More than 200 years after meeting her death at the guillotine, Marie Antoinette remains one of the most enigmatic figures in history. Elisabeth de Feydeau uncovers a unique perspective on the French monarch by tracing the story of Jean-Louis Fargeon in A Scented Palace: The Secret History of Marie Antoinette’s Perfumer.
Elisabeth is professor at the Versailles School of Perfumers and a cultural adviser to some of France’s greatest perfume houses. The biography examines Jean-Louis’ rise from a humble family of perfumers to personal perfumer to the young queen for 14 years and then traces the bloody events of French Revolution from his position as a court insider.
A Scented Palace has already won the Prix Guerlain in France and viewers in the UK can see her present a BBC TV documentary called Versailles Stories about Jean-Louis Fargeon and his unique position at the royal court.
Later in the year, fans of royal drama will also be able to see Sofia Coppola’s movie, Marie Antoinette, starring Kirsten Durst and due to be released in October.
Why is there an on-going worldwide fascination with Marie Antoinette?
The 18 th century holds a distinct fascination for us as the artistic golden age. There are also strong comparisons between then and today, in particular the urgency to live life to the full. Marie Antoinette was a woman of her time, but it is also her modernity that makes her so interesting.
She exhibited a dual personality: as well as being queen she was also a wife and mother, Queen of France and a Shepherdess Queen from a pastoral poem! She struggled to reconcile these two opposing elements and to admit them was ultimately fatal. It is the fatefulness of her destiny, which shattered like a missile halted in full flight, which contributes towards the myth of Marie Antoinette: married at barely 15 years of age, queen at 18, mother at 23 and victim of the guillotine at 38. This beautiful woman lived both extremes - the fairytale and martyrdom. How can one today not be sensitive to her terrible misfortune?
How would you describe Marie Antoinette - do words like ‘excess’ and ‘arrogance’ truly reflect her character?
She is often described with these words. The world she entered when she arrived at the court of Louis XV at a very young age was decadent but also regimented by strident social mores. Everything was analysed, commented on, gossiped about, everyone anticipated the first faux pas that would instigate their demise.
Often badly advised, Marie Antoinette was extravagant and even mocking in her youth. In short she lived in that pleasure-oriented society like a child, only wanting to surround herself with people that she had chosen herself. Ultimately the Queen became the scapegoat of the nation, upon whom all its hatred was concentrated after having been adored.
Was she really aware of how France was going to change in 1789?
Not at all, she was absolutely removed from reality, having only acknowledged the pleasant and joyous face of the French whom she encountered at the time of her marriage to the Dauphin of France. She was very shocked and couldn’t understand why the people gave her such an icy reception when she visited Paris.
She never really went to meet the people even though she showed a lot of compassion towards those less fortunate, such as housing 12 poor families to enable them to live in a dignified manner. She also adopted poor children before becoming a mother herself and again at the birth of each of her own children in order that they should learn the value of sharing. The arrogance of Madame Royal, her oldest daughter, was something that worried her. But regarding the misery of the people of France, she deceived herself by seeing them as charming rustics surrounded by well-kept sheep and cows. On the other hand, in the worst moments of her life, she exhibited a dignity that would mellow even the worst revolutionaries.
How did you first learn about Jean-Louis Fargeon?
It was when I was at the Sorbonne and doing the research for my thesis on the development of perfumery in 1830s France. My introductory section explored the legacy of the Ancien-Regime, and, in particular, the French taste in scent and the development of perfume. He emerged as a very interesting character, traditional but also a passionate progressive and visionary.
What would Jean-Louis Fargeon’s daily life have been like working for Marie Antoinette?
Jean-Louis was one of Marie Antoinette’s suppliers, not the only one, but certainly the main provider of all her perfumes and other items relating to her toilette. He worked together with Rose Bertin, the Queen’s favourite milliner, and Leonard, the famous hairdresser, preparing a wide range of products – as much for hygiene as for beauty purposes: perfumes, eaux de toilettes, lotions, vinegars, ‘bains de modestie’ (preparation for exfoliating baths), hair powder, make-up, perfumed flannels etc. He took care of a great deal of the Queen’s needs, and was enamoured of the natural look for the sake of one’s skin. Thus he appreciated the queen who liked to look after her face and show her beauty through the most minimal of makeup.
Why did Fargeon remain loyal to the queen?
He was a republican and a strong believer in the need for a new order to emerge in France - the bourgeosie with its values of freedom and equality. Yet he had also discovered the liberated character of the queen, her natural compassion, and her solitude. He sympathised with her taste for nature, healthy living, her love for flowers and gardens, and her maternal instinct. He was close to the woman and not to the Queen who represented an order which he no longer believed in. Later he declared: ‘I am a republican but not a revolutionary’, believing the Republic had no need for the blood that it shed.
During your research, you discovered the recipe for a lost perfume that has now been revived. How did this happen?
Over the course of my research in the National Archives, I stumbled upon the formula within more than 500 pages of perfume, cosmetic and scented glove recipes. Some of the recipes had been inherited from Jean-Louis’ ancestors, others had been created exclusively by him. I also found some of the Queen’s orders which indicated her specific tastes in perfume.
The ‘Parfum de Trianon’ - which we have named ‘Sillage de la Reine’ (‘In the Queen’s Wake’) - has a wonderful floral bouquet in keeping with the ‘bouquet of a thousand flowers’ of the 18 th century and is made solely from natural materials. The perfum was well received when it was presented at the book launch and I hope lots of people will want to buy it because in doing so they will be also be contributing towards the restoration of the Queen’s apartments at Versailles. It is this perfume which continues to envelop the spirit of Marie Antoinette.
How were perfumes made in the 1780s?
The perfumes were 100 per cent natural and constructed like today with a head, heart and a base. Thanks to the progress made in the art of distillation, the perfumers obtained the best quality essential oils which were kept for two years to allow for a truly artistic composition. Some flowers could also liberate their fragrant oils.
Will this book also appeal to men?
I hope so. The men I know who have read the book found it a pleasure to read to the extent that they were unable to put it down. They appreciated the unusual destiny of Jean-Louis, a passionate man who had faith in his convictions; that it is a different read from the typical history of France during the reign of Louis XVI and the French revolution; and that it is a ‘detective novel’ which sheds a new light on perfumery, a craft which is as much artistic as it is technical.
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