Marie-Antoinette: why “The Austrian Woman?”

That was what Marie-Antoinette was called even before she set foot on French soil, a few months short of her fifteenth birthday: l’Autrichienne, “The Austrian Woman.” One must keep in mind that Austria was a hereditary enemy of France, a rival in the struggle for European and world dominance. The name was always meant as an insult, or at least as extremely hostile.

Yet French Queens were almost always foreigners. Marie Leszczynska, the prior Queen, devout, witty and discreet, was the daughter of the dethroned King of Poland. She was very popular and no one called her The Polish Woman. Likewise, Louis the Fourteenth’s Queen Marie-Thérèse, a Hapsburg like Marie-Antoinette, was the daughter of the King of Spain, but she was never The Spanish Woman. So what happened with Marie-Antoinette?

I think Madame Campan provides the answer in her Memoirs. For eighteen years Madame Campan was Marie-Antoinette’s Première Femme de Chambre, or First Chambermaid (and never lady-in-waiting, as I sometimes read.) This is not to say that I trust blindly Madame Campan’s testimony. Her judgments on various characters are often tainted by prejudice, favorable or otherwise, but she was an insider at Court, much more so than Marie-Antoinette herself. For everyday details and intimate, first-hand remembrances of the Queen, Madame Campan’s Memoirs are an irreplaceable resource.

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Madame Campan, before becoming Marie-Antoinette’s chambermaid, entered Court life at the age of fifteen in the capacity of reader to Mesdames, the four maiden daughters of King Louis the Fifteenth. She describes the eldest of the then surviving princesses, Madame Adélaïde, as intelligent but domineering.

“Blunt manners, a harsh voice, a clipped pronunciation made her more than imposing,” writes Madame Campan. According to another account, Madame Adélaïde once fiercely rebuked a courtier who had dared call her “Your Royal Highness” instead of her preferred title of Madame. For those who would doubt such testimony, I chose to illustrate this post with a portrait of the princess. More than imposing indeed.

It happened that Madame Adélaïde, for reasons of foreign policy and politics, was most unhappy with the engagement of her nephew, the fifteen-year old Dauphin, future Louis the Sixteenth, with Archduchess Maria Antonia. Listen to Madame Campan on this point. “When Monsieur Campan [Madame Campan’s father-in-law] went to take his orders [from Madame Adélaïde to go greet the bride at the border] she told him that she disapproved of her nephew’s marriage to an Archduchess, and that, if she had any orders to give, it would not be to fetch an Austrian woman.” I added the emphasis.

When Marie-Antoinette arrived in Versailles shortly thereafter, her youth and beauty delighted aging but still very active King Louis the Fifteenth. But Madame Adélaïde never relented. “Madame Adélaïde,” writes Madame Campan, “could not get over her prejudice against Austrian princesses and was annoyed by the Dauphine’s somewhat petulant cheerfulness.” Let me read between the lines here: Madame Adélaïde kept calling Marie-Antoinette The Austrian Woman. The name stuck to the Dauphine, and later to the Queen.

I sometimes wonder (and I readily acknowledge that I am speculating here) whether Louis’s initial coldness towards his pretty bride, and his reluctance to consummate the marriage for seven years were not related to the considerable influence his aunt had over him. According to the Memoirs of the Countess de Boigne, whose mother was a lady-in-waiting to Madame Adélaïde, Louis the Sixteenth, upon becoming King, entrusted to his aunt the choice of his first Prime Minister. Madame Adélaïde was all powerful within the Court and her enmity may have hurt Marie-Antoinette a great deal.

In Vienna, Marie-Antoinette, upon her engagement, had been given in haste a proper French instructor, a priest by the name of Abbé de Vermond. The Abbé followed her to Versailles and continued his lessons there for years. Marie-Antoinette was quite mentally alert, and learned to speak her new language fluently and without any German accent, though she never really mastered the notoriously difficult French spelling. Madame Campan, who for some reason hated the Abbé, blamed him for the deficiencies of the Dauphine’s education, but his task must not have been easy with such a high-spirited pupil. “Her vivaciousness and frequent distractions disturb, in spite of herself, her desire to learn,” he wrote diplomatically to the Count de Mercy-Argenteau, Austrian Ambassador to France.

Whatever the merits or shortcomings of the Abbé de Vermond as an instructor, Marie-Antoinette soon spoke French without any German accent. Yet she unwittingly reinforced the image of the Austrian Woman by stressing her pride in her Hapsburg heritage. She chafed under the strict rules of Versailles etiquette, and, when reminded that the late Queen Marie Leszczynska had always respected them, haughtily replied that an Austrian Archduchess could not be expected to care for things that had been important to a mere Polish princess. This kind of remark, reported by Madame Campan, never failed to be spread by courtiers in the poisonous atmosphere of Versailles.

And that was a pity, because Marie-Antoinette was just as French as her husband, if not more so (Louis the Sixteenth’s mother was a German princess, the late Dauphine Marie-Josèphe de Saxe.) Marie-Antoinette’s mother was Empress Maria Theresa, a Hapsburg, but her father was François de Lorraine, a prince of the French house of Vaudémont. He had been Duke de Lorraine before he married Maria Theresa and became Holy Roman Emperor. François, for the Austrians Emperor Francis the First, was the son of Elisabeth-Charlotte d’Orléans, daughter of Louis the Fourteenth’s younger brother. Marie-Antoinette was in fact a Lorraine-Vaudémont, and the great-grand-niece of the Sun King!

Over twenty years later, during her trial, when the Queen was asked to state her name, she responded “Marie-Antoinette Lorraine d’Autriche.” She may have been attempting to remind the jurors of her French paternal ancestry. But it was too late. In the eyes of her former subjects, she remained The Austrian Woman.

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