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The Life of Marie Antoinette, Queen of France By Charles Duke Yonge Characters: 17111

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


Importance of Marie Antoinette in the Revolution.-Value of her

Correspondence as a Means of estimating her Character.-Her Birth,

November 2d, 1755.-Epigram of Metastasio.-Habits of the Imperial

Family.-Sch?nbrunn.-Death of the Emperor.-Projects for the Marriage of

the Archduchess.-Her Education.-The Abbé de Vermond.-Metastasio.-

Gluck.

The most striking event in the annals of modern Europe is unquestionably the French Revolution of 1789-a Revolution which, in one sense, may be said to be still in progress, but which, is a more limited view, may be regarded as having been, consummated by the deposition and murder of the sovereign of the country. It is equally undeniable that, during its first period, the person who most attracts and rivets attention is the queen. One of the moat brilliant of modern French writers[1] has recently remarked that, in spite of the number of years which have elapsed since the grave closed over the sorrows of Marie Antoinette, and of the almost unbroken series of exciting events which have marked the annals of France in the interval, the interest excited by her story is as fresh and engrossing as ever; that such as Hecuba and Andromache were to the ancients, objects never named to inattentive ears, never contemplated without lively sympathy, such still is their hapless queen to all honest and intelligent Frenchmen. It may even be said that that interest has increased of late years. The respectful and remorseful pity which her fate could not fail to awaken has been quickened by the publication of her correspondence with her family and intimate friends, which has laid bare, without disguise, all her inmost thoughts and feelings, her errors as well as her good deeds, her weaknesses equally with her virtues. Few, indeed, even of those whom the world regards with its highest favor and esteem, could endure such an ordeal without some diminution of their fame. Yet it is but recording the general verdict of all whose judgment is of value, to affirm that Marie Antoinette has triumphantly surmounted it; and that the result of a scrutiny as minute and severe as any to which a human being has ever been subjected, has been greatly to raise her reputation.

Not that she was one of those paragons whom painters of model heroines have delighted to imagine to themselves; one who from childhood gave manifest indications of excellence and greatness, and whose whole life was but a steady progressive development of its early promise. She was rather one in whom adversity brought forth great qualities, her possession of which, had her life been one of that unbroken sunshine which is regarded by many as the natural and inseparable attendant of royalty, might never have been even suspected. We meet with her first, at an age scarcely advanced beyond childhood, transported from her school-room to a foreign court, as wife to the heir of one of the noblest kingdoms of Europe. And in that situation we see her for a while a light-hearted, merry girl, annoyed rather than elated by her new magnificence; thoughtless, if not frivolous, in her pursuits; fond of dress; eager in her appetite for amusement, tempered only by an innate purity of feeling which never deserted her; the brightest features of her character being apparently a frank affability, and a genuine and active kindness and humanity which were displayed to all classes and on all occasions. We see her presently as queen, hardly yet arrived at womanhood, little changed in disposition or in outward demeanor, though profiting to the utmost by the opportunities which her increased power afforded her of proving the genuine tenderness of her heart, by munificent and judicious works of charity and benevolence; and exerting her authority, if possible, still more beneficially by protecting virtue, discountenancing vice, and purifying a court whose shameless profligacy had for many generations been the scandal of Christendom. It is probable, indeed, that much of her early levity was prompted by a desire to drive from her mind disappointments and mortifications of which few suspected the existence, but which were only the more keenly felt because she was compelled to keep them to herself; but it is certain that during the first eight or ten years of her residence in France there was little in her habits and conduct, however amiable and attractive, which could have led her warmest friends to discern in her the high qualities which she was destined to exhibit before its close.

Presently, however, she becomes a mother; and in this new relation we begin to perceive glimpses of a loftier nature. From the moment of the birth of her first child, she performed those new duties which, perhaps more than any others, call forth all the best and most peculiar virtues of the female heart in such a manner as to add esteem and respect to the good-will which her affability and courtesy had already inspired; recognizing to the full the claims which the nation had upon her, that she should, in person, superintend the education of her children, and especially of her son as its future ruler; and discharging that sacred duty, not only with the most affectionate solicitude, but also with the most admirable judgment.

But years so spent were years of happiness; and, though such may suffice to display the amiable virtues, it is by adversity that the grander qualities of the head and heart are more strikingly drawn forth. To the trials of that stern inquisitress, Marie Antoinette was fully exposed in her later years; and not only did she rise above them, but the more terrible and unexampled they were, the more conspicuous was the superiority of her mind to fortune. It is no exaggeration to say that the history of the whole world has preserved no record of greater heroism, in either sex, than was shown by Marie Antoinette during the closing years of her life. No courage was ever put to the proof by such a variety and such an accumulation of dangers and miseries; and no one ever came out of an encounter with even far inferior calamities with greater glory. Her moral courage and her physical courage were equally tried. It was not only that her own life, and lives far dearer to her than her own, were exposed to daily and hourly peril, or that to this danger were added repeated vexations of hopes baffled and trusts betrayed; but these griefs were largely aggravated by the character and conduct of those nearest to her. Instead of meeting with counsel and support from her husband and his brothers, she had to guide and support Louis himself, and even to find him so incurably weak as to be incapable of being kept in the path of wisdom by her sagacity, or of deriving vigor from her fortitude; while the princes were acting in selfish and disloyal opposition to him, and so, in a great degree, sacrificing him and her to their perverse conceit, if we may not say to their faithless ambition. She had to think for all, to act for all, to struggle for all; and to beat up against the conviction that her thoughts, and actions, and struggles were being balked of their effect by the very persona for whom she was exerting herself; that she was but laboring to save those who would not be saved. Yet, throughout that protracted agony of more than four years she bore herself with an unswerving righteousness of purpose and an unfaltering fearlessness of resolution which could not have been exceeded had she been encouraged by the most constant success. And in the last terrible hours, when the monsters who had already murdered her husband were preparing the same fate for herself, she met their hatred and ferocity with a loftiness of spirit which even hopelessness could not subdue. Long before, she had declared that she had learned, from the example of her mother, not to fear death; and she showed that this was no empty boast when she rose in the last scenes of her life as much even above her earlier displays of courage and magnanimity as she also rose above the utmost malice of her vile enemies.

* * * * *

Marie Antoinette Josèphe Jeanne was the youngest daughter of Francis, originally Duke of Lorraine, afterward Grand Duke of Tuscany, and eventually Emperor of Germany, and of Maria Teresa, Archduchess of Austria, Queen of Hungary and Bohemia, more generally known, after the attainment of the imperial dignity by her husband in 1745, as the Empress- queen. Of her brothers, two, Joseph and Leopold, succeeded in turn to the imperial dignity; and one of her sisters, Caroline, became

the wife of the King of Naples. She was born on the 2d of November, 1755, a day which, when her later years were darkened by misfortune, was often referred to as having foreshadowed it by its evil omens, since it was that on which the terrible earthquake which laid Lisbon in ruins reached its height. But, at the time, the Viennese rejoiced too sincerely at every event which could contribute to their sovereign's happiness to pay any regard to the calamities of another capital, and the courtly poet was but giving utterance to the unanimous feeling of her subjects when he spoke of the princess's birth as calculated to diffuse universal joy. Daughters had been by far the larger part of Maria Teresa's family, so that she was, consequently, anxious for another son; and, knowing her wishes, the Duke of Tarouka, one of the nobles whom she admitted to her intimacy, laid her a small wager that they would be realized by the sex of the expected infant. He lost his bet, but felt some embarrassment, in devising a graceful mode of paying it. In his perplexity, he sought the advice of the celebrated Metastasio, who had been for some time established at Vienna as the favorite poet of the court, and the Italian, with the ready wit of his country, at once supplied him with a quatrain, which, in her disappointment itself, could mid ground for compliment:

"Io perdei; l' augusta figlia

A pagar m' ha condannato;

Ma s'è ver che a voi somiglia,

Tutto il mondo ha guadagnato."

The customs of the imperial court had undergone a great change since the death of Charles VI. It had been pre-eminent for pompous ceremony, which was thought to become the dignity of the sovereign who boasted of being the representative of the Roman Caesars. But the Lorraine princes had been bred up in a simpler fashion; and Francis had an innate dislike to all ostentation, while Maria Teresa had her attention too constantly fixed on matters of solid importance to have much leisure to spare for the consideration of trifles. Both husband and wife greatly preferred to their gorgeous palace at Vienna a smaller house which they possessed in the neighborhood, called Sch?nbrunn, where they could lay aside their state, and enjoy the unpretending pleasures of domestic and rural life, cultivating their garden, and, as far as the imperious calls of public affairs would allow them time, watching over the education of their children, to whom the example of their own tastes and habits was imperceptibly affording the best of all lessons, a preference for simple and innocent pleasures.

In this tranquil retreat, the childhood of Marie Antoinette was happily passed; her bright looks, which already gave promise of future loveliness, her quick intelligence, and her affectionate disposition combining to make her the special favorite of her parents. It was she whom Francis, when quitting his family in the summer of 1764 for that journey to Innspruck which proved his last, specially ordered to be brought to him, saying, as if he felt some foreboding of his approaching illness, that he must embrace her once more before he departed; and his death, which took place before she was nine years old, was the first sorrow which ever brought a tear into her eyes.

The superintendence of her vast empire occupied a greater share of Maria Teresa's attention than the management of her family. But as Marie Antoinette grew up, the Empress-queen's ambition, ever on the watch to maintain and augment the prosperity of her country, perceived in her child's increasing attractions a prospect of cementing more closely an alliance which she had contracted some years before, and on which she prided herself the more because it had terminated an enmity of two centuries and a half. From the day on which Charles V, prevailed over Francis I. in the competition for the imperial crown, the attitude of the Emperor of Germany and of the King of France to each other had been one of mutual hostility, which, with but rare exceptions, had been greatly in favor of the latter country. The very first years of Maria Teresa's own reign had been imbittered by the union of France with Prussia in a war which had deprived her of an extensive province; and she regarded it as one of the great triumphs of Austrian diplomacy to have subsequently won over the French ministry to exchange the friendship of Frederick of Prussia for her own, and to engage as her ally in a war which had for its object the recovery of the lost Silesia. Silesia was not recovered. But she still clung to the French alliance as fondly as if the objects which she had originally hoped to gain by it had been fully accomplished; and, as the heir to the French monarchy was very nearly of the same age as the young archduchess, she began to entertain hopes of uniting the two royal families by a marriage which should render the union between the two nations indissoluble. She mentioned the project to some of the French visitors at her court, whom she thought likely to repeat her conversation on their return to their own country. She took care that reports of her daughter's beauty should from time to time reach the ears of Louis XV. She had her picture painted by French artists. She made a proficiency in the French language the principal object of her education; bringing over some French actors to Vienna to instruct her in the graces of elocution, and subsequently establishing as her chief tutor a French ecclesiastic, the Abbé de Vermond, a man of extensive learning, of excellent judgment, and of most conscientious integrity. The appointment would have been in every respect a most fortunate one, had it not been suggested by Loménie de Brienne, Archbishop of Toulouse, who thus laid the abbé under an obligation which was requited, to the great injury of France, nearly twenty years afterward, when M. de Vermond, who still remained about the person of his royal mistress, had an opportunity of exerting his influence to make the archbishop prime minister.

Not that her studies were confined to French. Metastasio taught her Italian; Gluck, whose recently published opera of "Orfeo" had, established for him a reputation as one of the greatest musicians of the age, gave her lessons on the harpsichord. But we fear it can not be said that she obtained any high degree of excellence in these or in any other accomplishments. She was not inclined to study; and, with the exception of the abbé, her masters and mistresses were too courtly to be peremptory with an archduchess. Their favorable reports to the Empress-queen were indeed neutralized by the frankness with which their pupil herself confessed her idleness and failure to improve. But Maria Teresa was too much absorbed in politics to give much heed to the confession, or to insist on greater diligence; though at a later day Marie Antoinette herself repented of her neglect, and did her best to repair it, taking lessons in more than one accomplishment with great perseverance during the first years of her residence at Versailles, because, as she expressed herself, the dauphiness was bound to take care of the character of the archduchess.

There are, however, lessons of greater importance to a child than any which are given by even the most accomplished masters-those which flow from the example of a virtuous and sensible mother; and those the young archduchess showed a greater aptitude for learning. Maria Teresa had set an example not only to her own family, but to all sovereigns, among whom principles and practices such as hers had hitherto been little recognized, of regarding an attention to the personal welfare of all her subjects, even of those of the lowest class, as among the most imperative of her duties. She had been accessible to all. She had accustomed the peasantry to accost her in her walks; she had visited their cottages to inquire into and relieve their wants. And the little Antoinette, who, more than any other of her children, seems to have taken her for an especial model, had thus, from her very earliest childhood, learned to feel a friendly interest in the well-doing of the people in general; to think no one too lowly for her notice, to sympathize with sorrow, to be indignant at injustice and ingratitude, to succor misfortune and distress. And these were habits which, as being implanted in her heart, she was not likely to forget; but which might be expected rather to gain strength by indulgence, and to make her both welcome and useful to any people among whom her lot might be cast.

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