Marie-Antoinette, the last queen of France, remains – 228 years after her execution – a figure of controversy and fascination. There are a lot of misconceptions about her, famous among them the utterance of “let them eat cake” which was never actually said by her. There are also mysteries connected to the queen, such as the redacted secret correspondence between the Austrian-born royal and the Swedish count Axel von Fersen.
Count von Fersen was a close friend of Marie-Antoinette and has been rumored to have been her lover. The letters date from June 1791 and August 1792, right in the middle of the French Revolution while the royal family was kept under close surveillance at the Tuileries Palace, which no longer exists. Fersen helped organize the flight to Varennes, the Royal families failed attempt at escaping France. So historians had hoped that within these letters secrets of their relation and such plans could be gathered.
But the letters had words and entire sentences censored long after they had been delivered and for 150 years, their secrets have been kept. Thanks to technical breakthroughs, the secrets in those letters have finally been revealed. The findings are reported in the journal Science Advances.
The letter contains words such as “beloved,” “tender friend,” “adore,” and “madly” showing a very close relationship between the two. It also suggests that some of the letters written by Marie-Antoinette were actually copies of the originals. By studying the copper-to-iron and zinc-to-iron ratios of inks in the original texts and ink in the redactions, the scientists could tell that von Fersen was the one who made the copies.
Even more interesting, the work revealed the identity of the censor. It was not a member of the von Fersen family, but it was Axel von Fersen himself. The researchers, led by Anne Michelin, think that this suggests that the letters had strong sentimental and/or political value for the Swedish count.
“Another interest of the study, by identifying Fersen as the censor, is to see the importance of the letters received and sent to him whether by sentimental attachment or by political strategy,” the team wrote in the paper. “He decided to keep his letters instead of destroying them but redacting some sections, indicating that he wanted to protect the honor of the queen (or maybe also his own interests). In any case, these redactions are a way to identify the passages that he considered to be private. The mystery of these redacted passages that make this correspondence special is perhaps the reason that allowed this correspondence to be spared when the rest was largely destroyed.”
The technique used was x-ray fluorescence spectroscopy and it allowed the team to microscan the letter in a non-destructive way. Combined with data processing techniques, this allowed them to reconstruct what was hidden beneath the censorship.