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The Lost King of France
"THE FINEST KINGDOM IN EUROPE"
Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.
--JEAN-JACQUES ROUSSEAU, SOCIAL CONTRACT, 1762
On Saturday, April 21, 1770, the Austrian archduchess, Maria-Antonia, left her home, the imperial palace of Hofburg in Vienna, forever and embarked on the long journey to France. On departure, in the courtyard in front of the palace, the royal entourage assembled. Two grand berlines lavishly upholstered in blue and crimson velvet and decorated with fine embroidery had been provided by the French ambassador to take Maria-Antonia to Paris. These were to be conveyed in a cavalcade of almost fifty carriages, each to be drawn by six horses, and an array of guards and out-riders. The whole of the Austrian court, in all its silken and bejewelled finery, attended this auspicious event. Maria-Antonia, the youngest daughter of the distinguished Empress Maria-Theresa and Emperor Franz I, was to marry the future king of France and, it was hoped, consolidate Austria's troubled relationship with France.
Maria-Antonia was slightly built with all the attractiveness of youth. "She has a most graceful figure; holds herself well; and if, as may be hoped, she grows a little taller, she will possess every good quality one could wish for in a great princess," wrote her tutor, the Abbé Jacques de Vermond, adding, "her heart and character are both excellent." Maria-Antonia hadlarge blue eyes, reddish blond hair and a good complexion; many even considered her a beauty. The aging French king, Louis XV, eagerly inquiring about the prospective Austrian bride for his grandson was told by officials that she had "a charming face and beautiful eyes." She had, however, inherited the Habsburg projecting lower lip and prominent brow, which prompted her mother, in preparations for the event, to bring a coiffeur from France to arrange her hair to soften the line of her forehead.
Maria-Antonia, the subject of all this detailed scrutiny, had had her future determined when she was thirteen. "Others make war but thou, O happy Austria, makest marriages" was a family motto. Her mother, the Empress Maria-Theresa, who was widely considered to be the best queen in Europe since Elizabeth I of England, ruled the Habsburg Empire. Her territories encompassed most of central Europe, reaching to parts of Romania in the east, regions of Germany in the north, south to Lombardy and Tuscany in Italy and west to the Austrian Netherlands, now Belgium. Some of this success was due to a series of strategic marriages, which were an important part of royal diplomacy. Maria-Antonia was the youngest of sixteen children, and several of her older sisters had already taken part in Austrian foreign policy. One sister was married to the governor general of the Austrian Netherlands, another became the Duchess of Parma, and a third, Maria-Antonia's favorite sister, Maria-Carolina, had become the queen of Naples--a role that at first she deplored. "The suffering is true martyrdom," Maria-Carolina wrote home, "made worse by being expected to look happy ... I pity Antonia who has yet to suffer it."
For the Empress Maria-Theresa, eclipsing all these marriages was the prospect of an alliance with the French. France was seen as the richest and most powerful state in Europe, and, with twenty-five million people, also the largest. Yet France had been Austria's enemy for over two hundred years. For many, a permanent alliance between the two former long-standing enemies seemed out of the question, even potentially dangerous. However, the empress was determined to secure a match between her youngest daughter and the dauphin of France. Such an important marriage would seal a politicalalliance and enable the two countries to work as allies against the growing Prussian influence.
Despite the exciting prospects that lay ahead, Maria-Antonia's departure from her home, and her mother in particular, was still an ordeal, according to one witness, Joseph Weber, the son of her former nurse. "The young Maria-Antonia burst into tears and the spectators, touched by the sight, shared the cruel sufferings of mother and daughter. Maria-Theresa ... took her into her arms and hugged her ... . 'Adieu, my dear daughter; a great distance is going to separate us, but be just, be humane and imbued with a sense of the duties of your rank and I will always be proud of the regrets which I shall always feel ... . Do so much good to the people of France that they will be able to say that I have sent them an angel.'" As her carriage departed, Maria-Antonia, "her face bathed with tears, covered her eyes now with a handkerchief, now with her hands, and put her head out of the window again and again, to see once more the palace of her fathers to which she would never return." All she had to represent her future was a miniature portrait of her future husband, Louis-Auguste, the dauphin.
Her magnificent cortège travelled for a week through Austria and Bavaria until finally they reached the frontier with France, on the banks of the Rhine River near Kehl. On an island in the middle of the river, Maria-Antonia had to undergo a ceremony in which she was symbolically stripped of her Austrian roots and was then reborn, robed in French attire. A magnificent wooden pavilion, over a hundred feet long, had been constructed, divided into two main sections. On one side were the courtiers from Vienna and on the other, from France. Once the formal ceremonies were completed the door to the French side was opened, and Maria-Antonia had to make her entrance into the French court, no longer as Maria-Antonia, but Marie-Antoinette. As she realized that the door to the Austrian side had closed behind her on all those familiar faces, she was overwhelmed, and "rushed" into the French side, "with tears in her eyes."
As she continued her journey into France she received a rapturous welcome. Every kind of extravagant preparation had been taken to honor theyoung princess. There were displays of all kinds; fireworks, dances, theater, great triumphal arches built, petals strewn before her feet, floating gardens on the river beneath her window, fountains flowing with wine, endless enthusiastic crowds, cheer upon cheer. If she had left the Austrian court in tears, her slow progress through France to such approbation could only fill her with every possible hope.
By May 14 she arrived at Compiègne, some forty miles northeast of Paris, where she was to meet her future husband, the dauphin, Louis-Auguste. Marie-Antoinette, by now well briefed on etiquette by her new advisor, the eminent Comtesse de Noailles, stepped from her carriage and sank into a deep curtsy before the king. Louis XV was still a handsome man whose regal presence eclipsed that of the shy and somewhat overweight sixteen-year-old standing next to him. If she was disappointed by her first impressions of her future husband, there is no record of it. Others, however, have left a less-than-favorable account. "Nature seems to have denied everything to Monsieur le dauphin," Maria-Theresa's ambassador in France had reported, somewhat harshly. "In his bearing and words, the prince displays a very limited amount of sense, great plainness and no sensitivity." Indeed, the tall, ungainly youth was more than a little awkward with his prospective bride. When Marie-Antoinette politely kissed him he seemed unsure of himself and promptly moved away.
It took twenty-three days from leaving the Hofburg in Vienna before they reached Versailles on May 16, 1770. As the cavalcade of carriages turned into the drive that sunny morning the vast scale of the magnificent chateau came into view. Once the dream of the Sun King, Louis XIV, who had transformed it from a hunting lodge to a sumptuous estate and symbol of royal power, Versailles gave off an immediate impression of classical grandeur, ionic columns, arched windows and balustrades receding into the distance as far as the eye could see. The ornamental facade of the main block alone, in brick and honey-colored stone, stretched over one-third of a mile. This was the administrative center of Europe's most powerful state, nothing less than a town for up to ten thousand people: the royal family and theirentourage, several thousand courtiers and their servants, the king's household troops, Swiss guards, musketeers, gendarmes and countless other staff and visitors.
Marie-Antoinette was taken to the ground-floor apartments where her ladies-in-waiting were to prepare her for her wedding. But nothing was to prepare the princess for the lavishness of the palace; the Hofburg in Austria was modest by comparison. The reception rooms were of an unbelievable richness and elegance, and the draped and canopied beds of the royal apartments had more in common with Cleopatra's silken barge than the planks and straw of the common lot. Then there were the endless mirrored panels of the vast Galerie des Glaces where courtiers were assembling to greet her. This famous Hall of Mirrors was the talk of Europe, with its four hundred thousand reflected candles, and beyond, the tall western windows; the perfect view with its enchanted blue distance held forever in mirrors, gold and more gold, the sparkle of diamonds and the finest crystal. It could not fail to seduce the senses and beguile the emperor's daughter as to her assured prospects at Versailles.
The marriage ceremony took place later that day in the gilt and white chapel at Versailles. In this regal setting, Bourbon kings were traditionally christened and married, secure in the knowledge of their "divine right" as monarch. Standing before the carved marble altar, the dauphin, dressed in cloth of gold studded with diamonds, found the whole procedure something of an ordeal. "He trembled excessively during the service," wrote one eyewitness. "He appeared to have more timidity than his little wife and blushed up to his eyes when he gave [her] the ring." Marie-Antoinette, her slender figure seeming lost in her voluminous white brocade gown, was sufficiently nervous that when she signed the register, she spilled some ink.
The ceremony was followed by a grand reception in the Galerie des Glaces for over six thousand guests, and a sumptuous wedding feast in the Opera House, which was inaugurated in their honor. Afterward, following customary French etiquette, the bride and groom were prepared for bed in a very public ritual where the king himself gave the nightshirt to his grandson.Yet for all the weeks of imposing preparations in anticipation of this happy moment, when the sheets were checked in the morning, there was no evidence that the marriage had been consummated.
The aging king "was enchanted with the young dauphine," observed her First Lady of the Bedchamber, Henriette Campan; "all his conversation was about her graces, her vivacity, and the aptness of her repartees." But her new husband was not so appreciative. Rumors soon began to circulate that the dauphin was impotent or had difficulty making love. He showed only "the most mortifying indifference, and a coldness which frequently degenerated into rudeness," continued Madame Campan, whose memoirs as the queen's maid convey many intimate details of Marie-Antoinette's early years in France. "Not even all her charms could gain upon his senses; he threw himself, as a matter of duty, upon the bed of the dauphine, and often fell asleep without saying a single word to her!" When Marie-Antoinette expressed her concerns in a letter to her mother, the empress advised her not to be too impatient with her husband, since increasing his uneasiness would only make matters worse. Nonetheless, Marie-Antoinette was worried and "deeply hurt" by his lack of physical interest in her.
The dauphin was in fact a serious, well-intentioned young man who suffered from a chronic lack of confidence and self-assertiveness. As a child, Louis had felt himself to be in the shadow of his brothers; first his brilliant older brother who had died at the age of ten, and then his younger brothers, the clever and calculating Comte de Provence--who wanted the throne for himself--and the handsome Comte d'Artois. To add to his sense of insecurity, when Louis was eleven, his father had died of tuberculosis, to be followed soon afterward by his mother--a loss which he felt deeply. Increasingly anxious about whether he was equal to his future role, he withdrew, absorbing himself in his studies, especially history, or pursuing his passion for the hunt. Somewhat incongruously for a future king, he also loved lock-making and had a smithy and forge installed next to his library. Marie-Antoinette did not share his interest in history or reading and thought his smithying quite ridiculous. "You must agree that I wouldn't look verybeautiful standing in a forge," she told a friend. Her mother, the empress, was increasingly concerned about their apparent incompatibility.
For the public, however, the fortunate young couple symbolized all the promise of a new age. When Louis and Marie-Antoinette made their first ceremonial entrance into Paris on June 8, 1773, there was jubilant cheering. Their cortège clattered across the streets of the capital, which had been strewn with flowers. "There was such a great crowd," wrote Marie-Antoinette, "that we remained for three-quarters of an hour without being able to go forwards or backwards." When they finally appeared on the balcony of the Palace of the Tuileries, the crowds were ecstatic and their cheers increased as the dauphine smiled. Hats were thrown in the air with abandon, handkerchiefs were waving and everyone was enthusiastic. "Madame, they are two hundred thousand of your lovers," murmured the governor of Paris, the Due de Brissac, as he saw the sea of admiring faces.
The following year, their protected lives were to change dramatically. On April 27, 1774, Louis XV was dining with his mistress when he became feverish with a severe headache. The next day, at Versailles, he broke out in a rash. The diagnosis was serious: smallpox. Within a few days, as his body became covered with foul-smelling sores, it was apparent that the king was suffering from a most virulent form of the disease. Louis and Marie-Antoinette had no chance to pay their last respects; they were forbidden to visit him. In less than two weeks, the once handsome body in his exquisite gilded bed festooned in gold brocade appeared to be covered in one huge, unending black scab.
For those who could not come near the sickroom, a candle had been placed near the window, which was to be extinguished the instant the king died. Louis and Marie-Antoinette were waiting together, watching the flickering light at the window with growing apprehension. When the flame went out, "suddenly a dreadful noise, absolutely like thunder," wrote Madame Campan, was heard in the outer apartment. "This extraordinary tumult ... was the crowd of courtiers who were deserting the dead sovereign's antechamber to come and bow to the new power of Louis XVI." The courtiers threwthemselves on their knees with cries of "Le roi est mort: vive le roi," The whole scene was overwhelming for the nineteen-year-old king and his eighteen-year-old queen. "Pouring forth a flood of tears, [they] exclaimed: 'God guide and protect us! We are too young to govern.'"
The coronation ceremony was held on a very hot day in June 1775. Louis-Auguste walked up the aisle of Rheims Cathedral dressed in stately splendor. He was anointed with oil and bore the sword of Charlemagne as the crown of France was solemnly lowered onto his head. Such was the magnificence of the occasion and the jubilation of the crowds that Marie-Antoinette was overwhelmed and had to leave the gallery to wipe away her tears. When she returned, the spectators in the packed cathedral cheered once again and the king's eyes were full of appreciation for his young wife. "Even if I were to live for two hundred years," Marie-Antoinette wrote ecstatically to her mother, she would never forget the wonderful day. "I can only be amazed by the will of Providence that I, the youngest of your children, should have become queen of the finest kingdom in Europe."
However, "the finest kingdom in Europe" that they had inherited was not all that it appeared. The visible outward signs of great wealth that greeted Marie-Antoinette every day in the sheer size and opulence of Versailles disguised a huge national debt. Their predecessors, Louis XIV and Louis XV, had pursued policies that had driven France to the verge of bankruptcy. A succession of expensive wars had aggravated the problem. In the War of Austrian Succession spanning 1740 to 1748, France had fought as an ally of Prussia against Austria, the Netherlands and Britain. Eight years later, between 1756 and 1763, Louis XV reversed France's historic hostility to Austria by allying with them against Britain and Prussia in the Seven Years' War. These two wars alone cost France 2.8 billion livres, much of which could only be paid by borrowing.
These problems were compounded by an ancient system of taxation that exacted more from the poor than the rich. The fast-growing population of France was divided into three "Estates." The First Estate consisted of around 100,000 clergy. Almost half a million nobility comprised the Second Estate.The Third Estate were the commoners, the vast majority of the population, consisting of the peasants, wage earners and bourgeoisie. Under this increasingly despised system, the first two Estates, the clergy and nobility, were largely exempt from taxes, even though they were the wealthiest. They also enjoyed traditional privileges over the Third Estate, whose members could rarely achieve high rank, such as officer in the army.
As a result of tax exemptions for the nobility and clergy, the tax base was small and fell disproportionately on those least able to pay. Louis XV had repeatedly failed to tackle the problem of taxation reform; time and time again, he faced opposition from nobles and clergy who were not going to give up their tax concessions. Since he could not raise money by increasing taxation, he was obliged to borrow still more. Far from inheriting a wealthy nation, by the 1770s, the king faced a government deficit that was huge and growing, as annual expenditure continued to exceed revenue.
The unjust system of taxation underlined huge disparities in wealth. Peasants felt increasingly insecure as many found that their incomes were dwindling and their debts were rising. Their problems were compounded by the fact that France was still almost entirely an agricultural nation. Only around half a million people produced manufactured goods, so there were few exports to cover the cost of imports of wheat when the harvest failed. One traveller, François de La Rochefoucauld, commenting on the incredible hardships of the peasants he observed in Brittany, declared, "They really are slaves ... . Their poverty is excessive. They eat a sort of porridge made of buckwheat; it is more like glue than food." Indeed, the extreme wealth of the nobles in their magnificent chateaux in contrast to the wretched poverty of many of the people could not have been more plain for all to see.
In eighteenth-century France, there was no institutional framework that would readily allow Louis XVI to tackle these fundamental problems. Administratively it was a fragmented nation, each region with completely separate customs, taxes, even different measurements and weights. Each region jealously protected its own interests and independence, which had grown up around local parlements, thirteen parlements in all. These parlements were not like the English parliament of elected representatives. They were lawcourts of magistrates and lawyers who had paid for their seats and who used them, not to represent the people, but principally to further their own interests. Although the king could formally overrule a parlement or dissolve it, conflicts with parlement had been a feature of Louis XV's reign and had stifled modernizing reforms.
As absolute monarch, the king had authority over the military and the national system of justice, and he could determine levels of taxation and influence the clergy. The difficulty was in exercising this power when the country was politically divided. Louis XVI faced a situation where no section of society was satisfied. The nobles wanted to restore ancient rights and to resist any tax changes, the bourgeoisie resented the privileges of the nobles, and the commoners criticized the tax system. The British ambassador, Lord David Murray Stormont, captured the difficulties: "Every instrument of faction, every court engine is constantly at work, and the whole is such a scene of jealousy, cabal and intrigue that no enemy need wish it more." As a young, rather idealistic man, Louis XVI earnestly wished to enhance the reputation of the monarchy and build a more prosperous France, yet he knew this would require major unpopular reforms.
One of the king's first priorities was to cut back the nation's debt. To do this he had to reduce state expenditure, starting with Versailles. Versailles just soaked up money; the palace was in need of repair and some servants had not been paid for years. Even before he was king, Louis spent nearly a quarter of his allowance in back payment to staff. He continued to be strict about the royal family's spending and repaying debts. Provence, Artois and their wives were ordered to eat with him and the queen at Versailles to minimize demands on their own expensive households, and he discouraged the many extravagant noblemen at court from living beyond their means.
He appointed as finance minister Anne-Robert Jacques Turgot, who tried to increase state revenue by stimulating the economy. He removed restrictions on the grain trade between the thirteen different regions and promoted light industry by suppressing the powerful guilds that would not allow nonmembers to practice a trade. This was achieved with some success. Louis was also able to introduce other reforms. He passed measures to improvethe appalling state of prisons in France and abolished the barbaric practice of torturing accused prisoners which, up until then, had been regarded as a legitimate means to get at the truth of a man's innocence or guilt. However, for all his humanitarian instincts, he failed to get to grips with tax reform, and the nation's debt continued to rise.
While Louis XVI was trying to come to terms with his role as king, Marie-Antoinette was creating her new life as queen. She quickly understood that she was barred from politics but soon found there were other ways of exercising her power at Versailles. As dauphine she had made no secret of the fact that she disliked the time-consuming exacting etiquette and formality of the French court where, she felt, her life was lived "in front of the whole world." Depending on their rank, courtiers could attend the rising or lever of the monarch and his family, and in the evening the ceremony for undressing, or coucher. For the all-too-frequent public meals, or grand couvert, the royal family could be watched dining by any member of the public who was suitably attired.
The queen's disregard for ceremony shocked the more traditional courtiers in Versailles, who observed her on occasion to yawn or giggle during an event, perhaps disguising her expression with her fan. Needless to say, the young queen was continually reproved by her advisor on social etiquette, Madame de Noailles. Yet "Madame Etiquette," as Marie-Antoinette called her, failed to inspire her protégée with the significance of these rituals. "Madame de Noailles held herself bolt upright with a most severe face," observed Madame Campan, and "merely succeeded in boring the young princess." It wasn't long before Madame Etiquette lost her post altogether and this was followed by many relaxations in court ceremony. Madame Campan, who had lived at Versailles since her youth when she was employed as reader to the princesses of Louis XV, was concerned at the harm this might do her mistress: "An inclination to substitute by degrees the simple customs of Vienna for those of Versailles proved more injurious to her than she could have possibly have imagined." Her insensitivity to the French way of doing things was adding to the slowly creeping distrust of a foreign queen.
As Marie-Antoinette gained confidence, she began to place her own stamp on court life. She soon found she could patronize friends of her own choosing, such as the Princesse de Lamballe, of the royal House of Savoy. They had become friends at a winter sleigh party, where according to Madame Campan, the princess, "with all the brilliancy and freshness of youth, looked like Spring peeping from under sable and ermine." Lamballe had been widowed at nineteen, when her husband died of syphilis. Marie-Antoinette found in her a sensitive confidante and soon appointed her Superintendent of the Queen's Household, a move that caused uproar since there were others whose rank made them much more suited for the post. Unlike the Princesse de Lamballe, another intimate friend, Gabrielle de Polignac, was drawn from the impoverished nobility. Gabrielle was a generous-spirited, levelheaded girl with a taste for simplicity. The queen found her husband an official position at Versailles so that Gabrielle, too, could live at the court. It wasn't long before the queen was bestowing favors to numerous other members of the Polignac family.
With her newfound friends, Marie-Antoinette's life became more fun and increasingly indulgent: a whirlwind of masked balls, plays and operas in Paris, as well as race meetings and hunting parties. Even Madame Campan, who invariably wrote appreciatively of her mistress, was critical. "Pleasure was the sole pursuit of everyone of this young family, with the exception of the king," she wrote. "Their love of it was perpetually encouraged by a crowd of those officious people, who by anticipating their desires ... hoped to gain or secure favor for themselves." Who would have dared, she asks, to check the amusements of this young, lively and handsome queen? "A mother or husband alone had the right to do it!" Although the king rarely joined her for these social events, he threw no impediment in her way. "His long indifference had been followed by feelings of admirations and love. He was a slave to all the wishes of the queen." However, her mother, hearing of these indulgences, was quick to warn her daughter in frequent letters from Austria: "I foresee nothing but grief and misery for you."
Gambling soon became another irresistible occupation for the young queen, who managed to accumulate heavy debts, which her husband settledfrom his private income. Constantly frugal himself, Louis failed to impose this self-discipline on his young wife.
Worse criticism was to come when she began to ring up bills for diamonds, followed by more diamonds, in ever increasing size and quantity until her mother in some distraction wrote, "A queen can only degrade herself by such impossible behavior and degrades herself even more by this sort of heedless extravagance, especially in difficult times ... . I hope I shall not live to see the disaster which is all too likely to occur." Marie-Antoinette replied, "I would not have thought anyone could have bothered you about such bagatelles."
Inevitably, all this played into the hands of the rumormongers. Malicious gossip soon spread about how much money she was spending. Apart from jewels and clothes--around 170 creations a year, not to mention her famous hairdresser, Leonard Hautier, who came out from Paris each day to create a powdered, coiffured fantasy up to three feet high--she also lavished money on the Petit Trianon. This was an elegant neoclassical pavilion about a mile from Versailles given to her by the king, which she refurbished to her own taste, including the creation of an English-style garden. This little private heaven was a place where Marie-Antoinette could escape the suffocating etiquette of court and enjoy being informal with her friends; but of course, the money poured into the Petit Trianon, together with enormous sums spent on generously favoring her friends, created jealousy and hostility among those who were not so favored. Courtiers frustrated not to be part of her inner circle maliciously called the Petit Trianon "Little Vienna."
Her Austrian blood still rankled with many in France. All too many nobles had had relatives killed by Austrians in recent wars or at least had fought against Austrian troops. The queen's apparent contempt for French customs soon made her enemies among the nobility. "Apart from a few favorites ... everyone was excluded from the royal presence," complained one nobleman, the Due de Lévis-Mirepoix. "Rank, service, reputation, and birth were no longer enough to gain admittance." Some nobles, he said, stayed away from Versailles, rather than endure snubs from such a young, apparently light-headed and frivolous foreigner.
Yet she was not without admirers; she particularly cultivated the good-looking and fashionable men, such as the king's youngest brother, Artois. With his cosmopolitan air and ease with women, he was only too happy to oblige the king and escort the queen to countless social events. On one occasion, in January 1774, at a masquerade at the Opera in Paris, through her grey velvet mask, Marie-Antoinette found herself talking to a tall, attractive man with a somewhat serious expression. He was finishing a European grand tour and, as he talked, she realised he had a delightful Swedish accent. Always drawn to foreigners, she became interested in this aristocratic stranger who was so at ease in Parisian high society. The glamorous Count Axel Fersen made an instant impression.
Not surprisingly, her relationship with her husband was under strain. Anxious about his new role as king, he seemed intimidated by this sophisticated and beautiful wife whom he could not satisfy. "The king fears her, rather than loves her," observed one courtier, who noticed the king seemed much happier and more relaxed when she was absent. Marie-Antoinette, in turn, chose the company of young men full of energy and wit who would flatter and amuse her; she found it difficult to be patient with such a dull and unexciting husband. Yet they both wanted the marriage to succeed and, in particular, they both wanted an heir.
However, as the years passed, no heir was produced, which incited much malicious gossip. In the autumn of 1775, five years into the marriage, Parisian women were heard shouting revolting obscenities at Marie-Antoinette at a race meeting, mocking her for not giving birth to a dauphin. In the same year she wrote to her mother to tell her about the birth of Artois's first son, the Due d'Angoulême, now third in line to the throne. "There's no need to tell you, dear Mama, how much it hurts me to see an heir to the throne who isn't mine." Despite this pressure, Louis remained, to say the least, rather uninterested in sex. The best doctors were consulted and various diagnoses were made, although no serious impediment to the match was found. Marie-Antoinette told her mother that she tried to entice her husband to spend more time with her, and reported enthusiastically early in 1776 that "his body seemed to be becoming firmer."
The empress, however, required much more than this to seal the all-important political alliance. The following year, in April 1777, Marie-Antoinette's brother, now the Emperor Joseph, came to visit Versailles, charged, amongst other things, with trying to ascertain why no heir was forthcoming. Joseph was enchanted with his sister, whom he described as "delightful ... a little young and inclined to be rash, but with a core of honesty and virtue that deserves respect." It would appear from Joseph's private letters afterwards to his brother Leopold of Tuscany that during his six-week stay he did not shrink from probing the intimate details of their marriage: "In the conjugal bed, here is the secret. He [Louis] has excellent erections, inserts his organ, remains there without stirring for perhaps two minutes, and then withdraws without ever discharging and, still erect, he bids his wife goodnight. It is incomprehensible." Joseph continued, "He ought to be whipped, to make him ejaculate, as one whips donkeys!" As for Marie-Antoinette, he wrote that she is not "amorously inclined," and together they are "a couple of awkward duffers"!
Joseph reproved his sister for not showing her husband more affection. "Aren't you cold and disinterested when he caresses you or tries to speak to you?" he challenged her. "Don't you look bored, even disgusted? If it's true, then how can you possibly expect such a cold-blooded man to make love to you?" Marie-Antoinette evidently took his advice to heart. That summer, she was elated to tell her mother that at last she had experienced "the happiness so essential for my entire life." The king and queen's sexual awakening brought them closer together and, early the following year, she reported that "the king spends three or four nights a week in my bed and behaves in a way that fills me with hope." Some weeks later, Marie-Antoinette proudly announced to her husband that she was at last expecting a baby. Louis was overjoyed.
On December 19, 1778, Marie-Antoinette went into labor. At Versailles, a royal birth, like eating or dressing, was a public ritual, open to spectators who wished to satisfy themselves that the new baby was born to the queen. As the bells rang out, "torrents of inquisitive persons poured into the chamber," wrote Madame Campan. The rush was "so great and tumultous" thatit was impossible to move; some courtiers were even standing on the furniture. "So motley a gathering," protested the First Lady of the Bedchamber, "one would have thought oneself in a place of public amusement!" Finally, when the baby was born, there was no sound, and Marie-Antoinette began to panic, thinking it was stillborn. At the first cry, the queen was so elated and exhausted by the effort that she was quite overcome. "Help me, I'm dying," she cried as she turned very pale and lost consciousness.
The Princesse de Lamballe, horrified by the agony of her friend, also collapsed and was taken out "insensible." The windows, which had been sealed to keep out drafts, were hurriedly broken to get more air, courtiers were thrown out, the queen was bled, hot water fetched. It took some time for the queen to regain consciousness. At this point "we were all embracing each other and shedding tears of joy," writes Madame Campan, caught up in "transports of delight" that the queen "was restored to life." A twenty-one-gun salute rang out to announce the birth of a daughter: Princesse Marie-Thérèse-Charlotte, or Madame Royale. "Poor little girl," the queen is reported to have said as she cradled her daughter. "You are not what was desired, but you are no less dear to me on that account. A son would have been the property of the state. You shall be mine."
Despite this success, there was still great pressure on Marie-Antoinette to conceive a male heir. To her delight, early in 1781, she found she was pregnant again. After the traumas of Marie-Thérèse's very public delivery, spectators were banned from the next birth. In fact, there was such deep silence in the room as the newborn emerged that the queen imagined she had again only produced a daughter. Then the king, overwhelmed with pride and delight, "tears streaming from his eyes," came up to the queen and said, "Madame, you have fulfilled my wishes and those of France. You are the mother of a dauphin."
A hundred and one cannon heralded the long awaited birth of a son, Louis-Joseph. The news was greeted by wild celebrations: fireworks, festivities and fountains of wine in Paris. There was such "universal joy," said Madame Campan, that complete strangers "stopped one another in the street and spoke without being acquainted." A delegation of Parisian artisans andcraftsmen came to Versailles with generous gifts for the young child. The king, at last showing confidence, was all smiles, remaining on the balcony a long time to savor the sight and constantly taking the opportunity to say with great pleasure, "my son, the dauphin." The royal line had an heir and the continuity of the monarchy seemed assured.
Nevertheless, for all triumphant public displays, the monarchy was being imperceptibly undermined, sinking slowing beneath an ocean of debt. Furthermore, like his forebears, Louis XVI had found himself drawn into policies that added to the debt. He had agreed to provide secret funds to help General Washington's army in America against Britain and soon sent troops and supplies as well. Support for the American Revolution against the British was popular in France. Many wanted to retaliate for the defeats suffered in Seven Years' War, such as the Marquis de La Fayette, whose father had been killed by the British. La Fayette set sail for America in 1777 and was soon appointed major general, serving George Washington. His daring exploits were widely reported in France as he led his men in several victorious campaigns.
Louis XVI had found himself increasingly involved in the American war. In 1778, he recognized the American Declaration of Independence and signed a military alliance with the Americans. The eight thousand French soldiers who went to America made a significant difference in the war against England. Much to her disappointment, the queen's favorite, Count Fersen, was one of many who volunteered to join the French expeditionary corps. However, as the fighting dragged on, the French government was forced to spend heavily to finance the military campaign against England.
A succession of finance ministers came and went, seemingly unable to get to grips with the deficit. Instead of reforming the tax system, Louis tried to solve the problem without alienating the aristocracy. Each year he was forced to borrow more to balance the budget, sinking further and further into debt. When his reforming finance minister, Turgot, tried to change this, he became so unpopular at court, especially with Marie-Antoinette, that he was dismissed.
His successor, Jacques Necker, a Swiss banker appointed in June 1777,attempted to reorganize the tax system but soon became embroiled in further borrowing at increasingly exorbitant interest rates. In 1781, in an attempt to win the confidence of creditors, he published the Compte Rendu, a highly favorable report of the state's finances. His ambitious plan failed. His figures were challenged and in the ensuing furor, finding he did not have the full support of Louis XVI, he resigned.
He was succeeded in 1783 by his rival, Charles Alexandre de Calonne. Calonne tried to tackle the problem by boosting the economy with increased state spending, especially on manufacturing. This only served to deepen the crisis, and he was forced to contemplate further taxes. To add to the difficulties, a long agricultural depression gripped the country and inflation was rising. All this was exacerbated by the effects of the American war.
Although the French secured a victory against England in the American War of Independence, aid to the Americans between 1776 and 1783 had added around 1.3 billion livres to the spiralling national debt. And there was another hidden cost of supporting America: the returning men, inspired by what they had seen overseas, brought back revolutionary ideas.
During the Enlightenment of eighteenth-century France, writers like Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau had set out radical new ideas in political philosophy. Voltaire's Philosophical Letters of 1733 indicted the French system of government and were suppressed. He continued to challenge all manifestations of tyranny by the privileged few in church or state. Rousseau's Social Contract, published in 1762, tackled the great themes of liberty and virtue and the role of the state, creating a new sense of possibilities and opportunities. Intellectuals began to reject established systems of government; "reason," they argued, had greater value than the king's claim to a "divine right," and they no longer saw the monarch's rights and privileges as unchallengeable. Political issues became much more widely debated in the salons and academies of Paris. Why support a system that had the great mass of the populace in chains to their abject poverty? Surely the people, rather than the king, should determine levels of taxation? Is a republic morally superior to a monarchy? Educated Frenchmen began to see in America's Declaration of Independence a better model to follow. With the establishmentof the American constitution there was a practical alternative to the monarchy of France.
The growing discontent with the government found a tangible focus in the popular press through the increasingly vitriolic portrayal of the queen. Although with the responsibilities of motherhood she had begun to moderate her earlier excesses and spent much time with her children, she had many enemies at court and the slanders continued unabated. In the streets of Paris, pornography, cartoons, prints and libelles poured out an endless barrage of spiteful criticism which, before long, became common truths throughout France. The production of these pamphlets was a commercial enterprise, and writers fought to outdo each other in their ever-more-out-rageous copy. The queen was portrayed as wildly frivolous and extravagant with no care for the welfare of her people. Much was made of her seven years of childlessness and she was accused of lesbian relationships, especially with her favorites, Gabrielle de Polignac, and the superintendent of the household, the Princesse de Lamballe: "In order to have children, Cupid must widen Aphrodite's door. This Antoinette knows, and she tires out more than one work lady widening that door. What talents are employed! The superintendent works away. Laughter, games, little fingers, all her exploits proved in vain."
Even when she fulfilled her role as mother, she was portrayed as unfaithful, turning the king of France into a "perfect cuckold."
Our lascivious queen With Artois the debauched Together with no trouble Commit the sweet sin But what of it How could one find harm in that?
These calumnies demonizing the queen became increasingly explicit and obscene. The Love Life of Charlie and Toinette, published in 1779, outlines in graphic detail the "impotence of L------- whose matchstick ... is alwayslimp and curled up," and how "Toinette feels how sweet it is to be well and truly fucked" by Artois. In the pamphlets and libelles, the queen's voracious sexual appetite required more than one lover; Fersen, Artois and others were implicated. There was even a fake autobiography, A Historical Essay on the Life of Marie-Antoinette, which first appeared in the early 1780s and proved so popular it was continually updated, purporting to be her own confession as a "barbaric queen, adulterous wife, woman without morals, soiled with crime and debauchery, these are the titles that are my decorations." Yet for many her worst crime was undeniable: she was Austrian. To the gutter press of Paris, in addition to all her other failings, she was invariably "l'Autrichienne," stressing the second half of the word, chienne, or bitch.
In March 1785, Marie-Antoinette had a second son, Louis-Charles, Duc de Normandie. Could Count Axel Fersen have fathered this child, as some historians have suggested? He was the only man out of the many named in the libelles with whom the queen might have had an affair. There is no doubt of their mutual attraction, yet historians cannot agree over the nature of their relationship. Was this a courtly romance, where Fersen discreetly adored the queen from a distance? Or was this a romantic passion with many secret rendezvous in the privacy of her gardens at Trianon? The many deletions in Marie-Antoinette's correspondence with Fersen, made years later by the Fersen family, make the matter impossible to resolve. The most likely conclusion is that, although it is likely that they had an affair, there is no evidence that Louis XVI was not Louis-Charles's father. Quite the reverse. Courtiers noted that the date of conception did indeed neatly coincide with the dates of the king's visits to his wife's bedroom.
However, so successfully had lampoonists demolished the queen's reputation that when she made her traditional ceremonial entry into Paris after the birth of her second son, there was not a single cheer from the crowd. As she walked though the dark interior of Notre Dame toward the great sunlit western door and square beyond, the awesome silence of the crowd was the menacing backdrop as the clatter of horses' hooves rang out in the spring air. It was in stark contrast to the tumultuous celebrations that had greeted her on her arrival in Paris as a young girl. The queen, distraughtby this hostility, returned to Versailles crying out, "What have I done to them?"
She could no longer turn to her mother in Austria for advice. The Empress Maria-Theresa never had the satisfaction of knowing that her daughter had finally provided two male heirs. After a short illness, she had died of inflammation of the lungs. Marie-Antoinette was inconsolable, reported Madame Campan. "She kept herself shut up in her closet for several days ... saw none but the royal family, and received none but the Princesse de Lamballe and the Duchesse de Polignac." Even at a distance, her mother had been a powerful influence in her life, constantly providing shrewd and critical guidance. She felt her isolation now, in a foreign court, with all the responsibilities of queen, wife and mother.
Marie-Antoinette did have one treasured memento of her mother, a lock of her hair, which she wore close to her skin. And in Austria, concealed in the empress's rosary, there was a small token of her distant daughter. The delicate chain of black rosary beads was entwined with sixteen gold medallions, each one encasing locks of hair from her children. After her death, the rosary passed to her oldest daughter, the invalid, Maria-Anna, who lived in the Elizabethinen convent in Klagenfurt. These small symbols of the empress's children were all but forgotten. In time, they would assume great significance.
THE LOST KING OF FRANCE. Copyright © 2002 by Deborah Cadbury. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.