The Exchange of Princesses

Chantal Thomas

July 9, 2015 
The following is from Chantal Thomas’s The Exchange of Princesses. Thomas is a noted philosopher and writer. She has taught at a number of American universities and is the author of twenty-five works, including novels, histories, short stories, plays, and essays. Her novel Farewell, My Queen, a fictional account of Marie Antoinette’s final days in Versailles, won the Prix Femina in 2002.

As part of a deal struck between Philip V of Spain and the French regent Philip d’Orléans in hopes of putting an end to the thirteen-year War of Succession, two young princesses are married off. The deal is simple: four-year-old Mariana Victoria, the Spanish Infanta, will marry Louis XV; in exchange, Orléans offers the hand of his own twelve-year-old daughter, Mlle de Montpensier, to the heir to the Spanish throne. In January 1722, on a small island in the middle of the Bidasoa River, the two families trade princesses.

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Pheasant Island,

January 9, 1722

“When will we get there? And what about the pheasants, are they still far away? What’s the surprise they have for me?”

The cortege has passed the Pyrenees. It’s no longer snowing. For the last few leagues before they reach the stretch of the Bidasoa River that marks the borderline between Spain and France, the infanta and her retinue progress to the accompaniment of energetic dancing. She’s been given a little tambourine decorated with ribbons of every color. She beats her instrument to the rhythm of the trumpets, drums, tambourines, viols, and flutes that play a wild music of welcome for her.

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“When will we get there? And what about the pheasants?”

After all the jolting, the rain, the mud, the snow, the Pyrenees, the fits of rage, and the outbursts of contentment, the infanta’s tambourine finishes off the ladies who are her companions.

When the cortege comes to a complete stop, they call for smelling salts and groan about their physical pains. The Basques accelerate the music and the dancing. “These are devils,” the ladies murmur, signing themselves and feeling worse by the minute. The infanta runs toward the Bidasoa, holding her tambourine in her outstretched hands, brandishing it high in the air and repeating, “Bidasoa! Bidasoa!” a name she finds enchanting. The river, swollen with snowmelt, exhibits the violence of a mountain torrent. “And the pheasants?”

They’re busy preparing the great ceremony of the exchange of princesses.

By evening, Mariana Victoria has sung so much and run so much and been feted so much that she nods off without having to be told a story. In her sleep, she keeps a firm hold on her tambourine. It jingles softly from time to time.

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Not far away, on the other side of the river border, Mlle de Montpensier, having been prescribed a decoction to gargle with, throws it in the face of the chambermaid who brings it.

January 9 begins for both princesses in the darkness of early morning. As this wintry day dawns, they’re rousted from their beds and their dreams, dressed, coiffed, and made up. The infanta is cold and grumbles a little. Mlle de Montpensier is burning up with fever and suffering the tortures of a raging headache. They’re brought, each from her side of the Bidasoa River, to Pheasant Island, which lies in midstream. An elegant pavilion has been put up in the very center of the island. Two wings of equal size, one on the French side and the other on the Spanish, join a central salon decorated with wall coverings and canvases painted especially for the occasion. Exquisite pieces of furniture, masterpieces of the art of woodworking, have been made in both Saint-Jeande-Luz and Paris, or indeed borrowed from the furniture storehouse at the château of Versailles. Boat bridges provide access to this enchanted pavilion, whose sole function is to be passed through.

Large crowds have formed on both riverbanks.

A pause to freshen the princesses’ makeup —four rouged crescents, one on each cold little cheek —and the exchange ceremony, directed by the Marquis de Santa Cruz for Spain and the Prince de Rohan-Soubise for France, is about to begin. The salon is divided by a central line symbolic of the border that the two princesses must cross. It’s high noon; it’s time.

The infanta, coming from Spain, and Mlle de Montpensier, coming from France, step onto the floating bridge simultaneously. Louise Élisabeth, pallid and weak in the knees. Mariana Victoria, on the alert: watching for pheasants.

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They advance toward each other: the future queen of France, looking determined, accompanied by Mme de Montellano, not yet recovered from her terrors, and by Maria Nieves, simply adorned with a few silk flowers stuck in her hair; the future queen of Spain, looking ill, accompanied by the beaming Mme de Ventadour. Their feet sink into the plush carpet, embroidered with the arms of the Borbones of Spain and the Bourbons of France. This diverts the infanta, making her forget the question of the pheasants. And so she amicably approaches Mlle de Montpensier, who tries hard to put up a good front.

They’ve reached the borderline.

They embrace affectionately.

They’re about to cross the line; the thoroughly Spanish princess will find herself in France and the thoroughly French princess in Spain, uprooted from their origins, separated from their servants and their ladies-in-waiting, cut off from everything that could bind them again to their parents. Their past is a foreign country. The Prince de RohanSoubise and the Marquis de Santa Cruz unroll their pompous speeches. The two princesses have been instructed to smile upon each other and upon their parallel destinies: the French princess is going to marry Don Luis, heir to the throne of Spain; the Spanish princess is going to marry King Louis of France. Could a more perfect symmetry be imagined? Mlle de Montpensier bids farewell to the House of France, and the infanta is taken away from the House of Spain. The ritual progresses as flawlessly in reality as it did on paper. But at the moment when she’s separated from Maria Nieves, the infanta bursts into howls of protest, goes into spasms, loses her breath. She writhes on the floor, right on the borderline. She catches her breath a little and starts howling again.

The attendees consider, without daring to touch, this bundle of rage and despair. The infanta’s going to die. It’s within her capabilities. And so, forced to choose between the death of the infanta and a breach of protocol, the directors of the ceremony, although viscerally invested in maintaining the ritual intact, resign themselves to saving the infanta, or in other words to giving in to her.

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The infanta will keep Maria Nieves with her. She will set foot in France, she will cross the line, hand in hand with her sweet cradle-rocker and lullaby singer, the magnificent young brunette nursemaid whose flower-bedecked hair has come undone in all the agitation. What the infanta wants, she wants badly, observes Mme de Ventadour. Meanwhile, the audience can’t take their eyes off the nursemaid.

Several gold-fluted columns, standing at intervals, decorate the salon. The infanta and Maria advance a very little way into the carpet territory of France before coming to a stop before one of the columns. Fat tears are still trickling down the infanta’s face, but she’s beaming with joy.

Complete silence descends upon the salon. With a single, uniform movement, the entire company makes a deep bow. The little girl expresses her thanks as she has seen her mother do, with a benevolence that in no way diminishes the distance between the queen and her subjects, and then she introduces her indispensable companion: Maria Nieves. “Marie Neige,” the child translates for the benefit of the

French, who are melting with desire.
The ritual is reestablished, symmetry has regained its rightful place: the exchanged princesses turn toward each other with a final gesture of farewell.

Then the infanta resolutely sets out across the French half of the carpet territory, and Louise Élisabeth does the same across the Spanish half of the carpet territory.

They cross the boat bridges in opposite directions. The weather has turned fine. Providence receives thanks. The exchanged princesses gleam in the sunlight. Standing on opposite banks in the chilly air coming off the swift-flowing river, their subjects acclaim them. People stretch out their hands to touch the princesses’ garments, as if to touch holy relics.



From THE EXCHANGE OF PRINCESSES. Translated from the French by John Cullen. Used with permission Other Press. Copyright © 2015 Chantal Thomas.

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