Thursday, October 8, 2009

Louis XVI: A King Maligned

Some biographers, in seeking to change public opinion about Marie-Antoinette, attempt to redeem her at the expense of her husband, King Louis XVI. Louis-Auguste is portrayed as a repressed, impotent, dull-witted, indifferent husband, who drove his wife to gambling, dancing and spending exorbitant amounts of money as an outlet for her thwarted impulses. Stefan Zweig, a disciple of Sigmund Freud, was one of the first to impart to the public the image of the sexually frustrated teenage princess, which successive authors continue to promote to this day. 

The drawback of the Freudian theory is that it does not explain why others at the French court, who were enjoying unmitigated pleasures of the flesh, were spending much more money than eighteen year old Marie-Antoinette. In vindicating Marie-Antoinette, still falsely perceived as the queen who took lovers and who danced while the people starved, it is necessary to gain a true perspective of her spouse, beyond the archetype of the fat, indolent husband, spoiling a wife he could not satisfy. One must look behind the myths, deliberately propagated and perpetuated in order to sell books and movies about alleged extramarital love affairs, as well as to justify the excesses of the French Revolution. The reality about this tragic royal couple may not be as sensational as some biographies tell it, but it is as exciting, heart-rending and beautiful as any make-believe romance.

Louis XVI is systematically shown as being ugly, obese, smelly, and stupid. By contemporary standards, however, he was considered handsome, with his aquiline nose, deep set blue-grey eyes, and full sensual mouth. As a youth he was tall and thin, the tallest man at Court, and enjoyed intense physical exercise, such as hunting and hammering at his forge (he was a locksmith by hobby.) His physical strength was legendary; he could lift a shovel to shoulder height with a young boy standing on the end of it. Possessing the hardy Bourbon appetite, he developed a paunch as he approached his thirties. He was awkward and shy in his manner although not without dignity in his bearing. The efforts of his detractors to make him unattractive and therefore unlovable serves the purpose of giving his wife an "excuse" for chronic infidelity, another highly-popularized myth. 

Likewise, Louis is presented as being dirty and malodorous. Granted that he was an active man, not a powdered and pampered courtier, and working with metal was not clean work; neither was his daily riding and hunting, as anyone who has ever been around horses will agree. However, he had two tubs of which he made daily use, one for washing and one for rinsing. 

As for his intellect, all one has to do is read anything he wrote to see that Louis XVI was an intelligent man. He could read and speak several foreign languages, knew Latin as well as his native tongue, was a skilled amateur cartographer, enjoyed the tragedies of Shakespeare as well as of the great French dramatists Corneille and Racine. He was fascinated with scientific inventions, which he encouraged, and with geography, outfitting a sea voyage of discovery in the Pacific ocean. He would read his mail as his ministers delivered their reports, without missing a word of what his ministers said. He subscribed to several international newspapers, as a means of keeping informed of events and of the opinions of others.
Louis XVI is always portrayed as politically inept and indifferent, and yet he built up the French navy and army so that Great Britain was defeated in the war for American independence. The ships and soldiers outfitted by King Louis were later used by Napoleon Bonaparte to conquer Europe. During the Revolution, he tried to avoid bloodshed at all costs and would not escape because he did not want to abandon his people to the fanatic minority which had seized power. His calm in the face of the calamities is usually interpreted as phlegmatic indifference, but by remaining composed, he was often able to regain control of situations where the mob was thirsting for blood. 

Louis was a dedicated Roman Catholic, keeping track of his regular Confession and Communion days in his journal. After the French revolutionary government seized control of the Church, he eventually refused to receive Communion from a priest not in union with Rome. He also vetoed the law forcing priests to be deported for not denying the papal supremacy, even though it brought the angry populace upon the palace in June 1792. As Simon Schama points out in his book Citizens, Louis XVI was more and more torn between his duties as father of his people and father of his family. He tried early in the Revolution to try to persuade the queen to escape with their children, but she refused to leave his side, much to her credit.

Since so many books have speculated about the details of Louis' intimate relations with his wife, I did not touch upon it in my novel, wanting to respect the sacred privacy which should exist between spouses. However, because of the misunderstandings which continue to circulate in books, films and articles I have found it necessary to clarify matters on this blog. Let it be made clear that Louis was not impotent, nor did he have any physical defects which would have prevented him from consummating his marriage, according to the court medical records and affirmed by scholars Bernard Faÿ, Vincent Cronin, and Simone Bertière.
Another rehashed error is that Louis XVI was sexually indifferent and refused to consummate his marriage for seven years. In the beginning of the marriage, as I said above, Marie-Antoinette looked as if she were twelve. Louis should be praised for not wanting to rush upon a child. 

Furthermore, Louis belonged to the political clique at Versailles that had been against the Austrian alliance. Austria was the traditional enemy of France, and had leveled a humiliating defeat upon the Bourbons in the Seven Years War. The defeat was blamed upon the mistress of Louis XV, Madame de Pompadour, who had also been behind arranging the marriage with the Habsburg Archduchess Antonia. Louis' aunt and godmother, the feisty old maid Madame Adélaïde, daughter of Louis XV, never let him forget that his bride was not only an enemy of France, but that she had been brought over by a courtesan, Madame de Pompadour, who also had reddish hair and was named "Antoinette." With visions in his mind of the notorious Pompadour, who had led both his grandfather and his country astray, Louis approached his Austrian bride with caution and reserve. (See Vincent Cronin's Louis and Antoinette.) 

Since his bride was fourteen years old but looked as if she were twelve, I think it speaks well for Louis that he did not wish to deflower a child. According to the letters written by the Queen to her mother the Empress Maria Theresa, the young couple began to attempt to consummate the marriage as early as 1773, when Marie-Antoinette was seventeen and Louis eighteen. Author Simone Bertiere, in her superb biography L'Insoumise, maintains that Marie-Antoinette had a "narrowness of passage" which made consummating the marriage difficult and painful. 

Louis waited for his wife to mature and their first child was born when Antoinette was twenty-two, the first of four, including some miscarriages. Louis XVI was a devoted husband and father, who mingled tears of joy and sorrow with his wife at the births and deaths of their children. Their marriage had problems just like any marriage, but they strove for it to work, and it did work. Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette were forged into a devoted couple who would be separated only by death.
Bertière, Simone. Marie-Antoinette l'insoumise. Paris: Editions de Fallois, 2002.
Cronin, Vincent. Louis and Antoinette. New York: Morrow, 1974
Faÿ, Bernard. Louis XVI ou la fin d'un Monde. Paris: Perrin, 1966.


Anonymous said...

You are to be commended for showing restraint and discretion in writing your novels. The marital embrace (well, these days we're lucky if it is marital) is a personal and private matter. I wish more people would show some class and move on to topics more appropriate for public discussion.

R J said...

Another much maligned monarch, far less stupid than has been usually assumed, is Emperor Ferdinand I of Austria (reigned 1835-1848), who abdicated to make way for Franz Josef. I think it was A.J.P. Taylor who first bruited about the notion of Ferdinand's feeble-mindedness, thereby influencing hordes of university students whose curricula on Habsburg history consisted of Taylor and no-one else.

The merest glimpse of Ferdinand's diary - such as, presumably, Taylor himself never condescended to carry out - shows that Ferdinand was quite intelligent enough to write competent diary entries. He did suffer dreadfully from epileptic fits, but the notion that epilepsy is correlated with a shortfall in the brains department amounts to the purest superstition, although it is a superstition from which many epileptics have had to suffer.

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Very interesting post. I've never heard of Louis being considered smelly or dirty. I have read that the royal couple had little in common, but they were devoted to each other. As for MA's affairs, the only one that I have ever heard alleged was with Axel Fersen. I do know that it was alleged that she was involved in sordid relationship with some of her female friends, but I've always thought that was just evil propaganda spread by her enemies.

I think both MA and Louis were were two flawed people who were thrust into roles that they might not have chosen for themselves but they did the best that they could.

lara77 said...

Thank you for that wonderful article on King Louis XVI. The saying that the victors write the history books is so evident on the maligned reputation of the King by the French Republic and supporters of the French Revolution. Why even today on YouTube the comments from French People and foreigners were that the King, the Queen and the thousands who were murdered deserved their deaths. It is appalling the hatred still out there after so many hundreds of years. Hatred against the King,the Queen, the Catholic Church and all those who opposed the savagery of the revolution. Thank You Elena Maria for illuminating the past for so many people. The truth shall set you free.

elena maria vidal said...

I agree, Margaret, wholeheartedly.

RJ, to me the sign that emperor Ferdinand was not a stupid man was that he knew that because of his health, and the 1848 revolution, it was wise to abdicate in favor of Franz-Josef, his nephew. Franz-Josef's father stepped aside as well. Those princes put the good of the nation before seeking power for themselves.

Elizabeth, I have had the misfortune to read biographies of both Louis and Antoinette which described Louis as smelly and obese. The myth originated in the fact that BOTH Louis and Antoinette were reprimanded by their elders when they were teenagers for not being careful enough about their dress and appearance. Louis' work at the forge made his fingernails black but eventually Marie-Antoinette got him to be more careful in that regard.

There are also current biographies and novels in the French language which either hint at or show Marie-Antoinette being involved with people like Lafayette, silly nonsense written to make an extra buck, based on the original evil propaganda spread by her enemies.

No royal couple began their marriage with so many things working against them as Louis and Antoinette and the fact that they stayed together in the bad times is a witness to the genuine marital devotion that existed between them, as you say.

Yes, Lara, believe me, I am aware first hand of the appalling hatred, based on obtuse ignorance, that is still leveled at the King and Queen.

May said...

Lara, I always love your comments, I wish you would start a blog of your own!

Elena-Maria, thanks for posting this article. I remember reading it on your other website, and was recently wishing you would publish it here too- you must have read my mind:)

Some aspects of Louis XVI's personality remind me of Albert I, King of the Belgians. Albert also was very tall, very near-sighted, serious, studious and thoughtful, shy and "awkward" but with great dignity, and an ardent and tender nature underneath the outward reserve. Both kings were interested in science and progress, and both had a deep piety and love for their families.

I guess they were related, albeit through the infamous Orléans- a strange thought.

duchessizzy said...

What an amazing post! I admit, I've always been a fan of Louis XVI, so this was a real treat! Btw, could recomend any good biographies on the King? All I seem to find is Marie Antoinette. (A word of advice, don't go near Claude Dufresne' Marie Antoinette)

elena maria vidal said...

The biography of Petitfils is probably the best for those who read French. Otherwise, I would recommend Bernard Fay, whose book has been translated into English. The Coursacs are good for everything about Louis, although both they and Fay do not like Marie-Antoinette. Nesta Webster's 2-volume dual biography is among the best in English on Louis. Vincent Cronin's Louis and Antoinette is good, too.

elena maria vidal said...

And thank you, Duchess Izzy, for your kind words and warning!

Catherine Delors said...

Great post, Elena! Yes, indeed Simone Bertiere explains, clearly but without lurid details, why the consummation of the marriage of Louis and Marie-Antoinette was delayed. And that "operation" Zweig dreamt up! This myth is all over the internet. I thought of writing a post on it, but was stopped by the privacy concerns you mention.

elena maria vidal said...

Matterhorn, I am certain that the two brave but misunderstood kings were related.

Yes, Catherine, it is so aggravating that people cling to lies when even scholars like Vincent Cronin long ago gave evidence that no surgery had occurred. There is a British article online that talks about Madame Bertiere's premise in rather vulgar terms and it is difficult to link to it without offending some people.