Background Article: a tale of Two Cities & The French Revolution



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Background Article: A Tale of Two Cities & The French Revolution


  1. The King, the Queen, and the French Court

  1. Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette

In May 1774, in the most splendid palace in all Europe, Louis XV, the old King of France, lay dying of smallpox. There were few to mourn him. During his long reign, he had thought only of his own extravagant pleasures and nothing of the welfare of his people. Indeed, he had been so little concerned with the future of his country that, when warned that his reckless spending would be the ruin of France, he had said lightly: “It will last through my time. After me – the deluge!” (“Après moi, le déluge!”)

When the King dies, his nineteen-year-old grandson, Louis XVI, succeeded him as ruler of France. Four years before, young Louis had been married to the beautiful Austrian princess, Marie Antoinette, who was then only fourteen. The story is told that upon hearing of the death of their grandfather, the youthful couple, truly anxious to do their best as rulers of France, fell to their knees and said, “God help us and guide us! We are too young to rule.” Whatever their good resolutions may have been, the fact is that during their reign they foolishly continued the extravagances and mismanagement of the glittering French court. The tremendous sums of money which this luxury cost were drawn from the pockets of the common people, who had patiently suffered heavy taxes and resulting poverty for many years. In time, old King Louis XV was proved right in his prophecy: the deluge did come after him! Finally, maddened beyond endurance, the common people of France rose to demand their rights and took their revenge on King, Queen, and nobility in the horrors of the French Revolution.

When young Louis XVI ascended the throne in 1774, however, the French people anxiously hoped that better things were in store for them than the hardships suffered under the preceding reign. They were the more encouraged when they learned that Louis was a well-intentioned young man who preferred his people to be happy and comfortable rather than downtrodden. Unfortunately for them, Louis XVI was not a clever man. Instead of devoting all his time to the state, investigating corruption and instituting reforms, he spent his days eating, hunting, and tinkering about his workshop, where he mended locks and watches. Pictures show him as a short, stocky young man, tending to be fat; and history proves that he was simple, stupid, good-humored, lacking the force of character to rule his ministers, or to reform the court, or even to curb the extravagance of his beautiful young wife, Marie Antoinette.

Marie Antoinette, high-spirited, fun-loving, heedless of anything but the pleasures of the moment, must often have wondered why fate had joined her to a solemn, dull husband. Yet in May 1770, when she arrived from Austria for her marriage to the Dauphin (as the heir to the throne of France was called), the world seemed bright indeed to this attractive fourteen-year-old daughter of Maria Theresa, the distinguished Empress of Austria. The little girl could not then know, as she gravely accepted the respectful worship of the French courtiers and found herself dazzled by the luxury provided for her wedding, that she was to lose her head on the guillotine by order of the people she had ruled.

As the gay and charming young Dauphine of France in the first years of her marriage, and later as Queen, Marie Antoinette spent her days and nights in a ceaseless round of parties, fêtes, and masked balls. She loved clothes, set new styles, and wore them with grace and distinction. Tired at times of the elaborate ceremony of the royal palace of Versailles, she would cross the flower-bordered lawns to her small but beautiful country house called the Little Trianon. There, she and her friends played at being shepherds and milkmaids and enjoyed their make-believe in peasant dress. As they light-heartedly acted their parts, they failed to hear the revolutionary rumblings of the Paris mob only a dozen miles away.

To this mob, Marie Antoinette was not a gay and thoughtless child, nor was she a bewildered young girl who could be excused as the victim of the intrigues of her husband’s jealous family and the selfish advice of plotting courtiers. To them, she was “the Austrian,” a foreigner, who favored the country of her birth over that of her subjects. To them, Marie Antoinette, in her brocades and her elaborate headdress, dancing at the opera ball or gambling at the card tables, became the hated symbol of the taxes which were starving them and their children.



  1. Court Life During The Old Regime

The period which preceded the French Revolution is called by historians the Old Regime. Court life during this period was unparalleled in magnificence and splendor for Louis and Marie Antoinette and for the hundreds of nobles who surrounded them and, like them, were supported by the public treasure.

The King, for example, had personal infantry, cavalry, bodyguards, and other uniformed guardsmen to the number of 9,050 men, costing nearly eight million francs a year, or twenty-five million dollars at today’s prices and currency. It was in imposing sight when the King entered his carriage in the great courtyard of Versailles in order to drive to Paris. He was preceded by trumpeters in brilliant colors and by horsemen resplendent with gold and silver lace. The guards wore white doublets, starred with shining spangles. Endless lines of richly dressed attendants delighted the eyes of the commoners, who for the moment may have forgotten that their own hunger had paid for the spectacle.



  1. The Extravagance Of The King’s Household

While thousands in France were literally starving in order to pay taxes, those taxes were being spent to the extent of millions of francs a year for wine and food for the King’s table. To convey the royal meals to the royal mouth, a staff of 486 men, at the cost of over two million francs annually, was required. This stuff in itself forms an amusing catalogue. In the kitchen and dining hall there were butlers to serve the meals, comptrollers in charge of supplies, gentlemen of the pantry, cupbearers and carvers, officers of the kitchen, chief cooks, assistant cooks, cullions to clean the pans, turnspits to roast the meats, cellarers to store the wine, common gardeners and salad gardeners, laundry servants, pastry cooks, plat changers, table setters, crockery keepers, the butler of the table of the head butler, and so on – each wearing a special uniform and all impressed with the seriousness of their tasks.

Most important of all, because closest to the King, were the grooms of the bedchamber. There were about two hundred personal household servants attached to the King’s own suite of rooms. This staff, headed by the grand chamberlain and the grand master of the wardrobe, included a succession of gentlemen of the bedchamber, pages of the bedchamber, instructors for the pages, ushers, valets of all kinds, cloak bearers, barbers, upholsterers, watch menders, waiters, porters, trunk carriers, tailors, laundry servants, starchers, and so on. And yet all this staff was insufficient to get the King out of bed in the morning, as you will see from the account of the King’s lever.

All these retainers – and many others – were attached to the King’s palace at Versailles, but he had a dozen other residences, all of which had to be decorated and furnished and staffed in a manner worthy of their royal owner. All in all, his servitors, including his personal attendants, his military staff, and those provided for his near relatives, totaled over fifteen thousand individuals.

Needless to say, the Queen and the two children added to the tremendous extravagances of the regime. The baby daughter of Louis and Marie Antoinette was, her parents decided, to be brought up in the strictest simplicity; yet when she was a month old, she had eighty personal attendants in her individual household. When she was six years old, she was given a broth to drink for which the royal treasure was charged over five thousand francs for the year.

Marie Antoinette, according to the account books of the time, ordered four pairs of shoes each week. Four yards of new ribbon were needed each day to tie her dressing gown, and two and a half yards of taffeta each day to cover the basket in which her gloves and fan were kept. Probably much of the money which supposedly paid for these extravagances went into the pockets of ladies-in-waiting and other servitors; unquestionably it all came out of the pockets of the common people of France.

The amazing contrast between the Court and the commoners is best expressed in the oft-quoted story which, true or not, the mass of the people were glad to believe. It was said that when the hungry people from Paris clamored at the gates of the palace, Marie Antoinette asked what they wanted. “They have no bread,” answered a courtier. “Then let them eat cake,” said the Queen.



  1. The King’s “Lever”

Nothing could better show the artificiality and ceremony attached to court life during the Old Regime than the regulations laid down in the early eighteenth century to help the King get out of bed in the morning and get in again at night.

Those who were fortunate enough to assist at these elaborate ceremonies were the most distinguished people of the realm, and even they were carefully graded into classes. The especially privileged group, those who might enter the King’s bedchamber immediately after he was awakened, consisted of only half a dozen, including the royal Princes and the Cardinal. A second carefully chosen group might enter as the King was about to rise; a third group, when he had arisen but was still in his dressing gown, and so on.

This ceremony was reversed for the king’s coucher, or retiring, with nobles of similar rank in attendance. All these positions were eagerly sought after by the most distinguished noblemen of the realm, and the nobles permitted to attend the King’s lever or coucher, particularly those permitted to assist him, were the envy of the entire court.


  1. Versailles

The palace in which much of the luxury of the time was centered – although it was only one of the many royal dwellings belonging to the King – was Versailles. It is associated particularly with the glory that was France in the days of Louis XIV, Louis XV, and Louis XVI during the 17th and 18th centuries.

The château, or palace, of Versailles, situated about eleven miles from Paris, had been rebuilt and enlarged by Louis XIV, the immediate predecessor and great-grandfather of Louis XV. It was Louis XIV, the “Sun King,” who said, when he was told that one of his acts might not be desirable for the French state: “I am the state!” (“L’état, c’est moi!”) He planned the palace of Versailles to make clear to all the world that he was the most splendid and powerful monarch alive.

The central part of this palace, in which Louis XVI and his children were born, and from which he and Marie Antoinette were taken as virtual prisoners during the revolution, is a quarter of a mile long. More than thirty thousand workmen were employed at one time in building the palace and in laying out its magnificent grounds. The rooms in the chateau are elaborately decorated with inlaid marble, sculptured and gilded bronzes, carved doors, mirrors, and painted ceilings on some of which the artists worked for as long as seven years. Even the stables, which housed nearly two thousand horses and more than two hundred carriages – many of gilt and glass resembling Cinderella’s transformed pumpkin-coach – were so ample and beautiful that at times they served as theaters, at times as ballrooms for court functions.

As magnificent as the buildings are the gardens of Versailles, which have been famous the world over for two and a half centuries. They are formal gardens, laid out in a regular pattern with broad, straight avenues, artificial lakes and ponds, elaborate fountains, hundreds of bronze and marble statues, acres of extensive lawns, groves of trees, brilliant flowers in orderly rows, and imposing terraces, reached by wide marble steps on which, it is said, there was room for sixty ladies in skirts measuring twenty-four feet around.

A twenty-minute walk across the lovely park took the ladies and courtiers of the eighteenth century from the grandeur of the palace to the beauty and charm of two smaller royal houses, the Grand Trianon and the Petit (Little) Trianon. It is the Little Trianon, especially, which is associated with Marie Antoinette, for it was here that she romped in gardens with her lords and ladies-in-waiting; here that she enjoyed moonlight theatricals in the shadow of the exquisite Temple of Love; and here that she ordered built for her enjoyment a model farm, with its mill, its cottage, its chicken yards, and its dairy where she and her ladies, when the whim sized them, made butter.

It was in a grotto beside the lake at the Little Trianon that Marie Antoinette was sitting on October 5, 1789, when a messenger arrived with the fateful news that the revolutionary Paris mob had broken into the palace of Versailles. The next day the royal family left the palace. They never returned.



  1. Dress in the Days of Louis XVI

Can you imagine yourself as a fashionable young man or woman living at the time of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette? As a gentleman of those days, you would have worn a triangular cocked hat on your powdered hair, which would be tied back with a black ribbon. Your coat, of satin, possibly striped in light blue and pink, would be open to disclose an elaborate waistcoat and knee-length breeches of pale yellow, trimmed with pink bindings and blue buttons. Your long white silk stockings, embroidered with blue clocks and fastened with blue garters, would show to advantage your well-shaped leg, for you would make a sorry figure in the minuet if your legs did not measure up to the current idea of manly good looks. In addition, as a well-dressed gentleman of fashion, you would wear silver buckles on your black shoes, a ring on your finger, and you would carry a handsome jeweled or enameled snuffbox which would be used with exaggeratedly graceful gestures as you flirted back your long, ruffled lace cuffs.

As a lady of the late eighteenth century, your dress would be elaborate and heavy in contrast to the delicacy of the gentleman’s costume. The material of stiff brocade would be fashioned into a long whaleboned waist, beneath which would billow a skirt with panniers or heavy folds looped over the hips. Down the front would show a petticoat trimmed with lace, velvet bows, and artificial flowers. Most characteristic of the period, however, would be the mountainous headdress which you, as a lady in keeping with the times, would wear. Coiffures varied from one to three feet in height, and were so intricate in design that they could not often be taken down or combed.



Even as a child, your costume would have reflected the artifice and formality of the age, and your behavior would have been as stiff, unnatural, and studied as your costume. Your schooling would have paid so little attention to books, and laid so much emphasis on manners and proper deportment, that your most important teacher would have been the dancing master. He taught the thousand and one motions of daily life which had to be performed according to rule. He taught fashionable girl or boy how to walk, sit down, stand up gracefully; he taught the boy how to offer a lady his arm in the grand manner and to kiss her hand with the air of a polished courtier; he taught both to listen and to smile as befitted an accomplished member of society in the most elaborate and artificial court in the world.

  1. The People of France

  1. France in the Eighteenth Century

It was not only in the splendor and magnificence of its court life that France glittered in the eighteenth century. Intellectually, as well, France led the world. French was the language of statesmen and of educated men throughout Europe; French books were eagerly sought after as the messengers of original


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