Marie Antoinette - Alice Birkhead

America or Austria?

The manner of the Queen's life, which was of necessity spent in public and which was being everywhere publicly discussed, began to give serious trouble to Maria Theresa. Her love of gambling became more pronounced, and the passion for diamonds led to reckless purchase.

The winter of 1776-77 was one of severity in France, and the suffering populace of Paris looked with resentment at the pretty women dashing through the snow in newly gilded sledges. Crimson leather trappings and innumerable silver bells adorned the equipage in which Marie Antoinette sat with the Princesse de Lamballe, whose charms secured her a nominal office in the Royal household and a salary of 150,000 francs (£6000) a year. They glided swiftly down the road near Versailles, reached Sevres and St Cloud and there crossed the river. Through the Bois de Boulogne  they sped one day and a grave scandal spread abroad. The Queen of France had flashed through the capital without escort and without ceremony. These were Austrian ways, unbefitting Louis XVI's wife, since she was Queen of France. Austrian pastimes, too, were causing, in a time of want, a great waste of the nation's money. The King himself could not well be blamed, since he had refused to follow the example of the Comte d'Artois and build himself a gilded toy to while away this time of winter hardship. He pointed to a train of wagons passing with a load of wood for the shivering poor of Versailles. "Those are my sledges," he said—kindly words often to be repeated.

Unwilling to submit to restraint, the Queen lost favour both with court and people. She agreed to the King's wish to diminish the household troops—a fatal mistake, since it robbed them both of prestige. It was a satisfaction to feel that she would encounter few guards when she returned to the palace in her mask and domino from some public ball where all, however, knew that the Queen was present. She liked to flit about the vast gardens of Versailles, attended only by one waiting-woman. She had amusing encounters with the Parisians there, for every one of decent appearance had access to the grounds and often to the chateau. The King and Queen dining in public was a show watched curiously by thousands of subjects. It was so strange that Louis XVI should eat enormously and drink great draughts of wine, while Marie Antoinette took only water and was most abstemious.

For some fancied slight upon a favourite who had been recalled from the Court of St James, the Queen had resolved on the fall of Turgot, the Comptroller-General. His theories pleased the King, who believed his minister to desire the public good, but certain reforms had stirred the popular feeling against him through sheer ignorance and folly on the part of the nation. The nobility resented his efforts to free the Third Estate from oppression which they had come to look upon as natural. Monsieur and the Comte d'Artois became enemies as soon as the question was raised as to the necessity for such lavish expenditure in their royal households. It was useless for Louis XVI to protest that Turgot was the only man, apart from himself, who was really interested in the welfare of the people. The clergy rose under de Beaumont, Archbishop of Paris, and declared the minister an infidel. They were afraid that his zeal for reform might lead him to attack the Church, and frightened Louis by terrible pictures of the possible rise of heresy. Turgot was dismissed, retiring without disgrace or shame, and his place was filled by M. Necker, a wealthy banker of Geneva.

Still dissatisfied, the clergy heaped reproaches on M. de Maurepas because he had consented to the appointment of a Calvinist to office, but the gold which Necker produced was dazzling to a nation which had lived in fear of bankruptcy. The director of finances borrowed money on all sides, for his own fortune seemed to give security. He was a tall imposing man of forty-five, grave and important in his manner, and very erect in carriage. His wife adored him, and his wealth sounded his praises worthily in the salons of Paris. He seldom spoke himself but had art exalted air, and left the entertainment of his guests to Madame Necker, who rapidly gained a place in French society.

The Salon Helvetique greeted Benjamin Franklin as a guest of honour. The sturdy American statesman came in 1777 to ask the help of France in the struggle which had begun to divide England from her colonies across the broad Atlantic. He spoke French indifferently, and was out of place among the beaux in velvet, ruffles and fine diamonds. His leather cap covered a shrewd enough head, but his plain brown suit, stout leather shoes and knitted stockings pleased only through their novelty. Ladies of the court shuddered when they saw him cut melon with a knife, yet they gave fetes for his visit and were delighted to take up the phrase, "Ca ira, mes amis, ca ira,"  which was his answer to sympathizers with the cause of freedom. France and America were to ally themselves closely against the power of England.

Millions of francs passed from the French treasury into Franklin's hands, though the transaction was secret like the alliance. Necker was able to borrow on his own private credit as financier, and Louis felt rich as he handled gold and gave of his bounty to Provence, his brother, and to the Comte d'Artois, who was in debt as usual. Marie Antoinette profited by Turgot's fall, and she lost the two thousand Louis d'or which the King gave her at the gambling tables, where the Jeu de la Reine  had fast become notorious. Professional croupiers came to take charge of the games, which continued almost without intermission. The Queen and court sat up all night, and on the solemn festival of All Saints they were too weary at mass to pay proper attention. Maria Theresa heard rumours of the play and charged her son, the Emperor Joseph, to remonstrate with the wilful Queen when he paid his visit to Versailles

In April 1777, the Emperor reached Paris where he had resolved to stay privately as "Comte Falkenstein." He wished to see foreign lands that he might learn from them, being a ruler who took his position seriously. At thirty-six he had lost the attractions of his youth, and the formality of his speech had increased since he escorted his young sister on her wedding journey. He was shocked by the levity of Marie Antoinette, and thought meanly of Louis XVI, who seemed weak and apathetic. His open sarcasm displeased the court, accustomed as it was to receive much adulation. The whole life at Versailles tried the temper of a man with strict ideas of dignity and the distance to be maintained between the sovereign and the people. The Chateau was the haunt of street-traders who set up their stalls on the spacious landings of the royal staircase. All kinds of trumpery were sold, and the idlers of the neighbourhood pressed close to the palace, where knife-grinders and vendors of cocoa, coffee, and gingerbread or "Ladies joy" drove a brisk trade under royal patronage. Dancing and music made the place a fair-ground on occasions of festivity. The noise could be heard within the stately rooms which Louis XIV had built. Joseph sighed to remember the fastidious tastes of that monarch and the lack of restraint that had brought Marie Antoinette to the level of the people.

Delighted at first to receive a member of the Austrian house, the Queen's enthusiasm for her brother was unbounded. She found few to re-echo her praise, and the Princesse de Lamballe and the Polignac family were insulted by the scathing comments which described their salons as the haunts of rascally parvenus.

Visits to the Military School and famous Jardin des Plantes, where Buffon received him, gave great pleasure to the Emperor. He was amazed to find that the King and Queen took no interest in such things, and rated them soundly for their indifference to the treasures of the palace, where priceless works of art were left to dust and oblivion in attics. He was a patron of art, and he played the harpsichord and violin remarkably well. One of the few pleasures of his unlucky sojourn was a night at the Opera, where the loyal chorus sang "Chantons, célébrons notre reine,"  and Marie Antoinette seemed truly popular.

But the Emperor Joseph had little leisure for amusements, and ungallantly jeered at the rouge and powder and symbolic headdress, which was known as the coiffure Iphigénie, and had been specially invented for Marie Antoinette by the great coiffeur, Leonard. The design of this head-dress was of classic origin, and pleased the lovers of Gluck's opera, Iphigénie, more than the Emperor. He spent his time visiting Turgot, the ex-minister, and other notables of France. He also went to the Salon Helvetique and discussed the great question of State finance and the best means of raising money. It was his duty to govern, and he worked hard that he might learn how to do his duty.

The interest of Vienna was to restrain France, if possible, from uniting with America against England. Letters from Maria Theresa to Marie Antoinette urged her to use her influence with Louis and the French cabinet, and declared that the policy of France should be one with that of Austria. But the Queen's influence was not very great, and Joseph did not obtain what he had coveted—the support of his brother-in law against Prussia in his attempt to annex the province of Bavaria. Franklin was successful in his effort to enlist support in Paris, and in 1778 he had achieved his object and it became known that the French Crown would give assistance to the insurgent colonists of America against England.