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 …

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