The transformation of Marie Antoinette

15 March 2011

The Secret Diary of a Princess has been described by one of its readers as ‘Bridget Jones written by Georgette Heyer about Marie Antoinette’, which is simultaneously worrying and also exceedingly flattering as I love Bridget Jones and Georgette Heyer is my all time favourite authoress. When I started writing it, my plan was to recreate the early years of Marie Antoinette from her life at the Viennese court to the point that she became Queen of France. It seemed to me that everyone is familiar with the hoary tale of the enchanting Queen whose life fell apart amidst sordid calumny and Revolution, but not many people knew about what had led her dainty silk slippered feet to such an awful precipice.

I was also intrigued by the young Marie Antoinette: the youngest and least important of Maria Theresa’s eight daughters. At first it seemed like she was fated to be either married off to an obscure princeling or, unimaginable, consigned to a convent but a series of family tragedies which left one sister disfigured and another dead, brought her to a new prominence and ultimately led to her betrothal to the Dauphin.

It seems amazing to us now, with the shimmering, luminously beautiful image of Marie Antoinette as painted by Vigée-Lebrun before us, that the young princess was ever anything other than exquisite, with that immaculate grasp of fashion and high maintenance grooming that we scruffy English roses envy so much in our French sisters. But so it was.

When, at the age of thirteen, the young Archduchess Maria Antonia was first proposed as a match for the Dauphin Louis, she was not actually considered to be suitable French Princess material with both her wardrobe and her looks found to be wanting. The Duc de Choiseul, who was busy promoting the match in France, was informed by the French ambassador to Vienna, the Marquis de Durfort and by Maria Antonia’s tutor, the Abbé Vermond that the girl was childish, disliked etiquette, had no interest in fashion and often looked unkempt to the point of scruffiness. They also reported that her teeth were crooked and her hairline was wonky. As for her bosom? Oh la la.

Anxious that the match should go ahead, Maria Theresa set to work, first of all accepting assistance from Choiseul with regard to updating her daughter’s wardrobe to that of a chic and refined French girl. Parisian dressmakers, no doubt the favourites of Choiseul’s fearsome sister, the Duchesse de Gramont, were despatched to Vienna, bearing legions of fashion poupées to take the Archduchess in hand and, much to her disgust, she was made to wear a restrictive whalebone corset.

”Today it was the turn of the dressmakers. I spent several hours this morning being measured for what is to be a splendid collection of clothes. ‘Mama is determined that you should look as exquisite as any of the French princesses,’ Amalia said with a smile as she sat in a chair and watched while the dressmakers showed me swatch after swatch of silk, cotton, taffeta, brocade and velvet in all the colours imaginable, some striped, some spotted and some patterned with tiny stars, hearts, flowers and fruits.

There was a milliner as well with the most gorgeous designs for bonnets and hats, a stocking maker who showed me delicious stripped and plain silk stockings, several shoe makers who measured my feet and then made me try on beautiful shoes, the colour of delicate Spring flowers with diamond buckles and ribbons at the heel.

‘I am sure that Monsieur de Durfort will appreciate all of the effort that has been made to attract his approbation,’ Amalia commented wryly as she picked up a sample of very fine Brussels lace and examined it against the light. ‘Let us hope that he is suitably bedazzled by your transformation.’

I smiled, lifting up my green silk skirts to admire a very lovely peach silk shoe, decorated with green velvet ribbons. ‘I do not see how he could fail to be impressed.’ I turned my ankle this way and that, thinking how pretty it all was and how lovely I would look from now on. What could the French possibly find to complain about now?” — The Secret Diary of a Princess, Melanie Clegg, 2010.


Next to be corrected were her teeth and in 1768, a French dentist by the name of Pierre Laveran arrived in Vienna bearing what probably appeared to be a hideous torture device but what was actually an eighteenth century form of brace, designed by the inventive dentist Pierre Fauchard. We can only imagine Maria Antonia’s feelings on being told that she would have to wear it for many months to come!

Today, however, Joseph was waiting for me there with a new French dentist who bowed very low and then politely requested to be allowed to see ‘Madame l’Archiduchesse’s’ teeth. He had a silly wig and smelled strongly of roses and cloves, which was pleasant at first but then began to give me a headache as he stood behind me and poked and prodded inside my mouth for about ten minutes before announcing that my teeth were of acceptable quality but lamentably crooked.

‘What is to be done?’ Joseph asked with a frown. Who would have thought that my teeth would be cause of so much fuss? ‘Can they be straightened?’

The dentist grinned and bowed. ‘But of course! I trained with the great dentist, Pierre Fauchard himself and so am entirely proficient with the employment of a brace on the teeth.’ He opened a small wooden box and produced a strange contraption made of metal and silk threads. ‘It looks entirely insignificant, does it not, but this device, invented by Monsieur Fauchard himself, will straighten Madame l’Archiduchesse’s teeth in a matter of months.’

I stared in horror at the ugly brace as he excitedly waved it around. ‘You expect me to put that thing in my mouth?’ I asked, casting an imploring look at Joseph. ‘Will I have to wear it all the time? Won’t I look very ugly?’

‘Better now than later on when you are seen more in public,’ Joseph said with a shrug. ‘Just try not to smile at Monsieur de Durfort.’” — The Secret Diary of a Princess, Melanie Clegg, 2010.


Last to be sorted out was her hair, which was a mass of often unbrushed reddish blonde curls. Of course at the time, hair was a very, very big deal and so having the perfect hair was of the utmost importance, especially in a princess of France. Once again, Choiseul’s sister Béatrix, the Duchesse de Gramont came to the rescue and sent her own hairdresser, Larsenneur to the Hofburg, where he modified the style favoured by the late Madame de Pompadour so that it would disguise the Archduchess’ high forehead and accentuate her youth and charm:

“’He arrived today, Monsieur Larsenneur, a small man with a monkey face, pink taffeta coat and ingratiating manner. I did not like him at first and was unwilling to allow him to touch my hair but had to relent in the end and let him have his way, while Amalia and Elizabeth stood by and gossiped with their ladies in waiting. He started by staring at me for a while, with his little head on one side and a gleam in his eye. ‘Ah, but la petite is careless of her beauty,’ he whispered to me at last, in a very flirtatious manner that I did not really like and which made me feel hot and embarrassed. ‘Do not look so nervous, belle chérie, I shall transform you from a gauche girl into a beautiful young woman.’

‘Just by doing my hair?’ I could not help but laugh at him.

Larsenneur looked hurt. ‘But of course. A beautiful coiffure is everything nowadays! Did you not know that?’ He lifted up one of my reddish blonde curls. ‘Ah, but Mademoiselle has the most lovely strawberry blonde hair, comme une fraise. I had expected a blonde Viennese fräulein, not this.’ He tutted as he looked through my hair. ‘Do you not have maids to brush your hair? Why so many tangles?’

I jerked my head away. ‘I do not like to have my hair brushed,’ I muttered. ‘It is boring and hurts my head.’

‘Tsk, this will never do. A princesse does not have tangled hair like a… like a fille de ferme. It is not right!’ He waved his silver handled comb in my face and looked really quite upset. ‘From now on you must submit gracefully to having your hair brushed through no less than twice a day. A hundred strokes each time!’ I must have looked appalled as he pinched my chin consolingly. ‘Ah, but after only a very few days Mademoiselle will be rewarded with the most beautiful hair and be the envy of all who see her.’ He raised his voice. ‘Now, I must have gossip while I work! Someone tell me something scandalous! Do you have scandals in Vienna? I want to hear them all!’

‘Cover your ears, Antonia,’ Amalia said with a laugh.

It took a very long time and I was very weary and short tempered by the time Larsenneur had finished his work, but oh, it was so worth it. I stared at myself in the mirror for a very long time, unable to believe that the sophisticated little lady with powdered, carefully arranged hair staring back was me. ‘Mademoiselle entered this room as a gauche, untidy schoolgirl and now, voila!’ the little hairdresser crowed triumphantly as he tucked a final delicately blooming pink rose behind my ear. ‘Mademoiselle, you are a beautiful princesse at last.’” — The Secret Diary of a Princess, Melanie Clegg, 2010.


Of course, Maria Antonia’s transformation was not just sartorial – there were hours of dancing and etiquette lesssons to be endured as well before she was declared to have the requisite poise and majestic bearing of a Dauphine of France. For the young Archduchess, who loved to spend her time frolicking in the grounds of Schonnbrunn with her friends and pet dogs, the new improved version of herself that gazed back out from her mirror must have seemed very alien and strange at first…

The Secret Diary of a Princess is now available for Kindle from Amazon US and Amazon UK.