I bought an armful of books some while ago – and they have been waiting on my counter for me to devour, absorb, love or hate. Words and pictures, not my own, were just awaiting my judgement: could anything be more exciting?
One of these I picked up because it promised pretty. It foretold whimsy, uselessness, shallowness and charm. Quite like its subject matter:
And before I had even sailed away into it, before I had cast off into its glossy waters, I was stunned by the photograph adorning its frontpiece. It was something so unexpected, so enchanting, that I believed an act of magic had finally been caught on camera.
The mirror had seemed to dissolve into a frothy atmosphere. Its solids and backings had melted – it was as if its silvery locks had been left unlatched. The sunlight seemed to shine outwardly. I felt as Alice must have just before she had taken her fateful step into a mad, chessboard landscape.
It was as if someone or something behind that mirror had given a breath of life into that lonely, gilded room.
As I went further into the book I discovered how similarly unique the other photographs were. Decorative items weren't isolated, or individually set aside for their pictures as if posing for their school portraits. It wasn't necessary for the entire desk, or wall, or house to be visible. Sometimes only a corner of a secretarire could be seen, or a partial swing of drapery. A river house was partially obscured by the fog coming off the water. A white cherub's foot dangled from behind a golden chair, its whitewashed innocence hidden. Inanimate didn't mean static.
These photos were taken with wit and imagination – yet with understanding as well. Not a single item was photographed in its entirety, yet they were able to reveal completely Queen Marie's creative frivolitites: with a shadow, a corner, a glitter of chrystal or a room struggling through a dusty stream of light.
Now for the words. As I read, I remember thinking that either English was not the authors' first language, or that they merely chose to treat that reliable, earthy language as high-handedly and capriciously as possible. Like the pictures, meaning was implied, like a sweeping brush stroke heavy with unusual colors.
The reader was challenged to think, and to imagine:
"The magical effect of these materials and their consummate craftsmanship must be completed in our imagination by the vision of voluminous, rustling taffeta, satin or gros de Tours dresses of white, blue or lilac."
"She left behind her, like Cinderella's slipper, objects that were as fantastic as they were unique."
Comparisons were surprising and evocative: a bed was "as narrow as that of a convent schoolgirl". The authors were not content with single-worded colors, they were given new depth; an experience and place in the living world: apple-green, lavender-blue, Pompeian red, nasturtium orange.
The phrasing wove a filagree of old and new language: "It was unique; perfection itself"; "She coveted a gold and silver boudoir on the theme of the iridescent pearl". An architect was "a faithful interpreter of the queen's desires".
The authors of this gleaming little diamond, it turns out, are French: Marie-France Boyer and Francois Halard. And their words and pictures were as ornate, as delightful and as flippant as the ochre boudoirs, delicate pavilions and living mirrors that Marie Antoinette desired.