My copy of Lady Antonia Fraser’s Marie-Antoinette, The Journey (Anchor Books, 2002) sports on its cover the round face of Kirsten Dunst which, as anyone who has studied portraits of Marie-Antoinette knows, is in sharp contrast to the lovely oval countenance of the real queen. I found it annoying, at first. However, while reading the international best seller, I came to see the photo from the Coppola film as suitable for a book which, at times, sacrifices historical exegesis to the demands of political correctness. The Marie-Antoinette of The Journey is sexually liberated (Fraser even has her using birth control) and therefore made acceptable to the popular culture. It is a portrait which contradicts evidence, presented in the same book and in other biographies, about the beliefs, sentiments and lifestyle of the true Marie-Antoinette.
Fraser’s biography of the doomed queen reads better than any the of the half-dozen novels which have emanated from it. It is a definite page-turner, with the vivid imagery yet understated style we have all come to expect from Lady Antonia. Her weaving together of historical details combines with insightful reflections about the actions of the various personages, creating a compelling “journey” into the past. Unfortunately, mingled with a careful sifting of documentation are occasional but devastating departures from solid scholarship. Romantic, lurid and unsubstantiated claims tell the reader more about contemporary views of life and morality than about Marie-Antoinette’s actual situation and temperament. Such grotesque lapses amid otherwise brilliant and witty historical narrative make this book a disappointment. It is not one of the best biographies about the last queen of France.
First, let me describe what I liked and what I learned from The Journey. Fraser gives numerous details about the charitable works of Marie-Antoinette, showing her efforts to help the unfortunate to be more extensive than I had originally conceived. Her donations and grants permeated her entire reign and indeed her entire life, dating back to childhood gifts for those in need. Generosity was not only part of her upbringing but part of her compassionate nature, of which Fraser gives copious examples.
Fraser skillfully builds a picture of the growing love between the young Louis and Marie-Antoinette. Her depiction of their early years together is not as thorough as that of Vincent Cronin in Louis and Antoinette, and her discussion of their marital problems falls short of the ingenuous analysis of the great Simone Bertiere in L’Insoumise. Fraser describes Louis as a fat teenager, which contradicts many contemporary accounts of his appearance, including that of the Duchess of Northumberland, who said of the Dauphin Louis-Auguste at his wedding:”The Dauphin disappointed me much. I expected him to be horrid but I really liked his aspect. He is tall and slender with a ‘très intéressant’ figure and he seems witty. He has a quite pale complexion and eyes. He has a mass of fair hair very well planted.”
It is charming, nevertheless, how Lady Antonia concludes that the Temple of Love in the gardens of Trianon was built by Marie-Antoinette to celebrate the final consummation of her marriage in 1777, and the bonheur essentiel, the “essential happiness,” of which she wrote to her mother about her relationship with Louis XVI. Fraser speaks of an incident in which the king visits his wife at Petit Trianon and stands beneath her window, speaking tender words to her. Fraser herself concludes at the end that, overall, Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette had a good marriage, as royal marriages go.
It is the very moving and sensitive portrayal of the relationship of the royal couple that makes Lady Antonia’s insistence upon the queen’s mythical affair with Count Fersen a bizarre intrusion. Fraser guesses, based on no evidence but a comment from the courtesan Lady Elizabeth Foster, who was not an intimate friend of the queen’s, that a liaison began in 1783 and continued for many years. She also claims that Marie-Antoinette would have slept with Fersen because it is “human nature” to give into passion. Simone Bertiere, however, surmises that the queen’s respect for her husband and position alone, as well as the fear of producing illegitimate heirs to the French throne, would have been enough to keep her away from the count, including her high moral standards.
While sleeping with Fersen, Fraser claims that Marie-Antoinette was also sleeping with the king. To be shared by two men is completely at odds with the modest, prudish, innocent image of Marie-Antoinette built by Fraser in earlier chapters and by biographers such as Cronin, Delorme, Webster, and Bertiere. Fraser insists that Louis fathered all of his wife’s children because Fersen would have been clever enough to use condoms. And yet she cites an instance when Fersen impregnated one of his mistresses; condoms were not always reliable. That the daughter of one of the most prolific dynasties in Europe, of a family of sixteen children, to whom children were a gift from God, would consent to any contraceptive measure in or out of the marital embrace, surpasses all reason and belief.
Bertiere mentions how Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette refrained from marital relations after the birth of baby Sophie in 1786, probably due to the queen’s health and fragile emotional state. Jean Chalon relates what a difficult time it was for her – the year 1786 – Louis-Joseph’s health was failing, the baby Sophie was not thriving. Marie-Antoinette, aware of the horrible calumnies being spread about herself in the wake of the Diamond Necklace scandal, declared to Madame Campan in September of 1786, “I want to die!” When Madame Campan brought her orange flower water for her nerves, she said, “No, do not love me, it is better to give me death!” She may have had post-partum depression or even suffering from a nervous breakdown.
Chalon also shows how the queen became more pious following baby Sophie’s death; she gave orders that the fasts of the Church be more carefully observed at her table than previously. She began making public devotions and prayers with her household in the royal chapel. Desmond Seward relates this as well. Abstaining from the marriage bed was how practicing Catholics, then as now, spaced pregnancies for reasons of grave necessity. Artificial means of preventing conception were not an option.
Fraser writes that there is no solid evidence of the affair because Fersen was the soul of discretion. She overlooks the fact that queen had no privacy; the ambassadors Mercy and Aranda paid servants to check the royal bed linens and submitted detailed reports to their sovereigns about the private life of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette. Fersen is not even mentioned. He was not even a concern.
As for a certain night in February 1792, when some biographers think Marie-Antoinette and Fersen may have slept together, Fraser says she “hopes so.” It is obvious that to the author a rendez-vous is the panacea of all ills. Needless to say that at the time, the queen was a prisoner, heavily guarded day and night. Any secret nocturnal meetings were with a non-juring priest, so she could licitly confess and receive Communion, as Fraser also relates, once again contradicting her own testimony. Fersen was embroiled in a passionate affair with Eleonore Sullivan. It is unlikely he slept with the queen, in spite of Lady Antonia’s hopes.
The most peculiar aspect of The Journey is contained in a foot note, in which Fraser speculates about the last Mass and Holy Communion which Marie-Antoinette may have partaken of on the eve of her trial in October, 1793. Lady Antonia writes: “With this pious story, as with the romantic one of Fersen’s last love-making in the Tuileries, one cannot help hoping it is true.” To place the Holy Eucharist and what it would have meant to Marie-Antoinette at the time, with her husband killed, her little son brutalized, her daughter and sister-in-law threatened with molestation and death, and herself preparing for the ordeal of a trial, on the same level as a sordid affair, pushes romanticism into the realm of blasphemy. Once again, Lady Antonia sees sex as a remedy for unhappiness, on par with the consolations of faith and religion at the hour of death.
There is more proof that the queen had an innocent, girlish infatuation with her dear friend Madame de Polignac, than there is that she had any deep feelings for Count Fersen. The aggravating thing about the Fersen legend is that it detracts from the queen’s much more interesting relationship with her husband, with her many friends and from her journey of faith.
Antonia Fraser heartrendingly describes the calm composure of the condemned queen, strengthened by a power from beyond herself. One wishes that more attention had been given to her spiritual life in a book which is powerful and mesmerizing enough without condescending to sensational tales of love affairs. I daresay that The Journey would have been a best seller without introducing the Fersen legend as an attempt to make Marie-Antoinette into someone to whom modern women can “relate.” It drags to mediocrity a biography which would have been among the greatest.