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,|
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
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|
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
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.