Monday, January 12, 2009

Here we go again....



About a week or so ago, I received a comment from an anonymous, pseudonymous person arguing passionately in favor of the theory that Marie-Antoinette had an affair with Count Fersen. I have written several articles, most of which are on the blog sidebar, about why I think this theory to be false. The more I continue to read and learn about Marie-Antoinette, the more it becomes clear to me that the story of the Fersen affair is not credible. If people are determined to grasp at straws in an attempt to prove that the Queen and Count Fersen were lovers, then there is nothing I can do about it. I will, however, go over some of the points that the anonymous writer brought up, most of which I have already covered elsewhere.

It was claimed by the writer that Marie-Antoinette threw her husband out of bed and therefore was running off to sleep with Fersen. Simone Bertière mentions how Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette refrained from marital relations after the birth of baby Sophie in 1786, probably due to the Queen's health and fragile emotional state. Jean Chalon relates what a difficult time it was for her - the year 1786 - Louis-Joseph's health was failing, the baby Sophie was not thriving. Marie-Antoinette, aware of the horrible calumnies being spread about herself in the wake of the Diamond Necklace scandal, declared to Madame Campan in September of 1786, "I want to die!" When Madame Campan brought her orange flower water for her nerves, she said, "No, do not love me, it is better to give me death!" She may have had post-partum depression or even suffering from a breakdown.

Chalon also shows how Marie-Antoinette became more pious following baby Sophie's death; she gave orders that the fasts of the Church be more carefully observed at her table than previously. She began making public devotions and prayers with her household in the royal chapel. Desmond Seward relates this as well. Abstaining from the marriage bed was how practicing Catholics, then as now, spaced pregnancies for reasons of grave necessity. It is not proof that she had exchanged Louis for Fersen. This has nothing to do with the earlier issues which occurred before Madame Royale was born, of the problems which Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette had in consummating their marriage.
Madame Bertière explains the reasons why it took so long to consummate the marriage, which have been discussed here as well.

A passage written by Lady Elizabeth Foster in her diary, claiming that Marie-Antoinette and Fersen were lovers, has sometimes been used as proof of an affair, even in Lady Antonia Fraser's otherwise worthy biography. It is no proof at all; Bess Foster was not part of the Queen's inner circle. Furthermore, according to Amanda Foreman's acclaimed biography of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, Bess' version of events in her diary "was more fantasy than truth." (p.177) Georgiana's daughter Harriet described Bess thus: "...More perverted than deceitful...I really believe she hardly knows herself the difference between right and wrong now." (p. 308) Bess is not a reliable source concerning Marie-Antoinette.

Neither is the Comte de Saint-Priest, one of the sources of the original slander. The origins of the legend of Marie-Antoinette’s affair with Fersen began not with her revolutionary foes, who certainly would have picked up on anything of that nature to discredit the Queen at her trial. Fersen’s name came up at the trial only in regard to the fact that he had driven the royal family’s coach out of Paris in June 1791 as they tried to escape. It was the courtier Saint-Priest, who made insinuations about the Queen and Fersen in his memoirs, probably to cover the humiliation that Fersen had slept with Madame de Saint-Priest, his wife.

If there had been any cause for concern about Count Fersen’s presence at the French court as regards the queen’s reputation, the Austrian ambassador Count Mercy-Argenteau would surely have mentioned it in one of the reams of letters to Marie-Antoinette’s mother Empress Maria Teresa, to whom he passed on every detail of the Queen’s life. Count Mercy was more concerned with the Polignac clan and their influence on both the King and Queen. Especially Madame de Polignac posed a threat to Mercy's own influence on the young Queen. (This is actually what Louis XVI wanted, to decrease Austrian influence on Marie-Antoinette.) Count Mercy had spies whom he paid well to gather information, but Fersen was not worth mentioning. Neither is Fersen mentioned in a romantic way by other people close to the queen in their memoirs, such as her maid Madame Campan and the Baron de Besenval, a family friend.

As for statements by political enemies of the Queen, there were many who sought to discredit her for their own advancement. There are are some who claimed she slept with Fersen at the Tuileries. There is much controversy over a certain night in February 1792, when some biographers, including Stanley Loomis and Vincent Cronin, think that Marie-Antoinette and Count Axel von Fersen may have finally consummated their love in her suite in the Tuileries palace. This theory has occurred over a smudged phrase in Fersen’s diary. However, no one knows for certain if the erased phrase was indeed Resté là, Fersen’s usual term indicating that he had slept with a lady. Also, the queen, following her escape attempt, was more closely guarded than ever, with a sentry keeping watch at her door all night, and checking every once in awhile to see if she was in her room – how could she have entertained a lover? The purpose of Count Fersen’s final visit to his friends Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette was to discuss the dire political situation and persuade them to try to escape again, which Louis would not do. Fersen may have had to linger in the palace overnight in order to avoid the revolutionary authorities, but not in the queen’s bed. At his earliest convenience, he made his way to the welcoming arms of his mistress Eleonore Sullivan and stayed at her house in the attic hideaway.

According to Marie-Antoinette’s maid Madame Campan, the queen spent her nights at the Tuileries reading in order to calm her agitated mind. Madame Campan also writes in her Memoirs of how the Queen found a confessor who had not taken the constitutional oath, whom she would secretly receive. For Easter of 1792, she would not make her Easter duty in public but arranged to hear Mass privately with a non-juring priest. As Madame relates:
The Queen did perform her Easter devotions in 1792; but she went to the chapel attended only by myself. She desired me beforehand to request one of my relations, who was her chaplain, to celebrate a mass for her at five o’clock in the morning. It was still dark; she gave me her arm and I lighted her with a taper. I left her alone at the chapel door. She did not return to her room until the dawn of day.
So instead of liaisons with a lover, Marie-Antoinette was at that season of her life preparing her soul for the sufferings and death which lay ahead, of which her keen sense of the escalating events gave her a strong premonition. Nevertheless, descriptions of the Queen’s religious faith by Madame Campan are often interpreted by some authors as an attempt to win the favor of the queen’s daughter, the Duchesse d’Angoulême. Yet it is acceptable to draw conclusions as if from the air, when it comes to non-existent evidence of Fersen’s alleged romance with the anguished Queen. I see no reason why Madame Campan would have fabricated such events, which are similar to other reports of Marie-Antoinette’s religious beliefs and practices, especially her own final testament.

Furthermore, at the Tuileries, as at Versailles, a private passage linked the Queen’s room to her husband’s. According to Madame de Tourzel, the royal governess, in her Memoirs, one of the first things Marie-Antoinette did after being forcibly dragged to the Tuileries was to have a private staircase constructed between her room and the King’s. It would not be very convenient to dally with a lover when a husband might walk in at any moment from behind the hidden door in the paneling.

As the Duchesse de FitzJames, a great-niece of Fersen, is quoted by Nesta Webster from a 1893 French periodical La Vie Contemporaine:
I desire first of all to do away with the lying legend, based on a calumny, which distorted the relations between Marie-Antoinette and Fersen, relations consisting in absolute devotion, in complete abnegation on one side, and on the other in friendship, profound, trusting and grateful. People have wished to degrade to the vulgarities of a love novel, facts which were otherwise terrible, sentiments which were otherwise lofty.
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18 comments:

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

The weird thing, Elena, is that they seem to want Marie Antoinette to have had an affair with Fersen. It's almost an emotional thing for them. =S

elena maria vidal said...

So true. Tell me about it.=0 Unfortunately, the latest film and recent pop biographies do not help the matter.

Ninon said...

I'm glad to have read this post, it's interesting. I've never had any illusions about this affair, especially when reading Antonia Fraser's biography of M-A which left me quite uncertain if there even ever was a love affair. I thought it just was a thing that was exaggerated later on. That's why I also got a bit surprised when I read a critic of Sofia Coppola's movie where the writer claimed that Coppola made Marie-Antoinette's and Fersen's love affair seem dull when it was said to be "hotter than the French revolution"(?!). I've never got such a picture really, even in the history book in school they just mentioned that Fersen may have been Marie-Antoinette's lover.
And as you said, surely there would have been several pamphlets if it was suspected?

Well, but... people always love to speculate. Especially when there is sex involved.

elena maria vidal said...

Great points, Ninon. The pornographic pamphlets usually showed the queen with her brother-in-law Artois or with Madame de Polignac (or both). Then they made up the calumny that the Queen had hurt her son. Her enemies were grasping at straws, and if the Fersen story were a straw that they thought was worth grasping, they would have made hay with it. They were certainly willing to invent things in order to discredit her.

Gareth Russell said...

I absolutely agree with what you've written and it's very funny you mention the St.-Priest memoirs. In my play, "The Audacity of Ideas," I dealt with the comte's version of events. He is a character in the play and his memoirs are absconded from his maison, ending up in the hands of the comte d'Artois and duchesse de Polignac. Of course, that is dramatic license, used to allow them the on-stage opportunity to deny his allegations, precisely for the hypothesis given here - that he was covering up the pain that Fersen, a former friend, had betrayed him with Madame de St.-Priest. St.-Priest is the cited "well-connected courtier" in many modern accounts of the Fersen affair, but in reality, he was neither well-connected nor even particularly liked by the queen's clique.

elena maria vidal said...

I would love to see your play, Gareth. And I seem to recall that at one point the Comte de Saint-Priest was a retainer of the Comte de Provence, which would also explain a great deal about the vicious rumors aimed at Marie-Antoinette. The rumors also had the intention of casting doubt upon the paternity of her children, which would have benefited Provence. I wish that people would realize that at Versailles EVERYTHING was political.

Zsófia said...

Dear Elena,

I often read your posts about MA and her family. I absolutely agree with you, she was such a loyal and honest lady.
Although, Coppola wants to earn money, so she must sell her films, just like the writers of these kinds of biographies. And what do people like? The perfect lives of perfect women? A story of intelligent, kind people without any sex scene, blood or popular music? Definitely not. So, she must make stupid idiots from MA and Louis, and a handsome, but unintelligent and boring guy from Fersen.
I'm very sad, because the REAL Fersen - I mean, he was a soldier and a Swedish poltitician, not the main character of this boring "love (?) story" - is as interesting for me as the real MA, or the real Louis... but Coppola and her company wants a lot of money, not good stories :(
But there are better history films/series, for example the life of John Adams, which won lots of awards, or 'Chouans!' with Sophie Marceau. This is my favourite.

Well, many thanks for your wonderful articles!


Sophie (from Hungary)

- And sorry for my English...

elena maria vidal said...

Thank you, Sophie, and welcome. Yes, Count von Fersen was an absolutely fascinating person in his own right, quite apart from his friendship with the French Royal Family. He was deeply involved in Swedish politics and then went to America and had many adventures. He had many, many ladies in his life. Much of his activity in France during the Revolution was on behalf of his sovereign. More than any other European monarch, King Gustavus worked to help Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, both of whom he greatly admired and respected.

Catherine Delors said...

Great post, Elena! I took the liberty of linking to it.

Bearded Lady said...

oh I love a good rumor debunked! Great post. I never believed the rumor until I read Antonia Fraser's biography. Then I started to have my doubts. Now I am back to not believing it again...(thanks to your post.)

lara77 said...

I think many people in France were schooled(thanks to the republic) on hatred and dislike of both King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette. Their Majesties were executed by a republican government. Well if the government did it I am sure it was justified!! Thinking like that ensures nothing but lies and disinformation for future generations. We forget the morals of the 18th century. The assumption that an Archduchess of Austria and reigning Queen of France would carry on with a man outside of marriage is inconceivable. I believe in my heart Her Majesty with all her trials and tribulations knew God called her for something very special in life; I believe she never let Him down.

Susan Higginbotham said...

Fascinating! I found this very interesting.

elena maria vidal said...

Thank you, Catherine, I appreciate it.

Yes, Laura, people don't realize that being the Queen of France was seen as being an almost sacred role, which certainly had been instilled in Marie-Antoinette by her mother. There could not be the slightest risk of the Queen having a child that was not the King's. Bloodline and the Salic law were of the highest importance to them.

Glad you enjoyed it, Susan!

elena maria vidal said...

Bearded Lady, I am delighted to hear it!

Ms. Lucy said...

Thanks for all this. I now hope this finally puts this absurd affair case to rest! I enjoyed your going over all those points that I had forgotten. Poor MA, she was so misunderstood.

DisneyWorld Dreaming said...

The Fersen "affair" is all such nonsense, I agree! Aside from so much evidence to the contrary, a couple of points in your commentary stick with me. Two words explain it all: A "Mother's Heart." I recall a time when my youngest child became gravely ill with a particularly frightening strain of influenza. Many children passed away from that particular strain. (Thank God, my son gradually recovered.) I have also had several complicated births with ensuing PPD. The above problems are some of the most trying and difficult that can be experienced as a woman. What woman worth her salt would be carrying on an illicit love affaire while circumstances around her children are in a fragile state? It makes me wonder. Are these scoffers mothers??And if they are, have their children ever been seriously ill? Have they suffered complicated deliveries and/or postnatal complications? I've experienced all of the above and cannot even entertain the idea of maintaning an illicit affaire while in such circumstances!!

elena maria vidal said...

Exactly. And she had more than one sickly child to take care of. They were the main focus of her thoughts. Any normal mother would understand her state of mind.

Hans-Georg Lundahl said...

"resté là" might have been Fersen's usual euphemism for sleeping with a lady. But the words have a grammatical connotation as well, so Fersen might have smudged the phrase himself when thinking of what the words would be able to be construed as in HIS diary.