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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
The Comedy of Manners at Versailles
By Hippolyte Adolphe Taine (1828–1893)
 
From ‘The Ancient Régime’: Translation of John Durand

TO approach the King, to be a domestic in his household, an usher, a cloak-bearer, a valet, is a privilege that is purchased, even in 1789, for thirty, forty, or a hundred thousand livres; so much greater the reason why it is a privilege to form a part of his society,—the most honorable, the most useful, and the most coveted of all. In the first place, it is a proof of race. A man to follow the King in the chase, and a woman to be presented to the Queen, must previously satisfy the genealogist, and by authentic documents, that his or her nobility goes back to the year 1400. In the next place, it insures good fortune. This drawing-room is the only place within reach of royal favors; accordingly, up to 1789, the great families never stir away from Versailles, and day and night they lie in ambush. The valet of the Marshal de Noailles says to him one night on closing his curtains, “At what hour will Monseigneur be awakened?” “At ten o’clock, if no one dies during the night.” Old courtiers are again found who, “eighty years of age, have passed forty-five on their feet in the antechambers of the King, of the princes, and of the ministers.”… “You have only three things to do,” says one of them to a débutant: “speak well of everybody, ask for every vacancy, and sit down when you can.”  1
  Hence the King always has a crowd around him. The Comtesse du Barry says, on presenting her niece at court, the first of August, 1773, “The crowd is so great at a presentation, one can scarcely get through the antechambers.” In December 1774, at Fontainebleau, when the Queen plays at her own table every evening, “the apartment, though vast, is never empty…. The crowd is so great that one can talk only to the two or three persons with whom one is playing.” The fourteen apartments, at the receptions of ambassadors, are full to overflowing with seigniors and richly dressed women. On the first of January, 1775, the Queen “counted over two hundred ladies presented to her to pay their court.” In 1780, at Choisy, a table for thirty persons is spread every day for the King, another with thirty places for the seigniors, another with forty places for the officers of the guard and the equerries, and one with fifty for the officers of the bedchamber. According to my estimate, the King, on getting up and on retiring, on his walks, on his hunts, at play, has always around him at least forty or fifty seigniors, and generally a hundred, with as many ladies, besides his attendants on duty; at Fontainebleau, in 1756, although “there were neither fêtes nor ballets this year, one hundred and six ladies were counted.” When the King holds a “grand appartement,” when play or dancing takes place in the gallery of mirrors, four or five hundred guests, the elect of the nobles and of the fashion, range themselves on the benches or gather around the card and cavagnole tables.  2
  This is a spectacle to be seen, not by the imagination, or through imperfect records, but with our own eyes and on the spot, to comprehend the spirit, the effect, and the triumph, of monarchical culture. In an elegantly furnished house, the dining-room is the principal room; and never was one more dazzling than this. Suspended from the sculptured ceiling peopled with sporting cupids, descend, by garlands of flowers and foliage, blazing chandeliers, whose splendor is enhanced by the tall mirrors; the light streams down in floods on gildings, diamonds, and beaming, arch physiognomies, on fine busts, and on the capacious, sparkling, and garlanded dresses. The skirts of the ladies ranged in a circle, or in tiers on the benches, “form a rich espalier covered with pearls, gold, silver, jewels, spangles, flowers, and fruits, with their artificial blossoms, gooseberries, cherries, and strawberries,” a gigantic animated bouquet of which the eye can scarcely support the brilliancy. There are no black coats, as nowadays, to disturb the harmony. With the hair powdered and dressed, with buckles and knots, with cravats and ruffles of lace, in silk coats and vests of the hues of fallen leaves, or of a delicate rose tint, or of celestial blue, embellished with gold braid and embroidery, the men are as elegant as the women. Men and women, each is a selection: they are all of the accomplished class, gifted with every grace which race, education, fortune, leisure, and custom, can bestow; they are perfect of their kind. There is not a toilet here, an air of the head, a tone of the voice, an expression in language, which is not a masterpiece of worldly culture, the distilled quintessence of all that is exquisitely elaborated by social art. Polished as the society of Paris may be, it does not approach this; compared with the court, it seems provincial. It is said that a hundred thousand roses are required to make an ounce of the unique perfume used by Persian kings: such is this drawing-room,—the frail vial of crystal and gold containing the substance of a human vegetation. To fill it, a great aristocracy had to be transplanted to a hot-house, and become sterile in fruit and flowers, and then, in the royal alembic, its pure sap is concentrated into a few drops of aroma. The price is excessive, but only at this price can the most delicate perfumes be manufactured.  3
  An operation of this kind absorbs him who undertakes it as well as those who undergo it. A nobility for useful purposes is not transformed with impunity into a nobility for ornament: one falls himself into the ostentation which is substituted for action. The King has a court which he is compelled to maintain. So much the worse if it absorbs all his time, his intellect, his soul, the most valuable portion of his active forces and the forces of the State. To be the master of a house is not an easy task, especially when five hundred persons are to be entertained; one must necessarily pass his life in public, and be on exhibition. Strictly speaking, it is the life of an actor who is on the stage the entire day. To support this load, and work besides, required the temperament of Louis XIV.: the vigor of his body, the extraordinary firmness of his nerves, the strength of his digestion, and the regularity of his habits; his successors who come after him grow weary or stagger under the same load. But they cannot throw it off; an incessant, daily performance is inseparable from their position, and it is imposed on them like a heavy, gilded, ceremonial coat.  4
  The King is expected to keep the entire aristocracy busy; consequently to make a display of himself, to pay back with his own person, at all hours, even the most private, even on getting out of bed, and even in his bed. In the morning, at the hour named by himself beforehand, the head valet awakens him; five series of persons enter in turn to perform their duty, and, “although very large, there are days when the waiting-rooms can hardly contain the crowd of courtiers.” The first one admitted is “l’entrée familière,” consisting of the children of France, the prince and princesses of the blood, and besides these, the chief physician, the chief surgeon, and other serviceable persons. Next comes the “grande entrée,” which comprises the grand chamberlain, the grand master and master of the wardrobe, the first gentlemen of the bedchamber, the Dukes of Orleans and Penthièvre, some other highly favored seigniors, the ladies of honor and in waiting of the Queen, Mesdames, and other princesses, without enumerating barbers, tailors, and various descriptions of valets. Meanwhile spirits of wine are poured on the King’s hands from a service of plate, and he is then handed the basin of holy-water; he crosses himself and repeats a prayer. Then he gets out of bed before all these people, and puts on his slippers. The grand chamberlain and the first gentleman hand him his dressing-gown; he puts this on and seats himself in the chair in which he is to put on his clothes.  5
  At this moment the door opens, and a third group enters, which is the “entrée des brevets,”—the seigniors who compose this enjoy in addition the precious privilege of assisting at the “petit coucher”; while at the same moment there enters a detachment of attendants, consisting of the physicians and surgeons in ordinary, the intendants of the amusements, readers, and others, and among the latter those who preside over physical requirements. The publicity of a royal life is so great that none of its functions can be exercised without witnesses. At the moment of the approach of the officers of the wardrobe to dress the King, the first gentleman, notified by an usher, advances to read him the names of the grandees who are waiting at the door: this is the fourth entry, called “la chambre,” and larger than those preceding it; for, not to mention the cloak-bearers, gun-bearers, rug-bearers, and other valets, it comprises most of the superior officials, the grand almoner, the almoners on duty, the chaplain, the master of the oratory, the captain and major of the body-guard, the colonel-general and major of the French guards, the colonel of the King’s regiment, the captain of the Cent Suisses, the grand huntsman, the grand wolf-huntsman, the grand provost, the grand master and master of ceremonies, the first butler, the grand master of the pantry, the foreign ambassadors, the ministers and secretaries of State, the marshals of France, and most of the seigniors and prelates of distinction. Ushers place the ranks in order, and if necessary, impose silence.  6
  Meanwhile the King washes his hands and begins his toilet. Two pages remove his slippers; the grand master of the wardrobe draws off his night-shirt by the right arm, and the first valet of the wardrobe by the left arm, and both of them hand it to an officer of the wardrobe, whilst a valet of the wardrobe fetches the shirt, wrapped up in white taffeta. Things have now reached the solemn point, the culmination of the ceremony: the fifth entry has been introduced; and in a few moments, after the King has put his shirt on, all that is left of those who are known, with other household officers waiting in the gallery, complete the influx. There is quite a formality in regard to this shirt. The honor of handing it is reserved to the sons and grandsons of France; in default of these, to the princes of the blood or those legitimated; in their default, to the grand chamberlain or to the first gentleman of the bedchamber;—the latter case, it must be observed, being very rare, the princes being obliged to be present at the King’s lever as well as the princesses at that of the Queen. At last the shirt is presented, and a valet carries off the old one; the first valet of the wardrobe and the first valet-de-chambre hold the fresh one, each by a right and left arm respectively; while two other valets, during this operation, extend his dressing-gown in front of him to serve as a screen. The shirt is now on his back, and the toilet commences.  7
  A valet-de-chambre supports a mirror before the King, while two others on the two sides light it up, if occasion requires, with flambeaux. Valets of the wardrobe fetch the rest of the attire; the grand master of the wardrobe puts the vest on and the doublet, attaches the blue ribbon, and clasps his sword around him; then a valet assigned to the cravats brings several of these in a basket, while the master of the wardrobe arranges around the King’s neck that which the King selects. After this a valet assigned to the handkerchiefs brings three of these on a silver salver; while the grand master of the wardrobe offers the salver to the King, who chooses one. Finally the master of the wardrobe hands to the King his hat, his gloves, and his cane. The King then steps to the side of the bed, kneels on a cushion, and says his prayers; whilst an almoner in a low voice recites the orison Quæsumus, deus omnipotens. This done, the King announces the order of the clay, and passes with the leading persons of his court into his cabinet, where he sometimes gives audience. Meanwhile the rest of the company await him in the gallery, in order to accompany him to mass when he comes out.  8
  Such is the lever, a piece in five acts. Nothing could be contrived better calculated to fill up the void of an aristocratic life: a hundred or thereabouts of notable seigniors dispose of a couple of hours in coming, in waiting, in entering, in defiling, in taking positions, in standing on their feet, in maintaining an air of respect and of ease suitable to a superior class of walking gentlemen, while those best qualified are about to do the same thing over in the Queen’s apartment. The King, however, to offset this, suffers the same torture and the same inaction as he imposes. He also is playing a part: all his steps and all his gestures have been determined beforehand; he has been obliged to arrange his physiognomy and his voice, never to depart from an affable and dignified air, to award judiciously his glances and his nods, to keep silent or to speak only of the chase, and to suppress his own thoughts if he has any. One cannot indulge in revery, meditate, or be absent-minded, when before the footlights: the part must have due attention. Besides, in a drawing-room there is only drawing-room conversation; and the master’s thoughts, instead of being directed in a profitable channel, must be scattered about as if they were the holy-water of the court.  9
  All hours of the day are thus occupied, except three or four in the morning, during which he is at the council or in his private room; it must be noted, too, that on the days after his hunts, on returning home from Rambouillet at three o’clock in the morning, he must sleep the few hours he has left to him. The ambassador Mercy, nevertheless, a man of close application, seems to think it sufficient; he at least thinks that “Louis XVI. is a man of order, losing no time in useless things”: his predecessor indeed worked much less, scarcely an hour a day. Three quarters of his time is thus given up to show. The same retinue surrounds him when he puts on his boots, when he takes them off, when he changes his clothes to mount his horse, when he returns home to dress for the evening, and when he goes to his room at night to retire. “Every evening for six years,” says a page, “either myself or one of my comrades has seen Louis XVI. get into bed in public,” with the ceremonial just described. “It was not omitted ten times to my knowledge, and then accidentally or through indisposition.” The attendance is yet more numerous when he dines and takes supper; for besides men there are women present,—duchesses seated on the folding-chairs, also others standing around the table. It is needless to state that in the evening when he plays, or gives a ball, or a concert, the crowd rushes in and overflows. When he hunts, besides the ladies on horses and in vehicles, besides officers of the hunt and of the guards, the equerry, the cloak-bearer, gun-bearer, surgeon, bone-setter, lunch-bearer, and I know not how many others, all the gentlemen who accompany him are his permanent guests. And do not imagine that this suite is a small one: the day M. de Châteaubriand is presented, there are four fresh additions; and “with the utmost punctuality” all the young men of high rank join the King’s retinue two or three times a week.  10
  Not only the eight or ten scenes which compose each of these days, but again the short intervals between the scenes, are besieged and carried. People watch for him, walk by his side, and speak with him on his way from his cabinet to the chapel, between his apartment and his carriage, between his carriage and his apartment, between his cabinet and his dining-room. And still more, his life behind the scenes belongs to the public. If he is indisposed and broth is brought to him, if he is ill and medicine is handed to him, “a servant immediately summons the ‘grande entrée.’” Verily the King resembles an oak stifled by the innumerable creepers which from top to bottom cling to its trunk.  11
  Under a régime of this stamp there is a want of air; some opening has to be found: Louis XV. availed himself of the chase and of suppers; Louis XVI. of the chase and of lock-making. And I have not mentioned the infinite detail of etiquette, the extraordinary ceremonial of the state dinner, the fifteen, twenty, and thirty beings busy around the King’s plates and glasses, the sacramental utterances of the occasion, the procession of the retinue, the arrival of “la nef,” “l’essai des plats,” all as if in a Byzantine or Chinese court. On Sundays the entire public, the public in general, is admitted; and this is called the “grand couvert,” as complex and as solemn as a high mass. Accordingly, to eat, to drink, to get up, to go to bed, to a descendant of Louis XIV., is to officiate. Frederick II., on hearing an account of this etiquette, declared that if he were the King of France his first edict would be to appoint another king to hold court in his place. In effect, if there are idlers to salute, there must be an idler to be saluted. Only one way was possible by which the monarch could have been set free; and that was to have recast and transformed the French nobles, according to the Prussian system, into a hard-working regiment of serviceable functionaries. But so long as the court remains what it is,—that is to say, a pompous parade and a drawing-room decoration,—the King himself must likewise form a showy decoration, of little use or of none at all.  12
 
 
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