MARIE ANTOINETTE: an old acquaintance

marie antoinette

Norma Shearer in Marie Antoinette, 1938

 

Contemporary travellers and observers  had certain things to say about eighteenth century European cities and the urban assault on the senses.  London was the noisiest, Amsterdam the cleanest and Paris by far the dirtiest. Paris smelled appalling. Unlike London, pre-Revolutionary Paris still had no pavements and the city was essentially medieval in lay-out. The effluvia of its streets gave its name to a racy tint of shot silk  – “boue de Paris” – a  striking example of the perverse – not to say morbid – desire of fashionable Society to roll in the gutter. The mud glowed, you see, just as the colours changed in the fabric: the muck of the avenues was all phosphorescent with rot. Where it splashed and spattered, the filth burned holes in clothes and scarred delicate skin. Another new colour, a purplish-brown, was christened “puce” – the colour of a flea when engorged with blood. Maybe because the structure and etiquette of French aristocratic circles had become so rarefied and stultified, the ton enjoyed childish jokes about potties, enemas, underwear (or the lack of it) and the like. All this silliness was described as being in touch with Nature. Queen Marie Antoinette is said to have had Sevres cups modelled from her own generous bosom for the serving of foaming fresh milk in her let’s-pretend dairy at Rambouillet. A few of these curious “bols-sein” survive today: whether the royal belle poitrine did in fact provide the originals remains to be seen.

Ironic isn’t it? Marie Antoinette spent millions over a very brief period – 15 years – on creating her own fantasy world: and, ever since, the reality of the woman has been lost sight of in an agglomeration of myths and legends. When I was sixteen, I read Stefan Zweig’s celebrated “post-Freudian” biography over and over. I have just returned to it: still fascinating, but now the terrible American translation grates – the Queen lost in “a fit of the blues” and what not. And maybe because I am so much older, I now find this poor woman far more maddening than of yore. Unlike our own dear monarch, she consistently put her foot wrong, sometimes wilfully so. Her defenders tell us how she settled down to home economics after the birth of her children and the devastating shock of the Diamond Necklace Trial. And yet, in those last years just before the storming of the Bastille, she was spending as never before. That new dairy; the constant refurbishment of her rooms and palaces; the famous toy village at the Petit Trianon which was still being added to by the architects Mique, pere et fils¤, right up to the end.

But then you might say, what else was she to do? The Queen of France was expected to keep up appearances and to patronise French arts and industries. Marie Antoinette certainly kept a French perfumer, Msr. Fargeon; and she probably used Houbigant products. Aside from that, I think I have read more twaddle about Marie Antoinette and scent than almost any other person. We read of her collecting samples en route for the guillotine; being recognised by her fragrance as the Royal Family attempted to flee the country in 1791; even wearing perfume in a phial around her neck as she was taken to execution. As her Hungarian biographer Antal Szerb remarked, the Martyred Queen involuntarily attracted libels, slanders, factoids and trolls all her life – and has continued to do so ever since. Like some magnetic Hollywood star – or modern princess, come to that – she was an perpetual object for the projection of hostile, crazy and sometimes pornographic public fantasy.

On August 10 1901 the English tourists Misses Moberly and Jourdain believed they had seen the Queen’s shade – and those of her entourage – in the park at Versailles. They were so convinced by their experience that they set it all down in a book; and well worth reading it is, too¤¤. Wouldn’t it have been remarkable if they had remarked on the phantom’s sillage – a haze of roses, tuberoses, jasmine and amber?¤¤¤ Or, rather, a shifting variation of the same, as Msr. Fargeon had his work cut out thinking up continual new creations. In the days of Louis XV – Marie Antoinette’s grandfather-in-law – Versailles was supposedly known as “le cour parfume”. The great perfume entrepreneur, Eugene Rimmel, writing less than a hundred years later, tells us that Court etiquette demanded the use of a different perfume for every day of the year. True, do you think? Or the retelling of an enchanting fairy tale? It does sound rather like Grimm: the 365 Princesses with their 365 Perfumes.

Re-running Sunset Boulevard (1950) yet again last night on the DVD, I was struck by Billy Wilder’s set-up for the line in which Norma Desmond’s notorious use of tuberose perfume is described. She takes her place on the sofa with a dark gauzy handkerchief floating from her wrist: it is evident that her suffocating scent – the odour of seduction, madness and death – is emanating not from her skin but from the fabric. Women were spraying perfume on their skin by 1950, to be sure; but how interesting to note that, as children of the late Victorian/Edwardian age, Wilder and Swanson still regarded fragrance as a phenomenon that surrounded the human body, but never actually touched it. Marie Antoinette may have soaked her hair & face powder, her fichus, her Trianon muslins in scent – she burned perfumed pastilles in her apartments and had her Sevres bowls filled with flowers and pot pourri – but she would certainly not have dabbed scent on wrists and decollete. That would have been altogether too risky – not only morally objectionable but also probably injurious to health, playing havoc with the volatile humours of the body.

At least we know – and for many of her admirers this is important – that the Queen kept herself clean. It is the done thing to go on about Versailles being as filthy as a Paris street, and no doubt the public rooms accumulated heaps of waste matter and unpleasantness. But the Royal Family had designated bathrooms – I have seen Louis XV’s: most attractive. Marie Antoinette’s bathing suite is now restored and, I believe, open to view – at a price. Her contemporaries thought the Queen bathed more often than was wise. Having a bath was then regarded as more medicinal than hygienic. Marie Antoinette went into the tub wearing what Quentin Crisp used to call a “minimum risk” kind of nightgown, well buttoned up to the neck. For she never bathed alone, but always surrounded by a retinue of ladies. The Queen of France may have given birth in public but for bathing she covered her modesty.

My more mature readers will just about remember –  as I do – the puritan days when it was still considered boorish, common and gauche to praise anything. Delicious food, a delightful personal appearance, lovely clothes were never commented upon in polite society. They were verboten topics, same like money, politics and religion. Marie Antoinette’s contemporaries may well have been enthralled and bewitched by her perfume but no memoir or letter ever refers to it. Marie Antoinette is remembered for her seductive walk, her stately carriage, her beautiful hair, her complexion – “literally a combination of lilies and roses”. But not for her scent. That would be going simply too far, even for her most implacable enemies. Cosmetics, yes: we hear a lot about the royal rouge and powder. Perfume, no.

Fragrance two hundred years ago – as now – remains the most personal and intimate of topics. When did you last read an interview in which the subject’s smell was referred to?

Precisely.

¤ for which creative endeavours they paid with their heads during the Terror of 1794.

¤¤ ‘An Adventure’,1911.

¤¤¤ as ghosts are noted for the odours which attend them.

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