It’s a shame I haven’t had time to write about this wonderful book earlier, but I hope that in the quieter days of this end of year, it will still find some interested book-lovers eager to discover something new.
I was made into a French movie one or two years ago, with Diane Kruger as the ill-fated Queen Marie-Antoinette, and offered a promise of lots of frills, beautiful decors and costumes, the hint of a lesbian kiss in Versailles (shocking!). I didn’t watch the movie (so I can’t confirm the kiss, which is not in the book), but I kept the title somewhere at the back of my mind until I got the book from our central library. I feared it would be a bit heavy on the lace like the Kirsten Dunst meringue, and centered on the modern idea of a commoner’s fascination for a star (something that was repeated over and over in reviews).
But instead, I found a great literary and historical novel that I wanted to offer to many bookishly-inclined friends (in fact I did).
Yes, you can find bodices and lace, and a lot more, because Thomas is basically a historian specialized in 18C royals’ biographies, not a novelist, so she has all the details of Versailles’ etiquette right down to the last golden button. And yes, you can find the narrator, Agathe-Sidonie Laborde, a bit naive and starry-eyed over her Queen (and I will even say bland), but as an official reader to the Queen (selected from aristocratic descent to be nothing more than a lowly, invisible cog in the well-oiled wheels of the court’s routine, knowing that Marie-Antoinette wasn’t into books) she is entirely believable. She doesn’t know anything outside Versailles, and her entire life revolves around the Queen, even decades after the monarchy will have been sent down.
I found myself fascinated by the detailed account of the few last days at Versailles, when outside events suddenly (well, not in a bolt-from-the-blue way, but in a mere days’ time) broke the apparently well-oiled wheels of royal power down, and the century-old social order based on aristocratic rules, privileges and traditions that proved empty and meaningless. The 14th of July is now well-known for Bastille Day, but seen from Versailles, a mere 20km (12 miles) away, it was a normal day of pleasure before an unbelievable rumor reached the palace.
How does History happen (with a upper-case H)? and how people who witness it know that they’re living a so-called historical event? I can’t help but compare to 9/11, when all journalists and cameras set on the Twin Towers made sure that every connected human being was aware of the moment’s historical importance. We do all remember what we were doing that day. But do you remember the very few first minutes, when people still thought it might be a freaky airplane accident? Or remember the day before, when the chief Afghan anti-Al Qaeda leader was assassinated? Only later did we finally assemble the jigsaw and made sense of the chain of events. In the meantime, “things happened” and we didn’t give them any special meaning (even if we are well-informed and well-connected by all standards).
Likewise, the sudden collapse of the French monarchy seems utterly unexpected and yet something that was one day doomed to happen. We see through Agathe-Sidonie’s eyes the state of decay (literal and metaphorical) of the palace: stinking corridors, a garden in disarray, a group of courtiers who are ridiculously obsessed over etiquette and appearances, a few steps away from real madness, but it looks like it could have remained the same for a few more decades. When the rumor is confirmed (although no real violence reaches Versailles), order, routine and politeness disappear, courtiers reveal their true nature like on the Titanic ship.
I happen to have been living in Asia during the 2003 SARS epidemic, and I had the opportunity to witness firsthand how an outside, utterly new event, fuelled by panic, rumors and the unpreparedness of authorities (not to blame them) can bring a sudden halt to all pretense of normal, social and economic life. And yet days are always 24 hours, you need to eat, sleep and fill your days… or decide to pack your stuff and flee. Here in this book Agathe-Sidonie is too conditioned by court life to take a single decision herself, especially one that would mean to venture outside the court’s bubble, but in the end “her Queen” will take that decision on her behalf, changing her life forever (if not her mind).
I read this book in parallel with a Jean-François Parot mystery set just a few years before (1783) and both books echoed one another in a wonderful way. It led me to think again about French revolution (a difficult subject that is so blurry in my mind) and to pour over history books, to make sense of this improbable chain of events, and to attempt to imagine how normal people might have lived them.