As you know, living in France has taught me many lessons and close to the top of the long list is the importance of learning and understanding history. I never realized how thrilling the past could be. Never did I have an interesting history class — not in high school, not in university. No teacher or professor ever made the subjects come alive.
Maybe I told you this story before, but like history I shall repeat myself. At one of the first mondaine dinner parties I attended in Paris I was seated next to and across from two men who were having a lively “argument” about the size and form of Louis XIII’s nose. The banter included supporting details from painters’ renditions of the king, one guest maintained that the painting he was referencing best represented the nose, while the other referred to his preferred portrait. The conversation was scintillating.
All I could think at the time was, I love this world; this is fascinating; give me more. I’m ashamed to say that evening was the tardy beginning of my passion for the past.
Last week I did an interview with writer and journalist Stéphane Bern who is an expert on royalty, has a brilliant television program and conducts a morning radio talk show. He was inducted into the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, the Order of Grimaldi in Monaco, and the Order of the British Empire (the OBE). He is utterly charming and every French hostess wants him at her dining table. (I’ve been a Stéphane Bern groupie for years. The only way I could figure out how to meet him was to write a book. . .)
Our conversation inevitably turned to the fine art of conversation, particularly à table. Among the subjects that often come up at the best parties is the latest books and who is reading what. Currently, the book being devoured by le tout Paris is “Le Pouvoir au Féminin: Marie-Thérèse d’Autriche, L’Imperatrice Reine” by Elsabeth Badinter. And here is what was so exciting for me: When he mentioned the book, I knew she was Marie-Antoinette’s mother, I knew the influence she had on her daughter, and most interesting (and sad at the same time) I knew about the aggressive ambitions Maria Theresa expected her 14-year-old child to accomplish on her behalf as she sent her off to the French court to marry the painfully shy Louis XVI.
I knew this moment in history because I had recently finished reading “Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to The Revolution” by Caroline Weber.
This year I resolved to stay off my computer as nighttime reading and get back to the pile of books sitting on my bed table. Surely there is something within those pages that will educate me in some way. If I hadn’t resolved to read more this year how would I have known that Maria Theresa was Marie Antoinette’s mother?
It seems to me that being part of sparkling conversation, as both listener and participant, is one of life’s greater little pleasures.