I just do not know what to do about Marie Antoinette.
Yes, I realize that there isn’t, strictly speaking, anything to be done about her at this point – our decision-tree was pruned dramatically when she was guillotined.
But she is one of the most polarizing figures in European history, and she was killed during one of its most morally complicated upheavals; it feels incumbent on even the most casual consumer of history to have an opinion about her.
Still, making a close read of Marie Antoinette’s life wouldn’t have felt like an urgent priority except that one of my favorite writers, Stefan Zweig, wrote a biography of her, Marie Antoinette: The Portrait of an Average Woman. Despite the title, it’s an essentially sympathetic biography (and let’s not forget that, on the spectrum of things said about Marie Antoinette over the years, ‘average’ is positively kindly) and based largely on her own letters.
It’s always interesting watching a biographer try and force their uncooperative subject into their narrative mold. I had a similar experience a few years ago reading Antonia Fraser’s biography of Mary Stewart, Queen of Scots, which was a long and heroic attempt to make a real dimwit seem like a sophisticated, evolved, and politically subtle monarch (interesting side note: Antonia Fraser, patron saint of lost causes, also wrote a biography of Marie Antoinette).
Likewise, even Zweig’s best efforts can’t hide the fact that Marie Antoinette was a bizarrely spoiled young woman who, for most of her life, spent her limited mental energies entirely on the superficial and, particularly, on herself. Despite receiving a great deal of very sound, very clear advice from a number of qualified people (not least her mother, the forbidding and formidable Maria Teresa of Austria), she persisted in acting in an extravagantly self-destructive way.
But I don’t always listen to my mother, either, and if Marie Antoinette was sometimes a self-involved mental midget, she was also complicated. She loved her children, and seems to have had abiding and deep friendships. At the end of her life, she displayed great bravery and great composure.
She also, at least according to Zweig, had one great and lasting love, Axel Comte de Fersen (and really, who could resist a man with such a name!). The two of them, the Queen and the Swedish nobleman, loved each other for many years; Fersen even orchestrated the royal family’s attempted escape from the Tuileries. Fersen never married, writing to his sister, “I cannot belong to the one woman to whom I should like to belong and who loves me, so I will not belong to anyone.”
He was devastated by her execution in 1793, and never really recovered, though he lived for nearly two more decades:
“She for whom I lived, since I have never ceased to love her…she for whom I would have sacrificed everything…she whom I loved so dearly, and for whom I would have given my life a thousand times – is no more. God, why have you crushed me thus…I do not know how I go on living, I do not know how to support my suffering, which is intense and which nothing can ever efface. Always she will be present in my memory and I shall never cease to bewail her…The sole object of my interest has ceased to exist; she alone meant everything to me…I care to speak of nothing but her, to recall the happy moments of my life. Alas, nothing is left of them but memories which, however, I shall preserve so long as my life lasts.”
He died in 1810, beaten to death by an angry mob that believed he had murdered the heir to the throne of Sweden.
The whole story sounds incredible, I know, but, at least in Zweig’s hands, it’s also moving. I wasn’t prepared to find so many sympathetic coordinates in Marie Antoinette. Zweig didn’t talk me all the way around to liking her – the image of her and her bullshit peasant hut in Petite Trianon is hard to shake, and impossible to like.
But most of us are some part bullshit, and some part real; maybe Marie Antoinette was, too. And I’m disconcerted to feel that I dismissed with prejudice someone on whom I should have spent more careful attention; she was a ditz, and so, like a ditz, I ignored her. More fool I, it appears – if Zweig hasn’t convinced me that Marie Antoinette was “average”, he has at least convinced me I was wrong.
Image, which is a portrait of Marie Antoinette by Martin van Meytens, is from Wikipedia.