Marie Antionette - a queen at nineteen
Born in Vienna
Marie Antionette, was born Maria Antonia Josephina Johanna von Habsburg-Lothringen, on November 2, 1755 in Vienna, Austria. Her mother was the Queen of Bohemia and Hungary, Empress Maria Theresa. The Empress’s fifth child and youngest daughter was affectionately called Antonia. Nearly all of Antonia’s siblings would become dignitaries of Europe, including her younger brother, Maximillian Francis, who would be the future Archbishop of Cologne, and an emissary to France, after his sister became the dauphine of that country.
The spirited Antonia grew up in a grand environment in the Hoffburg Palace in Vienna. Hers was a creative and musical family, who one day invited the boy prodigy, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to play a recital for the royal family. It was 1762, when both Antonia and little Mozart were exactly the same age - six years old. The ever affectionate Antonia kissed her new little friend, and the budding musical composer then told her that he wished to marry her. Instead, eight years later the archduchess, Antonia was married, at age fourteen, to the dauphin of France, heir to the throne and grandson of King Louie XV. When looking back on Marie Antionette’s life; there are many “only-ifs”, such as: only if she had stayed in Vienna to marry Mozart, and only if her father had lived to be a guiding presents in her life…
Antonia’s father, Emperor Francis I of Lorraine, was a spiritual minded Catholic and had warned his children, before he died, to shun the worldly and the vain and to beware of false friends. Antonia’s mother, the Queen, though also very religious, had a definite political agenda. She was a powerful leader who had proved herself and earned the title of Empress. Maria Theresa’s main objective was to strengthen the Franco-Austrian alliance which she had so skillfully obtained. She furthered her success in this endeavor by marrying off her youngest daughter to a grandson of Louie XV: Louie Augusta, who was not thought to be handsome, talented or clever but seen as clumsy and plain even in his own court. Empress Maria Theresa knew this, but her objective was clear, and in the tradition of royal marital affairs, she would have groomed her fourteen-year-old daughter to be a good wife above all else.
At a very tender age, Maria Antonia took the long carriage ride to France, an innocent and an archduchess about to become the dauphine of France and married to the heir to the throne to live out the rest of her impassioned, short life in Versailles as Marie Antionette, the French translation of her birth-name. The dauphin and dauphine were married when they were 15 and 14 respectively, on May 16, 1770, but did not begin to have children until seven years later. This was partly due to a physical problem that Louie Augusta evidently had which was later fixed. But the couple were also very young and inexperienced and initially not at all attracted to one another.
Louie had been schooled from birth with anti-Austrian sentiment; however, he grew to find a loyal and charming friend in his young dauphine. Marie Antionette had the gift of charm and of pleasing people, and she used this to her advantage when dealing with her husband: he would give her anything she asked for, even after her tastes had become excessive and extravagant. But history has reported that Marie Antionette found her husband, Louie Augusta, not at all appealing, though she did stand by him as much as she could politically and in the crucial moments leading up to the end.
A Young Girl Thrust Into The Court At Versailles
Marie Antionette stepped gracefully into a hive of gossip and ill-will when she entered Versailles. It was the King’s older sisters who plotted against her most diabolically. They, like many, had anti-Austrian feelings, and did not agree with the latest developments of the Franco-Austrian alliance. The sisters were instantly placed very close to the dauphine and they used this advantage to trick the extremely naïve Marie Antionette and influence her mind to their political gain. Marie Antionette, the dauphine, had many enemies around her, including the King’s “favorite”, his mistress, who was called Madame Du Barry. The dauphine found this woman crass and improper and so decided not to acknowledge her.
This display lasted until it grew into a tower of babble that even went so far as to displease the King. So, Marie Antionette was forced to defer to a woman whose moral turpitude went completely against the standards of decency that the dauphine had grown up with at the Hoffburg. These oppositions coupled with the pressure and cruelty that the dauphine endured because of her inability to produce an heir, left her friendless. But, eventually, she did find allies at the court of Versailles. Louie’s younger brother, the Compte d’ Artois, who was elegant and debonair, helped Marie Antionette dream up an endless list of amusing activities: and the most extravagant was gambling. The dauphine also found a great friend and confidant in a young, widowed princess, Mme de Lamballe, and soon there would be many other aristocratic and royal youths in Marie Antionette’s retinue. Quite justifiably, she preferred people her own age.
Excess And Retribution
Louie Augusta became King and Marie Antionette Queen, in 1774, upon the death of Louie XV. It was a time of great popularity and love between the new, young Queen and her subjects: the people of France. But, the coronation and subsequent out-pouring of praise did not quell the nineteen-year-old Queen’s appetite for pleasure; indeed, she delighted even more in her pleasure-palace, the Trianon, and spent great sums of money to enhance its beauty.
Late night parties, high stakes gambling, lavish spending, and a great taste for diamonds: these were Marie Antionette’s crimes. And because of her weakness for diamonds and jewelry, it was not difficult for her enemies, in 1785, to entrap her in the now infamous diamond necklace affair. This plot against the Queen, during hard economic times, was really the most overwhelming scandal to mark her reputation and pit her people against her. And with her dwindling popularity among the people of France, she withdrew more and more into the safe comforts of the Trianon. The extravagances continued against warnings from her mother, the Empress, in Vienna.
Your happiness can vanish all too fast, and you may be plunged, by your own doing, into the greatest calamities. - Empress Maria Theresa
(from Secrets of Marie Antionette, by Olivier Bernier).
Despite these and other scoldings from her mother, the earlier praises and popularity were also well-placed. At her heart, the Queen of France was a compassionate woman who showed largesse and kindness toward the less-fortunate. This, of course, was forgotten but then eventually memorialized.
Marie Antionette enjoyed friendship, motherhood, the Trianon Palace, and a romance with the dashing and horable Count Axel Fersen – all before the heaviest onslaught of the French Revolution; wherein, the royal family were brought down, imprisoned and executed. There were attempted escapes, to the Austrian Netherlands, England or America, but these attempts were a blunder of indecision and bad timing. Count Fersen desired strongly to save his Queen, but was some how ineffectual.
The Queen was a witness to some of the bloodiest atrocities of the Revolution, including having to see the head of her dearest friend, the Princess de Lamballe, displayed on a tall pike and waved before the royal family’s prison window. The Queen lived through her husband, the King’s, execution by guillotine. Amidst her grueling trial of trumped-up charges, Marie Antionette held her ground humbly and regally, while suffering an inhumanely cruel and lonely imprisonment in a tiny cell where crowds were allowed to walk passed and gawk.
There were sympathizers, however, especially at her trial, where women began to pity her as a mother. Upon her death sentence, in October of 1793, the Queen wrote a loving and intelligent letter to her sister-in-law; invoking her father’s Catholic religion and bestowing blessings upon her own kidnapped children. Incredibly, Marie Antionette had become known as “the most hated Queen”, and that is how she was gotten rid of – with utter hatred. And yet, had she not suffered as she did, the Queen may not have entered her well-earned place in the realm of legend.
An early movie with Norma Shearer as Marie Antionette tells the whole story of the French Queen’s life. Shearer portrays a girlish, impulsive archduchess in Vienna, anticipating life as the Queen of France with giddy excitement, yet with an artless, sad glint of foreboding in her eye. Robert Morley as the clumsy Louie Augusta and John Barrymore as Louie XV represent the acting of that era, and they convey the story well. And Tyrone Power, who could step right into this century, plays the handsome and devoted Fersen.
A much more recent version by Sophia Coppola, does not take the story all the way through to its devastating denoument, but ends just where the tragedy began. Still, it is fun to watch Kirsten Dunst as Marie Antionette and to experience Coppola’s feminine artistry. The director stays with the pink, plush loveliness of the Queen, the pastel beauty of Versailles, the paradisiacal phase of the Trianon, and the dawn of the lush grounds with its pristine lawns and clear, sublime pools.
In both movies, Mozart is given a respectful nod – the composer’s symphonies lending an enhanced scale of grandness. And Coppola uses an interesting mix of modern music as well.
In one sense, it is completely understandable that a director would end a movie version where Coppola did. The whole story is almost too painful to know. Remembering the Queen in the full bloom of her beauty and happiness is much more palatable. It is more wonderful to think of Marie Antionette as resurrected and living on, as she has, for over two hundred years, a legend.
There is also an excellent PBS documentary by David Grubin, which describes the Queen's life very thoroughly and features interviews and insightful commentary by the prolific Antonia Fraser.
Sophia Coppola based her movie, in part, on the book about Marie Antionette by the popular historian, Antonia Fraser. And there are many other books about the beloved Queen, including these: Marie Antionette, The Last Queen Of France by Evelyne Lever; Marie Antionette by Stefan Zweig; and Secrets Of Marie Antionette, A Collection Of Letters by Olivier Bernier.