Saturday, January 16, 2016

"Don't They Ever Get Tired of These Ridiculous Stories?" A Critical Look at Recent Claims about Marie Antoinette and Axel Fersen (Part 2)

This is the second part in new series of posts discussing the onslaught of new claims which are being made about the nature of Marie Antoinette and Axel Fersen's relationship.

(You can read part one in this series here).

In addition to claims regarding the parentage of Louis-Charles and Sophie, the recent wave of articles regarding Evelyn Farr's claims put a sharp focus on the phrase "I love you madly," which also happens to be the title of Evelyn Farr's upcoming book. The phrase is included in most prominently in a letter written by Marie Antoinette to Fersen, dated January 4th, 1792. I will be talking about the context of this letter in this part, but I would first like to tackle the claims regarding the phrasing as evidence of a physical affair.

Claims #3-4: '‘I love you madly" is something you don't say to a good friend and implies a physical relationship

The letter of January 4th, 1792 includes this phrase, which was later covered with ink: "I am going to close, but not without telling you, my dear and very tender friend, that I love you madly and never, ever could I exist moment without adoring you." (Or in French: Je vais finire, non pas sans vous dire mon bien cher et tendre ami que je vous aime a la folie et que jamais jamais je ne peu être un moment sans vous adorer.)

The phrase was covered with ink sometime after it was written. There is still debate about who exactly redacted these phrases; there is currently still work being done by researchers at the French archives regarding these blotted out phrases in Marie Antoinette's letters, and I hope that they will be able to date the 'redacted' ink which may help in coming closer to discovering who actually covered them. Given the difference in copper concentration between the ink used to write the letters and the ink used to cover it, it is unlikely that Marie Antoinette herself covered the phrase.

To continue: Telegraph quotes Farr as saying: "‘I love you madly’ is a very strong phrase – you don’t say that to a good friend. It’s really telling; it implies a physical relationship. They were lovers."

There are actually two claims being made here: one, that "I love you madly" would not have been used for a good friend but only to a lover; two, that the phrase implies a physical relationship existed between those two people.

In French, what Marie Antoinette wrote to Fersen was that she loved him 'à la folie.' This exact phrase (loving someone à la folie) was used by the queen several years earlier, when talking about her love for her son Louis-Charles, in a letter to the duchesse de 'Polignac dated December 1789: "The Chou d'amour is charming, and I love him madly." Madame Elisabeth, her sister-in-law, used that same phrase in letters describing the sister of Mirabeau's love for her brother: "I pity his unfortunate sister, who is very pious and loved him madly."

From these examples used by Marie Antoinette and her sister-in-law (there are other contemporary examples written by unrelated people, but I decided to stick with Marie Antoinette's own words) we can see that loving someone "madly" was not a phrasing which existed solely for lovers in the 18th century. And if "I love you madly" must imply physical relationship, then from these two examples--well, you get the idea.

Critically, the claim that "I love you madly" is for lovers only does not hold up when you compare it to other contemporary letters from that time period. The claim also wavers when you take into consideration Marie Antoinette's personal style of writing.  "I love you madly" does not differ very much from phrases Marie Antoinette regularly wrote to people she genuinely adored.

The intensity with which Marie Antoinette wrote to people she considered her cherished companions cannot be overstated.  Her letters to these few--people she knew from childhood, people she brought into her intimate 'Trianon' circle, and those who remained loyal to her during the Revolution--contain such gushing phrases as "I kiss you tenderly," "my dear heart,"  and other flourishes that would easily be considered romantic today. Marie Antoinette even wrote to Yolande de Polignac saying that "nothing but death could make me stop loving you."

Could lovers have used the phrase? Of course. But in the context of Marie Antoinette and Fersen, it's not some outlier phrasing that is totally incongruous with Marie Antoinette's normal style.  It shows that she considered him an intimate, loved companion who wasn't just loyal to her but was, by all her accounts, fighting for her life and the life of her family. If there was any point where Marie Antoinette was going to use her trademark tender, romantic phrases, the years where Fersen was an almost sole outside devotee when she was living in a country that was increasingly hostile to her is definitely that point.

And remember: "I love you madly" was not hidden by the queen. It was written plainly in her letter to Fersen, as were her romantic phrases in letters to her other cherished loved ones.

If this was a phrase reserved for lovers, it is extremely unlikely that Marie Antoinette would ever risk everything (her security, the future of her children, the stability of the monarchy, her reputation to the European powers, to name a few things) by so casually revealing something that was considered treasonous. So what does the phrase mean? The answer is genuinely simple: Marie Antoinette wrote passionately, romantically, even gushingly to people she considered intimate friends. Before and after the revolution. And she knew how to use that flattering language to keep people on her side, when she needed to do so, and she definitely needed to bring Fersen back around after his recent criticisms and fears, which I will get more into below.

The role that Fersen played in the last years of Marie Antoinette's life was an intense one, that in all likelihood bonded them emotionally in a way that is difficult to imagine today. He was, in the queen's estimation, working to save their lives. He was one of the few people who was willing to take an active role in saving the royal family and the crown, beyond vague promises by foreign rulers or the dangerous behavior of the emigrated Artois and Provence elsewhere in Europe or the moderates in France that Marie Antoinette never fully trusted. Is it any wonder that Marie Antoinette wrote to him as she did other intimates like Polignac, so favored that she had to flee France? No, it is not.

As with the use of gossip as evidence, using this phrase and similar phrases as evidence that the two were physical lovers does not stand up to an extrapolating critical view. Marie Antoinette wrote this way--many women of that time period wrote this way.

If "I love you madly" proves that Marie Antoinette and Axel Fersen were physical lovers, then it stands to reason that "Nothing but death can make me stop loving you" should be used as proof that Marie Antoinette and Yolande de Polignac were also physical lovers. Yet once again, I doubt historians would claim that because the Queen wrote romantically to Polignac, they were lovers, physical or otherwise, due to the context of Marie Antoinette's personality and the general romantic writing style of her contemporaries.

The context of January 4th, 1792 

The context of the letter of January 1792 is important.

This was, politically speaking, a very tense time for Europe, France, and of course Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI. For the last several months, Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI had been embarking on course of action that none of their allies--Fersen included--had really approved. That course of action was to play both sides: ally themselves with Barnave and other constitutionals, all the while keeping up their correspondence with Fersen, Craufurd, Breteuil, and various European monarchs. In September of 1791, Louis XVI had also accepted the Constitution and the royal couple decided to outwardly support the Constitution, not just to appease the rumblings in the government but to, as Louis XVI put it, show the people that the Constitution could not work by following it to the letter.

Abroad, this had the effect of sending the emigres, the king's brothers and European monarchs into a war-minded frenzy. The king's brothers were stirring the pot by spear-heading the raising of emigre-based armies with the intention of sending those armies into France to take back control over the country.

On December 14th, 1791, Louis XVI--without consulting or notifying Fersen and the others in contact with the queen--addressed the Assembly and declared that any European powers which did not disband emigre-based troops by January 15th, 1792 would be considered enemies of France. Furthermore, he declared that the wrote to Leopold II and informed him that he was fully prepared to declare war on Austria if those troops were not disbanded.

Eight days later, Fersen wrote Marie Antoinette a lengthy letter which contained what the queen later referred to as 'scoldings.' In this letter, Fersen admonished the queen for not being openly affectionate towards people he was trying to get on their side. M. de Toulangeon was "hurt by the coldness with which his good intentions were received," which Fersen followed up with: "Do you not think that, without too highly distinguishing them, it would be well to show persons of good-feeling and good-will certain marks of kindness?" He wrote in a similar way regarding the queen's unease about attempting to win over the Duke of Brunswick: "[He] is a man of intelligence, talents, and a great ambition. Do you not think it is important to win him?"

Yet the 'scoldings' in this letter did not stop there. Fersen then wrote that he was astounded and grieved by the king's unsupported decision and the fact that Marie Antoinette did not tell him about it. He continued that he now saw only "embarrassment for you, additional dangers, and the bad effect that this will have in Europe." Fersen went on to suggest that Marie Antoinette should not have acted without consulting Fersen and Breteuil, and that by doing so she invited disastrous consequences.

He also questioned the queen's confidence in him, particularly in light of his own gushing devotion: "I have the vanity to think that my past conduct ought to take you from the possibility of doubting mine; it ought, rather, to convince you of their purity, and of the zeal, attachment, and devotion I have consecrated to your service. My sole desire is to serve you; my sweetest recompense, the only one to which I aspire, is the glory of succeeding in that--I want no other. I should be but too much rewarded if I could know you were happy and think that I had been happy enough to have contributed to it." 

Is it any wonder that Marie Antoinette, who had excelled at charming people from an early age, knew how to reassure Fersen--who, by the tone of this letter and those leading up to it, was becoming increasingly critical of her and wary of her decisions? Fersen himself said it best: "Do you not think that it would be well to show persons of good-feeling and good-will certain marks of kindness?" Fersen wanted reassurance that the queen trusted him, that she accepted his devotion, and that she considered his confidence worthy of respect. And she did just that, as she had throughout the last year to this years-long friend who she saw as fighting for the salvation of her family and for her country.

Let's be clear: I'm not even saying that Marie Antoinette and Axel Fersen couldn't have had feelings for one another, even romantic feelings.

To quote Nesta Webster at the end of her own analysis of their relationship, published in 1937: "It is, however, not impossible that amidst the stress and storm of the Revolution, in her loneliness and perplexity, unable to lean on the king, at variance politically with Madame Elisabeth, betrayed on all sides, she may have come to love the man who was devoting all his energies to the hope of saving her and those dear to her, to love him with tenderness rather than with passion and without a thought of disloyalty to the husband for him she, in her turn, was ready to shed the last dfop of her blood. But this is a thousand miles from supposing that she ever stooped to conduct incompatible with her virtue as a woman or with her dignity as Queen of France."

What I would like to stress is that the recent claims do not hold up to scrutiny that is essential in historical scholarship. Using gossip as "main evidence" of a a child's parentage, especially when countless other men were "supposed" to have been the fathers of Marie Antoinette's children, is not responsible scholarship. Saying that a romantic phrase proves they were physical lovers, when Marie Antoinette wrote romantically to everyone she loved, is not responsible scholarship.

So what next?

Unfortunately, the damage caused by these irresponsible claims has already been done. It will take significant work from within the historical community to unravel the absurd claims that have now made their way around the internet, despite the shockingly precarious foundations they were built on.

It's actually a genuine shame, because there is recent research being done by the French archives on letters written by Marie Antoinette which had various lines blotted out with ink; the research is attempting to reveal what was originally written under these blots, such as the aforementioned lines from the letter of January 4th. This research is being overshadowed by the over-reaching, irresponsible claims being made with broad brush strokes and unsupported evidence.


  1. Thank you, Madame !
    Des lettres de la Reine Marie-Antoinette à Fersen ( suite 18 )

  2. Excellent fact-based analysis! Kitty