Life in the Time of Marie Antoinette
by Meghan Masterson
A day in the life of Marie Antoinette probably sounds very glamorous – at least pre-revolution. While it’s true that she lived in the opulent surroundings of Versailles, wore jewels and luxurious gowns, and had people to wait on her hand and foot, there were also a lot of rules. A lot of rules, and the number of servants and attendants also meant very little privacy.
Much of what we know about the queen’s daily routine comes from the memoirs of Henriette Campan, who was the first femme de chambre – chief of the queen’s ladies’ in waiting – whose intimate acquaintance with the rules and routines comes from being present for almost all of them. She was part of the queen’s household for twenty-three years, from 1770 until the queen’s execution in 1793.
|Marie Antoinette with a Rose, painted by Vigée Le Brun, 1783
Marie Antoinette usually woke around eight in the morning, and had breakfast at nine. She often ate in bed, or at a table placed opposite a couch in her bedchamber. Breakfast was very light – coffee or hot chocolate (infused with orange blossom), perhaps a biscuit. When she wanted a bath, it would be rolled into her room at Versailles. (If she was staying at the estate of St. Cloud, she went to a separate bathing chamber below her apartments). Marie Antoinette’s perfumer provided aromatic sachets filled with blanched sweet almonds and bran for exfoliation, a luxury that might rival an exclusive spa treatment nowadays. The queen wore a long shift, kind of like a nightgown, of muslin in the bath, that buttoned all the way from her throat to her wrists. It’s a strange idea, to think of bathing while wearing clothes, but this is because, as luxurious as her bath sounds, the room was generally full of attendants and ladies-in-waiting. The queen had very little privacy, though when she rose from the bath, one of her attendants would hold up a sheet to shield her from view from the rest of the room.
After bathing, the queen would often climb back into bed, where Madame Campan would bring her a book that contained fabric swatches of the patterns of all the gowns available for her to wear. Marie Antoinette would stick pins in the fabric samples of the garments she wanted to wear for the day. She typically made three wardrobe changes in a day, so would select one gown for morning, another for afternoon, and a fancy evening dress.
|Bust of Marie Antoinette.
The ladies in waiting were entitled to remain in the room while the queen got dressed, a custom that again highlights the lack of privacy. Marie Antoinette abolished this formality when she became queen, allowing them to stay while her hair was styled, and then she would retire to the closet to dress – still not alone, since her own wardrobe women would accompany her, and Rose Bertin, her favourite dressmaker, would often be waiting inside the closet, which was actually quite a large separate room. The queen’s preference for Madame Bertin’s creations is one of the reasons she was able to alter the formality of dressing; the dressmaker was not a noblewoman, and therefore not entitled to be in the queen’s chambers with the other royal ladies. Since Marie Antoinette wasn’t willing to give up her gowns, she changed the routine.
After she became queen, Marie Antoinette made many similar changes, though. She gradually implemented simpler customs. One such change included the rules for dining. It was customary that the queen would dine in public. Madame Campan describes that ‘the ushers suffered all decently dressed people to enter; the sight was the delight of persons from the country”, meaning that people would actually make trips to Versailles just to watch the queen eat a meal. Marie Antoinette followed this custom as dauphine, as well as one that dictated that the Queen of France should appear in public surrounded by women, and could only be served by women at mealtimes, but she changed the rule once she came to the throne. This probably made it easier for her to move around the palace, as well, since these updates made it so she could be accompanied by only a single valet and two footmen, instead of two ladies in full court dress.
|As you can see from this silk and cotton robe á la française from about 1770, a group of ladies with such full skirts wouldn’t be going anywhere fast, even in the vast hallways of Versailles.
Even with these changes, Marie Antoinette could go nowhere alone. When she went to Mass, she’d be surrounded by noble ladies, tirewomen, chevaliers, equerries, and various other attendants. Presentations of colonels could be made to her at this time, further slowing down progress. Different presentations occurred regularly on scheduled days; ambassadors would be introduced to her on Tuesday mornings, ladies presented on Sunday evenings before card-playing. It’s little wonder she so enjoyed the refuge of Petit Trianon, the more rustic little hamlet built within the grounds of Versailles, where she often retreated with friends and tried to live more simply.
|Hameau de la Reine, Marie Antoinette’s retreat at Petit Trianon
One might think that a preference for simple routines would have endeared her to the people, perhaps showing she wasn’t spoiled, but these changes were often more damaging than helpful to Marie Antoientte’s reputation. It was seen that she favoured the customs of her Austrian homeland, rather than French ones, showing that she was an outsider. Marie Antoinette often faced blame for things beyond her control, even having her reputation damaged by a theft of a diamond necklace, where the thieves used her name without any knowledge or involvement by the queen. (For those curious about the scandal, I’ve written a free short story around the diamond necklace affair, which you can read here).
The luxury of Marie Antoinette’s daily routine came at a cost of many tedious customs and routines, most of them dictated by hierarchy, and an almost complete lack of privacy. I don’t think it was worth it, to be honest. Better to be upper-middle class in eighteenth century France than nobility, perhaps! Although I like the idea of having a book of clothing options and making daily selections. I bet there’s an app for that.
Meghan Masterson graduated from the University of Calgary with an Honours Bachelor of Arts in Communications Studies, and has worked several unrelated jobs while writing on the side. As a child, she gave her parents a flowery story about horses every year for Christmas. Thankfully, she has expanded her work past tales of equine perfection and thinly veiled Nancy Drew retellings, and is now mainly interested in writing historical fiction. She is drawn to strong historical figures and unique situations in history, which present unexpected opportunities and dilemmas for her characters. Meghan’s other interests include reading at all hours (even at breakfast), cooking, and going for walks with her dog. She and her husband live in Calgary, Alberta. Stay up to date on her book news through social media: Author Website | Facebook | Twitter | Instagram
The Wardrobe Mistress
THE WARDROBE MISTRESS is Meghan Masterson’s fascinating and visceral debut, an inside look at Marie Antoinette’s luxurious life in Versailles remarkably juxtaposed against life in third estate as the French Revolution gains strength. A propulsive exploration of love, loyalty, danger, and intrigue…not to be missed.
It’s Giselle Aubry’s first time at court in Versailles. At sixteen, she is one of Marie Antoinette’s newest undertirewomen, and in awe of the glamorous queen and her opulent palace life. A budding designer, it’s a dream come true to work with the beautiful fabrics and jewels in the queen’s wardrobe. But every few weeks she returns home to visit her family in the Parisian countryside where rumors of revolution are growing stronger.
From her position working in the royal household, Giselle is poised to see both sides of the revolutionary tensions erupting throughout Paris. When her uncle, a retired member of the secret du roi, a spy ring that worked for the old King, Louis XV, suggests that she casually report the Queen’s actions back to him as a game, she leaps at the chance. Spying seems like an adventure and an exciting way to privately support the revolution taking the countryside by storm. She also enjoys using her insight from Versailles in lively debates with Léon Gauvain, the handsome and idealistic revolutionary who courts her.
But as the revolution continues to gain momentum, and Giselle grows closer to the Queen, becoming one of the few trusted servants, she finds herself dangerously torn. Violence is escalating; she must choose where her loyalty truly lies, or risk losing everything…maybe even her head.
| | | |
| | | |