This profile of Marie Antoinette (born Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna von Habsburg-Lothringen) by Josephine Robbins Fuller appeared in Godey’s Lady’s Book in March 1877.
Crowns have many thorns, cruel thorns that not infrequently pierce the wearer to death. Marie Antoinette learned all the bitterness of this sad truth. She first opened her eyes in the palace at Vienna, November 2, 1755. She was the youngest daughter of the Emperor Francis, and the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria. Her childhood was peaceful and happy amongst her brothers and sisters. She saw little of her stately mother, and her father died when she was only ten years old. She had an irrepressible propensity for fun and amusement, but possessed not that love and aptitude for the acquisition of book knowledge, without which teachers are in vain, and opportunities well-nigh useless.
Italian was the only language that she could speak and write, although later, she learned to converse in French. She was ignorant of history, philosophy, even of her own native German. In after years she keenly felt her deficiencies, yet she nowhere discovers the weakness, so common to little minds, that of being envious or jealous of others more fortunate than herself in these things.
When she was fifteen years old she was married to Louis Charles, heir apparent of the French throne. She was at this time very graceful and lovely, full of vivacity, and apt at repartee. She was tall, her movements easy and majestic, and there was something in the way she carried her head, in the spirited, animated expression of her countenance, in the very curve of her stately neck, that told you she could do and dare all that was heroic, if occasion required. Her prominent nose and cheek bones, though they marred the regularity of her features, added to the energetic expression of the face. Her hair was a light auburn color, and her eyes blue, frank, and sparkling. Her full lips, often parted by merry smiles, disclosed handsome teeth. Her high, broad forehead and arched eyebrows seemed suggestive of the ready mirthfulness that dimpled her cheeks, and the witty sayings that fell like pearls from her mouth.
It was almost impossible to make a stiff woman of society of this free, wild, impulsive creature. She horrified ceremonious individuals by her reckless disregard of etiquette, disgusted intellectual circles by her ignorance, and prejudiced the mass of French people against her by her excessive frivolity and extravagance. She was, however, sincere and kind-hearted, and would not do what she considered wrong. Her husband resembled her only in the latter qualifications. He liked books and retirement, yet he was too wise to interfere with his wife’s pleasures, he had too much judgment and delicacy to say, “Behold my way of doing, act thou right, like myself.”
Their marriage had been one of policy, and such unions have their advantages, for if the young couple have no opportunity to fancy that they are ill a grand passion, they likewise have not the unhappiness so often known, that of recovering from their delusion after living together a few weeks. The young husband kept on in his own quiet pursuits, studied his wife at a respectful distance; saw that she was lovable, and possessed many traits worthy of admiration, and he patiently waited for her love.
After she had been married seven years, the gay butterfly, wearied of her artificial life, folded her wings and lovingly nestled close to her husband’s heart. He gladly welcomed her, and in return, gave her a strong, honest manly affection. Theirs had become the love that beautifies both palace and hovel. No element was in it that could mar its glory. No remorse with slow and deadly creep turned each sweetness into gall as soon as tasted. No warning conscience forbade pleasant reveries of the beloved, or the presence that was bliss.
Their attachment was founded on perfect knowledge of each other, and respect for the real good in the character of each. They did not vex and annoy each other with the many trifles and shallow jealousies that some couples are so ingenious in finding. Their love was deep and sincere, a love that met with God’s approving smile, that ennobled, purified, and made fit for heaven. No more indefinable sadness, no more loneliness of heart, no more unsatisfied yearning was theirs, but a fullness, a completeness, a blessedness that rounded out all their capacities for the enjoyment of life. In such a love, what thousands of bright, fresh, new hopes spring up in the spirit; how all the capabilities of the soul for wisdom are strengthened! Rare indeed is such an attachment, although it is perhaps prized more than either wealth, fame, or knowledge by the majority of mankind.
The queen valued it more than she did the costliest of her jewels, and fairly lived in the devotion of her husband. Beautiful children grew around this affectionate hearth, binding still closer together the hearts of their parents. No outward clouds could ever darken the soft, mellow, amber-tinted happiness of such a union. Danger would only more closely attach the two, and adverse fates would be felt only for the sake of the beloved. Thus they lived for twelve years without sorrow, except when they mourned the death of two of their children, and even such a bereavement loses half its poignancy when the heart is filled with conjugal affection.
It is always a pleasure to contemplate the felicity of good people, and we will glance at them in one of their happiest moods. Marie Antoinette was seated in a fauteuil, in a luxuriously-furnished boudoir in her little palace, the Trianon within the bounds of Versailles. Her attire was a simple white dress, her hair was arranged in a plain and becoming manner, and she wore no jewelry. Her children were seated on each side of her. One arm was wound around her son, whilst her little daughter toyed with the disengaged hand. The king sat opposite them holding an open book, which he closed when his wife signified her wish to converse with him.
The warm summer air was tempered by a gay, breezy, frolicsome wind, which bore on its fleecy wings an echo, as it were, of some delicious, dreamy, poetic refrain. It playfully touched the queen’s fair brow, and the loose locks of her children. She looked out of the window into the tranquil blue above, and gave herself up to the influence of the scene. There are in this world moments of such exquisite rapture, when it seems as if the heavens were bent low, and the whole world wears an aspect of such new, rare, and divine loveliness, that we scarcely breathe with blissful awe; thought is suspended, and we are borne far above reality by waves of fanciful, ecstatic emotion.
Perhaps this is one of the blessings reserved for the saints in heaven, and we are permitted such foretastes of bliss in order to convince us how greatly celestial felicity can excel the beatitude of every other. For such moments, although they make life very delightful, likewise preach to us eloquently of the joys of a heavenly existence. The queen felt this as she gazed out on the sailing clouds, with their quaintly-changing shapes. After a few moments, she exclaimed:—
“My dear Louis, how potent must be the charm of your book, when it can win you from all the living, wonderful beauty so freely displayed in these delightful views from our window.”
“My book has no such spell as your voice, my enchantress,” answered the gallant husband, as he closed the volume, and the habitual melancholy left his brow, whilst a subdued expression of genuine fondness stole over his agreeable features.
“I thank you for what you say, with all my heart, for I know that you are sincere,” replied Marie Antoinette, as a look of wifely tenderness irradiated her expressive face. “It is so delightful,” she continued, “to have one true, noble, loving friend in this false, hollow, artificial sphere of ours.”
“I’m glad you find it so,” returned tile king, with voice and eyes that bespoke grateful emotion.
“Is not this your experience, likewise?” she asked with simple frankness.
“It is,” responded the husband. “I was a stranger to real happiness until I knew a true affection for yourself, and received the same from you; but then I never could make an admired and attractive figure in any gay assembly.”
“Thanks for your implied compliment to myself,” laughingly rejoined the queen. “I own that I find plenty of fun, and a degree of enjoyment in amusing society, but it is never deep, satisfying happiness like the quiet hours I spend with you and the children. These awaken all that is noble in my nature; whilst amongst frivolous persons I only see something to make me laugh; and you will pardon me, when I tell you that people are very comical in the French court.”
“Why do you think so?” asked the king, a little national jealousy traceable in his tones.
“Their manners are so prim, not at all like the graceful freedom of our gay courtiers in Vienna. Many of the French ladies seem like mechanical machines that have been patented, and warranted to move, act, and look in just such a way.”
“Can we blame them if they have been so trained?” was the thoughtful response of the king.
“No; but those artificial dames do find fault with me, who never have been caged and tamed,” rejoined Marie Antoinette, with an arch, merry smile.
“How do you know?” questioned the king, in a tone in which was mingled some concern.
“By their looks and appearance generally,” rattled the queen, in a lively manner. “When one of my young friends, the other day, played pranks behind the backs of the formal dowagers, who looked as if each had swallowed an unbending poker the whole length of herself, so stiff and precise were they; the mimicking marchioness appeared so droll that I inconsiderately laughed. You ought to have seen the scandalized regards that were turned towards me.”
“But that is only one instance, my Marie.”
“I could tell you many others, for whenever I break any of the absurd court rules, the ladies’ faces seem to say, ‘Behold the Tartar!'” The king looked down musingly. “I’m free to confess,” said Marie Antoinette, with her habitual frankness, “that perhaps the main reason why I dislike the French court is because it is my enemy. Yet I do think that where people have sufficient ideality in their natures to avoid acts of grossness, that easy and unconstrained manners are preferable to such grotesque starchiness.”
“Doubtless they are,” answered Louis; “but all people have not ideality. Many, too, have very cruel dispositions, and it is necessary for the benefit of society that the animals conceal their sharp claws under long cloaks.”
“I presume that you are right. I’m no more of a philosopher than scholar,” sighed Marie Antoinette.
“But your’re a wise teacher,” answered the husband, with a tender smile.
“Pardon, I don’t understand.”
“You have taught a man, not too susceptible of affection, all that is meant by love.”
“I first learned the lesson from my pupil,” replied the queen, archly.
“I’m as flattered as happy,” responded Louis, “for although I never knew the kind of trouble Spencer talks about when he begins with
“‘Full little knowest thou, that hast not tried,
What hell it is in suing long to bide.’
Yet a gentle melancholy always lingered with me, until I loved you, and knew that in return I was by you beloved. Now I feel that even if sorrow should come to me, so long as I had your love, I could never be entirely wretched.”
“I am so well contented with the present, that I have never any gloomy forebodings of the future,” was the cheerful answer of the happy wife.
“Nor I either, my beautiful queen,” rejoined the fond husband.
This was true. Louis XVI. and Marie Antoinette were so happy in each other’s society, that they heeded not the low, angry mutterings of the frightful storm, that was soon to break in desolating fury over their doomed heads.
The French Revolution of 1789 began, or rather that most dreadful of terrors, the reign of cowardly mobs. For mobs are always cowardly; started in the first place by one or two cowards, then augmented by ignorant, brutal human animals, ragged, idle, filthy, and drunken, that arm themselves with whatever can maim or kill, and creep from low, dirty dens, like loathsome serpents bent on destruction.
The queen urged the king to take decided steps to at once quell the rebellion. But he was of opinion that gentle means were best. She was advised to fly from the scene of danger with her children, but she refused to desert her husband.
The mob, emboldened by scarcely any opposition, hating the queen for imaginary crimes, and because she was an Austrian, crowded around the palace at Versailles, butchered her soldiers, and called upon her to show herself in the balcony. A friend threw himself before her, entreated her not thus to risk her life, and offered to go in her place. She refused his generous protection, took her two children, Marie Theresa, who was eleven, and Louis Charles, who was eight years old, and obeyed the call of the rabble. She thought to move their compassion at the sight of these tender innocents. She had yet to learn that pity does not exist in a mob. Hoarse, rough, brutal voices shouted, “Away with the children!” Without any hesitation or a change of countenance, she sent them away, and stood alone, sublime in her fearlessness. Her heart swelled with an heroic impulse of which the rude, ruffianly concourse before her never dreamed. That noble woman shrank not nor quailed from what was in all probability certain and sudden death. Her hands were clasped, her eyes lifted upwards, and an expression of lofty and serene elevation was in her face. There was a moment of intense stillness. Has God, in looking down on this mixed world, ever witnessed a braver act than that of the queen, who stood there prepared to give herself a ransom for her family? Would not even angels feel mute admiration? and would it be strange if, for one instant, the music of the spheres were stilled? Immovable as marble stood the fair, heroic queen.
The misguided crowd were abashed. They admired a courage that would have been impossible in any of their number; and suddenly, hardly realizing what they did, they screamed, “Live the queen! live the queen!”
The effect of Marie Antoinette’s heroism was of short duration on these brutal creatures. They demanded that Louis XVI. should return with them to the city. The faithful wife would not for a moment forsake her husband in his peril. She accompanied him with her children. Thirty thousand creatures surrounded their carriage— human animals, incomparably more cruel and bloodthirsty than hungry wolves. Their fierce eyes gleamed with malignity; a demoniac expression was on their hardened visages; their coarse, irregular features grew every moment more distorted; they were like a band of fiends let loose from tile infernal regions. And these creatures wore the forms of men and women. They sang obscene songs to insult the queen, and their choruses were maniacal laughter, more appalling than the yells of wild beasts could be. They shrieked, they howled, they murdered the friends of the royal couple, and held the ghastly heads on pikes before the windows of the imperial carriage. The brave queen sat close beside her husband, her boy on her knee, and with a calm voice soothed his childish terrors.
During the two succeeding years these royal persons were but little more than captives in the Tuileries and St. Cloud. They were surrounded by a national guard under pretence of giving them protection, but in reality to keep them prisoners. It was in vain that the queen urged her husband to use active measures for quelling the insurrection; in vain she urged him to use his authority, or else flee to the frontiers.
He could bravely endure, but he seemed incapable of prompt action. Besides, he believed that he could satisfy the people by repeatedly yielding to their demands. He might as well have tried to extinguish raging flames by pouring on them oil. Finding that she could not induce her husband to use active measures, Marie Antoinette bore her trials with calm fortitude and unwavering cheerfulness, teaching her children, or employing herself with embroidery. Plans were formed by their friends for their escape, but they were discovered and the originators put to death, or the slow king suffered them to go by unimproved, as if his mind was too obtuse to enable him to quickly comprehend them.
It is certainly not easy to understand the passiveness of his nature. But even he, when the National Assembly denounced their sovereigns as traitors to their country, falsely accusing them of inciting a rally of the allied powers to put down the rebellion, was at last moved to flight.
They disguised themselves and escaped from their rooms June 20th, 1791, at 11 o’clock in the evening. They were driven the remainder of that night and the next day in carriages with relays of horses. They arrived in the evening at Varennes, one hundred and eighty miles from Paris. They had been discovered before reaching that place, and intelligence of their approach sent in advance. In vain the king appealed to the people; the royal family were arrested, and were obliged to return the next day.
The queen spent that night preceding their return in the Mayor’s house. It was a night of intense anguish. She had so lately dreamed of freedom, and now to go back to a captivity more hopeless than ever! Terrible and startlingly distinct were the fearful apprehensions that came before her; not for herself, but for those who were dearer to her than life— her husband and children. What a long night of unutterable agony it was! The seconds were like muffled knells, and the moments seemed to stand still. A preternatural wakefulness strained wide open her eyes, her brain was dizzy with pain, her heart throbbed loud and irregularly. She dreaded the gloomy horrors that her vivid imagination fashioned with such alarming distinctness. Slowly crept away that eternity of woe. The daylight fell tremulously on her haggard features, on her dishevelled hair. Mechanically she raised the heavy mass from her shoulders, mechanically looked at it. Pale, phantom fingers had been at work with the abundant tresses that were yesterday a beautiful brown, and had blanched them to a snowy whiteness. The return to Paris, followed by the mob, was like their former journey to Versailles, only the distance was so much farther, their hopelessness so much greater, and their consequent exhaustion and weariness so much more felt.
Mob violence was now law. The king was dethroned, and imprisoned with his family in the monastery of the Feuillants. Afterwards they were put in a dark fortress called the Temple. France was at this time one scene of terror; blood flowed freely in the streets, and only the dungeon walls kept the infuriated mob from murdering the royal family outright. In their gloomy prison, one by one, their comforts were taken from them. Finally the king was executed. Then they removed her son from the queen. She resisted this cruelty with the fury of a wounded lioness. Afterwards, when they took away her daughter, she displayed the calmness of despair.
She herself was at last sentenced to be guillotined on the 14th of October, 1793. She bore her fate like the brave, proud, noble queen that she was. She stood calmly, with a lofty and dignified mien, before the tribunal, amid noisy and jubilant crowds, heard the false charges against her without deigning to answer a word in her defence, and received her sentence with the same cold and august indifference. She slept soundly before her execution. After she was awakened she arrayed herself in a white dress, with a cap and black ribbon on her head.
At 11 o’clock her hands were bound, and she was jolted in a rough cart through the crowd, that looked like troops of spectres in the misty air of that cold, damp day. In the same tameless, courageous spirit with which she had borne all her reverses, she heard the shouts of the multitude, “Down with the Austrian!”
After she ascended the scaffold she knelt and said, in clear, silvery tones, “Lord, enlighten and soften the hearts of my executioners! Adieu, my children! I go to join your father.”
Her children in their dungeons could not hear this last earthly farewell from the lips of a fond, loving mother; but it may be that they felt its influence in the moments of elevated calm that God so often gives to those most sorely tried, for soul speaks to soul of the beloved, and is understood, though their bodies may be widely separated.
Another instant the sharp blade fell, and her freed spirit was held close to her husband’s in that beautiful world fairer than poets have ever dreamed. And, as the floods of glory strengthened, expanded, and rejoiced her soul, she understood why and how it was that her earthly sufferings were necessary to intensify her bliss in heaven.
Source: Godeys Ladys Book, March 1877
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- Episode 54: Marie Antoinette Reboot, Part Two
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