A Reputation in Shreds
She is the queen who danced while the people starved; who spent extravagantly on clothes and jewels without a thought for her subjects’ plight. Such is the distorted but widespread view of Marie-Antoinette, Queen of France (1755-1793), wife of King Louis XVI. The recent Coppola film has further damaged the image of the much-maligned, beautiful and charming Austrian archduchess, sent to France at age fourteen to marry the fifteen-year-old Dauphin. Sadly, the picture many people now have of Marie-Antoinette is of her running through Versailles with a glass of champagne in her hand, eating bonbons all day long, and rolling in the bushes with a lover.
An article by E.M. Vidal
In reality, she was a teetotaler who ate frugally. She was notorious for her intense modesty. Even some prominent biographers, who have insisted upon the possibility of an affair with Swedish Count Axel von Fersen, have had to admit that there is no solid evidence. Yes, she had a gambling problem when young. She loved to entertain and had wonderful parties. She liked to dance the night away, but settled down when the children started to come. She had a lively sense of humor. Her clothes, yes, were magnificent; volumes could and have been written about Marie-Antoinette’s style. She did gradually introduce simpler fashions to France, however.
It is known that Queen Marie-Antoinette had high moral standards. She did not permit uncouth or off-color remarks in her presence. She exercised a special vigilance over anyone in her care, especially the young ladies of her household. As Madame Campan relates in her Memoirs:
All who were acquainted with the Queen’s private qualities knew that she equally deserved attachment and esteem. Kind and patient to excess in her relations with her household, she indulgently considered all around her, and interested herself in their fortunes and in their pleasures. She had, among her women, young girls from the Maison de St. Cyr, all well born; the Queen forbade them the play when the performances were not suitable; sometimes, when old plays were to be represented, if she found she could not with certainty trust to her memory, she would take the trouble to read them in the morning, to enable her to decide whether the girls should or should not go to see them,–rightly considering herself bound to watch over their morals and conduct.
In pre-revolutionary France it was for the King and the Queen to give an example of almsgiving. Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette took this duty seriously and throughout their reign did what they could to help the needy. During the fireworks celebrating the marriage of the young prince and princess in May 1770, there was a stampede in which many people were killed. Louis and Marie-Antoinette gave all of their private spending money for a year to relieve the suffering of the victims and their families. They became very popular with the common people as a result, which was reflected in the adulation with which they were received when the Dauphin took his wife to Paris on her first “official” visit in June 1773. Marie-Antoinette’s reputation for sweetness and mercy became even more entrenched in 1774, when as the new Queen she asked that the people be relieved of a tax called “The Queen’s belt,” customary at the beginning of each reign. “Belts are no longer worn,” she quipped. It was the onslaught of revolutionary propaganda that would eventually destroy her reputation.
The King and Queen were patrons of the Maison Philanthropique, a society which helped the aged, blind and widows. The queen taught her daughter Madame Royale to wait upon peasant children, to sacrifice her Christmas gifts so as to buy fuel and blankets for the destitute, and to bring baskets of food to the sick. Marie-Antoinette started a home for unwed mothers at the royal palace. She adopted three poor children to be raised with her own, as well overseeing the upbringing of several needy children, whose education she paid for, while caring for their families. She brought several peasant families to live on her farm at Trianon, building cottages for them. There was food for the hungry distributed every day at Versailles, at the King’s command.
During the famine of 1787-88, the royal family sold much of their flatware to buy grain for the people, and themselves ate the cheap barley bread in order to be able to give more to the hungry. There were many other things they did; what I mentioned here is taken from Vincent Cronin’s Louis and Antoinette, as well as Marguerite Jallut’s and Philippe Huisman’s biography of the Marie-Antoinette. The royal couple’s almsgiving stopped only with their incarceration in the Temple in August 1792, for then they had nothing left to give but their lives.
Here is an excerpt from Charles Duke Yonge’s biography of Marie-Antoinette, describing how the queen tried to reform the morals of the court.
Her first desire was to purify the court where licentiousness in either sex had long been the surest road to royal favor. She began by making a regulation, that she would receive no lady who was separated from her husband; and she abolished a senseless and inexplicable rule of etiquette which had hitherto prohibited the queen and princesses from dining or supping in company with their husbands. Such an exclusion from the king’s table of those who were its most natural and becoming ornaments had notoriously facilitated and augmented the disorders of the last reign; and it was obvious that its maintenance must at least have a tendency to lead to a repetition of the old irregularities. Fortunately, the king was as little inclined to approve of it as the queen. All his tastes were domestic, and he gladly assented to her proposal to abolish the custom. Throughout the reign, at all ordinary meals, at his suppers when he came in late from hunting, when he had perhaps invited some of his fellow-sportsmen to share his repast, and at State banquets, Marie Antoinette took her seat at his side, not only adding grace and liveliness to the entertainment, but effectually preventing license, and even the suspicion of scandal; and, as she desired that her household as well as her family should set an example of regularity and propriety to the nation, she exercised a careful superintendence over the behavior of those who had hitherto been among the least-considered members of the royal establishment.
Too often in the many articles about Marie-Antoinette that have surfaced in the last year due to the Coppola film, Count Axel von Fersen is referred to as the “queen’s lover” or as her “probable lover.” It is repeatedly disregarded that there is not a scrap of reliable historical evidence that Count Fersen and Marie-Antoinette were anything but friends, and that he was as much her husband’s friend as he was hers. People are free to speak of Louis XV and Madame de Pompadour as “lovers” since they openly lived together for many years. But to speak that way of Marie-Antoinette, who lost her life because she chose to stay at her husband’s side, is the height of irresponsibility.
The Swedish nobleman was in the service of his sovereign King Gustavus III and Count Fersen’s presence at the French court needs to be seen in the light of that capacity. The Swedish King was a devoted friend of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette and Gustavus, even more than the queen’s Austrian relatives, worked to aid the King and Queen of France in their time of trouble. Fersen was the go-between in the various secret plans to help Louis XVI regain control of his kingdom and escape from the clutches of his political enemies. The diplomatic intrigues that went on behind the scenes are more interesting than any imaginary romance. (The queen’s relationship with her husband is more interesting as well.) However, books and movies continue to add this sensationalism to the queen’s life, as if anything could be more sensational than the reality. Serious modern and contemporary scholars, however, such as Paul and Pierrette Girault de Coursac, Hilaire Belloc, Nesta Webster, Simone Bertière, Philippe Delorme, Jean Chalon, Desmond Seward, and Simon Schama are unanimous in saying that there is no conclusive evidence to prove that Marie-Antoinette violated her marriage vows by dallying with Count Fersen.
As Jean Chalon points out in his biography Chère Marie-Antoinette, Fersen, who had many mistresses, saw the queen as an angel, to whom he offered reverent and chaste homage. According to Chalon, Marie-Antoinette knew about sex only through conjugal love, where she found her “happiness,” her bonheur essentiel, as she wrote to her mother. If there had been any cause for concern about Count Fersen’s presence at the French court as regards the queen’s reputation, the Austrian ambassador Count Mercy-Argenteau would surely have mentioned it in one of the reams of letters to Marie-Antoinette’s mother Empress Maria Teresa, to whom he passed on every detail of the young queen’s life. Count Mercy had spies whom he paid well to gather information, but Fersen was not worth mentioning. Neither is he mentioned in a romantic way by other people close to the queen in their memoirs, such as her maid Madame Campan. Madame Campan herself refuted any calumnies in her Memoirs when she said of Marie-Antoinette:
I who for fifteen years saw her attached to her august consort and her children, kind to her servitors, unfortunately too polite, too simple, too much on an equality with the people of the Court, I cannot bear to see her character reviled. I wish I had a hundred mouths, I wish I had wings and could inspire the same confidence in the truth which is so readily accorded to lies.
The accounts of those whose personal knowledge of the queen, or deep study of her life, reveal her virtue, as well as her fidelity and devotion to her husband, are continually ignored. Montjoie in his Histoire de Marie-Antoinette, Vol.i, p.107 (1797) quotes the words of her page, the Comte d’Hézècques:
If one wishes to discover the prime cause of the misfortunes of this princess, we must seek them in the passions of which the court was the hotbed and in the corruption of her century. If I had seen otherwise I would say so with sincerity, but I affirm that after having seen everything, heard everything, and read everything, I am convinced that the morals of Marie Antoinette were as pure as those of her virtuous husband.
But since so often the testimonials of French monarchists are seen as being an attempt to ingratiate themselves to the surviving Bourbons, here is what the Irish politician and author John Wilson Croker (1780-1857) wrote in his Essays on the French Revolution:
We have followed the history of Marie Antoinette with the greatest diligence and scrupulosity. We have lived in those times. We have talked with some of her friends and some of her enemies; we have read, certainly not all, but hundreds of the libels written against her; and we have, in short, examined her life with– if we may be allowed to say so of ourselves– something of the accuracy of contemporaries, the diligence of inquirers, and the impartiality of historians, all combined; and we feel it our duty to declare, in as a solemn a manner as literature admits of, our well-matured opinion that every reproach against the morals of the queen was a gross calumny– that she was, as we have said, one of the purest of human beings. (Croker’s Essays, p 562)
It is an assessment with which I fully agree. I hope that in the future responsible scholarship about Queen Marie-Antoinette and her family comes to replace lies which have fed the popular imagination for long.
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