Wednesday, 16th May 1770, Versailles.
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…
Excerpt taken from The Secret Diary of a Princess, available right now from Amazon UK and Amazon US. My next book, Blood Sisters, a romantic saga set among the splendour of Versailles and the horrific upheaval of the French Revolution is due to be released later this year.