Monday, March 5, 2012

Le Baron de Besenval

Pierre Victor, baron de Besenval de Brünstatt (1722–1791), the last commander of the Swiss Guards in France, belonged to the Polignac circle and was thus one of Marie-Antoinette's friends. According to Madame Campan:
The Baron de Besenval added to the bluntness of the Swiss all the adroitness of a French courtier. His fifty years and gray hairs made him enjoy among women the confidence inspired by mature age, although he had not given up the thought of love affairs. He talked of his native mountains with enthusiasm. He would at any time sing the “Ranz des Vaches” with tears in his eyes, and was the best story-teller in the Comtesse Jules’s circle.
To quote from Andrew Haggard's biography of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette:
The Duchesse de Polignac and her usual circle would also be often at the Petit Trianon. These comprised the intriguing Comtesse Diane, Mesdames d'Andlau and de Chalon; Messieurs de Guignes, de Coigny, de Vaudreuil, de Guiche, de Polignac, and the Swiss Baron de Besenval, Lieutenant-Colonel Commandant of all the Swiss. Also the Prince de Ligne and the Duke of Dorset formed part of this society, of which the Baron de Besenval is remarkable for two reasons. These are, first, that, although a man of fifty, he was most attractive, a regular coxcomb who sang Swiss songs, yodelled, and made a violent declaration of love to the Queen when alone with her, for which she forgave him; and secondly, for the Memoirs he left behind him. These Memoirs have been largely used by Carlyle in the compilation of his " French Revolution." They were so well written that the enemies of the Baron de Besenval declared that they were written for him, which is quite possible.  (Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette by Andrew Haggard, p.148.)
It was the yodeling Swiss who described the Queen as having "a wonderful elegance in everything." Unfortunately, his infatuation with her caused her much harm, due to his careless vanity and romantic fantasies. Madame Campan describes a time when Marie-Antoinette was trying to stop a duel between the Comte d'Artois and a courtier, she had Monsieur Campan escort the Baron into a small room attached to her private chambers so she could relay him a message from the King to pass on to Artois. The Baron later exaggerated his descriptions of the encounter, making it sound as if the Queen had invited him into some private love nest. As Madame Campan later wrote:
I read with infinite pain the manner in which that simple fact is perverted in M. de Besenval's memoirs. He is right in saying that M. Campan led him through the upper corridors of the chateau, and introduced him into an apartment unknown to him; but the air of romance given to the interview is equally culpable and ridiculous. M. de Besenval says that he found himself, without knowing how he came there, in a plain apartment, but very conveniently furnished, of the existence of which he was till then utterly ignorant. He was astonished, he adds, not that the Queen should have so many facilities, but that she should have ventured to procure them. Ten printed sheets of the woman Lamott's impure libels contain nothing so injurious to the character of Marie Antoinette as these lines, written by a man whom she honoured by kindness thus undeserved. He could not possibly have had any opportunity of knowing the existence of these apartments, which consisted of a very small ante-chamber, a bedchamber and a closet. Ever since the Queen had occupied her own apartment this had been appropriated to Her Majesty's lady of honour in cases of confinement or sickness, and was actually in such use when the Queen was confined. It was so important that it should not be known the Queen had spoken to the Baron before the duel that she had determined to go through her inner room into this little apartment to which M. Campan was to conduct him. When men write upon times still in remembrance they should be scrupulously exact, and not indulge in any exaggerations or constructions of their own. (Memoirs of Marie-Antoinette by Madame Campan, p.104.)
Perhaps the best summation of the Queen's acquaintance with Besenval is in the Tytler biography of Marie-Antoinette:
The Baron de Besenval was a man of fifty, whose whitened hair did not interfere with his pretensions to youthful gallantry. His family, though in the last generation Swiss, came from Savoy originally, and his mother was a Pole, a kinswoman of Maria Leczinska's. Besenval was lieutenant-colonel of the Swiss Guards, and so brought into close contact with the Court. He was a rich bachelor, throwing away money upon beautiful things—pictures, statues, bronzes, Bacchantes in white marble. He was a man of the camp as well as of the court, believing in his star, irascible, violent, but knowing when to command himself. He assumed bonhomie and the bluntness of a Helvetic Cincinnati, while he preserved the perfect elegance of a man of the world, and the irreproachable politeness of a grand seigneur. Besenval had a fine marked profile, a well-shaped nose, a small mouth. He was full of insolent grace, stood disdainfully, his hands in his pockets, content with himself, ready to laugh at others.
The Baron de Besenval wrote his memoirs, self-sufficient and unscrupulous as the man himself. His tone in reference to Marie Antoinette is aigredonce. He lets fall a cowardly, base insinuation on the slightest grounds. It was known that his Court favour had suddenly diminished, and only sustained a modified revival. Madame Campan gives an explanation. On a solitary occasion, when the two, Marie Antoinette and the officer, were alone together, the Baron de Besenval was guilty of the insolence of making love to the Queen, who grew furious, and ordered him out of her presence. But certain that he would not dare to repeat the offence, and unwilling to cause an esclandre, she refrained from telling the King, as she had threatened to do, and permitted Besenval, in appearance, to regain something of the old friendly footing, since his position in the Swiss Guards brought him constantly to Court.

Besenval did not survive to perish with his regiment. He died in Paris in 1791. (Marie-Antoinette: the woman and the queen by Sarah Tytler, pp.93-94)
The young Baron de Besenval by Nattier


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