Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The Fersen Legend, Part 1

Too often in the many articles about Marie-Antoinette that have surfaced in the last year due to the Coppola film, Count Axel von Fersen is referred to as the "queen's lover" or as her "probable lover." It is repeatedly disregarded that there is not a scrap of reliable historical evidence that Count Fersen and Marie-Antoinette were anything but friends, and that he was as much her husband’s friend as he was hers. People are free to speak of Louis XV and Madame de Pompadour as “lovers” since they openly lived together for many years. But to speak that way of Marie-Antoinette, who was known for her purity among her circle of close friends, of whom a courtier said: "Her soul was as white as her face," (Vincent Cronin's Louis and Antoinette) who lost her life because she chose to stay at her husband’s side, is the height of irresponsibility.

The Swedish nobleman was in the service of his sovereign King Gustavus III and Count Fersen’s presence at the French court needs to be seen in the light of that capacity. The Swedish King was a devoted friend of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette and Gustavus, even more than the queen’s Austrian relatives, worked to aid the King and Queen of France in their time of trouble. Fersen was the go-between in the various top secret plans to help Louis XVI regain control of his kingdom and escape from the clutches of his political enemies. The diplomatic intrigues that went on behind the scenes are more interesting than any imaginary romance. (The queen’s relationship with her husband is more interesting as well.) However, books and movies continue to add this sensationalism to the queen’s life, as if anything could be more sensational than the reality. Serious modern and contemporary scholars, however, such as Paul and Pierrette Girault de Coursac, Hilaire Belloc, Nesta Webster, Simone Bertiere, Philippe Delorme, Jean Chalon, Desmond Seward, and Simon Schama are unanimous in saying that there is no conclusive evidence to prove that Marie-Antoinette violated her marriage vows by dallying with Count Fersen.

The origins of the legend of Marie-Antoinette’s affair with Fersen began not with her revolutionary foes, who certainly would have picked up on anything of that nature to discredit the queen at her trial. Fersen’s name came up at the trial only in regard to the fact that he had driven the royal family’s coach out of Paris in June 1791 as they tried to escape. It was a courtier, the Comte de Saint-Priest, who made insinuations about the queen and Fersen in his memoirs, probably to cover the humiliation that Fersen had slept with Madame de Saint-Priest, his wife. Madame de la Tour du Pin, a former lady-in-waiting of the Queen, in her memoirs mentions that “the Count de Fersen, said to be queen Marie-Antoinette’s lover, also came to see us everyday.” She says this in a paragraph about her childhood where she is discussing the various men who, according to gossip, were “considered” to be in love with with her mother, Madame Dillon. So the Fersen affair is lumped in with what must be seen as idle rumors.

As Jean Chalon points out in his biography Chere Marie-Antoinette, Fersen, who had many mistresses, saw the queen as an angel, to whom he offered reverent and chaste homage. According to Chalon, Marie-Antoinette knew about sex only through conjugal love, where she found her “happiness,” her bonheur essentiel, as she wrote to her mother. If there had been any cause for concern about Count Fersen’s presence at the French court as regards the queen’s reputation, the Austrian ambassador Count Mercy-Argenteau would surely have mentioned it in one of the reams of letters to Marie-Antoinette’s mother Empress Maria Teresa, to whom he passed on every detail of the young queen’s life. Count Mercy had spies whom he paid well to gather information, but Fersen was not worth mentioning. Neither is he mentioned in a romantic way by other people close to the queen in their memoirs, such as her maid Madame Campan and the Baron de Besenval, a close family friend.

Marie-Antoinette and Count Fersen first met at the opera ball on January 30, 1774, when she chatted with him behind her mask, in the presence of her husband and in-laws, but no eyebrows were raised by this playful incident. Later in 1778 when the queen was pregnant with her first child, Fersen was admitted to the queen’s circle of friends. He came and went over the next few years, once asking the queen to write letters on his behalf, as she did for another Swedish aristocrat as well. Some biographers claim that in March 1780 when the queen sang the aria, "Ah! Que je fus inspirée..." from the opera Didon by Picinni, she did not take her eyes from the count. However, that opera did not premier until October 1780, while the count was in America, so it probable that the story is apocryphal. At any rate, it is not evidence of a liaison.

Some novelists and biographers claim that in the 1780's Marie-Antoinette may have become discreetly involved with Count Fersen; other authors see this as ridiculous. As Chalon notes, she had found her bonheur essentiel in her marriage. Also, she was in those years having babies, miscarriages, caring for sick and dying children, and after the death of her daughter Sophie in 1787, becoming more observant of Catholic devotional practices. (See Chalon and Seward) From 1785 onward, she had to deal with the stress of the diamond necklace scandal, the growing political crisis, experiencing nervous problems as a result. Nesta Webster quotes Madame d’Abrante who said: “How could one fall in love at such a time as this?”

Nesta Webster in Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette during the Revolution shows how the queen would have found it impossible to have had an affair even if she had been so inclined. At Versailles, she lived in public, and even at Petit Trianon there were servants and family members around. Both the Austrian and Spanish ambassadors wrote meticulous reports to their respective monarchs on the queen’s private life based on their spy rings, questioning maids and footmen. As Webster writes:

Yet not once in the vast correspondence of Mercy is Fersen’s name mentioned, nor amidst the malicious gossip of the other ambassadors do we find so much as a hint that he was regarded with particular favor by Marie-Antoinette. After the royal family had been brought to the Tuileries she was even more closely surrounded, with one National Guard sleeping in her antechamber and others keeping watch on her all day. In a letter to her sister… she herself had written on this: 'I defy the universe to find any real wrong in me; indeed, I can only gain by being guarded and followed so closely.'
Continued here: The Fersen Legend, Part 2


pimprenelle said...

Dear Elena Maria Vidal, congratulations for this so accurate and sensible article ! Finally a scholar who really knows about Marie Antoinette and uses her brains instead of her imagination only ! I am looking forword for reading the whole story !


elena maria vidal said...

Thank you, Pimprenelle! I am as about as romantic as anyone can get, but this is one love affair that never happened. At least, no responsible historian can say that it did with any certainty.

Anonymous said...

Well done. I think your point about the trial should put to rest any talk about a sexual liason with Fersen, because it surely would have been used against her at that time especially considering they conjured up incest with her son as a charge against her.

elena maria vidal said...

Alaughland, that is really the gist of the matter!

Cathy_of_Alex said...

Elena: I've very much enjoyed your Ferson series.

elena maria vidal said...

Thank you, Cathy. Historical research can be a bit like detective work.