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Summer reading: The magic of ‘The Embroidered Book,’ by Kate Heartfield

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The Embroidered Book is the story of Marie Antoinette, queen of France, and her sister Charlotte, the queen of Naples. But in the world of this novel, magic is real, and the sisters can make sacrifices to enchant objects, giving these objects supernatural qualities. In this scene, the young Hapsburg arch-duchess formerly known as Antoine is on her way to her new life in France.

This is the first in a weekly summer reading series featuring the work of Ottawa-area authors.

Antoine’s gilded carriage rolls to a stop. After two weeks on the road, they have reached the edge of the Habsburg universe: the Rhine.

It’s nearly May, but no warmer than when they set out. Her last sight of her mother was a dark blur of widow’s clothing through a carriage window fogged with Antoine’s own breath, through rebellious tears. She still feels guilty that she wasn’t able to manage a smile and a wave for the people who lined the streets to say goodbye to her; it was so kind of them to come out so early on such a cold morning.

Now all her tears are dry and Vienna seems very distant and long ago. She gave away most of her things. Books and embroideries to her siblings. Clothing to the daughters of courtiers. A self-portrait for Mama. Her enchanted items wait in a chest to be mailed to her after her arrival at Versailles: her Pandora doll, her thimble, her book ribbon. The treasures of a girl, worthless to a world that does not know about her sacrifices.

Fifty-six coaches and carriages accompany her, carrying 256 people. None of them will go with her into France.

She kisses the two cousins who have come all this way, playmates from childhood, and they all wipe tears away. She holds her dog Mops to her heart. It hurts to leave him behind, after all. She doesn’t love him — she sacrificed that — but she knows she should, and that is nearly the same.

Antoine steps out of her jewel-box carriage of gold and glass. She steps onto the hardened mud and looks at the trees, all slanted rays of bleak sunlight and green shadows, like a wood between worlds.

Three Frenchwomen, pinch-faced, drop to their knees. She raises them up and embraces them, and their faces become even more pinched. They say their names but she immediately forgets them; Geneviève gave her a spell for earrings that will whisper a forgotten name, but Antoine cannot wear those today.

The women lead her into a wooden pavilion. She’ll enter from the Holy Roman Empire, and emerge into France.

The thin walls are hung with tapestries in rich colours, showing pale faces staring off at something unseen. The tapestries do nothing to warm the air that whistles through the slatted walls.

A woman wheels over a cart bearing Antoine’s new French clothes. The grand habit, the court dress, for the handover. She’s wearing a beautiful new robe à la française already, and it was even made in France, but the ritual is what matters.

The first things they strip from her are the muslin cap on her head and the satin shoes on her feet. One woman unpins her gown, and then her stomacher. Someone, standing behind her, is unlacing her stays. A woman in front of her unties the silk gown petticoat, then the hip roll. Then the modesty petticoat, and she is standing in her chemise, shivering, as a woman kneels before her, unties her garters, rolls down her silk stockings.

“Soon you will meet your husband, Your Royal Highness,” says one of the ladies, trying to distract her from her own nakedness, perhaps. “How exciting! You will call him Monseigneur le Dauphin and he will call you Madame la Dauphine.”

Durfort has briefed her on French etiquette, and she bristles at the reminder she did not need. But these women are kind. They are trying to help.

“I hope in private he will call me Antoine,” she says with her warmest smile. “Do you think that would be all right?”

“In France, you will be Marie Antoinette,” says one. “Much more suitable. Much prettier.”

She hesitates, then nods. Is she not here to be pretty and suitable? What does it matter what her name is?

Gold is not the prettiest colour on her, but gold means power. Gold means we can. A shining new dress, an enormous dress, conforming to the traditions laid down as gospel by the Sun King.

Poor Joseph’s second wife never did make a place for herself, and she was miserable throughout their marriage. Antoine won’t make the same mistake. She’ll make her husband love her. She’ll make everyone love her. Antoine has a perfect hairline now, and straight teeth. Her jaw aches as she smiles.

She glances at the cart to see what they’ll dress her in. A chemise. A tightly boned golden bodice with lace trim. Wide panniers. Hooped petticoat. Cloth-of-gold skirt and stomacher covered in gemstones and silk bows. Lace engageantes for her arms, gold-embroidered silk stockings for her legs. Diamond-buckled silk shoes with little heels. A gold brocade train to go over the skirt.

Gold is not the prettiest colour on her, but gold means power. Gold means we can. A shining new dress, an enormous dress, conforming to the traditions laid down as gospel by the Sun King.

All of this is magic of a kind.

Outside the pavilion’s thin walls, there’s distant thunder and the rumble of men’s voices.

The tears threaten, the tears she has stifled at such great pain on her journey, in her glass box.

One woman takes her old clothing back out through the German door, to give to the cousins, Antoine’s final gifts to them in gratitude for being her last friends on Habsburg soil.

Antoine holds back tears, sniffing as quickly and discreetly as she can; she has no handkerchief. She smiles violently and holds up her arms as the new chemise drops over her head, and the world, for one brief moment, goes white.

***

Strasbourg, just over the border, is the first city to welcome the new Dauphine. They let off fireworks and there is a magnificent ball. It seems strangely sombre, all the same, but perhaps people are more sombre here. Antoinette greets everyone — the local girls and boys in shepherd dress, the officials, the nobility — just as she has been taught. There are mountains of flowers and the whole city is alight.

In the episcopal palace, she comes face to face with Prince Louis de Rohan, and she stops breathing for a moment.

“Your Royal Highness,” he says, bowing low. “I welcome you to France.”

A hundred people are watching them. She tries not to look like a magister. How does one look like a magister, or not like a magister? She tries not to look wary, but she is.

“The people of this country appreciate the sacrifices you have made,” the prince says lightly. “We appreciate that you have left your family behind. Although of course you have the examples of your sisters ahead of you.”

She must say something.

“If I am pleasing to the people of France, that is all I desire.”

He smiles, not prettily. “How could they not be pleased?”

“They don’t look pleased,” she says, looking around, and realizing that she’s spoken too frankly. Oh well. Frankness can be one of her charms. Let him think she wants to be friends, that she has no reason not to want to be friends. She steps closer to the prince, and says almost conspiratorially, “Everyone looks a little sour here today.”

“Ah, well, as to that, Your Royal Highness, there is an explanation,” says Rohan. “His Majesty in his wisdom gave a princess of Lorraine, about your age, the honour of the first dance after the royal family’s. This broke with precedence and half the nobility threatened to boycott. They’re here but they’re still not happy about it.”

“About when a princess dances?”

“About whether it has anything to do with our new dauphine being a daughter of Lorraine on her father’s side,” he says. “And whether her being a daughter of Austria, on her mother’s side, will affect the way the King of France does business. Today, it’s which princess dances first; tomorrow, it may be which side we take in the next disastrous Habsburg war. The great families of France make it their business to understand the significance of the slightest change to etiquette. Your arrival has set the cat among the pigeons.”

She feels cold. “I did not know about any of this. The King only meant it as a kindness, I’m sure.”

He shakes his head, smiling. “Of course. Between you and me, Your Highness, these are pigeons in urgent need of a visit from a cat.”

She smiles back, and the line of people who want to speak to her is moving, pushing the Prince de Rohan away from her. He seems content to be pushed, making his farewell. Perhaps everything will be fine.

Kate Heartfield is a former editorial pages editor and columnist at the Ottawa Citizen. She now teaches journalism at Carleton University and writes novels, novellas, stories and games, which have won or been shortlisted for several major awards. Her most recent novel, The Embroidered Book, has hit the bestseller lists in the United Kingdom and Canada. Her next novel, Assassin’s Creed: The Magus Conspiracy, will be out in August 2022.

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