Sometimes small incidents, rather than glorious exploits, give us the best evidence of character. So, as portrait painters are more exact in doing the face, I must give particular attention to the marks of the souls of men. — Plutarch

Marie Antoinette - Alice Birkhead




"The Austrian"

Maria Theresa was disappointed by the results of her son's visit to the court of Versailles. She had hoped that he would gain a vast subsidy from France that would enable him to win Bavaria in spite of the serious rivalry of Prussia. She decided to use the influence which she still retained over the daughter who had married for the sake of Austria's welfare. It did not seem possible to the powerful Empress that Marie Antoinette should have no voice in the decisions of the Council Chamber.

Gold was actually paid out from the treasury at the urgent demand of the young Queen, but the whole subsidy was recalled before it could reach Joseph, Vergennes having represented to the King that it would be fatal to send help to Austria. Nevertheless, men in taverns everywhere were beginning to sing lustily of the convoy of gold, and in the same places the suspicion grew that the "Austrian" might he guilty of the betrayal of her husband's kingdom.

In 1778 the first child of Louis XVI was born—Madame Royale, destined to have the saddest of sad histories. The rejoicing was but faint, since Marie Antoinette had been praying for a son that the Comtesse d'Artois might no longer sneer and Provence no longer regard himself as the next heir to the throne.

The Queen rose to keep carnival, indulging in the wildest acts of folly. She returned one night from Paris in an ordinary hired carriage because the royal coach had broken down, and she lunged for a new experience. When she was suffering from measles at Trianon she chose four gentlemen of the court to be present in her sick-room, in addition to her sister-in-law, Madame Elizabeth, and the Princesse de Lamballe. There was grave scandal in the salons  over this last whim, and lies poured forth from the London Press, inspired by Provence, who earned the name of "Tartuffe" by his hypocrisy. Marie Antoinette's fair name was tarnished and they uttered it with insolence in all the streets of Paris.

Victories over the British navy were celebrated by the court, and ladies wore models, as part of their absurd head-dress, of the frigates ploughing the waves. Green gauze represented the billowing of the waves, and the coiffure was so popular that an English-woman, then in Paris, wore one in opposition. No less than five English battle-ships flourished upon her head and towed a French frigate as their prize into Plymouth harbour. She had to cross the frontier in haste, so hotly was the retaliation taken. Louis XVI himself was slow to take offence, but the Queen and her ladies were, in such things, patriotic.

The Duc de Chartres, returning from what he chose to call success, was coldly received at Versailles where both King and Queen bore him ill-will. De Chartres was accused of a failure in discipline that had meant loss of victory to the French fleet off Ushant, and the Queen went so far as to mention cowardice. Paris, however, welcomed the heir of Orleans as a hero of brilliant achievements, and presented him with laurels when he came with his Duchess to the Opera. The insult of Marie Antoinette was repeated, and rankled in his mind as a dishonour that he would cast back upon her in the future. She had made an enemy of note for the coming time of trouble. "True as it is that I did not disgrace my race at Ushant, so true it is that her  son shall never by me be acknowledged as king" was the harsh threat of de Chartres, to be better known afterwards as Orleans.

Scandal was still busy with the name of Marie Antoinette, charging her with waste of money on her favourites. The Comtesse de Polignac begged favours for her clique. The sums lavished on this circle displeased both aristocracy and people. Trianon was become a costly place in spite of the "Return to Nature" which the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau had inspired in the intimate circle invited to its pleasures. The Queen had built a little theatre and delighted to act in it. She played the part of Colette  in Rousseau's popular play, Le Devin, du Village. Parisians blamed her now for entering upon a public performance which must degrade her true position, but the King was pleased to applaud his Queen; and Mercy, the ambassador, did not mention that the singer's voice was often out of tune when he expressed his admiration of the entertainment.

Mercy had mournful tidings to announce as the year 1780 drew fast to a close. His mistress, Maria Theresa, died, and Marie Antoinette gave way to passionate anguish. Those imperious yet loving letters would arrive no more from the far-off Austrian home, a link binding her with the past, recalling always memories of a happy childhood. She was an alien still in France, and even the birth of a second child, a son, could not console her.

It was in October 1781 that the news of the Dauphin's birth was given out, and with it the news of victory overseas. Fersen, the Queen's lover, had played an active part, and Lafayette, the young French noble whose enthusiasm had led him to offer his sword to George Washington.

The Queen's position was improved now that the succession was secure and the hope of a Bourbon heir fulfilled for Paris. She could meddle, if she chose, with the government of France, for M. de Maurepas died and Necker was banished after he had first revealed the dreadful state of financial chaos within the country he aspired to govern.

Louis was overjoyed by the birth of a Dauphin. He had laughed and wept when he heard the news, and presented his hand to the very lackeys for a kiss of congratulation. The market-women, arriving in black silk gowns, the full dress of their order, found him a father after their own hearts. They were all entertained at the Opera one night, and the chimney-sweepers, too, came in for a share of these festivities. Necker had left a full treasury though he had rendered accounts which warned the prudent of the embarrassed condition of the country. There was a gorgeous christening for the boy, and the Queen received a gift of diamonds, the jewels which she loved passionately. Her satisfaction was complete since she believed the nation loyal. She could not hear the jests of de Chartres in the distant Palais Royal, and "Tartuffe" sent the products of his pen very far beyond court circles.

The new year of 1782 was begun with gladness. Gaiety filled Versailles as the year wore on and Marie Antoinette took her place again on the little stage of the Trianon. She had the chief power in all affairs of State, discussing politics in the boudoir of the Comtesse de Polignac. There appointments were made according to a woman's caprice. She liked to be generous to her friends, and the blue-eyed, black-haired Comtesse, with her simple costumes and great charms, did not hesitate to beg, if poverty pressed hard or an honour were much coveted. When the Comtesse had been made a Duchesse, she could hardly bear to be parted from the Queen, and had her carriage always waiting, with horses ready harnessed, to bear her to Versailles or Trianon directly she was summoned. Her little daughter was married at the age of twelve, and received from Marie Antoinette a handsome dowry as well as gifts of diamonds.

The Princesse de Guémenée had been governess to the royal children till her family was ruined. Then she retired, and the post fell to the Duchesse de Polignac, with the addition of a generous income. There was jealousy, of course, at so many favours showered on one family. The Abbe Vermond distrusted the whole Polignac family, for he, too, was a grasping friend and hated to see the skilful Duchesse secure rich bishoprics and benefices for her intimates which he had destined for his own protégés.

Marie Antoinette had been so long swayed by her confessor that she was moved by his wrath to a quick repentance. She tried to bring him back to court after he retired in sulky disgust, and bribed him by two abbeys. His income was further increased by 80,000 francs (£3,200), to the indignation of his colleagues. It was so difficult to please all that the gentlest found cause of complaint, and the Princesse de Lamballe was given to idle gossip with the ladies of the Palais Royal that did the Queen much harm in Paris. For Orleans hated Marie Antoinette and sneered at the ingratitude of her dependents. He did not believe that they would be faithful to her when the storm clouds burst, which he already saw above her brilliant horizon.

There was poverty in France and the treasury was empty soon. Necker's funds did not last lung when extravagance was so reckless. In the frightful winter of 1783 the people of Paris fought desperately for black crusts, and the Queen's sledges dared not venture forth. The cry "A bas l'Autrichienne!"  had been raised with the cry of "Vive le roe!"  when a statue of the King was built up in snow to give some employment to the penniless and starving.

Great ladies of the court were imitating Marie Antoinette in the richness of their dress, and even the prosperous bourgeoisie increased their expenditure in emulation. Beautiful silks and lace were produced and costly furniture of rare design. Sevres was already famed for porcelain of a particularly delicate kind, and wonderful tapestry hangings came from Beauvais. These luxuries of the rich hardened the hearts of the poor who were suffering at the time and made the contrast between the Haves and Have-nots yet more glaring.

M. de Calonne, gallant, witty and brilliant, came to court promising the Queen impossibilities whenever she asked money. "Madame, if it is possible, it shall be done; if it is impossible it shall still he done," he said, and bowed low above her hand in the same salute which he paid to lovely Mme. Vigee le Brun, the celebrated painter of court ladies. Prodigal in his own way, Calonne was pleasant because he encouraged extravagance in others. He had charge of finance and knew how poor France was, but it was his policy to trust to time and assume the appearance of great riches.

The fashionable world entered with zest into any novelty that promised to bring amusement to their wearied senses. In winter they played noisy games, forfeits, blind man's buff, and others of a similar nature. They laughed when they heard that a new writer satirized their ways with his pen. There had been much talk during the American War of an adventurer named Caron, who ennobled himself and became de Beaumarchais. It was in 1781 that the playwright had written his notorious Marriage de Figaro.

Marie Antoinette had heard of the play and longed, like most of the court, to hear it read. It would be delightful to see the manners of a world she knew represented on the stage. There were rumours that de Beaumarehais was a rogue, but he was surely clever.

The play had been forbidden, since it was a grave offence in the France of the eighteenth century to mock the life of monarchs and their light choice of favourites. The Princesse de Lamballe begged very hard for a private reading in her rooms. There would be only intimates present, and the playwright might be assured that no harm could come to him through indulging the whim of a great lady.

De Beaumarchais demanded authority to produce the work in public, and had it read before the King by Mme. de Campan, a court reader. Louis XVI was seriously disturbed, for Le Mariage de Figaro  seemed to him a very dangerous play. The playwright dared to denounce Lettres de sachet—those sealed documents by which one could get rid privately of one's enemies. "It shall never be played! Never!" he declared. Paris and Versailles heard this decision with regret. Finally, the author read his play before a select audience at the palace.

Handsome, fascinating de Beaumarchais was flattered by the enthusiasm which the reading roused in the painted dames, too highly rouged to blush at the open sarcasms on their daily habits. The longing for a performance was increased. In June, 1783, orders were given for a representation at Versailles, but the Ping would not acknowledge them as given by his own consent. Be stopped an attempt to give the play in Paris when a crowded audience was waiting for the curtain to be raised, and was firm in withstanding the requests of the Queen till April 27th, 1784, when he allowed the public representation of the piece in the Theatre Francais.

The play was so brilliantly successful that the King feared the effect of ridicule directed at the ruling classes. "Tartuffe" came to warn him one night that de Beaumarchais had boasted of "overcoming lions and tigers," in allusion to the royal consent gained only after so sharp a struggle. Hot blood mounted to Louis' face, and he straightway took the seven of spades—for he was at cards—and wrote an order for the confinement of the playwright at Saint-Lazare. This arrest could not pass without comment, for the prison was a place of detention for idle and dissolute vagabonds.

After five days' imprisonment Caron de Beaumarchais was released, insulted by the illegal punishment which condemned the head of a great commercial house without offering him any explanation. He had laid bare in his writings the tyranny of trying prisoners with closed doors, and was now still less disposed to be silent on the subject of his grievance. He made Paris resentful and clamorous till poor Louis regretted the injustice which had been suggested by his brother. Then some atonement was made in the payment of a debt the Government owed, and all the Ministers were sent to honour the next representation of the Marriage de Figaro.

Beaumarchais did not care greatly for the money, being a man of wealth, and devoted the proceeds of his plays to charity, but he was jubilant to hear that the Queen and Conte d'Artois would take part in his next play, The Barber of Seville. This comedy was actually to be performed in the theatre of Trianon.

Contempt for the existing order of things was increased by the wit of this powerful, unscrupulous playwright. He held up before the eyes of the dissatisfied Third Estate a picture of the social life which was enjoyed by their rulers. The injustices of the law and the privileges of rank—men had brooded upon them long before they saw the Marriage de Figaro  upon the stage of Paris; and now they laughed and mocked at the people they had taken for superior beings, conscious that the change would come which was heralded by the applause given by an audience composed both of aristocrats and plebeians.