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
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 Eu
ope. 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
In these two pictures our emotions are played upon in turn--admiration,
reverence, devotion, and then pity, indignation, and the shudderings of
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
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
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 natural figure.
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
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, Maria Theresa.
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 changeling!"
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 out.
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 upon France.
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
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 of suspicion.
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 tastes.
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 it:
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
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 bedroom gown.
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 blackened.
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
"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.