Wednesday, May 26, 2021

The prince de Ligne on Marie Antoinette: "She laughed and sang and danced until she was twenty five years old..."


image: A portrait of Charles Joseph Lamoral de Ligne by Charles Leclerq, 1780. Original black and white image colorized using DeOldify and Photoshop.    

Charles-Joseph Lamoral, the prince de Ligne (or Fürst von Ligne) was an important diplomat, writer, military marshal, and intellectual whose personal connection to Marie Antoinette provides an invaluable look at how the queen was perceived by someone who was allowed access into her familiar circles. 

Charles-Joseph was 20 years her senior, and was notably described by Stefan Zweig as being "the most refined of the whole [Trianon] band ... the only one who did not feather his nest while at the Trianon, and also the only one to preserve respectful memories of the Queen, as shown by what he wrote about her in his memoirs published in his old age." Zweig also considered de Ligne to be the "solitary exception" as an intelligent man in the queen's closer circle.

This particular passage quoted below stands out for its biting, fairly sarcastic rundown of the negative reputation that Marie Antoinette earned for almost entirely innocuous acts. 

Of course, his words should be taken in the context of both his status as a former companion of the queen and someone writing about her years after the fact, tinged with sadness for her ultimate fate.

For instance, de Ligne dismisses Marie Antoinette's gambling problem as being something she disliked and was merely "compelled to play," when it is known that Marie Antoinette did not just play the requisite court card games but illegal, high-stakes games for hours upon  hours; games which thrilled her and provided her with an escape from the stress of her personal life. While her gambling problem did gradually die off, the excuse de Ligne gives echoes the excuses Marie Antoinette wrote to her own mother, who heard through the spy-network-grapevine about the stunning losses at these types of games.

He also dismisses the 6 million livres purchase of the chateau de Saint-Cloud, solely because its purchase was related to Marie Antoinette wanting her children to have access to its fresher air. But it was an extravagant purchase, despite the lowered costs due to it being bought in the queen's name; particularly considering that it came shortly before the explosion of the Diamond Necklace Affair, which added to this aspect of the queen's reputation.

But despite the excuses de Ligne makes for certain aspects of Marie Antoinette's behavior, it's easy to understand his frustration with the negative reputation she earned for harmless things such as giggling as a teenager being teased by her ladies; having close friends; enjoying walks on the terrace; or--heaven forbid--walking on foot to the apartments of her companions.

From The Prince de Ligne: His memoirs, letters, and miscellaneous papers [translated by Katharine Prescott Wormeley]

As for the queen, the radiance of her presence harmed her. The jealousy of the women whom she crushed by the beauty of her complexion and the carriage of her head, ever seeking to harm her as a woman, harmed her also as a queen. Frédégonde and Brunehaut, Catherine and Marie de Medici, Anne and Theresa of Austria never laughed; Marie Antoinette when she was fifteen laughed much; therefore she was declared "satirical."

She defended herself against the intrigues of two parties, each of whom wanted to give her a lover; on which they declared her "inimical to Frenchmen"; and all the more because she was friendly with foreigners, from whom she had neither traps nor importunity to fear.

An unfortunate dispute about a visit between her brother the Elector of Cologne and the princes of the blood, of which she was wholly ignorant, offended the etiquette of the Court, which then called her "proud."

She dines with one friend, and sometimes goes to see another friend, after supper, and they say she is "familiar." That is not what the few persons who lived in her familiarity would say. Her delicate, sure sense of the becoming awed them as much as her majesty. It was as impossible to for get it as it was to forget one's self.

She is sensible of the friendship of certain persons who are the most devoted to her; then she is declared to be "amorous" of them. Sometimes she requires too much for their families; then she is “unreasonable.”

She gives little fêtes, and works herself at her Trianon: that is called “bourgeoise.” She buys Saint-Cloud for the health of her children and to take them from the malaria of Versailles: they pronounce her “extravagant."

Her promenades in the evening on the terrace, or on horseback in the Bois de Boulogne, or sometimes on foot round the music in the Orangery "seem suspicious." Her most innocent pleasures are thought criminal; her general loving kindness is “coquettish.” She fears to win at cards, at which she is compelled to play, and they say she “wastes the money of the State."

She laughed and sang and danced until she was twenty five years old: they declared her “frivolous." The affairs of the kingdom became embroiled, the spirit of party arose and divided society; she would take no side, and they called her “ungrateful.”

She no longer amused herself; she foresaw misfortunes: they declared her “intriguing.” She dropped certain little requests or recommendations she had made to the king or the ministers as soon as she feared they were troublesome, and then she was “fickle."

With so many crimes to her charge, and all so well-proved, did she not deserve her misfortunes? But I see I have forgotten the greatest [crime].

The queen, who was almost a prisoner of State in her château of Versailles, took the liberty sometimes to go on foot, followed by a servant, through one of the galleries, to the apartments of Mme. de Lamballe or Mme . de Polignac. How shocking a scandal! The late queen [Marie Leczinska] was always carried in a sedan-chair to see her cousin, Mme . de Talmont...


De Ligne's passage has a strikingly similar theme to a memorable quotation from Madame Campan's memoirs, in which she recounts the scandal of Marie Antoinette's preference for less formal clothing: 

"What misconduct might not be dreaded from a princess who could absolutely go out without a hoop! And who, in the salons of Trianon, instead of discussing the important rights to chairs and stools, good-naturedly invited everybody to be seated. "


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