“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.
Some of the theories carry devastating implications for her character. Still, insofar as they are in any way plausible, a historian would need calmly to discuss them. But what is a biographer to do? Say that the Queen really had been implicated but, when the going got too hot, denied it and left the cardinal or the comtesse or both to their fate? This would be a very base action and would mean redrawing her character drastically.
Lever tackles the problem in one way in Marie-Antoinette and in quite another way in The Last Queen. She seems in fact to contradict herself in the process, and this, it is worth observing, she has been led into by the difference in genre between the books. According to the Queen’s lady-in-waiting, Madame de Campan,3 the court jewelers wrote the Queen a letter thanking her for buying from them their magnificent necklace, but the Queen, having no idea what they could be talking about, simply burned the letter and refused to see them when later they asked for an audience. Lever, however, in the 1991 biography, makes a particular point of Madam de Campan’s unreliability as a witness. (“One often finds that subtle and cultivated woman in flagrante delicto of error.”) She is more in favor of the theory put forward by Rohan’s coadjutor and secretary the Abbé Georgel4: that a month or so before the scandal broke, the jewelers actually succeeded in alerting the Queen to Rohan’s activities, and that she wanted him to be denounced right away, but the Baron de Breteuil (like her, an inveterate enemy of Rohan’s) persuaded her that the cardinal should simply be watched and left to incriminate himself further.
Here, however, is the corresponding passage in The Last Queen:
In July 1785, while she [the Queen] thought wistfully that she would soon be celebrating her thirtieth birthday, Marie Antoinette was diligently rehearsing her role as an ingenue [in Beaumarchais’s The Barber of Seville]. On the twelfth, her jeweler, Böhmer, asked to be admitted…. But that day her mind was elsewhere, absorbed in other matters. She was merely a bit surprised to hear the jeweler whisper a turgid compliment to her about the marvelous diamonds in her possession…. Before taking leave, Böhmer left her a note, which she opened later on. She told Madame Campan that since she could make no sense of the jeweler’s strange disquisition congratulating her on the purchase of an exceptional diamond necklace, she had burned it.
But if this is in fact what the Queen said, then, according to the theory of Abbé Georgel, she was lying. The “novelistic” style, which allows us access to the Queen “wistful” private reveries, has led Lever into a confusion.
One of the reasons why Marie-Antoinette is such a favorite subject for biography is, I suggest, because of the large invitation it offers to moralizing. The Queen, as she is presented, seems to be in such dire need of good advice, a fact all the more vivid in that we know (though she does not) that there is a revolution coming. In this respect, Lever’s book is like many others; it constantly harps on the Queen’s “glaring follies”—indulging in wanton extravagance, meddling ignorantly in politics, bestowing largesse on rapacious favorites, ignoring the French people, etc.—and the unavailing efforts of wiser persons to reform her; but also on the follies and “errors” of others. In January 1778 Joseph II invaded Bavaria, and Lever’s account of the incident positively bristles with moralizing remarks. Joseph’s venture is put down to “unbridled ambitions”; the Austrian ambassador, in persuading Marie-Antoinette that Joseph was within his rights, is said to show “incredible bad faith”; we are asked to feel surprise that the Empress Maria Theresa, who often gave her daughter such “judicious advice,” could have encouraged her to intercede with her husband on Austria’s behalf; and Marie-Antoinette herself, we are told, “had no excuse” for doing so other than her “ignorance of the realities of international politics.”
But even this degree of moralizing pales before what we find in Lever’s Marie-Antoinette. Lever has a consistent, and a consistently stern, assessment of the Queen and, very properly, is continually quoting the strictures of a tribunal of well-informed observers, including Mercy d’Argenteau, Baron Pichler, the Abbé de Veri, and the Queen’s brother, the Emperor Joseph II. But on top of this, Lever levels at her a fusillade of her own, of criticisms and rebukes and condemnations. “Deprived of real ambition, the princess naively believes that her new status gives her full liberty to lead her life according to her own wishes, to satisfy her caprices, to be adulated, admired, loved”; “…a real taste for power and a skill that she was far frompossessing”; “her unbelievable light-headedness”; “the obstinacy of this spoiled child, lacking in the slightest experience”; “the emptiness of the Queen’s head.”
I think that Lever overdoes this. But at least it means that her books, and ones like them, cannot be classed as “history.” The Goncourt brothers, in their enraptured hagiography of Marie-Antoinette, speak of the “justice of History” toward her,5 and Sainte-Beuve, in his essay on Marie-Antoinette,6 speaks of the “definitive judgment of history” on her. This idea of “History” passing judgment on a person seems to me a bad one. Can History be said to have passed judgment on Oliver Cromwell or Shelley? A judgment has been passed on Nero and Caligula, but this was done by their contemporaries, not by History. Sainte-Beuve would have done better to say that Marie-Antoinette’s place is with history, because history does not pass judgment.
Month by month, throughout all Marie-Antoinette’s earlier years as dauphine and queen, her tutor the Abbé Vermond and the Austrian ambassador Mercy-Argenteau—men she regarded as kindly and fatherly friends—would send detailed and critical reports on her doings to the Empress Maria Theresa. “She would never know,” writes Lever, “that Vermond and Mercy were the first to betray her”; and, no doubt, had she found out about these secret reports, she would indeed have regarded them as a “betrayal.” But this would be to consider things from a personal point of view, which is something a historian cannot afford to do. No doubt Vermond and Mercy, since their loyalties lay elsewhere, would not have thought it a betrayal, and it is not for a historian to take sides.
The truth is, a “historical biography” has more in common with a novel than with history. It tends, like the novel, to appeal to the standards of private ethics and the psychology of private life; and this, which makes admirable sense in a novel by Jane Austen or Henry James, produces an effect of unreality in a royal biography.
From the early days of her reign Marie-Antoinette was exposed to a stream of the most savage pornographic satire. It is said she succeeded in ignoring it, and perhaps she did, though it is hard to imagine. Chantal Thomas’s book The Wicked Queen, about the vilification of Marie-Antoinette in pornographic pamphlets, songs, and poems, first appeared, as La Reine scélérate, in 1989, the bicentenary of the French Revolution. It makes the excellent and essential point that no attempt should be made, as was sometimes done in the past, to link these writings with their real-life subject, either as “outrageous slander” or as her “just deserts.” This form of literature was self-generating. As Thomas rightly says, “The excessive style of the pamphleteer knew no limits. It had to always go a further step in evil. Always worse.” Also, it was a tradition, and Louis XV and Cardinal Mazarin, among others, had been exposed to it earlier, though it acquired a new and frightening force with the Revolution. The writers of this stuff were, of course, hired to manufacture it, for political purposes. A libelle of the period describes this vividly:
A vile courtisan puts these infamies in rhyming couplets and through the intermediary of flunkeys distributes them all the way to the market place. From the markets they reach artisans, who in turn transmit them back to the noblemen who first wrought them and who, without wasting a minute, go to the royal chambers in Versailles and whisper from ear to ear in a tone of consummate hypocrisy, “Have you read them? Here they are. This is what is circulating among the common people in Paris.”7
Thomas’s is an important subject, then; but unfortunately her opening statement of principle goes rather awry. She was once a pupil of Roland Barthes, and she claims to be following the lead of his brilliant Mythologies, but in fact her approach is quite different. As she says herself, the “myths” that Barthes hunted down with such relish were of the what-goes-without-saying kind; their success in passing off the arbitrary and man-made as “Nature” and the eternal order of things depended, precisely, on not drawing attention to themselves—on not revealing themselves as myth. By contrast, the pornographic satires against Marie-Antoinette deliberately insist on the fabulousness and mythical quality, the supernatural and apocalyptic extremity, of her alleged wickedness.
Further, she draws a strange parallel between Marie-Antoinette and Sade. She says that their destinies were “in a certain way homologous…. They were both overtaken by the phantasmic power they unleashed, the one as author, the other as personality.” But—whether “homologous” or not—to be, like Marie-Antoinette, the victim of savage pornographic fantasy is surely just the opposite of being a producer of it, like Sade?
Thomas certainly anatomizes this venomous phantasmagoria with great thoroughness. All the relationships of the “Austrian whore,” whether with the Comte d’Artois or with her own brother Joseph II, were, these writings posit, occasions for “orgies.” Marie-Antoinette was, they said, a predatory lesbian, a devotee of dildos, a polymorphic pervert. Regarding the French as animals, she had kinship with “carnivorous and venomous animals” herself. She was a bacchante, a dreamer of bloodbaths, and the embodiment of uterine fury, indistinguishable from her womb.
Thomas is right to say that nothing whatever is to be learned about the Queen from this poisonous farrago. It is a phenomenon all of its own, and one detects ancestral echoes in it: reminiscences of witch-hunting, of millenarianism, of medieval Jew-baiting, and the like. Perhaps there is a “system” to this whole mode of thought, which further analysis could elicit.
One of the most terrifying moments in the story of Marie-Antoinette, however, comes when this delirious muck-raking, analyzed by Chantal Thomas, seemingly takes on a semblance of reality. While the Queen was a prisoner in the Temple, her eight-year-old son was taken away from her and placed under the “tuition” of a drunken cobbler named Simon. Simon caught the child masturbating, and when he questioned him about this, the child said he had been taught the practice by his mother. There followed a cross-examination by a committee, at which the child went on from accusation to accusation. He said that his mother would make him sleep between her and his aunt (the King’s sister Madame Elizabeth) and that “they amused themselves watching him repeat the practice in their presence,” and on one occasion he and his mother copulated. It left him with a swelling in one of his testicles, which had to be bandaged; and his mother advised him never to speak of it.
Marie-Antoinette refused to answer these charges, rising and exclaiming in a loud voice: “If I have not replied, it is because nature refuses to answer such a charge against a mother. I appeal to all the mothers who may be here present.” On sitting down again, she whispered to her lawyer: “Was there too much dignity in my reply?”
It is to Lever’s credit that, in both her books, she gives us the story. But, even more than the Diamond Necklace affair, it seems to belong to a class of events which biography, as opposed to history, is not equipped to cope with. Lever appears to feel this herself. She merely says in The Last Queen that it is a “despicable story,” without making it clear whom it should lead us to despise.
February 8, 2001
Memoirs of the Comte Alexandre de Tilly, translated by Françoise Delisle and with an introduction by Havelock Ellis (Gollancz, 1933), p. 69. ↩
Quoted by Evelyn Farr, Marie-Antoinette and Count Axel Fersen: An Untold Love Story (London: Peter Owen, 1995), p. 167. ↩
Mémoires de Madame Campan, edited by Jean Chalon and Carlos de Angulo (Paris: Mercure de France, 1988). ↩
Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire de la fin du dix-huitième siècle, edited by M. Georgel (Paris, 1817). ↩
Edmond and Jules Goncourt, His-toire de Marie-Antoinette (Paris, 1858), p. 26. ↩
One of his “Lundi”s, published on July 14, 1851. ↩
Quoted by Robert Darnton in his The Literary Underground (Harvard University Press, 1982), p. 201. It was rumored that Louis XVI’s younger brother, the Comte de Provence, was not above employing these hacks against the royal couple.Private Collection ↩