MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
No one looks regal or elegant in their underclothes on a cold February morning, no matter how much lace or satin trims the garment, and the queen is no exception. She stands with her hands clasped over her stomach, bunching the loose fall of fine white fabric. Her skin gleams nearly as pale as her chemise, and a trace of blue veins shows at her throat, undisguised by the snowflakes of lace cascading across the bosom of her gown. She smooths the garment with delicate hands, and blue veins show at her wrists, too.
Though I’m the newest of her under-tirewomen, having only been here for five days, I know I ought not to speak to her without being addressed first. I can’t help but feel sorry for her though, shivering in the chilly room in her nightgown, waiting for the heated bathwater to be wheeled into the chamber. The rest of us are fully dressed and warm, which heightens the faint awkwardness of this situation. I suppose I’ll grow accustomed to it, but for now it feels strange to be in a position of greater comfort than the queen. I don’t enjoy it. Perhaps I can soothe her a little by speaking. We’re strangers, and yet she stands before me in a state of undress, at a disadvantage. My tongue feels dry; her presence makes me nervous, in spite of the intimacy created by the situation, but I lick my lips and force myself to speak.
“It won’t be much longer, Your Majesty. It’s a cold morning—by the time you’ve completed your bath, the fire should have warmed the rooms.”
I half-expect her to ignore me, or scold me, especially when Madame Campan, the first femme de chambre, twitches her mouth in a disapproving manner.
Instead the queen smiles slightly, softening the line of her lower lip, which protrudes a little. “It is indeed cold. There’s frost on the window. It’s rather pretty.”
“One of my father’s poems is about frosted windows,” I say impulsively. Her gracious tone eases my nerves. “At least, the imagery is. I think the poem itself is really about time, but he will never confirm it. He dislikes talking about his poems in detail.” I avoid Madame Campan’s glance, since I can imagine what it looks like after my casual, impetuous chatter, and stare apologetically at the sloped tile floor. My cousin Eugénie teases me that I can converse with anyone I want. She probably exaggerates, but I like connecting with others. A thrill darts through me that I’m speaking to the queen, and I glance up again.
“Perhaps you will be kind enough to read the poem to me someday,” says the queen.
Before I can reply, the bustle of the bath being wheeled into the room ends all opportunity for more conversation. The queen withdraws behind a curtain with Madame Campan, to change into the long English flannel gown she customarily wears in the bath. Her modesty is such that the gown buttons all the way from her neck to her ankles, and the collar and sleeves are trimmed with linen. It surprised me greatly on my first day at the palace. The satirical newspaper cartoons and marketplace gossip led me to believe she would flit about her rooms in shockingly wispy silks and transparent shifts, possibly even flaunting scandalous piercings or painted nipples. It’s a relief to find she behaves with elegance and decorum. I wouldn’t know where to look if she dressed and behaved like one of the maenads in Papa’s books of Greek plays. Once she is seated in the bathtub, with a tray perched on the edges of the tub, no skin except that of the queen’s hands and face can be seen.
“Would you like coffee or chocolate this morning?” asks Madame Campan, going to the table on which both selections have been placed. Though her tone is deferential, she has served the queen long enough that she doesn’t always address her by a title when they are in private.
“Chocolate, please, Henriette.” The queen gives Madame Campan a glance tinged with fondness.
It’s rather dull, waiting while the queen has her bath, although the heavy scent of sweet almonds and jasmine wafting through the air with the steam makes the room a pleasant place to linger. In spite of the sloped back of the tub, her posture stays correct and firm, and she sips at the chocolate placed on the tray, her large gray-blue eyes misty and unfocused, as if she dreams of something else.
Afterward Marie Antoinette climbs back into bed, tucking the chemise about her and pulling the warmed blankets over her legs, and unfolds a swath of tapestry. Her eyes squint as she concentrates on making tiny stitches.
“I wager you never knew it could take a grown woman four hours to get dressed,” whispers one of the other tirewomen, once we are out of sight and earshot. “Lord, I wish I could go back to bed now, like she does. It sounds heavenly.”
Though slightly taken aback by her tone, I can’t help smiling in response to her infectious grin. “Especially in such a huge bed. It must be like sleeping on a cloud.”
“You’re Giselle?” she asks. “The new girl? Nice to meet you. I’m Geneviève.”
Together, we lay the queen’s dresses for the day out on the large tables within the wardrobe, making sure they are ready to wear. As soon as she discards one gown, changing to another, we immediately clean and press it. Even dresses that have been worn multiple times look nearly new, because we take such care brushing the skirts clean and mending loose threads. Most of them are new, though, stored in three wardrobe rooms lined with enormous cupboards.
“Have you ever managed to get a good look at the book of dress samples?” I ask Geneviève. Madame Campan brings the book to the queen every morning so she can choose the costumes she wishes to wear by poking pins into the sample swatches of fabric. I long to get my hands on the book, to pore over the patterned squares, examining the flowers and stripes and dots while brushing my fingertips over the smoothness of chiné silks and soft muslin, imagining the creations I could design someday.
“No,” replies Geneviève. Her tone of longing matches mine. No wonder Madame Campan closely guards the book. We’re all eager to see it, but it’s too delicate to be pawed at by all the wardrobe women.
At noon Léonard, the queen’s hairdresser, arrives, along with an entire entourage of people, including the Duchesse de Polignac, famed both for her beauty and her spending habits. Following Geneviève’s lead and discreetly peeking through the door of the wardrobe, I eagerly try to see if her eyes really are violet, as the rumors say, but the distance between us tells me nothing. The Princesse de Lamballe has arrived too, and the queen seems quite happy in the presence of her friends. Her mouth forms a small, perpetual smile, and her expression lightens. She sits at her dressing table while Léonard works with her fading reddish-gold hair, and the other grand ladies perch on sofas arranged specifically for this function of the queen’s day.
“Sometimes the princes of the blood and the captains of the Guard come at this hour too, to pay their respects,” whispers Geneviève. “It’s like a madhouse of etiquette in here then. Even more than today.”
“I know. They were here yesterday.” I’d been struck by the queen’s ability to maintain her composure during what surely must be a taxing daily routine, and the seamlessly elegant way she bent her body, leaning slightly on the dressing table as if ready to rise in greeting to the princes. Secretly, I want to try to imitate the gesture, once I’m home again for my days off. The routine seems faintly ridiculous to me, though. Why should everyone want to watch as her hair is dressed? It seems the completed effect would be more remarkable if some mystery remained to it.
Geneviève grabs my arm. “Oh, hush. They’re talking of politics now, I think.”
Although I hadn’t been speaking, I obediently refrain, straining my ears. The beautiful dresses are the main reason I leapt at the chance to work in the queen’s household, for I’d love to design my own someday, making a name for myself as Rose Bertin has. The chance to pick up a smattering of interesting political information is an extra benefit, especially with the current troubled state of the economy.
“Do you suppose the recent election of representatives will matter a great deal?” That soft voice belongs to the Princesse de Lamballe. “They officially decreed for the books of complaint to be drawn up.”
The duchesse scoffs, setting her cup down on a table with a soft clink. “Yes, but that’s a tradition. I shouldn’t wonder if no one reads the cahiers. There must be hundreds of them in the end, gathered from all over the country, and probably half of them are incomprehensible.”
Geneviève and I exchange a glance, silently appalled by the duchesse’s derisive tone. My brief time at court has already shown me that the nobles have a limited understanding of what life outside the palace walls is like, but her scorn for the legislative processes of the Estates-General, the assembly that represents the states of the realm in the government, is practically offensive. There are three Estates, although my father has been wont to say that there might as well be only two. The first and second, made of nobles and clergy, outweigh the third, comprised of the rest of the people, in influence but not numbers.
The duchesse has not finished speaking. Even through the cracked opening of the wardrobe door, I see the arrogant tilt of her head. Her pale hands, gleaming with rings, flick dismissively through the air.
“The people of France cannot understand the great responsibility of ruling that falls upon the shoulders of the king. He has been bred for it, trained for it. The Estates-General likes to imagine it understands everything about running a country, but the king is the only one who does. It is his duty—it’s in his blood. Besides, state secrets and diplomacies can hardly be shared among the masses.”
“They would not be secrets, then,” remarks the queen dryly. “Louis tells me he may read the essay published last month by Abbé Sieyès. It has apparently become quite popular. He thinks it shall be interesting.”
“I think it’s rather nice he wants to share the interests of the people,” says the duchesse.
Geneviève presses her fingers to her lips, as though she can hardly keep from confronting the duchesse about the condescension of this remark. I motion with my hand that she must keep quiet, and she nods, rolling her eyes at the same time.
“Of course he does. He’s always been very proud of the people’s affection for him. He loves his subjects dearly. And he does enjoy reading.”
Geneviève nudges me, her voice scarcely audible. “I have a copy of that essay, What Is the Third Estate? I could lend it to you, but you must keep it a secret.”
I don’t need to ask why. It wouldn’t make a good impression to be caught reading such an inflammatory text at court, provoking new ways of viewing society. From what I’ve heard, the essay suggests that the Third Estate, the common people, should have as much representation in government as the nobles. “I’ll not breathe a word, I promise.” The idea of reading it intrigues me, especially after overhearing this conversation between royal ladies. Their naïve callousness shocks me. I’ve never before questioned the king’s right to rule—it is the normal way for society to function—but I didn’t expect such condescension about serious issues affecting so many people. I return Geneviève’s solemn look. “Thank you.”
“I’ll get it for you later. You can take it home during your leisure time.”
My whispered conversation with Geneviève ends abruptly when the queen rises from her seat, her coiffure perfected, and turns to her companions before moving toward the wardrobe.
“Here she comes,” says Geneviève quickly. “You know, she used to dress out there as well. It’s only since she insists on having Rose Bertin as her dresser that she retires to the closet. The duchesse and the princesse would not suffer sharing the task with a common woman like Rose, so the queen changed the way things are done. She is very fond of Rose’s creations.”
“Don’t you like Rose Bertin?” I ask, surprised. I haven’t spoken with her much, and she seems rather smug, but it’s difficult not to admire her brisk efficiency and the beauty of her gowns.
“Oh, I do. But she is common. You and I are no duchesses, but our fathers are gentlemen, at least. Her mother was a nurse for sick people, for heaven’s sakes. I don’t mind, though—she certainly rose higher than anyone could have expected. That’s admirable ambition.” Geneviève winks and then wipes her expression solemn as the queen reaches the doorway, Madame Campan in tow.
Marie Antoinette looks serious now, and the light smile she wore earlier has vanished, emphasizing the haughty angle of her nose. I curse myself for letting Geneviève distract me from the conversation, for the look in her eyes suggests it must have saddened her, and I wonder what had been said.
She catches my eye, startling me out of my thoughts. I smile tentatively.
“The sun has decided to shine,” she says. “A welcome sight. I hope we shall have an early spring this year. It would do us all good.” She looks wistfully at the patterned spray of flowers on the dress laid out.
“All will be well, Your Majesty.” Still surprised that she has addressed me again, I can’t think of anything cleverer to say, and she looks like she needs reassurance, somehow. Even royalty grows weary of winter, I suppose.
“Of course,” she says confidently. “Of course it shall.”
Copyright © 2017 by Meghan Masterson