• Tue, Sep 11 2012

Shelved Dolls: Yolande Polignac & The Princesse de Lamballe – Lesbianism! Mean Girls! Beheadings!

I know this might be surprising because in the official portrait of the Princesse de Lamballe she is having a nip slip, but Polignac was supposed to be the slutty one. In spite of that, let’s talk about Lamballe’s nip slip and how weird female relationships and sex in general during this period were:

Relationships were all tinged by an element of sexuality, basically. Affairs at the French court were numerous. Really, really numerous. Big numbers. Size of the current US debt type numbers.This was in part due to the fact that marriages among aristocratic children were often arranged before the children were 7, so they weren’t destined to find love in their marriages.  Marie Antoinette had her marriage arranged by the time she was 13 – and her husband, Louis XVI, had enormous difficulties performing sexually.

Marie Antoinette wasn’t alone in this situation – in fact, the popularity of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s epistolary novel La Nouvelle Heloise seemed to stress the importance of powerful female friendships. When I say “powerful,” I mean “extremely dramatic and full of feeling,” not friendships where women learned to be all they could be and protested Planned Parenting funding cuts.

Suffice to say, friendships between women at the time often contained elements of romance that might be lacking in other areas of their lives.

I know, I know, you’re rolling your eyes saying “yeah, I did actually realize that arranged marriages did not lead to necessarily happy homes; I am now reluctant to be a leg in your friendship chair” but I do think it’s worth pointing out the extent to which sexual relations flourished at the French court. It’s worth pointing out because it is shocking by our modern standards.

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  • Amanda

    I love this Shelved Dolls series. I look forward to reading them every week. And I’m probably a Lamballe.

  • BeccaTheCyborg

    I’m sickly and skittish. So I’m a Lamballe.

    I’m also a D&D nerd who’s obsessed with the French court .

  • Kj

    Totally a Polignac, complete with a history of penniless family.

    Also, “scuttling tarantula chair of friendship” has to be one of the funniest things I’ve read all week.

    • Amy

      Me too! I like that she seems kind of bad-assy too.

  • S. Park

    Probably an Anotoinette, as I am completely oblivious. What a great article! I love your Shelved Dolls pieces. This four-legged chair as a female friendship dynamic is an intriguing observation.

  • Elizabeth

    Ooh, do Maria Theresa!

  • Jenniwren

    Oh probably a Marie Antoinette. I’m also totally oblivious and given the opportunity I would definitely have a little fake farm so I could pop off and pretend to be a shepherdess or something.

    Also, I’m sure you’re aware but she never said that thing about the cake. That was something Rousseau made up to make the aristocracy look even worse than they were (which was a pretty hard job) and it was actually published years before MA married and came to Versailles. And it was also Brioche, which is sort of like French toast but cut thicker, not cake, in the original translation. The more you know!

    I’m always so fascinated (and also repelled) by the descriptions of the violence of the French revolution; I think it’s so easy to come away with the feeling that the peasantry were all bloodthirsty barbarians. And I’m not disputing there were a lot of dreadful acts. However. We’ll never know for absolutely sure which incidents were real, which were exaggerated and which were made up. Successive governments and international authorities tended to play up the violence because they didn’t want that happening here, thank you very much. But also, things were so BAD back there. Seriously, people were eating rats and cats and flippin’ grass to survive (and some reports say they were eating children, though this is probably an exaggeration too) and still having to pay taxes on top of that. These people lived in barbarity so it’s no real surprise that they wouldn’t just let the aristocracy off easily. It was one big old horrible mess, and bad times make bad people.

  • len132

    I always felt sort of bad for Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. It seems that they pretty much had no idea what was going on.

  • anya

    im confused. it says he died at 20 after being married for three years. that would mean that he was married at 17. but then the article goes on to say that he got married at age 20. “He was born the 6th of September, 1747. He was married the 17th of January, 1767″…was he married at 20 or did he die at 20?

  • MEB

    scholars claim that Marie Antoinette never said “Let them eat cake” sooo really, she’s an even nicer person than we thought.

  • Naomi

    I often aspire to be a Polignac (with varying degrees of success) and her background most closely resembles mine.

    Could we maybe get an article about Jeanne de Saint-Rémy de Valois or Lady Randolph Churchill?

    • MR

      Yeah, do one on Jennie Jerome, Churchill’s mom. What I heard about her growing up, she was a very interesting lady. You know she was born and raised on Kane Street in what is now Cobble Hill in Downtown Brooklyn. Old Brooklyn families remember these things even over a hundred years later.

  • MR

    Wow nice research, I promise to read it all. Again one guy’s take, but during the film I just couldn’t get Louie and his sex problem. Marie was so hot, yeah she could feed me wine and pastry anytime.

  • Sabrina

    Ok, I have a request! Can you do a column just on Marie Antoinette? I’ve always wanted to understand her story, only getting bits and pieces here and there, but have never found all of the info I want in one place.

    Also, does anyone have any good book recommendations on Marie Antoinette that wouldn’t be like reading a history book? I just checked out a brilliantly reviewed biography on her from the library, and thought I had finally found my source, but I could only get two chapters in because it was written like a text book with lots and lots and lots and lots and lots of quotes from historians. Puke.

    • Laura

      I own a zillion Marie Antoinette books! You might want to try historical fiction before getting into the more hardcore biographies. Abundance by Sena Jeter Naslund is a good one and pretty accurate. The Secret Diary of Marie Antoinette by Carolly Erikson is fabulous to read, as it’s literally written like a diary. It’s not the most accurate, but it’s the most fun.

      My favorite MA book is Queen of Fashion by Caroline Weber. It’s a biography with emphasis on how she used her clothing as a political weapon. It also gives great insight on the court and what was going on at the time. I never really understood the Diamond Necklace Affair till I read this one.

      If the French Revolution is your bag, check out Madame Tussaud by Michelle Moran. It’s fiction but does an AMAZING job of describing the tumult and hatred of the Revolution and how things got so crazy scary and out of control. It puts everything in context.

    • Sabrina

      Yay! Thank you! I will be checking out all of those!

  • Laura

    Amazing article! I never knew too much about either of their backgrounds. Poor Lamballe :(

    You should totally do articles on the Mitford sisters. I could talk about them for DAYS. Everyone in that entire family is unique and bonkers and fascinating.