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Authors: Antal Szerb

The Queen's Necklace

BOOK: The Queen's Necklace
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Translated from the Hungarian by
Len Rix

The times we live in teach literary people like myself to look beyond our usual subjects and seek fresh inspiration in history.

Medieval and modern history is the history of nation states, and the first duty of the sons of those nations is to write about their own past. But there are two particular periods, the Italian Renaissance and the French Revolution, which are so universally important and seminal that they can be thought of as part of the common inheritance of the entire European race. The mood of our times has much more in common with the earthquake years in France than with the cosmic spring of Florence, and since the social class I personally belong to, the bourgeoisie, began life under the same fatal stars as the French Revolution, I am not perhaps entirely unqualified to write about it.

In fact the topic more or less chose me. It is one for which I seem to have been more or less unconsciously preparing for a great many years. More difficult was the question of genre. I could have written a scholarly study, a monograph. But the subject is a vast one, and has been so thoroughly worked over that I would have been obliged to focus on some rather minor aspect, and to deal with even the most minuscule of those would have required the sort of study I could have carried out only in those beloved haunts of my youth, the great libraries of Paris—now closed to me for the indeterminate future.

I might have written a novel, and, I must confess, that idea tempted me for some time. But I was as wary of tackling historical fiction as I would have been of setting a novel in a country I had never visited. A kind of respectful diffidence held me back from putting words they had never spoken into the mouths of once-living people, assigning feelings to them which
I could not be sure were not my own, and taking them down paths they had never trod.

And so I arrived at a genre for which at the time I had no name: I have called it a ‘real history’, because it eschews every kind of novelistic embellishment and amplification, and because it treats a well-known episode (from the time of Louis XVI) which historical scholarship has explored in minute detail. The very nature of the event was such that it can be seen as symbolic of the whole period, because, like an ideal work of drama, it contains within itself everything that is both quintessential and representative in the multi-faceted mass of events. Furthermore it can be treated as a viewpoint from which perspectives open out into every aspect of the age, like gazing out from one of those fountains in the grounds of Versailles from which avenues radiate, like a star, in all directions; and I have made every effort to explore those avenues.

The raw material of my narrative, the story of the necklace trial, is taken by and large from Frantz Funck-Brentano’s
L’affaire du collier
—The Affair of the Necklace—an admirable treatise based on an exhaustive study of a vast treasury of documents. My purpose is not to shed any radically new light on the affair—Funck-Brentano’s work puts any thought of that out of the question. Rather, as I have already said, I use it as a vantage point from which to take a bearing on the approaching Revolution. For this reason I do not confine myself very strictly to the story of the necklace; rather I attempt to weave into my discourse every “significant minor detail”, following that unsurpassably great master Hippolyte Taine, to whom, once our youthful fascination with the history of ideas is over, we all return in our maturity. I explain the facts in as much depth as seems necessary, and as far as I understand them, but I do so in the chastening consciousness that, in the final analysis, all historical events defy explanation.




Statement found among Antal Szerb’s posthumous papers, and published on the occasion of the first printing of
The Queen’s Necklace.


Nothing gives me greater pleasure than to hear that some acquaintance has, to his immense surprise, read one of my books of literary history as if it were a novel. For that is exactly what I intended—to rescue the material from the layers of schoolroom dust and give it a living reality, thus moulding people’s tastes by making them want to read not just best-sellers but also the great works of so-called ‘literary history’. The literary historian must, first and foremost, be a propagandist, an advertising executive in the service of the eternal values. But naturally there are two sides to this. People in this country expect scholarly works to be unreadable; from which they are led, quite logically, to the erroneous conclusion that anything that is readable cannot therefore be scholarly. A great many critics have reproved the relaxed, often slightly mocking, tone of my books, insisting that I cannot possibly respect literature if I talk about it in such a cheerfully familiar way. To which I can only respond with a saying of Jules Renard: “You just don’t like ironical people. They make fun of their own deepest feelings. That is like saying: ‘this father cannot love his children because he plays with them’.”

And now I have written a book on a historical subject. Naturally my critics will now complain that I fail to respect history. And properly speaking, they are right. I don’t ‘respect’ it. Why should I? The past was in no way superior to the present, and what the present is like I have no need to tell you. So I may not ‘respect’ it, but on the other hand I do love it. Feelingly, deeply, passionately. The way I love Italy. And tea. And sleep. History is my home. Or rather, perhaps, my country of refuge. So I would say to my reader: if he absolutely insists that a writer
should address him in the scholarly manner, from on high, in
ex cathedra
tones, then he should simply toss this book on the floor. My way is to speak as one human being to another, looking to find kindred spirits and good company.

The book tells the well-known story of Marie-Antoinette’s necklace, or rather, it describes events leading up the French Revolution. It differs from the usual historical biography, first, in that it is not a biography at all, and secondly, and more importantly, in that I do not content myself with narrating events. I also attempt to explain them, together with their antecedents and consequences, placing them in their intellectual and spiritual contexts. In doing so, I attempt, within the framework of my tale—a tale that is both remarkably eventful and yet true to life from beginning to end—to show French society in the age of Louis XVI, along with its literature, prevailing sensibility and notable personalities, and to bring all this together in a living tableau, rich in implication, which provides a picture of the way the French Revolution came about. In terms of form, the book is somewhat experimental, and I am naturally curious to see how it will be received by the public.

to the Great Revolution, two German jewellers lived in Paris: Charles August Boehmer—whose name the French mispronounced as “Bo-emer”—and Paul Bassenge, whose surname reveals his family’s Gallic origins. His forebears, Huguenot refugees, had lived in Leipzig until this particular Bassenge was born, in Paris, and went on to become a partner in the firm belonging to the ageing Boehmer. Boehmer was by then very well known. During the reign of Louis XV he had purchased for himself the title of
Joaillier de la Couronne et de la Reine
—Jeweller by appointment to the Crown and the Queen.

The two men, or at least Boehmer, who plays the larger role in the main events of our story, must have been rather exceptional. They were driven by a passionate dream of greatness, and in their own field they strove for fame and immortality. With quiet diligence, over long years, they acquired a collection of the finest diamonds available on the European market; but rather than mount them in accordance with current Parisian taste, or sell them off in order to make their fortunes and, as did all the rising bourgeoisie of the day, use the money to buy the sort of landed estates that would associate them with the nobility, they took a different path. They locked the diamonds away in their shop and then, when they had amassed a vast number, set about creating a masterwork. They constructed what at the time was the most expensive item of jewellery in the world. This record-breaking treasure, the fateful diamond necklace, is the subject of our tale.

Very few people—including those who feature in our narrative—ever saw the necklace, and later we shall learn why. It never hung from anyone’s neck, nor, like some sort of curse, did it bring down disaster on those who wore it. But, as with the Nibelungs’ treasure in the depths of the Rhine, the short period of time it spent on earth was enough to alter the course of destiny. Diligent research carried out recently among the firm’s papers has unearthed the original design, and it is perfectly clear what it was to be: not, we fear, very beautiful. It was to be so impossibly, so barbarically, huge, so like some ancient ‘treasure’ dug up from an age of nomadic wandering, that it was more likely to have provoked raw amazement than raptures of delight. It consisted of three chains of diamonds from which were suspended diamond medallions, the third and longest chain having several strands and ending in four diamond tassels.

The jewellers originally intended it for the Comtesse du Barry, or rather, they hoped that Louis XV would be persuaded to pay for it. But Louis died suddenly of smallpox, alone and forsaken, Du Barry went into exile at Louveciennes, and the great
sic transit
required Boehmer and Bassenge to look for a new
gloria mundi
. They offered it to the Spanish Court, but the people there took fright at the asking price.

It soon occurred to them that there was one person in the world whom fate had clearly singled out to own such a treasure—the young Queen of France, Marie-Antoinette. History tells us that the kings and queens of old were fond of jewellery, but among Marie-Antoinette’s circle this fondness amounted to an ungovernable passion. She did of course have other jewellery, as did other queens. From her home in Vienna, Marie-Antoinette had brought a vast quantity of diamonds in her trousseau; then her husband’s grandfather Louis XV showered her with diamonds and the pearls left by his late daughter-in-law, Marie-Josèphe of Saxony. Among these was a necklace of pearls the smallest of which was the size of an aveline (a ‘tubular
hazelnut’, according to Sauvageot’s dictionary: perhaps some American variety?). It had once been worn by Anne of Austria, and bequeathed by her to the Queens of France. Since Anne of Austria was the wife of Louis XIII, this could well be the very jewel that graced another famous neck, familiar to us all from Alexander Dumas the Elder’s
The Three Musketeers

The Queen could hardly accuse either Louis XV or Louis XVI of meanness, but the jewellery she had received so far was still not enough to assuage her passion. Because her mother, the wise and saintly Maria Theresa, was forever scolding her in her letters and telling her that her finest jewel was her youth, she kept her purchases secret. But Boehmer knew her inclinations well. In 1774 he had sold her a pair of earrings containing six diamonds and costing 360,000 francs—also created originally with the Comtesse du Barry in mind. Boehmer had wanted 400,000 francs, but the Queen took out two of his diamonds and replaced them with a pair of her own to reduce the price, and paid off the balance in instalments.

So Boehmer could still hope that the Queen would one day purchase his record-breaking item. But in this he was doomed to disappointment. She showed herself almost willing … it was just that she found the price too high. Even for a queen, 160,000 livres was a considerable sum, especially when things were not going well for her. With France’s most popular war ever in mind, the one fought against Britain over American independence, she declared: “We have more need of a warship than of any such necklace”.

But the jewel remained. And, like an unwanted and badly-stored body of radioactive material, it continued to emanate a silent, unseen, and fatal influence.

Here we must pause for a minute, take a breath, and give a little thought to the wider economic background to Boehmer’s enterprise. Because—this is important—creating jewellery in this way really was an enterprise. He was working not to complete a commission, as his predecessors, the great jewellers
and goldsmiths of earlier centuries, had done, and as they say Benvenuto Cellini had worked, but for ‘the market’. Boehmer created this piece not to supply an existing demand but to create one. Moreover, the market he was operating in was extremely high-risk in character, since the number of buyers he could count on were extremely few.

The other surprising element in this is his notion of achieving some sort of record—a dream of greatness. Greatness had for many centuries been the prerogative of the two branches of the First Estate, the Church and the Nobility. A knight might think of astounding the world by some unparalleled act of courage; a holy man might hope to rouse the sleeping conscience of his fellow men by some unprecedented and horrifying form of self-denial. In more recent centuries, a thinker or scholar might have aspired to some work that would dwarf all previous efforts in his field. But the bourgeois, the merchant, the mere manufacturer? Even if he did amass a fortune, he would never have done so with the intention of achieving some sort of record, since there would always be those who had even more than he did. But nor was Boehmer simply trying to create a masterpiece, like his predecessors working in the ancient guilds. He wanted to set a new standard not in terms of his craft but as a entrepreneur—to create an item of jewellery not more beautiful but simply more expensive than any other. In his own way, he was a pioneer. And he suffered the pioneer’s usual fate.

We know of course that capitalism existed long before Boehmer, but his behaviour was an early example of the peculiar Anglo-American version of it that came to the fore in the second half of the nineteenth century. In his day, it must have been rare indeed.

This also makes him an excellent illustration of the idea that the Ancien Régime, the age of Louis XV and XVI, is not divided by some vast chasm from what came after the Revolution. Tocqueville, the great political thinker of the last century, tells us that, “In 1789 the French made the most thoroughgoing
attempt of any people to ensure that their history would be divided into two distinct parts, with a deep gulf dividing what had been from what was to be.” But their more critical and objective successors could no longer take that claim at face value. Tocqueville saw, and for fifty years scholars have been very largely in agreement with him, that the Revolution did not create something new out of nothing. Rather, it was the sudden, almost miraculous ripening of everything that had been sprouting and budding for quite some time, and which would perhaps have come to fruition, only more slowly, had the Revolution never happened.

Which is what makes Boehmer’s enterprise so remarkable. It shows that the ur-capitalist mentality, with its drive for growth at any price, and its quest for unprecedented wealth, was already in place by the eighteenth century, creating upheaval and overturning whole worlds just as much then as it did later. It was not, as opponents of the Revolution insist, simply the result of institutions brought into being by that event.

There are other implications too. It is unlikely to have occurred to a jeweller to create a product of absolutely unprecedented size in a climate of national economic gloom. Such an ambition bears witness to the financial self-confidence of an entire generation, or indeed the whole country. It confirms that the Ancien Régime was witness to a strong economic upsurge. Tocqueville was the first to suggest as much, but it was only at the start of the twentieth century that two non-French scholars, the Russian Ardasev and the German Adalbert Wahl, working independently of each other, confirmed his insight using statistically-based scholarly methods.

The boom had already begun under Louis XV, was briefly halted by the Seven Years War, then gathered pace again under Louis XVI. The number of iron mines and furnaces grew. Previously France had bought the iron needed for its manufactures from England and Germany; now it produced its own, in the steelworks of Alsace, Lorraine, Nantes and above 
all Amboise. There were huge advances in the textile industry, especially in wool-weaving, while Sèvres porcelain, Gobelin tapestries, St Gobain glass, Baccarat crystal and faience ware from Rouen and Nevers supplied the world. The Machine had begun its triumphal progress. Marseilles became one of the world’s leading ports. Following the Peace Treaties of Versailles, a trade agreement was made with Britain in 1786 which proved favourable to France’s agriculture but rather less so to her commerce and manufacturing. Nonetheless, the country remained the second richest in the world after England. (In the aftermath of the Revolution, it was not until 1835 that trade returned to its level of 1787.) Perhaps we might also mention, as another sign of this accelerating heartbeat, that the stock market had grown to such proportions during the reign of Louis XVI that in 1783 Mirabeau felt obliged to deliver his thundering proclamation against it.

When Louis XVI ascended to the throne, symptoms of wealth were evident on every side. They found exactly the sort of expression you would expect from his reign. The towering coiffures worn by the ladies gave symbolic representation to the general feeling: at the coronation of Louis XVI their heads were as heavily laden as the wheat fields in the countryside.

And the deranged economic situation in the kingdom, the credit deficit that sparked off the Revolution? Well, yes. But that financial crisis involved the Royal Treasury, not the country at large, and certainly not the people. It was a matter of the King’s—that is, the State Treasury’s, expenditure exceeding its income. The position could have been helped in one of two ways: either by reducing outgoings or increasing revenues. The private tragedy of the monarchy, it could be said, was that given the situation they were in at the time they could not, for purely internal reasons, hope to achieve either. But the relative affluence or poverty of the country as a whole was not the issue.

The general upswing under Louis XVI can be observed not just in the economic arena but also in foreign politics. After the
pointless and in some ways disreputable military campaigns of his two predecessors, France, guided by the gentle King and his outstanding Foreign Minister Vergennes, now pursued a sensible policy of peace. Louis resisted the military adventures into which his restless ally Joseph II (Marie-Antoinette’s brother, whom we know as our own ‘hatted king’) tried repeatedly to draw him. He involved himself in only one war, against England, over American independence. That war was reasonably painless, with minimal loss of French blood, and long periods of fluctuating fortunes during which the English would occupy French colonies and the French would occupy English ones, until at last, in 1781, the combined American and French armies achieved their decisive victory at Yorktown. In 1782 Lafayette, the French hero of the American war, returned home to be crowned with laurel in the Opera House. On 3rd September 1783 the Versailles Peace Treaty was signed (and what a fateful second such treaty was to follow it!). The French were not much pleased by its conciliatory terms, but were nonetheless delighted that they had erased the blot inflicted on their
during the Seven Years War.

But it was above all in the world of ideas that this all-embracing upsurge could be felt. In 1780, Tocqueville tells us, the French lost the feeling that their country was in decline, and it is precisely at this moment that we see the emergence of the belief in human perfectibility, the notion that in time both man and the world could become ever better and better—in short, the idea of Progress. The signs were everywhere: flying boats soaring into the skies—Montgolfier with his hot-air balloon and Charles suspended beneath one filled with hydrogen; some, like Pilâtre de Rozier, plunging into
La Manche
and drowning; others, like Blanchard, flying over it and planting the French flag on the English side. New machines were being invented, new medicines discovered. Under Buffon’s canny eye the immense age of the planet was coming to light. Since the excavations at Pompeii the glories of the ancient world had come to enjoy
a new renaissance, and people were starting to have a true understanding both of how it felt to be alive in those days, and of the classical cult of beauty:
magnus ab integro saeculorum nascitur ordo
—A whole new order is being born out of the fullness of time.

No, in no way could it be said that this was an age of decadence, the morbidly-beautiful autumn of an old and dying regime. Historical periods cannot be likened to decades: each carries the seeds of the next. Everyone knows Talleyrand’s famous observation: “No one who has not lived under the Ancien Régime can know the full sweetness of life.” Familiarity with that sweetness was of course confined to those of privileged birth, and they were rather few in number. Even so, for everyone else the France of Louis XVI can hardly have been hell, though at the height of its raging turmoil they came close enough to it.

BOOK: The Queen's Necklace
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