Let me say from the start, I do believe in Ghosts!
Very often in the winter I go to Paris. Preferring her chilly, gray and quiet days to the more exuberant times of year. No sooner settled and I hop aboard the RER train that goes nonstop to Versailles. I have been on many tours and poked my head into palatial rooms, wandered through mirrored halls of luxury all the while trying to tune out the others who come to see this gilded beehive. Many feel uncomfortable by what they find, others drool on chubby cherubs who once witnessed the crème brulee of 18th century society. The contradiction of this place is what amuses and challenges me – like having too much dessert after a delicious old school French meal. It is not the grandeur I seek but the homey other part of Versailles, the back yard of it you might say, which always quickens my heart.
“Madame, I believe you like flowers…” Louis XVI is believed to have said to Marie-Antoinette one day, after the birth of the dauphin. ” I have a bouquet for you, it is called the “Petite Trianon”. It was not secret that the Queen was very discontented with the rigidity of daily court life. Rituals laid down in the long reign of Louis XIV. The young Queen often looked back with regret at the simple family life she had as a child at Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna, yearning for a degree of freedom which was impossible! At the time the Petite Trianon was nothing more than a garden pavilion. It was to become a private retreat for the Queen. Here she spent days and nights with a select few. From time to time the King would visit, but never stay. Their marriage being more of a formality than a love match. There were no formalities and no stiffness; fun and games and luxury were the rule. Tennis, amateur dramatics, art ,music and gardening – perhaps a romantic flirtation, were the daily events. Ten years after getting the Trianon, Marie-Antionette developed a desire for a small village called a hameau. Jean-Jacques Rousseau the philosopher was the man of the moment. Creating a vogue for nature and the pleasures of rustic farm life were all the rage of Paris. Artists were busy painting pictures attributing sentiments to people who lived at one with the land. Marie-Antionette was enchanted.
The design of “Le Hameau” was made by architect Mique, who collaborated with the painter Hubert. They conceived a free form lake with water piped in from miles away. An alpine village took the form of a semi circle around the “Maison de la Reine”. A tower, a dairy and a pastoral ruin were all thatched and faux painted and plastered. Worm eaten timber and whitewashed cracked moss covered walls were made to look as if they had existed on the spot for centuries; all very theatrical. Soon a wild English style garden was begun. The interiors however were more chic than shabby. The best craftsmen and furniture makers Reisner and Jacob were commissioned to design suites of furniture worthy of the Queen. Walls and windows were covered in specially woven toile du jouy. Special Sevres porcelain was made and even costumes were designed for the visitors. Of course all of this rustic splendor was looked after by an army of servants and a farmer and his wife were imported to tend the royal flocks. The Queen herself was busy too, wearing the notorious white muslin frocks celebrated at the time as “les chemise de la reine.” A fashion that created an uproar with the Lyon silk and ribbon manufacturers, because in matters of dress the Queen set la mode…she even posed for a painting by Madame Vigee-Lebrun. Creating such criticism that another was painted with her in satins and lace and ribbons which momentarily quieted the situation. Though she had the pose of a country maid we know that daily her coiffure was created by monsieur Leonard and took about 3 hours. She was fond of milking special Swiss brown and white cows daily using priceless porcelain jugs to catch the warm milk. She fed the chickens grain milled on the farm, and was often seen leading her flock of sheep around the park with silken blue ribbons. Her love of flowers meant that at every possible place, there was an army of blue and white faience pots filled to bursting no matter the season. Archives survive with order reveal for thousands of narcissus, jasmine and roses, 400 cherry trees, 200 of each plum and apricot trees, and all types of climbing vines including Virginia Creeper imported all the way from the USA. Fish and fowl were placed into the lake. While Marie-Antionette was shutting herself away in this dreamlike fairy land, the people of France were becoming less and less enamored with the status quo. I am sure you know this is one fairy tale that does not end well for its beautiful princess…
Nowadays the park is overrun most of the year with crowds of people who come to see the gilded remnants of the last great era of genius and manners. For me, as I trample upon a wet grassy walkway under a wintery sky I am seeking more than remains, rather, what I know still exists. Amid the I phone selfie taking peeps who crowd the lanes and pose like Marie A on Facebook, I linger in the back wandering down the quieter white gravel lanes. Perhaps today, I might catch a chance glimpse of a lady all in white with a bodice of pale pink ribbons fluttering in the chilly breeze carrying a basket filled with eggs towards the “Maison de la Reine”. A light foot step that scarcely touches the ground, a pale pink rose placed in her decolletage, or a faint smile of pleasure upon her lips. Perhaps the queen herself still wanders about her farm making sure that all is ready for the day. All the way back to Paris my mind is reeling. I don’t remove the pale white dust from my shoes that comes from gravel at the Hameau. Leaving it till it fades away like the lady herself into a day dream world. A faint trace of the beauty that can only be glimpsed through the looking glass of memory….
All photos are copyright by M. Sebastian Araujo of Gentlemanly Pursuits.