Sunday, September 24, 2023

Marie Antoinette: French queen’s censored love letters revealed with X-rays

A letter from Marie Antoinette to Axel von Fersen, dated 4 January 1792, that has been partially redacted


During the throes of the French Revolution, Marie Antoinette expressed her love for Swedish count Axel von Fersen through words that are finally readable 230 years later.

Modern scanning technology has successfully distinguished the ill-fated French queen’s ink from that of von Fersen, who scribbled over her text in what was probably an effort to protect his close friend and probable lover, says Anne Michelin at Sorbonne University in Paris.

She and her colleagues recently investigated 15 letters exchanged between Antoinette and von Fersen from 1791 to 1792 at the request of the French National Archives. While the majority of each letter was readable, certain words or sections had been hidden under heavily penned loops and random letters – Js, Ls, and Ts mostly – intended to censor the document. Forensic units of the French National Police made an unsuccessful attempt to uncover the hidden words in the 1990s, but the technology of the time was lacking, says Michelin.

This year, Michelin’s team used X-ray fluorescence scanning to hone in on the compositions of metallic elements like copper, iron and zinc in the letters’ ink. Because the various inks used in the letters contained different ratios of these elements, the researchers were able to customise their scanning techniques to decipher original words buried under the layers of looping ink – sometimes needing to adjust their methods even for a single word, which could take several hours to scan.

Their analyses also resolved the mystery of who had censored the letters. By comparing the compositions of the ink used for scribbling out words and that used for von Forsen’s own writing, the researchers confirmed that von Fersen himself had done the redacting.

“There were probably political reasons for keeping the letters,” says Michelin, adding that they might have been intended to present a more favourable public image of the queen, who was ultimately beheaded by guillotine in 1793. “But von Fersen could have just been very attached to these letters, as well.”

Marie Antoinette wrote to von Fersen at lengths about political concerns of the time, including how the royal family was coping with the revolution, says Michelin. Her censored writing, however, featured more romantic vocabulary – terms like “beloved” and “adore” and intimate phrases like “No, not without you” and “you, whom I love and will continue to love until my…”.

Extramarital relationships were commonplace throughout the history of French royalty, so a romance between Marie Antoinette and von Fersen wouldn’t be surprising, says Michelin. Even so, the newly discovered words don’t confirm that they were lovers.

“Correspondence is always just one part of the whole story,” she says. “We write, but we don’t necessarily write what we think. And what we write can be exacerbated by dramatic situations, like a revolution. The queen was no longer free to move around, so of course that would exacerbate her emotions. You can really feel that in her writing.”

Unfortunately, the researchers’ scanning techniques still weren’t advanced enough to discriminate the buried words in seven of the letters, which remain a mystery, says Michelin.

Journal reference: Science Advances, DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abg4266

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