Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Character Sketch

Portrait miniature of Marie-Antoinette, Queen of France, 1790 ca., by François Dumont
The following is a portrait in words of Marie-Antoinette by Sainte-Beuve based upon the account of the Comte de La Marck:
The queen's beauty in her youth has been enthusiastically praised. She was not a beauty, if we take her features in detail: the eyes, although expressive, were not very fine, her aquiline nose seemed too pronounced. "I am not quite sure that her nose belonged to her face," said a clever observer. Her lower lip was more prominent and thick than one expects in a pretty woman; her figure also was a little full; but the general effect was of a noble manner and sovereign dignity. Even in negligé hers was the beauty of a queen, rather than of a woman of fashion.

"No woman," said M. de Meilhan, "ever carried her head better, and it was so set upon her shoulders that every movement she made was instinct with grace and nobility. Her gait was stately, yet light, and recalled Virgil's phrase, 'incessu patuit dea.' And there was in her person a still rarer quality,—the union of grace and of the most imposing dignity."

Add a dazzlingly fresh complexion, beautiful arms and hands, a charming smile, and tactful speech which found its inspiration less in the mind than in the heart, in the desire to be kind and to please.

For a long while this gracious creature, full of confidence in the prestige of royalty, and with no other thought than to temper it slightly in her own circle, paid no heed to politics, or at all events only at intervals, and when she was, as it were, driven to the wall by her intimate friends. She continued her life of illusions even when hateful remarks, satirical verses, and execrable pamphlets were being circulated in Paris, imputing to her a secret and constant influence which she never had. The affair of the necklace was the first signal of her misfortunes, and the bandage which had covered her eyes up to that date was torn away. She began to emerge from her enchanted village, and to know the world as it is when it has an interest in being cruel. When she was induced to give her attention regularly to public affairs and to form an opinion upon the extraordinary measures and occurrences which daily compelled attention, she brought thereto the least politic disposition that can be imagined,—I mean, indignation against the prevailing cowardice, personal prejudices over which her manifest interest did not always enable her to triumph, a resentment of insults which was not thirst for vengeance but rather the shrinking and proud suffering of wounded dignity....

I do not propose to discuss the political course which Marie-Antoinette thought it well to adopt when she was abandoned to her own resources. We are no constitutional purists; what she desired was certainly not the Constitution of'91, but the salvation of the throne, the salvation of France as she understood it, the king's honour and her own, the honour of the nobility, and the integrity of the inheritance which she hoped to bequeath to her children; do not ask her for anything more. Those letters of hers which have already been published, and others which will be published some day, enable us to establish this portion of history with certainty. She desired the salvation of the State through her brother the emperor, through foreign powers, but not through the emigres. She could not contain her indignation against them. "The cowards," she cried, "after deserting us, have the assurance to demand that we alone should expose ourselves to danger, and that we alone should serve their interests!"

....The queen's last two years would suffice to redeem, a thousand times over, more errors than that refined and charming young woman could possibly have committed in her years of frivolity, and to sanctify such a destiny in the compassion of future ages. A prisoner in her own family, subject to incessant anguish of mind, we see her become purified beside that saintlike sister, Madame Elisabeth, and arm herself more and more with those sentiments of domesticity which afford such entire consolation only to hearts that are naturally kind and not corrupt. On the fatal day, the day of insurrection and uprising, when every part of her abode is invaded, she is at her post; she endures insult with pride, with dignity, with clemency, at the same time that she shields her children with her own body; amid her own perils, she is entirely engrossed, in her kindness of heart, by the perils of others, and she displays the utmost anxiety to compromise no one uselessly in her cause. On the last day, the supreme day of royalty, the Tenth of August, she tries to impart to Louis XVI an enthusiasm which would have caused him to die like a king, like a descendant of Louis XIV; but it was as a Christian and as a descendant of Saint Louis that he was destined to die.

In her turn she enters upon that path of heroism all instinct with resignation and patience. Once imprisoned in the Temple, she works at her tapestry, attends to the education of her son and daughter, composes a prayer for her children, and accustoms herself to drink the bitter cup in silence. The head of the Princess of Lamballe, held against the bars of her window, caused her to feel the first shudder of death. When she left the Temple to be transferred to the Conciergerie, she struck her head against the wicket, having forgotten to stoop. Some one asked if she had hurt herself. "Oh, no!" she replied, "nothing can hurt me now." But every moment of her agony has been described, and it is not for us to repeat it. In my opinion, it is impossible to imagine a monument of more atrocious stupidity and more ignominious to the human race than the trial of Marie-Antoinette, as it is officially reported in Volume XXIX of the Histoire Parliamentaire de la Revolution Franfaise. Most of the answers which she made to the charges are mutilated or suppressed, but, as in every iniquitous prosecution, the mere text of the charges testifies against the assassins. When we reflect that an age called an age of enlightenment and of the most refined civilisation resorted to public acts of such utter barbarity, we begin to doubt human nature and to shrink from the savage beast, no less bestial than savage in very truth, which human nature holds sometimes within itself, and which asks nothing better than to come forth.

Immediately after her sentence, when she had been taken back from the Tribunal to the Conciergerie, Marie-Antoinette wrote a letter dated October i6th, at half-past four in the morning, and addressed to Madame Elisabeth. In this letter, which is marked by the utmost simplicity, we read:
To you, my sister, I write for the last time. I have been sentenced, not to a shameful death,—for it is shameful only to criminals, —but to join your brother. Innocent like him, I hope to display the same firmness that he did in these final moments. I am calm as one is calm when conscience has no reproach to make; I profoundly regret having to abandon my poor children. You know that I have existed solely for them; and you, my dear and loving sister, you who through your love sacrificed everything to be with us,—in what a position I leave you!
The most sincere sentiments of the mother, of the friend, of the refined Christian, breathe in this testamentary letter. We know that Marie-Antoinette gave proof, a few hours later, of that tranquility and steadfastness which she hoped to command at the last moment; and even the report of the executioners admits that she mounted the scaffold "with reasonable courage."

 ....Such as she is, a victim of the most detestable and most brutal of sacrifices, an example of the most horrible of vicissitudes, she does not need that the veneration for ancient families should still exist to arouse a feeling of sympathy and of tender compassion in all those who read the story of her brilliant years and of her last agony. Every man who has in his heart any touch of the generosity of a Barnave will experience the same impression, and, if it must be said, the same conversion that he experienced on approaching that noble and bitterly outraged figure. As for the women, Madame de Stael long ago said to them the word best fitted to go to their hearts, in her defence of Marie-Antoinette: "I turn again to you, to you women, sacrificed one and all in so loving a mother, sacrificed one and all by so murderous an attack upon womanly weakness; it is all over with your empire if brutal ferocity is to hold sway." In truth, Marie-Antoinette is even more mother than queen. Every one knows the first words that fell from her, when, being as yet only dauphiness, somebody reproved in her presence a woman, who, to obtain the pardon of her son, who had been involved in a duel, had appealed to Madame Du Barry herself: "If I had been in her place, I would have done the same, and if necessary I would have thrown myself at the feet of Zamore" [Madame Du Barry's little negro page].

And we know also that last remark of Marie-Antoinette before the atrocious Tribunal, when, being questioned concerning certain shocking imputations, which assailed the innocence of her son, her only reply was to exclaim: "I appeal to all mothers!" That is the supreme outcry which dominates her life, the outcry which goes to the inmost heart, and which will echo in her behalf in ages to come.


Orchard Ville said...

Marie Antoinette was really a woman to look up to, not for her frivolity and excesses in her youth, but her extraordinary strength of character; her ability to learn from her mistakes, her faith in God, her courage, her dignity... It's true that her last two years are sufficient to redeem the many errors she made in her youth (as was stated in this blog post). She was a person of good character, who had, like the rest of us, made mistakes in her youth, but vicious people had deliberately destroyed her reputation for their own personal agenda. Sadly, false rumors about her are still around, continuously maligning her reputation, and lots of people still believe them because they can't be bothered to research for facts about her. They, too, spread the false rumors because they believe it to be truth. Marie Antoinette didn't deserve to be treated so inhumanely and she doesn't deserve to be maligned continuously for things she's not guilty of. It always makes me sad whenever I read articles about her predicament. It's beyond my imagination what Marie Antoinette had gone through; the torture she suffered emotionally, physically and mentally... It's very, very heart-wrenching. It's a comfort that there are people, like you, spreading the truth and facts about her. I really thank you.

Very good article... very moving. Thank you very much!

Orchard Ville said...

By the way, I can tell that you also like Marie Antoinette, so I thought that I'd share this portrait I made of her. It's my first attempt.


Thank you.

elena maria vidal said...

Yes, I do like Marie-Antoinette. Thank you for sharing your lovely artwork.

Julygirl said...

Even to this day, people seem to prefer vile and viscious gossip against one another. As a society we put people on pedestals of perfection unachievable by anyone, then seem to take joyous pleasure in hacking them down....'which one among you should cast the first stone?'

Lorraine said...

I am learning a lot about courage, strength and faith from Marie Antoinette.

elena maria vidal said...

So true, Julygirl.

I am learning, too, Lorraine, from such a brave and beautiful queen.

Orchard Ville said...

Thank you, too, for checking it. I am planning to make an exhibit about her soon. :)

lara77 said...

What a touching and well written article on Queen Marie Antoinette. I am struck as I am sure most of your readers are on the simple and pure humanity of the subject. An Archduchess of Austria, a Dauphine and Queen of France. Yet a woman with all her concerns and faults. I always find it difficult to read about her tribulations without feeling such anger and hatred toward the republic and its murderous leaders. I know that is not Christian to feel that way. I certainly never had problems with justice and equality before the law; my problems were with how the French went about their "reforms."