Saturday, March 16, 2019

What They Said Saturday: "I have a presentiment that all will turn out ill."

'What They Said' Saturday: a day for quotations of all kinds, including excerpts from letters written by Marie Antoinette and her contemporaries, memoirs, non-fiction, novels and everything in between.

image: Detail from a portrait of Elisabeth de France by Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, circa 1787

"I have a presentiment that all will turn out ill." Elisabeth de France, the younger sister of Louis XVI, wrote this sentence amidst the first weeks of the 1787 Assembly of Notables, a consultative assembly called by Louis XVI in a calculated effort to pressure the French parlements into approving varied but significant--and much-needed--tax reforms. The last Assembly of Notables had been called more than 100 years previously by Louis XIII, and the decision to once again call upon the Notables was not without its controversies, especially among certain factions of court.

Elisabeth, for her part, doubted that calling the Assembly of Notables would do much good; she aligned herself with the thoughts of those in court who believed that calling the Notables was an admittance of weakness, though she believed her brother called them with completely sincerity in "asking their advice." The Assembly of 1787 was instrumental in the chain of events that would result in the calling of the Estates General of 1789, for better or worse. Yet despite the dismissal of Calonne in April, just a under month before the 1787 Assembly was dissolved, Elisabeth wrote with a reserved optimism:"The Notables talk with more freedom (though they have never cramped themselves in that), and I hope good may come of it. "

The full letter from Madame Elisabeth to the marquise de Bombelles, as translated in Life and Letters of Madame Elisabeth de France:

You ask me, my friend, how I pass my time; I shall answer: Rather sadly, because I see many things that grieve me. The famous Assembly of Notables has met. What will it do? Nothing, except make known to the people the critical situation in which we are. The king is sincere in asking their advice. Will they be the same in giving it? I think not. I have little experience, and the tender interest I take in my brother alone induces me to concern myself with these subjects, much too serious for my nature. I do not know, but it seems to me they are taking a course directly the opposite of that they ought to take . . . . I have a presentiment that all will turn out ill. As for me, if it were not for my attachment to the king I would retire to Saint-Cyr. Intrigues fatigue me; they are not in accordance with my nature. I like peace and repose; but it is not at the moment when my brother is unfortunate that I will separate from him.

The queen is very pensive. Sometimes we are hours together alone without her saying a word. She seems to fear me. Ah! who can take a keener interest than I in my brother's happiness?    
Of particular note is Elisabeth's mention of the queen's pensiveness and distance during what was a highly critical moment for Louis XVI and ultimately, the monarchy. Elisabeth and Antoinette did not always agree--more often than not as the revolution continued, they found themselves on opposite sides of the ideological coin, resulting in coldness or even arguments between them. Yet this particular distance was not to last--a few short months later, in June, the queen's infant daughter Sophie died and she called Elisabeth to come with her and mourn. Elisabeth wrote that "... there was no attention she did not show me. She prepared for me one of those surprises in which she excels; but what we did most was to weep over the death of my poor little niece."

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