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MARIE ANTOINETTE OF France and Swedish nobleman Axel von Fersen were 18th-century pen pals Later, many of her letters underwent redaction by an unknown hand. However, as reported by Sabrina Imbler in The New York Times, October 1, 2021: “Marie Antoinette’s Letters to Her Dear Swedish Count, Now Uncensored.” Here in Part 2, science comes to the rescue in undoing the censorship and even suggesting the culprit. 

X-ray Fluorescence Spectroscopy to the Rescue. Sabrina Imbler says, “In a paper published on Friday in the journal Science Advances, scientists have now revealed the redacted content of eight of the censored letters between Marie Antoinette and the Count of Fersen. The researchers used a technique called X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy, which can detect the chemical signatures of different inks without damaging documents.”

The technology differentiated the chemical nature of the ink used by the original author and that used by the later censoring activity. Both texts had been written with metal-gall ink, a common ink of the period made with iron sulfate. However, the technique is sensitive enough to recognize slight differences in other metallic elements such as copper and zinc. 

Researchers tried several methods to reveal the redacted content until X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy proved successful. Image by CRC from The New York Times, October 1, 2021.

With this precision, the analysis was able to reveal the original that lay beneath intricate loops of blackening out. For example, Marie Antoinette’s phrase “the letter of the 28th made my happiness” had been edited to a milder “the letter of the 28th reached me.” Redacted were words such as “beloved, tender friend, adore,” and “madly.”

Ink analysis may also have revealed that Count von Fersen himself was the culprit. 

Sorry, Gossip Hounds. To those seeking fin-de-18ème-siècle gossip, Imbler writes, “The uncensored contents of the letters show the depth of Marie Antoinette’s affections for her close friend during a time of turmoil. But in a blow to gossips, the contents do not clarify whether they were having an affair.”

A Concluding View. Dr. Catriona Seth is a professor of French literature at the University of Oxford, not involved with the research. She is quoted by Imbler: “Science is teaching us things we couldn’t have guessed.” 

Imbler adds, “But Dr. Seth says these moonstruck effusions are not proof of a love affair. She compared them to the kissy-face emoji.”

Imbler continues: “ ‘You might use it to mean “bye” to a friend, and yet someone who doesn’t know about our emoji culture will assume you must be deeply in love,’ she said.”

“Besides,” Imbler observes, “the count was a busy man.”

“He’s still having an affair with another woman at the time,” Dr. Seth added. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2021 

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