Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Fersen Myth Revisited

Occasionally I receive anonymous, pseudonymous comments asserting that I am projecting my own religious beliefs upon Marie-Antoinette, which is why (it is claimed) that I refuse to acknowledge her "affair" with Count Fersen. As I have written before, just because I do not believe that there is any substantial evidence that Marie-Antoinette had an affair with Count Fersen, does not mean that I believe she was the Little Flower. She went overboard with her gambling and had many frivolities, especially as a young girl. While to all appearances she followed the tenets of her creed, partaking of the sacraments and giving generously to the poor, it was not until after her baby Sophie died in 1787 that she gradually became more devout, as biographers Desmond Seward and Jean Chalon have written.

The death of her seven year old son in 1789 and the disasters of the Revolution which followed made the Queen turn more and more to her Faith for consolation. She would not confess to a juring priest, demonstrating her loyalty to the papal authority. There is evidence that she made every effort to prepare to die a holy death. It is one of the intriguing aspects of her character that, in spite of many frailties, she endured extraordinary sufferings with fortitude and grace. As Maxime de la Rocheterie said: "She was...not a saint...until she became a martyr."

I believe that Marie-Antoinette and Fersen were not lovers because the reliable historical evidence indicates otherwise. When testimony of extant letters and diaries demonstrates that Marie-Antoinette was devoted to her family, and that she stayed at her husband's side at the cost of her own life, then she should be given the benefit of the doubt. I am not alone in questioning the historicity of the alleged affair; there have been many not particularly religious scholars and authors who have believed that the Queen was faithful to her husband. I know of Jewish historians who dispute the claim that there was an affair with Fersen. I know some atheists, too, who strongly object to the very idea as a romantic absurdity. The credence given to such a story has nothing to do with one's religion but with how carefully one sifts the data.

Since I am accused of allowing my beliefs to blind me to the fact of historical love affairs, then I must acknowledge the times I have written about various femmes fatales. I admire Eleanor of Aquitaine a great deal. I also find Louise de La Vallière, Catherine II, Emma Hamilton, and Germaine de Staël to be fascinating women, despite the fact that they all had lovers outside of marriage. It is not proven that Marie-Antoinette ever did.

As a friend wrote to me the other day: "I've come to the belief that when someone argues to the person rather than to the argument it raises at least the suspicion that their argument is weak." Good point. Share


lara77 said...

I could not agree with you more!! As an Archduchess of Austria and now Queen of France, Marie Antoinette would never have compromised her religion and her standards. The Queen lived in a fishbowl existence; can you imagine the scandal and gossip if someone like the Duc d'Orleans had proof the Queen committed adultery! Her Majesty showed her breeding and station in life up to the minute she stepped up the steps to the scaffold.Vive la Reine!

elena maria vidal said...

Yes. And what's more, her brother Joseph described her as having a "cold temperament." She had enough on her plate just dealing with a husband, and the babies and miscarriages that resulted from that union, without taking on a lover. Fersen, in the meantime, had many women in his life. He and Antoinette were good friends, which was what she needed more than a lover; she needed friends.

lara77 said...

Elena, I cannot imagine the stress Her Majesty dealt with once she was Queen of France. Her little Sophie dies and when the Estates Generale opens she loses her beloved Dauphin! Yet she was to keep her head high and act like nothing happened. One would assume her faith in God kept her strength for the trials she was to undergo. Marie Antoinette was an amazing Queen and always a daughter of the Church.

elena maria vidal said...

It was really unfortunate that the Estates-General coincided with the death of Louis-Joseph. Both Louis and Antoinette were so stricken with grief that it was all so overwhelming.

Catherine Delors said...

I agree, Elena. There is simply no proof of a sexual affair between Marie-Antoinette and Fersen, and it would have been totally out of character for her.
So true also about Marie-Antoinette needing disinterested friends, a very rare commodity in Versailles. There is no denying that Fersen, whatever his faults, remained absolutely devoted to her.

elena maria vidal said...

Yes, Fersen was extremely devoted to the Royal Family. Marie-Antoinette had many enemies, but she also had the gift of inspiring unwavering devotion in many of her friends, a devotion which almost resembled religious piety.