“What an intriguing person!” I exclaimed. I turned to address Madame de Noailles. “S’il vous plait, madame la comtesse, dîtes -moi—qui est cette belle dame-là? Tell me, who is that very beautiful woman—and what is her office here at court?”
My dining companions grew silent. Madame Etiquette’s back stiffened perceptibly. At the far end of the room, Louis of France and his personal guest of honor paid no heed to anything other than their amusing little game of feeding each other. Mesdames tantes muttered behind their fans in voices too low for me to discern the gist of their discourse. All I could hear, and the word was uttered repeatedly with a derisive intonation, was “elle”—her.
The aunts looked to the comtesse de Noailles to furnish a reply; after all, I had posed the question to her directly. All three, Adélaïde, Victoire, and Sophie, had screwed their mouths into odd little smirks that I did not understand. The dauphin coughed quite audibly into his napkin. His younger brothers stifled a snicker and collectively regarded my dame d’honneur through narrowed eyes, waiting with undisguised amusement for her answer.
“That woman,” began the comtesse, speaking with painstaking deliberateness—and I had yet to hear her speak so slowly—“that woman is Madame du Barry, ci-devant—formerly—the lowly Jeanne Bécu, although some knew her as Mademoiselle l’Ange of the rue de la Jussienne; and her office is to . . . to amuse the king!”
Her nickname, Mademoiselle l’Ange, intrigued me. The Angel. Surely I appeared more seraphic; and it would be my pleasure to charm His Majesty and make him laugh. “Well, then!” I clapped my hands with glee, for nothing would have made me happier than to delight my new grand-père. “I shall be her rival,” I exclaimed.
The dauphin, his brothers and aunts, and most particularly Madame de Noailles, froze as if a portraitist had asked them to hold a pose—cutlery and crystal goblets held aloft, halfway between the table and their lips.
Was it something I had said?
That excerpt is from BECOMING MARIE ANTOINETTE, the first novel in my trilogy about the life of the doomed last queen of France. In May 1770, the fourteen-year-old Marie Antoinette arrived at Versailles from her native Austria, already wed by proxy to the dauphin, or heir to the throne, the fifteen-year-old Louis Auguste, grandson to the aging, if still debonair, Louis XV.
The young dauphine’s head had been transformed quite literally, both inside and out, in order to make her more attractive to French tastes. Her head had been crammed with French history and she was still mastering the intricacies of the court etiquette laid down by the Sun King Louis XIV. But one subject left off the syllabus was the subject of the king’s voluptuous maîtresse en titre, or official mistress (an actual position in the French court), Madame du Barry. Marie Antoinette’s mother, the formidable Hapsburg empress Maria Theresa was a devout woman who took an exceptionally dim view of adultery, particularly as her late husband (to whom she had been devoted; their royal marriage had been the rare love match) had a paramour, the Princess Auersperg. Maria Theresa had not wished her daughter to learn anything about Madame du Barry’s existence, which unfortunately placed the already naïve adolescent in an inferior strategic position when it came to the machinations of the court.
Marie Antoinette had been instructed to please the French king in all things; so at first, assuming that the luscious blond comtesse du Barry was merely the sovereign’s good friend, the young dauphine treated her warmly. But she soon found out what the comtesse actually did at court, and what her background was. Coached by Mesdames, the king’s daughters, a trio of thirty-something, bitter, backbiting virgins, Marie Antoinette was determined never to countenance the comtesse again.
Jeanne Bécu (1743-93) had a string of lovers before she met the comte du Barry, a professional pimp, who groomed her for Louis XV’s bed. She was the Marilyn Monroe of her day, full-breasted, with a cloud of flaxen blond hair (that needed a lot of maintenance, as it started out brown) floating to her waist and a little-girl lisp that may or may not have been affected, as necessary, to charm important men. She had worked as a milliner’s assistant and so she knew good taste when she saw it. She’d also been groomed to converse with the great minds of the day in posh Parisian salons and to be a tolerable singer and musician—in short, the ultimate courtesan.
One spring day in 1768, Jeanne cleverly managed to be in the right place at the right time (stationing herself on a staircase at Versailles that the king would have to descend on his way to Mass) and once she caught his eye, she never let it go. Louis became smitten for life. She could not be a maîtresse en titre unless she was of noble birth and so he elevated her. He married her off to the comte du Barry’s older brother, although she was styled a comtesse. In order to be presented at court and ride in the king’s carriage one had to show noble lineage dating to the year 1400, so in 1769 the king invented a coat of arms for her. He even devised a motto (cribbed from the Irish Barrymore family’s motto), Boutez en avant—“Push forward.” And Louis was such an obliging lover that he even shaved a few years off her age.
The comtesse du Barry was soon the most influential person at court. No matter how much they disapproved of her low breeding, everyone curried favor with her in order to gain access to the king and remain in his good graces—that is, until headstrong, fourteen-year-old Marie Antoinette was finally made to understand who and what she was. Marie Antoinette’s Maman had taught her to despise adulterers and whores; she might have been little more than a child but because the queen was deceased, she was the first woman in France and would not be superseded by a harlot.
Their rivalry nearly sparked an international crisis. In 1771, Austria needed France to look the other way as she was about to join forces with Prussia and Russia to partition Poland, with each empire carving off a slice of territory. Louis XV was disinclined to be so obliging while the dauphine was pointedly snubbing his paramour in front of the entire court. But Marie Antoinette refused to budge an inch, insisting that her mother couldn’t possibly wish her to degrade herself by countenancing the king’s slut. I don’t want to give away the denouement here, but suffice it to say that both sides claimed victory.
In my early drafts of BECOMING MARIE ANTOINETTE I depicted Madame du Barry and her factions plotting against Marie Antoinette, but my editor wanted me to tell the entire story from Marie Antoinette’s point of view, which necessitated substantial reworking of this concept. However, readers will still learn what the comtesse thinks of her young rival, and it tickled me to be able to use du Barry’s actual words. “I for one, see nothing attractive in red hair, thick lips, a sandy complexion, and eyes without eyelashes. Had she who is thus beautiful not sprung from the House of Austria, I assure you, such attractions never would have been the subject of admiration.”
Is this the Marie Antoinette we see depicted by Kirsten Dunst and Norma Shearer? Pas de tout! The comtesse may have been insulting, but it’s the most accurate physical description we have of her rival. Madame du Barry called Marie Antoinette la petite rousse—“the little redhead,” yet another reason we know that she was not the blond she’s always depicted as in the movies and in most current books about her. In fact, Marie Antoinette was a strawberry blond and her hairdressers were perpetually fretting over how to manage her frizzy tresses.
More often than not, rivals’ common bonds outnumber their differences. Unsurprisingly both women were fashionistas, although it would take some time for Marie Antoinette to begin to care about her appearance and find her own sense of style. But the comtesse du Barry set her own trends, being the only woman at court who mixed her gemstones (wearing emeralds with sapphires and rubies, for example). The other ladies would keep to a monochrome palette. And long before Marie Antoinette began to patronize the marchande de modes Rose Bertin, Madame du Barry was one of her best customers. In fact, years before Mlle. Bertin designed the gauzy gaulles for Marie Antoinette that gave her the look of a milkmaid and caused such a scandal because people thought she was running around Versailles in her undergarments, the comtesse du Barry received people at her toilette wearing a very similar silhouette—a filmy white gown with a wide, pastel-hued silk sash. For those who follow fashion, you know that trends are cyclical!
This image is of Marie Antoinette in her gaulle, which was also became known as a chemise a la Reine.
Madame du Barry in her gaulle.One rival is always mis-portrayed as a blonde in books and movies. The other worked hard to maintain her honeyed hue. Both would have been appalled to concede that they liked the same dress. What this pair of rivals really had most in common was something they would never recognize, being pre-Freudian: they were both “people pleasers.” Their hearts were truly generous. The Marie Antoinette that has been handed down to us by history is largely a creature of propaganda. History is written by the winners and she was the greatest victim of the French Revolution. But she was raised from the cradle to be charitable and philanthropic.
And had Marie Antoinette known what Jeanne Bécu, the comtesse du Barry, was doing during the Revolution, she might have been surprised. While the monarchs were imprisoned in the Tuileries, the former royal mistress, who twenty years earlier had little use for the teenage dauphine and her husband, worked behind the scenes to raise money for the royalist cause, risking her life to sneak across the English Channel and back and allowing monarchist plotters to meet at her home.
One woman was born in Champagne; the other was born to sip it (though to bust the myths where the cinematic Marie Antoinettes are always guzzling the bubbly, she never actually drank wine or spirits). The two women could not have begun farther apart on the social spectrum, but as far as the Revolutionaries were concerned, if they slept with a king they were one and the same. And Madame Guillotine would coolly embrace them both. Marie Antoinette was executed on October 16, 1793, climbing the scaffold with regal poise, purportedly apologizing for treading upon the executioner’s foot, and dying with dignity. On December 8, the comtesse du Barry’s execution was delayed for several hours because, kicking and shrieking, she refused to go gently into that good night.
Revolutionary artist Jacques-Louis David's intentionally cruel sketch of Marie Antoinette on her way to the guillotine.
The comtesse du Barry being led to the Scaffold
About the Author
Juliet Grey has extensively researched European royal history and is a particular devotee of Marie Antoinette. She and her husband divide their time between New York City and southern Vermont.
Thank you Juliet for gracing the blog today! In honor of the release of BECOMING MARIE ANTOINETTE, one lucky winner will receive a copy of the book. Here are the rules for the giveaway. This giveaway will be open to not just Canadian and American readers but International readers as well! The contest runs from today through Friday, August 12th:
1. Leave your name and email in the comments. Email is very important so that I can contact you for your address.
2. If you are not a follower and become one, you get an extra entry
3. If you tweet about the giveaway, you get an extra entry.