When Agathe-Sidonie is summoned to the Queen's side on the morning of the 14th, Versailles is a miniature universe, sparkling with every outward appearance of happiness and power, peopled with nobles of minutely calibrated rank, and run according to a hundred-year-old ritual called the Perfect Day. But with the shocking news that someone has woken the King in the night, order begins to disintegrate and word of the fall of the Bastille seeps into court. Soon Versailles's beauty is nothing more than a shell encasing rising panic and chaos. Agathe-Sidonie watches as the Queen's attempts to flee are aborted; her most intimate friend betrays her; and the King, appearing to sleepwalk through this crisis, never alters his routine of visiting the Apollo Salon several times a day to consult a giant crystal thermometer.
From the tiniest garret to the Hall of Mirrors, where Marie-Antoinette stands alone and terrified in the dark, Chantal Thomas shows us a world on the edge of oblivion and an intimate portrait of the woman who, like "fire in motion," was its center.
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Vienna, February 12, 1810
My name is Agathe-Sidonie Laborde. It is a name rarely spoken, almost a secret. I live in the émigré quarter of Vienna in an apartment on Grashofgasse. Its windows open above a paved inner courtyard surrounded at ground level by a number of shops: a secondhand bookshop, a wig maker's, a small printshop, a tailor's. There is also a spice-seller's stall, just at the foot of my apartment building. A lively neighborhood, but not too noisy. In the summertime, along with Eastern aromas, there are always notes of music floating in the air. The rosebushes winding their way up the building fronts add a garden charm to this little corner of Vienna. But in the dead of winter, which is what we have at present, the rosebushes have ceased to bloom and the sounds of life from the shops no longer reach me. For me, in a general way, the sounds of life are well and truly stilled, whatever the season. It's as though the terrible winter around me, this unending snow and the feeling it gives of being buried, were a symptom of my advanced age, the outward sign of that deeper, permanent winter creeping over me.
Today, February 12, 1810, I celebrated my sixty-fifth birthday. Celebrate is not an apt term for the mood of those assembled in my room, a few French exiles of my own age, fellow survivors from the collapse of that world commonly called the ancien régime. The snow never stops. When my faithful friends arrived, they were wet through, for alas, when one requires a cane in order to walk, one cannot use an umbrella. If only old age held no greater misfortune! I set their sodden garments to dry before the fire. The ladies fixed their hair and redid their faces, and then my guests offered me their presents: flowers of wild silk, a fan, and a tiny oval-shaped box that I was asked not to open until after the others had left. I kept the flowers and fan on my lap while we drank coffee and ate pastries. As usual, and in harmony with the whole of Europe, we talked about Napoléon, in terms of hate, naturally, only ours was a restrained hatred, not like the genuinely raging hatred that inspires a large segment of Viennese society. We saw the conqueror's triumphant arrival here last July, after the battles of Essling and Wagram. We endured the bombardments, the pestilence of blood, death, and heaped-up bodies, the horror of those thousands of wounded to be encountered in virtually every part of the city, the sound of their death rattles and cries of pain forming a backdrop to our regular daily lives. We also endured the spying and plundering, the violence that is the lot of an occupied city. But this army had come from France and was difficult for us to hate. Though exposed to the arrogance of its soldiers, we could not consider them enemies. At the same time, we found these young men -- who spoke our language and might have been our children's sons -- foreign, painfully foreign. It was not just their attitude of hostility toward us, it was their deportment. "They walk like him," someone had pointed out to me. And it was true: they all walked too fast. Stiffly upright, heels striking the ground, they looked like so many automatons. Napoléon's officers copy his manner of walking and his manner of speaking, too, his abrupt way of addressing people (the only thing no one has so far attempted to imitate is his accent). With no preamble, the Emperor will suddenly ask the bluntest question. He does not converse; he fires at point-blank range. Our conversational ideal was the dialogue of the polite salon, with its sense of allusion and of innuendo, its skill at placing the speaker in a brilliant light, never making a vulgar show of knowledge, playing delicately with trifles, and, for the space of a verbal encounter, drawing out from those trifles pearls of intelligence and felicitous expression. His model is the police interrogation. I expect he has the most delightful memory of his "conversation" with Friedrich Staps, the student armed with a kitchen knife who tried to kill him at SchÖnbrunn last October.
"Do you regret your action?"
"Would you do it again?"
Had he not been obliged to condemn Staps to death, he would have gladly pursued this conversation a little longer. The young man was very like him, as Charlotte Corday was like Marat. Terrorists attract terrorists...A civilization based on the dagger, the bayonet, and the cannon. In former times a man prided himself on being the perfect embodiment of polite behavior. When he had occasion to make war or engage in military activities, he did not boast of it. Thus, for instance, no soldier would have ever presented himself at Court, in uniform. First he would change his raiment, even if he had news to bring of a victory and a flag wrested from the enemy to lay at the King's feet. Similarly, between the blue cordon of knighthood in the Order of the Holy Spirit and the red cordon of the Order of Saint-Louis, honoring a military exploit, what well-born man would have hesitated? To be awarded the blue cordon was a source of greater pride.
During my birthday fête, even as we warmed ourselves at the flames of a generous fire and listened to the satisfying sound of the logs crackling between the andirons, we lamented the Emperor's latest plans, which, pacific though they were, did not detract from the already colossal list of his crimes. Some say that he proposes to live for a month every summer in the château of Versailles, though he finds it small and misshapen, "a horrible aberration," and an aberration, what's more, that costs him a fortune to keep up. He has decided to stay there occasionally, after he had the impudence to declare: "The Revolution destroyed so much; why did it not demolish the château of Versailles?" But other reports would have it that Napoléon plans to cut down the bosquets, take away the statues, and replace it all with monuments commemorating his victories...We had another serving of cake -- absolutely delicious -- and pursued our lamentations...Monuments to his victories...It is not enough for him to contemplate marriage with Queen Marie-Antoinette's great-niece Marie-Louise, the Austrian woman, as he so elegantly calls her, he must needs take over the château as well. And put his N everywhere. This man, who cannot tell the difference between hunting with hounds and hunting rabbits, has commanded that all Louis XVI's hunting guns be engraved with his initial. "You cannot hunt stags when you are hounding kings," as the prince de Ligne mockingly observes...In the event that he fails to get the Tsar's sister, I wonder whether Vienna will tolerate such an abomination, whether Metternich will hand the poor archduchess over to her country's oppressor. In all this hellish warfare, with its threat of armed gangs and looting, its reduction of rape and murder to commonplace events, Napoléon's pretensions to legitimacy are very nearly the thing I find most offensive. I say very nearly, for what really offends me, what saddens and distresses me, is something that is not to be found in our professions of indignation, nor does it bear the stamp of those choruses of loathing in which we habitually join. No, the thing that appalls me derives rather from what we do not say, from our hypocritical acceptance of the rule that Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette are never to be mentioned. The prohibition applies in Vienna, indeed at all foreign courts, but the place where it is most strictly observed is certainly here, in Vienna. To pronounce these forbidden names in defiance of the interdict produces fearful embarrassment. If it involves Louis XVI, the social blunder, though serious, can be overcome. But to name Marie-Antoinette is an unforgivable lapse. Her memory is suppressed more viciously in her own home, family, and city than anywhere else. For this, this second death, Napoléon cannot be held accountable. If anything, the reverse is true...And we, with our noisy jeremiads, contribute to the work of obliteration. Noisy? I much overstate the case. I only wish we were still capable of making noise.
Around the fire, earlier today, our chairs so close together that we were almost elbow to elbow, we were saying how wretched it is to survive in the midst of ruins. "If you survive, it means you're alive," said one of my friends, but she uttered these words so inaudibly that it was hard to put much faith in them...Though the afternoon had barely ended, darkness was falling. It was time for my guests to make their way home. And just then, a group of schoolchildren came into the courtyard to sing. Their voices were extraordinarily clear, rising up with the same strength and joy that they put into their running, their ice-skating...
Alone once more, I opened my last present. It was wrapped in so many layers of paper that at first I thought there was nothing else, just colored papers laid one on top of the other. But when I came to the little silver box, it opened up to reveal a marvel. I had been offered a miracle in the form of a gift: a pendant set in enamel, on which was painted in miniature an eye of blue -- blazing blue, almost turquoise, of gemlike brilliance, the pupil as though bedewed with the merest hint of moistness. I closed the palm of my hand over the treasure and let the blue of her eyes bring back the Queen's entire face, her face as I knew it...
This ban on names is one of the pacts binding our society of survivors, and when I am with others I respect the pact. But when I am alone with myself, why should I be afraid of words or of the ghosts they summon up or of the unknown with which they sometimes bring us face-to-face? True, in my case the ghosts fill the entire stage, during my waking life as they do in my dreams, whether these be changing or recurrent. Thus, for example, what I call my "Dream of the Grand Stairway." It has variations -- in particular, sometimes the faces are farther away than other times -- but for the most part, it's always the same dream: stationed at intervals on broad steps, stand various members of the Royal Court. Their magnificent apparel has a still quality that hampers movement. Some are leaning on canes, others not. There are no groups. Each individual is isolated, set slightly apart from the next. All, however, are outlined with perfect clarity. They stand there, on the rim of nothing. "The Dream of the Grand Stairway" haunts me. I feel as though the people in the dream -- mute, invisible, never very far away -- are waiting for me, as though they are my truth, whereas the handful of survivors with whom I associate are merely illusions. Under their scrutiny I become uncomfortable. I seek distractions: embroidery work, writing letters, reading newspapers, books, every sort of publication in French that comes my way, but they will not loosen their viselike grip. They press down upon me with all the weight of their nonbeing. I have become accustomed to "the Dream of the Grand Stairway," but it leaves me with a lingering sense of dissatisfaction, for the faces in the dream, while recognizable, are not completely so. I am quite sure that I have known them but am unable to put a name to them.
I lived for a time at Versailles, where I was a reader to Queen Marie-Antoinette, assistant reader, I should say. It was a very minor office, made even less significant by the fact that the Queen had little taste for reading. My patron, Monsieur de Montdragon, Steward in Ordinary to the Court, though he welcomed me with the greatest kindness, had been careful to make that clear. It was a late December day, a midwinter day like today, but with no snow. The daylight had a sharp, almost metallic quality. The trees with their dark trunks stood out against a very blue sky. At the château, to venture into the gaps separating the fireplaces -- and the smoke-filled, blinding, choking zones their fires produced -- was to become paralyzed inside a block of ice. You had to keep moving, otherwise you might well perish. Swathed in his wolfskin pelisse, Monsieur de Montdragon had put me through an examination. From my first response, though I spoke timidly and could not help moving my fingers to keep them from going numb with cold, he had judged me fit for my duties. "You have a fine voice," he had said to me, "rather low-pitched and not obtrusive." And a bit later, observing my discomfort, he had added: "Go to it, my dear madam, clap your hands together; that's a more straightforward, effective way to get them warm." So during our interview, noiselessly, I had applauded. My patron had informed me what my duties would be, in my capacity as assistant reader to the Queen. "To sum up, I would say that, by and large, there aren't any." Then, in sudden anxiety, he had asked me: "But you can read, I trust? Mind you, when I consider how long it may be before the Queen sends for you, there is ample time for you to learn; and even should she discover you to be unlettered, I am sure she would not take it amiss. Her Majesty's benevolence to all her familiars is boundless. You cannot conceive how far, in her Household, she carries the virtue of patience. As for the precise details of your obligations, Madame de Neuilly, Reader to the Queen, will explain them to you...if it occurs to her, for when she comes to Versailles, she is, as you can well imagine, taken up with visits, solicitations..." I could well imagine nothing whatsoever. My eyes and mind were quite dazzled with all the riches that surrounded me. I felt as though I had stepped into the kingdom of Beauty. I thanked Monsieur de Montdragon; he brought the interview to an end, and without pausing to reflect what an utterly unfamiliar world Versailles might be for a newcomer, he left me there in that little private room hung with yellow silk. Overcome by timidity and at the same time exhilarated by the unbelievable splendor that I sensed all about me, I remained for a time seated on a couch, waiting. Finally I found the courage to leave the little room and walk a few steps. I stopped at a glass door that opened onto an immense gallery. My earlier impression, of having been transported into a chÂteau all of gold and precious stones, persisted. If someone had told me that the slate roof-tiles of the château at Versailles were in reality slabs of onyx, I would have believed it...
I arrived in 1778, the year of Queen Marie-Antoinette's first pregnancy -- the felicity she had hoped for through eight years of waiting, the blessing on which prayers had centered in all the parishes and convents of France, down to the remotest monastery. In the eyes of the populace, that was the year of her true accession to royalty, the only possible justification for the position she occupied. Like everyone else, I knew the glad tidings and knew, too, that December, the month of my arrival, was the ninth of the Queen's term. All this I knew and was aware that as reader I would one day have occasion to be in her presence. And yet my first sight of Her Majesty threw me into an unbelievable state of rapture, as though it had been a sight afforded me by purest chance, against all reasonable expectation.
The Queen -- towering, huge, clad in a very full robe of white woolen stuff, on her head a bizarre cameo-embroidered turban of bright blue silk with several peacock feathers pinned to it, forming an aigrette -- was striding rapidly along, at the head of a group of women who were wearing themselves out in their efforts to keep up with her. She was walking as though she were abroad in the open countryside, when in fact she was in an enclosed gallery. At that speed -- which, I later learned, had been recommended by her doctor -- she reached the end of the gallery after a few paces, only to wheel about and cover the course again, still with that same greedy, space-devouring stride...Surprise left me reeling. My legs were unsteady, my face was burning. There was something unbelievable about this apparition, a fantastical element that would forever mark all the images that followed. I thought I was seeing fire in motion.
I dwelt eleven years at the château -- "in these parts," as people said, referring to the Court -- and never became accustomed to it, but assimilated its strangeness as a vital need. Eleven years...when I think about it now, it seems very remote, taking into consideration the line that separates me from that period of my life: the bloody slash mark of the Revolution. But also very near, probably because life in that place bore no resemblance to anything else. Time at Versailles was purely ceremonial; it was spent differently, marked off by curious signposts. Its real divisions were not calculated in terms of years, or months, or even weeks, but in terms of days. There was a Perfect Day; its program had been set more than a century earlier by Louis XIV: Prayers, Petty Levee, Grand Levee, Mass, Dinner, Hunt, Vespers, Supper, Grand Couchee, Petty Couchee, Prayers, Petty Levee, Grand Levee...Each day since that time was supposed to reenact the Perfect Day. Life at Versailles was a succession of identical days. Such at any rate was the Rule, from an absolute standpoint. But reality never ceased to throw up obstacles. The reenactment was never completely successful. We were doomed to wither and decline. Life at Versailles could only degenerate...Tiny modifications became snags, reforms became upheavals, and so on, leading down to the days in July of 1789 that saw the King capitulate and the Court disperse -- the collapse, in less than a week, of a ritual system that I had assumed was fixed for all time. In any case, that first view of the Queen, which no painting or sculpture of a goddess has subsequently dimmed, had entrenched me from the outset in a timeless world. Life at Versailles was a succession of like days. That was the Rule, and I believed in it.
But I was not the only one to be thus obsessed. When people said the Court, they meant the Court of Versailles. Ours was the model par excellence, toward which the eyes of every capital city, Saint Petersburg, Rome, London, Madrid, Warsaw, Vienna, and the rest, were turned. People were not unaware that despite ruinous attempts to drain the swamps, the château of Versailles had been built on an unwholesome site, and unwholesome it remained. People were not unaware of the epidemics and fevers, and the tremendous stench, which in warm weather spread through all the rooms. "The perfectly natural result of exudation from the commodes"; so the casual visitor, on the verge of feeling ill, would be informed. And the women would prettily shake their heads like a goat trying to shake free of its tether. To drive away the fetid smell, they would wave their fans a little faster. Exudation indeed!...People choked! And it was terrifying to behold, against the white skin of some fashionable lady, the blisters dotted across her neck by insect bites.
Marie-Thérèse, wife of Louis XIV, would swallow spiders that had fallen into her bowl of chocolate.
Marie Leszczynska, wife of Louis XV, besieged by mice, would utter cries of distress. And in the early days of their marriage, the Queen's little cries (from her perch on an armchair whence she refused to come down) charmed Louis XV...till the day he wearied of poor Marie and her fears, saying with a shrug: "I keep telling you, Madam, that nothing can be done."
Marie-Antoinette had a particular aversion to fleas and bedbugs. With the help of chemicals sent at her request from Vienna in boxes she treated as so many treasure chests, she had launched a systematic campaign. Her abhorrence of fleas was simply regarded as another of those peculiarities to be expected from a foreigner, along with her odd habit of washing before applying makeup...
All this we bore without a word: the stings and bites, the pimples and sickly humors, the strange swellings and suspicious growths. We endured without complaining the numerous bodily discomforts, including -- I found this specially repellent (but it left most of the courtiers quite unmoved) -- an unimaginable swarming of rats, for there was food left lying about more or less everywhere in the apartments, food that had fallen under the furniture, that had been forgotten between the sheets or quite simply left to spoil in the food closets or in the warming ovens that were installed in window nooks, on landings, and under staircases. The rats thought Versailles was wonderful. By night they conducted a witches' sabbat there, taking complete control in some of the living quarters, where floor and furniture were reduced to ruin...We might also have complained of finding it difficult to breathe, outdoors because of exhalations from what remained of the swamps, indoors because of the crowds squeezed into spaces that were too small. And if ever there was a place where one might die asphyxiated, it was the chÂteau of Versailles. Yet none of these evils had any importance for us, nor for the rest of the world. Our position was envied, for we were at Versailles.
Versailles, where Fortune reigned and where at a word from a minister, or from a courtier who had the ear of those in power, your fate might alter totally from one day to the next. For the better, as well as for the worse.
Where the best tone prevailed, and men bowed themselves out of a chamber with greater style than anywhere else.
Where Fashion was decided. Never mind that sometimes you wore lace chewed by the mice; the cunning little creatures sometimes invented new stitches.
Where, even in the least frequented sections of the park, at the farthest end of an avenue, at the entrance to an area of woods, some small detail of great beauty might always appear: the equivocal beckoning of a statue, the goblet of fruit and flowers carved into the stone and set against the sky.
Where, above all, there dwelt the Queen.
And on certain mornings, in the half consciousness that precedes waking, when I can let the state of pleasant confusion persist awhile, I make believe I am still back there. I imagine my fingers are touching the wall of the room I had there, that I am turning over in my bed, that once again I feel my hair lying in thick abundance against my pillow, and I tell myself that a few rooms away from mine, She lives and breathes.
Versailles held me under its spell. And I was not the only one. To be sure, it was no longer the sacred place it had once been, under the dominion of Louis XIV. But Versailles continued to exercise its fascination. Wherever you went in society, you had but to pronounce these opening words: "I was at the Court..." and those around you held their breath, looked at you differently. It is hard to imagine now the depth of the wounds inflicted on self-esteem "in these parts," how humiliating it was for a courtier, after hours spent waiting in an anteroom, to confront the fact that he would not be summoned to the King's Privy Supper. His shame was palpable. I could read it in people's faces, in the bearing of those who had been ushered out and were returning to their carriages by way of the inner courtyard to avoid scrutiny. What I did not see was the joy of the chosen as they slipped through the half-opened door and proceeded to the sanctuary. But I could imagine it...And even later, during the Consulate, when Court was held at the residence of Joséphine, and Bonaparte was posing as a model republican, even then the passion for Versailles still burned. As soon as one of the official soirées ended, they made sure the doors were properly shut and said to one another: "Let's talk about the old Court, let's spend some time at Versailles; Monsieur de Montesquiou, tell us how they used to..., Monsieur de Talleyrand, tell us about..." And the younger ones would draw their chairs up closer to hear the stories...They were doing what we do, here in Vienna.
I am determined to set this down in writing, to recall the magic, in today's climate, when a campaign of propaganda is tending to stigmatize Versailles as a bottomless pit of needless expenses or else speak of it as an empty stage, a landscape of dust and ashes, already dimmed by an awareness that the end was near. Marionettes with powdered perukes, men and women old before their time, puppets doomed to disappear...From the winners' standpoint, those whom they have beaten and outstripped had in any event no existence worthy of the name, no future. The arrogance of young people would be touching, but for the fact that so often it leads to brutality.
I am convinced -- and my most recent impressions of the world we live in are not apt to make me change my mind -- that humanity does not progress. It rearranges things in other ways, to accord with altered social standards and reflect different aspirations. The system based on a hierarchy of castes had its faults, but the one based on oppression through money does not strike me as preferable. This obsession with getting rich...Now there are things called banks. These, I am told, are little fortresses that are located in the center of certain capital cities and, seen from the outside, cannot be distinguished from a normal house. It is very odd to try and imagine such places. I have probably seen banks without realizing...My parents were poor. Whenever my mother, speaking with no hint of acrimony and actuated solely by the desire to keep some of her children alive, ventured to point out the destitution in which our family lived, my father, who was very pious and loved us dearly, would smile in response. Averting his gaze from our wretched circumstances, he would lift up his eyes toward a window and say: "Is not life more than meat and the body more than raiment? Behold the birds of the air: they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they? And wherefore should you have a care to clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin." My mother's glance would follow his toward the window with its missing panes. She would smile with the same smile as his...The lilies of the field are trampled and trampled again by the soldiers. If there is progress, in our day, it can only be in weaponry. We kill more quickly now, and in greater numbers...At the battle of Essling alone there were forty thousand deaths, forty thousand deaths in thirty hours of combat...The mind recoils. Yes, machines for killing are improving. Aside from that, I do not see...
The château of Versailles, sacred symbol, focus of so many desires, was abandoned at the first signs of impending danger, in July 1789. The whole drama played out very swiftly. Louis Sébastien Mercier, a democrat, a Parisian, and what is worse a man of the theater, but also possessed of an honest mind lit by intuitive flashes that illumine the truth, has written: "The Revolution could have stopped on July 18 after Louis XVI had taken in his hand the national emblem -- the cockade -- and kissed it, on the balcony of City Hall." I cannot but agree. The entire outcome was decided between Saturday, July 11, the day Jacques Necker, Controller General of Finance, was dismissed, and Friday, the seventeenth, the day that the King was humiliated in Paris and royalty repudiated. July 16 saw the Breteuil government dismissed and Necker recalled. That same day, the Court was in flight. Defeat was now inevitable and irreversible; Louis XVI grasped this fact, but too late. In 1792 he would admit to Count Fersen: "I ought to have left on July 14. I missed my chance and was not granted another." Indeed, he was not granted another; whereas in his and the Queen's entourage the chance was grasped all too quickly. Court, friends, relatives, all dispersed in the twinkling of an eye. Princes and courtiers made off for London, Turin, Rome, Basle, Lausanne, Luxembourg, Brussels...And I myself was swept along in the flood tide of that disaster. I left without stopping to consider, without questioning what I was doing. Rather than act, I simply obeyed...I suppose...Ought I to feel consoled by that thought? "The King's Couchees have been quite deserted," the Queen had complained. All at once, not just the Couchees but the entire château answered that description. We abandoned ship the moment the timbers began to creak. We fled.
I would like to give an account of that defeat; it happened so quickly, it was so total and complete, but in some sense it has remained a secret, a tale never told. A stealthy defeat, one might almost say...A moment of silent consternation, a few words so exchanged as not to be overheard, orders given, great lords disguising themselves as servants, and carriages moving at a gallop along the roads. There was no moonlight on that night of July 16, 1789, and when I turned around to look back at Versailles, the château, hidden by forest darker even than the sky, had disappeared...I would like to tell the story of that desertion, thus appeasing the intruders who invade my dreams and mitigating the isolation of days spent in my room, this enclosed space composed of silence, wakefulness, and writing, which I now rarely leave and which, when the fancy takes me, I call "my castle of solitude." I shall find a place for everything that comes back to me, all the remembered fragments of a wrecked world; I shall not be so heartless as to kill that world a second time by stroking things out. My mind takes up the same facts again and again, changing them to fit my changing daydreams, while other, possibly more essential, facts have been obliterated. I do have this excuse: I speak of a time long ago, a time leading nowhere, certainly not to our grim nineteenth century, even if some people, naive in their use of numbers and fooled by hindsight, see in that earlier century no more than the prelude to this one.
Copyright © 2002 by éditions de Seuil
Table of ContentsContents
Prologue: Vienna, February 12, 1810
Versailles, July 14, 1789
July 15, 1789
July 16, 1789
Vienna, January 1811