawn from society and reduced to rustic pleasures, at a time when correspondence, far from being the site of effusion and shared intimacy, is first of all the means of constructing a self-image, variable according to the moment and the addressee. Finally, Robert Shackleton (1979, 1988) has shown that a letter probably dating from 1743 and signed “Montesquieu”, rich in hyperbolic expressions of affection, is not by Jeanne de Lartigue but by Thérèse de Secondat, Montesquieu’s sister (OC, t. XIX, letter 539 and Annex 9). The couple’s correspondence has thus entirely disappeared; knowing how carefully Montesquieu’s descendants preserved all his letters, we must conclude that their destruction is due to Madame de Montesquieu herself, who was their sole possessor after 1755.

Clichés and inventions

6What more do we know? It is often said that Madame de Montesquieu was ugly and lame; to compensate for that, she must therefore have been a good administrator. We have there three interlocking traits, all three stemming from a seemingly unanimous, but essentially unfounded, tradition, and typical of biography as the art of filling the blanks with clichés – beginning with the first of them: making of beauty a woman’s defining feature.

7The single solid element: the absence of information, which designates the absence of worldly life and the radical division between Montesquieu’s wife and his friends, who never mention or even name her, even when they may have known her in the Bordelais, like Berwick or Bulkeley. No visitor to La Brède seems even to have met her, with the sole and notable exception of the abbé de Guasco, who lived there for extended periods and was close to the entire family (OC, t. XIX). From the fact that no one spoke of her beauty, nor of her at all, one might have concluded that she was exceptionally discrete; instead they concluded that she was ugly.

8Her lameness would seem to have been known to Montesquieu himself, who writes at the beginning of Persian Letters: “I know a woman who walks rather well, but who limps when she is being watched.” Editors of that work could not overlook this allusion. On that basis, they explain her limp and her timidity, the one reinforcing the other (Geffriaud-Rosso, p. 31), and they deduce from that (for no source is mentioned) that she was “candid and good” (Desgraves, p. 58). But how would a président à mortier, baron of La Brède and of Montesquieu, dare speak this way of his wife? And would he never have seen any other woman walk? The annotators of Persian Letters never cite, to shore up such a flimsy identification, anything more than a “tradition” of which we have been able to find not the slightest foundation (Persian letters, Introduction, "[‣]" "témoin telle note…"); biographers have repeated it without ever verifying it, and have drawn from it all sorts of derivative or compensatory qualities.

9Finally, was she a businesswoman? Montesquieu entrust to her the management of his domains during his absences, often of several years. But the proxies she exercised never pertained to anything but simple acts, and it is impossible to operate numerous, fragmented properties for routine matters, sometimes with a very precise definition of what she is authorized to sign. Does she handle more important matters, such as the purchase of the mill of Luzié and the domain of Saint-Morillon in 1738? She was to see herself disavowed by her husband who, in order to nullify the sale, argues that she did not have sufficient authority to sign; he was nevertheless to buy mill and domain in 1746, but for 5000 livres, compared with 8200 cash in 1738 (OC, t. XIX, letters 485 and 600). In Montesquieu’s great suit against his neighbors, then against the councilmen of Bordeaux (1726-1743), in which an affidavit was manifestly extracted from her that hindered her husband’s cause, she was merely serving as a relay between him and the lawyer Grenouilleau (OC, t. XIX, passim). Finally, the testimony of the marquis de Mirabeau (which could only have come from Montesquieu himself) has often been attested:

[…] far from seeing his business interests degenerate because of his continual travels, from Rome he makes provision for the tree he wants planted in a particular spot on his land; his wife executes, he finds his plantings done when he returns, and has considerably increased his revenue, at a time when a miserable homebody complained that the land was becoming more barren by the day. (Letter from Mirabeau to Vauvenargues, 7 February 1739, in Vauvenargues, p. 510)

10But that is the portrait of a day-by-day executrice; and in fact she can only have been only an applied manager whose writing we find on the receipts of La Brède which she filed; she was a necessary intermediary, given that Montesquieu had never hired a steward, but not a woman empowered to make decisions.

Daily life

11Husband and wife at least had one point in common: sustained attention to increasing their landed capital, to collecting the smallest royalties, even if they were simply from candle wax, and frugal management, in which a form of avarice has sometimes been seen. Even had they wished to, the couple, whom we may call wealthy, but rich above all in real estate, could not have lived “nobly”, in other words spending lavishly to sustain their rank (J. Ehrard); is this a reason for being content with such aging, unmatching furniture as is revealed in La Brède by the inventory of 1755 published by Eylaud? This heiress so richly endowed, whose parents lived more elegantly, as is attested by their post-mortem inventories, does not appear to have taken the trouble to make of La Brède anything more than a rustic residence, devoid of any appearance of luxury; even comfort (the traditional characteristic of bourgeois expenditure) seems lacking – maybe it was better on the Rue Neuve in Bordeaux, where she owned a house. This modesty has often been cited to attest a sense of parcimony pushed to the extreme in Montesquieu; but whose chore was it to oversee the furniture, the kitchen equipment, and the crockery?

12She was also a mother; as was usual, she did not have to take care of her daughters, both interned in convents from their earliest youth (and certainly at a nurse’s during the first years), whereas her son was sent to the prestigious Louis-le-Grand college before the age of nine. In 1730, the abbé Duval, who kept watch over him in Paris, had to send requests several times and repeatedly for shirts for the child (Bordeaux, BM, Ms 1988/23-30). At length one wonders whether she might not have been a negligent housemistress, and whether the avarice might not be that of the person who was supposed to see to the business of family life. Montesquieu spent considerably for his books, his travels in Europe and his stays in Paris, the constant services of a secretary, or further for his son’s education, without much care for his appearance (J. Ehrard); his wife seems to have cut back on everything. But since she was not known, it was easier to attribute to the husband what lay more than anything in her province. The question remains in any case open.

13Was this marriage then just convention, constraint and habit between two strangers (or worse: two enemies)? In Jeanne de Lartigue, Montesquieu was not looking for wit, taste and the dazzle he prized in Parisian aristocratic circles; but it was certain at least that this Protestant was to keep herself distant from her own mother’s devout practices of mortification (“Le livre de raison de Jacques de Secondat”); and he did not wish for his daughters a life very different from that of their mother. If she was not a shrewd businesswoman nor even mistress of a household able to sustain her rank, Madame de Montesquieu did play her role in guaranteeing the posterity of the lineage and the activity, and thus the revenues, of the domain. Montesquieu’s pleasures were elsewhere, and his intellectual works beyond her ken; at least she troubled neither the former nor the latter. But of her own person and personality, it is prudent to assert nothing, nor to draw judgments as gratuitous as they are needless.


Works of Montesquieu

1700-avril 1728:Correspondance: Montesquieu. Bibliothèque & éditions, 2022; 1728-mars 1731: OC, t. XVIII (1700-1731), Oxford, Voltaire Foundation, éd. Louis Desgraves et Edgar Mass, 1998; avril 1731 - juin 1747: OC, t. XIX, Lyon et Paris, ENS Éditions et Classiques Garnier, éd. Philip Stewart et C. Volpilhac-Auger, 2014; juillet 1747 - septembre 1750: OC, t. XX, ibid. ; octobre 1750 - février 1755: OC, t. XXI, Nadezda Plavinskaia, Philip Stewart et C. Volpilhac-Auger éd., à paraître.

Persian Letters: Lettres persanes, Œuvres complètes, t. I, ed. Philip Stewart and C. Volpilhac-Auger, 2004; révised ed., Montesquieu. Bibliothèque & éditions, 2019 [].

Historical and critical bibliography

Chronique du Bordelais au crépuscule du Grand Siècle : le mémorial de Savignac [1708-1720], Caroline Le Mao éd., Pessac: Presses universitaires de Bordeaux and Société des bibliophiles de Guyenne, 2004.

Luc de Clapiers, marquis de Vauvenargues, Œuvres complètes, ed. H. Bonnier, 1968, t. II.

Archives historiques de la Gironde 23 (1883),

Jean-Max Eylaud, Montesquieu chez ses notaires de La Brède, Bordeaux: Delmas, 1956, p. 148-174.

Jean Dalat, Montesquieu magistrat II, Paris: Minard, “Archives des lettres modernes”, 1972.

Jeannette Geffriaud-Rosso, Montesquieu et la féminité, Pise and Paris, Libreria Goliardica and Nizet, 1977.

Jean Dalat, Montesquieu: chef de famille en lutte avec ses beaux-parents, sa femme, ses enfants, Paris: Minard, “Archives des lettres modernes”, 1984.

Robert Shackleton, “Madame de Montesquieu, with some considerations on Thérèse de Secondat”, in Women and Society in Eighteenth-Century France: essays in honour of J. S. Spink, Eva Jacobs et al. dir., London: Athlone Press, 1979; reprinted in R. Shackleton, Essays on Montesquieu and on the Enlightenment, David Gilson and Martin Smith ed., Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 1988, p. 171-181.

Louis Desgraves, Montesquieu, Paris: Mazarine, 1986.

P. Voss, « Montesquieu face au mariage: alliances matrimoniales entre noblesse de robe et négociants au début du xviiie siècle”, Revue historique de Bordeaux, 1992, 2e série, vol. 34, p. 42-51.

Jean Ehrard, “Le poêle du Président”, in La Quête du bonheur: mélanges offerts à Corrado Rosso, Genève: Droz, 1995; reprinted in Jean Ehrard, L’Esprit des mots: Montesquieu en lui-même et parmi les siens, Genève: Droz, 1998, p. 27-39.

C. Volpilhac-Auger, “Le livre de raison de Jacques de Secondat”, Bibliothèque virtuelle Montesquieu, 2016 [].