In letters to her close friend and reputed lover Axel von Fersen, Marie Antoinette expressed her love — or more? Someone later scribbled over the sentences with dark ink, ostensibly to tone down the exuberant, possibly romantic language.
Scientists in France developed a novel approach for identifying original writing by isolating the chemical composition of various inks used on historical documents. They put their method to the test by examining confidential correspondence between the French queen and the Swedish count held in the French national archives.
They were able to read the original text and even recognize the person who scratched them out – Fersen.
“It’s always fascinating when you find out you can learn more about the past than you thought you could,” said historian Rebecca L. Spang, who studies the French Revolution at Indiana University and was not involved in the research.
The letters were written between June 1791 and August 1792, during which time the French royal family was closely monitored in Paris after attempting to flee the kingdom. The French monarchy would be deposed soon after, and Marie Antoinette and her husband, Louis XVI, would be executed the following year.
“People used a lot of flowery language at this time, but it’s extremely strong, really intimate language here.” We know there is a love relationship with this text,” said Anne Michelin, a material analyst at the Sorbonne’s Research Center for Conservation and co-author of the study published in Science Advances on Friday.
The letters, written on thick cotton paper, cover a wide range of topics, including political events and personal feelings. The censored phrases, such as “madly” and “beloved,” don’t change the overall meaning, but they do change the tone of the sender-receiver relationship.
When Marie Antoinette and Fersen were both 18, they met in France. They remained in contact till she passed away.
“There is a kind of worship of the letter as a form of writing in 18th century western Europe that allows you access to a person’s character like no other,” said Deidre Lynch, a Harvard historian who studies the period’s literary culture and was not involved in the study.
“They’ve let their hair down and shown who they truly are, like a figurative state of undress,” she remarked.
However, astute authors were aware that their letters could be seen by a variety of people. Secret codes and so-called “invisible ink” were famously used by some correspondents in 18th century Europe to keep their complete meaning hidden from prying eyes.
Marie Antoinette’s letters to Fersen, who never married, were revised after they were written. Text was written out in dark ink in some places. The letters were held by his family until 1982, when they were purchased by the French national archives.
There were enough changes in the chemical composition of the inks — the percentage of iron, copper, and other elements — in eight of the 15 letters the researchers studied that they could map out each layer separately and recreate the original text.
“This is incredible,” said Ronald Schechter, a historian at William & Mary who studied Marie Antoinette’s library but was not engaged in the research. He believes the method could enable historians in deciphering redacted or suppressed “s and passages in diplomatic correspondence, sensitive political correspondence, and other texts that have avoided historical interpretation due to redactions.”
The most astonishing discovery, according to Michelin, was that her team was able to identify the person who filtered the letters. Fersen was the one who wrote and redacted some of the letters with the same inks.
His intentions, on the other hand, remain a mystery.
Harvard’s Lynch speculated, “I bet he was trying to safeguard her virtue.” “Tossing her letters away would be like tossing a strand of her hair. He wants two seemingly contradictory things: he wants to maintain the letters while simultaneously changing them.”