Monday, November 3, 2008

Marie-Antoinette's Childhood

Marie-Antoinette, born in 1755, was the fifteenth child in a family of sixteen. In the picture above the future queen of France is the small girl with a doll. Although her parents were the Holy Roman Emperor and Empress, they were very informal as royals go. "The Imperial family," said Goethe, as quoted by Maxime de La Rocheterie, "is nothing more than a large German bourgeoisie." Rocheterie, in his classic biography of Marie-Antoinette, describes the household in which Marie-Antoinette was raised:
Etiquette was unknown. The emperor and empress liked to live in the midst of their subjects kind and friendly toward all but restraining familiarity by respect. Unfortunately they were so absorbed by the care of the policy and administration of their vast empire that they had little leisure to superintend the education of their numerous children. They confided them to tutors and governesses whom they chose with care and to whom it appears they gave their instructions without, however, seeing that they were carried out. (Rocheterie, p 2)
As is well-known, her own family's casualness about etiquette would make living at Versailles quite a challenge for the teenage Marie-Antoinette.

In such a loving if rather haphazard environment, the little archduchess blossomed into a lively and attractive child. While she was not outstandingly pious or studious, she learned her prayers and was carefully catechized. She very much enjoyed her music instructions (Gluck was her teacher), her dancing lessons, and anything to do with pets, especially dogs and horses. She did well at languages, including Latin and Italian, and showed an interest in history. Theater was her passion, especially comedy. When preparing to go to France to be married, two actors helped to improve her French diction, which Louis XV thought to be inappropriate when he heard of it. (The French king sent the priest Abbé Vermond to take over the future queen's studies.) Nevertheless, the princess learned to speak, walk and move with beauty and grace, as if on stage.

Marie-Antoinette's mother taught her to play cards. Knowing the French court, Empress Maria Teresa probably feared that if her daughter did not learn how to win certain games of chance, she would lose all her money. Gambling was rife at all the courts of Europe; the Viennese actually played for much higher stakes than the French, which did not help Marie-Antoinette when she started having all night card parties as a twenty-year old Queen of France. However, her mother also instilled in her a great concern for the poor and a sense of duty towards all who were unfortunate; there are many accounts of the young archduchess' charity.

The word most often used to describe the youthful Marie-Antoinette by those in charge of her was dissipation. Now in French, dissipation has a slightly different meaning from our English version of the word. As Nesta Webster explains in Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette Before the Revolution (p.12):
The gravest reproach brought against [Marie-Antoinette] her tendency to "dissipation," a word which must translated by the English word dissipation signifying wild gaiety, even dissoluteness, but simply a love of distraction and a disinclination to give fixed attention to any subject.
I wonder if today she would have been diagnosed as genuinely having an attention deficit disorder. Sadly, the wandering mind of a young girl would cause her to be forever labeled as "dissipated" by those who misunderstood or mistranslated the original meaning.

Before sending Marie-Antoinette to France, it is reported that the Empress consulted Dr. Gasser the "thaumaturgus" in regard to the fourteen year old girl's future. Dr. Gasser regarded the princess with a serious expression before replying: "There are crosses for all shoulders." Share


Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Thank you for the lovely post on Marie Antoinette's childhood. I agree that Marie probably had a little bit of ADD. The concept of making learning fun wasn't known then, but I think if it had been, Marie probably would have enjoyed learning more. I certainly think that she was bright enough.

elena maria vidal said...

Yes, she was. Marie-Antoinette's mind skipped around a great deal, and deep concentration appeared to be a challenge, unless it was something that she really enjoyed, such as memorizing lines for a play. Her governess spoiled her; as long as she was sweet, she could get away with not finishing her lessons. Nesta Webster says that the tendency to be easily distracted may later have kept her from becoming totally overwhelmed during the Revolution, since she was able to stay in the present moment without brooding too deeply upon what might happen next.