WASHINGTON – “Not without you.” “My dear friend.” “You, whom I love.”
Marie Antoinette sent these expressions of love – or more? – in letters to his close friend and rumored lover Axel von Fersen. Someone later used dark ink to climb over the words, apparently to dampen the intriguing, perhaps amorous, language.
Scientists in France devised a new method of uncovering the original writing and separating the chemical composition of different inks used on historical documents. They tested their method by analyzing the private letters between the French queen and the Swedish count, which are placed in the French national archives.
It allowed them to read the original words and even identify the person who scraped them out – the verse itself.
“It’s always exciting when you discover that you can know 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 study.
The letters were exchanged between June 1791 and August 1792 – a period in which the French royal family was kept under close surveillance in Paris, after trying to flee the country. Soon the French monarchy would be abolished, and next year both Marie Antoinette and her husband, Louis XVI, would be beheaded.
“During this time, people used very flourishing language – but here it is really strong, really intimate language. We know with this text that there is a love affair, ”said Anne Michelin, a materials analyst at the Sorbonne’s Research Center for Conservation and co-author of the research, which was published Friday in the journal Science Advances.
The far-reaching letters, written on thick cotton paper, discuss political events and personal feelings. The edited sentences, e.g. “Crazy” and “beloved” do not change the overall meaning, but the tone of the relationship between sender and receiver.
Marie Antoinette and Fersen met in France when they were both 18. They kept in touch until her death.
“In 18th-century Western Europe, there is a kind of cult of the letter as a form of writing that gives you access to a person’s character like no other,” said Deidre Lynch, a historian studying the literary culture of the period at Harvard. and was not involved in the investigation.
“As a metaphorical state of undressing, they have failed their heads and shown who they really are,” she said.
But savvy writers were also aware that their letters could be read by multiple audiences. Some correspondents in 18th-century Europe used famous secret codes and so-called “invisible inks” to hide their full significance from certain eyes.
The letters exchanged between Marie Antoinette and Fersen, who never married, were changed after that fact. Certain parts of the text were curled out with dark ink. His family kept the correspondence until 1982, when the letters were purchased by the French national archives.
In eight of the 15 letters the researchers analyzed, there were sufficient differences in the chemical composition of inks – the proportion of iron, copper and other elements – for them to map each layer separately and thus restore the original text.
“It’s amazing,” said Ronald Schechter, a historian who studies Marie Antoinette’s library at William & Mary and was not involved in the study. He said the technique could also help historians decipher edited or censored “sentences and passages in diplomatic correspondence, sensitive political correspondence and other texts that have avoided historical analysis because of editorials.”
Michelin said the most surprising finding was that her team was also able to identify the person who censored the letters. It was Fersen who used the same ink to write and edit some of the letters.
His motives, however, are still a matter of speculation.
“I bet he was trying to protect her virtue,” Harvard’s Lynch said. “Throwing out her letters would be like throwing out a lock of hair. He wants two incompatible things: He wants to keep the letters, but he also wants to change them. ”
Follow Christina Larson on Twitter: @larsonchristina
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