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Researchers decipher words that were censored in Marie Antoinette's love letters

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Tightly looped lines in black ink - obscured handwritten letters from Marie Antoinette to a close friend, Axel Von Fersen. But was he something more? It's an 18th-century redaction, a manuscript mystery. What, oh, what could those letters reveal about the French queen and a Swedish count? If only we could peer beneath the scribble scrabble. Anne Michelin of the Sorbonne's Research Center for Conservation has peered. She's part of a team of researchers who analyzed 15 of the letters and was able to decipher words hidden in eight of them. She joins us now from Paris. Thanks so much for being with us.

ANNE MICHELIN: Thank you for inviting me.

SIMON: So were they more than friends? Were these love letters?

MICHELIN: (Laughter) The only things that interest people. They use the words like love, madly, adore, but it's too easy to confuse they are lover because we need to be really careful about the context. This is a crisis. It's a revolution. Marie Antoinette's not just expressing a feeling to Fersen, but the discourse about politics and strategy to save the royalty. So this is the interesting part of this letter, I think.

SIMON: Yeah. We should explain the count and Marie Antoinette knew each other from, I guess, the time that they were both 18. Who crossed out these expressions? Do you know, and why?

MICHELIN: With the works, we can conclude that it is Fersen himself that redacted the passages. And it is most of the times it's really intimate passages where there is some expression of their feelings. He wanted to keep the correspondence. He did not burn the correspondence. I think the political passages was too important to just burn all of the correspondence.

SIMON: But he did want to keep the personal stuff to himself.

MICHELIN: Yes. It was maybe too compromising for the queen and for himself.

SIMON: How were you able to do it?

MICHELIN: To read the text, we use techniques that is called the spectroscopy. And it's techniques that analyze the composition. And of the two inks of slightly different composition, we can use these techniques to separate the information of the two inks. So in the easy case, there is one element which is present in the writing ink which is not present in the redacting ink. But most of the time it's not so easy, and so we have to do a lot of data processing to separate the information.

SIMON: Are there other discoveries to be made?

MICHELIN: For the seven letters that remains, the same inks was used to redact and to write the letters. So it won't be possible to read with our techniques. It remains a mystery.

SIMON: Do you find Marie Antoinette an interesting character? Fourteen when she was married off into the royal family.

MICHELIN: Yeah. But it's - on the end of her life, she changed a lot. She's really concerned about the politics. She tried to do something, even if it didn't work. So, yes, even if it's not my favorite historical character, it was interesting to see this queen with a feeling and what she's thinking about the situation.

SIMON: Anne Michelin of Sorbonne University's Research Center for Conservation, thank you so much for being with us.

MICHELIN: Thank you. Bye.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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