- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 20, 2007


By Caroline Weber

Henry Holt, $27.50, 432 pages


By Sena Jeter Naslund

William Morrow, $26.95, 545 pages


By Elisabeth de Feydeau

Translated from the French

by Jane Lizop

I.B. Tauris, $26.95, 140 pages


She was pretty, charming and a princess. At 14, she was married to the heir to the throne of France to cement a political alliance; at 19 she became queen of a kingdom approaching bankruptcy. She was extravagant, an avid gambler and a good mother; she loved beautiful clothes and jewelry. An Austrian, she began her life in France admired and imitated; she ended reviled and hated. She died at age 38.

Marie Antoinette has long been a subject of fascination for writers, painters and filmmakers. Norma Shearer played her as a spoiled autocrat in 1938; Kirsten Dunst plays her as a contemporary hedonist in Sofia Coppola’s new movie. The real Marie Antoinette was the subject of a recent PBS interview by Antonia Fraser (who wrote the biography of the young queen which Ms. Coppola used as the basis for her movie).

Three new books (two biographies and a novel) about the doomed young queen have been published in the last few months, each reflecting a different aspect of her life. Both the factual and fictitious accounts agree that she was kind-hearted, convinced of the divine right of royalty, determined to be a good wife and monarch, but unable to comprehend the growing disaffection and misery of her subjects.

Caroline Weber’s excellent biography, “Queen of Fashion,” focuses on how Marie Antoinette’s extravagant sartorial choices affected her own destiny as well as the politics and trade of France.

Her fashion statements “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,” writes the author. “In charting Marie Antoinette’s fateful course from the gilded halls of Versailles to the blood-splashed steps of the guillotine, historians rarely emphasize the tremendous importance that her public attached to what she was wearing at each step along the way.”

She began compliantly enough, naked and shivering on an island in the Rhine, halfway between France and Austria, as her German clothes were removed and her French wardrobe donned ceremoniously. Tradition governed what she wore at all times, but the teen-aged Dauphine soon rebelled against the protocol. Her attitude and choice of companions quickly made enemies in the court.

The Dauphin, Louis-Auguste, did not consummate the marriage for seven years. To mask her humiliation at court and with the general public who expected its queen to bear heirs to the throne, she turned her attention to fashion and frivolity.

At a time when France was facing financial ruin, she ordered expensive dresses of the best silks, many encrusted with precious stones. She requested unusual colors, such as silk to match her burnished blonde hair, or flame-toned silk to “commemorate the fire that ravaged the Paris Opera in June 1781.” She created a dress “a la Polonaise,” so called because the overskirt “looped up around the hips into three jaunty swags,” recalling the three-way partitioning of Poland by Austria, Russia and Prussia.

Louis-Auguste denied her nothing. Consequently, she was seen as a political force, part of a “shadow government.” With the help of her favorite dressmaker, Rose Bertin, “Marie Antoinette would cultivate an image of the very power that both her husband’s ministerial appointments and her sexless marriage categorically denied her.”

She made feathers and the “pouf” — a high wire cage over which the hair was pulled, powdered and adorned with extraordinary scenes, such as “an enormous, fully rigged replica of [the French frigate] La Belle Poule sailing on a sea of hair” honoring Louis XVI’s aid to the American Revolution — into fashion statements. The headdresses were powdered with flour at a time when the common people were starving and deprived of bread. Marie Antoinette did not see the connection.

She scandalized court and country by accompanying Louis XV and Louis XVI on their hunting expeditions dressed in an outfit of trousers and a “mannish” coat. After Louis XVI presented his wife with the Trianon as a private retreat, Marie Antoinette changed fashion from heavy silk to light cotton lawn dresses tied with a colored sash around the waist, a style copied by aristocrats and bourgeoises alike.

The French silk industry, which relied heavily on aristocratic patronage, resented the importation of cotton from England, and “the Queen, who had launched the muslin craze, was blamed in at least one contemporary pamphlet for ‘reducing the silk workers of Lyon and other cities to beggary, and leaving their enterprises in shambles.’”

Marie Antoinette’s riding outfits and her preference for loose, light dresses, gave rise to accusations of lesbian conduct, referred to as “the German vice,” in the political pamphlets of the day.

After the death of her mother, Marie Antoinette returned to wearing silk mourning, which included violets, blues, grays and whites along with black. As the Revolution approached, color became increasingly important. Black, green and white were the colors of the monarchy, red and blue those of the revolution. Revolutionaries wore red and blue cockades, later adding white to symbolize a constitutional monarchy.

After the aborted flight of the royal family (during which Marie Antoinette’s hair turned white) and their initial incarceration, the queen could still order new dresses and cosmetics. From the king’s trial and execution until her own trial nine months later, she was allowed only one dress. Not permitted to wear black to her execution for fear her mourning might arouse sympathy, she donned clean white garments.

Since white was a royal color as well as the color of innocence and symbolic of so many events in Marie Antoinette’s life, Caroline Weber concludes that Marie Antoinette’s “white outfit just may have been the most brilliant fashion statement of her entire career.”

The author’s account of the influence of Marie Antoinette’s fashion statements, of the court which never completely accepted her and of the populace which first cheered the “rose of the Danube and the lily of the Seine,” then vilified and condemned her, is meticulously footnoted and well illustrated. It’s a fascinating and instructive book, written with expertise, style and humor.

Sena Jeter Naslund’s new novel, “Abundance,” is a first-person account of the same events, but told from Marie Antoinette’s point of view. The novel begins in May 1770, when the young archduchess Maria Antonia sheds her Austrian identity “with no ribbon, memento, ruby, or brooch of Austrian design” to don French clothes and become Marie Antoinette of France. The novel ends with her polite apology to the executioner upon whose foot she inadvertently stepped in mounting the scaffold.

“Abundance” is a novel to be sure, but based on the historical record, Marie Antoinette’s correspondence, written memoirs of the queen’s contemporaries and modern scholarship.

The reader empathizes with the young girl’s excitement at the prospect of marrying a future king; with her fears and insecurity when confronted by the formal, intrigue-ridden French court at Versailles; and her disappointment when she meets the shy, fat Dauphin whom she had imagined tall and strong. He preferred the pleasures of the table, hunting and making keys in his palace forge to the consolations of the marital bed. But as time passes, she develops a genuine affection for Louis-Auguste.

Although initially the novel tends towards adolescent gushiness with too many references to Marie Antoinette’s self-described “sweetness,” later, the reader is captivated by descriptions of the magnificence of the fetes at Versailles, the balls, the elegant wardrobes, the Trianon entertainments.

It is the relationships between Marie Antoinette and her world that animate “Abundance”: the vindictive “Aunts” (daughters of Louis XV), jealous brothers-in-law, scheming courtiers, her family and the love of her life, Axel von Fersen, the handsome Swedish count. History has never revealed whether there was a physical liaison between the two. Sena Naslund opts for the version keeping the queen true to her marriage vows; Caroline Weber refers to the count as Marie Antoinette’s “paramour.”

“A Scented Palace” is Elisabeth de Feydeau’s short biography of Jean-Louis Fargeon, Marie Antoinette’s perfumer, born in Montpellier into a family of perfume manufacturers. He believed “the nose was the door to the soul.” As the author notes, “if the nose really lends access to the soul, the Revolution must have had a lowly soul, for it stank of sweat, rotgut wine, urine and blood.”

Young Jean-Louis, who had a good nose himself, apprenticed in Paris, eventually became the proprietor of a perfume shop and built his reputation in Paris and abroad for creating fine perfumes and cosmetics. His clientele included Marie Antoinette.

A liberal thinker with republican sympathies who remained loyal to the queen, he was arrested in January 1794, three months after the execution of Marie Antoinette, but was ultimately acquitted.

Miss de Feydeau’s lively account suffers from a lack of sources and a habit of mentioning historic personages by last name only. Nevertheless, “A Scented Palace” complements “Queen of Fashion” in giving the reader an additional twist on the life and times of Marie Antoinette and her influence on two of France’s continuing major industries — fashion and scent.

I had a Russian friend who, as a beautiful young woman, was caught in the Russian Revolution. She lost her husband in a battle between the Red and White armies, her baby died of typhoid and she was at one point incarcerated in a concentration camp. “The only possession I had in the camp was a small bottle of perfume,” she told me. “It was the most important thing in my life, for as long as I had that, I knew I was a woman and I retained my humanity.” Marie Antoinette would have approved.

Corinna Lothar is a writer and critic in Washington, D.C.

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