Fatal Non-Readers

Hilary Mantel

  • The Wicked Queen: The Origins of the Myth of Marie-Antoinette by Chantal Thomas, translated by Julie Rose
    Zone, 255 pp, £17.95, June 1999, ISBN 0 942299 39 6

In June this year the BBC showed a documentary called Diana’s Dresses. It was about the auction which took place at Christie’s in New York two months before the Princess’s descent into the Paris underpass. The purchasers spoke reverentially of Diana when she was alive, but her death turned glad rags into relics. ‘I wanted to have a part of royalty,’ one explained. ‘I am in awe of the dress,’ said another.

When the clothes are turned inside out for the camera, you can see the bones and secret skin of them, second dresses built inside so that a princess’s mortal underpinnings wouldn’t show. Only superficially do they bear a resemblance to clothes worn by ordinary women. They seem constructed rather than sewn, durable as stone with their elaborate frosting and beading, and capable of standing up on their own. But their owners worry about their survival. One appears on display only under armed guard. When a Boston shop-owner bought three of them and put them in her window, passers-by made a pavement shrine to them, with mourning bouquets and tearful messages. One owner described his prize as ‘historically, one of the most important dresses Diana ever wore’. It is clear that the garments can hardly be picked a part from the flesh. And there is one dress that leads a double life: two people claim to have the original. Bi-location is an attribute of saints – and of their party-frocks too.

With this in mind I searched in the Carnavalet museum this summer for a scrap of cloth from one of Marie-Antoinette’s dresses, which Chantal Thomas mentions in her lively and imaginative examination of the public personae of the French Queen. This fragment of cloth was carried to the scaffold, she says, by Barnave, who was first seen as an extreme revolutionary but later became an adviser to the Court. I looked hard but could not find it among the royal souvenirs: curls of hair, the Dauphin’s lead soldiers, chess pieces, the King’s geometry set, shaving-bowl and razor, and fragments of his waistcoat, whimsically made into butterflies. Perhaps, like one of Diana’s dresses, it has gone on tour. Even more than Diana, Marie-Antoinette was her frocks. They defined her and betrayed her. Madame Roland reported that when Marie-Antoinette tried to eavesdrop on a conversation between Pétion and the King, Pétion detected her presence by ‘the rustle of silk’.

‘It is she who invented the modern princess,’ says Chantal Thomas. She was the prototype: blonde, blue-eyed, with porcelain skin. Until Marie-Antoinette, the queens of France had been of interest only as breeders. With her appetite for dresses, jewels, parties and public entertainments, she was more like a favourite than a queen: more like Du Barry, Louis XV’s mistress, the frequent target of lampoonists. She imposed her style on Versailles, and it was a style of contrived, artful, expensive simplicity, of model dairies and muslin; it was a charade of private life. Invited to the Petit Trianon to walk in the gardens, Gouverneur Morris, an American in pre-Revolutionary Paris, at once saw the hopeless ambiguities of her situation: ‘Royalty has here endeavoured at great expense to conceal itself from its own Eye but the attempt is vain.’

When Antoinette left the Austrian Court for France she was 14 years old and, according to the Duchess of Northumberland, looked about 12. In a dreadful ceremony on an island in the Rhine, every stitch of Austrian clothing was taken from her, and she was handed over naked to be dressed as a Frenchwoman. Louis, still the Dauphin, had not yet seen her, and asked a courtier whether her breasts had developed. The courtier responded with praise of her rosy complexion and bright eyes. ‘That’s not what I mean,’ said Louis doggedly. ‘I’m talking about her breasts.’

Thereafter she was a virgin in a nest of vipers. Every party and faction at Court scrutinised her for whimsies and gaffes. She had very powerful enemies. Provence, the brother next in age to Louis, was deeply resentful of his secondary position. Among the constant intriguers and gossips were the King’s unmarried aunts, Adelaide, Victoire and Sophie (who had been known to Louis XV as Snip, Piggy and Rag.) For the anti-Austrian party, Antoinette was the power to be destroyed, the natural target of attack. Her mother the Empress kept her under double surveillance. Each month a courier left for Vienna with a letter from the Princess and reports from the Ambassador. But the Ambassador sent a second, secret report for the Empress alone, filled with minute unofficial detail about what her daughter had said and done. As Chantal Thomas says, it must have seemed to Marie-Antoinette that her mother was clairvoyant.

It was not surprising that she sought allies outside the usual royal circles. Her favourite dressmaker, Rose Bertin, was given free access to the royal apartments, and was known as ‘the female minister’. Choosing what to wear was Antoinette’s waking duty each day. With her first cup of coffee came a catalogue of samples from her wardrobe. Though the fashions of the Court were widely studied in the outside world, there were aspects of them that could never be emulated. Madame de la Tour du Pin spoke in her memoirs of the strange gliding walk that the ladies of Versailles developed to prevent them from treading on each others’ trains. Rouge, also, had a peculiar function as caste-mark. It was applied with a heavy hand and in a circular pattern. It was worn most lavishly on the day of a woman’s debut, when she was obliged to simulate the flush of the contrived orgasm bestowed by royal favour.

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