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The Perils of Antoinette

She arrived naked; on an island in the Rhine, on May 7, 1770, in a pavilion especially built for the purpose, the Austrian princess Antonia was stripped of her clothes under the cold and curious gaze of a party of aristocrats. She was fourteen years old, and she cried while this happened. A keen wind nipped between the Gobelins tapestries in which the pavilion was draped; a steady rain began to fall and run through the pavilion’s roof.

The child had traveled from Vienna in a golden coach drawn by eight white horses. Now her new life was to begin, under a French name, Marie Antoinette. She was redressed, head to toe, as a Frenchwoman: whalebone stays and paniers to hold up her skirts, silk stockings embroidered with gold, and then the court robe, with its train, its flounces and frills, its beading and trim, gemstones and lace. Her feet crammed into high-heeled satin slippers, she was ready to go: blue eyes and Hapsburg lip, flat chest and pretty fair hair. Her teeth had recently been straightened; what pain and tedium that involved, we can only guess at. In her life so far she had been fond of dancing and playing with dolls. She had come from a musical, family-minded court, informal as courts go. But her formidable mother, the Empress Maria Theresa, sent her off with this warning: “All eyes will be fixed on you.” And in that chilly, liminal space, so they were—taking in every inch of the white body on which history would inscribe itself, and on which we are writing still. She had only just quit the pavilion when the weight of rainwater brought the roof down.

She was being brought to France to marry the dauphin, Louis Auguste, grandson of the reigning Louis XV. Acting always under scrutiny, under the public gaze, conforming to codes of which she was as yet ignorant, functioning within a system that confiscated personal emotions and replaced them with artificial sentiment, where codes of etiquette were more respected than the laws of the land or the dictates of the heart, she was expected to reconcile two nations with a long history of enmity, and she was expected to bear children to continue the Bourbon line.

In her numerous family she was one of the younger princesses, but death and the ravages of smallpox had taken older sisters off the marriage market. She had not been brought up for such a distinguished role; her education had been neglected, and if her personality was pleasant, her attention span was short. Bad omens clustered around the marriage. Black clouds hung over the wedding day at Versailles, and the wedding gown had been made too small, forcing her to stand at the altar with her bodice gaping, to show her shift and the lacing of her stays. At the public putting-to-bed ceremony, the new dauphine dived beneath the covers in shame and horror. What she saw there cannot have lifted a young girl’s heart.

The dauphin Louis Auguste was a staid, corpulent young man, fifteen years old. The Austrian ambassador reported, “Nature seems to have denied everything to Monsieur le Dauphin.” He had little sexual curiosity and no sexual appetite. Some historians think that his difficulties were psychological, others believe that a tight foreskin made the act painful. It was some years before the marriage could be consummated. Childless and pointless, the Queen had time on her hands; Caroline Weber’s entertaining and thought-provoking book explains how she filled it.

There is a delicate novel called Farewell My Queen, by the historian Chantal Thomas, which tells us in great detail about the artificial life of the palace of Versailles, referred to by its inhabitants as “ce pays-ci,” as if it were a country by itself. The waste of ennui that was the Versailles day was strictly timetabled:

There was a Perfect Day; its program had been set more than a century earlier by Louis XIV: Prayers, Petty Levee, Grand Levee, Mass, Dinner, Hunt, Vespers, Supper, Grand Couchee, Petty Couchee, Prayers, Petty Levee, Grand Levee…. Every day since that time was supposed to reenact the Perfect Day…. But reality never ceased to throw up obstacles. The reenactment was never completely successful…. Tiny modifications became snags, reforms became upheavals, and so on, leading down to the days in July of 1789 that saw the King capitulate and the court disperse—the collapse, in less than a week, of a ritual system that I had assumed was fixed for all time.1

At this distance we can see how well signaled that collapse was, how year by year the old regime spun its own metaphors of desuetude, like the cobwebs that would later drape its ballrooms. In summer the palace stank. Bedbugs, fleas, mice, and rats out-numbered even its human parasites. The Austrian princess, with her insistence on washing her face before plastering it with makeup, was thought singular in this as in other matters. It fell to a revolutionary to be assassinated in the bath; you would never have found a courtier there.

To preserve self-respect without actually going to the trouble of washing, a great deal of perfume was required; and how it was supplied is the subject of Elisabeth de Feydeau’s A Scented Palace, a biography of Jean-Louis Fargeon, the royal perfumer. The author is “a professor of the Versailles School of Perfumers,” and is against the Revolution, which she claims smelled “of sweat, rotgut wine, urine and blood.” In her rhapsodic and often unintentionally funny book she supplies a great deal of solid information about how Antoinette’s narcissism was serviced, and reminds us what old-fashioned royal worship sounds like. It seems the Queen had two ways of walking, one for public show at royal headquarters at Versailles, and one for her bijou private residence in the grounds:

Marie Antoinette had a unique way of walking that made her literally and figuratively heads above any woman in France. She carried her head high, with a majesty that made her stand out as the sovereign in the midst of the entire Court, yet this regal air in no way spoiled her look of gentleness and kindness, her combination of grace and nobility. In the Trianon, however, her walk was different, more relaxed, but nonetheless inspiring no loss of respect.

Given that she had the usual complement of legs, how unique could her gait be? Please, the reader wants to say, let this poor woman, whom you insist on adoring, at least be human. She was not a goddess, and could not keep a deity’s distance from events. Long before the Revolution, Antoinette (as her new subjects called her) was in a deeply vulnerable position. Figuratively speaking she may have moved, as Edmund Burke put it, “just above the horizon, decorating and cheering the elevated sphere she just began to move in,” but daily in her satin slippers she had to tread the same dirty floors as her jealous courtiers, and catch the acid comments of the disaffected and the disinvited.

In a court of factions, the princess was sure to upset some powerful body of gossips, whichever friends she chose and however she spent her time. From Vienna came a stream of advice and criticism: “One day,” her mother wrote, “you will agree with me, but it will be too late.” The princess was expected by her mother to exercise pro-Austrian influence in affairs of state; a powerful anti-Austrian lobby among the courtiers watched her to make sure she did no such thing. One faction constellated around Madame du Barry, official mistress of Louis XV, whose existence for a time Antoinette refused to acknowledge—a refusal that threatened diplomatic relations between the two countries. Another faction supported the King’s elderly aunts; then she must consider the King’s brothers, Provence and Artois, each with his followers and cliques.

In an atmosphere of vigilant malice, it was hard for the little princess to grow up. Dressing in the morning, she had to stand naked until she was handed a shift by the highest-ranking lady present; if, halfway through the ceremony, a lady of higher rank entered, Antoinette must shiver till the newcomer took her place in the lineup. She could do nothing for herself; if she wanted a glass of water, and the right person was not available to pass it to her, she had to go thirsty. Like a modern faddist, she made a pet of herself, and would drink only one kind of mineral water, which later, during the term of her imprisonment, the revolutionary Commune continued to supply.

After her husband’s accession in 1774, she was not in his confidence, though to save face she pretended to be. French law did not allow a consort any formal status; though she had been crowned in a private ceremony, revolutionaries would later remind her of her unimportant role by pointedly referring to her as “the King’s wife.” As time went by with too little to fill it, Antoinette detached herself from the concept of her future: “When one has passed the age of thirty, I don’t know how one dares show oneself at [Versailles],” she said. She had not been encouraged to consider physical decay; when she had made her triumphal entry into France, and crowds turned out to see her, ugly people had been warned to stay away.

So how did she assert herself? Through dressing up, it appears; through the setting of trends, rapid changes of style, and highly conspicuous consumption. Caroline Weber says:

…I have scrutinized Marie Antoinette’s fashion statements. And I have discovered that they were, in every sense, accessories to the campaign she waged against the oppressive cultural strictures and harsh political animosities that beset her throughout her twenty-three-year tenure in France.

Male biographers, Weber says, have not seen the importance of how the Queen dressed. Weber speaks of “the startling consistency and force with which her costumes triggered severe sociopolitical disorder,” knitting the Queen’s fortunes, at each stage of her career, to what she was wearing. The Queen “identified fashion as a key weapon in her struggle for personal prestige, authority, and sometimes mere survival.”

The metaphor of the body politic runs through the discourse of early modern Europe, a commonplace device for writers of all political tendencies. For some time now, contemporary feminist scholars have been looking at how the history of the Revolution was written on women’s bodies: the bodies of the amazons of street warfare, of the goddesses of Reason who replaced the Virgin in desecrated city churches, and of the Queen herself, pilloried by public opinion, then imprisoned, stripped of her grandeur, stripped of her womanly dignity, then executed. Antoinette was brought to France to perform the duty of a royal wife—to breed. Because at first she failed to do so, her intimate life became the focus of hostile attention. Scurrilous pamphlets chronicling her supposed infidelities and perversions were disseminated throughout Europe—not, initially, from revolutionary sources, but bankrolled by alienated courtiers who knew all the latest rumors. Provence was a culprit, as was the King’s cousin the Duke of Orléans, who cultivated his popularity with the people of Paris, as times grew hard and hunger bit, by large-scale charitable works.

  1. 1

    Chantal Thomas, Farewell, My Queen, translated by Moishe Black (Braziller, 2003), p. 17.

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