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Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Marie Antoinette and the Intrigues of Louis XVI’s Court

Now that the Northkill Amish Series is finished, I’m back to work on my American Patriot Series. Next up is Book 6, Refiner’s Fire, in which we’re going to catch up with the American commissioners in Paris, who negotiated France’s support in the war with Britain. In this episode Jonathan Carleton’s uncle, Admiral Alexandre Bettár, le comte de Caledonne, sweeps Elizabeth Howard off to France to remove her from the reach of assassins sent by British General Henry Clinton to kill her after her rescue from a British prison ship in New York Harbor.

Caledonne is highly connected at the French court, so Elizabeth is going to end up being drawn into life at court during the reign of King Louis XVI. For this book I’m delving deeply into what was going on at Versailles during 1778 and 1779. There’s always a multitude of complicated and dangerous intrigues swirling in the shadows of every royal court—and especially so in France—which happily will provide plenty of opportunities for getting Elizabeth neck-deep into even more hot water.

Marie Antoinette at the age of thirteen,
Joseph Ducreux
A major player, of course, will be Marie Antoinette, the queen who, along with her husband, Louis XVI, met a tragic end in the French Revolution during the Reign of Terror. Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna was born on November 2, 1755, at the Hofburg Palace in Vienna, the youngest daughter of Maria Theresa, empress of the Habsburg Empire, and Francis I, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. In 1770 she was married to Louis-Auguste of France, her second cousin once removed and the French dauphin, or heir to the throne, first by proxy in Vienna, and then in a lavish ceremony in the royal chapel at Versailles, before more than 5,000 guests. She was 14 and he was 15. She would go down in history with the French form of her name: Marie Antoinette.

Life as a public figure was not easy for a young girl. She was dropped suddenly into struggles for power, prestige, and financial gain between royals and nobles, the king’s brothers and devout aunts, and his ministers, diplomats, and other advisors, played out through highly complex French customs of etiquette and modes of address. Any influence wielded by women was unofficial, and since romantic liaisons were de rigueur at court, the greatest influence belonged to mistresses rather than wives.

Marie Antoinette in Court Dress,
Louise Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, 1778
Let’s take a look at how the court scene would have appeared. According to long tradition, women were expected to wear a round spot of rouge on each cheek. This wasn’t the delicate highlighting you’d see today, but huge, precisely drawn scarlet circles. Rouge was very expensive, and so a badge of rank and distinction. Mozart, for one, thought the French court makeup detestable, “unbearable to the eyes of an honest German.” Sounds like it! One’s hair also had to be powdered. The queen popularized hair styles called poufs, monstrous affairs supplemented by wool, tow, pads, and wire up to three feet high and topped by the panache, a spray of feather plumes, as you can see in the portrait at right.

The portrait also shows the cumbersome court dress with its wide hoops. Managing the long, heavy train was an art form. Young ladies who were to be presented at court had to be coached by a special dancing master in Paris to move in a “Versailles glide” without seeming to touch the ground, and to make the three requisite curtsies, which began at the door, with modesty and grace. And then the lady’s appearance was likely to be torn to pieces by the spectators. The queen gradually began to make changes in court customs, abandoning heavy makeup and wide-hooped panniers. The new fashion she introduced called for a simpler look, initially in the rustic robe à la polonaise style.

View from Place d'Armes, c. 1722, by Pierre-Denis Martin
In contrast to the tortuous formality of the court, there was an extraordinary lack of security at Versailles. Royal bodyguards did use spaniels to ferret out vagrants who set themselves up in the palace’s various nooks and crannies, but there wasn’t much else they could do. Traditionally every French subject had the right of access to their sovereign, so the palace was open to the public. As a result random people wandered in and out, thronging the antechambers and even at times trying to push into the royals’ private apartments. A public dinner was held regularly, called the grand couvert, and anyone who was decently clothed could come to watch the royals eat. Men were required to wear a sword, but if that was lacking, one could be obtained at the palace gates.

Fishwives and market women held a customary right of access to the queen and used the privilege to comment freely on her perceived failings and those of the princesses. Then there were the royals’ beloved pets. Dogs, cats, monkeys, and other animals had free rein in the palace, roaming over the furniture and even on the table at meals. It was common for foreigners to remark on how dirty the place was! I can just imagine. Ugh!

As far as privacy was concerned, the king and queen were attended at every moment by numerous nobles except during the most intimate marital act—which, however, could not be accomplished without witnesses to the king’s trip to the queen’s suite! This in itself was a problem. Louis didn’t consummate the marriage for 7 years, which, as you can imagine, strained their relationship, the more so since they were expected to speedily produce an heir. In the fishbowl that was the royal court, rumors were bound to fly, and so they did, including the claim that Louis was incapable of sexual relations. Part of the complication may have been that they had met only two days before their wedding and were almost complete strangers. He was also shy, and both were young and inexperienced.

Marie Antoinette and Her Children,
Louise Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, 1787
It surely didn’t help that the French public was hostile to the union. France’s alliance with Austria had drawn the country into the disastrous Seven Years’ War, which had ended in defeat by the British, the loss of Canada and France’s Caribbean colonies, and a massive national debt. His cold behavior toward her in public fueled the gossip but was evidently due to his fear that she would attempt to manipulate him in favor of Austrian interests. They did develop an affectionate relationship, however, and their marriage was finally consummated in 1777. After 8 years of marriage, Marie Antoinette gave birth to Marie-Thérèse Charlotte, Madame Royale, who was born at Versailles on 19 December 1778—with numerous royals and nobles looking on! They eventually had 4 children, one of whom died in infancy.

Since Marie Antoinette had very few official duties, she passed the time by forming deep friendships with her ladies in waiting at court and eventually befriended a number of her male admirers—the source of more malicious gossip. She spent most of her time devising social events and indulging her extravagant tastes. While the country was in the midst of a serious financial crisis and the common people were suffering great want, she spent huge amounts of money on the latest fashions and creating new ones, all manner of luxuries, and gambling. In spite of her initial popularity, a growing number of people turned against her. Widely circulated newspapers and cheap pamphlets spread vicious, pornographic gossip about her, calling her the“Austrian whore,” accusing her of sympathizing with France’s enemies, particularly her native Austria, and doing everything she could to undermine France, charging her with adultery, and even calling the parentage of her children into question. Increasingly she became the focus of the French people’s rage.

In reality, it was the 18th century colonial wars, including the Seven Years War and the American Revolution, that buried France under a mountain of debt. Those who owned most of the property paid little or no taxes, leaving the rest of the people saddled with an unreasonable burden. The natural result was growing resentment against the conspicuous spending of the king, queen, and nobles, which came to a head in 1789 with the beginning of the Revolution.

A side note: There’s no evidence that Marie Antoinette ever said “Let them eat cake,” when she was informed that the French peasants had no bread and were starving. That tale arose from the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions, written around 1766 when she was 11 years old. In fact, Marie Antoinette, who had been raised in a court where the monarchs believed that they were responsible for the welfare of their subjects, carried out many notable acts of charity during her reign. One observer wrote: “She was so happy at doing good and hated to miss any opportunity of doing so.” That she didn’t curtail her extravagant spending, however, was one of the factors that eventually led to her death on the guillotine.

All things considered, there’s more than enough juicy fodder here for a really entertaining plot for Refiner’s Fire. And I mean to make the most of it!
J. M. Hochstetler is the daughter of Mennonite farmers and a lifelong student of history. She is also an author, editor, and publisher. Her American Patriot Series is the only comprehensive historical fiction series on the American Revolution. Northkill, Book 1 of the Northkill Amish Series coauthored with Bob Hostetler, won Foreword Magazine’s 2014 Indie Book of the Year Bronze Award for historical fiction. Book 2, The Return, releases April 1, 2017. One Holy Night, a contemporary retelling of the Christmas story, was the Christian Small Publishers 2009 Book of the Year.


  1. Oh my yes, this woman's life has been inspiring fiction forever!

    1. You are so right, Debra! In researching her, I've found that she wasn't really like she's been too often portrayed, and I've ended up with a lot of sympathy for her. She was in a difficult position without much support. So it'll be interesting to "write" her. Thanks so much for stopping by!

  2. Very interesting post! I can see poor Elizabeth getting into a struggle or two. It's hard to imagine someone being married at such an early age, now days. It sure sounds like she struggled all her life as a queen, wife and mother. Joan, I can not wait to read this book! But, you already know that!

    1. Hey, Bev, thanks for dropping by! Nowadays it is hard to imagine young people being married so early in life. And to be thrust into that kind of situation--well, no amount of training can prepare you for that. I really feel sorry for her, but it does give me a lot of fodder for Refiner's Fire. lol! Yes, I do know you're looking forward to reading it, and I'm writing as fast as I can. :-)

  3. Fascinating article Joan! Thanks for sharing!

  4. Very interesting post Joan! I cannot wait to read your book!
    Blessings, Tina


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