Cake had nothing to do with it. Part 2 of 3

By Richard Covington first published in the Smithsonian Magazine

Based in France, Richard Covington writes on culture, history, science and the arts from his home near Versailles.

In one salon is the exquisite harp Marie Antoinette played well enough to accompany Antonio Salieri, the Hapsburg court composer and Mozart rival she invited to visit. In an adjoining room, Baulez shows me the infamous pale blue boudoir with mirrored interior shutters that the queen could raise and lower at will. “People imagined mirrors surrounding a bed for secret trysts,” he says, “but she was just trying to keep curious passers-by from peering inside.” Whatever trysts there were did not include Louis, who spent not a single night at the Petit Trianon, although he did occasionally pop by to read to himself in a little rowboat.

Fersen was the more frequent guest. The queen went so far as to furnish an apartment above hers for him. By October 1787, they were exchanging clandestine letters about such prosaic domestic details as where to put a stove. Unravelling the details of their relationship has kept biographers guessing for more than 200 years, largely because Fersen destroyed substantial portions of his journal and a great-nephew to whom his letters were entrusted censored some and suppressed others. “I can tell you that I love you,” Marie Antoinette declared in one letter back to him.

They had met at a Paris opera ball in January 1774, when Fersen, the 18-year-old son of a wealthy Swedish nobleman, was making the grand tour. The young queen invited him to several balls at Versailles, but not long after, he left for England. Four years later he returned to the French court as a young military officer and, according to Comte Francois Emmanuel de Saint-Priest—Louis’ future minister of the interior—“captured the queen’s heart.” In early 1779, Fersen signed on to fight on behalf of France in the American Revolution, in part perhaps to escape the queen’s growing infatuation.

When he returned to Versailles four years later, in June 1783, he wrote to his sister, swearing off marriage because: “I cannot belong to the only person to whom I want to belong, the one who really loves me, and so I do not want to belong to anyone.” That summer, he visited Marie Antoinette nearly every day.

By now the 27-year-old queen—mother of a 4 1/2-year-old daughter, Marie Thérèse Charlotte, and a son, the Dauphin Louis Joseph Xavier, nearly 2—had blossomed into a full-figured beauty, with luminous eyes and a demeanor some saw as dignified, others as haughty. As a young princess, she had burst into tears when Mercy had pressured her to get involved in politics; now she scolded the French foreign minister for excluding Joseph II from the peace process with England, though to little effect.

Some two years later, around the time her second son, Louis Charles, was born, Marie Antoinette became the victim of one of the most byzantine swindles in history. A fortune hunter named Jeanne de Lamotte Valois persuaded the gullible Cardinal de Rohan that she was a close friend of the queen’s—though Marie Antoinette had never heard of her. Lamotte’s lover, Rétaux de Villette, forged letters purportedly from the queen imploring the cardinal to buy a necklace of 647 diamonds costing 1.5 million francs ($4.7 million today). Writing as the queen, de Villette said “she” was too embarrassed to ask Louis for so expensive a present and was relying on the gallant cardinal to obtain it for her. The queen would, of course, repay him.

After a clandestine meeting in the palace gardens with a woman hired by Lamotte to impersonate the queen, Rohan was hooked. When jewelers delivered the necklace to the cardinal, he gave it to Rétaux, disguised as the queen’s footman. Lamotte’s husband then smuggled it to London to be sold off in pieces. When the jewellers demanded payment in August 1785, Marie Antoinette was livid with rage and Louis ordered Rohan arrested.

The subsequent trial caused a sensation. The Paris Parliament defied the king’s command to convict the duped cardinal and acquitted him. Lamotte was flogged, branded on her breast with a V for voleuse (thief) and tossed into prison. And though Marie Antoinette was not on trial, she might as well have been. “The queen was innocent,” Napoleon observed years later, “and, to make sure that her innocence should be publicly recognized, she chose the Parliament of Paris for her judge. The upshot was that she was universally regarded as guilty.”

The affair of the necklace provided further fodder for scandal-mongering pamphleteers and journalists already intent on portraying the queen as greedy and corrupt. From then on, she could do no right. Her embarrassment made Louis more vulnerable than ever.

Beset by severe food shortages, weighed down by taxes, resentful of royal absolutism and inspired by the egalitarian example of an independent United States, French citizens were growing increasingly vocal in their demands for self-government. In May 1789, to avert the nation’s impending bankruptcy (a series of wars, years of corruption and Louis’ support of the American Revolution as a means of weakening England had depleted the French treasury), the king convened the Estates-General, an assembly of representatives of the clergy, nobility and commoners that had not met since 1614.

As Marie Antoinette’s carriage wound from the palace through the streets of Versailles to welcome the gathering, crowds along the way stood in sullen silence. In a sermon at the town’s Church of Saint Louis, the Bishop of Nancy railed against the queen’s profligate spending. (Dubbed Madame Deficit, the queen was increasingly blamed for the country’s desperate financial situation, although she had in fact already cut back on personal expenses.) At the time of the Bishop’s sermon, however, the 33-year-old mother was consumed with anxiety over her older son, the gravely ill Dauphin. Within a month, the 7-year-old prince would be dead of tuberculosis of the spine.

Historians trace the French Revolution to that summer of 1789. On July 14, some 900 Parisian workers, shopkeepers and peasants—fearing that the king, who at the queen’s urging had moved a large number of troops to Versailles and Paris, would dissolve the representative National Assembly—stormed the Bastille prison to seize arms and ammunition. Marie Antoinette tried to convince her husband to put down the insurrection, but not wanting to provoke an all-out conflict, he refused, effectively ceding Paris to the revolutionaries. Comte Honoré de Mirabeau, leader of the increasingly anti-monarchist National Assembly, observed that the queen had become “the only man at court.” In the weeks that followed, the Assembly did away with age-old privileges for the aristocracy and clergy, declared a free press, got rid of serfdom and proclaimed the Rights of Man.

A little before noon on October 5, a mob of several thousand market women, armed with pikes and sickles, set out from Paris’ Hôtel de Ville (City Hall) on a 12-mile trek to Versailles to protest a lack of jobs and the high cost of bread. By evening, thousands more, some carrying guns, had joined them in front of the palace. After dithering over what to do, Louis finally decided to seek refuge in the distant Rambouillet château. But when his coachmen rolled out the royal carriages, the crowd cut the horses’ harnesses, stranding him and his family.

Around five o’clock on the morning of the sixth, rebels surged toward the queen’s bedroom, killing two guards. A terrified Marie Antoinette leapt out of bed and raced to the king’s apartments. Louis, meanwhile, had dashed to her bedroom to rescue her, but finding her gone, doubled back with their son to join her and their daughter in the dining hall of his quarters. By this time, the Marquis de Lafayette, commander of the National Guard, had arrived with Guard troops and temporarily restored order.

But the throng, swollen to some 10,000 people, began clamouring to take Louis to Paris. When someone cried out for the queen to show herself on the balcony, she stepped forward, curtsying with such aplomb that the mob grew silent, then burst into cries of “Long live the queen!” But Marie Antoinette sensed that the reprieve would be short-lived. Retreating inside, she broke down. “They are going to force us to go to Paris, the King and me, preceded by the heads of our bodyguards on pikes,” she said. Her words proved prophetic. Within hours, the triumphant procession—indeed with the guards’ heads on pikes—was escorting the captive royal family to the old Tuileries palace in the capital.

Although the king and queen were not locked in, and in theory could have left the palace had they chosen to do so, they withdrew into self-imposed seclusion. The king seemed unable to act. “Taking the place of her husband (whom everyone thrust contemptuously aside as an incurable weakling),” writes Zweig, Marie Antoinette “held council with the ministers and ambassadors, watching over their undertakings and revising their dispatches.”

“She was decisive where he was indecisive,” biographer Antonia Fraser says in a new PBS documentary Marie Antoinette. “She was courageous when he was vacillating.” She dashed off letters in cipher and invisible ink to other European sovereigns, pleading with them to invade France and shore up the king’s crumbling authority, but to no avail. Meeting secretly with Mirabeau in July 1790, she won the influential legislator over to the cause of preserving the monarchy.

By December, however, she was devising a contingency plan to flee Paris for Montmédy, near the Austrian-controlled Netherlands. There the royal couple planned to mount a counterrevolution with troops under the command of Royalist general Francois-Claude Bouillé. When Mirabeau died in April 1791 without securing the Assembly’s promise to retain Louis as king in a constitutional monarchy, Louis and Marie Antoinette put their plan into action.

But instead of following Bouillé’s advice to make the trip in two light carriages, the queen insisted on keeping the family together in a lumbering coach called a berlin, encumbered with a silver dinner service, a clothes-press, and a small wine chest. (Fersen had made the arrangements, even mortgaging his estate to pay for the carriage.) Late in the evening of June 20, 1791, the royal family, disguised as servants, slipped out of the capital. Fersen accompanied them as far as Bondy, 16 miles east of the Tuileries.

While the horses were being changed, he pleaded with Louis to let him continue with the family rather than reuniting at Montmédy two days later as planned. Louis refused, perhaps, suggests biographer Evelyne Lever, because he thought it humiliating to be under the protection of his wife’s lover. Also, Fraser says in the PBS film, Louis didn’t want people to think a foreigner had helped them get away. . . .

 . . . Third and final part will be published on 1st December

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