Friday, March 8, 2013

The Question

There are particular aspects, relationships, and situations related to the French Revolution that grip me.  Because they're so important to me and so complicated that I couldn't do a decent job presenting them without going on and on and on, I've never attempted to writing about them.  Among those closely held  stories is that of Marie Antoinette and Count Axel Fersen.

No one really knows the exact nature of Marie Antoinette's relationship with Axel Fersen.  Meaning, whether or not they were lovers.  They met when they were eighteen years old, at a masked ball in Paris.  See, now, I can't even say that much without wanting to go off on a tangent about balls, horse racing, gambling, extravagance being partly an antidote to loneliness and a distraction from the problems in her personal life.  I get completely overwhelmed by this stuff.  Anyway, Fersen goes away to fight in the American Revolution, (in keeping with my new policy of relative succinctness, I won't deter from story to ramble about economic effects of Am Rev on France and the effect of the revolutionary ideas across the ocean had on Frenchmen, but it's damn tempting) then returns to France, and joins Marie Antoinette's circle of friends. He comes and goes as his responsibilities require, but he and the Queen remain friends for the reminder of her life.  At the end, he was probably her only true friend, trying to rally reluctant Swedes, Austrians, emigrés, and anyone who would listen, to help save her life.

I personally don't believe they had a sexual relationship.  At least not a consummated, ongoing one.  Although historians have scoured the evidence and speculated about things like a particular stove purchase, crossed out lines in their correspondence, teary eyes at parting, the words "resté la" in his diary, etc.,  no one has produced any evidence that they were lovers.  (I was going to use the phrase "hard evidence" there, but this is family blog.  Actually no one reads it, including family, so I can use my unintentional play on words for my own amusement.  Shame on me and my sophomoric humor.)

To me, their relationship appears to be a deep, romantic friendship, perhaps, at times, full of longing, but chaste.  And, here's why I think so:  

1)  Versailles was crawling with people - ambitious relatives, supposed friends, courtiers vying for advancement - who spread rumors and lies, funded,  produced and disseminated pornographic cartoons, pamphlets  and lewd songs about Marie Antoinette, falsely linking her with many men.  I've never read of a reference to Axel Fersen in those publications.  Do you not think ("you", in this case, being "me", since I'm writing to myself here) that the scheming duc d'Orleans and/or comte de Provence would've capitalized on it, if it were true?  Of course, they would have.  Most of the court was overtly and covertly cavorting, (It's late at night and ,I'm getting punchy.) and, like now, almost nothing is ever really a secret, so Provence and duc d'Orleans and the rest of them would've known and would've told.

2) Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were both modest and a bit prudish.  Some of her longest held dislikes were rooted in disapproval of others' morality (i.e. Cardinal Rohan, Du Barry, Mirabeau).  On the other hand, I don't know that she openly disapproved of her close friend the duchesse de Polinac's supposed affair (another one debated by historians) with the Comte de Vaudreuil…  Her mother taught her well and I don't believe she forgot those lessons.  Louis XVI knew of at least the existence of their friendship and no one has claimed that he objected.  In fact, he was well-acquainted with Fersen himself, particularly so in the later years.

3) Fersen had many mistresses including a rather long-term one with a married woman that was once a trapeze artist, princesses, heiresses, and Lady Elizabeth Foster (Duchesse of Devonshire's friend who stole her husband).  That's not to say it wasn't possible that his other relationships would've prevented one with Marie Antoinette…. Actually, the one nagging thought I have about this is that in one of the letters Fersen's sister, Sophie, wrote to him mentions something about an incident and how it would hurt "her" if she learned of it.  That passage does give me pause.  If I remember correctly, the letter was written while the King and Queen were cooped up at the Tuileries and Fersen spent a week hiding out in the recesses of his mistress, Eleanore Sullivan's, Paris home, making sure that he didn't cross paths with her husband, while eating meals served by the maids.  He had visited Marie Antoinette and Louis at the Tuileries, then lied and told her he was leaving Paris when, instead, he was with Madame Sullivan.  Even the fact that he was dishonest with Marie Antoinette about the timing of his departure and was in Paris, but didn't visit her that week, may have hurt her feelings, so maybe that's all Sophie meant by her chide.  By the way, both of the Sullivan's were devoted to the King and Queen and helped fund the flight to Varennes.  Well, the rest of my argument outweighs that passage in Sophie's letter.  

4)  No memoirs or letters, that I've ever read, or heard of, state that they were more than friends.  No servants recorded that they'd witnessed or known of anything improper.  Well, Madame de la Tour du Pin wrote, more than thirty years later, of her childhood at Versailles and mentions, in passing, that he was "said to be Queen Marie Antoinette's lover," but that's far from incontrovertible.   A few others alluded to it, too, but no one who had first hand knowledge.

5)  Fersen held royalty in too high esteem to breach that divide.

6)  I have some other reasons, but I'm too tired to think about it any more tonight.

For years the correspondence between the Queen and the Count was kept in the library of Fersen's family's castle.  After crossing through some passages, they published, then, later, burned it.  Surely, the Fersen family must know the truth.  By the way, Count Fersen sticks to the intention, stated in letter below, not to marry.  Never did.


These excerpts from a young Axel Fersen give us a glimpse of his growing feelings towards the Queen of France:

Writing prior to a 1783 trip home to Sweden to tend to family matters, he writes to his younger sister, Sophie:

"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."  

The letter goes on to mention a wealthy Englishwoman whom his father wanted him to marry…  

"I am glad Miss Lyall is married.  Now I hope to hear no more of her, and I trust that no one will try to find another bride for me.  I have made up my mind never to contract conjugal ties.  They are contrary to nature.  As some day I must suffer the misfortune of losing my father and mother, it shall be you, my dear Sophie, who will take the place of one and the other, and even of my wife.  You shall be the mistress of my house.  It shall be yours and we will always be together.  If such a plan should meet with your approval, I shall be happy for life.  I cannot give myself to the only woman I desire, to the only woman who really loves me;  therefore I will give myself to no one.  Farewell, my dear friend, my only and my true friend.  The post goes to-morrow and it is eleven o'clock.  I am going to bed.  Good night."

After returning to Paris from visiting Sophie and the rest of his family in Sweden, he writes this:  

"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.  No one has ever loved like this.  She was much affected by all you said concerning her, and told me to let you know how much it touched her.  She would be so glad to see you.  She thinks that if our plan would be carried out, you would come here, and the idea delights her.  And it might indeed be possible."

Sophie asked for a lock of her hair that she intended to fashion into a bracelet (I'd like to find that on eBay) and Fersen responds with:

"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.  She asks me to tell you how she feels your grief and how she shares it (referring to Sophie's child's illness)  I should never die content without your having seen her...  She send you a thousand messages and tenderly shares all your trouble.  She weeps over it with me.  Ought I not adore her?"


Anonymous said...

Mme. Madeleine:

Of course de Comte de Provence knew that M.A. and Axel were lovers. His poisonous attitude could not even spare his poor heartbroken niece, Marie Therese. He told her that the little Dauphin was Fersen's son. In her memoirs, she tells the reader: I know my brother did not die in prison as everybody believes.
In the middle of his desperation, Count Fersen still could not give up the idea of saving at the least his beloved's children. An enormous amount of money he spent to convince and bribe Count Barras to get the children out of prison.

In the dead of night, accompanied by his then girlfriend, Josephine de Beauharnais, M. Barras got into the prison where the little boy was and took him away with him. In her book Napoleon and Josephine, the great historian Evangeline Bruce wrote this in great detail.

La Jeune Captive

Madeleine Doak said...

Wonderful to hear from you again, Le Jeune Captive! Now I'll have to go search and research more clues to the mystery! I can see it both ways, but am completely convinced of neither. How do you know Provence told Marie Thérèse that Louis-Charles was Fersen's son? Why didn't he publicize it more broadly given the poisonousness of his attitude? Are you suggesting that Josephine and Barras successfully removed the Dauphin from prison and didn't return him? All very interesting! Thanks for your comment!