Reviewed by Ian Lipke
So many books have been written about King Louis XVI’s reign, his personality, and the factional struggles that plagued his every action. Many more have analysed the actions of his queen in bringing about the downfall of the ancien regime. Another biography appears excessive, given the studies that have all been completed. However, a factor that leaves the door open to yet another study is the quality of writing in many of the earlier studies. In general terms, I can speak no more specifically than that, the writing is cogent and analytical, high quality expression that academics love for its preciseness, but makes little impact on the reading habits of the intelligent general reader. Hardman’s prose is written in an academic style but with a warmth that makes its reading a welcome task.
Why is there a place in the literature for this biography of Marie-Antoinette? Its real contribution lies in its investigation into, and subsequent reliance on, correspondence between an early leader of the revolution, Barnave, and Marie-Antoinette. The genuineness of the correspondence having been established, Hardman reveals that the queen was not wholly opposed to the demands of the Third Estate in 1788-89, and that, following the failed flight to Varennes, she made a concerted effort to make constitutional monarchy work. In late 1791, she and Barnave hammered out a workable policy that was presented to the Justice Minister Duport du Tertre, stamped for executive action by the Conseil d’Etat, and was not seen again.
Hardman begins his account with the birth of Marie Antoinette in 1755, a daughter to the Empress Maria-Theresa of Austria. The writer then spends a great deal of time introducing us to an amazing array of characters who contribute their part to the saga that is unfolding, reaching its zenith in 1789 and the early 1790s. In the lead-in chapter, Hardman provides a glance at the psychology of Marie-Antoinette but moves quickly on to discuss her interventionism and the hatred created in the Court through her promotion of favourites. Without knowing it, the queen was set up to fail.
None of the information in the last paragraph is new. The fact that the queen’s mother was the legendary Maria-Theresa, a model to strive towards and hopefully to supersede, has been investigated before. The weak character of Louis XVI is shown in his stubbornness, as it has been before in many books. Hardman’s resurrection of the personal issues facing the king and queen humanizes these characters. The story of the wedding night ending in the Dauphin departing the marriage bed in a fury to go hunting leads to speculation that his first intimate moments with his wife had been due to a lack of performance on his part or a cold reception from his teenage consort. The courtier Vermond reveals, as far as he may be believed, that the Dauphin had not so much as touched his wife’s hand thereafter. The stupefying ignorance of both king and queen of sexual matters is revealed following some marriage counselling by the queen’s brother Joseph II (57). The queen’s resultant pregnancies at the end of a seven year unconsummated marriage attests to Joseph’s successful handling of a task not normally the province of brothers.
In the second chapter, Marie-Antoinette’s dabbling with state affairs is highlighted by the contrast between the reign of Louis XVI and that of his predecessor. In Louis XV’s time, the Court and the Government rarely intersected. The king was able to lead his nation into enormous levels of debt without recognition that a price would eventually have to be paid. With the regime of Louis XVI, we witness, through Mare-Antoinette’s doing, the influence of favourites on an already harassed king. The queen’s protégé Mme de Polignac and, at a later date, the queen’s husband-approved lover Alex von Fersen, together with Marie-Antoinette’s ongoing disputes with chief ministers such as Necker, made the life of a stubborn Louis a constant running sore. In a quirk of fate, the king finally found something to like in Mme de Polignac and made her his mistress. However, it was what became known as the Diamond Necklace Affair which, in Hardman’s view, set France on a course to the dismemberment of the ancien regime.
The story is very convoluted. In essence, a gang of confidence tricksters made the assumption that Cardinal de Rohan could convince the queen to purchase a 2800 carat diamond necklace for herself in secret and without the king’s knowledge. Would the queen do such a thing? In Hardman’s view, “She could, she had, but in this case, she didn’t. In some senses – though this can be exaggerated – the Affair marked the true ‘unravelling of the ancient regime’” (98). Hardman argues that the key to the heist was the despair-induced credulity of de Rohan and another victim Boehmer (99), both of whom suffered an enormous penalty.
Considerable time is given to Marie-Antoinette’s relationship with her children. In the case of Louis XVI, there appeared to be no relationship. The queen’s daughter was waited upon by up to sixteen companions, and while the courtier Bombelles thought this might be considered superfluous, he argued against dismissing anyone on the grounds that this might smack of arbitrariness. (Hence a girl receiving 1200 francs a year whose sole purpose was to straighten the princess’s collar retained her position and her enormous salary). Hardman shows that the princess was a spoilt brat, the young prince an invalid with the tuberculosis that killed him. A second son was born in 1785, his conception always under a cloud of disputed parentage. It was always a matter of his father being Louis XVI or Alex von Fersen. Considering the lack of evidence to the contrary, Hardman settles on the king as the parent.
It is clear that political and social intrigue, the inculcation of favourites, and interference in the smooth running of the internal affairs of the kingdom were integral to, and descriptive of, Marie-Antoinette’s style. Pity for her first-born son, genuine love of her second son, and continuing animosity towards her daughter, together with a late blooming relationship with her husband, characterized Marie-Antoinette’s familial style. The manner with which she met her death, the contempt in which she held the priest who accompanied her, and the men who ended her life, reveal the admirable character of this woman.
Marie-Antoinette deserves this biography because hitherto it was not known that the queen’s favouritism of the Polignac circle “was not just driven by a desire for constant amusement but was also an ambitious attempt to rebalance the Court and diminish the power of established families” (xvi). Unfortunately, the queen’s reputation as shallow worked against her and her activities on the Court’s behalf were seen as capricious.
Hardman’s book is a very readable account of the life of a queen whose name is still recognized by many people of our own day.
By John Hardman
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