Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Fashion Plates: 150 Years of Style (Yale University Press)

Fashion Plates: 150 Years of Style is a new publication from Yale University Press which reproduces 200 different fashion plates spanning from 1778 to the early 1900s. Some of these fashion plates have not been printed since they were first published and enjoyed by fashion-minded contemporaries eager to catch a glimpse of the latest fashions. The book features plates of both men and women's fashion, and includes an informative text by April Calahan in addition to a foreword by Anna Sui.

Fashion Plates: 150 Years of Style is currently in print and available from major book retailers. I am waiting for a local library to get the book in, but from published reviews it seems like a delightful book. I would like to share three of the plates featured in this book, with permission from the publisher.

 [image: From Galerie des modes et costumes français, originally published 1778, Claude-Louis Desrais]

[image: From Townsend's Monthly Selection of Parisian Costumes, c. 1825]

[image: From La moda elegante ilustrada, 1894, H. Charle]

Saturday, January 16, 2016

"Don't They Ever Get Tired of These Ridiculous Stories?" A Critical Look at Recent Claims about Marie Antoinette and Axel Fersen (Part 2)

This is the second part in new series of posts discussing the onslaught of new claims which are being made about the nature of Marie Antoinette and Axel Fersen's relationship.

(You can read part one in this series here).

In addition to claims regarding the parentage of Louis-Charles and Sophie, the recent wave of articles regarding Evelyn Farr's claims put a sharp focus on the phrase "I love you madly," which also happens to be the title of Evelyn Farr's upcoming book. The phrase is included in most prominently in a letter written by Marie Antoinette to Fersen, dated January 4th, 1792. I will be talking about the context of this letter in this part, but I would first like to tackle the claims regarding the phrasing as evidence of a physical affair.

Claims #3-4: '‘I love you madly" is something you don't say to a good friend and implies a physical relationship

The letter of January 4th, 1792 includes this phrase, which was later covered with ink: "I am going to close, but not without telling you, my dear and very tender friend, that I love you madly and never, ever could I exist moment without adoring you." (Or in French: Je vais finire, non pas sans vous dire mon bien cher et tendre ami que je vous aime a la folie et que jamais jamais je ne peu être un moment sans vous adorer.)

The phrase was covered with ink sometime after it was written. There is still debate about who exactly redacted these phrases; there is currently still work being done by researchers at the French archives regarding these blotted out phrases in Marie Antoinette's letters, and I hope that they will be able to date the 'redacted' ink which may help in coming closer to discovering who actually covered them. Given the difference in copper concentration between the ink used to write the letters and the ink used to cover it, it is unlikely that Marie Antoinette herself covered the phrase.

To continue: Telegraph quotes Farr as saying: "‘I love you madly’ is a very strong phrase – you don’t say that to a good friend. It’s really telling; it implies a physical relationship. They were lovers."

There are actually two claims being made here: one, that "I love you madly" would not have been used for a good friend but only to a lover; two, that the phrase implies a physical relationship existed between those two people.

In French, what Marie Antoinette wrote to Fersen was that she loved him 'à la folie.' This exact phrase (loving someone à la folie) was used by the queen several years earlier, when talking about her love for her son Louis-Charles, in a letter to the duchesse de 'Polignac dated December 1789: "The Chou d'amour is charming, and I love him madly." Madame Elisabeth, her sister-in-law, used that same phrase in letters describing the sister of Mirabeau's love for her brother: "I pity his unfortunate sister, who is very pious and loved him madly."

From these examples used by Marie Antoinette and her sister-in-law (there are other contemporary examples written by unrelated people, but I decided to stick with Marie Antoinette's own words) we can see that loving someone "madly" was not a phrasing which existed solely for lovers in the 18th century. And if "I love you madly" must imply physical relationship, then from these two examples--well, you get the idea.

Critically, the claim that "I love you madly" is for lovers only does not hold up when you compare it to other contemporary letters from that time period. The claim also wavers when you take into consideration Marie Antoinette's personal style of writing.  "I love you madly" does not differ very much from phrases Marie Antoinette regularly wrote to people she genuinely adored.

The intensity with which Marie Antoinette wrote to people she considered her cherished companions cannot be overstated.  Her letters to these few--people she knew from childhood, people she brought into her intimate 'Trianon' circle, and those who remained loyal to her during the Revolution--contain such gushing phrases as "I kiss you tenderly," "It would be a great pleasure for me to kiss you," "My feelings for you are tender and grow every day," "my tender heart," "my dear heart," "I kiss you with all my heart," "I embrace you with all my soul," "I will never cease to love you," "I kiss you hard," and other flourishes that would easily be considered romantic today. Marie Antoinette even wrote to Yolande de Polignac saying that "nothing but death could make me stop loving you."

Could lovers have used the phrase? Of course. But in the context of Marie Antoinette and Fersen, it's not some outlier phrasing that is totally incongruous with Marie Antoinette's normal style.  It shows that she considered him an intimate, loved companion who wasn't just loyal to her but was, by all her accounts, fighting for her life and the life of her family. If there was any point where Marie Antoinette was going to use her trademark tender, romantic phrases, the years where Fersen was an almost sole outside devotee when she was living in a country that was increasingly hostile to her is definitely that point.

And remember: "I love you madly" was not hidden by the queen. It was written plainly in her letter to Fersen, as were her romantic phrases in letters to her other cherished loved ones.

If this was a phrase reserved for lovers, it is extremely unlikely that Marie Antoinette would ever risk everything (her security, the future of her children, the stability of the monarchy, her reputation to the European powers, to name a few things) by so casually revealing something that was considered treasonous. So what does the phrase mean? The answer is genuinely simple: Marie Antoinette wrote passionately, romantically, even gushingly to people she considered intimate friends. Before and after the revolution. And she knew how to use that flattering language to keep people on her side, when she needed to do so, and she definitely needed to bring Fersen back around after his recent criticisms and fears, which I will get more into below.

The role that Fersen played in the last years of Marie Antoinette's life was an intense one, that in all likelihood bonded them emotionally in a way that is difficult to imagine today. He was, in the queen's estimation, working to save their lives. He was one of the few people who was willing to take an active role in saving the royal family and the crown, beyond vague promises by foreign rulers or the dangerous behavior of the emigrated Artois and Provence elsewhere in Europe or the moderates in France that Marie Antoinette never fully trusted. Is it any wonder that Marie Antoinette wrote to him as she did other intimates like Polignac, so favored that she had to flee France? No, it is not.

As with the use of gossip as evidence, using this phrase and similar phrases as evidence that the two were physical lovers does not stand up to an extrapolating critical view. Marie Antoinette wrote this way--many women of that time period wrote this way.

If "I love you madly" proves that Marie Antoinette and Axel Fersen were physical lovers, then it stands to reason that "Nothing but death can make me stop loving you" should be used as proof that Marie Antoinette and Yolande de Polignac were also physical lovers. Yet once again, I doubt historians would claim that because the Queen wrote romantically to Polignac, they were lovers, physical or otherwise, due to the context of Marie Antoinette's personality and the general romantic writing style of her contemporaries.

The context of January 4th, 1792 

The context of the letter of January 1792 is important.

This was, politically speaking, a very tense time for Europe, France, and of course Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI. For the last several months, Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI had been embarking on course of action that none of their allies--Fersen included--had really approved. That course of action was to play both sides: ally themselves with Barnave and other constitutionals, all the while keeping up their correspondence with Fersen, Craufurd, Breteuil, and various European monarchs. In September of 1791, Louis XVI had also accepted the Constitution and the royal couple decided to outwardly support the Constitution, not just to appease the rumblings in the government but to, as Louis XVI put it, show the people that the Constitution could not work by following it to the letter.

Abroad, this had the effect of sending the emigres, the king's brothers and European monarchs into a war-minded frenzy. The king's brothers were stirring the pot by spear-heading the raising of emigre-based armies with the intention of sending those armies into France to take back control over the country.

On December 14th, 1791, Louis XVI--without consulting or notifying Fersen and the others in contact with the queen--addressed the Assembly and declared that any European powers which did not disband emigre-based troops by January 15th, 1792 would be considered enemies of France. Furthermore, he declared that the wrote to Leopold II and informed him that he was fully prepared to declare war on Austria if those troops were not disbanded.

Eight days later, Fersen wrote Marie Antoinette a lengthy letter which contained what the queen later referred to as 'scoldings.' In this letter, Fersen admonished the queen for not being openly affectionate towards people he was trying to get on their side. M. de Toulangeon was "hurt by the coldness with which his good intentions were received," which Fersen followed up with: "Do you not think that, without too highly distinguishing them, it would be well to show persons of good-feeling and good-will certain marks of kindness?" He wrote in a similar way regarding the queen's unease about attempting to win over the Duke of Brunswick: "[He] is a man of intelligence, talents, and a great ambition. Do you not think it is important to win him?"

Yet the 'scoldings' in this letter did not stop there. Fersen then wrote that he was astounded and grieved by the king's unsupported decision and the fact that Marie Antoinette did not tell him about it. He continued that he now saw only "embarrassment for you, additional dangers, and the bad effect that this will have in Europe." Fersen went on to suggest that Marie Antoinette should not have acted without consulting Fersen and Breteuil, and that by doing so she invited disastrous consequences.

He also questioned the queen's confidence in him, particularly in light of his own gushing devotion: "I have the vanity to think that my past conduct ought to take you from the possibility of doubting mine; it ought, rather, to convince you of their purity, and of the zeal, attachment, and devotion I have consecrated to your service. My sole desire is to serve you; my sweetest recompense, the only one to which I aspire, is the glory of succeeding in that--I want no other. I should be but too much rewarded if I could know you were happy and think that I had been happy enough to have contributed to it." 

Is it any wonder that Marie Antoinette, who had excelled at charming people from an early age, knew how to reassure Fersen--who, by the tone of this letter and those leading up to it, was becoming increasingly critical of her and wary of her decisions? Fersen himself said it best: "Do you not think that it would be well to show persons of good-feeling and good-will certain marks of kindness?" Fersen wanted reassurance that the queen trusted him, that she accepted his devotion, and that she considered his confidence worthy of respect. And she did just that, as she had throughout the last year to this years-long friend who she saw as fighting for the salvation of her family and for her country.

Let's be clear: I'm not even saying that Marie Antoinette and Axel Fersen couldn't have had feelings for one another, even romantic feelings.

To quote Nesta Webster at the end of her own analysis of their relationship, published in 1937: "It is, however, not impossible that amidst the stress and storm of the Revolution, in her loneliness and perplexity, unable to lean on the king, at variance politically with Madame Elisabeth, betrayed on all sides, she may have come to love the man who was devoting all his energies to the hope of saving her and those dear to her, to love him with tenderness rather than with passion and without a thought of disloyalty to the husband for him she, in her turn, was ready to shed the last dfop of her blood. But this is a thousand miles from supposing that she ever stooped to conduct incompatible with her virtue as a woman or with her dignity as Queen of France."

What I would like to stress is that the recent claims do not hold up to scrutiny that is essential in historical scholarship. Using gossip as "main evidence" of a a child's parentage, especially when countless other men were "supposed" to have been the fathers of Marie Antoinette's children, is not responsible scholarship. Saying that a romantic phrase proves they were physical lovers, when Marie Antoinette wrote romantically to everyone she loved, is not responsible scholarship.

So what next?

Unfortunately, the damage caused by these irresponsible claims has already been done. It will take significant work from within the historical community to unravel the absurd claims that have now made their way around the internet, despite the shockingly precarious foundations they were built on.

It's actually a genuine shame, because there is recent research being done by the French archives on letters written by Marie Antoinette which had various lines blotted out with ink; the research is attempting to reveal what was originally written under these blots, such as the aforementioned lines from the letter of January 4th. This research is being overshadowed by the over-reaching, irresponsible claims being made with broad brush strokes and unsupported evidence.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

"Don't They Ever Get Tired of These Ridiculous Stories?" A Critical Look at Recent Claims about Marie Antoinette and Axel Fersen (Part 1)

This will be the first part in a new series of posts discussing the onslaught of new claims which are being made about the nature of Marie Antoinette and Axel Fersen's relationship. Part 2 is here.

If you have been following any Marie Antoinette related news in the past 2 weeks, you have no doubt seen the dozens of articles claiming to reveal new "shocking," "torrid," "scandalous" details about Marie Antoinette's supposed affair with Axel Fersen.

These articles have spawned from statements made by Evelyn Farr for her new book, I Love You Madly: Marie-Antoinette and Count Fersen: The Secret Letters, which is set to be released later this year. Farr claims to have proven that they were lovers, to have proof that a physical affair existed between the two and, more than that, found "compelling evidence" that two of Marie Antoinette's children--Sophie and Louis-Charles--were actually fathered by Axel Fersen.

The inadequate standard of scholarship being used to promote these claims about Marie Antoinette is genuinely disheartening. So, let's take a closer look at what is being claimed and why the supposed proof used to support these claims does not hold up under a critical eye.

Claim #1: Louis-Charles was fathered by Axel Fersen

The main evidence (called compelling or damning depending on what website is reporting) that Farr has given news outlets 'proving' that Louis-Charles was fathered by Axel Fersen is a letter written by Quintin Craufurd to Prime Minister William Pitt and Lord Grenville, his Foreign Secretary. The letter, dated August 1791, reads thusly:

"I know him [Fersen] intimately, and think him a man of unquestionable honour and veracity. He is calm, resolute, and uncommonly discreet, without being reserved. This gentleman was Colonel of the Royal Suédois; was Her Most Christian Majesty's prime favourite; and is generally supposed to be the father of the present Dauphin."

Let's be clear: someone repeating gossip is not compelling evidence of anyone other than Louis XVI being the father of Louis-Charles. There is no other way to say this. There is a reason that historians are taught to develop a critical eye not only when gathering evidence, but interpreting it as well. You can find published works claiming Marie Antoinette poisoned her son Louis-Joseph--but when you use critical interpretation, you realize that you can't use those published works as evidence for a claim that Marie Antoinette deliberately made her son ill.

Farr is further quoted in The Daily Mail as saying "It [the claim about parentage] is not something you would write lightly," which reads as an attempt to strengthen the letter as key evidence in her claim.

Yet gossip about royalty, even scandalous gossip such a claim of illegitimate parentage, has never been off-limits, even when writing to someone in a position of political power. The letters written by comte de Mercy-Argenteau to Empress Maria Theresa are scattered with political and court gossip; after the birth of her first son Louis-Joseph, a Spanish diplomat passed along the rumors that the new dauphin was fathered by someone other than the king and copied down some malicious couplets (containing the quip 'Who the devil produced him?') which had made the rounds in Paris.

Craufurd, along with his lover Eleanore Sullivan, worked with Fersen on the plan to spirit the royal family out of Paris. There are many reasons why Craufurd might have chosen to include this bit of gossip in his letter, which would require more context to fully explore. Was Craufurd attempting to get British support for another escape attempt, with Fersen once again involved? His description of Fersen is not just glowingly positive, but asserts that Fersen has intimate ties with the royal family--not only does he have the complete trust of the queen as her favorite, he may be the dauphin's father. What better recommendation of Fersen's willingness to do anything it takes than that! But again, that is just one speculation without context. Another part of critical interpretation is asking yourself why the person wrote what they did and even how they did.

Yet even without context, it can't overstated: repeating rumors is not compelling evidence of anything, other than proving people in the 18th century gossiped as readily as we do today.

Claim #2: Sophie was fathered by Axel Fersen

To my knowledge, Farr has yet to reveal the exact evidence she uses for this particular claim. But an article from Telegraph quotes her as saying: "From what the Duke of Dorchester insinuated to the Duchess of Devonshire, it was fairly obvious [Princess] Sophie was Fersen’s child." I can't imagine what insinuation from the Duke of Dorchester would make it "fairly obvious," but again we seem to be operating on a standard that equates gossip and rumor spreading with substantial evidence.

Hey, what's wrong with a little gossip?

The problem with using gossip and rumors as evidence is--well, fairly obvious. Especially in the case of Marie Antoinette, whose reputation was plagued by rumors and gossip. If gossip is "proof" in the case of Fersen, why not others?

If someone writing that Fersen was "generally supposed" to be the father of the Dauphin is compelling evidence for that claim, then it only stands to reason that there is compelling evidence that Marie Antoinette and her brother-in-law, the comte d'Artois, were also having an affair. This bit of gossip was so perpetuated that Madame Campan herself takes a moment to dispel it in her memoirs decades later! But you would be hard pressed to find a historian willing to footnote that gossip as main evidence an affair occurred.

When you apply even a slightly critical eye to these supposedly "compelling" and "main" pieces of evidence, they fall apart.

Coming up in Part 2, I'll be taking a look at "I love you madly" and other expressions that are being used as proof of the two being lovers with a physical relationship.

(Part 2)

Monday, January 4, 2016

Marie Antoinette (1938) Promotional Marionettes

MGM went all out in their promotion for Marie Antoinette, likely hoping to hype up the expensive film to prospective movie-goers. Some of the more unusual promotional material created for the film are the marionettes that MGM had commissioned; the marionettes are based on various characters and costumes that appear in the film. I am unsure exactly how these marionettes were used, although the original ebay listing for the first two marionettes (which depict Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI) suggested that they, at one point, may have been used in an ultimately cut scene.

[image: from a defunct ebay listing]

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

"The Rocket Dress" in Color

Another treat courtesy of the Gordon Anderson collection!

[credit: courtesy of the Gordon Anderson collection, posted with permission]

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Marie Antoinette (1938) Costumes: Marie Antoinette's Wedding Nightgown

The "wedding nightgown" is worn in the scene following the wedding of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, where the newlyweds are alone together for the first time. The costume consists of a base gown and a heavily embellished lace cape. The gown can be broken down into two distinct parts: the white corset-style bodice (which is perhaps a separate piece?) and the sleeves and skirt, which are made from a soft, gauzy material. The cape is made from lace and is embellished with hand-sewn artificial pearls and celluloid sequins.

The color of the costume is partially known: the lace cape is cream colored. The costume may have been reused in later MGM films, but this is unconfirmed.

The lace cape was sold in 2014 by Julien's Live for $4,062.50. Its current whereabouts are unknown. The location and condition of the base nightgown are unknown.

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Thursday, December 10, 2015

Norma Shearer as Marie Antoinette (In Color!)

MGM's lavish biopic was regrettably not filmed in technicolor (plans for technicolor were scrapped when the budget ran too high) but glimpses of the film's costumes and stars in color can be found in some existing color photographs, including the following photo of Norma Shearer in her "masquerade costume," courtesy of Gordon Anderson. Enjoy!
[credit: courtesy of the Gordon Anderson collection]