Monday, April 7, 2008

Let Them Eat History

I’ve been looking through the pictures that Talitha, Janel, Tracy and I have to show for our whirlwind tour through London and Paris.

We were able to visit the Chateau de Versailles, which was no small cause for excitement. I’ve always loved history, and this particular time period throughout Europe is interesting to me. I love the politics, I love to hate the politics, I love the clothes, the rules, the men in silk stockings, and the feeling of the world being on the brink of some incredible discoveries. Versailles didn’t spring up overnight, obviously, and it represents a very wide span of time in France’s history. To be more specific, I’m interested in the French 1600’s-1700’s. Anyways, back to my brilliant thoughts.

I was looking at the picture of the Chapelle Royale, which is as breathtaking as you can imagine. My friend Codi, who now loathes being mentioned in these blogs, was commenting on how beautiful it was and why doesn’t anybody make buildings like that anymore? It made me remember what Talitha said as we stood in the flesh looking at those tapestries and domes.

There were lots of people at Versailles; I can’t imagine how crowded it is during the warmer months when the gardens are thick with perfume and the great golden fountains bubble with life. I stood in line to walk up to the small door from which you are able to look down onto the chapel. My sister, who was standing very close behind me due to the crowd, whispered loud enough for me to hear.

"It’s beautiful....can you believe that this building sparked the French Revolution?"

So I had these two opposites in my head as I walked dreamily and clumsily across the Hall of Mirrors and Marie Antoinette’s bedroom.

I’ve been brushing up on my knowledge of French history over the last year. I’ve become more and more interested in Marie Antoinette, because she is such a compelling character. She was a real person, to be sure, but what we know of her is based on other people’s opinions of her, and considering that she was beheaded....I’m not sure we are getting the whole picture. I learned about the French Queen during history lessons throughout my education, but somehow still saw her in my mind’s eye as that woman who spent too much money and didn’t care enough about her loyal subjects and eventually got beheaded. And didn’t she say something about cake?

Luckily, I was wrong. Or at least I think I was. Technically, we’ll never know. Not unless we can find a phone booth like Bill and Ted. But I don’t know where to find a phone booth. Yet another reason to move to England.

During my mental brushing, I was fortunate to come across some incredible historical fiction works about Maria Antonia. This highly controversial Archduchess of Austria married Louis XVI when she was only 14 and Frencified her name. Though historical fiction is indeed fiction, it must be noted that history is a form of fiction. We simply do not know what happened at the first Thanksgiving. History is a form of lore that weaves fact, and, let’s face it: fiction.We trust that people who write history will be neutral or at least accurate. Alas, it is not so. We can’t even get accurate and neutral evening news!

Still, I realize that historical fiction is not trying to be truth. But many authors of this genre are in love with history and want to make it really live for those who also love history. Modern historians say that Marie Antoinette has been painted ugly by centuries of misinformed and angry people. I didn’t live during the time when the Sun King spent 50,000 livres on a silver font. If I had hungry babies to feed, I would probably hate the royal family as well.

I have the luxury of viewing history from a long telescope; I can see pictures of what was. I can afford to see that Maria Antonia was probably terrified to leave her home and move far away to a young dauphin who didn’t know yet how to be a proper husband. If I became Marie Antoinette, I might spend too much money on buying gowns and towns and even friends. I might hate the peasants who yelled and held fire over their heads as they marched around my new home. I can imagine the queen being bewildered at the unrest. She might have been practicing the few things she had been taught: breed and greed. After all, what else were royal women to do?

I like the works of historians that attempt to give us history in a different color than we have ever seen it. These philostorians (new word, do you like it?) give us a gift when they turn greedy, petty, uneducated and lascivious Queen Marie into a woman who wanted to take care of her children and have friends and pretty flowers. Perhaps she was greedy. Perhaps she was needy. Either way, she was a woman who knew the joy of walking in her garden and smelling the rain. In the end, she was a person. Philostorians think about things from every angle; they don’t stop with what is commonly known. In their minds they become a duke, a baker, a clergyman, a wet nurse, a fisherman’s wife...anything to help them understand why history was written the way it was.

Talitha doesn’t really think that the Chateaux de Versailles caused the French Revolution. Historians both past and present still argue on the social and economic and political climates that converged to create the storm of the Revolution. But money was a big part of it, and a big part of France’s money was welded onto the beautiful gates of Versailles. It was a problem, but not the only problem. But if you had to walk hungry past the powdered wigs and perfumed necks, it would be easy to make the palace a target.

I think that the Chateaux is full of a nameless energy. It might be the poignancy of the situations that created its inception and fuled its unparalleled beauty. It might be the now whispering voices of peasants who wanted change, needed change, were willing to die or give death for change.

Versailles didn’t really spark the entire French Revolution. But it did play a part, and as all the other players are now dead, it is the only landscape that might show us the performance as it was. History may not give us the real Maria Antonia. It can only give us a piece of the Antoinette that flitted and floated her way to the guillotine. History, said a tour guide at the Tower of London, is written by those who win.

Having lost her husband and friends and then her children, Marie Antoinette certainly didn’t win. But neither did the country that sent her to her death. The Revolution was a bloody time of unrest and upheaval and destruction.

I wasn’t there, I didn’t see Versailles during one of its famous parties. But I like to imagine it, beautiful and glittering and peaceful as a sign of beauty and not of bloodshed. But I didn’t have to live then, I have my telescope. And when I’m done I can fold it up and look at my own life and try to write my own history.

I don’t look good with powdered hair. But I would like to eat cake.

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