Monday, 30th October 2017

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The dazzle in the darkness

The Queen’s Embroiderer is not the easiest story to unravel, and the storytelling is like intricate needlework

By Abhijit Gupta
  • Published 2.05.19, 9:04 PM
  • Updated 2.05.19, 9:04 PM
  • 3 mins read
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Jean Magoulet provided gold, silver and silk embroideries for garments and furnishings. The design shows two gentlemen showing embroidery designs to a wealthy couple; the lady to the right is sitting in a relaxed manner, with her legs crossed at the knee. Image courtesy: Waddesdon Manor Collection

Exactly three hundred years ago, a Parisienne by the name of Louise Magoulet found herself in dire straits, on the verge of being shipped away as an undesirable to the newly founded French colony of New Orleans. But what added a twist to this all-too-familiar tale of trafficking was that it was her father, Jean Magoulet, who was asking for his daughter’s deportation, on grounds of prostitution.

From this snippet of archival evidence, Joan DeJean has woven a gorgeous tapestry of Paris of the ancien régime, at a time when the glitter of the Sun King’s court alternated with famines and market crashes. Against this backdrop, two families joust like the Montagues and the Capulets, scheming and swindling in a world maddened by money. But that was not all they did. They created couture and capital, and their lives criss-crossed each other to create a most beguiling pattern.

It is not the easiest of stories to unravel, and DeJean’s storytelling is like intricate needlework, demanding patience and attention from her readers. But the story begins with the elder Jean Magoulet, who gloried under the title of the ‘Queen’s Embroiderer’ in the late seventeenth century. His appointment was to Maria Theresa of Spain, queen of France by marriage to Louis XIV. As Versailles became one of the most extravagant of courts in modern times, Magoulet was charged with the duty of accoutering the Sun King, whose favoured outfits were those which were embroidered en plein, that is ‘so densely embroidered that not a speck of the fabric underneath could be glimpsed; he thus seemed garbed solely in gold and silver, reflecting light with every turn’.

Such descriptions of Magoulet’s craft punctuate the opening chapters of the book and the reader is left slack-jawed at the skill and expenses incurred in clothing the royal set. Royal artisans such as Magoulet also enjoyed great proximity to the court, and the advantages that came with it. Despite Magoulet’s son (also Jean) succeeding his father as royal embroiderer, they ‘seemed constitutionally incapable of living within their means’. Worse, they routinely cheated and abused their families, setting in motion a chain of events that would visit great misfortune upon their line up to the French Revolution.

The other family which features in this tragic tale are the Chevrots, who rose through Parisian society by a combination of their legal acumen and the acquisition of huge dowries through marriage. Over the course of a century, four successive Antoine Chevrots would acquire an increasing portfolio of posts and sinecures at the court, all of which were bought and sold. But the fourth Chevrot, much like the Magoulets, would also succeed in wiping out the wealth accumulated by his predecessors, through limitless greed.

Why were the two families — or more correctly their patriarchs — so grasping? It was a time when the lure of easy money seemed to become a national pathology. In 1719, just a year before the South Sea bubble burst in neighbouring England, France was afflicted by a ‘mania, a sickness, a delirious fever’ over money. Presiding over this mania was the Scottish economist, John Law, who established the first central bank of the nation. He also introduced, in 1718, the first paper money known as billet. It was an innovation enthusiastically embraced by the Parisians, who suddenly found large sums of money an easily portable commodity. Law’s stock rose with dizzying speed — from 500 to over 10,000 in just five months, making Parisians ‘sick with investment fever’.

It is against this hectic, perfervid background that DeJean relates the story of two lovers from the Magoulet and Chevrot houses. It is in the fateful year 1719 that Louis Chevrot and Louise Magoulet were trying to canvass the support of their respective families to get married. Louise became pregnant and the couple, constantly on the run, was able to marry only when they slipped across the Channel to London. There, as London crashed and burned from the South Sea meltdown, the two strangers to the city were married in a Catholic chapel. But this was only to be the beginning of an endless series of trials for the newly-weds, with their fathers — especially Louise’s — setting their faces implacably against the union.

Thanks to the extensive holdings in the National Archives in Paris, DeJean is able to construct an incredibly detailed account of the two families. Her book is a masterpiece of archival recovery, culled from cardboard boxes measuring 15 by 11 inches, and ‘tied with dingy beige ribbons’. These boxes contain notarized documents about tens and thousands of Parisians, which are complemented by green boxes full of Parisian police records. This wealth of archival material enabled DeJean to get to the bottom of crimes which were never investigated as the police of the time were too easily impressed by the title of the ‘royal embroiderer’. Thus Jean Magoulet’s relentless campaign to get his daughter accused of libertinage et vie débauchée received easy traction in the wheels of the administration, and Louise found herself sentenced to a series of horrific internments.

The story of Magoulet’s abuse of his own daughter is unfortunately still resonant, something which DeJean wryly notes at the very end of the book. It is an irony that the perpetrators of such abuse were also craftsmen of the highest order, and the dazzling beauty of their textiles seems to inhabit a world far apart from the plottings and schemings of their everyday lives. 

The Queen’s Embroiderer By Joan DeJean, Bloomsbury, Rs 799