"Her virtue is intact, she is even austere by nature rather than by reason." —Joseph II to Archduke Leopold from Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette before the Revolution by Nesta Webster, p.158
The first decades of the twentieth century saw the rising popularity of the theories of Sigmund Freud. Freud believed that sexual drives are the basis of all human behavior. While many of Freud's original disciples diverged from him in various ways, there is no underestimating the widespread influence Freud has had upon modern life and the current attitudes towards the human person. Among Freud's close friends was the popular Austrian novelist and playwright Stefan Zweig, who is spite of his enormous literary success ended his life in suicide.
Among Stefan Zweig's most famous works is his biography Marie-Antoinette: the Portrait of an Average Woman which views the Queen's life in Freudian terms, especially when it comes to the first seven years of the her marriage. Louis XVI is portrayed as a repressed, impotent, dull-witted, indifferent husband, who drove his wife to gambling, dancing and spending exorbitant amounts of money as an outlet for her thwarted impulses. Zweig was the first to impart to the public the image of the sexually frustrated teenage princess, which successive authors and filmmakers continue to promote to this day. The drawback of the Freudian theory is that it does not explain why others at the French court, who were enjoying unmitigated pleasures of the flesh, were spending much more money than the eighteen year old virgin Marie-Antoinette.
In 1937, Nesta Webster debunked the Freudian analysis in her two volume study of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette. In discussing the yet unconsummated marriage of the King and Queen, Webster says the following of Marie-Antoinette's sorrow:
The despair of not giving birth to an heir, as well as the unfulfilled natural longing for a child, combined with the exuberant high spirits of a girl who loved parties and dancing, created for Marie-Antoinette an image of frantic giddiness, soiling her reputation for all time, and leading to rumors of wanton behavior. It is ironic because her brother Joseph described the Queen as not having aucun tempérament, that is, she had little or no temperament or inclination for sensuality. (Marie-Antoinette: L'Insoumise by Simone Bertière, p.357)It is...unnecessary in her case to resort to Freudian methods of psycho-analysis in order to understand her state of mind. Her feelings were really quite simple. For however much the unnatural conditions of her marriage may, and indeed must, have reacted on her nervous system, the dominating thought that emerges from her letters from those of Mercy to Maria Theresa is her great longing for children....On Sundays, when the garden of Petit Trianon was thrown open to the public, the Queen would go among the family parties collected there and call for the children to be brought up and presented to her, then she would ask their names, and shower on them bonbons and kisses....But beyond this natural trouble of a woman was the sorrow of a Queen who had given no heir to the throne. The letters of Maria Theresa, urging on her the necessity for fulfilling her destiny as mother of a Dauphin, must have felt like turning a knife in the wound, for the Empress showed little human sympathy or understanding for her daughter's unhappy position....(Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette before the Revolution by Nesta Webster, pp.116-117)
Of Louis XVI, Webster writes:
To trace the King's inferiority complex solely to this cause [the unconsummated marriage] after the Freudian manner is...contrary to all evidence, since this complex existed long before his marriage and continued after [the union was consummated]. Never did Louis XVI display more self-confidence than during the Guerre des Farines while his marriage still remained unconsummated, never less than during the Revolution when he had become the father of a family. (Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette before the Revolution by Nesta Webster, p.113)Perhaps we should attribute Louis' alleged shortcomings to his struggles with tuberculosis as a child as well as to the early loss of his parents and the way he was treated by his tutors. As far as consummating the marriage goes, since his bride was fourteen years old but looked as if she were twelve, I think it speaks well for Louis that he did not wish to deflower a child. Louis also approached his bride in a restrained manner because his aunts had inculcated in him the dangers for France when a king became enthralled by a woman, as had happened to his grandfather Louis XV.
Furthermore, Louis belonged to the political clique at Versailles that had been against the Austrian alliance. Austria was the traditional enemy of France, and had leveled a humiliating defeat upon the Bourbons in the Seven Years War. The defeat was blamed upon the mistress of Louis XV, Madame de Pompadour, who had also been behind arranging the marriage with the Habsburg Archduchess Antonia. Louis' aunt and godmother, the feisty old maid Madame Adélaïde, daughter of Louis XV, never let him forget that his bride was not only an enemy of France, but that she had been brought over by a courtesan, Madame de Pompadour, who also had reddish hair and was named "Antoinette." Louis could probably see himself becoming quite easily enthralled with Marie-Antoinette, so he remained aloof at first. According to the letters written by the Queen to her mother the Empress Maria Theresa, the young couple began to attempt to consummate the marriage as early as 1773, when Marie-Antoinette was seventeen and Louis eighteen.
Author Simone Bertière, in her superb biography L'Insoumise, maintains that Marie-Antoinette had a "narrowness of passage" which made consummating the marriage difficult and painful. To quote from The Guardian:
Marie-Antoinette suffered from a condition known in the court as 'l'étroitesse du chemin', [a narrowness of passage], that made her frigid. The research by Simone Bertière, a specialist in the lives of France's seventeenth and eighteenth-century queens, shatters the myth of a semi-impotent, foppish king, and a sluttish queen, favourite targets of scurrilous pamphlets that inflamed the mobs of 1789. It also undermines the most influential biography of Marie-Antoinette, written by Stefan Zweig in Vienna in 1932 after he discovered uncensored correspondence between the queen and her domineering mother, the Empress Marie-Theresa.Zweig is responsible for spreading the phimosis theory, a theory that keeps appearing in contemporary books and on the internet, although authors such as Webster, Bertière, Cronin, and Fraser have done their best to show it to be erroneous. Wikipedia condenses it thus:
'Since then, the presumed impotence of Louis and his cowardice in refusing an operation to correct a small physical malformation have been accepted as a matter of fact, sufficient to explain the queen's neurotic instability,' Bertière said, commenting on her 700-page biography, Marie-Antoinette, l'insoumise (the rebel). 'But Zweig did not compare these letters with those sent by the Hapsburg ambassador to the empress which leave no doubt at all that Louis XVI did not suffer from malformation.'
It was not until seven years after marrying Louis XV's orphaned grandson, then the Dauphin, at Versailles in 1770 that Marie-Antoinette, 'a little girl paralysed by terror', lost her virginity. From the first fruitless night the physiological realities which, according to Bertière, nineteenth and twentieth-century historians glossed over, were the object of intense court records, letters and diplomatic exchanges that described their sexual characteristics in detail.
The reasons behind the couple's initial failure to have children were debated at that time, and they have continued to be so since. One suggestion is that Louis-Auguste suffered from a physiological dysfunction, most often thought to be phimosis, a suggestion first made in late 1772 by the royal doctors. Historians adhering to this view suggest that he was circumcised (a common treatment for phimosis) to relieve the condition seven years after their marriage. Louis's doctors were not in favour of the surgery – the operation was delicate and traumatic, and capable of doing "as much harm as good" to an adult male. The argument for phimosis and a resulting operation is mostly seen to originate from Stefan Zweig.Bertière's biography is not available in English; it is worth learning French just to read L'Insoumise because otherwise one's understanding of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette's marriage is sadly limited. Bertière says:
However, it is agreed amongst most modern historians that Louis had no surgery – for instance, as late as 1777, the Prussian envoy, Baron Goltz, reported that the King of France had definitely declined the operation. The fact was that Louis was frequently declared to be perfectly fit for sexual intercourse, confirmed by Joseph II, and during the time he was purported to have had the operation, he went out hunting almost every day, according to his journal. This would not have been possible if he had undergone a circumcision; at the very least, he would have been unable to go out hunting for a few weeks after. Their consummation problems have now been attributed to other factors, around which controversy and argument still enshroud today.
L'image donnée de [Louis] par Stefan Zweig devenue par la suite une manière de vulgate, ne résiste pas à l'examen. Pas davantage ne tient l'idée d'une jeune femme s'offrant en pure perte à ses assauts quotidiens: car ils ne partageaient pas le même lit. (The portrayal of [Louis] by Stefan Zweig has been followed as if it were the Vulgate, but it does not withstand examination. Nor does the idea of a young woman offering herself in vain to his daily attacks, for they did not share the same bed.) ( Marie-Antoinette: L'Insoumise by Simone Bertière, p.347)Bertière repeatedly quotes the various doctors' reports of examinations of Louis which say there was no physical reason why he could not consummate the marriage, i.e., no phimosis. Both Nesta Webster and Antonia Fraser deny the mythical surgery as well. According to Webster: "...Joseph II was able to give the right advice which eventually led to the consummation so devoutly hoped for without recourse being made to the much talked of operation." (Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette before the Revolution by Nesta Webster, p.157) As for Fraser, she writes:
In the end it was not a case of phimosis, the overtight foreskin mocked by Les Nouvelles de la Cour....In January 1776, Moreau, a surgeon of the Hôtel-Dieu hospital, was pronouncing the operation [on Louis XVI] unnecessary and a few months later Marie-Antoinette was increasingly sure the surgeon was right....So there was never an operation. (Marie-Antoinette: The Journey by Antonia Fraser, p.156)In the summer of 1777, Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette fully consummated their marriage at last. They were aged twenty-two and twenty-one years respectively. The bride had physically matured and was emotionally ready for the duties of being a wife and mother. To celebrate their matrimonial success, in 1778 Marie-Antoinette commissioned the architect Mique to design and build the neo-classical structure called the Temple of Love. It became a marriage which all the forces of hell could not sunder.