1902 Encyclopedia > Marie Antoinette

Marie Antoinette
Queen of France

MARIE ANTOINETTE, JOSEPHE JEANNE (1755-1793), queen of France, was the fourth daughter of Maria Theresa and the emperor Francis I., and was born on the 2d November 1755, ou the day of the great earthquake at Lisbon, and in the year in which the hereditary policy of enmity between the houses of France and Austria was changed to an alliance between them. From her earliest years she was destined by her mother to sustain this alliance, and was educated, with a view to a marriage with a French prince, by the Abbe de Vermond, who was to have a great influence on her future life. In 1770 Choiseul negotiated her marriage to the young dauphin, which took place on May 16 with the greatest pomp, but which was soon overshadowed by a terrible accident in Paris at the fete given in honour of the marriage. The clauphine soon found her position very difficult; she was but fourteen, and was intended by her mother to support the Austrian alliance and Choiseul at the court of France. This use of her daughters for political purposes has been recently denied by Von Arneth, the able editor of Maria Theresa's letters; but a consideration of the letters themselves confirms the idea, which was at the bottom of Marie Antoinette's unpopularity in France, that she was only an Austrian spy in a high position. She had hardly arrived at Paris, when her friend and the friend of the Austrian alliance, Choiseul, was dismissed from the ministry, and she was left alone to steer a difficult course by the advice of the Austrian minister, the Count de Mercy-Argenteau, whose reports of her daily doings to Maria Theresa have been published. In May 1774 Louis XV. died, and Marie Antoinette became queen of France. Through the first years of her reign she played a very important political part, but, except, as in the cases of Poland and the Bavarian succession, when her mother pressed her to maintain the alliance, she chiefly exerted her influence with regard to individuals, not to measures or policies. Thus she effected the dismissal of Turgot, and, by the Abbe de Vermond's advice, the summons of Lomenie de Brienne to the ministry, not from political but from personal motives, and obtained enormous presents for her intimate friends without thinking that they were interested in her for selfish motives of their own. This political role of hers, which was more than suspected, made her intensely unpopular to the French people, and this feeling was increased by her social mistakes. Her extravagance in dress and her passion for the card-table had greatly incensed and disgusted her mother; and, when her mother's death removed her only frank and bold adviser, she became more extravagant and more frivolous than ever. Her passion for play, her love of amusement, her intimacy with the Polignacs and their wild and dissipated society, her night visits to masked balls in Paris, and her favours to many officers of her guards and young foreigners at her court were the subject of ribald conversation in every coterie of Paris. The scandal of the diamond necklace, in which the queen was not to blame, spread her name with infamy all over France as if she had been guilty ; and among the people her extravagance was regarded as a potent cause of their poverty and want. Such was her unpopularity when the states-general met in May 1789; she was believed to be debauched and dissipated, when her real faults were that she was frivolous and careless of public opinion, Austrian at heart, though queen of France, and opposed to Necker as she had been to Turgot, and to all the reforms and economies her husband, Bonhomme Louis, was willing to institute. From July 14 onward Marie Antoinette headed the party of reaction and armed opposition to the Revolution, and became | unwittingly the means of her husband's unpopularity and ; downfall; for she always had influence enough to prevent | his carrying out the frank, honest policy of reform which J he desired, but not enough to make him adopt hers in its ! stead, and is to blame for his vacillations in decisive | moments. Left to himself, Louis would, from the beginning of his reign, have been a reforming king like Charles III. of Spain, and the great outbreak might have passed over. To trace her policy minutely from 1789 to 1793 is made very difficult by the numerous pretended letters of hers which have been published, and till recently believed in. She inspired the collection of foreign troops round Paris, contrary to the king's opinion, and thus brought on the taking of the Bastille. She was present at the banquet at Versailles which caused the march of the women to Versailles and the transference of the royal family to Paris. When there, she still looked forward to undoing all that had been done, and would never frankly recognize her position. When brought into negotiation with Mirabeau, she refused to trust him or deal frankly with him. Had she done so, she would probably have established a strong constitutional government, but she would not have been the self-willed Marie Antoinette. He advised her to go with the king and royal family to some provincial capital, declare the royal adherence to all the early acts of the assembly, but declare also that its later acts were passed under constraint, and were null and void ; but she must not do two things—she must not fly towards the frontier, else she would be suspected of seeking foreign aid, and she must not depend on the army but the people. She would not act while Mirabeau was alive,—she was too independent to act by any one's advice; but when he was dead she did what he had advised her not to do, fled towards the frontier, and to Bouille's army. The royal family were stopped at Varennes, and brought back to Paris, but from that time were regarded as traitors to France. She had yet two more chances. She might have thrown herself into the hands of Barnave, Duport, and the constitutional party of the constituent assembly, who were ready to rally round their constitutional king, but she would not trust them or take their advice. When she was at the end of her power, when the Tuileries had been stormed, and she was in prison, and the republic proclaimed, Dumouriez was ready, after his victory of Valmy, to turn his army on Paris, dissolve the Jacobins, and re-establish the old constitution, but she would not trust him. It was her last chance. When once the republic was proclaimed, it was evident that Louis must die both to cement its foundations and to remove a dangerous centre of reaction; and in January 1793 Marie Antoinette became a widow, never to the last recognizing that she had sacrificed her husband to her obstinacy and self-will. Harrowing descriptions have been given of her treatment in prison during the few remaining months of her life, but, though she was separated from her children, she had every material comfort, no less a sum than 1110 livres being spent on her food alone between August and October, at the rate of 15 livres a day. At last her trial came on,—a mock trial indeed, as all those of the time, for her execution wras determined before she came before the tribunal. Much has been said of the shameful charges made against her; but, shameful as they were, they were based on a confession made by her son, which, though probably forced from him and utterly false, was yet put in evidence. The trial was soon over, and on the same day, October 16, 1793, she was guillotined.

It is hard to speak of Marie Antoinette with justice ; her faults were caused by her education and position rather than her nature, and she expiated them far more bitterly than was deserved. She was thoroughly imbued with the imperial and absolutist ideas of Maria Theresa, and had neither the heart nor the understanding to sympathize with the aspirations of the lower classes. Her love of pleasure and of display ruined both her character and her reputation in her prosperous years, and yet, after a careful examination of many of the libels against her, it may be asserted with confidence that she was personally a virtuous woman, though always appearing to be the very reverse. Innocence is not always its own protection, and circumspection is as necessary for a queen as for any other woman. Her conduct throughout the Revolution is heart-rending ; we, who live after the troubled times, can see her errors and the results of her pride and her caprice, but at the time she was the only individual of the royal family who could inspire the devotion which is always paid to a strong character. In the Marie Antoinette who suffered on the guillotine we pity, not the pleasure-loving queen, not the widow, who had kept her husband against his will in the wrong course, not the woman, who throughout her married life did not scruple to show her contempt for her slow and heavy but good-natured and loving king, but the little princess, sacrificed to state policy, and cast uneducated and without a helper into the frivolous court of France, not to be loved, but to be suspected by all around her, and eventually to be hated by the whole people of France.

For lives and memoirs of Marie Antoinette before 1863, as well as engravings of her. the student is referred to a complete and careful bio-bibliography, contained in M. de Lescure's La Vraie Marie Antoinette, Paris, 1863. This work, however, contains many forged letters, purporting to be hers, and leads to the question of Marie Antoinette's published letters. There can be no doubt that very many fabrications by autograph makers for autograph collectors are published as authentic in D'Hunolstein, Correspondance inédite de Marie Antoinette. Paris, 1864; and in Feuillet des Conches, Louis XVI., Marie Antoinette, et Madame Elisabeth, lettres et documents inédites, Paris, 1865. The falsity of these letters was shown by Professor Von Sybel and by M. Geffroy in the Revue des Deux Mondes, and still more clearly in the latter's appendix to his Gustave III. et la cour de France, Paris. 1867. To study Marie Antoinette as she really lived, the student must consult Von Arneth's numerous publications on her and her mother and brothers, and particularly Ameth and Geffroy, Marie Antoinette: Correspondance secrète entre Marie-Thérèse et le Comte de Mercy-Argenteau, Paris, 3 vols., 1874, in which Marie Antoinette's daily life for ten years, from 1770-80, is described for her mother's own eyes. For the affair of the necklace read Carlyle's Essay. For her imprisonment, trial, and execution, see Campardon's Tribunal Révolutionnaire, vol. i., and the same author's Marie Antoinette à la Conciergerie, Paris, 1863. (H. M. S.)

The above article was written by: H. Morse Stephens.

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