Confessions of Marie Antoinette, the final novel in my historical fiction trilogy on the life of France’s most famous queen, spans the final four years of her life, bookended by events that occurred in the month of October.
The notorious Women’s March on the palace of Versailles took place on October 5th, 1789, when the poissardes or fishmongers of Paris, in the company of other tradeswomen, slogged through the mud and rain to demand bread. Now believed to have been hidden among them, were aristocratic rabble-rousers dressed as women, as well as actual women from the upper classes who sympathized with the poor. The fishwives would later disavow the bloodthirsty and murderous behavior of October 6th, claiming that the perpetrators of that morning’s carnage and willful destruction were not in fact poissardes. We will never know the truth.
Although much of Confessions of Marie Antoinette is narrated by the queen herself, some of the chapters are seen through the eyes of a twenty-year-old sculptress, Louison Chabry, one of the actual women who comprised the small delegation that asked the king for bread on October 5th, 1789. Mademoiselle Chabry herself is therefore a footnote in history, and through her eyes and thoughts I was able to give readers a perspective that Marie Antoinette lacks because the queen could not have been privy to certain revolutionary events at which Louison Chabry actually did, or conceivably may have, taken part.
What follows is an excerpt from an early chapter of Confessions of Marie Antoinette, narrated by Louison Chabry. Although Confessions . . . is a work of historical fiction, the events of the novel are entirely based on the historical record.
Louison Chabry finds herself swept up in a tide of teeming . . . amid the chaos, her mind freezes helplessly. One could never refer to this clamorous mass as “humanity.” There are so many people that she is lifted off her feet and borne on the tide of rioters through the most magnificent rooms she has ever seen. Is she the only one to gawp at her surroundings? The palace is almost as wondrous as a cathedral! She cranes her neck to admire the ceilings with their gilded copings and breathtaking murals, and marvels at the fluted marble pilasters that stretch as high as the eye can see, ending in a spray of perfectly carved acanthus leaves. She envies the sculptors commissioned to create such beauty, and wonders if any of them might have been women. And as her comrades-in-arms rampage through the gilded halls, Louison’s cheeks grow wet with tears at the willful destruction of it—Chinese vases that must have cost a king’s ransom, bronze figurines decapitated with a cry of “Kill the queen!” and chests and chairs inlaid with porcelain, marquetry, and mother-of-pearl, representing untold hours of painstaking craftsmanship, smashed to bits in a matter of moments. And for what? For bread? Her belly rumbles as loudly as those of her confederates, as hollow as the sound of their wooden sabots against the scuffed parquet, but what did the devastation of all this splendor have to do with their empty stomachs?
The king had promised them bread. She was there when he said the words, well, at least before she had fainted from hunger. But she had believed him. His eyes, so large and pale, had been full of genuine concern. Someday she would like to sculpt his head as she remembered it: noble and kind. She could never exhibit her creation, though, for fear of being tarred as a royalist instead of a realist. But the man she saw was a figure who commanded respect and awe, not terror. This—this clamor for wanton destruction, this stampede of people who smell of body odor and urine, of fish and decay, even more so now that no one has washed in at least two days, this is terror. And Louison is caught up in its midst, unable to turn back if she wanted to, even though she is having second thoughts. Even though she had been inclined to credit the king’s promise.
All through the night, some of the protestors, many of whom revealed themselves to be men dressed en travestie, had gone among the rioters and begun a whispering campaign. “His Majesty lied to you,” they said. “The Austrian bitch has him by the balls and she has told him not to give you so much as a stale crust. The king was playing us all for fools. But we will show them who is ruling France now!” They distributed coins with their propaganda. In every hand outstretched for bread they placed a silver image of the king’s head, the same profile Louison had envisioned creating with her chisel from a block of solid marble.
Bribes and rhetoric had fired up the crowd, as drunk and wet as they were sleepless. By dawn some members of the French Guard whom the king had naïvely permitted to resume their former employment had opened the gates leading to the terraces, and many of the protesters had rushed onto the broad parterres as though the gates of Heaven had been flung wide and Saint Gabriel had blown a fanfare on his trumpet, welcoming them to paradise.
“This way!” someone shouts as the mob surges along the Hall of Mirrors. Louison has never seen a room so grand. She tries to imagine what it must have been like filled with dancers instead of rioters brandishing mattocks, pikestaffs, axes, and knives and calling for the queen’s beautifully coiffed head. Although she had not detested Marie Antoinette with the fever pitch of the women on every side of her, Louison has never felt sorry for l’Autrichienne until this moment.
The clamor has an unearthly musical accompaniment: the cacophony of countless freestanding candelabra being toppled like a row of dominoes to the sounds of shattering crystal. Rioters swing their pikes and broomsticks overhead in an effort to bring down the enormous chandeliers, and massive pendants rain down upon them like icicles of faceted glass and strings of diamonds the size of hen’s eggs.
Someone steps on Louison’s toes when the entire throng rocks back as one unit, their progress halted by two of the royal bodyguard who stand at the end of the vast hall, their halberds crossed, denying entry.
“Traitors! You cannot stop the people of France from obtaining justice!” a woman shrieks. She waves her arms furiously.
Another picks up the cry. “We will take the bitch dead or alive!” Louison hears the crunch of weapons, wood against steel, bloodcurdling cries of pain and bone-chilling shouts of triumph. Too petite to see the action at the far end of the Galerie des Glaces, she can barely make out what is going on by jumping up and down and peering between the shoulders of those in front of her. She gasps when she sees the outcome of the skirmish, for the trophies of victory are raised high enough for the entire mob to witness: the severed heads of the two brave men of the gardes du corps spitted upon the ends of a pair of pikestaffs, their eyes wide open and mouths agape in an eternal expression of fright.
Nothing can stop the rioters now. The enormous doors the decapitated men had given their lives to safeguard are hacked apart with the same fervor that separated the bodyguards’ heads from their shoulders.
Someone points the way to the queen’s bedchamber and the mob presses ahead. As Louison reaches the doorway where the guards met their gruesome ends, she is forced to step over the legs of one of the dead men, twisted like a broken doll’s. His boots have already been stolen. She holds her hand to her mouth to stifle her urge to vomit. I am not like these people, she thinks, of their murderers. I want bread, not blood. There will never be bread, now.
The queen’s bedroom is a grand formal chamber; inside each niche of the high ceiling is a painted allegory. Like Furies, Louison’s confederates begin to destroy the room from top to bottom, shredding the sumptuous draperies with their pikes, breaking open the wardrobes and stabbing viciously at the luxurious brocade coverlet, bed hangings, bolsters, tester, and featherbeds, searching for the consort herself. If the queen had been hiding beneath them she would have been pricked like a wild boar with the deadly spears of relentless hunters.
The sculptress cannot bring herself to participate in the destruction but is nonetheless caught up in this blizzard of flying feathers and silken upholstery wrought by hundreds of women and a small number of men who are still wearing their muddy skirts and aprons, ratty horsehair wigs, and red liberty caps. Not finding the queen in her bedchamber, they vent their anger and hatred on her possessions. Mirrors are shattered with musket butts, spraying shards of glass about the room. With a sick crunching sound, the rioters smash tall wardrobes painted with delicate roses, yanking out the queen’s garments and tossing them playfully from hand to hand—stays and chemises, lavishly trimmed bodices, petticoats and skirts, silk stockings and kidskin gloves. Poissardes and market women fight each other for the clothing, stripping to the waist or pulling the consort’s elegant clothes over their own filthy rags.
“Regardez, mes amies!” shouts an aging fishwife, nearly toothless. She brandishes a set of stays, a heavily boned corset fashioned in the current style, with shoulder straps, though constructed of finest damask. As she tries it on over her bare breasts, a shout goes up among the crowd as they discover the secret the Austrian bitch has cleverly concealed from them until now. The left shoulder strap is heavily built up with the addition of quilted padding. The only reason for such an unusual alteration is to correct a physical defect. Beneath the garments that had bankrupted the nation, as the women now agreed they had suspected all along, was a fraud—a false, pretty doll, dressed up to trick the people.
Louison watches the women fight over the queen’s clothing. The mob has lost sight of its purpose. What had begun as an assassination attempt has metamorphosed within moments into wanton destruction of everything connected with the sovereign, and then into a ferocious melee, as the protestors tear each other’s hair, and scrabble and claw at each other’s skin and eyes, all for the possession of a garment, or even a shred of one, owned by the despised queen of France. The victors parade their spoils, mincing about in a mockery of the monarch’s walk, tilting their heads to acknowledge the presence of their “inferiors,” as the queen so famously did when she greeted courtiers, government ministers, diplomats, and other visitors to Versailles. Everyone knew that with a single artful tilt of her evil receding Hapsburg chin she could acknowledge a dozen people at once, her lecherous eyes conveying a different message to every one of them.
A new cry arises from the heart of the crowd. “Where is the vicious bitch?” It is clear from the demolished bed, the furnishings in the chamber reduced to thread, rubble, and sticks, that the target of their hatred isn’t there.
She must be called to account for her sins, the market women decide. If Saint Peter could not judge her this dawn, we will be her jury.
Thank you so much for hosting me! xox, Juliet Grey
Thank you Julie, (gorgeous author photo btw) I adored this trilogy and Confessions of Marie Antoinette was a favourite. See my review here. Visit the Becoming Marie Antoinette Website to find out more.
1 copy of CONFESSIONS OF MARIE ANTOINETTE by Juliet Grey. US ONLY
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