Count Fersen spent three years fighting in the American Revolution and traveled extensively with the King of Sweden but, otherwise, was a fixture of the French Court. Perhaps because he wasn't French, but Swedish, and probably even more likely because it wasn't his nature to be an intriguer, he didn't get involved in politics at Court. His journal and letters between Fersen and his sister, Marie Antoinette, his father, and others allow us a glimpse into those turbulent years.
Sunday, March 28, 2010
Count Axel Von Fersen and his younger sister were devoted to one another and in the flowery, emotional style of the day, exchanged passionate letters. He confided in her his feelings for Marie Antoinette, without naming her. Fersen ended them "Love me as I love you." or "Farewell my dear and sweet sister, my true and only friend. Love your brother as he loves you." or some such. In 1783, Axel was preparing to visit his sister in Sweden and wrote, "How delighted I shall be to see you, my dear sister, and to talk to your and to tell you what an ardent, deep affection I always feel for you!... In spite of all the pleasure of seeing you again, I cannot leave Paris without regret. You will think it quite natural when you learn the cause of this regret. And I will tell you, for from you I will have no secrets."
Four months later, upon his return from Sweden, he writes Sophie "I begin to be a little happier, for from time to time, I see my friend freely in her own apartments; and that somewhat consoles us for all the trials she is enduring, poor woman. She is an angel of goodness, a heroine of courage and deep feeling..." Later, in January 1785, he replies to a request from his sister to send him some of the Queen's hair which she wished to arrange in a bracelet: "Here is the hair you asked me for. If there be not enough, I will send you some more. It is she herself who gives it to you, and your desire in this matter touched her deeply. She is so kind, so perfect; and I seem to love her all the more since she loves you."
Count Axel Fersen served as General Rochambeau's aide-de-camp and interpreter during the American Revolution. He distinguished himself in the Battle of Yorktown in Sept. and Oct., 1781. On April 25, 1782, he wrote to his sister, Sophie: "We are still in this wretched little hole of Williamsburg, where we are bored to death. There is no society at all, and it begins to be very hot. With the greatest impatience we await Lauzun's return, which is to be the signal of our departure. Whether we go farther south, as we fear, or farther north, as we hope, will be decided when he comes. I must conclude, for despite the heat, I must go out to work." This was a man accustomed to the castles of his youth and being feted in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, so some latitude for his whining might be in order. On the other hand, my dad's letters from the Hanoi Hilton were more upbeat. I shouldn't be judgemental. It's just that I love Williamsburg, probably even more than France. I've never known it without air conditioning, though.
Axel Fersen was involved with a number of women during the course of his life. Not all of them let go gracefully. The comtesse de Saint-Priest was one of them. Evidently, she was another of Fersen's mistresses, and not happy at being replaced by Eleonore Sullivan. She wrote to him, "I've been seeing much of Madame de Canillac recently. I don't know why but I'm sure she's been your mistress, too. I remember your telling me that she had a lover nobody suspected and that he was English - but I am certain that he was a lovable Swede... I dined with the Prince of Wales the other night, my dear Count. He told me that when he knew you you were as good-looking as Lord Randon. But all the women in the room said that you had greatly altered and had become very ugly. After that charming overture nobody spoke of you anymore... The Prince then told us that he had once seen Madame Sullivan do a dance with castenets with the Spanish Ambassador. He said that she looked so ridiculous he thought he'd split his sides laughing. He didn't exactly sing Madame Sullivan's praises. He thinks she looks like an apple vendor and he went on to tell us all sorts of unpleasant things about her."
I couldn't find a picture of the comtesse de Saint-Priest, but this is her husband, the comte de Saint-Priest, coincidently the only person, according to author Stanley Loomis, to claim that he had first hand knowledge that Fersen and the Queen were more than friends. He claims he saw Fersen leave the Queen's room at three in the morning. Another of the comtesse's letters to Fersen chastises him for compromising the Queen with their relationship. Somehow, I doubt that her interest was a result of concern for the Queen's welfare.
It's good to know that the Age of Enlightenment didn't eliminate biting sarcasm.
Perhaps you've seen the movie "The Duchess" about the Duchess of Devonshire. If so, you'll remember Lady Elisabeth Foster. She was the woman that Georgiana, the Duchesse of Devonshire, befriended who had a long-term affair with Georgiana's husband, the Duke of Devonshire. The three of them lived together for years, until Georgiana's death when Bess married the Duke. This puzzling arrangement took on an added dimension when I learned Bess was also romantically involved, briefly, with Axel Fersen. They remained friends for many years.
Louis XVI, in a familiar position of inaction born of despair and indecision, with his family, as Versailles was being overrun, during the attack of October 1789. On the 9th, Fersen wrote his father, "I was a witness of all that happened on Monday the 5th and Tuesday the 6th of October, and of the arrival at Paris of the King and his family. I came back in one of the King's carriages. We were six and a half hours on the road. God forbid that I should ever again see such sorrowful sights as in these two days. The people seem delighted at seeing the King and the Royal Family at Paris. The Queen is greatly applauded, as she will always be by those who know her and do justice to her kind heart." Historian/author Stanley Loomis reported that 2000 carriages, filled with debris of the abandoned world of Versailles, followed in the wake of the King and Queen as they were escorted to Paris.
During the French Revolution, when she was held in Paris, Marie Antoinette rejected any escape plans that didn't include her husband and children. Whatever her involvement with the dashing and capable Axel Fersen, she was devoted to her family and loved her less-dashing and less-capable Louis XVI.
Fersen, too, cared for him, as is evidenced many times in his writings.
After the attack on Versailles, in 1790, Fersen wrote to his father, "My position here differs from that of anyone else. I have always been treated with kindness and honour in this country by Ministers as well as the King and Queen. I have here contracted a debt of gratitude. I am attached to the King and Queen by the numerous kindnesses they bestowed upon me when it was in their power, and I should be both ungrateful and vile if I were to forsake them now that they can do nothing for me, and that I have hopes of rendering them service."
Much later, after Louis XVI's execution, he wrote to Sophie, "... Taube will give you details of the King's trial; it makes one shudder, and my very soul is torn... Poor unfortunate family. Poor King, poor Queen! Why cannot I save them at the cost of my own blood?" and, later, also to Sophie, "You doubtless know the King of France is dead. The picture of Louis XVI mounting the scaffold never leaves me."
Fersen was probably the most active and loyal supporter of the Royal Family. He toiled tirelessly behind the scenes, urging the Austrians, the Swedes, the French, anyone who would listen, to help stop the onward march of the Revolution. Fersen planned and helped finance the June 20, 1791 attempted escape from France. The plan was sound, for the most part, but one after another, unforeseen events played a part in its eventual failure. As Stanley Loomis wrote, in The Fatal Friendship, "The real coachman that brought the Bourbon monarchy to Varennes was Fate." The duc de Choisel was to play an important role even though Fersen wrote to a fellow conspirator, during the planning, "If it is possible, try not to send me the duc de Choisel. No one could be more devoted, but he is a bungler and he's too young." The imprudent choice of Monsieur Leonard, Marie Antoinette's hairdresser, an"excitable flibbertigibbet," prone to fits of tears was even more surprising. It's thought that perhaps he was chosen because the Queen wanted her hair properly coiffed when she made her triumphant debut across the border. Choisel and Leonard were to wait for the King's entourage at a location along their escape route. Meanwhile, Fersen was accompanying the family out of Paris. The berline only had space for six occupants - the King, Queen, their two children, the King's sister, Elisabeth, and the children's governess. Not exactly a group trained for emergencies. To make matters worse, the three men who were to ride alongside them the entirety of the route, though loyal, were hardly the types to handle the role of bodyguard. They burst into tears when they were told of the honor. For some unfortunate reason, the King insisted that the competent, serious Fersen only accompany them a short distance. The handsome Fersen was convincing in his role as coachman, lounging against the berline, smoking, as he waited for his passengers. They got a late start, trotted an unplanned circuitous route on the way out of town, in case they were being followed, had to stop to repair a broken wheel, stopped to relieve themselves... At the beginning, the mood was almost festive, so confident were they that they'd succeed. Louis XVI was interested in geography and brought his maps along, checking off the towns as they passed. He'd spent his entire life at a select few palaces and had no first-hand view of the country he ruled and, at one point, got out of the berline and chatted it up with local farmers in a field, discussing the weather and their crops, happy to mix with the subjects he loved. Unfortunately, they got so far behind schedule that Choisel, thinking that the plan had gone awry, left his post, and wasn't there to provide the fresh horses and escort at the appointed spot. The berline continued on its path, with one misadventure after another, hoping that all would be in order at the next check point. And so it went... until they were eventually rudderless and recognized and the whole plan went straight to hell.
Letter from Axel Fersen to Sophie Piper, illustrating his frustration that, despite all his efforts, the Queen's situation worsens : "You doubtless know, my dear Sophie, by this time, the dreadful news of the Queen having been moved into the prison of the Conciergerie, and of the decree of the execrable Convention which delivers her to the revolutionary tribunal for trial. Since this, I have been more dead than alive, for to suffer as I suffer is not to live. If I could yet do something towards her deliverance, I think I should suffer less. Taube will tell the only hope that remains to us and what I have asked. Immediate march on Paris is the only thing to do. But I remain uncertain whether this plan will be adopted and followed. Oh, the horror of having to save her and I am unable to do it! My greatest happiness would be to die for her, and that happiness is refused me. Oh, if only the cowardly ruffians had not deprived me of the best of Kings. How I feel the extent of my loss at this moment! he alone would have been capable of saving her. His great soul would have been fired with the story of her ills, and he would have dared everything to come to her help. But he is no more, and the last hope dies with him. Adieu, my dear Sophie. Pray to God for her and pity your unhappy brother." The King to whom Fersen refers is Gustavas III of Sweden, a supporter of the Queen and friend of Fersen's. He had recently been assassinated at a masked ball. Another interesting story - something to do with a rivalry between sorcerers and witches with whom he was involved...
And, to Sophie, after learning of the execution of the Queen of France: "My dear loving Sophie -Oh, pity me, pity me! The state I am in only you can conceive. I have lost everything in the world. You alone are left to me. Oh! do not abandon me. She who was my happiness, she for whom I lived - yes, my dear Sophie, never have I ceased to love her. No - I could not; never for a moment could I cease to love her, for her I would have sacrificed all in all. Well do I feel it now, She, whom I loved so well, for whom I would have given a thousand lives, is no more. Oh, my God! Why overwhelm me thus? What have I done to deserve your anger? She lives no longer! My cup is full to the brim, and I do not know how I am to live and bear it out. I shall always have her image before me and in me; the memory of all that she was to weep over forever. "
"All is over for me. why did I not die by her side? Why could I not spill my blood for her, for them? I should not have had to drag out an existence that will be perpetual pain and eternal regret. My heart will bleed henceforth as long as it beats. You alone can feel what I suffer, and I need your tenderness. Weep with me, my gentle Sophie. Let us weep for them. I have not the strength to write more. I have just received the terrible confirmation of the execution. Nothing is said of the rest of the family, but my fear is terrible. Oh, my god! Save them! Have pity on me!"
Axel Fersen never completely recovered from the death of Marie Antoinette. His subsequent letters are full of mourning and regret.
The circumstances of Fersen's death, exactly nineteen years after the Varennes debaucle, are complicated and I don't understand enough of Swedish history to relate them. I do know that the new King, Carl August, died while on horseback, probably of a stroke, but at the time, it was believed to have been by poison. Although they were later exonerated, Fersen and Sophie were accused of being involved in his death. As Fersen led the funeral procession, as was his responsibility as Grand Marshall of Sweden, the crowd got out of control and, sparing you a detailed description, killed Fersen. Because the military troops stood by and didn't prevent some believed that the government sanctioned the murder.
After his death, his devoted sister, Sophie, raised a monument on the grounds of one of the family's castles, which said, in Swedish, "To an unforgettable brother, the courage in his last moments on the 20th of June 1810, bears testimony to his virtues and clean conscience".
The day Micah was born, at home, little six-year old Monica was the first person, besides the midwife, Terry, David and me to hold her. Terry walked out on the bike path, carrying Micah, and Monica came out. She was already a big part of our lives, because she and her sister, Dana, frequently played with David, at our house. She's still a big part of our lives, in absencia. Now she lives in California. To see her as a new mommy is special to me. Without make-up, in this picture, Monica looks just like she did when she was six and I love the expressions on each of their faces. Now that I think of it, my friend, Martha, took David to the pool the day Micah was born and brought him home afterwards. I'm not sure if they'd come home when Terry walked on the bike path or not. If not, Monica held Micah before David did. If so, Martha and David held Micah before Monica did. No one, but me, would care which came first, but it's inconsequential details like that that keep me wondering about things all day long. I have to have the big picture and everything sorted properly in my head. The IMPORTANT thing, the very important thing, is that this is Monica and her new family and I'm so happy for them.
Wednesday, March 24, 2010
These girls are all at least 22 years old now. Micah was the youngest - in all red, all Hannas, right down to her little Hanna Anderssen clogs. To the left of her, in the blue sweater, is Rachel, still one of her best friends, and Susann, in the yellow shirt , who's now married and has a little girl of her own. The scariest thing is Nicole, who was about 25, so now she must be over forty. Wow. Probably still just as beautiful, though.
They didn't get enough of it at the gym so they came home and tumbled and played on the beam in the grass. We just sold the beam, after all it's faithful service, to a guy who, it turned out, is one of GWB Srs. Secret Service guys. Accompanied him to the Olympics in China, but I don't know if they watched gymnastics. Probably not. Btw, Micah, if you read this... his little girl loves the beam and plays on it all the time. So, it went to a good home. And, the guy, who's done just about everything, also does leather work, and is going to restore my great-uncle''s (Gen. Wm. Waters) WWI Cavalry riding crops for me.
Zoe probably wouldn't even remember me and I wouldn't recognize her if I saw her on the street. It doesn't matter because the memories I have of her are permanent. When she was this age, I babysat for her. In 1996. She was a precious child and I bet she still is. Her older sister, Susann, was one of Micah's best friends and her mother, Beverly, was my friend. David ran into Zoe and Beverly last week and when he talked about how sweet Zoe had been, he obviously meant it. I guess she hasn't changed much.
Tuesday, March 23, 2010
I didn't take many pictures while I was in Boston for Spring Break so this one will represent my visit. It was taken when they and their friends were at a baseball game last year. I'll be sure to take my camera when Sarah's mother and I take the girls to Europe this summer, though. Prepare yourselves.
Boston was sunnier and warmer than Houston this past week. I was hoping for snow but whatever. Boston Corps, Micah's and Sarah's Teach for America group, met at Boston Common for a picnic. After I said hi for a few minutes, I sat on a bench and read my book of letters between Marie Antoinette, Axel Fersen and Barnave. I can't wait to do my Axel Fersen blog! My bench provided a good vantage point for this picture of Micah and her friends.
I had the nicest surprise last month. It was nice once I got over the shock of an unexpected visitor. (For further reference, I need at least two days notice before you drop in to see me. Time enough to GMST. That's an acronym for Clare.)I looked out my front window to see our old friend, Richie, striding up the front walk. My life flashed before my eyes, not unlike it's said to do as your airplane plunges to the ground, but once I accustomed myself to the realization that there was no avoiding it, I opened the door. It was so fantastic to see him! Terry and I met Rich and Martha in a childbirth class before our first children, David and Jennifer, were born. Martha is one of my dearest friends in the world and I treasure the times we've spent together. This picture was taken when David was a couple of days old and six weeks before Jen was born. It's a well-known fact that those of early childhood are formative years, particularly for the parents!, so the bond we made, then, has lasted for 25 years, even though they moved back to Ohio in 1988. They've come to visit a few times, but it's been awhile. Terry, Richie and I went to Los Cucos, to a TWHS play-off basketball game at which, reflecting the amazingness of the night, it snowed. Also, Rich and I went to dinner at Black Walnut and, because it's the only kind possible at Black Walnut, had a great deep conversation. My favorite kind. It was like talking to a favorite brother.
Monday, March 22, 2010
In 2004, we rented a beach house with three other families, including that of David's close friend, Tommy. It was a great week - although, I did fall asleep at the wheel on I10 en route. Tommy is getting married next month and David is going to be in the wedding.
My friend, Trudy, and I hosted a wedding shower for Tommy's fiance, Emily, recently. Tommy is a fine person and we just think the world of him. Emily is one of those people that glows with goodness and love. I'm so happy they found each other. It sounds so stilted and false to write that, but I just can't think of a better way to say it. Emily lives in Florida and I hadn't met her before. When I first saw this picture, I got all teary. Didn't even see it coming. Might even be classified as actual crying. I just couldn't help it. They're so perfect for each other.
Years ago, our friend, Courtney, bought a horse pretty much straight off the racetrack and named her Godiva. That horse was beautiful, flashy and half wild. Courtney loved her, took wonderful care of her, and worked hard to be able to keep her. When it came time for her to sell her, we, who had been admiring Godiva from afar, jumped at the chance to buy her. Micah renamed her Liberty. I don't have a good picture of Liberty, but she's a special horse. I'll try to figure out a way to post the video of the time Courtney was jumping her over a four foot fence, in a show, and the stride wasn't just right and Godiva fell, Courtney fell, Godiva ran over Courtney, and ran off with a broken bridle. It's been awhile since I've watched it, but that's pretty much what happened. Impressive.
One of the best things I've done in a long time was to attend Courtney's and Shad's wedding a couple of weeks ago. I really didn't know anyone there, except the bride and her parents, and just loved sitting alone, quietly, watching a dear friend, so happy and beautiful, marry a man she obviously loves very much.