On 16 October 1993 it will be two hundred years since the execution of the Queen of France and to mark this anniversary Sinclair-Stevenson have decided to publish yet another biography of her. Familiar as I am with the accounts of her life by Belloc and Zweig, to say nothing of Hearsey, Seward, Haslip et al, I must confess that I approached the book with the leaden query of what on earth anyone could find new to say about this most unhappy of sovereigns.
Amazingly, Ian Dunlop has contrived to give the familiar, if terrible, story a freshness in the telling. He has done this largely by relying almost entirely on the words of Marie-Antoinette’s contemporaries. If there is gush, it is authentic gush from eyewitnesses and not the revisionist sentimentality of the historical novelist. ‘I have never seen one so brilliant, and brilliant is the word, for her skin was so transparent that there was no shadow upon it,’ writes the painter Elizabeth Vigée Lebrun, while the Baronne d’Oberkirch waxes lyrical after watching Marie-Antoinette at a court ball: ‘The Queen, as beautiful as the day, enlivened everything with her glory.’
Quite as interesting to us must be the contemporary criticism of her conduct given as it was without foreknowledge of the hideous fate awaiting her. ‘Have you once asked yourself by what right you interfere with matters of government and of the French Monarchy?’ writes her brother, the Emperor Joseph, in an unsent letter of 1774 (unsent only because it was replaced by an equally stern one from their mother, the Empress Maria Teresa). ‘What studies did you ever undertake? What knowledge have you acquired that you dare to imagine that your decisions or opinions are worth anything, above all in matters which demand the most extensive knowledge?’ Wise words from a wise ruler. More chilling and quite as apt was the admonition her husband received from his minister, Turgot: ‘Do not ever forget, Sire, that it was weakness which put the head of Charles I upon the block.’
One cannot quite absolve Dunlop from a bias in favour of the Queen although in truth I found this quite refreshing in our determinedly iconoclastic age. I suspect his anxiety for her reputation keeps mention of the Comte de Fersen to a minimum before we arrive at the Count’s involvement in the fatal Flight to Varennes, and even then the author is unwilling to admit that the relationship can be more than ‘a matter of conjecture’. In fact, it can hardly now be doubted (particularly since the publication of extracts from his journal by Anna Soderhjelm) that the pair were lovers, certainly during the last two or three years of her life. Undaunted, Dunlop makes no mention of the poignant message – ‘Everything leads me to you’ – inscribed in a ring Fersen had given her in happier times which the Queen, knowing death was near, contrived to smuggle out of prison and back to Fersen. ‘Say that the words on the device’ , she murmured to the messenger, ‘have never been truer than now.’ And if we hear little of this relationship (for which surely few would, given the circumstances, apportion much blame) we learn nothing at all about Marie-Antoinette’s reckless and spendthrift friendships with the Princesse de Lamballe and the notorious Duchesse de Polignac which earned her such obloquy and which fed such savage propaganda at the time. The author touches on them as unpopular and damaging friends but pretty cursorily.
Dunlop also seems unwilling to concede all that much in the way of the Queen’s extravagance which, if not nearly as culpable as her detractors would later paint it, was still excessive by eighteenth-century standards- never mind those of our more parsimonious generation. He even makes a case for the ‘simplicité’ of the Petit Trianon, which bewildered the revolutionaries when they arrived. They had expected to find golden, jewel- studded settings for orgies, not an airy, charmingly simple country house. He quotes Madame Campan: ‘The reproach of prodigality, widely made against the Queen, is the most inconceivable of popular errors which were established about her character.’ But here Madame Campan, if not Dunlop, is being loyally childish. The revolutionaries may have looked for gold and diamonds to demonstrate expense, but we find its proof in the hills that were created, the lakes and rivers dug, the model village, the toy farm, the temples, the follies, the islands, the grottos, the cascades, all of which consumed millions while the King was not only at war, but also engaged in building works at many of the other royal residences, principally at this period Versailles, Trianon, Marly, Saint-Cloud, Fontainebleau, Compiegne, the Louvre, the Tuileries, Vincennes, Rambouillet, Saint-Germain, Saint-Hubert, Blois, Chambord, Meudon, Bellevue, La Muette and, Louis XV’s favourite, the charmingly named Choisy-le-Roi. Scanning this list, and while striving to be impartial, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that by 1789 things had got a little out of hand.
Nevertheless through the voices of those who witnessed the political earthquake of the French Revolution a convincing picture appears of a woman who was ennobled and certainly deepened by her cruel sufferings. Her mistakes, her poorly chosen companions, her frivolities and irresponsibilities, belong to the early, careless years at court when it must have seemed that the dancing would go on for ever. Any girl who found herself, at eighteen, lovely, charming and vivacious as she was, in the greatest position in Europe, must surely be forgiven some thoughtlessness. Dressing like a peasant and milking specially scrubbed cows instead of using the money for social work (a criticism made at the time, interestingly enough, by the Marquis de Bombelles) may be foolish and profligate but it is surely less pernicious than many of the abuses of power we have seen in our own period?
Ironically, to the courtiers, the Queen’s crime was not her extravagance or her ancien regime grandeur (for which, ludicrously, she has now become the popular emblem). Quite the reverse. To them her greatest folly was her love of informality. At the Petit Trianon her guests were instructed neither to stand nor to stop their activities as she entered the room. ‘I am no longer the Queen,’ she confided to Madame de Polignac, ‘I am myself.’ Modern sentiments indeed which earned her little credit in the 1780s.
And yet if either of the luckless pair acted the monarch when the trouble came, it was assuredly Marie-Antoinette rather than Louis. The American Governor Morris reported in 1791 that the Foreign Secretary, the Comte de Montmorin, ‘tells me that the King is absolutely good for nothing; that he always asks, when he is at work with the King, that the Queen be present’, although one of the revelations of this book is that, contrary to the popular version, Marie-Antoinette did not seek political power. ‘She hated being involved in politics’, asserts the Comte de La Marek, and again, ‘Marie-Antoinette, who has been so often accused of wanting to become involved in public affairs, had no taste for them.’ She had burned her fingers early on with the expulsion from power of the Due d’ Aiguilion (for which she got the rap over the knuckles from her brother and mother) and after that, by the standards of the day, she kept surprisingly clear of policy decisions before 1789.
The problem arose, as the Revolution gathered momentum, from the King’s utter incapability. Despite recent attempts to rehabilitate Louis’s reputation, it is plain that he was hopelessly unsuited to his task. With all the virtues that he did possess, of probity and honour and true philanthropy, he might perhaps have made a popular monarch in an untroubled period but he was flawed by indecision and almost total apathy. From the early days when it was obvious that reforms were overdue to the moment he mounted the scaffold he appears to have been incapable of addressing a single issue head-on. In the eyes of his contemporaries (and apparently in Dunlop’s) he redeemed himself by the courage and fortitude with which he faced ruin and death but even those who loved him could not blind themselves to France’s ill fortune in having him for King: ‘How was it, we asked ourselves,’ wrote his devoted valet, Hue, ‘that one who was able to exercise such control over himself was not made to command others?’
But if Dunlop accepts from the wealth of evidence he has unearthed that, forced by her husband’s sloth-like bewilderment, the Queen took an active hand in trying to save the monarchy, he avoids the currently fashionable thesis that Marie-Antoinette betrayed France by passing military secrets to the enemy. The letters that show she did do this were not published for many years after her death but have since been used to justify her execution. The truth is she believed that the country had fallen into the hands of madmen and that only order re-established by an outside force could rescue France from chaos. While one might disagree with her (even then) outdated views on absolute monarchy, no one, contemplating the torrent of blood of the Reign of Terror, still less the twenty years of war that would wipe out a generation of Frenchmen, can seriously dispute her diagnosis. If one might query some of Dunlop’s omissions of the less attractive aspects of Marie-Antoinette’s character (her duplicity to Antoine Barnave, who would go to the guillotine for trying to save her, springs to mind), nevertheless, her own words and the words of those surrounding her make the Queen’s devotion to her adopted country and her genuine desire for peace indisputable.
Marie-Antoinette is a worthwhile study for all those who are interested in the past as it really happened rather than strained through the subjective values of a later day. Finally, despite her elevation to cult status by both her fans and her enemies, what seems clear is that this tragic woman started life as an uncomplicated being, born admittedly to grace a throne, who would, in any other time, have passed gently into history leaving fragrant memories of a pretty name and some charming fashions . It was revolution that flung her into prominence and adversity that gave her a soul.