During the reign of Marie Antoinette, more than 5,000 people lived and worked at Versailles. Given the resulting chamber pot situation, you can understand why she spent a few thousand livres a year on perfumed toiletries.
Like other royal purveyors, Marie Antoinette’s perfumer Jean-Louis Fargeon had an intimate view of the queen’s troubled tenure and the Revolution’s bloody reforms. But unlike the majority of the queen’s circle, which was prone to spending recklessly and engaging solely in frivolous pastimes, Fargeon was a competent businessman and an intellectual who would actively support the Revolution’s aims (if not its executions). Drawing on Fargeon’s papers, historian Elizabeth de Feydeau’s A Scented Palace: The Secret History of Marie Antoinette’s Perfumer is an illuminating biography of the reviled queen and a rich introduction to the era’s perfumed luxuries.
As a member of the merchant class, Fargeon’s education included the philosophy of the Enlightenment era, as well as the art and science of his skilled trade. Fargeon’s egalitarian beliefs did not, however, stifle his professional aspirations. When Marie Antoinette arrived from Austria in 1770 to marry Louis XVI, heir to France’s throne, Fargeon quickly saw that she embodied the fresh, youthful beauty he sought to capture with his simple, natural-smelling scents. He left the family business in Montpellier, Grasse’s rival city, to finish his apprenticeship in Paris.
During Fargeon’s steady ascent into the upper echelons of royal society, he bore witness to the exorbitant lifestyle enjoyed at court, as well as the routine cattiness and rigid etiquette. Fargeon would come to condemn Marie Antoinette as queen for her disengagement from her responsibilities, and for symbolizing the corruption of the monarchy. But as a patron, whom he faithfully served for 14 years, Marie Antoinette showed herself to be a kind friend and mother who shouldered a publicly difficult marriage under close scrutiny from numerous detractors. Though she remained hopelessly oblivious to the suffering of her people, Fargeon would credit her for the generosity she showed the employees at her private retreat.
Though A Scented Palace sets out to chronicle the broad sweep of events — and royal spending — during Fargeon’s lengthy service, there are ample details to bring Marie Antoinette to life as a fellow perfumista. She might look like a fruitchouli fiend, especially in pop culture depictions1, but her fondness for iris belies her reputation as a ditz. Fargeon, for his part, was always puzzled by her affinity for tuberose, and later wondered if the flower’s butcher-shop facet foretold her tragic destiny. Indices in the back plus recipe outlines throughout will prove helpful to anyone dedicated and patient enough to figure out exactly what fragrances she enjoyed.
A Scented Palace is a charming, quick read, made easier by an outline of the Revolution in the introduction. A must-read for anyone who loves the era2.
A Scented Palace: The Secret History of Marie Antoinette's Perfumer
By Elizabeth de Feydeau. 140 pp.
I. B. Tauris, 2004. $28.95
A review copy of this book was provided by the publisher.
1. After Sofia Coppola's 2006 film I've always associated Marie Antoinette with the perfume formerly known as Miss Dior Chérie. If anyone else has a scent in mind for her, please share in the comments!
2. And anyone else who's really psyched about the upcoming Les Misérables!!!