Friday, February 24, 2012

The Prince de Ligne

With all the misplaced emphasis on Marie-Antoinette's friendship with Count Fersen, it is forgotten that the Queen had many male friends in whom she confided and with whom she corresponded over the years. Then as now, there were people who insisted on seeing impropriety where none existed. One of Marie-Antoinette's most cultured, charming and cosmopolitan friends was indubitably Prince Charles-Joseph de Ligne, from the country now known as Belgium, once a province of the Habsburg empire. The Prince de Ligne had fought in the Seven Years' War on the Austrian side and later became a Field Marshal of the Empire. He was an intimate friend and distant relative of the Habsburg family, especially Emperor Joseph II. The Prince and his wife were the parents of seven children and immensely wealthy. They had vast estates in the Brabant, including marvelous gardens at Bel Oeil. The Prince knew a great deal about horticulture and was able to advise Marie-Antoinette when she was planning her gardens at Petit Trianon. Of Marie-Antoinette, whom he knew quite well, he said: "Her pretended gallantry was never any more than a very deep friendship for one or two individuals, and the ordinary coquetry of a woman, or a queen, trying to please everyone."

The Prince de Ligne was the author of several books, including works of military history. In his personal memoirs he wote extensively of Marie-Antoinette, praising her beauty and her virtue while chivalrously defending her reputation:
 The charms of her face and of her soul, the one as white and beautiful as the other, and the attraction of that society hence made me spend five months of every year in her suite, without absenting myself for a single day....
As for the queen, the radiance of her presence harmed her. The jealousy of the women whom she crushed by the beauty of her complexion and the carriage of her head, ever seeking to harm her as a woman, harmed her also as a queen. Fredegonde and Brunehaut, Catherine and Marie de' Medici, Anne and Theresa of Austria never laughed; Marie Antoinette when she was fifteen laughed much; therefore she was declared "satirical."

She defended herself against the intrigues of two parties, each of whom wanted to give her a lover; on which they declared her "inimical to Frenchmen;" and all the more because she was friendly with foreigners, from whom she had neither traps nor importunity to fear.

An unfortunate dispute about a visit between her brother the Elector of Cologne and the princes of the blood, of which she was wholly ignorant, offended the etiquette of the Court, which then called her "proud."
She dines with one friend, and sometimes goes to see another friend, after supper, and they say she is "familiar." That is not what the few persons who lived in her familiarity would say. Her delicate, sure sense of the becoming awed them as much as her majesty. It was as impossible to forget it as it was to forget one's self.

She is sensible of the friendship of certain persons who are the most devoted to her; then she is declared to be "amorous" of them. Sometimes she requires too much for their families; then she is "unreasonable."
She gives little fetes, and works herself at her Trianon: that is called "bourgeoise." She buys Saint-Cloud for the health of her children and to take them from the malaria of Versailles: they pronounce her "extravagant." Her promenades in the evening on the terrace, or on horseback in the Bois de Boulogne, or sometimes on foot round the music in the Orangery "seem suspicious." Her most innocent pleasures are thought criminal; her general loving-kindness is " coquettish." She fears to win at cards, at which she is compelled to play, and they say she " wastes the money of the State."

She laughed and sang and danced until she was twentyfive years old: they declared her *' frivolous." The affairs of the kingdom became embroiled, the spirit of party arose and divided society; she would take no side, and they called her "ungrateful."

She no longer amused herself; she foresaw misfortunes: they declared her "intriguing." She dropped certain little requests or recommendations she had made to the king or the ministers as soon as she feared they were troublesome, and then she was "fickle."

With so many crimes to her charge, and all so well-proved, did she not deserve her misfortunes? But I see I have forgotten the greatest. The queen, who was almost a prisoner of State in her chateau of Versailles, took the liberty sometimes to go on foot, followed by a servant, through one of the galleries, to the apartments of Mme. de Lamballe or Mme. de Polignac. How shocking a scandal! The late queen was always carried in a sedan-chair to see her cousin, Mme. de Talmont, where she found a rather bad company of Polish relations, who claimed to be Leczinskis.

The queen, beautiful as the day, and almost always in her own hair, — except on occasions of ceremony, when her toilet, about which she never cared, was regulated for her, — was naturally talked about; for everybody wanted to please her. The late Leczinska, old before her time and rather ugly, in a large cap called, I think, " butterfly," would sometimes command certain questionable plays at the theatre; but no one found fault with her for that Devout ladies like scandals. When, in our time, they gave us a play of that sort we used to call it the queen's repertory, and Marie Antoinette would scold us, laughing, and say we might at least make known it was the queen before her. No one ever dared to risk too free a speech in her presence, nor too gay a tale, nor a coarse insinuation. She had taste and judgment; and as for the three Graces, she united them all in herself alone. (The Prince de Ligne: His Memoirs, Vol.I, pp 197-201.)
The Queen was cautious about gossip due to the infatuations which many gentlemen cherished for her. As the Prince penned many years after her death:
Who could see her, day after day, without adoring her? I did not feel it fully until she said to me: "My mother thinks it wrong that you should be so long at Versailles. Go and spend a little time with your command, and write letters to Vienna to let them know you are there, and then come back here." That kindness, that delicacy, but more than all the thought that I must spend two weeks away from her, brought the tears to my eyes, which her pretty heedlessness of those early days, keeping her a hundred leagues away from gallantry, prevented her from seeing. As I never have believed in passions that are not reciprocal, two weeks cured me of what I here avow to myself for the first time, and would never avow to others in my lifetime for fear of being laughed at.

But consider how this sentiment, which gave place to the warmest friendship, would have detected a passion in that charming queeu, had she felt one for any man; and with what horror I saw her given in Paris, and thence, thanks to their vile libels, all over Europe, to the Duc de Coigny, to M. le Comte d'Artois, M. de Lamberti, M. de Fersen, Mr. Conway, Lord Stratheven, and other Englishmen as silly as himself, and two or three stupid Germans. Did I ever see aught in her society that did not bear the stamp of grace, kindness, and good taste? She scented an intriguer at a league's distance; she detested pretensions of all kinds. It was for this reason that the whole family of Polignac and their friends, such as Valentin Esterhazy, Baron Bezenval, and Vaudreuil, also Segur and I, were so agreeable to her. She often laughed with me at the struggle for favour among the courtiers, and even wept over some who were disappointed. (Ibid., pp. 201-202)
 The Prince de Ligne's refusal to help the Belgians rebel against the Empire led to the loss of his estates in his native land. He died in Austria in 1814.


May said...

I'll link to this soon! What a beautiful description of the Queen and her predicament.

Gio said...

What an excellent post!

Poor Marie Antoinette, she just couldn't win. She was damned if she did, damned if she didn't.