Summer Reading: The Magic of ‘The Embroidered Book’ by Kate Heartfield

article content

the embroidered book is the story of Marie Antoinette, queen of France, and her sister Charlotte, queen of Naples. But in the world of this novel, magic is real, and the sisters can make sacrifices to enchant objects, giving them supernatural qualities. In this scene, the young Hapsburg Archduchess, formerly known as Antoine, makes her way to her new life in France.

Announcement 2

article content

This is the first in a weekly summer reading series featuring the work of Ottawa-area authors.


Antoine’s golden carriage pulls up. After two weeks on the road, they have reached the limit of the Habsburg universe: the Rhine.

It’s almost May, but no warmer than when they left. The last thing she saw of her mother was a dark blur of widow’s clothing through a carriage window fogged with Antoine’s own breath, through unruly tears. She still feels guilty that she couldn’t smile and wave at the people who lined the streets to say goodbye to her; She was very nice of her to get out of it so early on such a cold morning.

Now all her tears are dry and Vienna seems far away and far away. She gave most of her things away. Books and embroidery for her brothers. Clothing for the daughters of courtiers. A self-portrait for mom. Her enchanted items wait in a chest to be mailed after her arrival at Versailles: her Pandora doll, her thimble, her book tape. The treasures of a girl, worthless to a world that does not know her sacrifices.

Announcement 3

article content

Fifty-six coaches and carriages accompany her, carrying 256 people. None of them will go with her to France.

He kisses the two cousins ​​who have come here, childhood playmates, and they all wipe away their tears. She holds her Mops dog against her heart. It pains me to leave him behind, after all. She doesn’t love him, she sacrificed that, but she knows she should, and that’s pretty much the same thing.

Antoine steps out of his gold and crystal jewelery carriage. He steps on the hardened mud and looks at the trees, all slanting rays of gloomy sun and green shadows, like a forest between worlds.

Three French women, pinch-faced, fall to their knees. She picks them up and hugs them, and their faces become even more contorted. They say their names but she immediately forgets them; Geneviève gave him a spell for earrings that will whisper a forgotten name, but Antoine can’t wear them today.

Announcement 4

article content

The women lead her to a wooden pavilion. She will enter from the Holy Roman Empire and emerge in France.

The thin walls are covered with brightly colored tapestries, showing pale faces looking at something unseen. The rugs do not heat the air that hisses through the slatted walls.

A woman pushes a cart with Antoine’s new French clothes. The great habit, the court suit, for delivery. She wears a beautiful new robe. French style already, and it was even done in France, but the ritual is what matters.

The first thing they take off is the muslin cap from her head and the satin shoes from her feet. A woman unbuttons her dress and then her vest. Someone standing behind her is untying her corset. A woman in front of her unties the petticoat of her silk dress, then her hip roll. Then her modest petticoats, and she stands in her chemise, shivering, like a woman who kneels before her, unties her garters, pulls down her silk stockings.

ad 5

article content

“You will meet your husband soon, His Royal Highness,” one of the ladies says, trying to distract her from her own nudity, perhaps. “How interesting! You will call him Monseigneur le Dauphin and he will call you Madame la Dauphine.”

Durfort has filled her in on French etiquette, and she bristles at the reminder that she didn’t need it. But these women are kind. They are trying to help.

“I hope that in private Antoine will call me,” he says with his warmest smile. “Do you think that would be okay?”

“In France, you will be Marie Antoinette,” says one. Much more suitable. Much prettier.

She hesitates, then nods. Isn’t she here to be pretty and proper? What does it matter what her name is?

Gold is not the prettiest color for her, but gold means power. Gold means we can. A shiny new dress, a huge dress, according to the traditions established as gospel by the Sun King.

Poor Joseph’s second wife never made a place for herself and was miserable throughout her marriage. Antoine will not make the same mistake. She will make her husband love her. She will make everyone love her. Antoine now has a perfect hairline and straight teeth. He hurts his jaw as he smiles.

ad 6

article content

Look at the car to see what they are going to dress her in. a camisole A golden boned tight bodice with lace trimmings. Wide saddlebags. Petticoat with hoops. Skirt and breastplate of golden cloth covered with rhinestones and silk bows. Cord committed for her arms, gold-embroidered silk stockings for her legs. Silk shoes with diamond buckle and small heels. A gold brocade train to go over the skirt.

Gold is not the prettiest color for her, but gold means power. Gold means we can. A shiny new dress, a huge dress, according to the traditions established as gospel by the Sun King.

This is all magic of some sort.

Outside the pavilion’s thin walls, there is distant thunder and the rumble of men’s voices.

The tears threaten, the tears that she has drowned in the face of so much pain on her journey, in her glass box.

ad 7

article content

A woman carries her old clothes out the German door to give to the cousins, Antoine’s last gifts in thanks for being his last friends on Habsburg soil.

Antoine fights back tears, sniffing as quickly and discreetly as he can; she doesn’t have a handkerchief. She grins wildly and raises her arms as the new shirt falls over her head, and the world, for a brief moment, turns white.


Strasbourg, just across the border, is the first city to welcome the new Dauphine. They shoot fireworks and there is a magnificent dance. It seems oddly gloomy, anyway, but perhaps people are more gloomy here. Antoinette greets everyone, the local girls and boys dressed as shepherds, the officials, the nobility, just as she has been taught. There are mountains of flowers and the whole city is on fire.

ad 8

article content

In the bishop’s palace, he comes face to face with Prince Louis de Rohan and stops breathing for a moment.

“Your Royal Highness,” he says, bowing deeply. “I welcome you to France.”

A hundred people are watching them. She tries not to look like a magister. What does one look like as a magister, or not as a magister? She tries not to sound cautious, but she is.

“The people of this country appreciate the sacrifices you have made,” the prince says lightly. “We are grateful that you left his family behind. Although of course you have the examples of your sisters ahead of you.”

She must say something.

“If I please the people of France, that is all I want.”

He smiles, not very well. “How could they not be pleased?”

“They don’t seem pleased,” he says, looking around and realizing that he has spoken too frankly. Oh good. Candor may be one of her charms. Let her think that she wants them to be friends, that she has no reason not to want to be friends. She walks over to the prince and says almost knowingly, “Everyone looks a bit sour here today.”

ad 9

article content

“Ah, well, as for that, Your Royal Highness, there is an explanation,” says Rohan. “Her Majesty of her in her wisdom gave a princess of Lorraine, your age, the honor of the first ball after that of the royal family. She broke precedence and half the nobility threatened to boycott her. They’re here, but they’re still not happy about it.”

“About when a princess dances?”

“On whether it has anything to do with our new dauphin being a daughter of Lorraine on her father’s side,” he says. And whether the fact that she is the daughter of Austria, on her mother’s side, will affect the way the King of France does business. Today, it is which princess she dances first; tomorrow, she may be whose side we take in the next disastrous Habsburg war. The great families of France take care to understand the meaning of the slightest change in etiquette. Your arrival has put the cat among the pigeons.

ad 10

article content

She feels cold. “I didn’t know anything about this. I’m sure the King only said it as an act of kindness.

He shakes his head, smiling. “Of course. Between you and me, Your Highness, these are pigeons in dire need of a visit from a cat.

She smiles back, and the line of people wanting to talk to her moves, pushing the Prince of Rohan away from her. He seems content to be pushed, waving goodbye to him. Maybe everything will be fine.



kate heartfield is a former editorial page editor and columnist for the Ottawa Citizen. He now teaches journalism at Carleton University and writes novels, short stories and plays, which have won or been shortlisted for several major awards. His most recent novel, The Embroidered Book, has hit the bestseller lists in the UK and Canada. His next novel, Assassin’s Creed: The Magus Conspiracy, will be published in August 2022.

Author Kate Heartfield.
Author Kate Heartfield. jpg

Announcement 1


Postmedia is committed to maintaining a lively but civil discussion forum and encourages all readers to share their thoughts on our articles. Comments can take up to an hour to be moderated before appearing on the site. We ask that you keep your comments relevant and respectful. We’ve enabled email notifications – you’ll now receive an email if you receive a reply to your comment, there’s an update in a comment thread you follow, or if a user you follow comments. visit our Community Principles for more information and details on how to adjust your E-mail settings.

Leave a Comment