Memoirs of Marie Antoinette
Public Domain Books
The Duc de Choiseul had reappeared at Court on the ceremony of the King’s coronation for the first time after his disgrace under Louis XV. in 1770. The state of public feeling on the subject gave his friends hope of seeing him again in administration, or in the Council of State; but the opposite party was too firmly seated at Versailles, and the young Queen’s influence was outweighed, in the mind of the King, by long-standing prejudices; she therefore gave up for ever her attempt to reinstate the Duke. Thus this Princess, who has been described as so ambitious, and so strenuously supporting the interest of the House of Austria, failed twice in the only scheme which could forward the views constantly attributed to her; and spent the whole of her reign surrounded by enemies of herself and her house.
Marie Antoinette took little pains to promote literature and the fine arts. She had been annoyed in consequence of having ordered a performance of the “Connstable de Bourbon,” on the celebration of the marriage of Madame Clotilde with the Prince of Piedmont. The Court and the people of Paris censured as indecorous the naming characters in the piece after the reigning family, and that with which the new alliance was formed. The reading of this piece by the Comte de Guibert in the Queen’s closet had produced in her Majesty’s circle that sort of enthusiasm which obscures the judgment. She promised herself she would have no more readings. Yet, at the request of M. de Cubieres, the King’s equerry, the Queen agreed to hear the reading of a comedy written by his brother. She collected her intimate circle, Messieurs de Coigny, de Vaudreuil, de Besenval, Mesdames de Polignac, de Chalon, etc., and to increase the number of judges, she admitted the two Parnys, the Chevalier de Bertin, my father-in-law, and myself.
Mold read for the author. I never could satisfy myself by what magic the skilful reader gained our unanimous approbation of a ridiculous work. Surely the delightful voice of Mold, by awakening our recollection of the dramatic beauties of the French stage, prevented the wretched lines of Dorat Cubieres from striking on our ears. I can assert that the exclamation Charming! charming! repeatedly interrupted the reader. The piece was admitted for performance at Fontainebleau; and for the first time the King had the curtain dropped before the end of the play. It was called the “Dramomane” or “Dramaturge.” All the characters died of eating poison in a pie. The Queen, highly disconcerted at having recommended this absurd production, announced that she would never hear another reading; and this time she kept her word.
The tragedy of “Mustapha and Mangir,” by M. de Chamfort, was highly successful at the Court theatre at Fontainebleau. The Queen procured the author a pension of 1,200 francs, but his play failed on being performed at Paris.
The spirit of opposition which prevailed in that city delighted in reversing the verdicts of the Court. The Queen determined never again to give any marked countenance to new dramatic works. She reserved her patronage for musical composers, and in a few years their art arrived at a perfection it had never before attained in France.
It was solely to gratify the Queen that the manager of the Opera brought the first company of comic actors to Paris. Gluck, Piccini, and Sacchini were attracted there in succession. These eminent composers were treated with great distinction at Court. Immediately on his arrival in France, Gluck was admitted to the Queen’s toilet, and she talked to him all the time he remained with her. She asked him one day whether he had nearly brought his grand opera of “Armide” to a conclusion, and whether it pleased him. Gluck replied very coolly, in his German accent, “Madame, it will soon be finished, and really it will be superb.” There was a great outcry against the confidence with which the composer had spoken of one of his own productions. The Queen defended him warmly; she insisted that he could not be ignorant of the merit of his works; that he well knew they were generally admired, and that no doubt he was afraid lest a modesty, merely dictated by politeness, should look like affectation in him.
[Gluck often had to deal with self-sufficiency equal to his own. He was very reluctant to introduce long ballets into “Iphigenia." Vestris deeply regretted that the opera was not terminated by a piece they called a chaconne, in which he displayed all his power. He complained to Gluck about it. Gluck, who treated his art with all the dignity it merits, replied that in so interesting a subject dancing would be misplaced. Being pressed another time by Vestris on the same subject, “A chaconne! A chaconne!” roared out the enraged musician; “we must describe the Greeks; and had the Greeks chaconnes?” “They had not?” returned the astonished dancer; “why, then, so much the worse for them!"–NOTE BY THE EDITOR.]
The Queen did not confine her admiration to the lofty style of the French and Italian operas; she greatly valued Gretry’s music, so well adapted to the spirit and feeling of the words. A great deal of the poetry set to music by Gretry is by Marmontel. The day after the first performance of “Zemira and Azor,” Marmontel and Gretry were presented to the Queen as she was passing through the gallery of Fontainebleau to go to mass. The Queen congratulated Gretry on the success of the new opera, and told him that she had dreamed of the enchanting effect of the trio by Zemira’s father and sisters behind the magic mirror. Gretry, in a transport of joy, took Marmontel in his arms, “Ah! my friend,” cried he, “excellent music may be made of this."–"And execrable words,” coolly observed Marmontel, to whom her Majesty had not addressed a single compliment.
The most indifferent artists were permitted to have the honour of painting the Queen. A full-length portrait, representing her in all the pomp of royalty, was exhibited in the gallery of Versailles. This picture, which was intended for the Court of Vienna, was executed by a man who does not deserve even to be named, and disgusted all people of taste. It seemed as if this art had, in France, retrograded several centuries.
The Queen had not that enlightened judgment, or even that mere taste, which enables princes to foster and protect great talents. She confessed frankly that she saw no merit in any portrait beyond the likeness. When she went to the Louvre, she would run hastily over all the little “genre" pictures, and come out, as she acknowledged, without having once raised her eyes to the grand compositions.
There is no good portrait of the Queen, save that by Werthmuller, chief painter to the King of Sweden, which was sent to Stockholm, and that by Madame Lebrun, which was saved from the revolutionary fury by the commissioners for the care of the furniture at Versailles.
[A sketch of very great interest made when the Queen was in the Temple and discovered many years afterwards there, recently reproduced in the memoirs of the Marquise de Tourzel (Paris, Plon), is the last authentic portrait of the unhappy Queen. See also the catalogue of portraits made by Lord Ronald Gower.]
The composition of the latter picture resembles that of Henriette of France, the wife of the unfortunate Charles I., painted by Vandyke. Like Marie Antoinette, she is seated, surrounded by her children, and that resemblance adds to the melancholy interest raised by this beautiful production.
While admitting that the Queen gave no direct encouragement to any art but that of music, I should be wrong to pass over in silence the patronage conferred by her and the Princes, brothers of the King, on the art of printing.
[In 1790 the King gave a proof of his particular good-will to the bookselling trade. A company consisting of the first Parisian booksellers, being on the eve of stopping payment, succeeded in laying before the King a statement of their distressed situation. The monarch was affected by it; he took from the civil list the sum of which the society stood in immediate need, and became security for the repayment of the remainder of the 1,200,000 livres, which they wanted to borrow, and for the repayment of which he fixed no particular time.]
To Marie Antoinette we are indebted for a splendid quarto edition of the works of Metastasio; to Monsieur, the King’s brother, for a quarto Tasso, embellished with engravings after Cochin; and to the Comte d’Artois for a small collection of select works, which is considered one of the chef d’oeuvres of the press of the celebrated Didot.
In 1775, on the death of the Marechal du Muy, the ascendency obtained by the sect of innovators occasioned M. de Saint-Germain to be recalled to Court and made Minister of War. His first care was the destruction of the King’s military household establishment, an imposing and effectual rampart round the sovereign power.
When Chancellor Maupeou obtained from Louis XV. the destruction of the Parliament and the exile of all the ancient magistrates, the Mousquetaires were charged with the execution of the commission for this purpose; and at the stroke of midnight, the presidents and members were all arrested, each by two Mousquetaires. In the spring of 1775 a popular insurrection had taken place in consequence of the high price of bread. M. Turgot’s new regulation, which permitted unlimited trade in corn, was either its cause or the pretext for it; and the King’s household troops again rendered the greatest services to public tranquillity.
I have never be enable to discover the true cause of the support given to M. de Saint-Germain’s policy by the Queen, unless in the marked favour shown to the captains and officers of the Body Guards, who by this reduction became the only soldiers of their rank entrusted with the safety of the sovereign; or else in the Queen’s strong prejudice against the Duc d’Aiguillon, then commander of the light-horse. M. de Saint- Germain, however, retained fifty gens d’armes and fifty light-horse to form a royal escort on state occasions; but in 1787 the King reduced both these military bodies. The Queen then said with satisfaction that at last she should see no more red coats in the gallery of Versailles.
From 1775 to 1781 were the gayest years of the Queen’s life. In the little journeys to Choisy, performances frequently took place at the theatre twice in one day: grand opera and French or Italian comedy at the usual hour; and at eleven at night they returned to the theatre for parodies in which the best actors of the Opera presented themselves in whimsical parts and costumes. The celebrated dancer Guimard always took the leading characters in the latter performance; she danced better than she acted; her extreme leanness, and her weak, hoarse voice added to the burlesque in the parodied characters of Ernelinde and Iphigenie.
The most magnificent fete ever given to the Queen was one prepared for her by Monsieur, the King’s brother, at Brunoy. That Prince did me the honour to admit me, and I followed her Majesty into the gardens, where she found in the first copse knights in full armour asleep at the foot of trees, on which hung their spears and shields. The absence of the beauties who had incited the nephews of Charlemagne and the gallants of that period to lofty deeds was supposed to occasion this lethargic slumber. But when the Queen appeared at the entrance of the copse they were on foot in an instant, and melodious voices announced their eagerness to display their valour. They then hastened into a vast arena, magnificently decorated in the exact style of the ancient tournaments. Fifty dancers dressed as pages presented to the knights twenty-five superb black horses, and twenty-five of a dazzling whiteness, all most richly caparisoned. The party led by Augustus Vestris wore the Queen’s colours. Picq, balletmaster at the Russian Court, commanded the opposing band. There was running at the negro’s head, tilting, and, lastly, combats ’a outrance’, perfectly well imitated. Although the spectators were aware that the Queen’s colours could not but be victorious, they did not the less enjoy the apparent uncertainty.
Nearly all the agreeable women of Paris were ranged upon the steps which surrounded the area of the tourney. The Queen, surrounded by the royal family and the whole Court, was placed beneath an elevated canopy. A play, followed by a ballet-pantomime and a ball, terminated the fete. Fireworks and illuminations were not spared. Finally, from a prodigiously high scaffold, placed on a rising ground, the words ’Vive Louis! Vive Marie Antoinette!’ were shown in the air in the midst of a very dark but calm night.
Pleasure was the sole pursuit of every one of this young family, with the exception of the King. Their love of it was perpetually encouraged by a crowd of those officious people who, by anticipating the desires and even the passions of princes, find means of showing their zeal, and hope to gain or maintain favour for themselves.
Who would have dared to check the amusements of a queen, young, lively, and handsome? A mother or a husband alone would have had the right to do it; and the King threw no impediment in the way of Marie Antoinette’s inclinations. His long indifference had been followed by admiration and love. He was a slave to all the wishes of the Queen, who, delighted with the happy change in the heart and habits of the King, did not sufficiently conceal the ascendency she was gaining over him.
The King went to bed every night at eleven precisely; he was very methodical, and nothing was allowed to interfere with his rules. The noise which the Queen unavoidably made when she returned very late from the evenings which she spent with the Princesse de Gugmenee or the Duc de Duras, at last annoyed the King, and it was amicably agreed that the Queen should apprise him when she intended to sit up late. He then began to sleep in his own apartment, which had never before happened from the time of their marriage.
During the winter the Queen attended the Opera balls with a single lady of the palace, and always found there Monsieur and the Comte d’Artois. Her people concealed their liveries under gray cloth greatcoats. She never thought she was recognized, while all the time she was known to the whole assembly, from the first moment she entered the theatre; they pretended, however, not to recognise her, and some masquerade manoeuvre was always adopted to give her the pleasure of fancying herself incognito.
Louis XVI. determined once to accompany the Queen to a masked ball; it was agreed that the King should hold not only the grand but the petit coucher, as if actually going to bed. The Queen went to his apartment through the inner corridors of the palace, followed by one of her women with a black domino; she assisted him to put it on, and they went alone to the chapel court, where a carriage waited for them, with the captain of the Guard of the quarter, and a lady of the palace. The King was but little amused, spoke only to two or three persons, who knew him immediately, and found nothing to admire at the masquerade but Punches and Harlequins, which served as a joke against him for the royal family, who often amused themselves with laughing at him about it.
An event, simple in itself, brought dire suspicion upon the Queen. She was going out one evening with the Duchesse de Lupnes, lady of the palace, when her carriage broke down at the entrance into Paris; she was obliged to alight; the Duchess led her into a shop, while a footman called a ’fiacre’. As they were masked, if they had but known how to keep silence, the event would never have been known; but to ride in a fiacre is so unusual an adventure for a queen that she had hardly entered the Opera-house when she could not help saying to some persons whom she met there: “That I should be in a fiacre! Is it not droll?”
From that moment all Paris was informed of the adventure of the fiacre. It was said that everything connected with it was mysterious; that the Queen had kept an assignation in a private house with the Duc de Coigny. He was indeed very well received at Court, but equally so by the King and Queen. These accusations of gallantry once set afloat, there were no longer any bounds to the calumnies circulated at Paris. If, during the chase or at cards, the Queen spoke to Lord Edward Dillon, De Lambertye, or others, they were so many favoured lovers. The people of Paris did not know that none of those young persons were admitted into the Queen’s private circle of friends; the Queen went about Paris in disguise, and had made use of a fiacre; and a single instance of levity gives room for the suspicion of others.
Conscious of innocence, and well knowing that all about her must do justice to her private life, the Queen spoke of these reports with contempt, contenting herself with the supposition that some folly in the young men mentioned had given rise to them. She therefore left off speaking to them or even looking at them. Their vanity took alarm at this, and revenge induced them either to say, or to leave others to think, that they were unfortunate enough to please no longer. Other young coxcombs, placing themselves near the private box which the Queen occupied incognito when she attended the public theatre at Versailles, had the presumption to imagine that they were noticed by her; and I have known such notions entertained merely on account of the Queen’s requesting one of those gentlemen to inquire behind the scenes whether it would be long before the commencement of the second piece.
The list of persons received into the Queen’s closet which I gave in the preceding chapter was placed in the hands of the ushers of the chamber by the Princesse de Lamballe; and the persons there enumerated could present themselves to enjoy the distinction only on those days when the Queen chose to be with her intimates in a private manner; and this was only when she was slightly indisposed. People of the first rank at Court sometimes requested special audiences of her; the Queen then received them in a room within that called the closet of the women on duty, and these women announced them in her Majesty’s apartment.
The Duc de Lauzun had a good deal of wit, and chivalrous manners. The Queen was accustomed to see him at the King’s suppers, and at the house of the Princesse de Guemenee, and always showed him attention. One day he made his appearance at Madame de Guemenee’s in uniform, and with the most magnificent plume of white heron’s feathers that it was possible to behold. The Queen admired the plume, and he offered it to her through the Princesse de Guemenee. As he had worn it the Queen had not imagined that he could think of giving it to her; much embarrassed with the present which she had, as it were, drawn upon herself, she did not like to refuse it, nor did she know whether she ought to make one in return; afraid, if she did give anything, of giving either too much or too little, she contented herself with once letting M. de Lauzun see her adorned with the plume. In his secret “Memoirs” the Duke attaches an importance to his present, which proves him utterly unworthy of an honour accorded only to his name and rank
A short time afterwards he solicited an audience; the Queen granted it, as she would have done to any other courtier of equal rank. I was in the room adjoining that in which he was received; a few minutes after his arrival the Queen reopened the door, and said aloud, and in an angry tone of voice, “Go, monsieur.” M. de Lauzun bowed low, and withdrew. The Queen was much agitated. She said to me: “That man shall never again come within my doors.” A few years before the Revolution of 1789 the Marechal de Biron died. The Duc de Lauzun, heir to his name, aspired to the important post of colonel of the regiment of French guards. The Queen, however, procured it for the Duc du Chaatelet. The Duc de Biron espoused the cause of the Duc d’Orleans, and became one of the most violent enemies of Marie Antoinette.
It is with reluctance that I enter minutely on a defence of the Queen against two infamous accusations with which libellers have dared to swell their envenomed volumes. I mean the unworthy suspicions of too strong an attachment for the Comte d’Artois, and of the motives for the tender friendship which subsisted between the Queen, the Princesse de Lamballe, and the Duchesse de Polignac. I do not believe that the Comte d’Artois was, during his own youth and that of the Queen, so much smitten as has been said with the loveliness of his sister-in-law; I can affirm that I always saw that Prince maintain the most respectful demeanour towards the Queen; that she always spoke of his good-nature and cheerfulness with that freedom which attends only the purest sentiments; and that none of those about the Queen ever saw in the affection she manifested towards the Comte d’Artois more than that of a kind and tender sister for her youngest brother. As to the intimate connection between Marie Antoinette and the ladies I have named, it never had, nor could have, any other motive than the very innocent wish to secure herself two friends in the midst of a numerous Court; and notwithstanding this intimacy, that tone of respect observed by persons of the most exalted rank towards majesty never ceased to be maintained.
The Queen, much occupied with the society of Madame de Polignac, and an unbroken series of amusements, found less time for the Abbe de Vermond; he therefore resolved to retire from Court. The world did him the honour to believe that he had hazarded remonstrances upon his august pupil’s frivolous employment of her time, and that he considered himself, both as an ecclesiastic and as instructor, now out of place at Court. But the world was deceived his dissatisfaction arose purely from the favour shown to the Comtesse Jules. After a fortnight’s absence we saw him at Versailles again, resuming his usual functions.
The Queen could express herself with winning graciousness to persons who merited her praise. When M. Loustonneau was appointed to the reversion of the post of first surgeon to the King, he came to make his acknowledgments. He was much beloved by the poor, to whom he had chiefly devoted his talents, spending nearly thirty thousand francs a year on indigent sufferers. The Queen replied to his thanks by saying: “You are satisfied, Monsieur; but I am far from being so with the inhabitants of Versailles. On the news of your appointment the town should have been illuminated."–"How so, Madame?” asked the astonished surgeon, who was very modest. “Why,” replied the Queen, “if the poor whom you have succoured for the past twenty years had each placed a single candle in their windows it would have been the most beautiful illumination ever witnessed.”
The Queen did not limit her kindness to friendly words. There was frequently seen in the apartments of Versailles a veteran captain of the grenadiers of France, called the Chevalier d’Orville, who for four years had been soliciting from the Minister of War the post of major, or of King’s lieutenant. He was known to be very poor; but he supported his lot without complaining of this vexatious delay in rewarding his honourable services. He regularly attended the Marechal de Segur, at the hour appointed for receiving the numerous solicitations in his department. One day the Marshal said to him: “You are still at Versailles, M. d’Orville?"–"Monsieur,” he replied, “you may observe that by this board of the flooring where I regularly place myself; it is already worn down several lines by the weight of my body.” The Queen frequently stood at the window of her bedchamber to observe with her glass the people walking in the park. Sometimes she inquired the names of those who were unknown to her. One day she saw the Chevalier d’Orville passing, and asked me the name of that knight of Saint Louis, whom she had seen everywhere for a long time past. I knew who he was, and related his history. “That must be put an end to,” said the Queen, with some vivacity. “Such an example of indifference is calculated to discourage our soldiers.” Next day, in crossing the gallery to go to mass, the Queen perceived the Chevalier d’Orville; she went directly towards him. The poor man fell back in the recess of a window, looking to the right and left to discover the person whom the Queen was seeking, when she thus addressed him: “M. d’Orville, you have been several years at Versailles, soliciting a majority or a King’s lieutenancy. You must have very powerless patrons."–"I have none, Madame,” replied the Chevalier, in great confusion. “Well! I will take you under my protection. To-morrow at the same hour be here with a petition, and a memorial of your services.” A fortnight after, M. d’Orville was appointed King’s lieutenant, either at La Rochelle or at Rochefort.
[Louis XVI. vied with his Queen in benevolent actions of this kind. An old officer had in vain solicited a pension during the administration of the Duc de Choiseul. He returned to the charge in the times of the Marquis de Montesnard and the Duc d’Aiguillon. He urged his claims, to Comte du Muy, who made a note of them. Tired of so many fruitless efforts, he at last appeared at the King’s supper, and, having placed himself so as to be seen and heard, cried out at a moment when silence prevailed, “Sire.” The people near him said, “What are you about? This is not the way to speak to the King."–"I fear nothing,” said he, and raising his voice, repeated, “Sire.” The King, much surprised, looked at him and said, “What do you want, monsieur."–"Sire,” answered he, “I am seventy years of age; I have served your Majesty more than fifty years, and I am dying for want."–"Have you a memorial?” replied the King. “Yes, Sire, I have."–"Give it to me;” and his Majesty took it without saying anything more. Next morning he was sent for by the, King, who said, “Monsieur, I grant you an annuity of 1,500 livres out of my privy purse, and you may go and receive the first year’s payment, which is now due.” ("Secret Correspondence of the Court: Reign of Louis XVI.”) The King preferred to spend money in charity rather than in luxury or magnificence. Once during his absence, M. d’Augivillers caused an unused room in the King’s apartment to be repaired at a cost of 30,000 francs. On his return the King made Versailles resound with complaints against M. d’Augivillers: “With that sum I could have made thirty families happy,” he said.]