Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Fersen Myth in Literature

Surfing the internet anyone can see that the Fersen myth is deeply entrenched in the public mind. This is due to major publishers yearly churning out sensational biographies and novels, which focus on the legend rather than on the facts, scouring letters and diaries for the slightest indication that Marie-Antoinette and Count Fersen may have slept together. At best, such books harbor the notion of a great and spiritual love between the Queen and the count, such as in Sena Jeter Naslund's Abundance. At worst, they are romance novels like Carolly Erickson's The Hidden Diary of Marie Antoinette, which has the Queen going on a journey to Sweden with Axel von Fersen. It is a fabrication which should qualify that particular novel as fantasy rather than as historical fiction.

Excellent books by serious French historians, which attempt to look at the cold unromantic facts of the matter, such as Marie-Antoinette l'insoumise by Simone Bertière and Marie-Antoinette: Epouse de Louis XVI, mere de Louis XVII by Philippe Delorme, are not translated into English. Instead biographies such as Evelyn Lever's Marie-Antoinette, which focus on the possibility of a romance with Fersen, are the ones which find their way into American book stores. Older books like those by Hilaire Belloc, Desmond Seward, and Nesta Webster, all of which present clear evidence that there was little possibility of an affair, are not reprinted. However, Stefan Zweig's Freudian analysis is continually on the bookshelves. There is no great conspiracy here. Publishers know that stories of adulterous love affairs sell more books than do stories of chaste and faithful marriages. And so they give the public what they think they want.

Antonia Fraser's popular biography, like Evelyn Lever's, both admit that there is no solid evidence of an affair. Nevertheless, Lady Fraser gives as her reason for thinking that there was indeed a liaison the fact that it is human nature to give into passion. This may be her theory but it is not historical evidence.

Although Marie-Antoinette was always the subject of gossip and rumors, the myth of Axel von Fersen as her lover evolved after the deaths of both the count and the queen. According to Fersen’s biographer Francoise 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, which were attributed 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.

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.

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 Coursacs, Webster, and Delorme believe that Fersen erased certain passages himself. The erasures of Fersen were most likely sensitive diplomatic issues, not declarations of love, as authors such as Lever 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. We do not know.

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. Lever quotes it in her biography: “Tell me to whom I should send my letters to you, for I cannot live without that. Farewell most loved and most loving of men. I embrace you with all my 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. And yet Lever includes this fragment among verified letters of the queen, giving the impression that it is evidence of a great love. Webster, however, dismissed it.

Many authors scour Fersen's diary for every and any hint of his love for the Marie-Antoinette. While he may have loved the queen on some level, his diary, as pointed out by Francoise Kermina, shows him to be a rather shallow person. The Queen actually is mentioned very little compared to his accounts of his various adventures with many other women, especially his beloved Eleonore Sullivan, the lady with whom he was having an affair all the while the queen was suffering in the Tuileries and in prison.

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 his passionate affair with Eleonore. She was kept bya certain 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 surmise that when Fersen mentioned “Josephine” in his letters, it was really a code name for Marie-Antoinette. While it is possible that Fersen may have at times used that nickname to refer to the Queen in his secret diplomatic correspondences, one must take into account the fact that in other letters Fersen gave “Josephine” menial instructions about a stove; in such a case 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….” (see Webster's Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette During the Revolution)

The fact that Fersen was not mentioned at all at Marie-Antoinette's trial by her enemies, who were looking for anything to pin on her, except for his role in the royal escape, is quite telling. Instead, they trumped up the accusation of incest, which shows how desperate they were for charges against her, no matter how far-fetched. A queen has few secrets; her foes would have discovered a liaison, if one had existed.

There was a great nobility in Count Fersen, especially in his efforts to save the royal family. However, to make his friendship with Marie-Antoinette into a great and lofty romance is to ignore his reality and hers. For while Fersen was with his Eleonore, the Queen of France was losing her husband, from whom she refused to be parted even to save her life. She had to watch her children and sister-in-law being terrorized, as she herself had to prepare to die. For something much more powerful and glorious was going on than a love affair; it is called martyrdom. Share


Brantigny said...

...Yet why is so little mentioned about Napoleon and Josephine? Both fell prey to their "passions", before and after marriage. Hostory recounts Napoleon in Egypt, and his afairs with the wife of one of his hussars, and Josephines amours in Paris. The only thing remembered is the note the Ogre sent her after rushing back to France...Ne te lave, J'arrive.

Vive le Reine.

elena maria vidal said...

Napoleon was something else, wasn't he? There are some novels about the stormy relationship of Josephine and Napoleon, including Norah Loft's "A Rose for Virtue" and the series by Sandra Gulland. The latter I have not read, but hope to someday.