As Elizabeth Goldsmith writes in The King’s Mistresses: The Liberated Lives of Marie Mancini, Princess Colonna, and Her Sister Hortense, Duchess Mazarin (PublicAffairs, 2012), the Mazarin sisters were “arguably the first media celebrities.” Upon their arrival at Louis XIV’s Court of Versailles, the sisters made a splash when Marie and the young King promptly fell in love. Ultimately, the couple’s relationship– which climaxed with a forced separation and Marie’s confinement in a convent– reads like something out of Shakespeare.
Forced into advantageous mismatches that were, at turns, oppressive and abusive, the sisters jumped back into public view when Hortense, donning men’s clothing and making use of the new post coach service, left her husband and took to the road. Marie promptly joined her.
At a time when it was borderline scandalous for women to travel unaccompanied by men, much less divorce them, the sisters darted about Europe, seeking refuge from the husbands who actively pursued them. The story of their escape seemed like something out of a novel and, for years, the whole of Europe was riveted. As Goldsmith writes, the sisters were “admired by libertines, feminists and free-thinkers but viewed by others as frivolous at best and threats to civil society at worst.”
Both women penned memoirs, with that of Hortense being the first memoir written to which a woman signed her name. What is perhaps most striking about the sisters now is how brazenly unapologetic they were. As Hortense writes: “I know that a woman’s glory lies in her not giving rise to gossip, but one cannot always choose the kind of life one would like to lead.” She and her sister landed lives of adventure.