Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The Fersen Legend, Part 2

Authors such as Simone Bertiere, Philippe Delorme, and Nesta Webster make it clear that although Marie-Antoinette might have been in love with Count Axel von Fersen at some point, there is no proof of what may have been in the depths her heart. Certainly, there is no evidence of an extramarital affair, and to over speculate on the queen's personal feelings is to violate the sanctuary of the human heart. Whatever her sentiments, they did not interfere with her duties as wife, mother, and queen. Adultery for a queen of France was high treason and if any of her many enemies at court discovered such a situation, had it existed, Louis XVI would have been forced to take her children away from her and banish her to a convent. Even the most basic knowledge of her temperament suggests that she was devoted to her children and would never have risked being separated from them. Those who claim that Louis XVI “knew” about his wife’s “affair” with Fersen, but looked the other way, are ignoring the moral scruples and religious principles of le Roi très chrétien. He would never have permitted the mother of his children to carry on with another man, as the Giraults de Coursacs make clear in their writings.

The myth of Axel von Fersen as the Marie-Antoinette’s lover evolved after the deaths of both the count and the queen. Although, according to Fersen’s biographer Kermina, the count himself carelessly sewed the seeds of the legend when once upon hearing an opera favored by the queen he sighed, “Ah, those memories….” In 1822 an Irishman named O’Meara published Napoleon in Exile in which he repeated gossip that had been rampant at Bonaparte’s court, about Fersen and the queen, attributed at the time to the queen’s maid Madame Campan. The rumor was proved to be false by British historian John Wilson Croker, who in October 1822 wrote in the Quarterly Review that Madame Campan had not been present at court when certain allegations were said to have occurred. Madame Campan herself refuted any such stories in her Memoirs when she said of Marie-Antoinette:

I who for fifteen years saw her attached to her august consort and her children, kind to her servitors, unfortunately too polite, too simple, too much on an equality with the people of the Court, I cannot bear to see her character reviled. I wish I had a hundred mouths, I wish I had wings and could inspire the same confidence in the truth which is so readily accorded to lies.
Other writers allege that Madame Campan fabricated this statement in order to return to the good graces of Marie-Antoinette’s daughter, who was annoyed with her for having taught Napoleon’s sisters at her finishing school. But then, if Madame Campan was a liar, of what value would her testimony be at all? But people more easily believe stories of scandals than they do stories of virtue....

For many years following, most historians and biographers, including Carlyle, the Goncourts, Imbert de Saint-Amand, de la Rocheterie, Bimbinet, Lenotre and de Nolhac did not take the Fersen story seriously and ignored it. When the letters of the queen and Count Fersen were published by his great nephew Baron de Klinckostrom in the late nineteenth century, they proved the nature of the queen and Fersen’s relationship to be principally a diplomatic one. According to Nesta Webster in Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette during the Revolution the letters were “written in a very difficult cipher to which a particular edition of Paul and Virginie provided the key….In certain of the letters, mainly those from the queen to Fersen, passages have been erased and are indicated by rows of dots in the printed text.” The Baron himself wrote that “the Fersen family has retained the greatest veneration for those holy and august martyrs, Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, and there is nothing among the papers remaining from the Comte de Fersen’s which can cast a shadow on the conduct of the Queen.” (see Webster) The erasures of Fersen were most likely sensitive diplomatic issues, not declarations of love, as some romantics have claimed. They concealed allusions to the queen’s disagreements with her brothers-in-law Artois and Provence, or references to the Duc d’Orleans and other revolutionaries, or even mentions of spies or persons whose families would have been compromised had the letters fallen into the wrong hands. The original letters are lost; some say the Baron burned them in order to keep the cipher from being imitated and used for forgeries; others say he burned them to keep people from discovering proof of a love affair, but there was no love affair to be found, by his own admission.

In 1907 a certain Monsieur Lucien Maury published in Revue Bleue what he claimed to be a fragment of a love letter of the queen to Fersen, which includes the words: “Farewell, the most loved and loving of men. I embrace you with my whole heart….” The letter had no signature, was not in the queen’s handwriting, only in the cipher she used, jotted down by Fersen in cipher. There is no proof it was from the queen but could have been from one of the many ladies with whom Fersen dallied over the years.

In the 1930’s Alma Soderhjelm published the letters of Count Fersen to his sister Sophie, hoping to prove from those letters that the Count and the queen had had a love affair. It is upon Soderhjelm’s book that most of the modern romances about Marie-Antoinette are based. Now in the spring of 1790, Fersen was having a passionate affair with an Italian lady named Eleonore Sullivan, who had been the mistress of several aristocrats, including Marie-Antoinette’s brother Joseph II. She was married to an Irishman but as of 1790 was the mistress of a Scotsman named Quintin Crawford. She was kept by Monsieur Crawford in an elegant house in Paris, where she had a maid named Josephine, and a hideaway for Fersen in the attic. Later authors would claim that when Fersen mentioned “Josephine” in his letters, it was always a code name for Marie-Antoinette. It cannot be ignored that Fersen gave “Josephine” menial instructions about a stove; in that instance he was more than likely referring to Mrs. Sullivan’s maid and the cold room in the attic.

Likewise, the woman Fersen writes ardently about to his sister at this time, who is honored by Sophie’s attentions, is most likely Mrs. Sullivan, whom he refers to as “El” or “elle.” Some try to make the queen the subject of his ecstatic passages, but why would the queen of France, in the midst of so many political intrigues, threatened by death, have wanted to ingratiate herself to Fersen’s sister? "Elle” (capitalized), however, is what Fersen uses when referring reverently to the queen, la Reine, whom he usually mentions in conjunction with the King. Baron Klinckowstrom quotes Fersen’s letter to his father in Feb 1791, in which he writes of his service to Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette: “I am attached to the King and the Queen and I owe it to them for the kindness they showed me when they were able, and I should be vile and ungrateful if I deserted them now that they can do nothing for me….”

As the Duchesse de FitzJames, a great-niece of Fersen, is quoted by Webster from a 1893 French periodical La Vie Contemporaine:

I desire first of all to do away with the lying legend, based on a calumny, which distorted the relations between Marie-Antoinette and Fersen, relations consisting in absolute devotion, in complete abnegation on one side, and on the other in friendship, profound, trusting and grateful. People have wished to degrade to the vulgarities of a love novel, facts which were otherwise terrible, sentiments which were otherwise lofty.
  Continued here: The Fersen Legend, Part 3