Marie Antoinette: The Last Queen of France
by Evelyne Lever
Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
352 pages, 2000
Buy it online
In Marie Antoinette Evelyne Lever tells the sumptuous story of the last -- and the most infamous -- queen of France. Married off at 14 by her ruthless mother for political purposes to the unprepossessing Dauphin, the future Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette was immature, brazenly self-indulgent, impetuous and wholly unprepared for the role history cast for her. Her sad attempts to consummate her marriage read like bedroom farce and she did little to quell the rumors of her increasingly dangerous liaisons. Bolstered by the staged receptions that she mistook for popular approval, she was willfully out of touch with the nation's dire economic troubles, the seething social and political climate of prerevolutionary France, and eventually retreated -- from both her husband and the public -- behind a wall of courtiers and into a world of opulent fantasy -- until it was too late.
Vienna, November 2, 1755. Her windows wide open, as was her habit, regardless of the rigors of the season, the Empress Maria Theresa worked without respite. She was busy annotating reports, signing decrees, dictating her orders when the first pains suddenly made her wince. The thirty-eight-year-old sovereign, ruler of an empire, was to give birth for the fifteenth time in her life. Nature had reclaimed her rights and the female head of state could do nothing but stoically await her deliverance. But since Maria Theresa hated wasting time, she took advantage of the momentary inconvenience to have a decayed tooth extracted. Once that operation was disposed of, she settled, following German custom, into the low armchair where she would give birth to her child. Word was rushed to her husband, Francis of Lorraine, that the birth was imminent. The Prince was attending the All Souls' Day mass with his son Joseph at the Augustinian church. After arranging for the young man to be escorted back to his apartment lest he hear "improper things," he ran to his wife's bedside. It was a difficult labor, but at around seven-thirty in the evening, a perfectly formed infant girl came into the world. On the following day, she was baptized Maria Antonia Josephina Johanna. Since all the archduchesses were given the first name of Maria, they were usually addressed by their second name. Maria Theresa would refer to her youngest daughter as Antonia. It was the French who would call her Marie Antoinette.
Antonia was brought to the wing in the Hofburg palace reserved for the imperial couple's children. There she joined her young brothers and sisters: Johanna, who was barely five years old, Josephina, who was four, the two-year-old Carolina, and Ferdinand, who had just celebrated his first birthday. Her older siblings lived on other floors: the frail Maria Anna, who was already seventeen, and Joseph, who was fourteen. Maria Christina and Elisabeth, born in 1742 and 1743, were nearly young ladies. Their marriages were already being thought about. As for Charles Joseph, Amalia and Leopold, they had reached the age of reason and fully enjoyed their carefree childhood. Maria Theresa was very proud of this fine progeny, her "henhouse" as she sometimes liked to call it. In a time when infant mortality took a grievous toll on all families, the imperial couple was exceptional in having lost only three children in early childhood. And the Empress would still have another son in 1756, Maximilian Francis, the future Archbishop of Cologne. Meytens, official painter of the Viennese court, showed the brood of archdukes and archduchesses between the husband and wife, who are seated on sumptuous armchairs and dressed in ceremonial regalia. The painting was retouched regularly; the artist would add the newcomers and take account of the elders' changing appearance.
Since succeeding her father, the Habsburg Emperor Charles VI, in 1740, Maria Theresa had done her best to reconcile the exercise of government with her duties as a wife and mother. In 1736, at nineteen, she had married Francis of Lorraine, a prince who had been educated at the Viennese court and was considered one of the handsomest men of his day. His full face and regular features bespoke of a well-balanced personality and an even temper which he never betrayed. Amiable, frank, devoid of ambition and authority, he had known how to attract this princess, who both loved and dominated him. Wishing him never to feel inferior to her, she behaved with him as a submissive wife. She never put up the slightest resistance to his amorous ardor, even if this meant getting pregnant regularly for nearly twenty years.
She had known from earliest childhood that she was destined for the highest function. Disregarding every tradition, her father the Emperor had decided by the Pragmatic Sanction that his daughter would succeed him (he had no son). He had managed, not without difficulty, to get this act recognized by his own states and the foreign powers. However, when he died, the people did not hail Maria Theresa's accession as they might have hailed a prince; they were deeply troubled to be governed by a woman. As for the European sovereigns, they forgot their promises. They each coveted some segment of the empire that had been given over to the young, inexperienced twenty-three-year-old, who was incapable, they felt, of ruling over the destinies of a portion of Central Europe. Populated with nationalities speaking different languages and governed by dissimilar laws, her states were indeed spread far and wide: they included what constitutes present-day Austria, Bohemia (Prague), Hungary (Budapest), part of northern Italy (Milan, Mantua, Florence) and present-day Belgium, which was called the Austrian Netherlands. Far from letting herself be discouraged by such unfavorable circumstances, Maria Theresa took power with the title Queen of Bohemia and Hungary. She made her husband coregent but, convinced of the legitimacy of her rights as an absolute sovereign, she accorded him only the semblance of monarchical power.
Two months after her accession to the throne, she had to face the invasion of one of her provinces and confront a European coalition. "I am but a poor queen but I have the heart of a king," she cried out. With indomitable energy, a sharp sense of reality, unintimidated, unshaken and never discouraged, she succeeded in rallying her subjects to her cause. She raised armies, negotiated alliances and set her enemies at odds with one another. After eight years of war, her legitimacy was no longer challenged. The Pragmatic Sanction was universally recognized. Maria Theresa then pretended to give way to her husband. She let Francis be crowned and given the title of Emperor, but continued to govern alone with the counselors of her own choosing. She then devoted herself entirely to ensuring her empire's independence and security.
During those troubled years, Francis had hardly ever left Maria Theresa's side. Despite the vicissitudes of war, their family life had developed harmoniously. The Empress had given birth to six children, among whom were the future emperors Joseph II and Leopold II. In that time, the imperial couple had adopted the lifestyle which would be theirs until the Emperor's death. The Empress rose very early every morning: six o'clock in the winter, four in the summer. Although her high functions absorbed her, she did not neglect her family. Compelled to delegate her maternal authority to tutors and governesses who looked after the legion of archdukes and archduchesses, she left nothing to chance. She maintained a daily, punctilious correspondence with their teachers. Nothing concerning her children was to be concealed from her. Furthermore, she demanded to be summoned should any serious incident arise concerning any of them--or any incident that might be construed as such. Interested in scientific progress, she had engaged in her service one of the most reputed physicians in Europe, Dr. van Swieten. He alone, in their parents' absence, had the right to make decisions concerning the young princes. Maria Theresa ordered his subordinates to follow his prescribed treatments and diets with the utmost diligence. Like his Swiss colleague, the renowned Tronchin, van Swieten advocated a healthy, outdoor life; physical exercise, such as walking and riding, were an important part of his program. He also tried to impose on his illustrious patients a nutrition that was far from standard at the time. The imperial children were to eat soup, eggs, vegetables and fruit. They ate very little high game and stew. They usually ate their meals in private, as did the Emperor and Empress, who tended to neglect van Swieten's advice when it came to themselves. The honest doctor warned them several times that an overly rich diet might be detrimental to their physical well-being. Maria Theresa probably felt that her life was sufficiently difficult without having to sacrifice the innocent pleasures of the table. Graced with robust good health, she allowed herself a few hours of relaxation in all seasons, and rode to the outskirts of Vienna. She went either to one of her many residences or to see some of the great servants of the crown, who were very flattered by her visit.
The imperial family liked the simple joys of intimacy. A somewhat naïve gouache painted by the Archduchess Maria Christina takes us into the home on Saint Nicholas' day, 1762, when the children receive gifts. Nothing about it recalls the Meytens painting described above. In a small drawing room with light-colored walls and polished wood furniture, the kind of room that could belong to a good middle-class family, the Emperor is reading in front of a blazing fire. He is seated at a table, wearing a dressing gown, nightcap and slippers, and is being served hot chocolate (or tea) by his wife, who is standing behind him looking resplendent in a simple sky-blue wool dress. Four children are making merry by their side, two girls and two boys. Maximilian, the youngest of the archdukes, is eating sweetmeats and playing with a cavalryman mounted on a boiled cardboard steed; Ferdinand, who has found only birch rods in his shoe, is crying his eyes out, while his older sister, Maria Christina, who almost looks like a young mother, is holding out a plate of cakes to console him. Finally, behind Maria Theresa's skirts, a beaming, proud little girl is holding up a magnificent doll--it is little Antonia! She is barely seven years old.
Maria Theresa had had comfortable apartments built in the ancient Hofburg palace, which still looked a bit like a medieval fortress. But when the summer season came, the Empress preferred to move to Schönbrunn Castle with her entire family. This palace, built a few miles away from Vienna, was modeled on Versailles, which had fascinated European sovereigns for half a century. As of 1749, the Empress stayed more and more frequently in this pleasant, relatively small residence, which she enjoyed altering according to her taste--a very reliable, very feminine taste. She chose panel decorations in the rarest woods, commissioned artists to paint bright landscapes filled with flowers and birds and wanted the allegories illustrating her reign to be done with more grace than grandeur. She also liked creating many precious exhibition rooms, a Chinese room, a room of lacquerware, a porcelain room ... The imperial family lived in brightly colored rooms decked with baroque mirrors endlessly reflecting delicately shaded pastels.
Though the Empress liked finding respite from the obligations of government in the simplicity of family life, she did not disdain splendor. In Vienna she presided over a brilliant court whose entertainments remained legendary. Antonia made her first official appearance on the occasion of the Emperor's name day, on October 5, 1759. Swathed in a low-cut court dress, she sang several couplets in French, Ferdinand beat the drum, Maximilian recited a compliment in Italian, Joseph played the cello, Charles the violin, Maria Anna and Maria Christina the piano. The following year, in spite of her very tender years, the little Archduchess attended the celebrations of Joseph's marriage to Isabella of Parrna. A huge painting kept at the Kunsthis torisches Museum in Vienna portrays a concert given in honor of the young married couple. Sitting quietly in the first row on each side of their parents, the imperial children, in gala attire, are listening to the music. Several of them are still so small that their feet do not touch the floor. Watched over discreetly by her governess, Antonia, her hair powdered and well groomed, is sitting erect and gracious in her dress à paniers.
Music held an important place among the august family's entertainments. Maria Theresa's father, Charles VI, was an excellent harpsichordist and did not consider it beneath his dignity to conduct the court orchestra. Maria Theresa enjoyed singing; Francis liked her warm contralto voice. The imperial family encouraged musicians. Wagenseil was the court music master, but the works of Haydn and Gluck were preferred over his. When word came to them about a certain Mozart, a child prodigy from Salzburg, who was coming through Vienna in 1762, Maria Theresa invited him to the Hofburg. Surrounded by their progeny, Maria Theresa and Francis listened to the little Mozart and his sister for three hours. They then questioned them at length about their art. The princes showed themselves to be particularly affable. "We were received with so many marks of favor by Their Majesties that if I told you about it in detail, my account would be taken for a fairy tale," Mozart's father would write to one of his friends. In the artist's family, they told the story of how the little prodigy had slipped and fallen on the well-polished drawing-room floor, and how Antonia, the youngest of the archduchesses, who was exactly his age, rushed to help him up and kissed him. "You are kind, I would like to marry you," he said to her. "Out of gratitude," he replied to the Empress when she laughed and asked why he wanted to marry her daughter. The anecdote has been told many times, and though it cannot be authenticated, it is perfectly plausible. In Vienna, it was possible to deviate from protocol and the archdukes' education did not crush their spontaneity.
Antonia led the most carefree life imaginable. The lenient Countess of Brandeiss, who was in charge of her education, was content to merely instill in her the religious and moral principles that every archduchess had to possess. To please her charming pupil, she shortened the hours devoted to reading and writing. Antonia preferred racing around madly in the park grounds or riding by sleigh in winter with her older sister Carolina and the Princesses of Hesse and Mecklenburg. Her mind was only on amusing herself. Her mother gave very little thought to her education, and her father, though he was very attentive to his sons' education, was far less demanding as far as his daughters were concerned. So long as they were virtuous and proficient in the female arts such as music, tapestry work and watercolors, they would know enough to make accomplished wives. What more could be asked of them? When he was in the prime of life, the Emperor wrote a kind of spiritual testament for his children. Inspired by the principles of the Catholic religion, which the imperial household observed devoutly, he reminded them that their illustrious birth should not lead them to forget that they were on earth to earn their salvation. Moreover, this debonair Epicurean warned them against all worldly vanities and implored them to be wary of flatterers and false friends.
The year 1765 marked a turning point in the life of the imperial family. Early that year the court celebrated Archduke Joseph's second marriage, to Josephine of Bavaria--in sadness, for the Prince still mourned his first wife, who had died of smallpox in 1762. Then other preparations were underway for Leopold's marriage to one of the daughters of the King of Spain, much to the Empress's delight. At the beginning of August, the imperial couple and their children went to Innsbruck to celebrate this union. But everything took a rapid turn for the worse. Leopold fell sick with inexplicable malaises which made them fear for his life. Several days were spent in anguish. On August 17, the Prince seemed fully recovered and Maria Theresa decided to go to the theater with the entire family. Feeling unwell during the performance, the Emperor left his box without saying a word. Joseph left with him. When he arrived in his apartment, he collapsed in his son's arms. Attempts were made to revive him, but in vain. He was dead.
Utterly grief-stricken, for the first time in her life the Empress was at a loss what to do. She refused to see anyone for several hours. She thought of retiring to a convent and leaving the empire to Joseph. But she soon recovered her wits and resolved to pursue her work. Her children were too young to be entrusted to even the most devoted servants. And above all she could not leave the empire--one of her purposes in life--to Joseph, who was too inexperienced. She decided to include him in her government with the title of coregent. He thereby succeeded his father. It seemed reasonable to assume that this young man of twenty-four would not be as submissive as Francis. Assertive, innovative, educated for the exercise of supreme power, he would likely clash with his mother, whom he both revered and feared.
We don't know what feelings overcame the young Antonia at the death of her father, who treasured her as he did all his children. But her daily life certainly changed. There were fewer moments of family intimacy. She saw her mother less frequently, and suddenly she now seemed an imposing and distant elderly lady. The governing of her states claiming her attention more than ever, Maria Theresa took refuge in ostentatious mourning. Dressed entirely in black, her face hooded in a lace bonnet tied under the chin, she would not allow concerts or entertainments. For long months, a deathly silence was cast over the Hofburg and Schönbrunn. In 1766, however, the Empress wanted merry celebrations for the wedding of her daughter Maria Christina to Prince Albert of Sachsen-Teschen. It was the culmination of a true love story. But the joy was short-lived. An epidemic of smallpox soon decimated Vienna and the imperial family was not spared. Nor was it the first time the dreadful disease struck the Hofburg. It had already taken the lives of Archduke Charles Joseph, Archduchess Johanna and Joseph's first wife. Now the illness afflicted Maria Theresa, Josephina of Bavaria, Maria Christina and Albert of Sachsen-Teschen as well as Archduchess Elisabeth, all at the same time. Though his wife was in critical condition, the Emperor never left his mother's bedside. Maria Theresa recovered but her daughter-in-law died. No one lamented her passing. Maria Christina and Albert survived; Elisabeth pulled through but her beautiful face was irreparably pockmarked.
As soon as she had regained her strength the Empress had to set about preparing the marriage of her daughter Josephina to the King of Naples. This would be the fruit of skillful diplomatic schemes which the sovereign had carried out in a masterly manner. Before celebrating the ceremony by proxy, which was to be held in Vienna, the Empress demanded that her daughter meditate at the grave of her recently deceased sister-in-law, in the forbidding crypt of the Capuchin church. Overwhelmed by a dread presentiment, Josephina saw this command as a death sentence. Upon her return to the Hofburg, she began shivering: it was the onset of smallpox. Two weeks later, all the churches in Vienna tolled their bells. Josephine had passed away. She had just turned sixteen. Antonia would never forget this tragic death.
Josephine had barely joined her countless relations in the Habsburg necropolis when the King of Spain, "without hesitating, or losing a minute" asked Maria Theresa for another archduchess for his son, the King of Naples. Disregarding her own emotional state, the Empress let him choose between Amalia and Carolina. He chose Carolina, the youngest. Nothing could have brought greater sadness to Antonia. The two sisters were bound by deep affection. They were always whispering and laughing together, observing the failings or ridiculous ways of some of the people around them and making fun of them mercilessly. Maria Theresa had previously wanted to separate the two adolescents to avoid hurting feelings provoked by their attitude. But the two accomplices had continued their games. Carolina's departure for Naples, in April 1768, put an end to this close bond. Finding "a husband whose face was very ugly" and whose behavior was often peculiar, the new Queen of Naples's conjugal life had a distressing beginning. In her letters to her governess, Countess of Lerchenfeld, she always asked for news of Antonia, whom she said she "loved extraordinarily. When I think her fate may be like mine," she said, "I would like to write her entire volumes on the subject ... for I must say the agony suffered is all the greater in that one must always appear happy." In writing these lines, in August 1768, Carolina was fully aware that negotiations were progressing over Antonia's marriage to Louis XV's grandson. | July 2000
Copyright © 2000 Evelyne Lever
Evelyne Lever is a leading French historian and the author of seven books, including, most recently, Madam de Pompadour. Marie Antoinette is her first book to be published in the United States. She lives in Paris with her husband, Maurice Lever, the author of Sade.