She was not a guilty woman, neither was she a saint; she was an upright, charming woman, a little frivolous, somewhat impulsive, but always pure; she was a queen, at times ardent in her fancies for her favourites and thoughtless in her policy, but proud and full of energy; a thorough woman in her winsome ways and tenderness of heart, until she became a martyr. (The Life of Marie-Antoinette by M. de la Rocheterie, 1893)Marie-Antoinette spent the first fourteen years of her life in Austria, worshiping in Rococo churches and listening to the music of Haydn and the Italian composers. Architecture and music in that time and place celebrated the glory of God in the beauty of His creation. As Queen, her desire to promote beauty around her, especially in the lives of those whom she loved, was an outgrowth of the culture in which she was raised. She loved theater, acting, opera, ballet, painting, gardens and everything that enhanced the loveliness of the natural order. Hers was a piety that was loving, gentle and courteous, but real and unflinching nevertheless. Antoinette's approach to faith was joyful and non-judgmental, free from the rigorist approach of Jansenism that so tainted a great deal of French piety in the years preceding the Revolution. Nevertheless, even as a young bride, she had the moral courage to defy the king in regard to Madame du Barry.
Antoinette was the fifteenth child in a family of sixteen. It is known that the young Archduchess Antonia was not an outstandingly pious child, but she was carefully taught her faith. Her mother, Empress Maria Teresa of Austria was a deeply observant Roman Catholic, who prayed novenas with her children and took them on pilgrimages. She instilled in her daughters the importance of being faithful wives and staying at their husbands' sides, no matter what.
The Empress also taught young Antoinette how to play cards before sending her to France, knowing that at the French court just like the Austrian court, gambling was rife and if a princess did not know the ropes she would lose all her money. Antoinette's mother's devotion to God did not blind her to the realities of life as a royal for which she tried to prepare her daughter, although many say that Antoinette's youth and naïveté made the task difficult. Unfortunately, the teenage Antoinette became addicted to gambling, a passion that she later overcame with her husband's help.
When I look back at my own youth I cannot be too hard on the imprudences of Antoinette as a girl. Whatever mistakes she made, she later paid for, bitterly. Her faith was practical and manifested itself in her extensive charities, including a home for unwed mothers. While her generosity to the poor is famous, it is not as widely known that she was a patroness of the Carmelite order, and visited the monastery where her husband's aunt was a nun, once a year. She made many personal sacrifices on behalf of the poor and encouraged her children to do so. She assisted at daily Mass, confessing and receiving Holy Communion on a regular basis, and lived, to all appearances, as a Roman Catholic in good standing.
After the death of her mother and loss of two of her children in the 1780's, Antoinette became more noticeably devout, growing closer to her pious sister-in-law, Madame Elisabeth of France. While under house arrest at the Tuileries palace, the two connived at getting non-juring priests, (i.e., those who were faithful to the Pope), into the chateau for secret Masses and confessions. It is supposedly the time when a few historians claim she had a romantic rendez-vous with Count Axel von Fersen. I think not. The atmosphere at the Tuileries was more like the catacombs than Dangerous Liaisons.
Before her death, when her children had been taken from her, her little son abused and her husband slain, the queen again sought prayer, the sacraments of the Church, and affirmed in writing her loyalty to the "Catholic, Roman and Apostolic religion." The priest who received her last confession in the Conciergerie later publicly affirmed these facts.
The more I continue to discover about Antoinette, for history is a gradual voyage of discovery, I do not regret having painted her as I did in Trianon. If I could write it again, there is more that I would wish to add about her goodness, courage, nobility, love for God and the people of France. My fear is that perhaps I did not do justice to a very great but much maligned Queen. As historian John Wilson Croker expressed it:
We have followed the history of Marie Antoinette with the greatest diligence and scrupulosity. We have lived in those times. We have talked with some of her friends and some of her enemies; we have read, certainly not all, but hundreds of the libels written against her; and we have, in short, examined her life with-- if we may be allowed to say so of ourselves-- something of the accuracy of contemporaries, the diligence of inquirers, and the impartiality of historians, all combined; and we feel it our duty to declare, in as a solemn a manner as literature admits of, our well-matured opinion that every reproach against the morals of the queen was a gross calumny-- that she was, as we have said, one of the purest of human beings. (History of the Guillotine by John Wilson Croker, 1844)
Elena Maria Vidal is the author of the historical novels Trianon, Madame Royale, and The Night's Dark Shade. Please visit Elena at her Tea at Trianon blog and on Facebook and Twitter.