In this weekly series, imaginary letters are written to Marie Antoinette asking her for advice on love, life and any topic at all. Send in yours at firstname.lastname@example.org to be answered next Sunday.
I’m in something of a quandary. I dislike reading and it troubles me immensely. Some of my most beloved role models, Mlle. Paris Hilton and Mlle. Britney Spears, have fabulous lives and are never too ungallant as to discuss any topic that cannot be exhausted in a Twitter post. Still, I would like to purchase an E-reading device because the covers are quite fashionable. Does this mean reading itself will become à la mode? Am I doomed to read or fall (I can barely type the words) out of fashion?
-Mlle Kindlipad de Nookvook
-My dear girl,
Allow me to allay your fears. Reading will never become fashionable. Even in my day, where the greatest French philosophers influenced how we governed our states and weaned our infants, it was more fashionable to talk around such subjects than actual study them. In your day, you’ll likely only need to carry these fancy book machines to be of the latest styles.
Of course this hardly attends to your real matter. I, as you know, read mostly books of the trashiest nature. This was not entirely my fault. Trashy books are a lot of fun. And really, in my day, seeming like a flighty airhead was the height of fashion. Even cardinals or curates leaving the seminary professed the fashionable air of ignorance. Not even Voltaire was immune. He and his smarty-pants girlfriend Emilie de Chatelet locked themselves away writing about snore-inducing things like Newton and history’s high events. To get back into society’s good graces, Voltaire wrote some “gallant verses” which Madame de Stael said “slightly repaired the ill-effect of their unusual conduct.”[i]
My brother, the Emperor of Austria, often demanded to know what benefit I received from these books and how they prepared me for rule. “Have you even asked yourself by what right you interfere in the affairs of government and the French kingdom? What studies have you ever made? What knowledge have you acquired that you dare to imagine that your advice or opinion can be of any use, particularly in affairs which require wide knowledge? …You never spend more than a quarter of an hour a month in reading or hearing anything intelligent.”[ii]
He could be a terrible bore, my brother. Unfortunately, he had a point.
I don’t know this Paris Hilton, but it seems she does not need complicated tomes to dance on tables or record herself during relations with male companions. Mlle. Britney doesn’t need to read, say, finance or administration books because, as I read, a judge decided she was unfit to run her own life and placed her in a conservatorship to protect her from herself.
We cannot read because it is the fashionable thing, but because, eventually, we shoulder greater responsibilities. I did and my trashy books did not prepare me. I did not know even how much I did not know. I had courage, but often not the confidence of that knowledge gives convictions. No great ruler ever used a trashy novel to hone their governing responsibilities.[iii] Even in my day, a true icon could not be just another pretty face. (Although, I admit, that would be a huge relief.)
“Her youth and her fondness for touching lightly on things without ever delving into anything – therein lies the cause of her faults [sic].”
–Abbé de Vermond, Marie Antoinette’s tutor
[i] Norbert Elias, Trans. Edmund Jephcott, The Court Society, (New York: Pantheon Books, 1983) 106.
[ii] André Castelot, Trans. Denise Folliot, Queen of France: A Biography of Marie Antoinette, (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1957) 103.
[iii] Jeanne-Louise-Henriette Campan, The Private Life of Marie Antoinette: A Confidant’s Account, 1910, (New York: 1500 Books, 2006) 131.