Excerpt: The Queen’s Dollmaker

In this chapter the dollmaker heroine, Claudette, has been invited to Versailles from London to be presented to Marie Antoinette. She is hoping to be reunited with Jean-Philippe her childhood sweetheart from whom she was parted during a devastating fire several years ago.

The following morning she awoke early to sunlight streaming through the tall, multi-paned windows. She arose, and, putting a robe around her, opened the windows to lean out and enjoy the sunshine. The cacophony of noise from the street assailed her. She marveled that even outside Paris the distinct sounds of the city — the rumbling of carriages traveling along rough roads, the shouting of street sellers, and the barking, braying, and wailing of animals — could still overwhelm the senses. But what matter, today she would be presented to the Queen! And, just possibly, she might meet Jean-Philippe again.

A light rap on the door brought her out of her reverie. Outside, a small chambermaid was holding a tray of food. “Madame, I ’ave brought your breakfast,” she said shyly, holding it up for inspection. The girl could not have been more than fifteen. She had dark hair cut at odd angles, as though hacked at without benefit of a mirror, and her gray eyes stood out like giant watery spheres in her pale, thin face. Claudette had the impression that a lost kitten had just wandered into her room.

“Merci. Please place it on the writing table. What is your name, little one?”

“I am called Jolie.”

“Very well, Jolie. Are you the innkeeper’s daughter?”

“No, madame, I am an orphan. My parents both died of the fever. My Uncle Bernard is the proprietor here.”

Claudette felt a pang of compassion for the girl, a child really, who had also lost her parents tragically. “How old are you?”

“I am eighteen.”

Eighteen! Only five years younger than Claudette. She was obviously not very well nourished here at the inn. “Well, Jolie, would you like to earn some extra money?”

The gray eyes managed to do the impossible and grow even wider in the kitten’s face. “Yes, madame! ’Ow may I be of assistance to you?”

“Jolie, I am Claudette Laurent, a dollmaker. Today I am to be presented to the Queen, but I have no attendant to help me dress and do my toilette. Can you help me?”

“Oh, yes, madame. The Queen, do you say? Oh my, yes, I shall make you beautiful.” Realizing her mistake, she quickly covered, “Oh, but you are already very pretty. I but meant that I will help you emphasize your every pretty feature.”

Claudette smiled. “Be at rest, Jolie. I am not offended in the least. Finish your other duties quickly and return to help me. I must leave in two hours.”

Jolie scampered out of the room, and Claudette sat down to her hearty breakfast of an omelette, rolls, cheese, and coffee. By the time she was finished, Jolie was outside the door again. Looking at her new attendant, who was now carrying a bag filled with supplies, Claudette wondered briefly if this poor lost kitten, with her disheveled hair poking out under her cap, could actually help her create a successful toilette. She was quickly assured that asking Jolie was the right thing to do. The girl practically attacked Claudette’s trunks, pulling out gowns, tsk-tsking that they had been left in a crumpled state too long, and why were they not separated by tissue paper? In response to Claudette’s inquisitive gaze, she said, “For several months, I was a maid to a Duchesse staying at her chateau near the town where I lived with my parents. When her husband died, she sold the chateau and returned to her family in Avignon, and I returned home. But I promise you that I learned enough to help Madame Claudette rival all of the beauties of the Court.”

“That is an insurmountable task, I fear, Jolie, but nevertheless let’s set out to make me at least presentable.”

After seating Claudette in the chair in front of the vanity, Jolie pulled from Claudette’s luggage a box containing perfumes and cosmetics. With a skill that surprised her subject, Jolie expertly applied rouge, eye color, and lip color. Next, she teased Claudette’s hair out and up until Claudette was certain her head would not fit through a doorway. Inserting a small pad on top of Claudette’s head, Jolie swept up her hair and then gathered it to a point around the pad, tying it together with wires. After fastening it all firmly, Jolie rummaged through her bag of supplies. Various items, obviously confiscated from the kitchen and various parts of the inn, were now being twisted together and formed almost into a landscape in her hair. She could see a large spool of thread, the top of an infant’s christening gown, a pair of glasses, and the handles from a pair of scissors, all miraculously woven together and seemingly nestled into her mountain of hair, although the items were actually pinned at various points to the pad base.

“I don’t understand, Jolie, what this hairdressing means.”

“It is the fashion of Queen Marie Antoinette’s to create a depiction in the coiffure. You are a dollmaker, therefore you have the representation of your trade here for all to see.”

“But I’m worried that when I stand up, I may fall over from this concoction on my head. You will have to be here when I return to bring my hair back to normal.”

“I will madame, I will. No, no, do not get up yet, I must finish your toilette. Here, I will use this puff to powder your hair.” She handed Claudette a mask and draped a cloth around her shoulders. “Hold this over your face, madame, while I begin.”

From behind the mask held to protect her face from the powder, Claudette heard Jolie coughing from the dust. Being fashionable must be of the utmost chore at Court, Claudette realized.

“Voila, madame, your toilette is complete.”

Claudette removed the mask and looked at herself in the mirror. She was a completely different woman. The cosmetics lent her an air of sophistication she did not think she actually possessed, and her newly powdered hair, white as snow except for the implements woven into it, well, the hair was something William would probably pay money to see.

“Well, now what shall I wear?”

“Oh, madame, I have selected your dark blue gown with the lace-ruffled sleeves. However, I would like to use the pink underskirt from this other gown with the blue. If I apply some of this rouge to your satin shoes, I can make them a close match to the underskirt. These stockings are not silk, but if you do not lift your skirt too much when curtseying, the Queen will not notice. I will remove the bow from your nightdress, and with just a few stitches apply it to the front of your gown.”

Claudette nodded her assent to all of Jolie’s suggestions, and patiently stood while her young attendant fussed over her and dressed her. Claudette was certain that she would not be able to walk, much less curtsey to the Queen, under the weight of Jolie’s handiwork.

“You are a fairy tale, madame. The Queen will be most impressed.”

“Well, first let’s see if I am even able to get to the Queen.” Claudette rose slowly. “Stay there, Jolie, and I shall practice my curtsey to you.” Attempting to keep her head erect, Claudette swept down to the ground, taking care not to expose more than her shoe when grabbing her skirts.

“Madame, I am certain that was perfect!” Jolie clapped her hands together. Jolie had never actually witnessed a presentation to the Queen and had no notion of a proper curtsey, but wanted to please Claudette.

“We can but hope so. Now for your final task, Jolie, find someone to hire me a carriage to go to the palace.”

Unedited contracted excerpt, Copyright 2008 Christine Trent.