There have must have been hundreds of books written about Marie-Antoinette since her execution in 1793. Indeed Mme de Stael got one in a few weeks before that event in a vain attempt to avert it. But my book is only the second in any language to deal in any depth with the queen’s political role. The first was Jeanne Arnaud-Bouteloup’s Le role politique de Marie-Antoinette published in 1924. This has become a classic but relies too much on the copious Austrian material: the letters to, by and about Marie-Antoinette and her Austrian relatives and their agents published from the 1860s. onwards. But Marie-Antoinette (whose father was a French-speaking Lorrainer) lived in France most of her life and there are plenty of untapped French sources now available.
Unlike Arnaud-Bouteloup’s my book is not just a political study but a full biography. The personal and political come together in four of Marie-Antoinette’s seminal friendships: with Madame de Polignac her closest female friend but not lover as many supposed; with Axel von Fersen who did ultimately and sporadically become her lover; with the revolutionary politician Antoine Barnave, of whom Fersen was insanely jealous; and finally with her husband, Louis XVI whom she did finally come to love in her way. Friendship and politics were inevitably and inexorably mixed. Madame de Polignac was ‘planted’ by her uncle the premier Maurepas to neutralize Marie-Antoinette’s influence. Forming the queen’s social society, the Polignac set was part of a ‘king’s party’ at odds with Marie-Antoinette and it was its ministers, notably Calonne who showered the Polignacs with gold.
Fersen on the other hand received few tangible benefits –he probably did not even cover his expenses and his military income was reduced by the reforms of Loménie de Brienne whom Marie-Antoinette backed in what I call ‘her ascendancy’ (1787-88). Barnave received nothing though a famous cartoon depicted him as ‘the man of the court’ clutching a bag of gold; for, as Lamartine remarked, whereas ‘Mirabeau sold himself, Barnave gave himself’. Fersen and Barnave gave Marie-Antoinette conflicting advice: Fersen advocated the Counter-Revolution, Barnave a strong constitutional monarchy similar to England’s.
Barnave, the subject of my next book, was a towering intellectual, Fersen a flea-brain who for all his self-proclaimed devotion to the queen had a string of mistresses. Perhaps to make him jealous she entrusted Fersen with her secret correspondence with Barnave. One day she wanted her story to be told and now it can be. Through this correspondence Marie-Antoinette and Barnave governed France in an attempt to save the constitutional monarchy in the closing months of 1791.
Marie-Antoinette was not unintelligent but her education only really began after her engagement to the dauphin. As king, Louis XVI rigidly excluded her from affairs because he feared that otherwise the Austrian alliance, in the hands of her adventuresome brother Joseph II, would get out of hand. In fact her interventions on his behalf were dutiful rather than determined and when he wanted to get her to have the pro-Austrian Saint-Priest made foreign secretary, the Austrian ambassador reported back that although she still retained ‘a penchant for her native land, attachment to her blood and friendship for her brother’ nevertheless she ‘was suddenly possessed of a …[‘bizarre’ scruple] that it was not right for the Court of Vienna to nominate the ministers of the Court of Versailles’. She ‘defended this thesis’, he explained, ‘with the strangest of arguments’.
That was in 1787, the year when she had to step into the breach following the king’s nervous breakdown after Calonne’s reform plan was defeated by the Assembly of Notables. She was totally inexperienced in government and her prestige, already damaged by her perceived support for Austria, had received a major blow the year before in the cause célèbre known as the Diamond Necklace Affair, whose full political ramification I develop. The wide scope of the reforms of her protégée Lomenie de Brienne was matched only by level of his incompetence. He fell and with him the so-called absolute monarchy and the last shreds of her popularity.
Marie-Antoinette is painted as an out-and –out reactionary during the Revoution. This is wrong. Having fought the aristocracy in the Pre-revolution or révolte nobiliaire (1787-88), she naturally supported the Third Estate (commoners) during the early phase of the Revolution (December 1788-May 1789). She was instrumental in the recall of the popular minister Jacques Necker whose plan to give the Third Estate double representation in the forthcoming Estates-General she favoured , dissuading him from resigning by promising to support him in the Conseil d’état. This she did –the first queen consort ever to attend the Council. But when she realized that the Commons wanted to strip the king of many of his prerogatives she favoured summoning troops – not as supposed to besiege Paris and dissolve the National Assembly but simply to protect the royal palaces. The imagined threat led the Parisians to storm the Bastille.
Over the following two years a frightened Marie-Antoinette sought to make herself scarce, forgotten. In the night of 5/6 October the mob came within an ace of murdering her. The royal family was taken back to Paris and installed in the Tuileries under virtual house arrest. The queen was at first dubious about plans to escape and rejected the civil war Mirabeau proposed. Finally in the night of 20/21 June they escaped. Their aim was not to flee the country but to reach the fortified town of Montmédy in Lorraine from where the king planned to negotiate changes to the constitution which would have strengthened his authority. This was what Barnave, who arranged to escort the re-captured family back to Paris, also wanted –he was even accused of conniving in the escape. Barnave famously declared that ‘it is time to finish the Revolution’ and paradoxically he thought that the queen’s Austrian nationality could actually be turned to account if her brother, the liberal Leopold II who had succeeded Joseph, could obtain international recognition of the Revolution. To secure this aim Barnave undertook to try to have the draft constitution modified in light of the declaration the king had left behind before his escape. This was the basis of the deal Marie-Antoinette and Barnave hammered out in snatched conversations on the grueling return journey. The implementation of this project, alluded to above, forms the most original part of my book. This unique experiment in epistolary government could well have succeeded but for the wrecking tactics of Brissot and the Girondins who sought to smoke out Marie-Antoinette’s presumed treason by having France declare war on her brother. As they intended, the queen was placed in an impossible situation.