The English-speaking world long ago accepted a conventional view of Marie Antoinette. The eloquence of Edmund Burke in one brilliant passage has fixed, probably for all time, an enduring picture of this unhappy queen.
When we speak or think of her we speak and think first of all of a dazzling and beautiful woman surrounded by the chivalry of France and gleaming like a star in the most splendid court of Europe.
In the first place, it is mere fiction that represents Maria Antoinette as having been physically beautiful. The painters and engravers have so idealized her face as in most cases to have produced a purely imaginary portrait.
She was born in Vienna, in 1755, the daughter of the Emperor Francis and of that warrior-queen, Maria Theresa. She was a very German-looking child. Lady Jackson describes her as having a long, thin face, small, pig-like eyes, a pinched-up mouth, with the heavy Hapsburg lip, and with a somewhat misshapen form, so that for years she had to be bandaged tightly to give her a more natural figure.
At fourteen, when she was betrothed to the heir to the French throne, she was a dumpy, mean-looking little creature, with no distinction whatever, and with only her bright golden hair to make amends for her many blemishes. At fifteen she was married and joined the Dauphin in French territory.
There was also a tradition regarding the French queen. However loose in character the other women of the court might be, she alone, like Caesar’s wife, must remain above suspicion. She must be purer than the pure. No breath, of scandal must reach her or be directed against her.
In this way the French court, even under so dissolute a monarch as Louis XV., maintained its hold upon the loyalty of the people. Crowds came every morning to view the king in his bed before he arose; the same crowds watched him as he was dressed by the gentlemen of the bedchamber, and as he breakfasted and went through all the functions which are usually private. The King of France must be a great actor. He must appear to his people as in reality a king-stately, dignified, and beyond all other human beings in his remarkable presence.
When the Dauphin and Marie Antoinette came to the French court King Louis XV. kept up in the case the same semblance of austerity. He forbade these children to have their sleeping-apartments together. He tried to teach them that if they were to govern as well as to reign they must conform to the rigid etiquette of Paris and Versailles.
It proved a difficult task, however. The little German princess had no natural dignity, though she came from a court where the very strictest imperial discipline prevailed. Marie Antoinette found that she could have her own way in many things, and she chose to enjoy life without regard to ceremony. Her escapades at first would have been thought mild enough had she not been a “daughter of France”; but they served to shock the old French king, and likewise, perhaps even more, her own imperial mother, Maria Theresa. When a report of the young girl’s conduct was brought to her the empress was at first mute with indignation. Then she cried out:
“Can this girl be a child of mine? She surely must be a changeling!”
The Austrian ambassador to France was instructed to warn the Dauphiness to be more discreet.
“Tell her,” said Maria Theresa, “that she will lose her throne, and even her life, unless she shows more prudence.”
But advice and remonstrance were of no avail. Perhaps they might have been had her husband possessed a stronger character; but the young Louis was little more fitted to be a king than was his wife to be a queen. Dull of perception and indifferent to affairs of state, he had only two interests that absorbed him. One was the love of hunting, and the other was his desire to shut himself up in a sort of blacksmith shop, where he could hammer away at the anvil, blow the bellows, and manufacture small trifles of mechanical inventions. From this smudgy den he would emerge, sooty and greasy, an object of distaste to his frivolous princess, with her foamy laces and perfumes and pervasive daintiness.
It was hinted in many quarters, and it has been many times repeated, that Louis was lacking in virility. Certainly he had no interest in the society of women and was wholly continent. But this charge of physical incapacity seems to have had no real foundation. It had been made against some of his predecessors. It was afterward hurled at Napoleon the Great, and also Napoleon the Little. In France, unless a royal personage was openly licentious, he was almost sure to be jeered at by the people as a weakling.
And so poor Louis XVI., as he came to be, was treated with a mixture of pity and contempt because he loved to hammer and mend locks in his smithy or shoot game when he might have been caressing ladies who would have been proud to have him choose them out.
On the other hand, because of this opinion regarding Louis, people were the more suspicious of Marie Antoinette. Some of them, in coarse language, criticized her assumed infidelities; others, with a polite sneer, affected to defend her. But the result of it all was dangerous to both, especially as France was already verging toward the deluge which Louis XV. had cynically predicted would follow after him.
In fact, the end came sooner than any one had guessed. Louis XV., who had become hopelessly and helplessly infatuated with the low-born Jeanne du Barry, was stricken down with smallpox of the most virulent type. The body of the late monarch was hastily thrown into a mass of quick-lime, and was driven away in a humble wagon, without guards and with no salute, save from a single veteran, who remembered the glories of Fontenoy and discharged his musket as the royal corpse was carried through the palace gates.
This was a critical moment in the history of France; but we have to consider it only as a critical moment in the history of Marie Antoinette. She was now queen. She had it in her power to restore to the French court its old-time grandeur, and, so far as the queen was concerned, its purity. Above all, being a foreigner, she should have kept herself free from reproach and above every shadow of suspicion.
But here again the indifference of the king undoubtedly played a strange part in her life. Had he borne himself as her lord and master she might have respected him. Had he shown her the affection of a husband she might have loved him. But he was neither imposing, nor, on the other hand, was he alluring. She wrote very frankly about him in a letter to the Count Orsini:
My tastes are not the same as those of the king, who cares only for hunting and blacksmith work. You will admit that I should not show to advantage in a forge. I could not appear there as Vulcan, and the part of Venus might displease him even more than my tastes.
Thus on the one side is a woman in the first bloom of youth, ardent, eager—and neglected. On the other side is her husband, whose sluggishness may be judged by quoting from a diary which he kept during the month in which he was married. Here is a part of it:
Sunday, 13—Left Versailles. Supper and slept at Compignee, at the house of M. de Saint-Florentin.
Monday, 14—Interview with Mme. la Dauphine.
Tuesday, 15—Supped at La Muette. Slept at Versailles.
Wednesday, 16—My marriage. Apartment in the gallery. Royal banquet in the Salle d’Opera.
Thursday, 17—Opera of “Perseus.”
Friday, 18—Stag-hunt. Met at La Belle Image. Took one.
Saturday, 19—Dress-ball in the Salle d’Opera. Fireworks.
Thursday, 31—I had an indigestion.
On her head she wore a hat styled a “what-is-it,” towering many feet in height and flaunting parti-colored plumes. Worse than all this, she refused to wear corsets, and at some great functions she would appear in what looked exactly like a bedroom gown.
She would even neglect the ordinary niceties of life. Her hands were not well cared for. It was very difficult for the ladies in attendance to persuade her to brush her teeth with regularity. Again, she would persist in wearing her frilled and lace-trimmed petticoats long after their dainty edges had been smirched and blackened.
Yet these things might have been counteracted had she gone no further. Unfortunately, she did go further. She loved to dress at night like a shop-girl and venture out into the world of Paris, where she was frequently followed and recognized. Think of it—the Queen of France, elbowed in dense crowds and seeking to attract the attention of common soldiers!
Of course, almost every one put the worst construction upon this, and after a time upon everything she did. When she took a fancy for constructing labyrinths and secret passages in the palace, all Paris vowed that she was planning means by which her various lovers might enter without observation. The hidden printing-presses of Paris swarmed with gross lampoons about this reckless girl; and, although there was little truth in what they said, there was enough to cloud her reputation. When she fell ill with the measles she was attended in her sick-chamber by four gentlemen of the court. The king was forbidden to enter lest he might catch the childish disorder.
The apathy of the king, indeed, drove her into many a folly. After four years of marriage, as Mrs. Mayne records, he had only reached the point of giving her a chilly kiss. The fact that she had no children became a serious matter. Her brother, the Emperor Joseph of Austria, when he visited Paris, ventured to speak to the king upon the subject. Even the Austrian ambassador had thrown out hints that the house of Bourbon needed direct heirs. Louis grunted and said little, but he must have known how good was the advice.
It was at about this time when there came to the French court a young Swede named Axel de Fersen, who bore the title of count, but who was received less for his rank than for his winning manner, his knightly bearing, and his handsome, sympathetic face. Romantic in spirit, he threw himself at once into a silent inner worship of Marie Antoinette, who had for him a singular attraction. Wherever he could meet her they met. To her growing cynicism this breath of pure yet ardent affection was very grateful. It came as something fresh and sweet into the feverish life she led
Other men had had the audacity to woo her—among them Duc de Lauzun, whose complicity in the famous affair of the diamond necklace afterward cast her, though innocent, into ruin; the Duc de Biron; and the Baron de Besenval, who had obtained much influence over her, which he used for the most evil purposes. Besenval tainted her mind by persuading her to read indecent books, in the hope that at last she would become his prey.
But none of these men ever meant to Marie Antoinette what Fersen meant. Though less than twenty years of age, he maintained the reserve of a great gentleman, and never forced himself upon her notice. Yet their first acquaintance had occurred in such a way as to give to it a touch of intimacy. He had gone to a masked ball, and there had chosen for his partner a lady whose face was quite concealed. Something drew the two together. The gaiety of the woman and the chivalry of the man blended most harmoniously. It was only afterward that he discovered that his chance partner was the first lady in France. She kept his memory in her mind; for some time later, when he was at a royal drawing-room and she heard his voice, she exclaimed:
“Ah, an old acquaintance!”
From this time Fersen was among those who were most intimately favored by the queen. He had the privilege of attending her private receptions at the palace of the Trianon, and was a conspicuous figure at the feasts given in the queen’s honor by the Princess de Lamballe, a beautiful girl whose head was destined afterward to be severed from her body and borne upon a bloody pike through the streets of Paris. But as yet the deluge had not arrived and the great and noble still danced upon the brink of a volcano.
Fersen grew more and more infatuated, nor could he quite conceal his feelings. The queen, in her turn, was neither frightened nor indignant. His passion, so profound and yet so respectful, deeply moved her. Then came a time when the truth was made clear to both of them. Fersen was near her while she was singing to the harpsichord, and “she was betrayed by her own music into an avowal which song made easy.” She forgot that she was Queen of France. She only felt that her womanhood had been starved and slighted, and that here was a noble-minded lover of whom she could be proud.
Some time after this announcement was officially made of the approaching accouchement of the queen. It was impossible that malicious tongues should be silent. The king’s brother, the Comte de Provence, who hated the queen, just as the Bonapartes afterward hated Josephine, did his best to besmirch her reputation. He had, indeed, the extraordinary insolence to do so at a time when one would suppose that the vilest of men would remain silent. The child proved to be a princess, and she afterward received the title of Duchesse d’Angouleme. The King of Spain asked to be her godfather at the christening, which was to be held in the cathedral of Notre Dame. The Spanish king was not present in person, but asked the Comte de Provence to act as his proxy.
On the appointed day the royal party proceeded to the cathedral, and the Comte de Provence presented the little child at the baptismal font. The grand almoner, who presided, asked;
“What name shall be given to this child?”
The Comte de Provence answered in a sneering tone:
“Oh, we don’t begin with that. The first thing to find out is who the father and the mother are!”
These words, spoken at such a place and such a time, and with a strongly sardonic ring, set all Paris gossiping. It was a thinly veiled innuendo that the father of the child was not the King of France. Those about the court immediately began to look at Fersen with significant smiles. The queen would gladly have kept him near her; but Fersen cared even more for her good name than for his love of her. It would have been so easy to remain in the full enjoyment of his conquest; but he was too chivalrous for that, or, rather, he knew that the various ambassadors in Paris had told their respective governments of the rising scandal. In fact, the following secret despatch was sent to the King of Sweden by his envoy:
I must confide to your majesty that the young Count Fersen has been so well received by the queen that various persons have taken it amiss. I own that I am sure that she has a liking for him. I have seen proofs of it too certain to be doubted. During the last few days the queen has not taken her eyes off him, and as she gazed they were full of tears. I beg your majesty to keep their secret to yourself.
The queen wept because Fersen had resolved to leave her lest she should be exposed to further gossip. If he left her without any apparent reason, the gossip would only be the more intense. Therefore he decided to join the French troops who were going to America to fight under Lafayette. A brilliant but dissolute duchess taunted him when the news became known.
“How is this?” said she. “Do you forsake your conquest?”
But, “lying like a gentleman,” Fersen answered, quietly:
“Had I made a conquest I should not forsake it. I go away free, and, unfortunately, without leaving any regret.”
Nothing could have been more chivalrous than the pains which Fersen took to shield the reputation of the queen. He even allowed it to be supposed that he was planning a marriage with a rich young Swedish woman who had been naturalized in England. As a matter of fact, he departed for America, and not very long afterward the young woman in question married an Englishman.
Fersen served in America for a time, returning, however, at the end of three years. He was one of the original Cincinnati, being admitted to the order by Washington himself. When he returned to France he was received with high honors and was made colonel of the royal Swedish regiment.
The dangers threatening Louis and his court, which were now gigantic and appalling, forbade him to forsake the queen. By her side he did what he could to check the revolution; and, failing this, he helped her to maintain an imperial dignity of manner which she might otherwise have lacked. He faced the bellowing mob which surrounded the Tuileries. Lafayette tried to make the National Guard obey his orders, but he was jeered at for his pains. Violent epithets were hurled at the king. The least insulting name which they could give him was “a fat pig.” As for the queen, the most filthy phrases were showered upon her by the men, and even more so by the women, who swarmed out of the slums and sought her life.
At last, in 1791, it was decided that the king and the queen and their children, of whom they now had three, should endeavor to escape from Paris. Fersen planned their flight, but it proved to be a failure. Every one remembers how they were discovered and halted at Varennes. The royal party was escorted back to Paris by the mob, which chanted with insolent additions:
“We’ve brought back the baker, the baker’s wife, and the baker’s boy! Now we shall have bread!”
Against the savage fury which soon animated the French a foreigner like Fersen could do very little; but he seems to have endeavored, night and day, to serve the woman whom he loved. His efforts have been described by Grandat; but they were of no avail. The king and queen were practically made prisoners. Their eldest son died. They went through horrors that were stimulated by the wretch Hebert, at the head of his so-called Madmen (Enrages). The king was executed in January, 1792. The queen dragged out a brief existence in a prison where she was for ever under the eyes of human brutes, who guarded her and watched her and jeered at her at times when even men would be sensitive. Then, at last, she mounted the scaffold, and her head, with its shining hair, fell into the bloody basket.
Marie Antoinette shows many contradictions in her character. As a young girl she was petulant and silly and almost unseemly in her actions. As a queen, with waning power, she took on a dignity which recalled the dignity of her imperial mother. At first a flirt, she fell deeply in love when she met a man who was worthy of that love. She lived for most part like a mere cocotte. She died every inch a queen.
One finds a curious resemblance between the fate of Marie Antoinette and that of her gallant lover, who outlived her for nearly twenty years. She died amid the shrieks and execrations of a maddened populace in Paris; he was practically torn in pieces by a mob in the streets of Stockholm. The day of his death was the anniversary of the flight to Varennes. To the last moment of his existence he remained faithful to the memory of the royal woman who had given herself so utterly to him.
"Famous Affinities of History" by Lydon Orr