Sunday, 10 June 2018

The Poor Hygiene of the Comtesse de Provence

When Marie Antoinette arrived at Versailles the court was pleasantly surprised by her lovely appearance; a few years later another foreign bride was set to arrive and hopes were that she, too, would be pretty on the eyes. However, once Marie Josephine of Savoy arrived the court was sorely disappointed. 

Unlike the perfectly white and rose skin tone of the Dauphine, the new Comtesse de Provence's hue was sallow. Louis XV was particularly appalled by her nose which was quite large; the king went so far as to label it a "villainous nose". Her eyebrows were large and bushy (they were giving the less than flattering comparison to "capillary hedges") and her face was described as "swarthy". She did have one redeeming quality according to Madame de Campan: her eyes but the otherwise kind-hearted companion to the Queen added that it was "the only praise that could reasonable be bestowed on her".
What was even more mortifying was that the new-comer had a little mustache which provoked quite a deal of snickering. Some remarked that it would be more welcome in a guardroom. 

Billedresultat for comtesse de provence
Marie Josephine

Her figure was not quite as elegant and slender as her Austrian-born sister-in-law. It was rather more robust but without being fat. Whereas Marie Antoinette indulged in frequent bathing Marie Josephine  was found to have a profound dislike of the activity. This was - unfortunately - coupled with an utter lack of interest in perfume and the resulting body odour can well be imagined. Her husband were not particularly interested in sharing her bed and this considered to be the reason.

However, there was a very practical reason for her initial lack of hygiene. Upon her arrival at Versailles her apartment was still under construction - including her bathroom. Thus, it was not possible for her to wash properly until the work was completed. This accounts for the initial uncleanliness but cannot explain away her later antipathy towards a bath.

It was not the first time an unattractive princess (or prince for that matter) had graced the halls of Versailles. Beauty could not be expected but the court definitely expected the new Madame to at least take care of the little beauty she had. Alas, it quickly turned out that the Comtesse had basically no sense of personal hygiene. Apparently, hints and admonitions were not quite enough. It eventually got so bad that the Savoyard ambassador was requested to write to the new bride's father. In the following correspondence the ambassador entreated his master to have a - written - word with his daughter - especially concerning her hair and teeth. As the poor ambassador observed: "Such things that are regarded elsewhere as minutiae are essential in this country".


Billedresultat for comtesse de provence


Her very upbringing could be a clue as to her inattentiveness to personal hygiene. As the ambassador rightly points out things were not quite as meticulous everywhere. The court of Savoy was known for having a rather laissez-faire attitude towards just such things. If Marie Josephine had never been accustomed to - or encouraged to - bathing it is hardly a surprise that she would not be a regular bather. 

One thing of these "minutiae" things were rouge. At the court of Savoy rouge was not considered to be in fashion; however, at Versailles it was still very much the hallmark of the aristocracy. It should be said that the Comtesse immediately applied the very circular red patches to her cheeks in an effort to blend in better. 
Sadly for her immediate entourage Marie Josephine never quite embraced the sense of hygiene so desired by the court she now inhabited.

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