‘I am here! I am finally here! I feel almost giddy with excitement and can’t stop looking about myself in awe, pinching myself as I take in the expanse of shiny parqueted floors, the tall windows overlooking the enormous park, the lofty ceilings where the reflected pink, blue and yellow light from enormous crystal chandeliers dances and scatters. Everywhere I look there is beautiful furniture, flowers, statues and paintings. Very little in this palace is designed to be practical, even the chairs are spindly legged, exquisite and horribly uncomfortable but somehow that doesn’t matter at all.
I felt quite sick with dread as I climbed into my lovely carriage for the last time but this was swiftly replaced by excitement as I gazed out of the windows and saw the hundreds of happy, smiling people who had lined the route to see me pass. It was a beautiful blossom scented morning; bright, fresh, sunny and giving no hint at all of the storms that had struck during the previous night.
‘It is a perfect day for a wedding,’ Madame de Chaulnes remarked to me with a smile. ‘No bride could ever wish for better.’
I grinned and nodded, feeling as light hearted and cheerful as any simple village girl going to marry her love as we drove through sunlight dappled woods and past charming little cottages swarming with happy, grinning children. For a while I did not allow myself to worry about the Dauphin or the strange family that I was about to enter, but simply gave myself over to enjoying the moment and allowing the obvious excitement of the spectators to lift my spirits.
I do not think that I will ever forget my first glimpse of Versailles. I had seen pictures before of course as the Duc de Choiseul had very kindly sent me engravings of the château, which Mama had had framed and then hung in my rooms at the Hofburg but nothing could ever have really prepared me for the reality. I tried to remain blasé in front of my ladies, who were watching me closely for my initial reaction but I could not help but gasp when we began the short drive up the tree lined avenue that led to the main gates and I saw the enormous, golden edifice slowly unfold before me, the sunshine making the soft yellow stone appear to shimmer while the light from dozens of tall windows gleamed and glittered.
The chapel bells rang out as my carriage passed through the ornate golden gates and then pulled up in the courtyard, where I was immediately surrounded by a chattering press of courtiers, all impatient to get their first glimpse of me, the girl who may well one day be their Queen. A footman elbowed his way through the throng and let down the carriage steps before pulling open the door and offering me his arm. ‘Have a care! Have a care!’ he shouted over his shoulder as he helped me down and then led me through the crowd into the marble and glass vestibule of the château and then on to a large white paneled room hung with portraits.
‘Your apartments are not yet ready for you and so in the meantime you are to be lodged here in the rooms previously inhabited by her Highness the Dauphine Marie-Josèphe.’ It was Madame de Noailles of course, keen as always to impress upon me that I was an imposter leaping into the shoes, jewels and now bedchamber of the dead. ‘His Majesty hopes that you will be comfortable here.’
I looked around with a smile, loving the high ceilings and bright, huge windows which opened on to a flower covered parterre. ‘It is lovely.’ I followed the Comtesse through two more large white airy rooms to the bedchamber, where a crowd of maids and hairdressers awaited me. They all fell silent and curtseyed low as I walked into the room, my high heels tip tapping on the polished wooden floor and I blushed as I felt their eyes sweep over me, noting my every deficiency and appraising my good features.
‘She has nice eyes,’ I heard one of them whisper. ‘Pretty hair too.’
Madame de Mailly led me to the huge lace bedecked dressing table that stood in front of the windows and gently pressed me down on to the stool. ‘The wedding is in three hours time,’ she said with a smile. ‘Plenty of time to make you the most beautiful bride that Versailles has ever seen.’
I yawned and struggled to stay awake as they swiftly stripped me then laced me into a new whalebone corset and tied panniers to my slim waist. Next came layer after layer of gauzy petticoats, each one trimmed with beautiful lace and finished with blue and pink velvet ribbons. After this there was a beautiful gown of white brocade and cloth of silver, spangled all over with diamonds and pearls and with yet more exquisite lace at the bosom and sleeves. There was some consternation when it was discovered that my dress was slightly too small but after much conferring with the dressmaker and maids, it was decided that no one would notice and so they laced me up and hoped for the best.
When I was in my dress and the skirt had been tweaked to the satisfaction of Madame de Noailles, a gorgeous diamond necklace was fastened around my neck, diamond and pearl earrings were hung from my earlobes and the dead Dauphine’s diamond bracelets were slipped on to my wrists.
It was then time to sit in front of the mirror, which was surrounded by a swarm of chubby gilt cherubs holding aloft garlands of roses, and allow the ladies to apply a two pink circles of rouge to the apples of my cheeks and a touch of red rouge to my lips.
‘You look magnificent,’ Madame de Chaulnes said with an approving nod. ‘Like a Queen.’
I stared at myself in the mirror and almost burst into tears as I looked so different, so unlike myself, so terribly old. If I ever do become Queen, one of my first acts will be to abolish the hideous and deeply unflattering overuse of rouge that seems to be prevalent at this court. My second act will be to sack Madame de Noailles.
At the stroke of one exactly, all of the pretty ormolu, porcelain and gold clocks in my rooms chimed in unison and the footmen opened the bedroom doors with a great deal of bowing, clicking of heels and flourishing.
‘It is time,’ Madame de Noailles intoned with a solemn look. ‘The King awaits us.’
I hastily stood up, whereupon all of the maids knelt around my feet and teased out the heavy folds of my wide, panniered skirts so that they would appear to best advantage. As soon as I was deemed absolutely presentable, my ladies in waiting arranged themselves behind me and we slowly retraced our steps through the apartment until we came back to the glass and marble vestibule and the beautiful maroon and green marble staircase that lay beyond it.
‘This is the Queen’s staircase,’ Madame de Noailles whispered, unable as ever to resist the urge to lecture me. ‘It leads to what will be your own rooms in the palace.’
I ignored her as I was too busy trying to remember where we were going and at the same time walk up the staircase with the correct amount of mingled gravitas and grace as my head turned this way and that, admiring the beautiful trompe l’oeil architectural vistas on the walls and the exquisite gilt and marble decorations.
At the top of the stairs, a pair of guards swung open a door and I walked through two empty white wainscotted rooms which overlooked the main marble courtyard of the château. ‘This is the room of the King’s guard,’ I could hear Madame de Noailles murmuring behind me, ‘and this is his state dining room where his Majesty eats his meals in public.’
I smiled and nodded, while all the while I was listening to every sound and breathing in the very essence of my new home. As I walked through the hyacinth, rose and beeswax scented white and gold rooms, which were more magnificent than beautiful, I listened to the delicate tinkling of the chandeliers overhead, the sound of a harpsichord being jauntily played in the distance, the whispers of my ladies behind me, the gentle squeak of the aged parquet beneath my cloth of silver high heeled shoes and the excited yapping of the dozens of dogs that scampered freely through the state rooms, their sharp nails skittering across polished floors.
We came to a richly decorated room with mirrors set into the walls and a beautiful cornice decorated with a gilt trellis and golden cherubs playing with garlands of flowers. I looked with interest at a huge painting which hung between the tall windows and depicted a young Louis XIV surrounded by his family. I recognized my great grandfather, Philippe d’Orléans sitting in between his pretty English wife, Henriette Anne and her mother, Queen Henrietta Maria and I imagined to myself that he was looking down upon me with approval in his dark eyes.
The doors swung open and I was admitted into a sumptuously decorated gilt encrusted
bedchamber, dominated by an enormous crimson and gold brocade hung four poster bed with huge white ostrich plumes at each corner. ‘This is the King’s own bedchamber,’ Madame de Noailles hissed as I looked about myself with interest. A huge white cat was curled up, fast asleep on a giant blue and silver cushion in front of the fireplace.
‘His Majesty awaits you in his council chamber,’ she continued as we came to another closed door, which a waiting footman sprang to open.
I took a deep breath and stepped into a large room with beautiful gilt decorations on the white panelled walls, tall mirrored doors and heavy sky blue and gold curtains, which were pulled open so that beams of sunlight spilled across the floor. The King and his family had arranged themselves in front of the fireplace to greet me and I smiled at each in turn, desperately keen to make a good impression.
‘Welcome to Versailles,’ King Louis said with a gentle smile. ‘You are most welcome.’ He brought forward two little girls, both of whom seemed to be no more than ten years old. ‘May I present my granddaughters, Madame Clothilde and Madame Élisabeth?’
I smiled down at the little girls as they curtsied stiffly before me. ‘I hope that I will be like a sister to you,’ I said, taking their hands in mine and kissing them. ‘How pretty you both look.’ Both girls were dressed in matching gowns of pale primrose yellow satin with their hair powdered and dressed in the same formal style as all of the adults. The eldest of the two, Princesse Clothilde was quite fat with merry brown eyes while the younger, Princesse Élisabeth was pale with blue eyes and a distinctly mutinous air.
‘I like your dress,’ she said now with a smile before retreating behind her grandfather’s back and sticking her tongue out at me.
‘You must forgive her,’ the King said with a fond look at the little girl as I tried not to laugh. ‘She was little more than a baby when she lost her mother and has been much indulged ever since.’
As soon as the introductions were over, the King took my hand and led me to the Dauphin, who I had barely noticed since entering the room. He seemed to be trying his best to hide from view and looked uncomfortable and ill at ease in his suit of white satin, sewn all over with diamonds and gold embroidery and I noticed with irritation that he was scratching at his neck underneath the fine white linen of his shirt collar, leaving red scratch marks beneath his powdered wig.
‘Are you ready?’ the King asked as he gave my hand to the Dauphin. ‘All of Versailles awaits you.’
I nodded, feeling the Dauphin’s hand grow hot and clammy against my own. ‘I am ready.’
The King nodded to the waiting footmen and they instantly flung open the huge doors that led to the Hall of Mirrors. The Dauphin led me out and the King, royal family and our attendants arranged themselves behind us so that we formed a long, glittering procession.
I paused for a second in the doorway, my courage failing me as I looked at the rows upon rows upon rows of splendidly dressed courtiers who all stared at me as they jostled each other rudely for space. I wanted to be able to remember this scene, my first proper glimpse of Versailles for the rest of my life. There was light and crystal and marble and splendour wherever I looked and I knew that the Abbé had not lied when he told me that the Hall of Mirrors was the most beautiful room in all of the world.
‘Madame,’ the Dauphin murmured, gently reminding me that there was no time to stand and stare.
I gathered up all of my bravado and lifted my head high before allowing him to lead me slowly down the gallery and then through a series of equally opulent and gorgeously appointed rooms, all of which were crammed with beautiful furniture, portraits, statues and wonderful ceiling paintings depicting Roman deities. Each room was filled with people, who fell silent and curtsied with insolent stares as I went past. The women openly looked me up and down then whispered to each other behind their painted fans while the men’s gazes were much more appraising and lingered on my bosom then my ankles, which were just visible beneath the heavy silver skirts.
‘This is the way to the chapel,’ the Dauphin whispered as we went down some stairs, leaving the King who would be watching from his balcony upstairs. Oh marvellous, he likes to lecture me as well. What fun. ‘We go this way to Mass every morning.’
‘In front of all those people?’ I whispered back, aghast.
He looked at me then and I believe that I saw the faintest glimmer of a smile. ‘Naturally.’
It did not take us long to reach the royal chapel and there was a small pause in the vestibule as my ladies came forward and tweaked my skirts and tried their best to hide the wide expanse of lacing at my back which betrayed the fact that my dress was much too small for me. ‘Good luck,’ Madame de Mailly whispered as they melted back again, their silk skirts rustling against the marble floor. ‘You look beautiful. Look straight ahead at the altar and ignore all the stares.’
I smiled and squeezed the Dauphin’s hand reassuringly, wishing, now that I had overcome my own fears that there was some way that I could bring the colour back to his cheeks and stop him trembling. ‘It will be over soon,’ was the best that I could manage as we stepped forward into the luminous white and gold light of the chapel.’