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Marie Antoinette, the Dauphine of France (1773), by François-Hubert Drouais.

Marie Antoinette, the Dauphine of France (1773), by François-Hubert Drouais.

What immediately springs to your mind when the name Marie Antoinette is mentioned?

Pretty? Fashionable? Selfish? Expensive?

She is often remembered as the most famous Queen of France. Sometimes even as the Cause of the French Revolution, with that infamous and outrageous (and untrue) quote “if they [the poor people of France] don’t have bread, let them eat cake”, which had been circulated about other foreign princesses throughout the eighteenth century. Even more graphically (and literally) she could be remembered as The Head of the French Revolution.

There have been movies that have depicted Marie Antoinette as an extravagant, shallow, and flighty Queen, a spendthrift, and even a bit mentally unstable. And she was portrayed in an even more derogatory light in the contemporary press of eighteenth century France. However, it is interesting to ponder what she was like as a person, and particularly how she was known by those closest to her.

Marie Antoinette: The Journey, by Antonia Fraser (year).

Marie Antoinette: The Journey, by Antonia Fraser (2002).

Antonia Fraser’s book, Marie Antoinette: The Journey, explores a very personal account of this well known woman, using first hand accounts of those people who knew her best and most intimately. This is an insightful account of Marie Antoinette The Person, rather than the more public figure of Marie Antoinette The Queen.

Childhood

Marie Antoinette (1755-1793) was the fifteenth child (of sixteen) born to the Emperor and Empress of Austria, and as one of the many archduchesses of the realm was destined to make a marriage alliance for the good of her country.

However, because she was the last female child born to the Royal family and because she had seven older sisters whose responsibility it was to also make important political marriages, her own importance in making a political alliance for her empire was not initially uppermost in the minds of her parents.

During her childhood, Marie Antoinette was often left alone with her younger siblings to play and it was not until she was older that her mother discovered she had a remarkably poor education by royal standards. She later ascribed her inability to concentrate on matters of the state (surely a task that is necessary to a Queen) as being due to an inadequately supervised childhood.

A brief summary of the lives of Marie Antoinette's sisters. There were four other daughters who did not survive infancy.

A brief summary of the lives of Marie Antoinette’s sisters. There were four additional daughters who did not survive infancy.

Due to several cruel twists of fate, four of her older sisters died, became ill or were permanently disfigured, which prevented them from marrying. One of her sisters, Maria Christine, married her second cousin for love, which left only three of the sisters to make marriage alliances for the Austrian Empire. In the end, Maria Antonia (as she was christened) was married to the Dauphin of France, the future Louis XVI. In short, of all of her sisters she had made the most illustrious match, one day to be Queen of the powerful nation of France, yet she had the least preparation for it.

Preparation for Marriage

Marie Antoinette

Marie Antoinette’s marriage to Louis XVI was always going to be fraught with difficulties, particularly when you examine the ways in which they had both been prepared for their positions.

They are born to obey, and must learn to do so in good time.

Maria Theresa on her daughters (1756)

Marie Antoinette’s mother, Maria Theresa, held a firm view that a wife, and more particularly a Queen, should be deferent and submissive to her noble husband. In this way she could endear herself to him and then – in return – he would be likely to love, adore and trust her. In the Empress’s opinion, everything depended on the wife.

Everything depends on the wife, if she is willing, sweet and amusante.

Maria Theresa in a letter to Marie Antoinette

However, despite her sermons on how it should be done, she offered her daughters a very different model of reality in the form of herself. Maria Theresa, while displaying respect and love for her husband, was anything but meek and subservient. She was strong in her ideas and decisive in her plans. She would spend hours at her state papers while her much more placid husband went hunting.

Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, in coronation robes, by Jean-Baptiste Gautier Dagoty (1775).

Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, in coronation robes, by Jean-Baptiste Gautier Dagoty (1775). Image source: Wikipedia.

Marie Antoinette did not share this strong personality with her mother. Instead, as a child she was pretty and graceful, but also compassionate, maternal, soft-hearted and eager to please. Upon her marriage and removal to France, one cannot help feeling sorry for Marie Antoinette as she received instructions from her mother on how she should be submissive, obedient, never introducing new customs to the French court, but following the lead of others and making herself agreeable to them. Yet in other letters the contradictory, and even harsh, missives flowed. She should not go riding with her husband, although he had asked her to; she should strive to share a bedroom (and bed) with her spouse, even though it was not the practice in Versailles; she should exert more influence on her husband in matters of the state, for the good of her home country.

You are a stranger and a subject; you must learn to conform; […] you must not seem to dominate […] you know we are subjects of our husbands and owe them obedience.

Maria Theresa to her daughter Amalia on her marriage

So Marie Antoinette began her role as the Dauphine of France with what surely must have been a great deal of confusion as to what was expected of her.

Louis Auguste

Likewise, Louis Auguste (1754-1793) had received his own particularly woeful preparation for his eventual position as king and husband. At the time of his birth his grandfather, Louis XV, was king and Louis Auguste was in line for the throne after his father, his oldest brother, and his second brother (who died in infancy just before Louis was born). However, tragedy continued to haunt the family with the death of the eldest brother in 1761, and of the father in 1765, after which the eleven-year-old Louis Auguste became the new Dauphin of France.

His confidence as the future king had already been eroded upon the death of his eldest brother, whom he was unfavourable compared to by the Governor of the Children of France. The resulting feelings of inadequacy for his new role were compounded by his clumsiness, weight problems, and difficulties participating in the court life at Versailles. In the face of this, his favourite and frequent retreat was hunting. These circumstances made the contrast between the current king and the future king very stark, as Louis XV was – in looks and personality – the sort of king that Louis Auguste could never be.

To further complicate Louis’ marriage to, and relationship with, Marie Antoinette, he had been warned in his childhood of Austrian archduchesses and their predilection for domination. This domination over a head of state by a foreign woman was something that always needed to be resisted, and this lesson had the unfortunate later consequence of denying the already unconfident, indecisive and uncertain King Louis XVI of an understanding ally, that of his very tender-hearted and kind (but not domineering) Queen.

The French Revolution

The French Revolution, where the French people overthrew the aristocracy in an attempt to change the way the country was governed, was the result of the complex interrelationship of many factors within and around France during the eighteenth century. One of these factors was the relationship between the royal family and the French people, which had become increasingly strained towards the end of the century.

After examining the backdrop of the King and Queen of France, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, it seems apparent that they were possibly both ill-equipped to deal with the situation that confronted them.

Louis XVI was far from firm or decisive, but this was a time when both firmness and decisiveness was required. He struggled to stand up to the aristocracy who refused to pay taxes and whose claims on the state treasury were bankrupting it. He also struggled to make decisive decisions that would have a positive impact on the issues that the French people were dealing with, such as food shortages and Enlightenment ideals.

Marie Antoinette (1783), painted by Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun.

Marie Antoinette (1783), painted by Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Likewise, Marie Antoinette struggled to know how to help her husband overcome his weaknesses. Her husband’s unwillingness to listen to her advice contributed to this, but her lack of early education regarding political affairs made it hard for her to concentrate and learn in this environment.

The French state had been so eroded during the course of Louis XV’s reign that it would have taken an expert hand to guide France to better times, and unfortunately the two hands that guided it seemed to lack the qualities to make their reign successful.

This book provides a fascinatingly detailed and in-depth description of Marie Antoinette’s life in its entirety, and attempts to paint a realistic picture of who she really was. I highly recommend it!

Note: All quotes are obtained from Marie Antoinette: The Journey, by Antonia Fraser.

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Sources and Relevant Links

First image source: Marie Antoinette in purple – by Versailles and More

Marie Antoinette: The Journey, by Antonia Fraser – buy on Amazon

Marie Antoinette’s sisters, by History and Other Thoughts

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I always find it interesting to read about different women’s experiences throughout history. During each stage of history, there is always a backdrop by which to understand the people of a particular time. This backdrop includes social, economical, political, and cultural factors that all roll together to influence what people believe and how people behave. And the key to understanding people properly is to understand their “backdrop”.

The Weaker Vessel: Women's Lot in Seventeenth Century England, by Antonia Fraser (2002)

The Weaker Vessel: Women’s Lot in Seventeenth Century England, by Antonia Fraser (2002)

I have recently finished reading The Weaker Vessel, by Antonia Fraser, about women and their role in seventeenth century England. It is a fascinating account of real women and what they did during this period.

During the seventeenth century, it was often proclaimed that women were the weaker sex. This term was preached from the pulpit, professed in poetic verse, and generally acknowledged by everyone. However, it was unclear exactly how far to extend that precept. Women were certainly weaker than men physically, but there was more uncertainty as to whether women were weaker spiritually or intellectually.

In any case, women often viewed themselves (that is, their own sex) as weak, so much so that they often apologised when a show of strength was required in order to endure whatever circumstances confronted them.

Marriage and Love

No passion could be long lived, and such as were most in love forgot that ever they had been so within a twelvemonth after they were married.

Henry  Osborne

Fraser examines women in the context of marriage in the seventeenth century, where marriage, at least in the upper classes, was often a financial transaction settled between parents. Whilst there was consideration for the suitability of the prospective spouses for each other, this manner of arranged marriage did result in some unhappy marriages but it also resulted in some happy ones too. What we would call love was not actively sought when marriage was contemplated, and was even thought to somehow damage the offspring of such a match. However, Fraser gives several examples of couples who had somehow developed this mutual love in their relationship (or beforehand) and there is little doubt that they certainly enjoyed their life together more.

“Dost thou love me?”, Elizabeth Walker would ask of her husband, smiling. To which he would reply, “Most dearly.” “I know it abundantly,” she would answer, “to my comfort; but I love to hear thee tell me so.”

Often, after the death of a spouse, the obituaries or memoirs conveyed hauntingly how treasured this love had been that had developed during a marriage. Ann Fanshawe had endured much with her husband, Richard, during his life, including an escape from a plague-ridden town after first fleeing Cromwell’s troops. They also had an eventful – and frightening – voyage to Spain which included an imminent capture by a Turkish ship and a violent storm which almost resulted in shipwreck. However, their lives together were peppered with that very mutual respect and even, on occasion, passion [God forbid!] that good marriages are built on. Ann, when writing to her son after her husband’s death, said:

Now you will expect I should say something that may remain of us jointly, which I will do, though it makes my eyes gush out with tears, and cuts me to the soul, to remember and in part express the joys I was blessed with in him. Glory to God we never had but one mind throughout our lives, our souls were wrapped up in each other, our aims and designs one, our loves one, and our resentments one. We so studied one the other that we knew each other’s mind by our looks; whatever was real happiness, God gave it me in him…”

Ann Lady Fanshawe

Motherhood

There are many accounts of women greatly fearing the pain accompanying child-bearing. And it was not only the pain, but the reasonable expectation of death – either during or afterwards.

These are doubtless the greatest of all pains the Women naturally undergo upon Earth.

Jane Sharp (midwife)

And labour was not the only peril of motherhood. The high infant and child mortality rate meant that many women buried many more of their children than they reared. The grief of losing children, and sometimes losing many children, was often enormous and was not lessened by the fact that death could be reasonably expected. Fraser cites many first-hand accounts of parents whose “great affliction” was all-encompassing.

We are so comfortably sure that the poor innocent babies are taken out of a naughty world to be very happy, that I have often wondered at the excessive sorrow I have sometimes seen on these occasions.

Anne Digby, Countess of Sunderland

Education

One of the things that most intrigues me about history is the up-and-down nature of progress. Often we think of the rise of women’s rights, for instance, as progressing in a rather linear manner; that is, each generation builds on the advances of the previous one. However, quite often generations “lose” the advantages, progresses or knowledge of previous generations. This is particularly so in the case of women’s education in the seventeenth century.

The sixteenth century had been presided over by a particularly strong woman, that of Queen Elizabeth I. During her reign it became acceptable, even a mark of elegance, for a woman to learn the classics, including Latin, Greek, arithmetic, writing, and music. Indeed, even the Queen could translate Latin to Greek! However, the next monarch, James I, did not share the same opinions as his predecessors and so education declined to a more basic sort for young women (music, dancing and French), which inevitably lead to a decline in female literacy.

This verse written by Anne Bradstreet summed up the change well;

Let such as say our Sex is void of Reason,
Know ’tis a Slander now, but once was Treason.

By the end of the seventeenth century, the sisters Queen Mary II and Queen Anne had lamentable education for their eventual roles as monarchs. Mary, luckily able to leave state matters to her husband, William III, confined herself to refined accomplishments such as needlework, while Anne was known to have an appalling knowledge of history and geography with dreadful spelling and grammar. They are in stark contrast to the Queen of the previous century.

The most advantageous daughters, in terms of education, were those who had a learned father who believed in the importance of education, and Fraser cites several examples where a significant parent radically altered the educational experience of their daughter.

In Wartime

During the middle of the seventeenth century a civil war raged in England. Charles I had taken great liberties with his powers of kingship and had eventually been overthrown, put on trial and executed. Oliver Cromwell took the reigns of government and what ensued was a nine year war between the exiled heir to the throne, Charles II, and Cromwell’s troops. Naturally the nation divided. On one side stood the Parliamentarians and on the other the Royalists.

There are many examples of women taking extraordinary roles during this period of wartime, generally involving feats of strategy, strength, determination and cunning that was deemed beyond the bounds of female ability but was applauded nonetheless.

My dear wife endured much hardship, and yet with little show of trouble; and though by nature, according to her sex, timorous, yet in greatest danger would not be daunted, but shewed a courage even above her sex.”

Sir Hugh Cholmley

There were great ladies who defended their great homes when under siege. The Countess of Derby successfully defended Lathom House against attack for over three months until reinforcements could arrive. The Marchioness of Winchester was valiant in the siege of Basing House, with her and her ladies casting bullets out of the lead stripped from the castle, and held out for over two years before falling to their attackers. Lady Bankes of Corfe Castle only had her daughters, her waiting women and a garrison of 5 soldiers to defend her home, and managed to hold out successfully against a troop of 500 men. Eventually this castle fell in a subsequent siege when one of her soldiers smuggled enemy troops into the castle under the guise of reinforcements. Brilliana Lady Harley successfully defended Brampton Bryan Castle from attack for 10 months. After only one month of relief the siege began again but this time she became sick with an illness and died, leaving her great house to fall to its attackers within three months of her death.

Then there were other women who defended their towns from attack by helping to construct fortifications. They fought fires, threw stones and suffered injuries.

Still other women dressed like men and went to war so that they could follow their husbands. In these cases it was often expedient to adopt soldier’s dress, but there is evidence that some women actually fought (with weapons) as – what came to be known as – “she-soldiers”.

Her Husband was a Souldier, and to the wars did go,
And she would be his Comrade, the truth of all is so.
She put on Man’s Apparel, and bore him company,
As many in the Army for truth can testify.

The Gallant She-Souldier (1655)

In Business

Women of the lower and middle classes needed an income like anyone else, and could often be found working as ale-house keepers, linen drapers, tobacco sellers, booksellers, merchants, and shop-keepers. The type of occupation a woman had was usually a result of some sort of family connection to a particular industry. Mrs Constance Pley assisted her husband with his business in the manufacture of sailcloth, which was supplied to Cromwell’s Navy. However, when the business became a partnership and was expanded to include manufacture of hemp and cordage and the importation of canvas, Mrs Pley became a key part in keeping the business productive. One of her roles was to correspond with many navy officials, often demanding outstanding payments for wares already delivered. Her business partner, Mr Bullen Reymes, even said that the business “would have been aground long since but for his woman partner.”

Pray be punctual with her [Mrs Pley], she being as famous a she merchant as you have met with in England, one who turns and winds thirty thousand pounds a year…

Colonel Reymes

Sometimes a widow, able to control her assets after the death of her husband, was able to use her capital to start her own business. Joan Dant, a widow, became a pedlar and imported and sold wares in and around London. By her death, she was able to bequeath 9000 pounds to be distributed by her executors.

The upper classes of women would normally rely on income from the family estates, but women here could also conducted business. Anne Russell, the Countess of Bristol, had a licence to import and sell wine, and did so until she was 80.

There are many more illustrations of actual women and the lives that they led within this book – religious women, women teachers, actresses, prostitutes, and midwives – more than I could include here. Each one serves to illustrate the breadth of experience of life that women had in the seventeenth century. Far from being the mere seventeenth century ideal in virtuosity and obedience, in reality there were many women who led much more active lives within their social circles. It makes for interesting reading.

To conclude, I found one particularly poignant sentiment communicated between a mother and her daughter; one which probably still applies today.

Believe me, child, life is a continual labour, checkered with care and pleasure, therefore rejoice in your position, take the world as you find it, and you will I trust find heaviness may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.

Rachel Lady Russell (1695)

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All quotes from The Weaker Vessel: Women’s Lot in Seventeenth Century England, by Antonia Fraser – buy on Amazon

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