Sunday, November 19
Property of the Crown
The “handover” (remise) of a dauphine was a ritual not unlike a real-estate closing, with a final inspection attended by representatives for each party to the sale. The initial report, however, had flagged some minor flaws that needed correction. So the Parisian dentist who invented braces was imported to straighten the archducal teeth; a dancing master taught Antoinette the distinctive, gliding shuffle of court ladies; and a French coiffeur, M. Larsenneur, artfully dissembled her unfashionably high forehead and the bald spots at her hairline.
The rather more glaring bald spots in her culture and education were confided for repair to the worldly Abbé de Vermond, who did what he could with a lazy pupil who had been both spoiled and neglected.
Once the makeover was complete, and the frugal Empress had stoically ponied up four hundred thousand livres (the yearly income of a great nobleman) for a trousseau worthy of her new in-laws, the Dauphine and her entourage set off for France. Envoys of Louis XV greeted her at the border, where she entered a pavilion built for the remise on a riverine island that straddled the frontier of the two kingdoms.
As a driving rainstorm rattled the flimsy roof, and the future Queen digested the import of a tapestry that depicted Medea slaughtering her children, her Austrian retinue solemnly stripped her before all assembled and bundled up the clothes and possessions, including her pug, named Mops, that were tainted with her foreignness.
Weeping and shivering, she became Crown property at the moment that her new ladies redressed her.From The New Yorker, Dressed for Excess: Marie Antoinette, out of the closet by Judith Thurman; September 25, 2006.
Thurman makes only a few remarks about Sofia Coppola's film Marie Antoinette (released October 20, 2006 in the USA) and instead deftly recounts anecdotes from the dauphine's life that effortlessly carry the reader through what is actually a very grim tale, one bound to end in a cruel way for Marie.
Just how cruel can be understood by viewing Marie Antoinette and the French Revolution, aired on PBS television in 2006. The documentary is almost unbearable to watch when it details the vilification campaign launched against Marie by the more libelous among the French pamphleteers, who made today's purveyors of fake news look like models of integrity.
But when all is said and done Marie's life was a parable about the risks of a person becoming the property of a Crown. When the Crown is no more, the property can be disposed of in any way the new masters see fit, as the end of Russia's Emperor Nicholas II also illustrates.
Thus, the survival rate for people who became property of the Crown was often measured in their ability to so terrify the Crown's subjects they'd never think of attempting insurrection.
Judith Thurman may have been pointing to the same unbudging reality about human nature when she noted:
Fargeon [Marie's parfumier] had been stirred, in 1789, by the Tennis Court Oath, and its promise of a new order. Though the vitriol aimed at the Queen distressed him, he was more of a republican than his wife, who fainted when she heard drunks in the Rue de Roule singing one of the more vile revolutionary songs.
Fargeon explained the paradox of his feelings. Marie Antoinette, he said, was kind and bountiful to individuals, and nothing like her caricatures. Yet, as de Feydeau puts it, “her subjects were creatures of fiction to her.” One had to distinguish between the woman and the Queen, he concluded, as “every monarchy was, by nature, tyrannical.” This was his paraphrase of Saint-Just’s famous dictum: “No one reigns innocently.”
But what was true of the Queen was also true of her alchemist. He recognized the humanity of Marie Antoinette but categorically despised a whole class.
I can’t help thinking of Marie Antoinette as a prototype for Emma Bovary, another naïve young beauty who marries a boorish glutton, equally naïve, and lets herself be seduced by a marchand de mode.
The Bovarys, too, were a couple with no qualities beyond the ordinary, who were doomed to an extraordinary disgrace, and both stories have a brutal ending in which no justice is served.
That absence of catharsis marks the point at which tragedy loses its exaltation and becomes modern —not a tale foretold about the death of kings but the story of a futile downfall that might have been averted. And it was left to Flaubert to democratize the wisdom of Saint-Just. His works insist that no one is human innocently. ♦*******