III. THE VIRGIN QUEEN

Marie Antoinette was the most extravagant member of the court. Attached to an impotent husband, cheated of romance, indulging in no liaisons, she amused herself, till 1778, with costly dresses, gems, and palaces, with operas, plays, and balls. She lost fortunes in gambling, and gave fortunes to favorites in reckless generosity. She spent 252,000 livres on her wardrobe in one year (1783).25 Designers brought her fancy garments named “Indiscreet Pleasures,” “Stifled Signs,” or “Masked Desires.”26 Hairdressers worked for hours over her head, training her hair to such heights that her chin seemed to be the mean point of her height; this haute coiffure, like almost everything about her, set a fashion for the ladies of the court, then of Paris, then of the provincial capitals.

Her longing for jewelry became almost a mania. In 1774 she bought from Böhmer, official jeweler to the Crown, gems valued at 360,000 livres.27 Louis XVI gave her a set of rubies, diamonds, and bracelets costing 200,000 livres.28 In 1776 Mercy d’Argentau wrote to Maria Theresa:

Although the King has given the Queen, on various occasions, more than 100,000 écus’ worth of diamonds, and although her Majesty already has a prodigious collection, she nevertheless resolved to acquire … chandelier earrings from Böhmer. I did not conceal from her Majesty that under present economic conditions it would have been wiser to avoid such a tremendous expenditure, but she could not resist—although she handled the purchase carefully, keeping it a secret from the King.29

Maria Theresa sent her daughter a stern reproof; the Queen compromised by wearing her jewelry only on state occasions; but the public never forgave her this intemperate expenditure of its taxes, and later it would believe the story that she had agreed to buy the famous diamond necklace.

The King indulged his wife in her foibles because he admired and loved her, and because he was grateful for her patience with his impotence. He paid her gambling debts out of his own purse. He encouraged her trips to the Paris opera, though he knew that her gaiety in public disturbed a people accustomed to royal dignity and reserve. The government paid for three theatrical performances, two balls, two formal suppers almost every week at court; in addition the Queen attended masked balls in Paris or in private homes. These years, 1774-77, were a period of what her mother frankly called dissipation. Deriving nothing but aroused and unsatisfied passion from her husband’s nocturnal approaches, the Queen encouraged him to go to sleep early (sometimes setting the clock ahead to advance his retirement), so that she could join her friends in games that might last all night. She took no interest in literature, little in art, more in drama and music; she sang and acted well, played the harp, and performed some Mozart sonatas on the clavichord.30

In all these faults only one was fundamental—a thoughtless extravagance derived from boredom and frustration, and from a childhood and youth accustomed to riches and ignorant of poverty. The Prince de Ligne (who may have been more of a gentleman than an historian) claimed that she soon outgrew her love of costly raiment, that her gambling losses were exaggerated, and that her debts were due as much to unwise generosity as to reckless expenditure.31 The court and the salons were hostile to her as an Austrian; the alliance with Austria had never been popular; Marie Antoinette, called “L’Autrichienne,” personified that alliance, and was suspected, with some reason, of favoring Austrian interests, sometimes at the cost of France. Even so, her youthful vitality, her gaiety and kindliness, won many hearts. Mme. Vigée-Lebrun, many months pregnant, came to paint her portrait (1779); while at work the artist dropped some tubes of color; the Queen at once told her not to stoop, for “you are too far along,” and herself picked up the tubes.32Antoinette was usually considerate, but occasionally, in her thoughtless merriment, she made fun of other people’s mannerisms or defects. And she responded too readily to every appeal; “she did not yet know the danger of yielding to every gracious impulse.”33

So vivacious a creature, to whom life and movement were synonyms, was not made for the slow and careful pace of court etiquette. Soon she rebelled against it, and sought simplicity and ease in and around the Petit Trianon, a mile from the Palace of Versailles. In 1778 Louis XVI offered the Queen undisputed possession of this trysting place; there she might retire with her intimates, and Louis promised that he would not intrude upon them except by invitation. As there were only eight rooms in the building, the Queen had some cottages built near it for her friends. She had the surrounding gardens designed in the “natural” style—with winding paths, varied trees, surprises, and a brook, and for this she had water piped in from Marly at great cost. To complete the illusion of a Rousseauian return to nature, she had eight small farms set up in the adjoining park, each with its rustic cottage, peasant family, dung heap, and cows. There she dressed like a shepherdess in white gown, gauze kerchief, and straw hat, and loved to see milk coaxed from choice udders into vessels of Sèvres porcelain. Within the Petit Trianon she and her friends played music or games, and on the lawn they gave banquets to the King or to distinguished visitors. There, as well as in the royal palace, the Queen staged dramas, in some of which she played major roles-Suzanne in Le Manage de Figaro, Colette in Le Devin du village, delighting the King with her versatility and charm.

Fearing scandal if she mingled too freely with men, she formed with women some friendships so close that scandal took another line. First came Marie-Thérèse de Savoie-Carignan, Princesse de Lamballe, gentle, sad, and frail. Twenty-one, she was already two years a widow. Her husband, son of Louis XIV’s grandson the Duc de Penthièvre, went off to mistresses or prostitutes soon after his marriage; he contracted syphilis and died of it after confessing his sins to his wife in revolting detail. She never recovered from the long ordeal of that marriage; she suffered from nervous convulsions and fainting spells until, in 1792, she was torn to pieces by a Revolutionary mob. Marie Antoinette first took to her out of pity, then learned to love her fervently, seeing her every day, writing to her letters of endearment sometimes twice a day. In October, 1775, she made the Princess superintendent of the Queen’s Household, and persuaded the King, over Turgot’s protests, to pay her a yearly salary of 150,000 livres. Moreover, the Princess had relatives and friends, who begged her to use her influence with the Queen, and through her with the King, to obtain posts or gifts. Antoinette, after a year, let her love fade, and took another friend.

Yolande de Polastron, wife of Comte Jules de Polignac, was of ancient family and straitened means; pretty, petite, natural; no one would, seeing her, suspect her of such financial voracity that Turgot despaired of balancing the budget while the Queen found pleasure in her witty company. When the Countess neared childbirth the Queen persuaded her to move to La Muette, a royal villa near the Versailles Palace; there she visited her daily, almost always bearing gifts. When the Comtesse became a mother nothing could be refused her: 400,000 livres to settle her debts, a dowry of 800,000 livres for her daughter, an embassy for her father, money, jewels, furs, works of art for herself, and finally (1780) a dukedom and the estate of Bitche—for the Count longed to be a duke. At last Mercy d’Argentau informed the Queen that she was being exploited, and that the new Duchess did not return her devotion. He proposed, and the Queen accepted, as a test, that she ask Mme. de Polignac to dismiss from her entourage the Comte de Vaudreuil, who was distasteful to Antoinette; Madame refused, and Marie turned to other friendships. The Polignacs joined her enemies, and became a source of the slanders with which the court and the pamphleteers besmirched the name of the Queen.

Almost everything that she did made her enemies. The courtiers regretted the gifts she gave to her favorites, since this meant less for themselves. They complained that she so often absented herself from court functions that these lost glamour and attendance. Many who had condemned the costly wardrobe of her earlier years now censured her for setting a new fashion of simplicity in dress; the silk merchants of Lyons and the couturiers of Paris would be ruined.34 She had induced the King to dismiss the Duc d’Aiguillon (1775), who had led the supporters of Mme. du Barry; the Duke had many sympathizers, and these formed another nucleus of foes. After 1776 the Paris pamphleteers—many of whom received material and money from members of the court35—engaged in a campaign of merciless vituperation against the Queen.36 Some writers described her as the mistress, at one time or another, of every available male at Versailles.37 “How many times,” asked a pamphlet entitled A Reprimand to the Queen, “have you left the nuptial bed and the caresses of your husband to abandon yourself to bacchantes or satyrs, and to become one with them through their brutal pleasures?”38 Another pamphlet illustrated her extravagance by describing a wall in the Petit Trianon as covered with diamonds.39Rumor accused her of saying, during the bread riots of 1788, “If they have no bread let them eat cake”; historians agree that she was never guilty of that heartless remark;40 on the contrary, she contributed abundantly from her own purse to public relief. Even more cruel was the general opinion, among the populace, that she was barren. Mme. Campan, first lady of the bedchamber to the Queen, relates:

When in 1777 a son was born to the Comte d’Artois, the market women and fishwives, asserting their prerogative to enter the royal palace at times of royal births, followed the Queen to the very door of her apartments, shouting in the coarsest and most vulgar terms that it was up to her, not to her sister-in-law, to provide heirs to the French crown. The Queen hurried to close the door upon these licentious harridans, and closeted herself in her room with me to weep over her plight.41

How could she explain to the people that the King was impotent?

France waited for the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire to come and clear this impasse. In April, 1777, Joseph II arrived at Versailles under the pseudonym of Count von Falkenstein. He fell in love with the Queen. “If you were not my sister,” he told her, “I should not hesitate to marry again in order to have such a charming companion.”42 And to their brother Leopold he wrote:

I have spent hour after hour with her, and not noticed their passing. … She is a charming and honorable woman, somewhat young, a little thoughtless, but essentially decent and virtuous. … She also has spirit and a keenness which surprised me. Her first reaction is always correct; if she would only act according to it, … and pay less attention to the gossips, … she would be perfect. She has a strong desire for pleasure, and since her tastes are known, advantage is taken of her weakness. . . .

But she thinks only of her own pleasure, has no love for the King, and is drunk with the extravagance of this country. … She drives the King by force to the things he does not wish to do.... In short, she does not fulfill the duties of either a wife or a queen.43

She explained why she and the King slept in separate rooms; he wished to go to sleep early, and they both found it wise to avoid sexual excitement. Joseph visited the King, and liked him well. “This man,” he wrote to Leopold, “is a little weak, but not an imbecile. He has ideas and a sound judgment, but his mind and body are apathetic. He converses reasonably, but he has no wish to learn, and no curiosity; … in fact the fiat lux has not yet come; the matter is still without form.”44 The Emperor talked to Louis as no one had dared speak to him; he pointed out that the impediment in the royal prepuce could be removed by a simple, though painful, operation, and that the King owed it to his country to have children. Louis promised to submit to the knife.

Before leaving Versailles Joseph wrote a sheet of “Instructions” for the Queen. It is a remarkable document:

You are getting older, and no longer have youth as an excuse. What will become of you if you delay any longer [to reform]? … When the King caresses you, when he speaks to you, do you not show irritation, even repugnance? Have you ever thought what effect your intimacies and friendships … must have on the public? … Have you weighed the terrible consequences of games of chance, the company they bring together and the tone they set? . . .

And of her fondness for the masked balls in Paris:

Why mingle with a crowd of libertines, prostitutes, and strangers, listening to their remarks, and perhaps making similar ones? How indecent! … The King is left alone all night at Versailles, and you mix in society and mingle with the riffraff of Paris! … I really tremble for your happiness, for it cannot turn out well in the long run, and there will be a cruel revolution [une révolution cruelle] unless you take steps against it.45

The Queen was moved by his reproaches. After he had gone she wrote to her mother: “The Emperor’s departure has left a gap I cannot fill. I was so happy during that short time that now it all seems like a dream. But what will never be a dream for me is all the good counsel … he gave me, which is engraved in my heart forever.”46 What really reformed her was not advice but motherhood. For Louis, in that summer of 1777, submitted, apparently without anesthetic of any kind, to an operation which proved completely successful. He celebrated his twenty-third birthday (August 23, 1777) by at last consummating his marriage. He was proud and happy. “I very much enjoy this pleasure,” he confided to one of his maiden aunts, “and I am sorry to have been deprived of it for so long.”47 However, it was not till April, 1778, that the Queen became pregnant. She announced this to the King in her frolicsome way: “Sire, I have come to complain that one of your subjects has been so bold as to kick me in the belly.”48 When Louis caught her meaning he clasped her in his arms. Now more than ever he indulged her whims and granted her requests. Ten times a day he visited her apartments for the latest communiqué on the progress of the expected heir. And Marie Antoinette, undergoing a mysterious transformation of body and soul, told the King, “Henceforth I want to live otherwise than before. 1 want to live as a mother, nurse my own child, and devote myself to its education.”49

After grievous suffering, made worse by a clumsy accoucheur, the Queen gave birth, December 19, 1778. The parents regretted that the child was a girl, but the King was happy that the gates of life had been opened, and confident that a son would come forth in time. The young mother rejoiced that at last she had been fulfilled. To Maria Theresa (now entering her final year) she wrote in 1779: “Dear Mamma may be very satisfied as to my con-’ duct. If I was formerly to blame, it was because I was childish and giddy. Now, however, I am much more sensible, and I am very well aware what my duty is.”50 Neither the court nor the populace believed it, but “it is an accepted fact,” wrote the Comte de Ségur, “that after the birth of her first child she gradually began to lead a more regular existence, and to occupy herself seriously. She is more careful to avoid anything that might give rise to scandal. Her gay parties are less frequent, less lively. … Extravagance gives place to simplicity; sumptuous robes are replaced by little linen frocks.”51It was part of Marie Antoinette’s long punishment that the people of France would not realize that the spoiled and reckless girl had become a tender and conscientious mother. Nothing is lost, but everything has to be paid for.

She knew that French law excluded women from the throne. She welcomed a second pregnancy, and prayed for a son; but she suffered a miscarriage so agonizing that she lost most of her hair.52 She tried again, and on October 22, 1781, she gave birth to a boy, who was named Louis-Joseph-Xavier. Cynics questioned the child’s paternity, but the happy King ignored them. “My son the Dauphin!” he cried. “My son!”

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!