Sunday, January 4, 2015

Chapter One: Comte Axel de Fersen

Fitting that "The Flight of Marie Antoinette" should begin with a biographical sketch of Axel Fersen. He, at the minimum, was one of the best friends Marie Antoinette ever had.  I've had one foot in each of the two were-they-or-weren't-they? camps for years and, wrack my brain as I might, can't commit to either.  It's impossible to know for sure if their close relationship was platonic or not.  Not only is it not possible, but what I think doesn't matter in the least.  But, just for fun, let's examine the question by way of G. Lenôtre's and Mrs. Rodolph Stawell's "The Flight of Marie Antoinette" with collaboration from Fersen's diary.

The opening sentence of the book, "The name and mould of a hero of romance, regular features, a sensitive mouth, an expression half tender and half bold, a slender figure, and the immense advantage of belonging to that Scandinavian race whose prestige was so irresistible - such, with his eighteen years was the equipment with which in December, 1773, the Comte de Fersen made his first appearance in Parisian society." seems to set a romantic tone even for words written in 1906. It may've been hard for lonely and vulnerable Marie Antoinette to resist that!

In searching for a portrait that might depict Fersen at eighteen, I skimmed the pleasantly concise Wiki article about Fersen and wondered if maybe I should just put a link to it instead of writing it all out myself.  And, miss all this fun?  Hell, no!  I could do this every day, all day and be completely content.  I don't need anyone to read it.  As Steve Martin said, in his album, The Jerk, "I could do this show alone.  I often do."

When Fersen arrived in Paris, a stop on his grand tour of Europe, doors were flung open.  During his first weeks in Paris he attended concerts, suppers, the toilette of a Comtesse, the home of Spanish ambassador (Oh, that tempts me to talk about the Madeline and the Bad Hat book!  Stay the course, Madeleine!), New Year's Day Mass at Versailles, an audience with Louis XV's mistress, Madame Du Barry...  On January 10, he wrote in his diary, "I went at three o'clock to the ball of Madame la Dauphine Marie-Antoinette.  The ball began, as usual, at five o'clock and lasted till half-past nine;  I then returned to Paris."  No mention of any contact between he and the hostess.

On January 20, after what an introvert like myself would consider a frenetic, grueling social schedule which included dining with the Danish minister, visiting the home of Mme. d'Arville, an assembly at the home of the Spanish ambassador, a visit at the home of the Princesse de Beauvau and then to a concert and supper, he headed to a masked ball at the opera at one o'clock in the morning.  About this famed first meeting between two teenagers, Axel Fersen and Marie Antoinette, the young Count records, in his diary, simply, "It was crowded:  Mme. la Dauphine, M. de Dauphin, and the Comte de Provence and came and spent half an hour there without their being noticed.  Mme. la Dauphine talked to me for a long time without my recognizing her.  At last she let it be known who she was, and then everyone crowded round and she retired into a box.  At three o'clock I left the ball."

According to The Flight of Marie Antoinette, Fersen left the opera "dazzled, fascinated, entranced." Maybe, but he didn't say so in his diary.  I kind of doubt it.  He traveled comfortably in royal and aristocratic circles and his diary describes several other young women, comtesses and princesses, at more length and in more glowing terms.  I do agree with the book, though, when it says, "This evening was the turning point in his whole life."  Absolutely pivotal, though he didn't know it at the time.

After that inauspicious first conversation, said to have lasted less than a quarter of an hour, Fersen's diary mentions her again when he describes a Versailles Mardi Gras ball at which time he reports that the some members of the Royal Family, especially her husband and his brother, are lousy dancers.  Poor Louis. According to other sources, though, Fersen visits Marie Antoinette several more times, at Versailles.

Then, on May 10th, Marie Antoinette's husband's grandfather, Louis XV, died and she and her husband become the King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette.  According to the book, Fersen's sudden departure on May 12th may've been because "someone made him understand, or he had seen for himself, that his constant attentions would give comment among the ill-natured."  The book quotes a letter from Count Creutz, the Swedish ambassador to France, to the Swedish king, Gustave III, as indication of "the true motives for his departure.":  "It is not possible," Creutz writes,"to behave more wisely or discreetly..." The book also quotes correspondence between the Austrian ambassador, Mercy-Argenteau and Marie Antoinette's mother, Empress Maria Theresa.: Mercy writes of the nineteen year old Queen Marie Antoinette being afraid "of being scolded about the little matters connected with her occupations and amusements"; and the Empress responds, "I have no doubt that her light-hearted days are over;  over still earlier than mine were."

Fersen's departure could also have been because the entire Court scattered to the winds, because of fear of exposure to Louis XV's deadly smallpox.  The dead king was tossed into a box, covered with lime and disposed of as quickly as humanly possible as his subjects jeered at the speeding carriage. He'd outstayed his welcome on the throne, but that's a different story.  The new king and queen and the rest of the family hightailed it to other accommodations until the air cleared at Versailles.  Maybe Fersen just thought it a good time to move on.

In August of 1778, he goes back to Paris and, when he's presented to the Queen, she says, "Ah, this is an old acquaintance." and several letters in a row, he writes flatteringly of her to his father.  "The Queen, who is the prettiest and most lovable princess I know, has been good enough to inquire often about me.  She asked Creutz why I did not come to her Sunday card-parties, and on hearing that I had gone one day when there was no play, she made me a kind of apology." and "The Queen continues to show me kind:  I often go to pay my court to her at her car-party, and every time she speaks a few words full of friendliness to me.  Someone having spoken to her of my Swedish uniform, she showed a great desire to see me in this costume;  I am to go on Tuesday dressed in this way, not to the Court, but to the Queen's own apartments.  She is the most lovable princess I know."

Before long, Fersen goes away to fight with French forces in the American Revolution.  The Court made note of lingering glances between the Queen and the Count, her poorly hidden tears, the Queen singing romantic verses as she looked toward the Count.  People whispered and gossiped about her obvious partiality for him.

This is getting too long!  I'm spending too much time writing quotes and not enough reading my book.  I'll going to have to finish up this story in "Chapter One and a Half."

For your reading pleasure:  Diary and Correspondence of Count Axel Fersen

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