Marie Antoinette And Count Fersen
The English-speaking world long ago accepted a conventional view
of Marie Antoinette. The eloquence of Edmund Burke in one
brilliant passage has fixed, probably for all time, an enduring
picture of this unhappy queen.
When we speak or think of her we speak and think first of all of a
dazzling and beautiful woman surrounded by the chivalry of France
and gleaming like a star in the most splendid court of Europe. And
then there comes to us the reverse of the picture. We see her
despised, insulted, and made the butt of brutal men and still more
fiendish women; until at last the hideous tumbrel conveys her to
the guillotine, where her head is severed from her body and her
corpse is cast down into a bloody pool.
In these two pictures our emotions are played upon in turn--
admiration, reverence, devotion, and then pity, indignation, and
the shudderings of horror.
Probably in our own country and in England this will remain the
historic Marie Antoinette. Whatever the impartial historian may
write, he can never induce the people at large to understand that
this queen was far from queenly, that the popular idea of her is
almost wholly false, and that both in her domestic life and as the
greatest lady in France she did much to bring on the terrors of
that revolution which swept her to the guillotine.
In the first place, it is mere fiction that represents Maria
Antoinette as having been physically beautiful. The painters and
engravers have so idealized her face as in most cases to have
produced a purely imaginary portrait.
She was born in Vienna, in 1755, the daughter of the Emperor
Francis and of that warrior-queen, Maria Theresa. She was a very
German-looking child. Lady Jackson describes her as having a
long, thin face, small, pig-like eyes, a pinched-up mouth, with
the heavy Hapsburg lip, and with a somewhat misshapen form, so
that for years she had to be bandaged tightly to give her a more
At fourteen, when she was betrothed to the heir to the French
throne, she was a dumpy, mean-looking little creature, with no
distinction whatever, and with only her bright golden hair to make
amends for her many blemishes. At fifteen she was married and
joined the Dauphin in French territory.
We must recall for a moment the conditions which prevailed in
France. King Louis XV. was nearing his end. He was a man of the
most shameless life; yet he had concealed or gilded his infamies
by an external dignity and magnificence which, were very pleasing
to his people. The French, liked to think that their king was the
most splendid monarch and the greatest gentleman in Europe. The
courtiers about him might be vile beneath the surface, yet they
were compelled to deport themselves with the form and the
etiquette that had become traditional in France. They might be
panders, or stock-jobbers, or sellers of political offices; yet
they must none the less have wit and grace and outward nobility of
There was also a tradition regarding the French queen. However
loose in character the other women of the court might be, she
alone, like Caesar's wife, must remain above suspicion. She must
be purer than the pure. No breath, of scandal must reach her or be
directed against her.
In this way the French court, even under so dissolute a monarch as
Louis XV., maintained its hold upon the loyalty of the people.
Crowds came every morning to view the king in his bed before he
arose; the same crowds watched him as he was dressed by the
gentlemen of the bedchamber, and as he breakfasted and went
through all the functions which are usually private. The King of
France must be a great actor. He must appear to his people as in
reality a king-stately, dignified, and beyond all other human
beings in his remarkable presence.
When the Dauphin and Marie Antoinette came to the French court
King Louis XV. kept up in the case the same semblance of
austerity. He forbade these children to have their sleeping-
apartments together. He tried to teach them that if they were to
govern as well as to reign they must conform to the rigid
etiquette of Paris and Versailles.
It proved a difficult task, however. The little German princess
had no natural dignity, though she came from a court where the
very strictest imperial discipline prevailed. Marie Antoinette
found that she could have her own way in many things, and she
chose to enjoy life without regard to ceremony. Her escapades at
first would have been thought mild enough had she not been a
"daughter of France"; but they served to shock the old French
king, and likewise, perhaps even more, her own imperial mother,
When a report of the young girl's conduct was brought to her the
empress was at first mute with indignation. Then she cried out:
"Can this girl be a child of mine? She surely must be a
The Austrian ambassador to France was instructed to warn the
Dauphiness to be more discreet.
"Tell her," said Maria Theresa, "that she will lose her throne,
and even her life, unless she shows more prudence."
But advice and remonstrance were of no avail. Perhaps they might
have been had her husband possessed a stronger character; but the
young Louis was little more fitted to be a king than was his wife
to be a queen. Dull of perception and indifferent to affairs of
state, he had only two interests that absorbed him. One was the
love of hunting, and the other was his desire to shut himself up
in a sort of blacksmith shop, where he could hammer away at the
anvil, blow the bellows, and manufacture small trifles of
mechanical inventions. From this smudgy den he would emerge, sooty
and greasy, an object of distaste to his frivolous princess, with
her foamy laces and perfumes and pervasive daintiness.
It was hinted in many quarters, and it has been many times
repeated, that Louis was lacking in virility. Certainly he had no
interest in the society of women and was wholly continent. But
this charge of physical incapacity seems to have had no real
foundation. It had been made against some of his predecessors. It
was afterward hurled at Napoleon the Great, and also Napoleon the
Little. In France, unless a royal personage was openly licentious,
he was almost sure to be jeered at by the people as a weakling.
And so poor Louis XVI., as he came to be, was treated with a
mixture of pity and contempt because he loved to hammer and mend
locks in his smithy or shoot game when he might have been
caressing ladies who would have been proud to have him choose them
On the other hand, because of this opinion regarding Louis, people
were the more suspicious of Marie Antoinette. Some of them, in
coarse language, criticized her assumed infidelities; others, with
a polite sneer, affected to defend her. But the result of it all
was dangerous to both, especially as France was already verging
toward the deluge which Louis XV. had cynically predicted would
follow after him.
In fact, the end came sooner than any one had guessed. Louis XV.,
who had become hopelessly and helplessly infatuated with the low-
born Jeanne du Barry, was stricken down with smallpox of the most
virulent type. For many days he lay in his gorgeous bed. Courtiers
crowded his sick-room and the adjacent hall, longing for the
moment when the breath would leave his body. He had lived an evil
life, and he was to die a loathsome death; yet he had borne
himself before men as a stately monarch. Though his people had
suffered in a thousand ways from his misgovernment, he was still
Louis the Well Beloved, and they blamed his ministers of state for
all the shocking wrongs that France had felt.
The abler men, and some of the leaders of the people, however,
looked forward to the accession of Louis XVI. He at least was
frugal in his habits and almost plebeian in his tastes, and seemed
to be one who would reduce the enormous taxes that had been levied
The moment came when the Well Beloved died. His death-room was
fetid with disease, and even the long corridors of the palace
reeked with infection, while the motley mob of men and women, clad
in silks and satins and glittering with jewels, hurried from the
spot to pay their homage to the new Louis, who was spoken of as
"the Desired." The body of the late monarch was hastily thrown
into a mass of quick-lime, and was driven away in a humble wagon,
without guards and with no salute, save from a single veteran, who
remembered the glories of Fontenoy and discharged his musket as
the royal corpse was carried through the palace gates.
This was a critical moment in the history of France; but we have
to consider it only as a critical moment in the history of Marie
Antoinette. She was now queen. She had it in her power to restore
to the French court its old-time grandeur, and, so far as the
queen was concerned, its purity. Above all, being a foreigner, she
should have kept herself free from reproach and above every shadow
But here again the indifference of the king undoubtedly played a
strange part in her life. Had he borne himself as her lord and
master she might have respected him. Had he shown her the
affection of a husband she might have loved him. But he was
neither imposing, nor, on the other hand, was he alluring. She
wrote very frankly about him in a letter to the Count Orsini:
My tastes are not the same as those of the king, who cares only
for hunting and blacksmith work. You will admit that I should not
show to advantage in a forge. I could not appear there as Vulcan,
and the part of Venus might displease him even more than my
Thus on the one side is a woman in the first bloom of youth,
ardent, eager--and neglected. On the other side is her husband,
whose sluggishness may be judged by quoting from a diary which he
kept during the month in which he was married. Here is a part of
Sunday, 13--Left Versailles. Supper and slept at Compignee, at the
house of M. de Saint-Florentin.
Monday, 14--Interview with Mme. la Dauphine.
Tuesday, 15--Supped at La Muette. Slept at Versailles.
Wednesday, 16--My marriage. Apartment in the gallery. Royal
banquet in the Salle d'Opera.
Thursday, 17--Opera of "Perseus."
Friday, 18--Stag-hunt. Met at La Belle Image. Took one.
Saturday, 19--Dress-ball in the Salle d'Opera. Fireworks.
Thursday, 31--I had an indigestion.
What might have been expected from a young girl placed as this
queen was placed? She was indeed an earlier Eugenie. The first was
of royal blood, the second was almost a plebeian; but each was
headstrong, pleasure-loving, and with no real domestic ties. As
Mr. Kipling expresses it--
The colonel's lady and Judy O'Grady
Are sisters under their skins;
and so the Austrian woman of 1776 and the Spanish woman of 1856
found amusement in very similar ways. They plunged into a sea of
strange frivolity, such as one finds to-day at the centers of high
fashion. Marie Antoinette bedecked herself with eccentric
garments. On her head she wore a hat styled a "what-is-it,"
towering many feet in height and flaunting parti-colored plumes.
Worse than all this, she refused to wear corsets, and at some
great functions she would appear in what looked exactly like a
She would even neglect the ordinary niceties of life. Her hands
were not well cared for. It was very difficult for the ladies in
attendance to persuade her to brush her teeth with regularity.
Again, she would persist in wearing her frilled and lace-trimmed
petticoats long after their dainty edges had been smirched and
Yet these things might have been counteracted had she gone no
further. Unfortunately, she did go further. She loved to dress at
night like a shop-girl and venture out into the world of Paris,
where she was frequently followed and recognized. Think of it--the
Queen of France, elbowed in dense crowds and seeking to attract
the attention of common soldiers!
Of course, almost every one put the worst construction upon this,
and after a time upon everything she did. When she took a fancy
for constructing labyrinths and secret passages in the palace, all
Paris vowed that she was planning means by which her various
lovers might enter without observation. The hidden printing-
presses of Paris swarmed with gross lampoons about this reckless
girl; and, although there was little truth in what they said,
there was enough to cloud her reputation. When she fell ill with
the measles she was attended in her sick-chamber by four gentlemen
of the court. The king was forbidden to enter lest he might catch
the childish disorder.
The apathy of the king, indeed, drove her into many a folly. After
four years of marriage, as Mrs. Mayne records, he had only reached
the point of giving her a chilly kiss. The fact that she had no
children became a serious matter. Her brother, the Emperor Joseph
of Austria, when he visited Paris, ventured to speak to the king
upon the subject. Even the Austrian ambassador had thrown out
hints that the house of Bourbon needed direct heirs. Louis grunted
and said little, but he must have known how good was the advice.
It was at about this time when there came to the French court a
young Swede named Axel de Fersen, who bore the title of count, but
who was received less for his rank than for his winning manner,
his knightly bearing, and his handsome, sympathetic face. Romantic
in spirit, he threw himself at once into a silent inner worship of
Marie Antoinette, who had for him a singular attraction. Wherever
he could meet her they met. To her growing cynicism this breath of
pure yet ardent affection was very grateful. It came as something
fresh and sweet into the feverish life she led.
Other men had had the audacity to woo her--among them Duc de
Lauzun, whose complicity in the famous affair of the diamond
necklace afterward cast her, though innocent, into ruin; the Duc
de Biron; and the Baron de Besenval, who had obtained much
influence over her, which he used for the most evil purposes.
Besenval tainted her mind by persuading her to read indecent
books, in the hope that at last she would become his prey.
But none of these men ever meant to Marie Antoinette what Fersen
meant. Though less than twenty years of age, he maintained the
reserve of a great gentleman, and never forced himself upon her
notice. Yet their first acquaintance had occurred in such a way as
to give to it a touch of intimacy. He had gone to a masked ball,
and there had chosen for his partner a lady whose face was quite
concealed. Something drew the two together. The gaiety of the
woman and the chivalry of the man blended most harmoniously. It
was only afterward that he discovered that his chance partner was
the first lady in France. She kept his memory in her mind; for
some time later, when he was at a royal drawing-room and she heard
his voice, she exclaimed:
"Ah, an old acquaintance!"
From this time Fersen was among those who were most intimately
favored by the queen. He had the privilege of attending her
private receptions at the palace of the Trianon, and was a
conspicuous figure at the feasts given in the queen's honor by the
Princess de Lamballe, a beautiful girl whose head was destined
afterward to be severed from her body and borne upon a bloody pike
through the streets of Paris. But as yet the deluge had not
arrived and the great and noble still danced upon the brink of a
Fersen grew more and more infatuated, nor could he quite conceal
his feelings. The queen, in her turn, was neither frightened nor
indignant. His passion, so profound and yet so respectful, deeply
moved her. Then came a time when the truth was made clear to both
of them. Fersen was near her while she was singing to the
harpsichord, and "she was betrayed by her own music into an avowal
which song made easy." She forgot that she was Queen of France.
She only felt that her womanhood had been starved and slighted,
and that here was a noble-minded lover of whom she could be proud.
Some time after this announcement was officially made of the
approaching accouchement of the queen. It was impossible that
malicious tongues should be silent. The king's brother, the Comte
de Provence, who hated the queen, just as the Bonapartes afterward
hated Josephine, did his best to besmirch her reputation. He had,
indeed, the extraordinary insolence to do so at a time when one
would suppose that the vilest of men would remain silent. The
child proved to be a princess, and she afterward received the
title of Duchesse d'Angouleme. The King of Spain asked to be her
godfather at the christening, which was to be held in the
cathedral of Notre Dame. The Spanish king was not present in
person, but asked the Comte de Provence to act as his proxy.
On the appointed day the royal party proceeded to the cathedral,
and the Comte de Provence presented the little child at the
baptismal font. The grand almoner, who presided, asked;
"What name shall be given to this child?"
The Comte de Provence answered in a sneering tone:
"Oh, we don't begin with that. The first thing to find out is who
the father and the mother are!"
These words, spoken at such a place and such a time, and with a
strongly sardonic ring, set all Paris gossiping. It was a thinly
veiled innuendo that the father of the child was not the King of
France. Those about the court immediately began to look at Fersen
with significant smiles. The queen would gladly have kept him near
her; but Fersen cared even more for her good name than for his
love of her. It would have been so easy to remain in the full
enjoyment of his conquest; but he was too chivalrous for that, or,
rather, he knew that the various ambassadors in Paris had told
their respective governments of the rising scandal. In fact, the
following secret despatch was sent to the King of Sweden by his
I must confide to your majesty that the young Count Fersen has
been so well received by the queen that various persons have taken
it amiss. I own that I am sure that she has a liking for him. I
have seen proofs of it too certain to be doubted. During the last
few days the queen has not taken her eyes off him, and as she
gazed they were full of tears. I beg your majesty to keep their
secret to yourself.
The queen wept because Fersen had resolved to leave her lest she
should be exposed to further gossip. If he left her without any
apparent reason, the gossip would only be the more intense.
Therefore he decided to join the French troops who were going to
America to fight under Lafayette. A brilliant but dissolute
duchess taunted him when the news became known.
"How is this?" said she. "Do you forsake your conquest?"
But, "lying like a gentleman," Fersen answered, quietly:
"Had I made a conquest I should not forsake it. I go away free,
and, unfortunately, without leaving any regret."
Nothing could have been more chivalrous than the pains which
Fersen took to shield the reputation of the queen. He even allowed
it to be supposed that he was planning a marriage with a rich
young Swedish woman who had been naturalized in England. As a
matter of fact, he departed for America, and not very long
afterward the young woman in question married an Englishman.
Fersen served in America for a time, returning, however, at the
end of three years. He was one of the original Cincinnati, being
admitted to the order by Washington himself. When he returned to
France he was received with high honors and was made colonel of
the royal Swedish regiment.
The dangers threatening Louis and his court, which were now
gigantic and appalling, forbade him to forsake the queen. By her
side he did what he could to check the revolution; and, failing
this, he helped her to maintain an imperial dignity of manner
which she might otherwise have lacked. He faced the bellowing mob
which surrounded the Tuileries. Lafayette tried to make the
National Guard obey his orders, but he was jeered at for his
pains. Violent epithets were hurled at the king. The least
insulting name which they could give him was "a fat pig." As for
the queen, the most filthy phrases were showered upon her by the
men, and even more so by the women, who swarmed out of the slums
and sought her life.
At last, in 1791, it was decided that the king and the queen and
their children, of whom they now had three, should endeavor to
escape from Paris. Fersen planned their flight, but it proved to
be a failure. Every one remembers how they were discovered and
halted at Varennes. The royal party was escorted back to Paris by
the mob, which chanted with insolent additions:
"We've brought back the baker, the baker's wife, and the baker's
boy! Now we shall have bread!"
Against the savage fury which soon animated the French a foreigner
like Fersen could do very little; but he seems to have endeavored,
night and day, to serve the woman whom he loved. His efforts have
been described by Grandat; but they were of no avail. The king and
queen were practically made prisoners. Their eldest son died. They
went through horrors that were stimulated by the wretch Hebert, at
the head of his so-called Madmen (Enrages). The king was executed
in January, 1792. The queen dragged out a brief existence in a
prison where she was for ever under the eyes of human brutes, who
guarded her and watched her and jeered at her at times when even
men would be sensitive. Then, at last, she mounted the scaffold,
and her head, with its shining hair, fell into the bloody basket.
Marie Antoinette shows many contradictions in her character. As a
young girl she was petulant and silly and almost unseemly in her
actions. As a queen, with waning power, she took on a dignity
which recalled the dignity of her imperial mother. At first a
flirt, she fell deeply in love when she met a man who was worthy
of that love. She lived for most part like a mere cocotte. She
died every inch a queen.
One finds a curious resemblance between the fate of Marie
Antoinette and that of her gallant lover, who outlived her for
nearly twenty years. She died amid the shrieks and execrations of
a maddened populace in Paris; he was practically torn in pieces by
a mob in the streets of Stockholm. The day of his death was the
anniversary of the flight to Varennes. To the last moment of his
existence he remained faithful to the memory of the royal woman
who had given herself so utterly to him.