J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, October 05, 2021

Elements of Marie Antoinette’s Letters

The Swedish count Axel von Fersen (1755-1810) came to Rhode Island in 1780 to serve as an aide-de-camp to Gen. Rochambeau, commander of the French troops in North America. He met the American commanders and took part in the Yorktown campaign.

Unlike some European officers, Von Fersen wasn’t motivated by republican leanings. Instead, he had to leave France because his close friendship with the young queen, Marie Antoinette, was becoming close to a scandal. The two had meet in 1774 as teenagers, then renewed the acquaintance in 1778. Advisors felt it wiser for the count to go to another continent for a while.

Count Von Fersen returned to Europe in 1783 and was soon back in France as a diplomat for the king of Sweden. In 1787 that king appointed the count as his secret personal envoy to Louis XVI, which also gave him more time with Marie Antoinette. When the French Revolution broke out, Von Fersen became a close advisor to the royal couple.

By June 1791 the French government was holding the royal family in Paris, with Lafayette in charge of the guards. Count Von Fersen organized an escape plan, personally driving the family in a carriage out of the city.

Then the party split up. Louis and his family made it as far as Varennes before a crowd recaptured them and returned them to the Tuileries Palace in Paris. What little trust the government and people had in the royal family evaporated. Von Fersen fled across the border.

The count continued to correspond with Marie Antoinette in the months that followed. In 1982 his descendants sold a cache of those letters to the French national archives. Someone had scribbled over parts of fifteen letters, rendering phrases impossible to read.

In recent years scientists have developed new ways to analyze such cross-outs by mapping how they respond to types of radiation. These methods mean analysts no longer need to destroy samples of the paper or chemically alter the ink.

One example reported in 2013 involved the original score of Luigi Cherubini’s 1797 opera Médée. Large sections of the final pages were blotted out. According to tradition, Cherubini disliked critics telling him the opera was too long and bluntly cut it short.

Because Cherubini had written his score using standard iron gall ink and marked it over with charcoal, X-ray sensors could easily distinguish the elemental signatures of those two types of black.

The letters between Marie Antoinette and Axel von Fersen were a bigger challenge, though, because both the original writing and the scribbles were made with iron gall ink. That meant both layers were full of iron and sulfur.

However, as Anne Michelin, Fabien Pottierand, and Christine Andraud just reported in the journal Science Advances, the chemical composition of eighteenth-century inks could vary; “additional metal elements—that are present as impurities in the vitriol (iron sulfate) used to prepare the ink—are also found in diverse amounts.”

In particular, they found that on eight of the letters the upper layer of ink has a lot more copper than the lower layer. By mapping where the less cupric ink lay, they revealed enough of the underlying writing to decipher such phrases from Marie Antoinette as “ma tendre amie” (my tender friend) and “vous que j’aime” (you who I love).

The next question was who had made those changes. The authors write:
The most common hypothesis was that redaction was carried out in the second half of the 19th century by the great-nephew of the Count of Fersen, the Baron of Klinckowström, or perhaps by a different member of the Fersen family, before the publication of this correspondence to preserve their reputation.
However, the analysts were able to match the elemental signature of the scribbles to the ink that Von Fersen used to write his letters. In other words, he probably crossed out those sensitive phrases himself after reading them to protect the queen.

King Louis XVI was sent to the guillotine in January 1793, charged with conspiring with France’s foreign enemies. Marie Antoinette followed nine months later.

Count Von Fersen never married. He became active in Swedish politics, rising to be Marshal of the Realm, the highest non-royal official in the government. In 1810, during a heated public dispute over the royal succession, a mob stomped him to death.


Don Carleton said...

I'd like to know more about what was in the redacted sections of those letters.

Beyond stating that no definitive proof of an affair was uncovered, the NYT article on the subject really didn't tell us all that much about the content of the redactions in question...

J. L. Bell said...

The phrases quoted in the scientific paper are all expressions of love, but no clear evidence of a sexual affair. But of course the queen and count didn’t need to write explicitly.

The method worked on only some of the letters, those which had contrasting inks. Others continue to be unreadable.