She was 14 – an age by which most would be considered a child – when she was handed over in marriage to the future king of France. She was born Maria Antonia Josepha Joanna, the 15th (of 16) child of the Empress of Austria, Maria Theresa, in 1755. Surrounded by opulence the young Maria preferred music, art and the theater to the mundane academic studies and as a result she could barely read or write, which would prove to hinder her later life.
She was married at 14 and became the last queen of France at the age of 19 when her husband’s grandfather, Louis XV died of smallpox at the age of 64. Louis XVI was heir to the throne due to the untimely death of his father, Louis Ferdinand, and the young king was not prepared to reign. He was awkward, introverted and indecisive, not the quality of character to rule a country.
Had we not visited the Palace of Versailles while we were in Paris this past January I don’t think I would have clearly understood the magnitude of what it meant to live at Versailles; photographs cannot begin to capture the vastness of the palace and surrounding gardens. Versailles was not just a palace for the King and Queen, it was in fact the seat of government for all of France which meant thousands of people could be at Versailles at any given time.
Because members of the royal family were seen as public figures there was virtually no privacy whatsoever. Imagine your every move witnessed by a throng of people, even including the marriage bed. Yep, it’s true. If you were a member of the court you could be pretty much anywhere you wished to be. It’s also true that it took 7 years for Louis to impregnate Marie because of his lack of knowledge (shall we say) in such endeavors and poor Marie was blamed for not seducing him appropriately. Her mother, the empress, wrote letter after letter admonishing her of pretty much everything she did; she was relentless in her quest for Marie’s perfection in all matters, telling her that the fate of Austria and France rested on her shoulders.
Eventually, Marie did give birth to 4 children, 2 of which died young and 2 were imprisoned with Marie and Louis during the revolution. Of those 2 her young son died in prison and her daughter was eventually released and returned to Austria in a prisoner exchange – she married but never had children. A very sad fate for all of them. Marie was a loving mother though, she broke with tradition and personally selected her children’s nurses and she spent a great deal of time with them, which was also out of the ordinary.
I’ve long held an interest in the life of Marie Antoinette because it always seemed as if she was set up to fail – and in many ways she was. Having never seen life outside of the palace in which she was raised, she had no knowledge of the “real” world. She was given in marriage to seal a political deal, something her mother the Empress was known to do with her daughters. Marie lived under constant scrutiny from the day she arrived in France because of strained political relations between France and Austria.
When Marie arrived in France she was stripped (literally) of all of her Austrian possessions and dressed in French finery before she met the king. From that day forward she lived at Versailles, for 20 years. She lived in a fantasy world where she wanted for nothing and after a stumbling start to their marriage, Louis, grew quite fond of Marie and did not say no to her. She received no training on how to be a queen, she could barely read or write, she had no sense of the ordinary in any way shape or form. She had never known any other way of life – so one can’t help but wonder why would anyone expect anything different of her, yet they did.
Sadly, Louis was inept as a ruling king and by the time of the revolution he was completely overwhelmed and suffered bouts of depression. Marie began to realize her role as queen was to support her husband in political matters, but because she was so uneducated she wasn’t able to make much of a difference. The one issue on which she would not compromise, and persuaded her husband to stand against, was that of the royal family becoming a constitutional monarchy instead of their continued absolute reign as king and queen. Had she relented, the royal family may have survived. And yet, again, why would she relent on such a matter when her entire life she was pressed upon to reign as queen of France?
If, like me, you find fascination in historical figures such as Marie – I encourage you to view the PBS documentary, “Marie Antoinette – A Film by David Gruber. It is a 2-hour film that offers an historical biography of Marie Antoinette from birth thru death, as well as an overview of the French Revolution which brought about the demise of the French royal family lineage. Although there are some scenes with actors the film primarily offers historical portraits for imagery, and conversations with historians and scholars regarding Marie and the French Revolution. It is narrated by actress Blair Brown. The film is well-done and offers the viewer a solid understanding of the life of Marie Antoinette – the last queen of France.