The other day I ran across an article entitled “Top 5 Marie-Antoinette Scandals” which was filled with errors. What an incredibly misleading portrayal of the Queen! Marie-Antoinette, in spite of being from a generation known for its fast pace of living, did not live in a manner which gave public scandal. There is no evidence for an affair with Count Fersen. As for diamond necklace fiasco, she was the innocent victim, not the cause.
Marie-Antoinette did not, however, live as sedately as former Queens of France had done. Her excesses as a twenty year old, including her flamboyant attire, her late night card parties, and some of her escapades (such as sleigh-riding through the streets of Paris without an escort) were considered inappropriate behaviors for female members of the royal family. This was why her mother, Empress Maria Theresa, rebuked her so strongly in her letters for even slight infractions. As Lady Antonia Fraser notes in her biography of Marie-Antoinette: “Sins that would be venial in any other girl were far more consequential in the future Queen of France.” (The Journey, p. 94)
The scandals which perhaps most affected Marie-Antoinette’s life were situations which had been going on long before she set foot in France. The fact that the most powerful woman at the court of Louis XV was not his pious wife or daughters but his mistress set the stage for Marie-Antoinette’s tragedy. For one thing, her marriage was arranged by a courtesan, Madame de Pompadour, who also was named “Antoinette.” As a fourteen year old bride, Marie-Antoinette was quick to notice that the person with the most influence over her husband’s grandfather the King was Madame du Barry, of whom the young Dauphine innocently exclaimed, “I want to be her rival!”
The Petit Trianon, so loved by Marie-Antoinette, had been built for La Pompadour and inhabited by La Barry. Early in their reign, the Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette held a costume ball where everyone came in dress from the era of le bon roi Henri, with Marie-Antoinette garbed as Henri’s beloved mistress, Gabrielle d’Estrées. It was part of the Queen’s attempt to show that she was loved by her husband, and that she was his mistress as well as his wife. She wanted to be perceived as the person most influential with Louis XVI. Unfortunately, in an attempt to assert herself at a hostile court, she made it easier for her enemies to portray her as a loose woman.
Most of all, Marie-Antoinette saw her mother, who never gave in to anybody, give in to Madame du Barry. This occurred, of course, when the Empress pleaded with her daughter to stop shunning the royal mistress, who had complained to Louis XV that the Dauphine was snubbing her. On one level, of course, Marie-Antoinette was being manipulated by the aunts to shun the mistress, for their own purposes. However, there are other reasons she did not want to speak to Madame du Barry, who had been insolent to her from the day she arrived at Versailles. As Marie-Antoinette wrote to Empress Maria Theresa on October 13, 1771:
..If you could see, as I do, everything that happens here, you would realize that that woman and her clique would never be satisfied with just a word, and that I would have to do it again and again. You may be sure that I need to be led by no one when it comes to politeness. (Secrets of Marie Antoinette: A Collection of Letters, edited by Olivier Bernier. New York: Fromm International, 1986, p. 79)
Marie-Antoinette not only wanted to keep the mistress in her place (that is, in what Marie-Antoinette thought her place should be), but she wanted to uphold morals and decency by not giving public approval to an illicit relationship. Upholding morality was something which her mother had impressed upon her as the duty of a Catholic princess. The excuse the Empress gave as the reason why Marie-Antoinette should be friendly to Madame du Barry was because Louis XV demanded it, and he was to be obeyed. As she wrote her daughter on September 30, 1771: “You have one goal only- it is to please the king, and obey him.” (Secrets of Marie-Antoinette, p. 77) In the eyes of her elders a fifteen year old girl was bound to obey those in authority over her, but Marie-Antoinette thought the case demanded a different approach.
In the end, although Marie-Antoinette eventually obeyed the king and her mother and spoke to the mistress, the fact that she had made an issue of it made her someone whom Madame du Barry came to respect. Ultimately, it was not Marie-Antoinette who gave scandal; it was she who had to resist being scandalized. It was she who had to take a stand, which she would continue to do when as Queen she sought to reform the morals of the court. Maxime de La Rocheterie has the following reflections on the matter:
This was the end and proper solution…of that long and scandalous wrangle which, in contempt of all order, natural and divine, a mistress, dragged from the mud, had held at bay a princess of the royal blood, the wife to the heir to the crown of France….For those who reason coldly, with that haughty indifference to the moral aspect of a question, and regard for material interest alone, which is one of the traditions of modern diplomacy, it is easy to understand the disquietude of the empress, her incessant recommendations…but it is more easy to comprehend- we would willingly say, to share- the virginal repugnance of Marie-Antoinette. Perhaps the motives of the empress were more prudent; but those of the dauphiness were incontestably finer….If politics condemn her, public honor absolves her. (Rocheterie, p.75)