Saturday, December 29, 2007

Christmas Charities of Marie-Antoinette

While surfing the internet, it is all too common to see Marie-Antoinette characterized as someone who ignored the plight of the poor. Nothing could be further from the truth. Her charities were quite extensive and a matter of public record. She also took great care to instill a love of the needy in her children. At Christmastime, during a particularly brutal winter, the queen had them renounce their Christmas gifts in order to buy food and blankets for the destitute. As Maxime de La Rocheterie relates:
One year, on the approach of the 1st of January, she had the most beautiful playthings brought from Paris to Versailles; she showed them to her children, and when they had looked at them and admired them, said to them that they were without doubt very beautiful, but that it was still more beautiful to distribute alms; and the price of these presents was sent to the poor.
(The Life of Marie Antoinette by Maxime de La Rocheterie, 1893)
Another biographer Charles Duke Yonge discusses how the queen's generosity was well-known by her contemporaries, in spite of her efforts to be discreet, and the efforts of her enemies to portray her as a decadent spendthrift.
By the beginning of December the Seine was frozen over, and the whole adjacent country was buried in deep snow. Wolves from the neighboring forests, desperate with hunger, were said to have made their way into the suburbs, and to have attacked people in the streets. Food of every kind became scarce, and of the poorer classes many were believed to have died of actual starvation....Not only were Louis and Marie Antoinette conspicuous for the unstinting liberality with which they devoted their own funds to to supply of the necessities of the destitute, but the queen, in many cases of unusual or pressing suffering that were reported to her in Versailles and the neighboring villages, sent trustworthy persons to investigate them, and in numerous instances went herself to the cottages, making personal inquiries into the condition of the occupants, and showing not only a feeling heart, but a considerate and active kindness, which doubled the value of her benefactions by the gracious, thoughtful manner in which they were bestowed. She would willingly have done the good she did in secret, partly from her constant feeling that charity was not charity if it were boasted of, partly from a fear that those ready to misconstrue all her acts would find pretexts for evil and calumny even in her bounty. One of her good deeds struck Necker as of so remarkable a character that he pressed her to allow him to make it known. "Be sure, on the contrary," she replied, "that you never mention it. What good could it do? they would not believe you;[9]" but in this she was mistaken. Her charities were too widely spread to escape the knowledge even of those who did not profit by them; and they had their reward, though it was but a short-lived one. Though the majority of her acts of personal kindness were performed in Versailles rather than in Paris, the Parisians were as vehement in their gratitude as the Versaillese; and it found a somewhat fantastic vent in the erection of pyramids and obelisks of snow in different quarters of the city, all bearing inscriptions testifying the citizens' sense of her benevolence. One, which far exceeded all its fellows in size--the chief beauty of works of that sort--since it was fifteen feet high, and each of the four faces was twelve feet wide at the base, was decorated with a medallion of the royal pair, and bore a poetical inscription commemorating the cause of its erection:

"Reine, dont la beaute surpasse les appas

Pres d'un roi bienfaisant occupe ici la place.

Si ce monument frele est de neige et de glace,

Nos coeurs pour toi ne le sont pas.


De ce monument sans exemple,

Couple auguste, l'aspect bien doux pur votre coeur

Sans doute vous plaira plus qu'un palais, qu'un temple

Que vous eleverait un peuple adulateur.[10]"

(Life of Marie-Antoinette
by Charles Duke Yonge, 1876)

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