Monday, November 2, 2009

Happy Birthday, Marie Antoinette


On November 2, 1755, after suffering a toothache all day that interfered with her ability to focus on running the Austrian empire, the Hapsburg Empress Maria Teresa gave birth to her fifteenth child, Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna von Hapsburg Lothringen [the last of those names was the German version of the word " Lorraine," as the little girl's father was Francis of Lorraine.]
Some historians love to state that the date of Maria Antonia's birth was ill-starred because Portugal suffered a devastating earthquake that day, which leveled cities, towns, and villages and resulted in hundreds of deaths. But news traveled very slowly then; behind the massive walls of Vienna's Hofburg Palace, no one would hear of the disaster in Lisbon for several days.

In 1766 Maria Teresa proposed the union of Maria Antonia, then only eleven years old, with the French dauphin. Negotiations on behalf of the respective sovereigns that dragged on for years.

Her marriage negotiations were still pending when Antonia was thirteen years old. She was a pretty little blue-eyed blonde with a high forehead and a long neck; a Sèvres porcelain figurine who had yet to reach puberty. “The little one” as her mother called her was graceful and vivacious, but a spoiled, temperamental little hoyden. No only that, her mother was disgusted that the future queen of France still couldn’t read and write French and German correctly and remained clueless as to the barest rudiments of history.



It was time for a major makeover. A French dentist was brought in to straighten Antonia’s teeth with an 18th-century form of braces. A Parisian hairdresser came to Vienna to do something about the girl’s too-high forehead and uneven hairline. But just as importantly, her brain needed to be kick-started. To wit, the empress hired Abbé Vermond to be Antonia’s tutor.

It was an uphill battle for Vermond. He found his royal charge a royal pain. “She is more intelligent than has been generally supposed,” he acknowledged. But “she is rather lazy and extremely frivolous, she is hard to teach. . . . I came in the end to recognize that she would only learn so long as she was being amused.” Physically, however, Vermond noted that “she has a most graceful figure; holds herself well; and if (as may be hoped) she grows a little taller, she will have all the good qualities one could wish for in a great princess. Her character, her heart, are excellent.”
The venerable abbé neglected to mention another international concern, but perhaps it wasn’t foremost in his mind: Antonia’s bosom was still as flat as a flapjack.

Finally, in 1769 Louis XV made the official request for the archduchess Maria Antonia’s hand on behalf of his young grandson, and Easter 1770 was the proposed date for the marriage. Empress Maria Teresa was both relieved and delighted, but made sure to give the monarch a heads-up about her flighty and high-spirited daughter: “Her age craves indulgence.”

On April 17, 1770, Antonia renounced her rights to succeed her mother. Two days later, she was married by proxy in the Augustinian Church. The Dauphin of France was represented by Antonia’s brother, Archduke Ferdinand. After this ceremony, although the young archduchess had not yet met her husband, she was now formally married to him. She also had to change her name. No longer Austrian, but French, the little girl called Maria Antonia would henceforth be known as Marie Antoinette.
On April 21, Marie Antoinette made her formal farewell to her family and was driven away from Vienna in an elaborate coach owned by the king of France. She would never see her formidable mother again.
When the carriage reached the temporary pavilion on the Ile des Epis, Marie Antoinette entered one of the two antechambers that were located in Austria. There, she was to dispense with all things Austrian, from her gown to her shoes and hose to her underwear to her hair ribbon. Historians disagree as to whether Marie Antoinette was literally stripped down to her birthday suit in the presence of prying eyes, effecting the erotic and voyeuristic transition from archduchess to dauphine as her fourteen-year-old body, more childlike than womanly, was dressed in garments constructed entirely in France.
The marriage contract was signed in the central chamber of the five-room pavilion, literally neutral territory. Perhaps it was the first time she had signed her new name; perhaps she was nervous; but Marie Antoinette’s signature is the only one on the document marred by an inkblot.

Marie Antoinette then pulled herself together, swallowed her tears, ginned up her courage, and walked into the next room—into France—led in an elaborately choreographed routine by the French matchmaker, the Duc de Choiseul, who handed her over to the French delegation as the Austrian delegation slowly retreated, walking backwards into their homeland.


After grand celebrations in the streets of Strasbourg, the lavish procession conveyed Marie Antoinette to the forest of Compiègne where she would meet her bridegroom for the first time.
Her new “grandfather,” the sixty-year-old rakish King Louis XV, who was still considered the handsomest man at court was immediately captivated by the new dauphine’s charm, her looks, and her grace. But Marie Antoinette received not a word from the 5’10” dauphin—a lumbering, corpulent youth with heavy-lidded eyes who was built more like a peasant than a royal. Louis Auguste, just fifteen, was awkward, lethargic, and shy—the complete opposite of his new bride.



Just about the only thing they had in common was nearsightedness. In Marie Antoinette the defect manifested itself in a misty sort of look in her eyes; but the poor dauphin could barely see a thing without a lorgnette, which might have accounted for his clumsiness and his dread of such exhibitions of natural grace as dancing. His nasal voice and guttural laugh only added to his physical deficits.

That night, although they had been married by proxy, the two teens were conveyed to separate bedrooms. The dauphin’s diary entry for the day recorded but one sentence: the bizarrely banal Entrevue avec Madame la Dauphine—which more or less translates to “met my wife.”
A novelist would be hard pressed to invent a pair of spouses who were so opposite in every way, from looks to behavior, as Marie Antoinette and the future Louis XVI. She was vivacious where he was dull, mercurial where he was plodding and indecisive, graceful where he was awkward, frivolous where he was studious, devoted to gaiety where he was antisocial, extravagant where he was economical, and as physically lovely and lithe as he was obese and coarse looking.


Only the highest ranking nobles were permitted to attend the official wedding on May 16, 1770 in the chapel of Louis XIV at Versailles. As organ music filled the chapel Marie Antoinette and Louis Auguste listened to the paternoster beneath a silver canopy and were pronounced man and wife by the Archbishop of Rheims. Later in the day six thousand lucky spectators, chosen by a lottery of sorts, were allowed to watch the wedding feast.

After the banquet the newlyweds were led to the bridal chamber. The king himself handed his grandson his nightgown, while Marie Antoinette received her chemise from the most recently married lady of semi-royal rank, the Duchesse de Chârtres, and each of the teens retired to a separate, private closet where they changed clothes. The archbishop sprinkled the mattress on the enormous four-poster bed with holy water, and everyone retreated so that the new man and wife could consummate their royal marriage.
But they didn’t. What happened was exactly nothing, confirmed by the dauphin in his diary the following morning—Rien—although Louis would also write the same single word on July 14, 1789, the day the Bastille was stormed. Historians believe the diary was more of a hunting journal, because in it Louis would meticulously record the details of his daily haul; and rien simply indicates that he didn’t hunt that day and therefore there was nothing to report as he had killed nothing.
In May 1771, when the young dauphine and dauphiness should have joyously celebrated their first anniversary, if not a pregnancy, or even the recent birth of a royal infant—still rien. They were two glum teens: Louis was convinced that no one had ever loved him, or ever would; and
Marie Antoinette remained intensely homesick.

Louis confided to Marie Antoinette that he was not ignorant of what was involved in the state of wedlock, and he promised to live with her in marital intimacy when they visited Compiègne for the summer.

“Since we must live in intimate friendship, we must trust each other in speaking about everything,” Marie Antoinette sagely replied. She had been both puzzled and frustrated by her husband’s complete disinterest in sex, conveying this dismay in several detailed letters to her mother.
In reply, Maria Teresa cautioned her daughter not to become peevish about Louis’s utter inactivity in the boudoir. She counseled “caresses, cajoleries”—tenderness and cajoling caresses—but warned Marie Antoinette, “if you show yourself impatient, you may spoil the whole thing.”

By the royal couple’s second anniversary in 1772, the empress had grown very concerned regarding la conduite si étrange—“the very strange conduct”—of Marie’s mari. She knew that it was perfectly legitimate for a barren royal bride to be returned to her homeland for failing to provide an heir, and Austria could not afford that fate.

Evidently, Louis was doing his level best to be a good husband, making regular conjugal visits to his wife’s boudoir, but in the final analysis, he could never get beyond a certain state of arousal, unable to close the deal. The still virginal Marie Antoinette attributed this failure to her husband’s maladresse et jeunesse—his clumsiness and youth. But there was more to the story. Something was medically amiss.
It was the empress Maria Teresa whose frequent letters to the king of France regarding this intolerable situation convinced Louis XV to call in the royal physician, Monsieur Lassone. He determined that the dauphin’s romantic troubles were due to phimosis, a condition where the foreskin is so tight that it cannot be retracted from the penis, rendering copulation extremely painful. But he also counseled that the operation to remedy the problem—circumcision—might do as much harm as good, and advised against it.

Despite his wife’s encouragement, it’s widely assumed that Louis never underwent the operation, because the procedure would have required weeks of recuperation, which meant no time in the saddle, and his hunting journals do not reflect a cessation of activity.
The years stretched on. After reigning for sixty years, Louis XV died of smallpox in the spring of 1774 and the young dauphin assumed the throne of France as Louis XVI. Empress Maria Teresa knew too well that the teenage king, and more particularly her daughter, were absolutely out of their depth. “There is nothing to calm my apprehensions in the situation of the King, the ministers, or the state. She herself is so young, has never had any power of application, nor ever will have—unless with great difficulty.”

With great prescience about the future of France, the empress advised her daughter to “change nothing; let matters go on as they are, otherwise chaos and intrigue will become insurmountable, and my dear children, you will find yourselves in such a tangle that you will be unable to extricate yourselves.” With the prophetic vision of Cassandra, Maria Teresa warned the queen “You must learn to interest yourself in serious matters, for this may be most useful if the King should ask your counsel . . . Be careful to avoid misleading him into any great or unusual expenditure.”

The difficulty that most continued to plague the young monarchs was Louis’s lack of performance in the bedroom. By now, it was the talk not only of the court, the legions of servants, and the foreign ambassadors, but all of France seemed to know about the king’s impotence.
The public awareness of Louis’s private shame soon affected other aspects of his life, including his inability to make firm decisions about anything. He was too weak willed to confront Marie Antoinette regarding her excesses—her noisy frivolity, financial extravagances, and relentless pursuit of distraction and pleasure. She rebelled whenever possible at the rigid, scripted, and unspontaneous behavior at the French court, blazing her own social trails that wounded the pride of plenty of influential nobles accustomed to centuries of perquisites. It would eventually cost her dearly.

Still intacta, Marie Antoinette poured her passions into outrageously costly fashion, garish makeup, outlandish coiffures, and high-stakes gambling, hosting lavish parties and sneaking into Paris late at night to attend masked balls while her husband snored away in his bedchamber. “I am terrified of being bored,” she admitted. Her sexuality was by now fully awakened and she could only tremble, blush and stammer in the presence of courtiers who stirred her heart, aware that she could not get too close to them. She couldn’t even consider taking a lover, as all French nobles routinely did, until she produced an heir.
As the empress counseled her daughter to be patient with her husband and to seduce him with tender caresses, she had not neglected to remind Marie Antoinette that as she was to appear to be a completely submissive wife and not to meddle in politics or governmental affairs, she must also learn to dominate her husband beyond the marriage bed, never to forget that she was a political agent of Austrian interests. These mixed signals completely confused the bubble headed queen who had already demonstrated her naiveté by falling under the influence of Louis’s three maiden aunts, a fat and sour-dispositioned trio who had clear political agendas of their own, educating the young Marie Antoinette in palace intrigues, gossip, and médisance—the art of backbiting.
By now, after nearly seven years of marriage with nothing to show for it, very few people in France believed that Marie Antoinette was not satisfying her sexual urges elsewhere. Speculation took on a life of its own; stories abounded of orgies and lovers of both genders, particularly since the queen was exceptionally close to a couple of female friends, notably the Princess de Lamballes and the Duchesse de Polignac. Provocative poems and songs soon burst the locked confines of nobles’ secretaires and made their way onto the streets and into the burgeoning hotbeds of reform.

The young queen's heedless extravagance remained a prime concern to Maria Teresa as well. The concerned mother and astute politician had also written to her daughter, “I have news from Paris to the effect that you have been buying bracelets at the cost of two hundred and fifty thousand livres, with the result that you have thrown your finances into disorder and have heaped up a burden of debt . . . A queen only degrades herself by decking herself out in this preposterous way; and she degrades herself still more by unthrifty expenditure, especially in such difficult times. . . . Everyone knows that the king is very modest in his expenditure, so the whole blame will rest on your shoulders. I hope I shall not live to see the disaster that is likely to ensue.”
It was fruitless for Marie Antoinette to try to explain that everyone at court was spending extravagantly on jewels, gowns, and modish coiffures and that as queen she was expected to set the tone—and could on occasion afford to do so solely with her gambling winnings. Moreover, it was her duty as the queen to patronize the country’s factories, shops, and artists and to fill the palace’s rooms with their products, such as the famous Sèvres porcelain. Nor would it avail her to tell her mother that every one of the royal family was financially out of control, including the king’s three maiden aunts, and his younger siblings, their spouses, and households.
What Marie Antoinette could not get her pious and prudish mother to comprehend was that her levity was characteristic of her generation; in the artificial Rococo era, filled with women who were highly cultivated, delicate hothouse blooms with idle hands and coddled minds, she was the most contrived. In a coterie of spendthrifts, she was the biggest; and among a generation of coquettes, she was the most flirtatious and charming.



Where Louis could not satisfy his wife sexually, he tried to make up for it by lavishing material treasures upon her, among them Le Petit Trianon, the little summer villa on the grounds of Versailles, about a mile from the palace. There she spent some of her happiest days, picnicking on her manicured lawns, strolling through her gardens, and enjoying the delights of the Hameu—the little peasant village on the adjacent grounds with its thatched roofs and pristine farm yards—which bore about as much resemblance to an actual peasant village as the Epcot Center does to Europe.


But her lavish expenditures on furnishings and refurbishment for this little pleasure idyll would eventually come back to haunt her. As would le Petit Trianon’s exclusivity. It was the queen’s domain alone and she chose to surround herself with a choice selection of intimates and family members, insulting high ranking nobles by shutting them out. But Marie Antoinette saw no reason to host at her safe haven those who detested her, who spoke ill of her behind her back, and who after all those years still thought of her as the outsider—L’Autrichienne. Her lack of interest in bending over backwards to please either the entrenched French aristocracy or the plebian poor and bourgeoisie would also condemn her in later years.

In 1777, Marie Antoinette was twenty-two years old and still a virgin. Among the friends and female relatives of her own age, she was the only one without a child. Immensely frustrated sexually, she was running out of self-control. To prevent disaster (such as her having an extramarital dalliance), Marie Antoinette’s brother Joseph, the Emperor of Austria, decided to pay her a visit.

Like their mother, Joseph proved to be a prophet of sorts when it came to predicting Marie Antoinette’s future, able to read the writing on a wall that the French queen refused to recognize even existed. “In very truth, I tremble for your happiness, seeing that in the long run things cannot go on like this . . . the revolution will be a cruel one, and perhaps of your own making.”


After three weeks at Versailles, Joseph began to understand the gravity of the situation and what seemed to be keeping Marie Antoinette and Louis apart, physically and emotionally. In a letter to his younger brother Leopold, Joseph violated the king’s confidence and shared the lurid details of Louis’s sexual problems. “In his conjugal bed he has normal erections; he introduces his member, stays there without moving for about two minutes, then withdraws without ejaculating, and still erect, bids good night. This is incomprehensible because he sometimes has nocturnal emissions, but while inside and in the process, never; and he is content, and says quite frankly that he was doing it purely from a sense of duty and that he did not like it. Oh, if I could only have been present once, I would have taken care of him; he should be whipped so that he would discharge sperm like a donkey. My sister moreover, has very little temperament [hot blood] and together they are two complete fumblers.”
The widowed emperor asked his baby sister just as bluntly, “Do you really seek opportunities [to spend quality time with the king]? Do you honestly respond to the affection he manifests for you? . . . Do you not show yourself bored, or even repelled by him? If so, how can you expect that a man of cold temperament who has never experienced carnal pleasures should make advances to you, become aroused, love you and successfully complete his great act, or at least taste the possible pleasures with you? This point requires all your attention, and whatever you do to reach this great goal will be your strongest link to happiness in life. Never get discouraged and always give him the hope that he will still be able to have children; don’t ever let him give up or despair of it. ”

The Emperor Joseph’s multiple admonitions evidently got results. On August 19, 1777 (seven-and-a-quarter years after her wedding), she wrote to Vienna, “As regards my virgin status, it is unfortunately still the same. However, I do not despair, for things are certainly going a little better. The King is more forthcoming, and in his case this means a great deal.”


And finally, in a subsequent letter dated August 30, Marie Antoinette trumpeted the good news: “I have attained the happiness which is of the utmost importance to my whole life. More than a week ago my marriage was thoroughly consummated. Yesterday the attempt was repeated, with results even more successful than the first time . . . I don’t think I am with child yet, but at any rate I have hopes of becoming so from moment to moment.”

This happy event soon became the topic of international buzz, as the various ambassadors reported the news of the queen’s defloration to their respective sovereigns. According to the Spanish envoy to the French court, “His Majesty has become more cheerful than he used to be, and no one can fail to note that the Queen has blue circles around her eyes far more often than of yore.”
Louis finally had something to smile about. He confided to one of his maiden aunts, “I find the pleasure very great, and I regret that so long a time has passed without my being able to enjoy it.” Unfortunately, ten days later, the new toy was already cast aside. Marie Antoinette lamented “the King is not fond of sleeping in the same bed with me. I do my best to ensure that there shall not be a total separation between us in this matter. Sometimes he comes to spend the night with me, and I think it would be a mistake for me to urge him to do so more often.”

But even too-little-too-late turned out to be just enough. Marie Antoinette’s pregnancy was officially announced to the court on August 4, 1778. In May, she had been fairly sure of it, but wanted to wait a while to be certain she wasn’t merely suffering the missed periods of her customarily irregular cycle.

The queen derived the greatest joy from announcing the blessed event to her husband. Entering his presence with a faux glum and cranky countenance, she declared “I have come, Sire, to complain of one of your subjects who has been so audacious as to kick me in the belly.”

On December 18, 1778, Marie Antoinette went into labor. Seven hours later, she had a daughter. It was the custom in France for the queen to give birth in the presence of several royal witnesses, with the room shut tight so that no harmful drafts could penetrate. Marie Antoinette lost consciousness immediately after the delivery, perhaps due to the claustrophobic atmosphere, combined with the pain of childbirth and the stress of endeavoring to suppress her cries and act queenly in the most un-regal of circumstances. She was bled, and when she recovered, she was told she had not a dauphin, but a daughter. The queen named the baby Marie-Thérèse, after her mother and throughout her life, the girl was formally known as “Madame Royale.”


Despite the honor of her grandchild’s name, Maria Teresa was still unsatisfied; Marie Antoinette had not brought a son into the world and given Louis an heir.

After suffering a miscarriage in 1780, on October 22, 1781, Marie Antoinette finally gave birth to a boy, Louis-Joseph. The king himself broke the news to her, announcing proudly, “Madame, you have fulfilled our wishes and those of France, you are the mother of a dauphin.” In a letter to her friend Princess Charlotte of Hesse-Darmstadt, Marie Antoinette described the birth as “The happiest and most important event to me.” Louis wept profusely during his son’s baptism.

After another miscarriage in 1783, the queen bore a second son, Louis-Charles, on March 27, 1785. “He has in strength and health everything that his brother is lacking. He is a real peasant’s child, big, fresh-faced, and fat,” Marie Antoinette wrote to her brother. And the following year, on July 9, several weeks’ premature, she bore another daughter, Sophie Hélène Béatrix, the child of an unwanted pregnancy. Sophie died on June 14, 1787, before she reached her first birthday.

Motherhood had been metamorphosing Marie Antoinette into a more grounded and responsible woman. Her pregnancies had necessitated several months’ absence from her usual round of gay amusements and she discovered it was more fun to play with her children than it had been to play faro deep into the wee hours of the morning.



But her reputation as a frivolous, extravagant bubblehead and the marital issues in the royal bed had already demonized her in the eyes of the people at all levels of society. Harvests had been bad, and bread was scarce. The royal family spent lavishly on their own pleasures instead, while the treasury continued to be depleted, but the criticism was leveled squarely at the outsider—the Austrian woman.
The royals and their favorites had indeed been profligate spendthrifts, but France’s foreign policy during the reign of Louis XV had also eaten up an enormous chunk of cash. The country had never quite recouped its expenditures on the costly Seven Years War (1756-1763) fought on American soil. Then Louis XVI had been persuaded by the leaders of the American colonists to aid them financially and materially in their revolution against France’s age-old enemy, England. The French stock market had dropped precipitously as well, further tanking the economy.

Yet even as Louis was funding the American Revolutionary War, he and his wife were utterly unaware of the changing mood in their own kingdom. A burgeoning middle class, inspired by the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, averred that they, too, had rights. From the earliest voices of reform within the nobility to the Parisian fishwives, the French subjects knew their sovereign was an indecisive man and blamed all failed policies and bad decisions on the malevolent influence of his foreign-born wife. Although she succeeded in urging Louis to adopt her pro-Austrian ideas as often as she failed to persuade him, Marie Antoinette had in fact encouraged Louis to appoint certain ministers, her own strings being pulled from Vienna.


The Swedish count and military man Axel Fersen, who quite probably became Marie Antoinette’s lover, observed that “the queen is universally detested. Every evil is attributed to her and she is given no credit for anything good,” including her generosity to the poor and her philanthropy. “The King is weak and suspicious; the only person he trusts if the Queen and they say she does everything.”

To make sure that the monarchs knew what the people thought of them, unseen hands managed to slip these mean-spirited pornographic cartoons, leaflets, and pamphlets such as the popular “List of all the Persons with Whom the Queen Has Had Debauched Relations” into the folds of their dinner napkins, among a sheaf of Louis’s state documents, or affixed to the inside of their box at the opera. Louis was portrayed as a hapless cuckold, an impotent lout who was the utter puppet of his wife, the monstrously dissipated Austrian whore. By the time they were brought before the Revolutionary tribunals they were already as good as executed, the “proof” of their “guilt,” of Marie Antoinette’s obscene excesses and heinous crimes (adultery, lesbianism, nymphomania) having previously been supplied not by a hungry, angry, and illiterate mob, but by the bejeweled hands of a disgruntled aristocracy.
In the twelve years of Louis XVI's reign 1,250 million livres (nearly $10.5 million today) had been borrowed. Who had spent it? And on what? Why was the country nearly bankrupt when the king was known to have modest tastes? There could only be one answer: his foreign-born spendthrift wife. The people new-baptized Marie Antoinette “Madame Deficit.” She finally began to understand the mood of her subjects and began to economize. But it was too little too late.

In early June, 1789, the representatives from the three Estates General met to demand more self-determination in government, and to limit the powers of the sovereign. The first estate was the Clergy; the second, the Nobility; and the third estate was comprised of the ninety-six percent of the population that was neither noble nor clerical, such as the peasants and bourgeoisie. But at the time, the monarchs were faced with a sorrow of a more domestic nature. The frail, seven-year-old dauphin, who weighed barely more than a toddler, was dying of tuberculosis of the spine. On June 4, he expired and the king and queen took the luxury of grieving for an entire day in seclusion. But any extended mourning was cut short when on June 17, the representatives from the third estate declared themselves to be a National Assembly.
The dichotomy between the national mood versus the royal one was not lost on Marie Antoinette. While the French were in “a delirium” of anti-monarchical, power-to-the-people fervor, she could not control her tears. “At the death of my poor little Dauphin, the nation hardly seemed to notice,” she wrote to her brother Leopold in Austria.


On July 14, 1789, falsely believing that the king was sending a foreign army to crush them, a mob of Parisians stormed the Bastille in search of weapons with which to defend themselves. A horridly bloody scene ensued during which the prison’s governor was beheaded with a knife. But in Louis’s diary, (which as previously indicated was primary a hunting journal, with scant references to other quotidian events) he wrote rien—which some historians have taken to mean that as far as he was cynically concerned nothing of moment happened that day. The king did however believe that the fall of the Bastille was merely another petty insurrection and he had to be corrected by the Duc de La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt who brought the ugly news to Versailles that it was not simply a revolt. “No, Sire. It is a revolution.”

Husband and wife did not see eye to eye when it came to dealing with the rebellious mob. Louis had read all about England’s Charles I and thought the way to avoid that monarch’s fate was to negotiate with the revolutionaries, not to do as Charles had done and endeavor to mercilessly crush them, along with any attempts at governmental reform.

But Marie Antoinette insisted mon métier est d’être royaliste—“royalty is my career,” and harbored nothing but hatred for the great unwashed masses that had traduced her for years.
With so many of her intimate circle of aristocrats being sent away in order to appease the angry populace, or departing for safer territory on their own, the queen had few people to turn to.

Back in 1774 at a masked ball in Paris she had met a Swedish military man the same age she was, Count Axel von Fersen. That evening they enjoyed a harmless flirtation. Over time, whenever Fersen was back in France, their friendship deepened, yet somehow managed to be so discreet that when Marie Antoinette was being accused of sleeping with everything on two legs, his name was never mentioned. Fersen, was described by his contemporaries as looking like the hero of a novel, or as the queen’s hairdresser Léonard thought, “like Apollo.” He eventually did become the queen’s lover and most trusted confidant. She called him le bel Axel (handsome Axel), while he found her to be “the most amiable princess I have ever met.”

Those in the know, and even some modern historians, publicly wondered whether Fersen was the father of the fetus that Marie Antoinette miscarried on the night of November 2, 1783, and whether he had indeed sired her third and fourth children. But Louis never questioned the paternity of his offspring and Fersen’s official diplomatic appointments place him nowhere near the queen’s anatomy when her children would have been conceived. Fersen and Marie Antoinette endeavored to remain above suspicion, but if the king was aware of the nature of their relationship he never let on, nor reproached Marie Antoinette for it.
Fersen fought for France on behalf of the Americans during the American Revolution and then became an aide-de-camp to his own sovereign, Gustavus III. By 1785, he was back on French soil. His reappearance coincided with Marie Antoinette’s unwanted fourth pregnancy and her desire from then on to cease enjoying intimate relations with her husband. By then, she and Louis had been married for fifteen years.

On October 5, 1789, an angry army of women marched from Paris to the palace of Versailles demanding bread, and although Louis conceded to their request, the instigators amid the rabble spread the propaganda that he was lying. The following day, the mob stormed the palace, destroying the queen’s rooms (looking to murder her) and assassinating several of the royal guards, whose heads they stuck on pikes. The following day they insisted on conveying the royal family back to Paris where the new National Assembly could keep an eye on them. Marie Antoinette bravely insisted that as long as she was not separated from her husband, she could endure anything.

What a difference from June 8, 1773 when Marie Antoinette and Louis had made their first formal entrance as dauphin and dauphine into Paris. They were received then with such warmth and acclaim that Marie Antoinette never forgot their love, or how it made her feel. She wrote to her mother at the time, “What touched me . . . was the affection and the zeal of the poor people, which, though crushed by taxation, was overflowing with joy at the sight of us.” But from the safety of her sumptuous carriage, she never saw how the poor people really lived. She had never been inside the home of a bourgeois subject, let alone an impoverished one. In fact, she knew absolutely nothing of France beyond the gaiety of Paris nightlife and the confines of the royal demesnes that lay within a few kilometers’ drive of Versailles. Tragically, the monarchs themselves had unwittingly aided the revolution in being so unsuited to comprehending the peoples’ crises, and then by their inability to handle them once they had begun.
In Paris, the royal family was placed under what can best be characterized as a dignified house arrest in the Tuileries, a palace that had fallen into disuse and disrepair since it had been forsaken more than a century earlier for Versailles. Ironically, although the king and queen maintained separate apartments at the Tuileries, the royals behaved most like a close-knit, “normal” family when they were most in adversity, taking meals together, playing with and educating their children, and enjoying games of billiards. Outside the palace, the autumn leaves were falling in the gardens, an apt metaphor for the autumn of their reign and for the French monarchy in general. “We have seen too much horror and too much bloodshed ever to be happy again,” the queen lamented.
Yet in the Tuileries, Marie Antoinette, now thirty-four years old, finally began to realize her potential—and rose to meet it. In effect, she became the king. Everyone shunted aside her ineffectual husband. So she grabbed hold of the royal defense. It was Marie Antoinette who held council with the ambassadors and ministers, who learned to read and write in cipher, and who developed the secret diplomatic channels necessary to maintain the reins of government. She had no assistance, no clerks or secretaries. Spies abounded, even in the Tuileries.

Some of the revolutionary leaders called for the king’s divorce. Freed of Marie Antoinette, he might learn (under our guidance) to be a good king after all, they reasoned. According to French law, if she could be convicted of adultery she would be publicly whipped and then sent to a convent for two years. If her husband died during her incarceration, she’d remain there forever.
Marie Antoinette never thought she had committed a wrong against anyone, in either her public or private life. “I expect an upright judgment from the future, and this helps me to bear my sorrows. As for those who refuse it to me now, I despise them too much to care about them,” she insisted. Instead, while she continued to beg her family in Austria to come to the aid of her French royal family, she placed her hopes on her children. “If I could be happy, I should be made happy by these two little beings . . . I am alone in my room the whole day. My children are my sole resource, and I have them with me as much as possible.”

Meanwhile, anti-royal fever continued to mount, but the monarchs held out hope that either the winds of revolution would blow over or that some sort of compromise with them could be reached. Mirabeau, one of the original revolutionary leaders, asserted, “The King has but one man to support him—his wife . . . the only safeguard for her lies in the reestablishment of the royal authority . . . of this much I am certain, that she will not be able to save her life unless she saves her crown.”

Behind the scenes, Marie Antoinette and Axel Fersen, along with a few trusted others, worked to effect the escape of the royal family. But the June 20, 1791 flight to safety in eastern France ended in disaster at Varennes when the royal party was unmasked, and unceremoniously escorted back to Paris. From then on, they were kept under heavier guard and enjoyed fewer privileges.
Marie Antoinette continued to plea for help from Austria, but the new emperor, her brother Leopold, had his own political woes, and limited pockets. He could scarce afford to send precious troops to France to aid his sister with both Russia and Prussia knocking on his door, and a new plan to partition Poland for a second time.

The political climate in France had shifted once again, which was very bad news for Marie Antoinette and Louis. “There exists within this realm no power to restrain the armed populace . . . The very chiefs of the Revolution are no longer listened to when they try to talk to each other about order,” the queen told Count Mercy, the Austrian ambassador to France. Her husband was useless. “You know the person with whom I have to deal. When one believes him persuaded into accepting any course, a single word, a trifling argument, may make him change his mind and his purpose without warning. That is why a thousand things I should like to do can never be undertaken.” But, for all their distress, she had found her spine, even as Louis had lost his. “Tribulation first makes one realize what one is,” she told Mercy.
On March 1, 1792, Marie Antoinette’s brother Leopold, emperor of Austria, died and was replaced on the throne by his twenty-four-year-old son Francis who never knew his aunt and therefore had even less of a reason to come to her aid. On April 20, hoping to deflect attention from the revolution and necessitate the mobilization of troops elsewhere, Louis declared war against “the House of Austria.”

But Marie Antoinette didn’t share her husband’s view; she knew that a declaration of war would hurt their cause rather than help it. And her allegiances were clearly in opposition to Louis’s. Why should she feel loyal to her adopted homeland where everyone hated her? “Never have I been more proud than at this moment to have been born a German,” she wrote to Fersen, hoping the Austrian army would kick French derrière!

The queen was correct; the declaration of war merely angered the revolutionaries, who believed the monarchs were secretly scheming with foreign powers. They pushed their way into the Tuileries on June 20. She and her son hid behind a table barricaded by guards, where the rabble couldn’t reach her. Louis offered no resistance and even accepted the Phrygian cap of liberty. “It was a case of violence and rage on one side, feebleness and inertia on the other,” Marie Antoinette wrote to Count Mercy, Austria's ambassador to France.
The Tuileries palace was even more violently stormed on August 10, 1792, a day that was referred to as “the Second French Revolution.” The king’s Swiss Guard were brutally massacred and the royal family taken to the Temple—so named for once having been the Parisian castle of the Knights Templar. There they were placed “under the safeguard of the nation.” That night, the guillotine was erected in the Place de Carrousel.
As of that day, Louis XVI was no longer in charge of France. The bloody period known as the Terror had begun.

Married to Louis for more than twenty years, Marie Antoinette had gradually come to respect him, even if she still found his equivocating exasperating. They got along better than most royal spouses in dynastic marriages and although it was compelled by the most adverse of circumstances, their cozy nuclear family managed to behave in quite a “normal” way, with the parents educating their own children, reading to them, and playing with them.

But debasing the sovereigns and systematically removing the king’s powers of authority wasn’t enough for the most radical of the revolutionaries who had seized control of the Assembly. A new France could not be born until his royal blood stained the streets of Paris. Louis was accused of being a “tyrant” and an “oppressor” and separated from his family. After so many years of marriage, when Marie Antoinette and Louis finally came to realize that they might actually love each other, all contact was forbidden.
On January 20, 1793, Marie Antoinette was told by an official of the Commune, the new government, that by an exceptional indulgence, she and the children would be allowed to visit the king. She knew what that meant; his execution was imminent. They spent a few final, tearful hours together and then at about 10:00 p.m., Louis said farewell with dignity, assuring his wife that he would visit her again in the morning. They both knew he was lying. Hours before his death, Louis lamented to Cléry, his valet, “Unfortunate Princess! My marriage promised her a throne; now what prospect does it offer her?” He handed Cléry his wedding ring and asked him to give it to Marie Antoinette. “Please tell her that I leave her with sorrow.”
The following morning, Marie Antoinette was forbidden to go downstairs. But she heard the distant drumbeats and the rumble of carriage wheels and—at 10:22—the cheerful shouts that meant she was now a widow.

She was taken away from her children, confined as “prisoner 280” within the walls of La Conciergerie, the Paris prison where only the most dangerous of criminals were housed and from which very few people were freed. On October 16, 1793, after a sham of a trial, frail, white-haired, and suffering from severe gynecological hemorrhaging, Marie Antoinette followed her husband to Madame la Guillotine. She had been forbidden to mount the scaffold in mourning, and so she wore white, with black satin shoes. She had left the Conciergerie with her hands bound behind her, the cord held by Henri Sanson, the executioner, as if she were on a leash. At 12:15 p.m., the blade fell. Marie Antoinette was only thirty-eight years old, the same age as Louis had been upon his execution. Her remains were taken to the Cimitière Madeleine, but the cost of digging a single grave was considered too high, so not until sixty corpses—all victims of the Revolution—were accumulated, was her coffin smothered with quicklime and buried amid the others.

Heroine, villainess, martyr, victim, or some combination of these? What do you think of Marie Antoinette?

6 comments:

Jen of A2eatwrite said...

I think she had a most extraordinary life, obviously. What a story! I really hadn't known many of these details. Fascinating reading, Leslie. Is this a chapter from your new book?

Leslie Carroll said...

Hi, Jen!!!

When I suggested that you only visit blogs when there's something you're passionate about, I didn't (necessarily) mean mine. :)

And I am VERY glad you did stop by!

That post is adapted from my chapter on the marriage of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI from my upcoming nonfiction book, NOTORIOUS ROYAL MARRIAGES: A Juicy Journey Through Nine Centuries of Dynasty, Destiny, and Desire. It's coming out from NAL Trade paperbacks on January 5.

Marie Antoinette had quite a life; and I think she was much maligned, though certainly in her early years at Versailles she didn't do much to improve the French's lousy image of her. Though perhaps there was nothing she could have done that would have changed things early on, except given birth to a son. And much of that, as you read in the post, was beyond her control.

Christine Trent said...

I think that, yes, Marie Antoinette was very extravagant...and flighty...and self-absorbed in her earlier years. Which made her just like every other courtier and hanger-on at the court. What makes me respect her is the mettle she demonstrated when things went south. She had opportunities to flee France with her children, but decided her place was with her husband. Now that's inner strength!

Lovely post, look forward to reading your upcoming book.

Leslie Carroll said...

I completely agree, Christine. And her devotion to her husband is all the more remarkable since their marriage was such a rocky road. But duty was something ingrained in her since childhood. and the idea that she would abandon her place (which was not only important domestically, but dynastically and politically) speaks volumes about the woman she eventually became.

What a life she lived ... and it lasted only 38 years, too!

Ms. Lucy said...

Wow...for me MA will always be a victim. She arrived as a child and evidently not prepared for the harshness and non-acceptance of the French. Marie Antoinette was the perfect release for all their anger..L'Autrichienne (besides being named for her country, depending on the pronunciation in French: The other bitch..) She didn't stand a chance (history tends to forget that French blood, from her father's side,ran through her veins as well...
As for her relationship with Louis- we shouldn't forget that they were both extremely religious and their faith kept them strong and close. Too much 'Hollywood' speculation on her partying and non-such adulteress behaviour. She needed to be all that in order to prove her being the root of fault and evil for everything. Purposely left out by many MA slanderers is both Louis and MA's devotion to the poor. Louis'aunt,the nun vouched this attachment and care done through their charity work. MA loved her children and was openly affectionate. She raised them mostly herself- something that was not common back then. Madame Royale spoke of this often in her memoirs.
I guess that my having been raised in a province that is French and Catholic; rooted and populated mostly by Louis theSun King, I having learned my history perhaps in a more biased way. For me, and millions like-minded, Marie Antoinette will always be, La reine martyre.

I strongly recommend to anyone interested on another persepctive perhaps less popular - however very realistic and true, to check out Maria Elena Vidal's book: Trianon. It's excellent- I'm sure you'd love it.

Thanks for this most interesting post Leslie- very detailed and thorough. I love posts onMarie Antoinette (almost as mush as those on JoJo;)

Leslie Carroll said...

Lucy, thanks for your immensely thoughtful and well crafted comment. I agree with you that MA was la reine martyre and I know about her generosity to the poor as well -- something I will indeed give some ink to in my novel. She was in many ways a scapegoat for all the ills visited upon France (for which several factors were responsible, including bad harvests, and France's bankrolling first the French and Indian War, and then the American colonists during our Revolution.) And of course the courtiers were all profligate! Marie Antoinette was hardly the sole spendthrift.

I would love to read Trianon. Thanks for directing me to it!