Bad Decisions in History: featuring Robert Liston

It’s not exactly news that surgery through history was very dangerous and unhygienic compared to today’s standards. In a time when germs and bacteria were poorly understood, and anesthesia was either nonexistent or in early development, needing surgery would have been a terrifying prospect. Due to the lack of anesthesia, surgeons tried to complete their surgeries as quickly as possible, and a good surgeon was considered to be one who was ‘fast with a knife.’ Indeed, in Florence Nightingale’s ‘Notes on Nursing’, she noted that the danger to the patient was in direct ratio to the time the operation lasted.

Robert Liston was a Scottish surgeon, noted for his lightning quick surgical abilities. In a time where the pain of a prolonged surgery could directly correlate to the patient’s chances for survival (assuming infection didn’t set in afterward), he was impressively said to be able to amputate a leg in under three minutes.

Perhaps he was a bit too quick; Dr. Liston is most remembered today for few infamous cases.

Bad decision: Rushing surgery to the point of carelessness

There are three cases where Liston’s surgical haste caused additional injury, or even death. The most reckless of these cases is a young boy who had a tumour in his neck, which might have been an abscess, or a more dangerous aneurism in the carotid artery. Deciding that the child was too young to have an aneurism, Liston quickly lanced what he thought was an abscess. He was wrong, and the patient died of arterial blood loss.

Liston also has the dubious honour of supposedly performing the only operation known to history with a 300% mortality rate. Sounds impossible, doesn’t it? Well, in his rush to amputate a patient’s leg in under two and a half minutes, he accidentally slashed through the fingers of his assistant, chopping them off too. With the energetic arc of his surgeon’s tools, he also cut the coattails of a surgical spectator. Allegedly, this man was so frightened that the knife had pierced his vitals that he died of a heart attack. The patient and the assistant both later died of infection.

Liston’s third most infamous case also involves the amputation of a leg. He sawed off the limb so quickly and carelessly that he accidentally castrated the patient as well. Assuming he didn’t succumb to infection, that patient must have been quite distraught, to say the least.

It’s worth noting that better surgical hygiene practices began to improve after 1847, partially due to the connection made between surgical hygiene and infection and mortality rates by a doctor at the Vienna General Hospital, named Dr Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis.

Though Liston’s surgical mistakes leave the impression of a reckless man with little care for his patients, he was actually recorded as being charitable to the poor and kind to the sick. Early surgery was a risky procedure, and during Liston’s lifetime, speed was considered the best way to reduce pain for the patient, a practice he certainly embraced. Though nitrous oxide was discovered in 1799, it was not pursued as an anesthetic at that time. Similarly, though an operation with ether was performed around 1842, it wasn’t commonly used for several more years. Since Liston passed away in 1847 – the same year of the improved hygiene for surgery at the Viennese hospital – he didn’t have a chance to access any of these new advances in medicine.

Outcome: three horrible surgical mistakes, reasons to be grateful for modern medicine

 

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Bad Decisions in History: featuring the Great Fire of London

Ravaging central parts of the city in September of 1666, the Great Fire of London was a disaster that left thousands of buildings reduced to rubble and ashes, and claimed the lives of victims unable to escape the deadly swathe of flames.

The fire started at a bakery on Pudding Lane in the middle of the night on September 2nd. How it started is unclear, though there was probably a bad decision at stake. The real bad decision for this post, however, comes from the next step by London’s mayor, Sir Thomas Bloodworth.

Bad decision:  Failing to initiate firefighting techniques in a timely fashion; this indecisiveness and lack of action allowed the fire to spread

Even with our modern plumbing and specialized fire departments, fires are still dangerous and frightening, and could be even more so in the past. During the time of the London fire, there was no fire brigade, although watching for fires was one of the duties of the watchmen who patrolled the streets. A fire would be alerted through the ringing of church bells, and citizens and the local militia would undertake to contain the fire. The main technique for controlling the conflagration was to create firebreaks. Sometimes, this involved levelling tall buildings completely to the ground, a sacrifice deemed necessary because it would stop the fire from spreading. Occasionally, buildings in the path of the fire could even be razed through a controlled gunpowder blast.

Fires weren’t uncommon during the time period. After all, everything was made of wood and people used candles and open fireplaces all the time. Most of the time, the fires could be dealt with relatively quickly. Every parish church was required to store firefighting equipment, including ladders, leather buckets, axes, and firehooks for pulling down the building. Sometimes these were also called pike poles. A fire would be fought quickly and determinedly, and could often be doused it before it spread too far.

As the fire started, the baker’s family was trapped upstairs, but the family managed to climb from an upstairs window into the house next door. Unfortunately, one of the maids did not escape and became the first victim of the blaze.

Following the usual firefighting procedure, the parish constables and citizens attending the blaze advised that the adjoining houses should be torn down to create a firebreak to stop the flames from spreading.  Up until this point, dousing the fire with water had little effect. The tenants of the houses that would need to be demolished refused to cooperate, so Lord Mayor Bloodworth (isn’t that a villain’s name if there ever was one?) was summoned, since he had the authority to override their protests and make a decision.

Even though the flames had crept to the adjoining houses and were hungrily reaching toward nearby paper warehouses and flammable wooden stores along the riverfront, plus the fact that London had been in a drought since November of the previous year, making everything extra dry and fire-friendly, Mayor Bloodworth scoffed at the idea of demolishing the houses as a firebreak. Supposedly he even made the crass remark of, “Pish! A woman could piss it out,” of the fire, and then departed. 

Since dedicated citizens had already been dousing the fire with water and making no progress, and the fire was severe enough that at least one life had already been lost, it goes without saying that no one, no matter what quantity of beverage they might have ingested, could quench the flames by urination. And don’t forget, one life had already been lost to the fire.

Bloodworth’s decision wasn’t looked kindly upon, as Samuel Pepys remarked in his diary. Later, he wrote that “People do all the world over cry out of the simplicity of my Lord Mayor in general; and more particularly in this business of the fire, laying it all upon him.” Bloodworth may have been financially on the hook for replacing the demolished houses unless he got the king’s consent first, but as the fire soon proved, his derisive recklessness ended up costing far more than replacing a few houses.

The fire had been raging for around a full day before it became so severe that firebreaks became the only course of action, but it was too late by then.  The fire had already spread to the heart of the city. Altogether, the fire destroyed over 13,000 houses, 87 churches, St. Paul’s Cathedral, many city buildings, and the homes of 70,000 people. The death toll is uncertain. While only six verified deaths were recorded, there’s some conjecture that not all of them were noted. This is partly because the poor and middle class people may not have been as well tracked, and also because the fire reached levels of heat high enough to cremate the bodies, making the discovery of remains difficult. There’s a melted piece of pottery on display at a museum in London that shows the temperature reached 1250 degrees. Eventually, the fire was put out, partly due to the good fortune of the changing winds, and also due to serious firebreak efforts via gunpowder through the Tower of London garrison.

The burnt areas are shown in red

The fire had serious political and economic consequences as well. Thousands of people became refugees without homes, and Charles II, the reigning king, encouraged them to leave London and resettle elsewhere. The fear the foreigners started the fire also spread, leading to street violence, mainly against people of French and Dutch descent, since England fought them in the Second Anglo-Dutch War.

Outcome: Mass destruction, deaths of citizens, street violence, thousands of people homeless

 

Book Addiction: The Boat Runner

My latest book addiction is The Boat Runner by Devin Murphy, which publishes tomorrow. I got lucky enough to read this mesmerizing novel a bit early.

Captivating and powerful, The Boat Runner takes the reader to the perilous world of WWII, where young Jacob Koopman’s life wildly shifts from the prosperity of his family’s lightbulb business to the darkness of Nazi Germany as his father naively sends him to a Hitler Youth Camp and the outbreak of war shatters the peace. It’s a thought-provoking read that will have the readers feverishly turning pages and thinking about the story long after finishing the last page.

Devin kindly agreed to an interview on my blog. Welcome, Devin!

What was your inspiration for The Boat Runner?

One of the first sparks of this book came while reading a book about the Nazi navy written in 1945 by a German naval officer called, Defeat At Sea. Passages in the book referred to the sinking of ships only by their tonnage and supplies kept from being delivered to the Allies. The language was so cold toward the living people onboard that it haunted me. What mindset could be so void of empathy? That was the question I wanted to dig into, and led me down a long, fascinating road of research.

Did you get to visit any of the settings for your book? If not, where would you most want to go?

This novel travels across Europe but also takes place aboard ships at sea. As for Europe, my mother is from the Netherlands, and I have been there several times, but not during the writing of this book. Much of the land based scenes had to be drawn from memory, research, and talking to people who know about each place. The scenes based at sea were different. I spent 10 years travelling around the world working in the tourism industry. Along the way I realized that working aboard ships was the best option for me and I traveled to over fifty countries on all seven continents. I grew to know ships and the sea quite well – this pulses at the heart of my novel. Now, if I could go anywhere, I’d board a ship and sail the North Sea into the Ems Estuary which borders The Netherland and Germany. That fraught border that captured my imagination and led me into this novel.

Did you face any unexpected challenges or pleasant surprises while working on the novel?

I always liked history, but during the writing of this novel I really learned how to do research as a fiction writer. I stopped looking for just facts and details, but for scenes and events that I could hold up and ask, does this event reveal the complexity of what it was like to be alive at this moment for my character?  That is fun! I love finding something that leads me in a whole new direction and source of information to pour over.

What was your favourite scene to write?

There is a scene that one of my character’s inner conviction emerges from the shadows in such an epic, life-altering way that I get the chills every time it happens. I guess I’ll try not to spoil it, but watch out!

What’s your writing process like? Do you have a strict schedule or can you write anywhere, anytime?

I’m a professor so have to be pretty efficient about slotting my creative time or it tends to get swallowed up by other responsibilities. This means I try to write or edit at least four days a week and read every day. I do best when I am in a quiet place, but I have three small kids, a dog that loves to bark, and a cat that walks back and forth over my keyboard, so working outside of the house has become a necessity.

How can we stay updated on your book news?

Through Facebook, Twitter, and my author website.

From the book jacket:

In the tradition of All The Light We Cannot See and The Nightingale, comes an incandescent debut novel about a young Dutch man who comes of age during the perilousness of World War II.

Beginning in the summer of 1939, fourteen-year-old Jacob Koopman and his older brother, Edwin, enjoy lives of prosperity and quiet contentment. Many of the residents in their small Dutch town have some connection to the Koopman lightbulb factory, and the locals hold the family in high esteem.

On days when they aren’t playing with friends, Jacob and Edwin help their Uncle Martin on his fishing boat in the North Sea, where German ships have become a common sight. But conflict still seems unthinkable, even as the boys’ father naively sends his sons to a Hitler Youth Camp in an effort to secure German business for the factory.

When war breaks out, Jacob’s world is thrown into chaos. The Boat Runner follows Jacob over the course of four years, through the forests of France, the stormy beaches of England, and deep within the secret missions of the German Navy, where he is confronted with the moral dilemma that will change his life—and his life’s mission—forever.

Epic in scope and featuring a thrilling narrative with precise, elegant language, The Boat Runner tells the little-known story of the young Dutch boys who were thrown into the Nazi campaign, as well as the brave boatmen who risked everything to give Jewish refugees safe passage to land abroad. Through one boy’s harrowing tale of personal redemption, here is a novel about the power of people’s stories and voices to shine light through our darkest days, until only love prevails.

 

Author Biography:

Devin Murphy grew up near Buffalo, NY in a family with Dutch roots. He holds a BA/MA from St. Bonaventure University, an MFA from Colorado State University, a PhD from the University of Nebraska—Lincoln, and is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Bradley University. He has worked various jobs in national parks around the country and once had a three-year stint at sea that led him to over fifty countries on all seven continents. His fiction has appeared in over 60 literary journals and anthologies, including The Missouri Review, Glimmer Train, The Chicago Tribune, New Stories from the Midwest, and Confrontation. He lives with his wife and children in Chicago.

 

A Time Traveler’s Guide to Dressing like a French Revolutionary

Okay, so in the event that time travel becomes a real technology (she says optimistically), probably not many people will want to visit revolutionary France. On one hand, I’d be tempted – I’d possibly get to meet some of the historical figures featured in The Wardrobe Mistress, and wear some of the fashions I pored over paintings and descriptions of, at least until the longing for modern yoga pants inevitably returned. But on the other…the guillotine. It’s a risky time period, that’s for sure, and that’s without even considering the advances in hygiene and medicine we have today.

Fine, maybe this is really more of “A Nerdy Costume Party Attendee’s Guide to Dressing like a French Revolutionary.” Whichever it is, I’ve got you covered. Here are my superfluous top tips for dressing like you belong in 1790s Paris.

Wear a hat

You’ve probably heard of the revolutionary bonnet rouge. King Louis XVI was forced to wear one when an angry mob of revolutionaries stormed through the Tuileries, but he submitted to the unwanted hat-wearing happily enough when he saw that it calmed their wrath. And he looked great in it:

Louis XVI, King of the French, 1792. The 1775 engraving was reworked in 1792 to record the king’s donning of the bonnet rouge during the invasion of the Tuilleries Palace

It wasn’t the first hat incident Louis had, though. In 1789, when the Estates General was opened for the first time since 1614, the representatives of the Third Estate (which made up the bulk of the population, excluding only royalty and clergy) put their hats back on at the end of Louis’ speech, even though custom dictated that only the king and his entourage could do so at this point in the ceremony. Commoners were supposed to stay kneeling, clutching their hats to their chests in awe at the blue blood before them or something. It was quite shocking when the representatives shattered this custom, but Louis, in a moment of uncharacteristic quick-thinking, removed his own hat once again, prompting everyone to follow suit.

For women, plain white bonnets are a safe bet. Conservative enough not to draw attention and easily decorated with a tricolor rosette if needed. Straw hats could also be worn, but not everyone liked them because Marie Antoinette favoured them.

You know, I think part two of this hat advice is to study a treatise on hat etiquette, as well.

 

 

Wear a tricolor rosette

Show your rebelliousness, or protect yourself from sharp-eyed and judging revolutionaries, by challenging the monarchy with colours. Rosettes can be easily pinned to hats or coats, and just as easily removed when you have dinner with that older family friend who drinks too much wine and then lectures about the divine right of kings. Most rosettes or cockades are tricolor – red, white, and blue – but not always. Red and blue is an acceptable combination. Red and white with no other colours is not, since it reminds people of the uniforms for the queen’s staff at Trianon.

Green rosettes are absolutely out of the question. Green is the livery color for the Comte d’Artois, the king’s younger brother, and no one likes him. He even fled France after the storming of the Bastille, fearing for his life. 

Don’t wear white rosettes. That will just remind people of the Bourbon fleur-de-lys, and what have the Bourbons ever done? Just wasted a bunch of tax money building Versailles and not helping with the bread crisis, that’s what. White is acceptable in some forms, such as bonnets, fichus (shawls), shirts, or dresses, as long as the whole ensemble isn’t pure white as the expensive snow that the Bourbons probably shipped in to keep their wine cold.

Black isn’t a great colour either. You get a slight pass if you’re in mourning, but it better be for a close family member and not a national personage like Marie Antoinette’s son who died in 1789. Sure, it’s sad that a poor little boy died, but his mother was a witch who hates the French so you can’t display any sympathy. Plus, black reminds people of the Hapsburgs, and no one likes them either. Especially Marie Antoinette. The other Habsburg colour is yellow, so avoid that too. Bees are also out, probably.

Oh, and forget about the fact that tricolor had also been the colour of the French king’s livery, historically. It’s infused with new political meaning now (waves to American revolutionaries) and no one talks about its dark past. 

Red is a good colour to wear, especially the very popular shade called sang de Foulon, or Foulon’s blood. Monsieur Foulon was a minister in Louis XIV’s cabinet and was murdered by Parisian revolutionaries, so clearly you’ve got your priorities straight if you add a ribbon in Foulon’s blood to your white bonnet. Just don’t forget that touch of blue somewhere!

 

Dress to celebrate the fall of the Bastille

Now that all seven prisoners have been freed from the prison, the building is torn down and its stones are up for grabs as souvenirs. The possibilities are endless. You could line a walkway or build a low stone fence or maybe even design some jewelry with the smaller rocks. Necklace made of demolished walls? Sure.

If you’re rich enough, ironically add some diamonds to spell out the word Liberté and you’re set.

You can even make a replica of the Bastille for your hair, using white satin “towers” and black lace to represent the balustrade. Just watch your head going through doorways.

(As with most good things in life, you can’t make them up. These are both recorded revolutionary fashion items).

That great inspiration of jewelry, the Bastille

 

Dress like Marie Antoinette

Yes, I know everyone hates her as a symbol of ostentation and everything wrong with society, but there’s no denying the appeal of her Petit Trianon casual wear.  Her white muslin gowns might be decried as looking like nightgowns – called chemise á la reine, but they’re certainly more comfortable than heavy velvets over panniers to keep the skirts wide. Plus, wearing a dress like this is proof that you’re unfussy, virtuous, and believe in equality. After all, anyone can afford these. That’s partly why the other nobles hated Marie Antoinette’s muslin gowns at first. Just make sure to add a patriotic tricolour cockade, of course. You don’t want to risk looking like a wanna-be milkmaid like Marie Antoinette. Even better, women can wear a jaunty red and blue muslin scarf to kick this simple outfit to revolutionary heights. If it’s cold, try a blue redingote with a white scarf and a red cap. If anyone mentions that Marie Antoinette also made the somewhat masculine fashion of wearing riding attire popular years before, just gaze at them blankly and mutter “vive la revolution.”

This is Princes Louise Auguste of Denmark, in the chemise a la reine style of gown

If all else fails, bring your son (or your friend’s son) with you and dress him in the uniform of the National Guard (white pants, navy coat, red-trim). It worked well for Marie Antoinette when she brought the dauphin to the fête de la fédération to celebrate the one-year anniversary of the fall of the Bastille

There – now you know what clothes to pack before you time-travel to revolutionary Paris to hang out around Café du Foy talking philosophy with Robespierre. Alternatively, you know what to wear to a Halloween party before you get drunk enough that you can’t be bothered to explain your costume anymore.

 



The Wardrobe Mistress is available now:
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The Scandal of Marie Antoinette’s Gowns

While writing The Wardrobe Mistress, I researched a lot about the queen’s famous fashion. After all, the main character, Giselle, works in the queen’s household as one of her tirewomen, tasked with taking care of Marie Antoinette’s fabulous wardrobe. I expected to uncover a scandal or two – probably about outrageous cost or the sheer number of gowns. Instead, the biggest scandal came from the simplest style of dress.

This white muslin shift known as the gaulle was much plainer and more comfortable than the formal court gowns, with their whalebone stays constricting the waist, and the panniers at the hips to make the skirt very wide. Inspired by the style of dress that the Creoles and colonialists’ wives wore in the Caribbean, where the heat meant silk was not an option, these muslin gown lacked the stiff structuring elements of traditional silk court gowns. They usually had a ruffled drawstring neck, puffy sleeves decorated with ribbons, and a wide sash tied at the waist. To complete the pastoral look, a soft white bonnet or a wide straw hat usually perched on natural, unpowdered hair. Marie Antoinette displays the fashion in her portrait, Le reine en gaulle, painted by Madame Vigée Le Brun in 1783.

La reine en gaulle, by  Vigée Le Brun, 1783

This dress doesn’t sound very scandalous, you might be thinking. Nor does it look scandalous in that painting. To our modern eye, it doesn’t, but to a conservative person of the 1780s, it resembled a chemise – a slip-like piece of clothing that a lady wore under her other clothes, or occasionally as casual-wear when relaxing in the privacy of her boudoir. Basically, it looked like the queen posed for a portrait in her nightgown. This dress style became known as chemise á la reine, forever connecting the queen to the garment’s resemblance to a slip.

In comparison, this gown from 1775 looks a lot heavier and more formal than the muslin gaulle gowns.

There were also social and economic factors fueling Marie Antoinette’s fashion detractors. On the social side, wealthy nobles disliked the idea that the simpler style of dressing meant that poor, lower class people could blend in by wearing similar outfits. And economically, by not wearing silk, Marie Antoinette was seen as unpatriotic, failing in her duty to support the French silk industry. One of her contemporary sources even declared that three quarters of the silk workers in Lyon lost their jobs in the 1780s due to her patronage of foreign textile plants to serve her love of muslin.

However, Marie Antoinette can’t be solely blamed for the decline in the French silk industry at the time. Fashions all over Europe were growing increasingly simplified, as were hairstyles. The Duchess of Devonshire in England, a trendsetter herself, also wore airy chemise á la reine gowns. Even Marie Antoinette’s rival, Madame du Barry, wore them, as this portrait of her from 1781 – two years earlier than Marie Antoinette’s –  shows.

Madame du Barry, by Vigée Le Brun, 1781

In spite of the heavy criticism after her 1783 portrait, Marie Antoinette did not stop wearing them, either. The chemise á la reine was kind of like the yoga pants of the 1780s – once tried, there was no going back. In Austria, Marie Antoinette’s brother, Emperor Joseph, even tried to ban the expensive and uncomfortable accoutrements of official court dress, such as panniers, which could be so wide that women had to go sideways through the door. He was not successful, but the innovative clothing ideas had already permeated culture all across Europe. In France particularly, as the revolution advanced, simpler fashions like the chemise a la reine became the height of fashion. The virtue of equality idealized by the revolutionaries made the suitability of the garment to all economic classes a perfect fit for everyone. By Empress Josephine’s time, the simplicity of fashion had progressed to a renewed love for the influence of classical Roman dress. In comparison to the bared arms of these gowns, the chemise á la reine may have seemed quite conservative again.

Empress Josephine

 


The Wardrobe Mistress, a novel of one of Marie Antoinette’s wardrobe women who casually spies on the queen during the French Revolution and finds herself torn between her loyalty to the queen and her sympathy for the revolution and love for a fervent revolutionary, is available now.

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Everything I Learned about Marie Antoinette’s Perfume

In my research for The Wardrobe Mistress, I learned a lot about the intimate details of Marie Antoinette’s life, from clothing to perfume. For instance, I discovered she changed her outfit several times a day for various court functions, and she kept a book full of fabric swatches from which she’d select which garments she wanted to wear each day by putting pins in the appropriate swatches. In my novel, all the undertirewomen dream of getting to look through the book, stroking the soft chiné fabrics, and I wished I could do that too. I also loved imagining the fragrance of flowers pervading the Queen’s chambers, which were often so heaped with fresh flowers that a person could be scented just by spending time in the room.

Flowers were one of Marie Antoinette’s most consistent interests, a passion which combined her love for the pastoral luxury of her favourite retreat, Petit Trianon, and her enjoyment of perfume. She had her own perfumer, an innovative expert named Jean-Louis Fargeon. Upon Marie Antoinette’s request, he created a signature scent for her called Parfum du Trianon, meant to capture the fresh scent of the location so that she could carry its essence with her wherever she went.

The picturesque mill in the queen’s hamlet of Petit Trianon (Photo credit By Starus – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15697249)

In general, Marie Antoinette loved concentrated perfumes, especially those with hints of rose, violet, jasmine, and jonquil. For her baths, she preferred more herbal scents as well as amber and bergamot. Unsurprisingly, her baths were also examples of queenly luxury, since the water was lightly scented and Fargeon also created sachets filled with blanched sweet almonds, bran (for exfoliation) and perfumed for her to use.

Sachets for use outside of the bath were also popular, usually made of taffeta or silk, and filled with a pot-pourri of aromatic plants. The Queen liked to present these sachets to her friends as gifts. Since she also took care to ensure the scent matched the personality of the recipient, they would have been quite a prestigious present to receive. For the liquid perfumes, Marie Antoinette kept them in a special cabinet full of gleaming coloured glass bottles with silver stoppers. She loved her perfumes so much that she placed an unusually large order with Fargeon before she and Louis XVI undertook their attempted flight to escape the Revolution (and we caught in Varennes). She also tried to pack most of them, in spite of having limited space for belongings. 

Marie Antoinette also liked to wear gloves in shades of white or pearl grey, and they weren’t only decorative accessories for one of her elegant gowns. Fargeon was skilled in the traditional Montpellier specialty of making perfumed gloves with flowers, and he also took pride in treating the gloves so they had restorative qualities for the skin. One of his pairs of riding gloves would soothe the Queen’s hands while she dashed through the countryside on a graceful horse. The gloves were perfumed with simple flowers such as hyacinths, violets, red carnations, and jonquilles á la reine, which had to be picked an hour after dawn or before dusk for the purest scent. Marie Antoinette typically ordered about eighteen pairs of these gloves per month, which would seem to suggest she likely only wore them once.

At the height of the revolution, when the royal family were imprisoned in the Tower, Fargeon sent a phial of parfum du Trianon to Marie Antoinette to comfort her. She also used his eau de vie de lavande to soothe her anxiety. Of course, Fargeon was not paid for these items, since Marie Antoinette didn’t have funds at her disposal in prison and the guards had no interest in paying him on her behalf. It was a kindness that must have provided some small consolation in her final days. 

For anyone interested in more details of historic perfume, and Fargeon’s methods in particular, I highly recommend A Scented Palace: The Secret History of Marie Antoinette’s Perfumer by Elisabeth de Feydeau.

 

 


The Wardrobe Mistress, a novel of one of Marie Antoinette’s wardrobe women who casually spies on the queen during the French Revolution and finds herself torn between her loyalty to the queen and her sympathy for the revolution, is available now.

Order links:
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Six Surprising Facts about Marie Antoinette

Marie Antoinette is probably best known for her death, as a queen shockingly executed by guillotine at the height of the French revolution. But there’s lots more to know about her interesting and sometimes scandalous life. I’ve got six surprising facts about Marie Antoinette for you, as part of my countdown to The Wardrobe Mistress publication day on August 15th.

1). She came from a huge family

The daughter of Empress Maria-Theresa of Austria and the Holy Roman Emperor Francis I, Marie Antoinette had fifteen (!) siblings. Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna, as she was called before becoming a French dauphine, was the second youngest. All of them had royal titles.

2.) She had many hobbies

Since her reputation for fashion and trendsetting has lasted hundreds of years, this one might be surprising. Marie Antoinette’s interests ranged from riding – including sleigh rides, which she had fond memories of from her childhood in Austria – to gardening, interior decoration, the theatre, and music.

She decorated the royal property of Saint-Cloud in her favourite colours, also choosing the furniture with care. She preferred light colours like pale blue and green, as well as lavender grey. The Great Bathroom at Versailles was painted this colour, and decorated with sea motifs of shells and corals. She disliked orange and never wore it.

At her favourite retreat of Petit Trianon, she envisioned a romantic garden filled with trees, a paradise where one could wander in peace. She also enjoyed the jardin Anglais, a landscaped style of gardening the depicted an idealized view of nature with groves of trees.

3.) Before her marriage, she had her teeth straightened

Historical dentistry doesn’t sound appealing to anyone, but poor Maria Antonia had her teeth straightened at a young age. In fact, when she was ten years old, negotiations began for her marriage to the dauphin of France, and it was deemed important that she become more physically attractive to the French. This included a new hairstyle to play down her forehead (considered too high) and straightening her teeth. The early form of braces was a horseshoe-shaped device made of metal. Gold wire was threaded through the evenly spaced holes – much like modern braces, but a little more rustic and made of gold! It was called “Fauchard’s Bandeau”, named after Pierre Fouchard, who was significant to the development of modern dentistry and orthodontics.

As a new technology, and without the aid of any modern painkillers, the braces were likely quite painful. However, Marie Antoinette’s smile was considered quite charming and pretty, so it seems to have been a successful ordeal.

4.) She contributed to philanthropic efforts

Aside from being generous with her friends (which she was – sometimes she even had signature perfumes made for them as gifts), Marie Antoinette liked to help others wherever she could. She established a home for unwed mothers, and often made visits to poor families to distribute food and money. Once, before she was queen, her carriage accidentally ran over a wine grower. Marie Antoinette rushed out of the carriage to assist the wounded man, and paid for his family’s expenses for the next year while he recovered from a broken limb.

Two years before the start of the revolution, in 1787, she also provided grain for struggling families and downgraded the quality of grain for the royal family so that there was more to share.

5.) She was only nineteen years old when she became Queen of France

She had been dauphine of France for several years, but when Louis XV (the predecessor of Marie Antoinette’s husband, Louis XVI), passed away on May 10, 1774, she became queen. The late king had been ill for some time, and when the candle in his window was extinguished to show that he had succumbed to his sickness, all the courtiers who had been hovering outside his rooms stampeded toward Marie Antoinette and Louis, determined to be the first to pay compliments to the new rulers. Apparently the crash of their footsteps made a sound like thunder.

Together, Marie Antoinette and Louis knelt and prayed for their future, with the words “Dear God, guide and protect us. We are too young to reign.”

6.) She cared about the revolution and tried to help

In contrast to her husband, Louis XVI, who often remained indecisive, Marie Antoinette took action to address the issues spurring the revolution, and to protect the royal family. She met with ministers and ambassadors, and corresponded with other sovereigns. Her increased involvement in politics led the king to rely on her advice, and he occasionally baffled his royal ministers by leaving the room to consult with her if she was not present at the meeting. When France’s popular finance minister, Jacques Necker, was dismissed by Louis, she sought to appease the people’s outrage and persuaded Louis to reinstate him, even though she and Necker had not always agreed and were sometimes enemies.

It is worth noting, however, that in her youth, Marie Antoinette remained mostly indifferent to political schemes. She became more involved as political tensions rocketed dangerously high, at which time it was possibly too late.

 

I hope I’ve passed along some extra facts about Marie Antoinette besides that she said ‘let them eat cake’ – or did she? More details about the life of the scandalous French queen to come!

 


The Wardrobe Mistress, a novel of one of Marie Antoinette’s wardrobe women who casually spies on the queen during the French Revolution and finds herself torn between her loyalty to the queen and her sympathy for the revolution, is available now.

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