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THE HEADLINE READS, “Marie Antoinette’s Letters to Her Dear Swedish Count, Now Uncensored,” by Sabrina Imbler, The New York Times, October 1, 2021. However, if you’re seeking the embarrassment of hot royalty, look elsewhere. Today and tomorrow in Parts 1 and 2, there’s a tale of science, twinged with mystery, but nary any tawdry bits.

Correspondent A (for Antoinette). Marie Antoinette has come down through history on a bad rap: It’s likely she never said “Qu’ils mongent de la broiche,” translated as “Let them eat cake.” As noted by Wikipedia, “While the phrase is commonly attributed to Marie Antoinette prior to the French Revolution, she did not originate it, and she probably never said it.”

Marie Antoinette, neé Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna, 1755–1793. Last queen of France before the French Revolution. Portrait by Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun, 1778. 

Marie Antoinette, wife of Louis XVI, was highly regarded in royal circles. She was the sister of Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II (who probably didn’t tell Mozart “Too many notes,” as depicted in the movie Amadeus.

Despite lacking the Internet, people back then managed to disseminate lots of misinformation. 

Marie Antoinette had a close friend in Hans Axel von Fersen; they exchanged lots of letters.

Correspondent C (for Count). Axel von Fersen was a Swedish count with plenty of titles to his credit: Marshal of the Realm of Sweden, a Lord of the Realm, General of Horse in the Royal Swedish Army, and aide-de-camp to the Comte de Rochambeau, commander of all French forces in the American Revolutionary War.

Hans Axel von Fersen the Younger, 1755–1810. Portrait by Carl Frederik von Breda, c. 1800.

According to Wikipedia, Count von Fersen was “a favourite at the French court, owing partly to his father’s devotion to France, but principally because of his own amiable qualities. Queen Marie Antoinette, who had first met von Fersen when they were both 18, was especially attracted by the grace and wit of ‘le beau’ von Fersen.”

Marie Antoinette’s Letters. As noted by Sabrina Imbler in The New York Times, October 1, 2021, “Between the summers of 1791 and 1792, though the queen was kept under close surveillance after a botched escape attempt, she still managed to sneak letters to the Count of Fersen. He copied the letters, which are now held in the French national archives.”

Redactions were made by an unknown censor. Image by CRC from The New York Times, October 1, 2021.

Imbler continues, “But between the time the letters were written and the time they arrived at the archives, some mysterious actor censored the letters, scrawling out words and lines with tightly looped circles of ink. The content of the censored lines—and the identity of the fastidious scribbler—eluded historians for nearly 150 years.”

Tomorrow in Part 2, science comes to the rescue. 

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2021 

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