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A Royal Mystery

The Wicked Queen: The Origins of the Myth of Marie-Antoinette

by Chantal Thomas, translated from the French by Julie Rose
Zone Books, 255 pp., $26.00

Marie Antoinette: The Last Queen of France

by Evelyne Lever, translated from the French by Catherine Temerson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 357 pp., $30.00

Lives” of kings and queens, when they belong to the category of the biographie romancée, where facts are a little hazy and dialogues and private thoughts are freely invented, are usually shelved by libraries under “Biography.” More serious and scholarly royal biographies, on the other hand, tend to get placed under “History.” But ought they to be so? The life of Marie-Antoinette raises this question forcibly.

In the middle of the eighteenth century, in view of the decline of Spain and the growing friendship between Prussia and Great Britain, France decided on a radical revision of its alliances, and it came to an understanding with its longstanding enemy, Austria. To cement this, it was arranged between Louis XV and the Austrian Empress Maria Theresa that the French dauphin, Louis-Auguste, the King’s grandson, should marry the Empress’s daughter Marie-Antoinette; and in 1770, with much pomp, the fourteen-year-old Marie-Antoinette was escorted to Versailles for this purpose. She had never seen her prospective husband before (though she had already been married to him by proxy), and for both of them (the dauphin being not much older than herself) the marriage bed would turn out to be a problem. He was a clumsy, awkward, inhibited fellow, and for some years he found it impossible to consummate the marriage. He suffered from phimosis, or an overtight foreskin, which made copulation physically painful to him. But anyway, for whatever reason (and there could be many), Marie-Antoinette alarmed him. Also, or so it seems, he was not all that eager to be king, being afflicted by two brothers—the Comte de Provence and the Comte d’Artois—who dinned it into him how much better they would be in the position. Marie-Antoinette, on the contrary, had at least the grace and outward style of royalty.

Very possibly, of all subjects for a royal biography, Marie-Antoinette has been the out-and-out favorite. Her appeal is certainly not far to seek. Her story and that of her husband, as actors in and bewildered victims of the enormous event that lay in store for France, are most poignant and harrowing. It is a story that will be well known to readers of the present review, and I think one can suggest the feel of it by the “mosaic” method.

Horace Walpole, writing to the Countess of Upper Ossory on December 1, 1790, described his first view of Marie-Antoinette thus: “I saw her when [she was] Dauphiness. She was going after the late King to chapel, and shot through the room like an aerial being, all brightness and grace and without seeming to touch earth—’vera incessu patuit dea!’” The Comte de Tilly, who at one period was her page and who idolized her, noted that she had “two distinctive gaits in walking, one firm, rather hurried and always imposing, the other more gentle and swinging…. No one has ever curtsied with so much grace, greeting ten people with a single inclination, and, by look and the pose of the head, giving each one his due.”1

The pressure on her from Vienna never lapsed: her mother wrote to her ambassador in France that “the Queen should never for a minute lose sight of all the possible ways of ensuring her complete and exclusive control over her husband’s mind.” In 1784 the Emperor Joseph II, her brother, being on the verge of war with the Dutch republic over access to the river Scheldt, importuned her unmercifully for help in swaying French policy, and she in turn made life a misery for Vergennes, the secretary for foreign affairs. “She wept on her husband’s breast and yelled at Vergennes,” writes Evelyne Lever in Marie Antoinette: The Last Queen of France. Correspondingly, she had an ardent longing for privacy. At the Trianon she created a miniature village in the style of a Lancret painting, with its own pond, two dairies, a dovecote, a henhouse, a mill, and pavilions in the shape of Norman cottages, their walls painted with artificial cracks. A visitor to the château of Versailles itself, by then deserted, was amazed to find “a host of little apartments connected to the Queen’s apartment” whose existence he had never suspected.

Her sufferings during the Revolution were on a terrifying scale. Her lady-in-waiting Madame de Campan recalls that, a few days after the “flight to Varennes” (the royal couple’s disastrous escape attempt in June 1791), the Queen’s hair “had turned as white as that of a woman of seventy.”2 Her first intimate friend at Versailles had been the gentle and loyal Princesse de Lamballe, for whom she secured the appointment of superintendent of the Queen’s Household. As a prisoner in the Temple, hearing a disturbance, she looked out of the window and saw the princess’s head, “twisted into a grimace,” skewered on the end of a pike. As she was on her way to the guillotine, the painter David made a hasty sketch of her: her hair brutally docked, her hands tied behind her back, and an expression of the grimmest anger on her face. But on arrival she climbed out of the cart with a light step and mounted the steps of the scaffold “with bravado.”

Evelyne Lever has written biographies of “Philippe Egalité,” Louis XVI, and Louis XVIII, and is, altogether, a supreme professional in the writing of royal biography. She is very expert in storytelling, is extremely knowledgeable, and in her present book draws extensively on manuscript sources (the French foreign office archives; the dossiers, reports, and correspondence in the Viennese Haus-, Hof-, und Staatsarchiv; the Breteuil archives; etc.).

But there is a puzzling fact about the book now published as Marie Antoinette: The Last Queen of France. It is implied on the jacket that it is a translation of Lever’s Marie-Antoinette, which was published by Fayard in 1991, but this is simply not so. Here and there one finds some paragraphs reproduced from Marie-Antoinette, but essentially Marie Antoinette: The Last Queen of France (for convenience let us call it simply The Last Queen) is a different book. The Marie-Antoinette of 1991 is sober and copiously documented; it follows through international politics, and intrigues at the French court, with great meticulousness; and its prose has a touch of traditional elegance, faintly echoing Saint-Simon. The Last Queen of France is a different affair. For one thing, it is far shorter; but what is more important, it is written, at certain points at least, in what you might call a “historical novel” style, with its resort to the paintbox and its rhetorical questions. “The gilded coach glittered in the sun as they drove slowly by.” “With a rustle of silk and lace the Grand Almoner and his retinue walked up to the bed where the King—once the handsomest man in the kingdom—now lay, his face swollen and covered with scabs.” “The sun rose, its lustrous bronze rays lighting the monarch’s last hours at Versailles.” In the pavilion erected in her honor on her first setting foot on French soil, “did she look at the tapestries illustrating the tragic love of Jason and Medea, which the day before an unknown young student by the name of Goethe had found horribly shocking? It is unlikely.” “Did she compare Versailles with Schönbrunn? No one can say.”

The fact is important in itself; but something further hangs on it. For a biographer does not have the same freedom as a historian. A historian may present several conflicting accounts of some event, admitting the impossibility of deciding which is the right one. By contrast, biographers, on any important matter, rarely have the option of indecision: they must make a commitment about what took place and stick to it. They will, moreover, as their book progresses, be steadily building up a “character” for their protagonist. It follows that a biographer of Marie-Antoinette is put in an awkward spot by the famous “Diamond Necklace” affair. It is too important a part of her story to omit, but it is a mystery to which no one knows the answer, so that a biographer cannot safely tell us what happened; and it raises possibilities as regards Marie-Antoinette which the biographer may not wish to face.

To tell the story very briefly: on August 15, 1785, the Cardinal de Rohan—an elegant and worldly prelate, Grand Almoner of France, bishop of Strasbourg, and sovereign prince of Hildesheim—being about to celebrate Mass in the chapel at Versailles, was arrested on the King’s order and committed to the Bastille: an amazing event. The accusation against him was that he had bought an immensely valuable necklace from the court jewelers, on the pretense that he was doing it on behalf of the Queen, who wished the matter kept a secret—though in fact exploiting her name for his own illicit gain. Challenged with this, he freely admitted having bought the necklace, but claimed he was doing it with innocent motives.

Sometime previously, he explained, he had befriended a certain Comtesse de La Motte-Valois, who, though born in the direst poverty, was in fact of royal blood, a descendant of an illegitimate child of Henri II. The comtesse had ambitions to regain her family’s lost property around Bar-sur-Aube. Meanwhile she had secured a small pension from the King and, so she told Rohan, had come to be on terms of intimacy with the Queen.

Rohan nursed ambitions himself and, despite the grandeur of his present posts, felt thwarted by the fact that the Queen (as was well known) bore him an implacable grudge and refused all communication with him. The comtesse, however, had volunteered to put in a good word for him; and, judging from certain messages in letters she received (or claimed to have received) from the Queen, there seemed hope he might in time be forgiven. Thus, when he heard from the comtesse of the Queen’s desires regarding the necklace, he had (he said) been eager to do her bidding. He still had in his possession the bill of sale for the necklace, drawn up in his own handwriting but signed and certified as “approved” by (as he had then thought) the Queen; and he had handed the jewels over to a man whom he believed to be the Queen’s servant. It was only now, or at least very recently (so he said), that he had realized that the comtesse was a liar and a cheat, the command from the Queen had been her own invention, and in short that he had been hopelessly gulled.

There was a very lengthy trial of the affair before the Parlement of Paris, the upshot of which was that the cardinal was exonerated and the Comtesse de La Motte-Valois received the most savage punishment, being whipped naked in public, branded on the breast with a “V” (for voleuse, or “thief”), and imprisoned in the Salpetrière.

My account gives no idea of the astonishing complexity of this imbroglio, or of its bafflingness, there hardly being a single statement made in the course of it on which it is safe to rely (either because it is contradicted by some other statement, or because the person making it had every reason to lie). But rightly or wrongly the Queen’s reputation, already badly tarnished, suffered irretrievable damage from this mysterious affair. She was not called upon to give evidence during the trial, but endless theories were and still are floated, according to which she was not simply an innocent party but had known about the transaction, or even been the real instigator of it.

  1. 1

    Memoirs of the Comte Alexandre de Tilly, translated by Françoise Delisle and with an introduction by Havelock Ellis (Gollancz, 1933), p. 69.

  2. 2

    Quoted by Evelyn Farr, Marie-Antoinette and Count Axel Fersen: An Untold Love Story (London: Peter Owen, 1995), p. 167.

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