Have you noticed how many dramas about female friendships feature four characters? Think about it. Sex and the City. Girls. Golden Girls. It’s pretty much always four, never three, because female friendships with three people are like a chair with three legs. One leg becomes more important than the other two which have to compete for the strongest leg’s friendship, and then they come to hate and resent one another and the whole chair topples, because one of the legs calls another one a leggy slut.

That happens a lot.

This is why we have five writers on staff at TheGloss. We’re like a scuttling tarantula chair of female friendship and empowerment.

But more so.

Marie Antoinette wasn’t so clever, was she?

I mean, she was obviously unclever in a lot of ways that accompanied being a flighty Austrian princess married to a man who very probably had Asperger’s. One example often cited to prove that she wasn’t bright was that, as a child, Marie Antoinette refused to do her lessons and made her tutors finish all of them for her (which they did, out of fear of being fired). Historians often say that this lack of schooling and intellectual aptitude was a factor in her downfall. I’m inclined to think the opposite. I mean, making your tutors do all your lessons isn’t very nice, but it seems to indicate a kind of natural cunning that I’m surprised didn’t present itself later in life.

But regardless. Marie Antoinette was very nice. No, really, she was. I’m not saying that in a “I think that comment about ‘let them eat cake’ was very body-positive and woman-friendly and widely misinterpreted” way. I’m saying that because once when a postilion was injured, she waited with him for a surgeon for an hour. When a peasant was gored during a royal hunt, she sent him to the doctor in her private carriage. She was a nice lady, basically.

A nice wholly uneducated lady who could barely write and just loved cake too much.

And it was no wonder that a woman with her gentle disposition craved female friendships. She wasn’t going to be one of those ladies who is like “oh, no, all my friends are guys. Guys that I’ve slept with. And then dumped. Because I’m Batman.”  She was the opposite of one of those ladies (they prefer to be called ‘gentlewomen’). That was especially true given that Marie Antoinette had such a close relationship with her sister Maria Carolina (historians say Marie Antoinette was never lonely as she was never alone).

And so, when she came to Versailles, she quickly began looking for someone to help her adjust to her new surroundings, especially important because her transition to Versailles meant that Marie Antoinette was stripped of all traces of her Austrian upbringing. In addition to giving up her language (and she was never very good at French!), she gave up her possessions as she wasn’t allowed to carry anything to the new court (though her lapdog was ultimately returned to her).

The Princesse de Lamballe – heiress to the greatest fortune in France – was seen as the perfect person to become her BFF.

The Princesse de Lamballe was born in Turin in 1749, and married to the Prince de Lamballe at the age of 16. He had a massive fortune. He was also a spendthrift who gambled wildly. Honestly, I think this is pretty much all people did during this period. They just hung out at gambling tables. Marie Antoinette reportedly gambled for 72 hours straight leading up to her 21st birthday.

So, in addition to gambling wildly, the Prince de Lamballe kept an opera dancer as a mistress and, at one point, tried to sell off the Princesse’s diamonds to pay his debt.

Then he died. At age 20. After the Princesse had been married to him for three years. His obituary read:

Louis Alexander Joseph Stanislas de Bourbon, Prince de Lamballe, first huntsman of France, died at the Château de Louveciennes, near Versailles, the 6th of this month, at half-past eight o’clock in the morning, aged twenty years and eight months. He was born the 6th of September, 1747. He was married the 17th of January, 1767, to Marie Thérèse Louise de Carignan. We cannot too highly commend the sentiments of piety and resignation and the courage which this prince showed during his long illness, up to the last moments of his life. On account of his death the court will wear mourning for ten days.

Right. He died of venereal disease. But it was still very sad. It also meant that, at the age of 19, the Princesse de Lamballe was left the wealthiest widow in France. And she went to Versailles.

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.

The French court was notorious for adultery, lesbianism and sodomy. A surprisingly permissive attitude towards all these had been established at the French court as far back as Marguerite of Angouleme, sister of King Francis I, in the 16th century. She said that “unhappy is the lady who does not preserve the treasure which does her so much honor when well kept, and so much dishonor when she continues to keep it.”

The treasure was her chaste virtue, incidentally, not – like – a pile of kryptonite. A pile of kryptonite you should always keep. Rabelais was so charmed that, despite being a shameless misogynist, he dedicated his ribald epic Gargantua to Marguerite.

During the court of Francis I in the 16th century women began opening their bodices down below their nipples (unless they were small busted, in which case padding was inserted beneath their stays, just as if they were at Victoria’s Secret) to catch male attention at court. And they complain about female chauvinist pigs buying into male expectations now.

There was nothing surprising, then, about the fact that the Princesse de Lamballe was showing off nipples in her picture. It was actually pretty tasteful that she was only showing one.

Satirists and members of the revolution said that Marie Antoinette was sleeping with her best friends. This rumor was certainly fanned after the revolution when the Countess Lamont – a key player in the affair of the necklace scandal, who later fled abroad – claimed that she had been Marie Antoinette’s lesbian lover. It’s unlikely, but, of course, possible. Lesbian affairs between the ladies of the court weren’t uncommon. This is a notion that persists today with Farewell, My Queen which speculates upon the erotic nature of the relationship between Marie Antoinette and Yolande Polignac.

However, Antonia Fraser asserts,

What Marie Antoinette wanted at this point was an intimacy based on sentiment rather than sex, nothing in her life so far had made her look on sex as anything but duty and a rather disagreeable duty at that.

So while she could have been having lesbian affairs with her ladies in waiting – and it wouldn’t have been that weird! Breasts were being bared to everyone’s left and right! – she probably wasn’t. I mean, she most likely wasn’t with the Princesse de Lamballe who was known for being prudish, likely in part because of her late husband’s debauched nature literally killing him.

But Marie Antoinette certainly did adore her.

princesse lamballe

In their letters, they addressed one another as “my deart heart” and signed “with a heart entirely yours.”

Indeed, Marie Antoinette adored the Princesse de Lamballe so much that she re-instituted the post of Superintendent over her household. The post was an ancient one, but had been abolished for many years, as it was thought to give the Queen’s closest friend too much power. Duties entailed serving the Queen breakfast in bed each morning. The Superintendent was also given a stipend that was supposed to be used for suppers for other court favorites.

The Princesse de Lamballe hosted no suppers, as she thought the other women were beneath her. Instead, she used the stipend to finance her own amusements.

Look, this bothered everyone because she was the richest woman in France. They were also outraged by the fact that she’d simply married the Prince de Lamballe and was not, herself, a princess of the blood.

She also had a melancholy strain in her nature. While she was referred to around court as a “good angel” she was also said to be given to fits of sulking and it’s possible she was clinically depressed. She was also prone to fits of fainting – she once fainted at the sight of a bundle of violets saying that they were so beautiful.

Do you think she was faking it? People at the time thought she was faking it.

Marie Antoinette defended her by saying that the Princesse de Lamballe was simply “pure.” The Abbe de Vermond wondered how long that purity would survive in light of the Princesse de Lamballe’s stupidity.

He was right. The Princesse de Lamballe was not a bright woman. Though Marie Antoinette was, supposedly, fairly threatened by very bright women. That might have been because her mother wrote her saying “your beauty is frankly not very great, nor your talents, nor your brilliance (you know perfectly well you have neither).” Seriously, Marie Antoinette’s mother was a horrible bully. No wonder as a teenager she didn’t really like to surround herself with people brighter than herself.

Still. As she grew out her teens, Marie Antoinette quickly grew somewhat tired of the Princesse de Lamballe. If this sounds insensitive, remember that Marie Antoinette was only 16 when she met the Princesse and really, how many of your friends from sophomore year of high school are you still friends with?

This disenchantment was said to be partly because the Princesse had alienated the rest of Marie Antoinette’s ladies. (She should have had them to supper!). However, it was also said that Marie Antoinette had simply found another friend. In 1775 the Princesse de Lamballe was eclipsed by a new, more dynamic presence at court in the form of Yolande Polignac.

Polignac was a stone fox. I mean, she had violet eyes. She was said to be a dead ringer for one of Raphael’s Madonnas though the Duc de Levis said she was a “rather insipid Madonna.”

She wasn’t much brighter than the Princesse de Lamballe, but she was somewhat more sophisticated, and was known to have a lover (the domineering – if somewhat boorish – Comte de Vaudreuil).  She certainly wasn’t as prudish as Lamballe, and that attitude, combined with Marie Antoinette’s seeming fascination with her, may have contributed to ongoing rumors that they were lesbian lovers.

And quite unlike the Princesse de Lamballe, the Comtesse de Polignac was broke. She came from a very good family, as did her husband, but they were deeply in debt. When Marie Antoinette encouraged Polignac to move to Versailles, the Comtesse quite straightforwardly (surprising for the time, more surprising than nipples!) said that she couldn’t afford to. Marie Antoinette responded by paying off all of the Polignac family’s debts.  Marie Antoinette also moved her into a stunning 13 room apartment – a rare amount of space at Versailles’s notoriously crowded quarters. Later, the Comtesse de Polignac was made a duchess.

Maria Antoinette’s mother claimed that , “It is almost unexampled that in so short a time, the royal favour should have brought such overwhelming advantages to a family.”

It’s odd to think that this straightforwardness might have been part of Polignac’s appeal but remember that, while Marie Antoinette wasn’t great at managing the populous at large, she did really like doing nice things for people. I think she liked people feeling grateful towards her. Maybe it was because her mother wasn’t very nice to her. Maybe it was just who she was.

Yolande Polignac seemed only mildly enthusiastic about any of this kindness. She was said to have a very calm nature – though she was known to laugh a great deal – which Louis XVI approved of, especially in contrast to the Princesse de Lamballe. She wasn’t a fainter, basically. But that laughing may have also masked the fact that Marie Antoinette liked her much more than she liked Marie Antoinette.

However, she did give up her lover with extreme speed when Marie Antoinette said she didn’t like him.

The Princesse de Lamballe, on the other hand, was devastated. Just kept fainting dead away when Marie Antoinette kept paying so much attention to Polignac. What’s really tragic about this was that, because of her post as Superintendent of the Queen’s Household, the Princesse de Lamballe could never really break away from Marie Antoinette, and thus was forced to spend the rest of her life trying to regain her favor. Marie Antoinette’s affection – in letters and person – transferred to the Duchesse de Polignac, while the Princesse de Lamballe desperately spent a fortune at the Queen’s favorite dressmaker (Rose Bertin) so she and Marie Antoinette could dress alike.

Oh, yeah, that Superintendent position couldn’t be transferred. When you were given that position you were truly supposed to be the Queen’s best friend forever. 

It is items like this that make me amazed that people who love role playing games like Dungeons & Dragons don’t become absolutely obsessed with the French Court. They took all the things that might be normal like having friends and made up rules and rituals to accompany them. And furthmore, rules and rituals that could never be broken. I Seen one way that’s an incredibly orderly approach to life. Seen another way, that’s terrifying.

And either way, the Princesse de Lamballe spent the rest of her life pretty dolefully feeding Marie Antoinette breakfast in bed and staring at her with sad, moon-y eyes.

Marie Antoinette’s affection for both her female friends waned once she had children (though it took her husband years to consummate their marriage). Another friend claimed that later in life Marie Antoinette also said that “when a sovereign raises up favourites in her court she raises up despots against herself.” It’s true that Polignac in particular occasionally had political opinions the Queen did not agree with, but beyond that, both she and Lamballe seemed astonishingly devoted – especially when public opinion turned against the queen.

Towards the end of her life, the Duchesse de Polignac went abroad to visit her friend Georgina, Duchess of Devonshire. She enjoyed a very happy life there and came to be known as “Little Po.”

However, she was returned to the French court during the months leading up to the storming of the Bastille and the beginning of the reign of terror. She was part of the monarchist movement, and supposedly was involved in intrigues (spying, not sexing) with King Louis’ younger brother. Maybe sexing, too, I don’t know.

Meanwhile, Marie Antoinette, at the time, complained “no one comes to my card parties.”

That is perhaps because it was obvious to everyone at court that Marie Antoinette was so unpopular with the public they they wanted her dead. This goes back to what I said about Marie Antoinette not being terribly bright.

Polignac, unlike Marie Antoinette, who was executed during the reign of terror, managed to flee the court with her family immediately after the Bastille was stormed. She spent the rest of her life in Switzerland, and died there in 1793, shortly after hearing about the death of Marie Antoinette. At the time, it was said that she died of heartbreak, though today, it’s commonly thought to have been cancer.

It was a happier end than the one Lamballe experienced.

Lamballe had continued her duties of Superintendent of the Queen’s Household until the reign of terror began. She was  then imprisoned in the La Force prison before being brought before a tribunal and told to take an oathe pledging to “love liberty and equality and to swear hatred to the King and the Queen and to the monarchy.”

Of course she wouldn’t. She was thrown into the streets where she was literally disembowled by the mob. 

In a depiction of her death, she is seen fainting, so maybe that wasn’t all just fakery.

This tidy little picture really does not capture the carnage. Lamballe was supposedly raped before she was torn apart – which certainly wouldn’t have been uncommon at the time, but seems so especially awful given her aversion to the flesh.

Afterwards, the mob ripped out Lamballe’s guts and put them on one pike, and chopped off her head and put it on another. They then carried Lamballe’s head through the streets so that Marie Antoinette could see it below the window where she was imprisoned.  It’s said that they stopped at a barber along the way so Lamballe’s hair could be fashioned as prettily as it had been in life – thus making her instantly recognizable. Certainly, Marie Antoinette recognized her when she saw her outside her prison window. Marie Antoinette’s daughter wrote that it was the only time she had ever seen her mother’s finesse abandon her. As they stood there, holding Lamballe’s head, the mob screamed for Marie Antoinette to now kiss Lamblle’s lips.

This is why class war scares some people.

You know, I’m inclined to think of all of this as very high school up until this point. Namely, there was a popular girl, and she had one friend and then found a cooler friend (a cooler friend who probably wasn’t really all that into the popularity crowd thing at all, and had to give up her oddball boyfriend when the popular girl told her too), and the other friend was left trying to stay in the group. If you did not experience a part in that dynamic, you’re surely at least familiar with its existence.

But then 2/3rds of the group had their heads chopped off, so I’m disinclined to think that a modern version of this will actually translate well as a modern teen drama.

Oh. Wait.  Maybe it could.

Want to play “Are you are Polignac, a Lamballe or a Marie Antoinette?” I’m probably a Lamballe. I love violets!


Additional Reading:


Marie Antoinette: The Journey by Antonia Fraser

A World Lit Only By Fire by William Manchester

Courtesans by Susan Griffin