Monday, March 12, 2012

Madame de Noailles

People often forget that in spite of France being an absolute monarchy there were many things over which the sovereign had no control. For instance, when choosing members of the nobility for various court offices, the King or Queen traditionally could not choose whoever they wanted but had to make the appointment according to heredity and prestige. When fourteen year old Marie-Antoinette arrived in France the lady singled out to be her guide was not a warm, motherly person but the one who was next in line for such an exalted office. It was Anne Claude Louise d'Arpajon, Vicomtesse de Noailles, who had been the first lady-in-waiting to the late Queen Marie Lesczynska and was therefore a stickler for etiquette. The Polish Queen had been strict about etiquette since she was the daughter of a dethroned king and later a neglected wife so she needed the rules to maintain respect. Madame de Noailles tried to maintain the same standards in the household of the young Dauphine but to no avail.

As Madame Campan shrewdly describes in her memoirs:
While doing justice to the virtues of the Comtesse de Noailles, those sincerely attached to the Queen have always considered it as one of her earliest misfortunes not to have found, in the person of her adviser, a woman indulgent, enlightened, and administering good advice with that amiability which disposes young persons to follow it. The Comtesse de Noailles had nothing agreeable in her appearance; her demeanour was stiff and her mien severe. She was perfect mistress of etiquette; but she wearied the young Princess with it, without making her sensible of its importance. It would have been sufficient to represent to the Dauphiness that in France her dignity depended much upon customs not necessary at Vienna to secure the respect and love of the good and submissive Austrians for the imperial family; but the Dauphiness was perpetually tormented by the remonstrances of the Comtesse de Noailles, and at the same time was led by the Abbe de Vermond to ridicule both the lessons upon etiquette and her who gave them. She preferred raillery to argument, and nicknamed the Comtesse de Noailles Madame l’Etiquette.
Marie-Antoinette rebelled against the stringency of the etiquette, which she did not think was necessary, and as Queen she changed some of the rules. She also chose people for offices not from the usual noble families but based upon her liking of them and whether she thought them capable. It would amaze us how much resentment she caused among the nobles, resentment which her enemies put to work against her. Nevertheless, Madame de Noailles and her husband were loyal monarchists and died on the guillotine during the revolution. Share

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