Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The Duchess of Angouleme, daughter of Marie-Antoinette

Marie-Thérèse-Charlotte de France, Madame Royale, known after her marriage as the Duchesse d'Angoulême, led a life so haunted by rumor that even today many confuse fact with fiction. The legend of Sophie Batta, the "Dark Countess," is even now put forth by many. It is not a new story, and was circulating during the Restoration. The legend claims that the real princess was switched with another girl and lived in Germany, wearing a green veil, while the "Duchesse d'Angoulême" was an imposter. People could not understand how the sad, nervous, tense woman, prone to fainting spells, could be the daughter of the beautiful, charming, vivacious Marie-Antoinette. There was not the same understanding of post-traumatic stress syndrome as there is now, or survivor's guilt, common to those who are the sole survivors of a family disaster.

No one really knows what exactly Marie-
Thérèse was subjected to in the Temple when she was in solitary confinement for a year. The "memoirs" she wrote there were written under the surveillance of a revolutionary spy; Marie-Thérèse later disowned them. (Changing the "story" is also common to those who have been through trauma, as over the years they come to remember more that they blocked out and understand more about the implications of the terrible things that occurred in youth.) Before Madame Elisabeth was killed, she begged her niece Marie-Thérèse never to let the guards find her undressed or in bed. Since the guards would make surprise visits to her cell at all hours of the day and night, the 16-17 year old princess, Madame Royale of Versailles, would sometimes spend the night in a chair, terrified. (See Memoirs of the Duchesse de Gontaut)

When restored to France and the Tuileries in 1814, Marie-
Thérèse wanted everything to be exactly as it was when she had last been there with her family, which was of course, impossible. She was subject to nightmares and hysterical episodes when something would by chance remind her of her family's ordeal. Sometimes she would be heard pacing all night. She tried to reverse the gossip about her mother by her own excruciatingly correct deportment and charitable activites, preferring hospitals and orphanages to the ballroom and the opera box. However, due to propaganda, by 1830 she was called "Madame Rancune" or "Lady Resentment."

She was haunted by the fate of her brother and never certain that he had died in 1795. A funeral Mass and day of mourning was held for her parents, but there was never anything for Louis XVII.

She never had any children due to her bizarre and unhappy marriage, but loved her niece and nephew, Louise d'Artois and the Comte de Chambord, as her own. It was a sad life, but a courageous life, too. She did a lot to rebuild France after all the country had been through with the Revolution and Napoleonic wars.

Marie-Thérèse lacked her mother's grace but carried herself with dignity and pride. She usually wore worn, old dresses but on formal occasions, such as when she went to the opera, she arrayed herself in satins and velvets, covered with Marie-Antoinette's diamonds. She could be glamorous when she chose to be, every inch a princess. "She is a princess of whom we need not be ashamed," commented the Comtesse de Boigne.

Marie-Thérèse was not present at the funeral of her parents. She spent the day of Jan 21 1815 secluded in her private oratory at the Tuileries, the same oratory that had been Madame Elisabeth's. It was a custom for daughters not to attend the funeral of a parent, although in the case of the Duchesse d'Angoulême it may also have been too traumatic; she did not do well in large Parisian crowds. There were rumors that the bodies were not really those of the King and Queen, although Chateaubriand in his Memoires d'Outre-Tombe insists that he recognized Marie-Antoinette's jaw from when she once smiled at him at Versailles. However, Marie-Thérèse later visited their sepulchres at St Denis, so I do not know how much credence she gave to the rumors.

Marie-Thérèse felt it was her sacred duty to discover the truth of her brother Louis XVII's fate, and discreetly followed up on any leads. She did not give her official recognition to any of the claimants. Once in the spring of 1817, while walking in the gardens of Versailles with her brother-in-law Berry, a shabby young man approached the princess with his hand out, saying, "Sister!" Marie-Thérèse 's reaction shocked Berry and the entourage. She shouted at the young man: "Go AWAY! Go AWAY! It is YOU who destroyed my family!" The stranger ran away into the park and disappeared, leaving his "sister" quite agitated. This illustrates the inner torment she experienced in matters relating to her brother. (See Meade Minnergerode's The Son of Marie-Antoinette.)

I think the Duchesse d'Angoulême was concerned that, if her brother was alive and found, he would be incapable of governing France after the horrors perpetrated upon him in the Temple. She backed off on her searching a bit after 1820 because of her beloved nephew, Henri, Duc de Bordeaux and Comte de Chambord, whom she loved like a son. She really wanted Henri to inherit the throne and no one can blame her; he was a beautiful, intelligent boy and would have made a good ruler. Nevertheless, as late as 1827, when her father-in-law had become King Charles X and she herself was Madame la Dauphine, she was still following up on leads about the fate of her brother. It was then that she had the confrontation with Nicole Hervagault, mother of one of the claimants, who was said to possess information. All of this is explored further in my novel, Madame Royale.



Anonymous said...

I have read your marvelous book about this courageous young woman caught up in the tragedy of turbulent times brought on by the French Revolution.

Anonymous said...

I loved Madame Royale. I got a library copy and enjoyed every page. It was a beautifully written story.