Friday, March 30, 2018

Life at Versailles

Arial view of modern-day Versailles
In the forthcoming installment of the series, Refiner’s Fire, Elizabeth has been whisked off to France to keep her safe from British attacks. Meanwhile White Eagle is far out in Ohio Territory wrestling with the frustrating and tricky politics of negotiating with the Indians to prevent their allying with the British against the Americans.

My previous post gave a historical overview of Versailles, which is one of the story’s settings. One of the fun things about writing a sweeping historical saga is all the potential for intrigue on so many levels, and it’s so much better when history presents a treasure trove of factual material to work with, as in this case.

Versailles, just as every other royal court, was not only the nation’s power center, but also a hotbed of juicy rumors and delicious gossip. And there was plenty of fuel for the fire since even acts expected to be the most private—including personal bodily functions, dressing and undressing, sexual encounters, and births—were attended by courtiers and nobles who held various levels of rights of access. Naturally, the greater the Rights, the higher the individual’s personal prestige, so they were avidly flaunted. Louis XIV, France’s Sun King, developed these elaborate ceremonies in the 17th century as a way to control the nobles. By the late 1770s, when Refiner’s Fire is set, power struggles playing out on the field of etiquette were rife.

The most important nobles held Major Rights, which included things like being able to sit in the royal presence or to address the king as Monsieur instead of Monseigneur or Majesté, a privilege that indicated the highest intimacy. Lesser nobles and servants such as physicians and valets-de-chambres were granted only Minor Rights—much less impressive, but nevertheless an indication of a degree of royal favor that could be lorded over those less fortunate.

Marie Antoinette being dressed
Every day started with the ritual morning dressing, held separately for king and queen, beginning with a petit lever attended only by those who held Major Rights and followed by a grand lever open to those who held Minor Rights. The king and queen could not put on any item of clothing until it had been handed to them by whoever held that particular right. On one occasion, while Marie Antoinette waited stark naked and shivering, not to mention increasingly frustrated and humiliated, ever greater rights-holders kept entering the chamber, which meant that the person in possession of the article she was waiting for first had to hand it over to the one who outranked her. One presumes that by the time the grand lever began the king and queen at least had their underclothes on! The ritual undressing, the coucher, followed in the evening with the same formalities as the monarchs were put to bed—in separate chambers—with the assistance of the highest ranking members of the nobility.

Salon of the Grand Couvert
There was also a regular public dinner called the grand couvert, which pretty much anyone could attend to watch the royals eat. At left is the room where this took place at Versailles as it appears today. People did have to meet minimum standards for dress, such as a sword and hat for the men. If one came unprepared, however, the proper equipment was available for rent at Versailles’ gates. Surprisingly, considering the formality that reigned at the palace, the service at meals was usually haphazard, with special dishes for the royals sometimes going astray, only to be enjoyed by one of the servants later.

Marie Antoinette by Jean-Baptiste
Gautier Dagoty, 1775
At court ladies were expected to wear the cumbersome court dress like the one Marie Antoinette is wearing at left. It featured extremely wide hoops and a long train to display the expensive fabric it was made of. Men’s dress was no less ornate, and of course both men and women had to have their hair powdered. Pomatum was applied to the hair, then an enormous cape was draped over one’s clothing and powder was blown onto the hair. This made it impossible for men to wear hats, so they carried them under their arms at their sides instead! For ladies wool, tow, pads, and wire were added to their own hair to construct towering coiffures called poufs, which featured ornaments such as feathers and jewels. Imagine managing a really wide, long dress while wearing a tall monstrosity on one’s head for hours at a time! How would you sit down? Or go to the bathroom?

Madame de Pompadour
Wearing rouge was also de rigueur.
Because it was so expensive, it was seen as a badge of rank and distinction. No one outside the court was allowed to use it. There was nothing subtle about how it was applied either. You painted a precise circle of the stuff in a color pretty close to scarlet on each cheek, as shown in Madame de Pompadour’s portrait at right. (Look closely, and you can see the little case of rouge in her hand.) The effect was so…um, striking…that sensible Germans like Mozart thought it detestable and unbearable to the eyes.

Another interesting feature of the French court was that every subject traditionally possessed the right of access to the sovereign. This made security at the palace essentially nonexistent. The common people freely roamed through the palace’s salons, hallways, and chambers, and not necessarily in decent dress—which the poor certainly couldn’t afford. They even entered the king’s apartment as soon as he stepped out. Though the queen’s apartment was generally more or less off limits, the fishwives held an ancient right to address the queen on certain prescribed occasions. This eventually morphed into a general right of access for all the market women, and they would flock into the queen’s rooms and boldly admonish her and the princesses on their perceived failings.

What struck foreign visitors to Versailles in the 18th century most was the smell and the dirt. Much of it resulted from the royals’ numerous pets. Cats, dogs, monkeys, birds—you name it, they had it. You can imagine the chaos of animals bounding through the palace at will and doing their business wherever. To say nothing of the vagrants who settled into the palace’s many nooks and crannies in such numbers that they occasionally had to be routed out with spaniels. According to some reports, you could smell the place five miles out, though that seems a bit extreme!

All in all, life as a French king or queen wasn’t as glamorous as one might imagine. What’s your opinion of the “royal” life? How would you feel about having a whole crowd of people involved in your most private moments, including standing around gawking while you ate or even were in the process of giving birth?

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