It did not take long for the lively, cheerful duchess Yolande de Polignac to win Marie-Antoinette’s affection, and the two women developed an enduring friendship. She introduced the queen to a world of pleasures and fêtes, using her influence without a second thought to obtain extreme favours for herself and her family. She received the title of duchess and was appointed governess of the royal children in 1782 but left the court when the Revolution broke out in 1789.
When Yolande de Polastron met the queen at Versailles in 1775 she was married to the count Jules de Polignac, who, although a noble, was deeply in debt. Determined to rise above her condition, she was a fiercely ambitious social climber. Wit and charming looks were her ticket into the queen’s inner circle. A painting by the queen’s official portraitist, Madame Vigée-Lebrun, shows her dressed in a light, airy gaulle blouse and a flowered hat. Next to her, the queen discovers the joys of being happy-go-lucky and carefree. Abandoning the stiff protocol and etiquette of court life, she takes refuge at her château, the Petit Trianon.
Madame de Polignac quickly obtained the privileges she sought. In 1782 she received the title of duchess and was appointed governess of the royal children, the Enfants de France. She left her apartment, considered the “most beautiful quarters at Versailles”, and moved into the governess’s apartment, where she had major restoration work done. Her friends and family also reaped the benefits of her situation.
But the people of Paris harshly criticised Madame de Polignac for many years and the Revolution of 1789 drove her into exile. She left the queen with deep sorrow and corresponded with her from Switzerland, Italy and Austria. Their separation also saddened Marie-Antoinette. “Farewell, my most tender friend”, she wrote. “These lines are awful but I must write them; I have only the strength to kiss you.” The duchesse de Polignac died in 1793, some say of a broken heart at having left the queen. Her epitaph reads, “died of sorrow”.