And finally, on to something quite different, only held together by the most tenuous thread of arranged marriages: this time the marriage of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI, and the affair the French Queen most probably had with the Swedish Axel von Fersen. On the 17th of March I finished reading Antonia Fraser’s biography of Marie Antoinette, and mentioned idly on this blog that I wish I knew La Fraser, because I wanted to ask her one or two questions.
Within hours I had a dear friend and a reader of this blog offering to pass on my comments to Lady Antonia, since he knew her! She kindly replied to my email, and here, with her permission, is an abridged version of our correspondence:
Dear Lady Antonia,
Your biography of Marie Antoinette has been my reading material for the last week, as I am recovering from a bad cold here in my little mud hotel in Djenné, Mali. It is the end of the tourist season, and getting very hot here on the dusty Sahel plains. To escape to Versailles, the Petit Trianon and your fascinating account of the misfortunes of the poor French queen has been a real pleasure.
I am now waiting until Monday Djenné Market day to send you this, because I want to take of picture of the Djenné jewellery dealers who still use the 1770 Maria Theresa Thaler as silver bullion. I believe it is minted in Bombay and in one or two other places to this day, and I shall bring one back for you.
And what did I want to know? Oh, it is not that interesting or important. It concerns, predictably, the relationship between Marie Antoinette and Fersen. I say ‘predictably’ partly because I am Swedish myself, and partly because this seems to be one of the most hotly debated and disagreed-upon areas of her life, and everyone seems to have some sort of private agenda, either in wanting this liason to have been a true sexual affair, or vehemently denying that it had existed in that way.
You deal with this subject in an admirably cool and detached way, although I don’t always agree with your conclusions. You are fairly dismissive of the importance of their first meeting at the masked ball, suggesting that other biographers have seen, erroneously, a coup de foudre
in this meeting. But the fact is that Marie Antoinette did recognize Fersen instantly four years later, and exclaimed mais c’est une vieille connaissance!
It seems to me that if she recognized him immediately four years after a brief meeting he had made a great impression on her, and that their meeting at the masked ball could well have been, at least for her, a coup de foudre.
Because of this early dismissive attitude to Fersen, it comes at something of a surprise that you later take the view that they did most probably have an affair, but that it ‘petered out’ and that their last night together in the Tuileries had been a sentimental last fling ‘for old time’s sake’ , a long time after their sexual relationship was over. Why do you think their sexual relationship had ‘petered out?'
It is funny but when reading several of the biographies of Marie Antoinette – and Herman Lindqvist’s biography of Fersen, - a picture of the Queen emerges which seems very , very far removed from the reputation with which she has been tainted. Instead of the sexually voracious Jezebel of the pamphlets, she was perhaps not even very sexually motivated,? You hint, interestingly, that maybe it wasn’t only Louis who was clumsy and clueless but she also had no idea of how to proceed in order to consummate the royal marriage. Perhaps her affair with Fersen was, although sexual in nature at some point, more a romantic attachment? From Fersen’s point of view his affair with Eleanore Craufurd was an altogether more carnal affair than his affair with the queen. I do agree with you that Marie Antoinette’s feelings for Fersen were ‘romantic and dependent’ and his for her were ‘romantic and chivalrous’. And Fersen’s love and devotion for Marie Antoinette can never be doubted. I do think it is a shame that someone really talented never made a great Hollywood classic about this love affair! I wish it had been someone like David Lean.
I am looking forward to reading other of your biographies now and will continue with that of Mary Queen of Scots.
If you have taken the time to read this letter, I thank you, and send you much admiration and best wishes, born on the hot Sahel winds of the Harmattan!
I was extremely interested to get your e mail about Marie Antoinette and my biography: the former an ever fascinating subject. Cutting to the chase, I really do not think Fersen's account of the first meeting in his journal (which I quote) provides any evidence of a coup de foudre. At the time he was busy trying to marry an English heiress and she was, still Dauphine, busy trying to turn on Louis XIV as instructed by her mother. At the second meeting - when Marie Antoinette recognizes him, according to his report - she
is of course heavily pregnant and this is certainly the centre point of her existence. She has had a daughter and thats no good, then a miscarriage, now shes aiming for the necessary son. As for her greeting, frankly this is just what she says to him: and what did she say to all the others? Probably the same: I find it a truly royal remark, the sort of thing our Queen might say, primed by an
When what I suggest was a short lived physical affair did get going, i believe a lot of the charm for Marie Antoinette was Fersen's
Swedish nationality. He did not want a position at the French court, nothing except to pay her chivalrous court up to the point she allowed. Which in my opinion went quite far, before fading into heroic chivalry.
Where I do agree with you is that Marie Antoinette was not highly sexed. That seven years of fumbling!! Enough to put a 14 year old girl, at the start, off for life.... You needed a ladykiller like Fersen to get some response.
Anyway very nice to have heard from you.
Best wishes Antonia