“I’ll be delighted if she uses it since I have another just the same for my own use,”
~Marie Antoinette on sending a backup of her personal nécessaire to her sister in Brussels
Marie Antoinette owned the most exquisite nécessaire ever made. I’m referring to that most vital of all valises: the dressing-case or train-case if you prefer. It is such a work of beauty even TSA would step off. (That’s a site I’d love to see; anyone who’s gone through security at EWK knows exactly what I mean.)
Biographer Antoinia Frasier was lucky enough to examine the Queen’s nécessaire first hand and described it as “a kind of superior picnic basket made of beautiful, smooth walnut with a silver basin, tiny candlesticks and a teapot, which doubled as a dressing case, whose furnishings included little tortoiseshell picks as well as a mirror” (p. 323). She illustrates that “the sheer weight of such a dressing case on the knee, let alone when carried, is the remarkable feature to a modern observer, apart from its luxuriousness—but the Queen of France was not expecting to handle it herself.”
I wrote this on June 25, the anniversary of the Flight to Varennes, the captive Royal Family’s third attempt to escape Paris and cross the border safety. More accurately, today is the anniversary of the capture and return to Paris. Packing for travel is never fun, packing to clandestinely flee the country must be hell.
Every lady has fallen victim to this new inhumane FAA regulation that now requires our aptly-named néssaires to be checked with baggage . By definition, our train-cases are carry-on items. Clearly those morons who have gone so far overboard to as to label make-up as liquids are men. My mother even had her mascara confiscated in Milwaukee. (NOT a liquid! Semi-solid more accurately. Moreover, I’d like to see them get the mascara OUT of the tube.) I’d like to see TSA wrestle Marie Antoinette’s mascara away from her.
With little digression we have reached the indisputable conclusion that separating a lady from her make-up case is simply unacceptable and the fact it was overlooked by the Geneva Convention is an atrocity. Marie Antoinette was no different than the rest of us save she was a Queen and would not take non for an answer! Madame Campan‘s memoirs relate her adamancy.
“She determined also to take her traveling dressing-case. She consulted me on her idea of sending it off, under pretence of making a present of it to [her sister] the Archduchess Christina, Gouvernante of the Netherlands. I ventured to oppose this plan strongly, and observed that, amidst so many people who watched her slightest actions, there [were bound to be] a sufficient number sharp-sighted enough to discover that it was only a pretext for sending away [her néssaire] before her own departure; she persisted in her intention, and all I could arrange was that the dressing-case should not be removed from her apartment, and that Monsieur de charge d’affaires from the Court of Vienna during the absence of the Comte de Mercy, should come and ask her, at her toilet, before all her people, to order one exactly like her own for Madame the Gouvernante of the Netherlands. The Queen, therefore, commanded me before the charge d’affaires to order the article in question. This occasioned only an expense of five hundred louis, and appeared calculated to lull suspicion completely.”
While Mme. Campan paints the Queen’s “clever” ruse of requesting a duplicate as a gift in front of all the waiting-women, in the Princesse de Lamballe’s memoirs, her waiting woman describes the idea as pure folly and the reason why the Royal Family failed to escape. While the two memoirs differ in some areas, Campan was right in this case; the imprisoned family was watched with hawk-like eyes. One of the Queen’s closest waiting-women was a spy.
The Memoirs of Madame du Hausset, Lady’s Maid to Madame de Pompadour, and of an unknown English girl and the Princess Lamballe.
“The weakness of the Queen in insisting upon taking a remarkable dressing case with her, and, to get it away unobserved, ordering a facsimile to be made under the pretext of intending it as a present to her sister at Brussels, awakened the suspicion of a favourite, but traitorous female attendant, then intriguing with the aide-de-camp of LaFayette. The rest is easily conceived. The Assembly were apprised of all the preparations for the departure a week or more before it occurred…When the secretary of the Austrian Ambassador came publicly, by arrangement, to ask permission of the Queen to take the model of the dressing-case in question, the very woman to whom I have alluded was in attendance at Her Majesty’s toilet.”
Beyond the theatrics contrived in the name of makeup, our other weakness is to blame as well. “The traitress discovered that Her Majesty was on the eve of setting off by seeing her diamond packed up.” Whether or not this traitress’ tip-offs to LaFayette blew the Borbon’s shot at freedom, I cannot blame her for packing up her diamonds. (See the rest of this blog for further info on my obsession with shiny things.)
What I cannot figure out is what happened to the original nécessaire or what her intentions were for the second, as there are two still in existence. I believe she took her original with her and had the back-up made in case of disaster.
The upside to the whole fiasco is that both these beautiful examples of 18th Century dressing cases survive. One is the Louvre for all of us to lust after, one in a private collection. Originally the latter belonged to Madame Auguié, sister of Madame Campan, to whom it was given by the Queen.