To the Scaffold: The Life of Marie Antoinette

To the Scaffold: The Life of Marie Antoinette

by Carolly Erickson

Paperback(First Edition)

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312322052
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 07/01/2004
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 539,144
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.87(d)

About the Author

Distinguished historian Carolly Erickson is the author of Rival to the Queen, The Memoirs of Mary Queen of Scots, The First Elizabeth, The Hidden Life of Josephine, The Last Wife of Henry VIII, and many other prize-winning works of fiction and nonfiction. Her novel The Tsarina's Daughter won the Romantic Times Reviewer's Choice Award for Best Historical Fiction. She lives in Hawaii.

Read an Excerpt

To The Scaffold

The Life Of Marie Antoinette

By Carolly Erickson

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 1991 Carolly Erickson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-0405-6


IN the birth chamber the cold November wind gusted through the open windows, lifting the rich cloth hangings and rustling the long skirts of the midwife and her assistants. Maria Theresa, Empress of Austria, sat patiently while the court dentist probed her tender gums, feeling for the decayed tooth that had been hurting her for the past several days.

Her labor pains had begun earlier that afternoon, and it had occurred to her that, as long as she was going to be in labor, she might as well undergo the agony of having the tooth extracted at the same time. So she sat in stoic silence as the dentist completed his examination, gripped the aching tooth with his cruel instruments and, with a practiced twist of his wrist, wrenched it out of her mouth.

Combining childbirth with dentistry was painful, but efficient — and Maria Theresa was a ruler of exemplary efficiency. Besides, as she had good reason to know, having given birth fourteen times before, nothing happened in the early hours of labor. She was not in the habit of wasting time. So, having recovered from the shock of the extraction, and with rolls of cloth in her mouth to absorb the bleeding, she called for her papers and sat for the next several hours reading and signing official documents, clutching her abdomen every now and again when the spasms became acute.

It had been the same the last time she gave birth, seventeen months earlier. Then too she had worked up until the last minute, making no concessions to her condition in the last month of herpregnancy except to attend the theater less often, and when she did attend, to leave early, "always having so much to do," as her Lord High Chamberlain Count Khevenhüller noted in his court diary. She did keep to her room more than usual in the last weeks, but not in order to rest; her secretaries brought her the usual piles of papers to read and sign, and she worked long hours at her desk. When her labor began, there was some trepidation among the courtiers, for the midwife who customarily delivered the imperial infants had died, and the new midwife appointed to replace her, though expert, had never attended the delivery of an empress before. Maria Theresa, however, had every confidence in her — and in herself. While her labor progressed she conferred with her ministers and with her husband Francis, and sat in on an important conference, before finally retiring to the birth chamber and bringing her fourth son, Ferdinand, into the world.

This labor promised to go as smoothly as the last one had, and to be integrated with equal ease into the Empress's ongoing labors of governing. The chilly afternoon gave way to an even colder evening, and still she sat poring over her papers. As the birth did not seem to be imminent, her husband saw no reason to stay near at hand. He went to Mass, this being Sunday and the Day of the Dead, at the Augustinian convent adjacent to the palace. The courtiers, having been alerted to the fact that the Empress was closeted in the birth chamber, prepared themselves to offer their formal congratulations when the time came, and wondered aloud whether this time it might be another boy.

At thirty-seven, Maria Theresa had ruled Austria, Hungary, and a congeries of smaller principalities for fourteen years. She had inherited this checkerboard empire from her father, Emperor Charles VI, whose grave sorrow it was that he had no son to leave his kingdoms to. But he had failed to perceive his daughter's remarkable capacity. The young Empress had not ruled long before the other European sovereigns discovered her unique intelligence, ability and above all, her indomitable energy and strength of will. In the early years of her rule she withstood repeated invasions by the armies of Prussia, France and Bavaria, heartening her soldiers by riding at their head with vigor and panache, appealing at once to their chivalry and their manly pride. Her armies did not always win their battles — the forces of her implacable enemy Frederick, King of Prussia, often prevailed — but her determination never wavered even when they lost. Now in November of 1755, a decade and a half after her father's death, she ruled an empire at peace, its revenues greatly increased, its armies seasoned by warfare and ready to fight again, when called upon, for their Empress.

Maria Theresa was still, in the opinion of many, a beautiful woman. In her youth she had been exceptionally pretty, with lovely blue eyes, a clear porcelain complexion free of pockmarks, and a thick mane of reddish-gold curls. "Her gait is free, her bearing majestic," the Prussian ambassador had written, describing her as a young woman, "her figure large, her face round and full, and her voice clear and pleasant." "Her eyes are very large, lively and mild," he went on, "and their deep blue most striking. She has a regular nose, not hooked, and not blunt. She has very white teeth, and they are most charming when she laughs. Although her mouth is large, it is rather pretty; her neck and chest are well modeled, and her hands are exquisite." He was impressed by her stamina and emotional resilience. Though anguished and hard pressed by constant warfare, the Empress was neither haggard nor irritable. "Her expression is fresh," the ambassador wrote, "and her skin very clear although she gives it but little attention. Her demeanor is sprightly and happy, and her greeting always warm and pleasant; there is no denying that Maria Theresa is a most charming and delightful woman." The English ambassador was even more complimentary. "Her person was made to wear a crown," he remarked, "and her mind to give luster to it. Her countenance is filled with sense, spirit, and sweetness, and all her motions are accompanied with grace and dignity."

Age and fourteen confinements had thickened her torso and added triple chins to her round face, yet at thirty-seven she was still handsome, her posture regally erect, her lovely blue eyes benign if watchful. She took pains with her appearance, devoting the first hours of her long day (she customarily rose at dawn) to dressing, grooming, and the elaborate curling and pinning and powdering of her hair. Cruel court observers said that she did this in a futile attempt to keep her husband faithful to her, yet this can only have been part of the reason. Her good looks were an asset, and she knew it; she used her femininity, as great queens of the past had done, to arouse her subjects' protective instincts and win their hearts as well as their respect. As for her husband's fidelity, on this delicate issue Maria Theresa was a realist. She knew that Francis had mistresses, she suffered in consequence — and she rose above her suffering. Her husband was not so much lecherous as indolent and pleasure-loving, she told herself. He was fond of her and of their children. God had blessed her with a good marriage, and she would not spoil it by her recriminations. As she once advised another woman whose husband had given her cause to complain, "Avoid reproaches, long explanations, and above all, disputes."

And at thirty-seven, the Empress was still extraordinarily robust. Her Lord High Chamberlain once noted that she could "withstand all fatigues, wherein she exceeds many men." She relied on her exceptional vitality to carry her through the demands and strains of her long work days, and to provide her with enough leftover energy to recreate herself strenuously and to bear and raise her growing brood of children. When she walked, she strode like a man. Her swift, purposeful gait was her trademark. It was said that she could never successfully disguise her identity at masked balls, for no matter how she dressed, she still walked like the Empress. And she exercised her walking muscles with vigorous four-hour hikes into the countryside, where the bracing fresh air invigorated her and eased her mind from its constant strain.

Riding was even better than walking for that, she found. She loved to ride, the faster and more recklessly the better, sitting astride her horse as men did and refusing to adopt the sidesaddle except when forced to in the later months of her pregnancies. She rode to country inns, or in the Prater, or in the huge enclosed riding school, where she and her ladies joined in the mock tournament called the carousel. Her chamois leather breeches and high-topped boots covered by a long skirt, the Empress was never happier than when galloping at breakneck speed. Sometimes, after dancing all evening, she would go to the riding school and join in a carousel that lasted all night. As she grew older she indulged in such feats of stamina less frequently, but even so she rode lustily and often. When not on horseback herself, she drove her carriage at a tremendous pace, and the soldiers of her Horse Guards who formed her escort had all they could to keep up with her.

In the birth chamber the candles guttered in the icy wind. The Empress, her face contorted with pain, pushed aside the papers she had been working on and beckoned to the midwife. In a moment of respite from the pains she was helped into the birthing chair. She gripped the arms firmly and began to push.

Emperor Francis was in the Augustinian chapel, singing a psalm, when he was informed that his wife was in the final stages of her labor. He returned to the palace immediately, his first concern being that his fourteen-year-old son Joseph, heir to the throne, should not "see or hear anything improper and unfitting for his age." Joseph was kept away, along with the eleven other children of the imperial family, until the news from the birth chamber was announced. The announcement came swiftly, at a little before eight o'clock. The Empress had given birth to another girl. The baby was very small and delicate but apparently healthy, and she was to be called Maria Antonia Josephina Johanna.

Slumped in the birthing chair, her eyes closed and her breathing deep and regular, Maria Theresa rested while the midwife and her assistants attended to her and to the newborn infant. Her husband was handling the public ceremonies, the blessing of the child, the service of thanksgiving, the receiving of formal messages of congratulations from the courtiers. For the moment there was nothing that she had to do — except to say a prayer of thanks for her safe delivery, and for the divine gift of a living child. She rested, cooled by the night air coming in through the windows, sensing but not heeding the activity around her. Later, when the midwife had gone and little Maria Antonia had been taken to her wet-nurse in the children's wing of the palace, she got up heavily and moved to her desk, where she took up the stack of papers she had set aside and began to peruse them once again.

Though undersize, the new baby flourished. She looked like her father, with his broad brow and large, widely spaced eyes and bow-shaped lips. Her eyes, though, were the color of her mother's, of the particular shade called imperial blue, a pure light cerulean. Antonia — always called Antoinette at the French-speaking Austrian court — was a pretty enough baby, but only a girl, another Archduchess in a family that already had seven Archduchesses and only four Archdukes. The arrival of an eighth Archduchess did not call for elaborate rejoicing. There was no large public banquet, as was customary at the birth of an imperial child. Instead, two days of official celebration were declared, with the court wearing full dress and the citizens of Vienna treated to special entertainments. After that the newest member of the family disappeared into the recesses of the nurseries, soon to be succeeded, the courtiers felt sure, by another baby.

Little Antoinette's siblings ranged in age from the seventeen-year-old Anna, the firstborn who suffered from ill health, to the seventeen-month-old Ferdinand. In between came Joseph, the singular, austerely detached heir to the throne, thirteen-year-old Christina, her parents' favorite daughter, twelve-year-old Elizabeth, ten-year-old Karl, the favorite son, nine-year-old Amalia and eight-year-old Leopold. Three years separated Leopold from the next-youngest child — a gap resulting from a pregnancy that produced a weak daughter who died shortly after her birth. Next in order came three girls aged five, four and three, Johanna, Josepha and Caroline, called Carlotta, who became Antoinette's playmate and friend. One more child, Maximilian, was to be born a year after Antoinette.

The stair-step sons and daughters of Maria Theresa and Francis of Lorraine were often to be seen at concerts, plays and other court events, sitting beside their parents, ranged in order of sex and age — boys nearest, then girls. The children were dressed as miniature adults, the boys in velvet coats and breeches and white silk stockings to the knee, the girls in square-necked silk gowns ballooning out from narrow-waisted bodices and supported by stiff whalebone hoops. Very frequently the children themselves were to be found on stage, exotically costumed, performing in ballets and operas and plays. Observers thought that they spent an inordinate amount of time preparing these entertainments, and wondered whether they were being adequately trained for the serious responsibilities of adult life. But their frequent performances delighted their parents, and Maria Theresa in particular encouraged them to prepare special evening entertainments for their father.

At one such evening in 1759 five-year-old Ferdinand played an overture on the kettledrums, followed by Maximilian, who though barely three years old was able to memorize some Italian verses composed by the court poet Metastasio in which he offered his "august Papa" his heartfelt homage. Next Antoinette, who was not quite four, sang a French song. Her sisters sang Italian aria and played the harpsichord, her older brother Karl performed on the violin and Joseph on the viol.

None of the children rose above amateur ability either in singing or playing instruments, but they were at home with music Vienna had become the musical capital of Europe, Gluck and Haydn composed for the court and the imperial aristocracy, the infant prodigy Mozart came to Schönbrunn and played for Maria Theresa and her family. The Empress herself had an extraordinairily beautiful singing voice and performed with finesse, though her musical taste lacked discrimination. In her choice of operas she invariably preferred the pleasant and conventional to the pathbreaking and profound. Still, she saw to it that her children musical culture was extensive. Not only did they each play an instrument — Antoinette played the harp — but they joined together in trios and quartets and even formed a small orchestra on occasion.

Their musical education was much more thorough than their education in history, geography, mathematics and the classics. They were taught penmanship, reading, and French, with a scant hour or two a week devoted to studying maps and reading stories. Priests instructed them in morality and religion. The girls learned needlework and the boys fencing. But for the girls in particular, lessons were often perfunctory. When very young they were put into the care of Countess von Brandeiss, an overindulgent taskmistress at best from whom they learned little self-discipline or mental application. Besides, Maria Theresa was more concerned to have her children learn good manners and healthy eating habits, and to cultivate courage and self-confidence than she was about their formal lessons.

Her attitude is clear from a set of instructions she wrote for Countess Lerchenfeld, who was at the time in charge of supervising Johanna and Josepha, when Antoinette was an infant. "I insist on their eating everything, with no faultfinding and no picking and choosing," the Empress declared. "Further, they must not be allowed to criticize their food. On Fridays, Saturdays, and all other fast-days they will eat fish. Although Johanna in particular dislikes it, she must not be indulged. The sooner the habit is broken the better. All my children had the same aversion, and all had to overcome it." The girls were not to be allowed to neglect their appearance, but were to be "properly washed and combed" every day. "And never must they be allowed to be afraid," the Empress went on, "neither of thunderstorms, fire, ghosts, witches or any other nonsense. The servants must not talk about such things or tell horror stories." Even the most dreaded scourge of the court and countryside, smallpox, was to be discussed freely and openly in front of the children, so that they might become accustomed to hearing about illness and death and accept both as natural and inevitable parts of life.


Excerpted from To The Scaffold by Carolly Erickson. Copyright © 1991 Carolly Erickson. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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To the Scaffold: The Life of Marie Antoinette 4.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is an excellent book that dispells some myths and takes you back to a wonderful and terrible time in history. It helps you understand the French Revolution and a misunderstood and maligned monarch. Some historical novels rewrite history, this wonderful author tells it like it is. This book is a must read!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I am a high school sophomore who had to do an english research project on Marie Antoinette. I thought that this book was quite informative while not making one want to fall asleep. I found that this book was written in a style more as if it were a novel than a history  book. This captivated me and made me eager to keep reading this great book. This book had interesting information not only on Marie  but also on the revolution, culture, and society around her.  This book helped me understand why there were certain fashion trends and  why the revolution really started. These tidbits always related back to Marie and made it easy to understand the side of her character that is not downgraded. Marie Antoinette's life plus Carolly Ericksons' writing, create a beautiful story.I used the infromation given to easily answer questions that I had for my  english project. I recommend this book if you are looking for something to give you true, entertaining  information. I found it an easy way to learn about Marie Antoinette and the French Revolution. Thanks to this book I now have great  knowledge of this time in european history at this time. I greatly enjoyed this book, and hope that many in the future will use it as  a reference to the life of one of the most powerful, greatest queens of France. 
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Awesome book, highly recommend to read on the early 17th century. Moving to the end.
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