Friday, June 20, 2014

Lavender and the last Queen of France

My recovery time has been filled with armchair gardening; lavender dreams untroubled by any of the physical work required to make the vision a reality.   The memory of fragrant purple fields in Provence prompted me to order 200 lavender plants (Hidcote and Munstead)  from the local nursery.

Provence: rural charm 

Lavender plants cultivated in Chicago, delivered to my backyard
 Edgar LeBlanc the nursery owner planting rows of lavender
While the planting and watering were in progress, I finished the last chapter of Evelyne Lever's fascinating biography "Marie Antoinette: The Last Queen of France."  

Marie Antoinette had her own garden dreams cultivated on the grounds of Versailles courtesy of Richard Mique, King Louis XVI's royal architect.  Between 1774 and 1787, the northeast corner of the estate was transformed into a pseudo-rustic hamlet set on the banks of an artificial lake.  The fantasy village included a Flemish style thatched roof farmhouse, a barn that doubled as a ballroom, a windmill, a lookout tower, a dovecote, a vineyard and two dairies.  Marie Antoinette's folly was both a playground for herself and her entourage, and a miniature working farm with field crops and herds of livestock tended by peasant employees.   While the Queen and her intimate friends enjoyed fresh strawberries and ice cream in the dairy,  farmhands toiled at the harvest, bringing in flax, corn, wheat and rye. 

Hameau de la Reine

The Queen's lavender
Marie Antoinette ordered 2000 rose bushes to beautify the grounds, along with hyacinths, tulips, irises, violets, wisteria and lavender.  Lavender tea was used as a remedy for royal headaches, and no doubt it was indispensable to a queen who suffered the wrath of the general public and the malicious gossip of fickle courtiers.  She was heavily criticized for creating a fake hamlet, which was seen not as picturesque landscaping, but as a distasteful mockery of the lower classes.

"Perhaps by spending a little more, Her Majesty would have been able to erase the look of misery worn by our real hamlets within a radius of thirty leagues and improve the dwellings that are the homes of so many decent citizens, instead of representing them in their hideous decay," wrote the Marquis de Bombelles in his journal.

Author Evelyne Lever is more sympathetic to Marie Antoinette's aims, and makes the case that the construction of Hameau de la Reine was an attempt to counter the rigidity of royal life.

"The building of a hamlet in the middle of a landscape restored by gardeners and architects to mirror nature - this was indeed an idealized setting where refined luxury could blend with innocent purity, thanks to the magic connected with the soil, exalted by the loftiness of the Garden of Eden.  Worldly joy and pastoral simplicity meet in this hamlet, a chateau and paradise where the real order of society is artfully reconciled with nature's ideal order.  This stage-set village of light opera well expressed the dream of purity which consumed the happiness of the worldly-minded.  Being reunited with nature through this transposition gave suggestive power to those individuals who were not particularly gifted for imagining things beyond the limits of the real."

Portrait of Marie Antoinette in hamlet attire: muslin dress and straw hat
 Louise Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun, 1783
All gardens, whether decorative or utilitarian are essentially flights of fancy.  A bed of flowers planted in the yard with the hope of adding a splash of colour, fragrance and texture for a brief season is nothing more than a bit of whimsy taking root.  Where else, but in the garden, can our wildest and most vivid dreams come true?

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