Marie Antoinette’s lady in waiting, 1788

30 January 2011

It was many years since Lucrèce had first visited Versailles as a little girl with her parents and she still recalled the very first time she had ever seen it, basking like a contented pink and gold cat in the bright Winter sunshine while the garden sparkled icily like the Snow Queen’s palace. Later on she had been officially presented in the cumbersome and archaic costume that etiquette decreed for débutantes.

Mademoiselle Bertin had, at great expense, designed for her a richly embroidered black taffeta and cloth of silver wide panniered gown over a chemise of the finest lawn with the traditional gap in between the lacings so that it could be seen that her skin was every bit as white as the chemise. Her shoulders had been left bare which cost her a few blushes for she was not at all used to feeling so exposed. The only thing that gave her pleasure were the bright cherry red heels of her diamond encrusted shoes – the talons rouges that were a traditional trapping of nobility. Her new, extremely restrictive whalebone corset, however, was much less pleasing.

Nothing that anyone had told her had ever have prepared Lucrèce for the reality of Versailles. They had not told her that the air was heavy with perfume which barely disguised another, more rancid, odour of intermingled sweat, cooking smells and decay. They had never mentioned that there were dogs running everywhere underfoot and that the sound of music, voices and laughter filled every nook and cranny, interspersed with the synchronised ticking of thousands of clocks and the delicate tinkling of the crystal chandeliers overhead as they caught the breeze.

It took her some time to get used to the archaic court ritual which had been place since the time of Louis XIV and had been little changed by his descendants although the Queen, who had been raised in the far more informal Imperial court in Vienna, had done everything she could to make matters less stately and etiquette driven – much to the scandalised horror of the older courtiers who resented the loss of every privilege.

Lucrèce found herself longing for Paris – the much prized suite of five rooms granted to her in the château overlooked the Rue des Réservoirs and were in their entirety about the same size as her salon in the Hôtel de Saliex. They were prettily decorated however with pale pink,  blue and yellow painted walls and much floral stucco work and she had brought enough of her favourite furniture and possessions such as her beloved little sécretaire and her harp with her for them to be almost homely. She was particularly fond of her tiny bedroom with its cosy little bed, pretty pink silk hangings and mess of feminine luxuries scattered on every available surface. It wasn’t quite the same as home though and the château was hardly the most restful place to live – the noise was incessant, particularly beneath her windows.

Every day involved ridiculously protracted and elaborate ceremonials but Sunday was the high point of the week at Versailles for it was on this day that  presentations were made at court. The day started early for Lucrèce as it took several hours for her to be properly dressed and coiffed before she made her way, followed by her page,  at midday down the beautiful hall of mirrors to the large mirrored salon de paix at the end which lay next door to Marie Antoinette’s bedchamber.

This ostentatious gilt and marble drawing room was always busy and filled to capacity with people, all jostling for space and precedence and openly staring at each other’s clothes and hair in a critical manner. The atmosphere was very competitive but Lucrèce, disliking this intensely, did her best to remain aloof. She also hated the malicious back stabbing gossip that went on and did her best not to listen until a sudden hush and ripple of envy heralded the entrance of the Queen’s close friend the Princesse de Lamballe who swept through the crowd with her head held high and entered the royal bedchamber along with the Princesse de Chimay and the Comtesse d’Ossun, who were the senior ladies in waiting and as such barely registered the existence of the younger ladies seeing them all as so many pretentious, chattering, foolish little girls.

After a few moments the portly footman would come to the door and call for ‘le service’ at which point all twelve of the ladies in waiting would enter the bedchamber and the four who were on duty that week went forward to offer their assistance – something that Lucrèce dreaded as she hated drawing the attention of the other jealous ladies upon herself. The titters and whisperings when she had clumsily dropped one of the Queen’s precious diamond earrings had been intolerable and mortifying.

When not on duty, Lucrèce would often find herself in the company of the youngest ladies – the Comtesse de Maillé, the Comtesse Mathieu de Montmorency and the lively, blonde Madame de Gouvernet and they liked to stand together in a little group by the door, well out of the way of the arch gossips. Lucy de Gouvernet had also passed on the advice that she had been given by the Duchesse de Duras who had once told her never to stand facing the windows when the Queen was present as she did not like to be confronted with complexions more dazzling than her own and more able to bear the harsh daylight.

Marie Antoinette was generally to be found seated in front of her opulent lace bedecked dressing table, surrounded with a very feminine mess of diamonds, powder puffs and ribbons while the great Léonard fussed around her hair and her femmes rouges, maids dressed in a cherry red uniform, fluttered about the scene. She greeted each lady in turn with a gracious smile and a kindly word or compliment and there was some genial but nondescript conversation before the doors were opened to admit the ladies who came from Paris on Sundays to pay their respects. At this point the already heavily scented and flower filled room became horribly hot and stuffy and Lucrèce would do her best to slip away from the crowd and seek refuge in one of the large window embrasures behind the embroidered white gros de tours silk curtains until the King arrived and it was time for them all to proceed in a stately procession to the chapel for Mass.

Lucrèce had never been very impressed by the King and this did not change. He was just as shuffling and slow as ever and age had not improved either his posture or his manners. He was a strange man – solitary and awkward, especially in the presence of ladies other than his wife and immediate family. It was said that he had a telescope set up on the roof of the château which he employed to spy on the courtiers as their carriages pulled up in the courtyard. He also spent a great deal of time, when he was not hunting, sitting in a little workshop that he had made under the eaves of the château. Here he liked to fashion locks and keys although no one knew what he did with them once they were made. It was considered an extremely eccentric and undignified pastime for a King of France.

The procession to Mass was a solemn affair. The First Gentleman of the Bedchamber walked at the very front, followed by the Captain of the Guard and other high ranking officers. The King and Queen came next, walking very slowly so that they could exchange pleasantries and smiles with people who lined the beautiful hall of mirrors waiting to see them go past. After them came the ladies in waiting, in order of rank and four or five abreast. As Duchesse de Saliex, Lucrèce was near the front and had an excellent view of their majesties. She also took care to walk on the outside so as to be able to nod and smile at her friends and occasionally be given cause to blush by the odd compliment from young men of the court. Sometimes they would even attempt to pass her notes but she would always smile and shrug her white shoulders before passing on.

Thanks to her lessons from the fashionable dancing master Huart, Lucrèce was able to walk as though she never actually lifted her feet from the ground – the ladies of Versailles were expected to propel themselves along the wooden parquet with a sort of elegant gliding motion that made them look as though they had wheels instead of mere feet beneath their voluminous panniered skirts. It was an immensely difficult effect to achieve but when done properly it looked glorious. Once the endless state rooms and finally the enormous salon d’Hercules with its vast Veronese painting had been safely traversed in this manner, each lady would lift up her train in order to be able to move more quickly and rushed to take her place in one of the side galleries of the exquisite white and gold chapel, making sure that their waiting pages who had gone ahead and been lounging by the chapel door had seen them and were thus able to jump to attention and bring them the large, fringed red velvet bag that contained their missal.

Mass was always dreary and Lucrèce entertained herself as everyone else did by looking about her and seeing who was there and what they were wearing. When Mass was finished everyone stood up, waited for Marie Antoinette to curtsey to the King and filed out in the exact same order and went back in yet another, slower, procession to the Queen’s rooms where they waited in the card room until dinner time.

Dinner was in the large red silk hung antechamber of the Queen’s apartment and a large table was set up with just two place settings in front of the russet marble fireplace with its huge mirror reflecting the light from the many crystal candelabras suspended from the painted ceiling. The royal couple dined in state and anyone was at liberty to come in and observe them as they ate their sumptuous meal, which Lucrèce always thought must be very off putting and as a result she did her best to look away and pretend not to be watching.  This was difficult to achieve as etiquette decreed that she and the other high ranking ladies in waiting sat on a semi circle of stools in front of the table with the other ladies standing behind them.

However, the King’s appetite did not seem at all diminished by the fact that so many people were watching him and he always ate a hearty, if not greedy meal but the Queen always looked distinctly withdrawn and unhappy and would never even unfold her napkin but merely sat and sipped at her mineral water while talking in a low voice to those about her.

Once dinner was finished Lucrèce would ignore the rush to pay court to the rest of the royal family and would instead either walk in the gardens or return to her own little apartment, sit very straight in order to not ruin her elaborate Léonard arranged coiffure and dine very lightly at three before sitting with either her mother or Cassandre and her friends (never both) until seven o clock when it was time to return to the salon de paix for cards and games. The room was usually even more crowded now than it had been in the morning, only this time it was also filled with gentlemen of the court such as her father, Lucien and even occasionally Monsieur le Duc. There was always much flirtation and laughter and following Cassandre’s lead Lucrèce did her best to follow suit although her heart was never really in it.

At seven exactly silence would fall and Marie Antoinette entered with one of the two curés of Versailles who would hand her a velvet purse, which the Queen then took around the room in order to take donations of money to be given to the poor. There was much grumbling about this enforced alms giving from younger members of the court who, as Lucy de Gouvernet pointed out bitterly ‘think nothing of gambling away a hundred times as much on the turn of a card.’ Lucrèce was rather sickened by this also and always made sure that she donated rather more than the requisite six livres while feeling ashamed of her fellow courtiers.

There was much to be ashamed of. The mood at court was sour and restless. It had always been the fashion to claim that everything at Versailles was just too boring and tedious for words and the Queen herself had led the way in this in her giddy and thoughtless youth but now in the last few months of the ancien régime the indolence and indifference had become ceaseless and there was nothing to be heard at any gathering but complaints and back biting. Revolt was very much in the air – the assembly of notables had brought about some much needed changes and the forthcoming Estates General to be held in May of the following year was widely expected to be the start of a new era.

This post is fiction and is a piece taken out of the first draft of my upcoming novel Blood Sisters, which will be out later this year.

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