In a word, Athenians are by nature incapable of either living a quiet life themselves, or of allowing anyone else to do so. — Thucydides

Marie Antoinette - Alice Birkhead




The Pleasures of a Queen

The reign which began in 1774 had a certain brilliance to gild its real insecurity. The Queen had grown to full stature now. She was no longer a child, but a woman of right regal carriage. She had vivacity and the joy of life which was so dear to Paris. But she was restless in her moods, often changeful and capricious in her choice of pastimes. She did not hesitate to gratify her whims, for she was Queen of France and expected lesser mortals to spend themselves unweariedly to give her pleasure.

Extravagant fashions in dress were introduced by a court-milliner who hoped to reap a golden harvest if she pleased the taste of a Queen possessing beauty. Maria Theresa was shocked by a portrait of her daughter at eighteen. She thought the head-dress, known as "Ques-a-co?" (Qu'est ce que cela?), ridiculous, for when the coiffure was complete it was forty-five inches high from the brow to the summit of feathers topping yards of gauze and ribbon and bunches of Provencal roses. The passion for expressing ideas of the time by a curious mythology was far more to the liking of Marie Antoinette than the studies which the Empress recommended to furnish her daughter's mind more worthily. She had discovered Madame Bertin, a very clever modiste, and soon began to wear great paniers and many costly jewels.

The King had chosen old M. de Maurepas for his minister, following the advice of Madame Adelaide, who wished to direct him. He was very pliant still, and could not make up his mind to dismiss the Abbe Vermond, though he knew the evil influence the tutor had on Marie Antoinette and disliked the man intensely.

A desire to please his young wife inspired Louis with unusual gallantry some few weeks after his accession. He remembered that she had expressed a wish for a country house where she might sometimes be free from court formalities and strict rules of etiquette, and so he bestowed on her Le Petit Trianon, a pretty pavilion in the grounds of Versailles, where Louis XV had built an orangery. It was surrounded by fine gardens, and had an air of seclusion that was charming. Marie Antoinette decided that it should be hers completely. She gave orders that not even the King should be admitted without her express permission. A farm was built, where she played at making butter. There were strawberry beds which furnished rustic feasts, and stretches of soft greensward which displayed her toilettes to advantage.

Simplicity was not in vogue at the court though it reigned at the Petit Trianon. Many a proud bearer of a noble name was insulted by the new Queen's freedom. She would not observe the tabouret, or right of sitting in the presence of the sovereign, which was the privilege of certain great families. Instead, she bade all be seated in her presence, and took her place gaily in the stiff court circle. Her intimates were young women, chosen, most unwisely, for their beauty. The first was the pretty and foolish Princesse de Lamballe, who had an empty mind and affected manners, but was interesting through the tragedy of early widowhood after a most unhappy marriage. The Comtesse de Polignac was her rival and successor—a handsome, intriguing woman who gained many favours for her relatives.

The Queen caused scandal by her frequent interference in the council chamber, where she was led by her energy and love of control and where she committed many blunders. "Let her be," said Louis when others would have stayed her, for there was admiration for his wife's more active nature in his own sluggish, easy-going mind.

The Empress of Austria was disappointed that her daughter did not effect more for Vienna in her interference with State business. Like a child, Marie Antoinette would have had the Duc de Choiseul restored to some office because he had supported the Austrian alliance, but here the King showed an unexpected firmness. He had formed a suspicion that Choiseul had caused his father and mother to be poisoned, and, in addition, Louis was a devout Catholic and knew that Choiseul had played a part in the banishment of Jesuits. So the Duc de Choiseul came to court, and, after some intercourse with his Majesty, found it expedient to go home to see to the "tedding of his hay," not ill-pleased perhaps to escape the burdens of a ministry. Maurepas, who was finally chosen as prime Minister, was grateful to Madame Adelaide for her influence with Louis. He was seventy-three and had had much experience of men though he had long been out of office. He had useful colleagues in Vergennes, Minister of Foreign Affairs, and in Turgot, whose duties were the heaviest of all, for he directed finance.

The long wars of Louis XIV had crippled the national resources, though not more so than the extravagance which had built Versailles at a cost of 500,000,000 francs (2,000,000). Taxation fell heavily upon the peasants, because they did not give the personal service exacted from great nobles (The First Estate) in feudal times when there were frequent calls to arms. The clergy (The Second Estate) too often avoided the gifts of money which were supposed to be paid voluntarily by them. Fat lands were in their possession, and many privileges brought them undue wealth. Under these two Estates the people groaned, holding nothing so securely that the Government could not take it from them.

If a man of the Third Estate, or the Commons, had "a fowl in his pot" (as Henri IV of blessed memory had dreamed of for every subject), he took care to put shutters to his window lest some prowling tax-gatherer should pounce upon him. For it was always the custom of such officials to note any signs of comfort in a humble dwelling and make further demands accordingly. The taxes were "farmed" in France by financiers, who were quite unscrupulous as to the methods they used in recovering the huge sums they had themselves paid to the Government for the privilege of being "Farmers." It was possible for these to make an exalted marriage after a very large fortune had been wrung from the unfortunate toilers of the country districts, since an aristocratic lady had to marry a commoner if her family became impoverished. The rich parvenu was despised by his wife in such a case, but he had compensation in being received at court and in lending money to the haughtiest courtiers.

Turgot saw the nation on the verge of ruin and blamed the lavishness of Louis XV rather than Marie Antoinette, who was, however, fast gaining a reputation for extravagance. The late king had spent fabulous sums on worthless favourites like Dubarry. Thirty million livres had melted during his regime, and nobody had profited in the Third Estate save perhaps a few wealthy jewelers. Economy became the theme of every man controlling public money after Dubarry left the court and simple Louis XVI succeeded.

Marie Antoinette would have been impatient of Turgot's thrifty schemes, if the financier had not doubled her pin-money. She needed gold to spend on the delights of Paris, whither she drove constantly from Versailles under the escort of Artois, the King's young brother. This was an intimacy which did her much harm, for the Count was foolish and sometimes persuaded her to return from balls so late at night that she had to slip through a side-entrance to the chateau, the King having given orders that the gates should be locked before he retired himself. Louis was very seldom seen at the masquerades which gave his wife and brother occasion for wild adventures.

It was at a masked ball that Marie Antoinette, when Dauphine, met a young Swedish noble who became her one romantic lover. Count Axel de Fersen was dazzled by the beautiful auburn-haired girl who dared to speak to him freely because she wore the disguise of a domino. Four years passed before they met again, but he was devoted to the Queen and was for ever faithful to her service.

Meantime the Comte de Provence and his intriguing wife whispered of escapades that were hardly to the credit of court circles. The Queen began to frequent race-courses as soon as "Anglomania" set in among the nobles. The King hated the English nation, and looked askance at the monstrous coiffures which were designed to represent a mimic hunting field in motion. He was a daring rider, delighting in all violent exercise, but he did not care for his wife to show her skill as a horsewoman now that she scorned the donkey she had formerly ridden. Yet he was always acquiescent and paid her gambling debts, though he was seriously troubled by rumours of disapproval among the people. In the spring of 1775 riots took place because the price of bread was high, and bakers' shops were plundered both at Versailles and at Paris.

A visit was made by Maximilian of Austria to his sister, and offence was given to the princes of the blood who would not wait on him as the Queen demanded they should do, but insisted that Maximilian should first call upon them in accordance with the rules of rigid court etiquette. The boy Archduke was travelling incognito and should not have expected that formal honour due to a royal visitor, but Marie Antoinette chose to feel aggrieved at the refusal of Orleans, Conde, and Penthievre to pay their respects to Maximilian. She offended the Duc de Chartres, who had been her ally, by excluding him from a ball given in the riding-school of Versailles. She accused the French nobility of arrogance, and displayed her haughty temper freely. The quarrel ended disastrously for her when Chartres left the court and lowed himself in Paris. His family of Orleans were resident in the capital, which the King had deserted in favour of Versailles. Highly-coloured accounts of "the Austrian's insult" to the princes of the blood were repeated with dark rumours that there were political motives for this visit of the Archduke which would result in men and money being sent from France to Austria.