20 January 2014

A Day in the Life of Marie Antoinette, Dauphine of France

By Ginger Myrick

Marie Antoinette is one of the most controversial and polarizing figures in French history. She was alternately revered and reviled, though most of the groundwork for the blame placed upon her elegant shoulders—and her subsequent downfall—was laid long before she set foot on French soil at only fourteen years of age.

She spent her early years as an Archduchess of Austria, a member of the ruling house of the Holy Roman Empire. Her entire family regularly attended state functions required of their exalted status, but despite this and the fact that their royal residence at the Hofburg Palace was situated in close proximity to the Austrian people, her home life was lived in a very private manner. None of it could have prepared her for the strange and uber-public rituals instituted at Versailles by Louis XIV nearly 100 years before her arrival. Let’s take a look at a typical day in Marie Antoinette’s life as described in a letter to her mother in July of 1770, two months after becoming Dauphine of France.

Between 9 and 10 every morning, Marie Antoinette would rise and take a bath. The French saw her habitual washing as an affectation, as some of them went many days, sometimes even weeks, without fully submerging themselves in water. (This is an especially revolting idea considering that the elaborate poufs of the era required much pomade and false hairpieces that would often be worn for long stretches at a time, attracting fleas and lice and who knows what else.)

After Marie Antoinette’s bath she was dressed informally for her morning activities according to the solemn ritual of lever, literally translated as ‘to get up’. This was a crucial part of the system of etiquette at Versailles along with the coucher—to go to bed—at the end of the day. Everything had to be presented to the esteemed personage during these ceremonies. She could reach for nothing herself. These processes served the dual functions of reinforcing the image of the semi-divine status of the royal family while putting their courtiers in their places. They also had another unforeseen effect of creating rivalries and establishing a pecking order among the nobles in attendance. On one noted occasion Marie Antoinette—shivering in her state of undress—was kept waiting for her clothing while a series of consecutively higher ranking ladies entered the room, vying for the honor of handing the Dauphine her underwear.

After she was suitably attired, Marie Antoinette typically attended her morning prayers then ate breakfast. She was known to be a light eater, so her meal usually consisted of a cup of hot chocolate and a breakfast roll. During these informal times she could receive her husband’s younger sisters, Mesdames Clothilde and Elisabeth, who were nine and six respectively thus unbound by the rules of etiquette. Although not much is written about her relationship with Clothilde, who was married off five years later eventually to become the Queen of Sardinia, Marie Antoinette formed a lasting bond with Elisabeth who lived with her up until her final confinement in the Conciergerie in August of 1793.

Mid-morning Marie Antoinette paid a brief visit to Mesdames Tantes—her husband’s unwed aunts Adélaïde, Victoire, and Sophie—in their apartments. Sometimes the king would join them if he happened to be in residence.

Afterward she would return to her rooms to have her hair styled before Chambre was called at noon, the procedure during which she donned her official court dress for the day. In the letter to her mother Marie Antoinette writes, "At eleven o’clock I have my hair done. At noon, all the world can enter—I put on my rouge and wash my hands in front of the whole world. Then the gentlemen leave and the ladies remain, and I am dressed in front of them.” When she was properly attired, she attended Mass, and then the spectacle would begin anew at the royal family’s afternoon meal, grand couvert.

These everyday functions usually performed behind closed doors became public exhibition. Anybody inclined to come gape at the royals could do so as long as they were suitably dressed. If not, the required items could be rented at the gate. As a result, the palace was thronged with spectators on a regular basis hoping to catch a glimpse of how the other half lived. For Marie Antoinette’s husband, Louis Auguste, who had been born at Versailles and knew nothing else, the circus was unremarkable, but to her, these procedures were so distressing that she ate very little, if anything at all.

After dining, she and her husband would visit for an hour or so before she returned to the apartments of the spinster aunts. Then she would make her confession to the Abbé de Vermond, who would release her to go to her music lessons, a passion of hers since childhood. One final visit to Mesdames Tantes, and the remainder of her evening would be spent in quiet activities of her choice, walking in the manicured gardens, playing cards, or perhaps embroidering handkerchiefs or some special item for the king or her husband.

To end her day, she and her husband would go through the process of coucher before being put to bed together around 11 o’clock, the Dauphin’s usual bedtime. Of course, in the beginning the whole of France waited with bated breath for the consummation of their marriage, but after a few months things relaxed, and Louis Auguste would return to his own bed to sleep, which was typical for the French court. The actual deed would not be accomplished for seven years.

Later in her tenure Marie Antoinette would be known for her rebellious streak—sneaking out to attend masked balls, hosting all-night gambling parties, and flouting the stuffy etiquette of the decaying regime at Versailles—but in her early years, she was docile and eager to please, knowing that any misstep would be reported to her mother, the Holy Roman Empress, the person she wished to please above all others. Living her life under such constant scrutiny was a heavy burden to Marie Antoinette, and when her husband was crowned Louis XVI in 1775 and gifted her Le Petit Trianon, it became her private sanctuary, an escape from the public madness. But as Dauphine, she was expected to gracefully bear it all.

Ginger Myrick was born and raised in Southern California. She is a self-described wife, mother, animal lover, and avid reader and knitter. Along with the promotion for THE WELSH HEALER, and EL REY, she is currently crafting her third novel, which takes place during the U.S. Civil War. She is a Christian who writes meticulously researched historical fiction with a ‘clean’ love story at the core. She hopes to persevere with her newfound talent and show the reading community that a romance need not include graphic details to convey deep love and passion.