Category Archives: Literature

Seasonal greetings from the Queen of France

Rather than racing to get their cards in the post in time for Christmas, the French more often send Cartes de vœux, literally ‘cards of wishes’. These can be written until January 31 and will typically express the writer’s hope that the recipient might enjoy health, prosperity and happiness in the year which has just started. This tradition goes back a long way as a note from tragic queen Marie Antoinette, who was guillotined in 1793 in Paris at the age of 38, demonstrates.

The brief letter is held in the library at Bergamo (Biblioteca Angelo Mai) and addressed to Giovanni Andrea Archetti (1731-1805), an Italian priest who was made a cardinal in 1784. [1]

Here is a transcription of the letter. Despite the calligraphic flourishes, it is relatively legible as the close-up shows.

Mon Cousin. Je suis si persuadée de votre attachement à ma personne, que je ne doute pas de la sincerité des vœux que vous formés pour ma satisfaction au Commencement de cette Année, les expressions dont vous les accompagnés sont pour moi un motif de plus de vous rassurer de toute l’Estime que je fais de vous. Sur ce je prie Dieu qu’il vous ait mon cousin en sa S[ain]te et digne garde.
écrit à Versailles. Le 31. Janvier 1787.
Marie Antoinette


There are few differences with the way we would write things. An accent is missing on ‘sincérité’, there is a capital on the name of the month (which is now considered incorrect in French) and, more importantly, the polite ‘vous’ forms of first group verbs, ‘former’ and ‘accompagner’ are here spelled with an ‘-és’ ending rather than the ‘ez’ we would expect. You may also have noticed the full stop after ‘31’ which was a way of transforming the cardinal number into an ordinal number (the equivalent of 31st). Whilst the practice has disappeared from modern French usage, you will find it in German. The signature makes it look as though the final ‘e’ of ‘Antoinette’ has been swallowed into the ‘tt’.

If you compare the transcription with the photograph of the whole page, you will observe different things even before you look at the meaning of the message: it is written on a very large sheet of paper of which the text only occupies about one third; there are slits down the side of the sheet; a strange seal hangs off an appended strip of paper; you can spot the handwriting of three different people. What explains these surprising aspects?

Paper was a luxury commodity in 18th-century Europe and there was a lot of re-using of scraps. Here, the choice of a sheet much larger than would be necessary for the length of the text is a clear sign of wealth. Unlike most of the inhabitants of France, the queen did not have to worry about waste or expense. In addition, a large sheet rather than a smaller one honoured the recipient: it meant he was being treated with the respect owed to an eminent person. The strange folds and the slits down the side (by the blue-gloved fingers on the first picture and along the opposite edge), as well as the paper-encrusted seal, show that this missive would have been sent with a removable lock. The sealing wax pressed between two sides of paper to ensure it would not get broken is on the strip which served as a lock. This was part of a ceremonial practice again intended to make the document seem important but without including a proper seal. Because of the lack of confidential information on the one hand, but also the important diplomatic value of a letter from the queen of France, a particular closing process was adopted. It allowed for the missive to be opened without breaking the seal—rather like when we tuck the flap in to an envelope rather than sticking it down. The French refer to a seal which does not have to be broken for the letter to be opened as a ‘cachet volant’ or ‘flying seal’. You can discover how it would have been prepared in an excellent video about a similar letter from Marie Antoinette to a different cardinal:

As you will notice if you watch the video, once the single sheet had been folded and sealed, it would have looked a bit like a modern envelope with the addressee’s name on it. No street or town address was included because it would have been entrusted to a courier and delivered by hand.

The letter was written by a secretary, almost certainly a man, who had clear bold and ornate handwriting. You can see a change of ink when you get to the signature. Marie Antoinette is the French version of the names Maria Antonia which the future queen of France had been given at her christening in Vienna in 1755. The third person to have intervened also simply signed. This was Jacques Mathieu Augeard, the ‘secrétaire des commandements de la reine’ who was an important court official and would have ensured the letters were duly sent off to the right people. Clearly, this is not a personal letter addressed by Marie Antoinette to cardinal Archetti, but a formal stock message prepared in her name. She may well not even have read the text before it was signed.

What do the contents of the letter tell us? The first thing to note is that the queen calls the cardinal ‘Mon Cousin’. They were not related. This was a conventional courtesy used between people of a certain rank. The missive is clearly an answer to a letter received from Archetti who had sent his own best wishes—it refers to ‘la sincérité des vœux que vous formez’ and ‘les expressions dont vous les accompagnez’ (modernised spelling). It ends with a pious formula hoping that God will watch over the cardinal. The date of 31 January, the last one on which such wishes could be sent, was usual for the royal family. It bears witness to the eminence of the signatory who has not initiated the correspondence but is providing a response.

We are documenting Marie Antoinette’s letters as part of a project with the Château de Versailles’ CRCV research centre. Oxford student Tess Eastgate is one of the participants thanks to her AHRC-funded Oxford-Open-Cambridge Doctoral Training Partnership. Tess is working on weighty political exchanges from the revolutionary period which are quite unlike the message presented here.

To the casual reader, it might seem disappointing to come across a letter like the one to Archetti, with so little personal content, it is in fact very useful for us to have it. It documents the formal relations between the French monarchs and the Catholic hierarchy. It suggests that there may be other similar missives addressed to different dignitaries across the world (examples of ones to cardinals Boncompagni Ludovisi and Borgia have been located) [2] so, if you are anywhere near archive holdings, take a look at what they have. Who knows, you may even come across seasonal greetings to a cardinal from the Queen of France!

Written by Catriona Seth, Marshal Foch Professor of French Literature
All Souls College, Oxford


[1] Library reference: Autografi MMB 938-945 Faldone A 2) REGINA MARIA ANTONIETTA DI FRANCIA Lettera con firma autografa da Versailles in data 31 gennaio 1787 portante il sigillo reale diretta al Cardinale Archetti (in francese). My thanks to Dottoressa Maria Elisabetta Manca and the staff at the Bibliotheca Angelo Mai.

[2] See https://villaludovisi.org/2022/11/03/new-from-1775-1787-a-revealing-exchange-of-new-years-greetings-by-louis-xvi-marie-antoinette-with-cardinal-ignazio-boncompagni-ludovisi/ (with a 1787 letter which contains many similar terms to the one published here) and https://auktionsverket.com/arkiv/fine-art/rare-books/2016-12-20/150-letter-from-marie-antoinette-to-cardinal-borgia/ [Links accessed on 11 December 2022].

International Book Club – AUTUMN MEETING

In this week’s blog post, our colleagues from The Queen’s College Translation Exchange share details of their next International Book Club meeting – a really wonderful opportunity for school students to engage with literature from around the world!

The International Book Club for Schools is a chance for sixth-form students to explore foreign language books which have been translated into English with other like-minded, literature-loving peers. We meet once a term to discuss a foreign language book in English translation. No knowledge of the original language is required to take part. The meetings take place over Microsoft Teams, and places are open to school pupils in Years 11, 12 and 13/S4-6. Newcomers are always very welcome!

Our next session will be held on Wednesday 30th November at 7pm, and we will be reading Quesadillas by Juan Pablo Villalobos, translated from Spanish by Rosalind Harvey. Set in the 1980s in Lagos de Moreno, Quesadillas offers a lively, cynical, and satirical take on Mexican politics and family life, in a world where the possible and the impossible seem to have switched places.

For anyone thinking of studying languages at university, there will also be a chance to hear more about what this would entail during a half-hour Q&A session with current Oxford University students, chaired by the Schools Liaison and Outreach Officer at the Queen’s College. These meetings are a perfect opportunity for students to explore books that aren’t on their school syllabus and to engage with some exciting literature in translation.  

Students can sign up to attend the Book Club by completing this Google Form.

To take part in the International Book Club, students will need to purchase and read a copy of the set book in advance of the session. If a student’s financial situation makes it impossible to purchase a copy of the book, drop us an email (translation.exchange@queens.ox.ac.uk) and we will do our best to work something out.

If you have any questions about the Book Club, please do also get in touch at the email address above!

Responding to Literature through the Arts II

Oxford first-year Spanish students have taken the opportunity to respond creatively through the visual arts and creative writing to some of the literary works they had studied earlier in the year, or works they plan to study next year. We saw one project last week. Here are samples from three more.

 Josh Aruliah (Spanish and Linguistics, Keble College)

“This drawing depicts my interpretation of Jorge Luis Borges’s ‘Library of Babel’, which is a hypothetical library that consists of an indefinite number of identical hexagonal galleries and contains every possible book that could be written (up to a certain length). I featured illusions, drawing inspiration from the work of Dutch artist M. C. Escher, to convey the impossible and bewildering nature of the library; the staircase and the railings are inconsistent and demonstrate the lack of a fixed direction of gravity. It is not a literal depiction of the library as I aimed instead to portray the perplexing experience of trying to visualise Borges’s fascinating creation. The short story reveals that almost all of the books contain complete gibberish and, therefore, the librarians seem to be condemned to an eternal and vain search for meaning. There is little distinction between the books and galleries in the drawing, with the upper gallery perhaps giving the impression of a reflection, which demonstrates this idea of endless futility.”

Darcie Dorkins (History and Spanish, Exeter College)

“I chose to paint Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, one of the most important figures of Spanish colonial literature, whose works were widely acclaimed during her lifetime and continue to be celebrated today. I was inspired to visually explore the conflicting notions of restriction and freedom in Sor Juana’s life which stemmed from her overlapping roles as a nun, woman, and outstanding writer, with a particular focus on one of her most widely read poems, ‘Hombres necios’. Thought to have been written in around 1680, I felt that the poem was a valuable representation of the precarious space she occupied between contemporary religious, intellectual and literary spheres in both her native Mexico and in Spain, where her works were also popular. To this end, I aimed to incorporate various symbolic elements within the piece: Sor Juana herself, as the subject of many striking portraits; the visual prominence of religion, a defining feature of her life with considerable implications for her literary career; and a book, to represent her extensive learning. I also included a mirror, as in ‘Hombres necios’ Sor Juana symbolically confronts men with the realities of their irrational and impossible standards for women, along with birds and an open cage to reflect the issues of restriction and liberation in her life.”

Darcie also translated the closing lines of Sor Juana’s Primero sueño (First Dream), a notoriously complex and linguistically rich poem:

Llegó, en efecto, el sol cerrando el giro                                    

que esculpió de oro sobre azul zafiro.

De mil multiplicados                                                            

mil veces puntos, flujos mil dorados,

líneas, digo, de luz clara, salían

de su circunferencia luminosa,

pautando al cielo la cerúlea plana;

y a la que antes funesta fue tirana                                       

de su imperio, atropadas embestían:

que sin concierto huyendo presurosa,

en sus mismos horrores tropezando

su sombra iba pisando,

y llegar al ocaso pretendía                                                  

con el sin orden ya, desbaratado

ejército de sombras, acosado

de la luz que el alcance le seguía.

Consiguió, al fin, la vista del ocaso

el fugitivo paso,                                                                   

y en su mismo despeño recobrada,

esforzando el aliento en la ruïna,

en la mitad del globo que ha dejado

el sol desamparada,

segunda vez rebelde, determina                                         

mirarse coronada,

mientras nuestro hemisferio la dorada

ilustraba del sol madeja hermosa,

que con luz judiciosa

de orden distributivo, repartiendo                                        

a las cosas visibles sus colores

iba, y restituyendo

entera a los sentidos exteriores

su operación, quedando a luz más cierta

el mundo iluminado, y yo despierta.                                 

And sure enough, the Sun arrived, sealing the orbit

it etched in gold upon the sapphire blue sky.

Born of a thousand

times thousand points, a thousand golden streams,

and lines, I say, of pure light, which radiated

from its luminous circumference,

marking the sky-blue page;

and, converging, they charged towards

that former sepulchral tyrant of their empire,

who, stumbling over her own horrors,

treading on her own shadow,

erratically with haste, trying to reach the West

with her now confused, disorderly

army of shadows, pursued

by the light following closely behind.

At last, that fugitive retreat

gained sight of the West,

and, recovering from her downfall,

steeling her crushed spirit,

rebellious for a second time,

she resolves to see herself crowned

in that half of the globe that

the Sun has left unprotected;

meanwhile, the golden tresses of the Sun

beautified our hemisphere,

and with judicious light

and ordered generosity reimbursed

all visible things with their colours,

and restored the external senses their full

operation, leaving the world illuminated

by a more certain light, and I awake.

Why Literature?

Something we get asked about a lot at open days is the amount of literature on the Oxford Modern Languages course. Prospective students usually want to know how far the course focuses on literature and what the benefits of literary study are. Literature is certainly an important part of a Modern Languages degree at Oxford, and if you study with us you will do at least some literature as part of your course. But you’ll also have the chance to explore other areas, such as film, linguistics, theory, or translation, depending on the language you are studying.

Check out this video from Dr Alice Brooke, tutor in Spanish, for a deeper insight into the role of literature in an Oxford Modern Languages degree…