In the autumn of the year that the French Revolution broke out, Benjamin Franklin wrote that ‘nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.’ With forethought, he might have added ‘and books about Marie Antoinette’. The French queen’s place in history was already assured. ‘Voila la victime’, as Mirabeau said.
In her acknowledgements, Joan Haslip states that she hesitated when her publishers asked her to add another volume to the list. But biographers arc seldom bashful for long, and she was soon persuaded that ‘in every generation there are certain characters which require a reassessment’. It is an extraordinary idea, that a new book is needed at set intervals, even in the absence of fresh evidence or an original viewpoint; as if the dead were to be exhumed and hauled before a parole board.
The Austrian princess whom we now call Marie Antoinette was the fifteenth child of the Empress Maria Theresa; her contemporaries called her Antoinette, and the revolutionaries called her Madame Deficit, Madame Veto; and later the Widow Capet. She was born, Joan Haslip tells us, ‘under the happiest of auspices in the midst of a loving and united family’, but her christening coincided with the terrible catastrophe of the Lisbon earthquake – the first of many evil omens in a life which should have been an obscure one, passed in some courtly backwater. But smallpox killed or disfigured her elder sisters, and raised her stock on the marriage market. At fourteen she went to France to marry the Dauphin, Louis Auguste, a corpulent young man who distrusted women and distrusted Austrians, and whose many excellent qualities of mind were hidden under an almost witless exterior.
She arrived with a discouraging recommendation from her mother: ‘You have to be doubly amiable, as you have no natural talents of your own’. Antoinette was ill-educated and strong willed, and as portrayed by Joan Haslip, a thoroughly trying child, at times victim of ‘overbubbling spirits’ and at other times given to bursting noisily into tears. The marriage which ended so sadly began in farce, unconsummated either because of physical defect or because of ignorance and lack of inclination; there is various evidence on this, but it is certain that the Dauphin’s private parts were the subject of diplomatic correspondence. Spied upon and lonely, Antoinette was a vulnerable figure. Her mother accused her of ‘shameful subservience to people who have completely subjugated you by treating you like a child, in providing you with horseback and donkey-rides, and dogs and children to play with’.
Flattery hardened her character and the passing years endowed her with a certain gleeful and misplaced cunning; but nothing could give her sound judgement, nor mitigate her natural stupidity. Joan Haslip is not a sentimental biographer, and is often harsh to her subject, but she adduces many instances of Antoinette’s kindness of heart. ‘Should a groom or a postillion meet with an accident, she would always be the first to stop and see that he was given proper medical treatment.’ One is reminded irresistibly of modern royal persons at the bedsides of disaster victims, and indeed some of Antoinette’s qualities – her fashion sense, for instance – would have stood her in great stead if she had been the present Princess of Wales. But she was born in more demanding times, and her twenty-year career through the thickets of French politics was simply one long donkey-ride.
Her position was impossible. She was expected to make economies, but when she refused to buy any more diamonds, the court jeweller knelt at her feet, tearfully protesting that she would drive him to bankruptcy and suicide; when she had her portrait painted wearing a simple muslin frock, she was charged with setting a trend which would ruin the Lyons silk industry. She was accused of having lovers; if she kept to the society of women, she was said to be a lesbian. Her Austrian relatives pressured her to interfere in affairs of state, and by this interference she antagonised her husband’s ministers. Her brother Josef wrote to her ‘I can only foresee the gloomiest future for you.’
On the eve of the Revolution she was by no means glamorous: ‘sadly altered,’ the Duchess of Devonshire noted, ‘her belly quite big, and no hair at all.’ Joan Haslip, like her subject, seems to have little sense of the dynamic of the Revolution; she speaks of ‘the left’ and ‘the extreme left’ without setting these terms in context, and seems to draw no distinction between, for example, the Abbé Sieyès, Robespierre, and a street-corner rabble-rouser. This was very much how Antoinette saw the business; anyone not wholeheartedly for her was her bitterest enemy. She had the misfortune to trust the wrong people, and alienate those who would have defended her. ‘Better to perish,’ she sniffed, ‘than to be saved by Monsieur Lafayette.’
Events did not increase her understanding, but they transfigured her stubborness into dignity. Joan Haslip’s book is biased towards Antoinette’s earlier years, and while she is scrupulous about her sources, and properly sceptical about some of them, this book is dull; it ought not to be. She shows rare skill in mangling an anecdote, and reduces the most dramatic situation to a succession of hobbling clichés. Perhaps Antoinette isn’t interesting enough by herself; Vincent Cronin’s dual biography Louis and Antoinette is so much more balanced, lucid and entertaining. It is not easy to sec at whom this new book is aimed; the account of the Revolution has a schoolbook flavour which will hardly interest specialists, yet it is too pedestrian and lacking in background information to succeed as a popular biography; as a psychological portrait it has no depth. Antoinette displayed little fear of the guillotine, but did confess ‘I am terrified of being bored.’ Readers who share her fears should perhaps read her life elsewhere.