The year was 1791, and while Marie Antoinette may not have had the favor of the people of France, she did have a pen pal. Her confidant, Axel von Fersen, was a Swedish count, and one of the French queen’s close friends.
Between the summers of 1791 and 1792, though the queen was kept under close surveillance after a botched escape attempt, she still managed to sneak letters to the Count of Fersen. He copied the letters, which are now held in the French national archives. But between the time the letters were written and the time they arrived at the archives, some mysterious actor censored the letters, scrawling out words and lines with tightly looped circles of ink.
The content of the censored lines — and the identity of the fastidious scribbler — eluded historians for nearly 150 years. In a paper published on Friday in the journal Science Advances, scientists have now revealed the redacted content of eight of the censored letters between Marie Antoinette and the Count of Fersen. The researchers used a technique called X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy, which can detect the chemical signatures of different inks without damaging documents.
The uncensored contents of the letters show the depth of Marie Antoinette’s affections for her close friend during a time of turmoil. But in a blow to gossips, the contents do not clarify whether they were having an affair.
Emeline Pouyet, a researcher at Sorbonne University in France who was not involved with the project, called the lifted redaction “a real technical breakthrough” that contributes to the field of conservation science.
“I think it’s absolutely fantastic,” said Catriona Seth, a professor of French literature at the University of Oxford who was not involved with the research. “Science is teaching us things we couldn’t have guessed.”
Marie Antoinette, who was executed in 1793, wrote many letters in her life.
Though the content of the queen’s later correspondence with the count is frequently political, the letters capture some of the most extreme moments of her life. “She’s under house arrest, she fears for her life, she may be killed,” Dr. Seth said. “She is writing with this awareness of her fate.”
But only a few of the letters had redacted content, Dr. Seth said. And many historians have wondered whether those censored lines could offer new insights into the French queen’s relationship with the Swedish count.
The letters stayed in the Count of Fersen’s family until 1877,…