Last summer at the festival in Hay-on-Wye, I was asked to name a famous person and choose a book to give them. I hate the leaden repetitiveness of these little quizzes: who would be the guests at your ideal dinner party, what book has changed your life, which fictional character do you most resemble? I had to come up with an answer, however, so I chose Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, and I chose to give her a book published in 2006, by the cultural historian Caroline Weber; it’s called Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution. It’s not that I think we’re heading for a revolution. It’s rather that I saw Kate becoming a jointed doll on which certain rags are hung. In those days she was a shop-window mannequin, with no personality of her own, entirely defined by what she wore. These days she is a mother-to-be, and draped in another set of threadbare attributions. Once she gets over being sick, the press will find that she is radiant. They will find that this young woman’s life until now was nothing, her only point and purpose being to give birth.
Marie Antoinette was a woman eaten alive by her frocks. She was transfixed by appearances, stigmatised by her fashion choices. Politics were made personal in her. Her greed for self-gratification, her half-educated dabbling in public affairs, were adduced as a reason the French were bankrupt and miserable. It was ridiculous, of course. She was one individual with limited power and influence, who focused the rays of misogyny. She was a woman who couldn’t win. If she wore fine fabrics she was said to be extravagant. If she wore simple fabrics, she was accused of plotting to ruin the Lyon silk trade. But in truth she was all body and no soul: no soul, no sense, no sensitivity. She was so wedded to her appearance that when the royal family, in disguise, made its desperate escape from Paris, dashing for the border, she not only had several trunk loads of new clothes sent on in advance, but took her hairdresser along on the trip. Despite the weight of her mountainous hairdos, she didn’t feel her head wobbling on her shoulders. When she returned from that trip, to the prison Paris would become for her, it was said that her hair had turned grey overnight.