The Queen’s Dream

April 19, 2019

We could, I suppose blame Sofia Coppola. Or more specifically Kirsten Dunst. But my visit to Versailles largely centred around a desire to see the locations used in the 2006 feature film about Marie Antoinette.

It was panned by a lot of critics when it came out, but it captures the hedonism of the French court in the 1780s even while it glosses  historical facts. It’s beautifully shot, and it does show how the youngest daughter of the Hapsburg Emperor Francis I and his formidable wife, Empress Maria Theresa (played, astonishingly, by Marianne Faithfull), had her life planned out for her. It pays re-watching.

Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna Hapsburg was all of 14 in 1769 when she was married off to the Dauphin of France, the future Louis XVI. Her mother had 15 children in all, but did not explain to young Maria/Marie how they came to be. Louis, too, seems clueless – he was just 15 when they married  – and it was a visit from Marie Antoinette’s elder brother, by then Emperor himself, that was needed to put matters to rights. Their first child, a girl, was born in 1777, and a future Dauphin in 1781.

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Marie Antoinette in human garb at age 16, two years after her marriage.

Marie Antoinette was never liked by the French. There were historical reasons for the French to despise the Austrians, and the French royal family itself was unpopular because of its profligacy, and the poverty of many of the people. France’s royal Capet clan were not so much of the One Per Cent, as of the 0.001 Per Cent of their day. Consider that Versailles, their sprawling palace to the west of Paris, takes in over a million dollars daily today in order to maintain the property. And that’s not counting all the courtiers of the 18th Century. Then figure in French aid to the Americans to fight the British in their war of independence (Marie Antoinette pushed for that support), and all the other expenses of state. No wonder the people rose up.

But the queen herself had no way of escaping her situation. It’s not as if anyone had offered her vocational training for anything other than being royal. Mentally, she could not conceive of being other than what she was, except in symbolic form, or in fantasy. Which is what she did.

Some distance away from the main palace at Versailles is a cluster of less imposing buildings around Le Petit Trianon. This is basically a large house, and it became Marie Antoinette’s retreat from the formality of life in the palace. Catch the dressing scene in the movie to get the point.

Le Petit Trianon was well staffed by servants, while having its own surrounding gardens. But if her affair with the Swedish Count, Axel de Fersen, was a historical fact (and it seems plausible) then probably Le Petit Trianon offered them an early warning system for kingly visits. The house fascinated me, as Versailles proper did not. It has graciousness without absurd excess, at least by the standards of the aforementioned 0.0001 Per Cent. A nearby pavilion offered space for amateur theatricals and other performances, and the gardens offered places to wander, and probably to hide for romantic moments. If she and Fersen were lovers, it would have been at Le Petit Trianon that they became so.

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Le Petit Trianon.

But Marie Antoinette went further, and created her own tiny village, or hameau. My first thought, on seeing her house was that here she’d contacted her inner Hobbit. There were fishing parties with friends on the small lake, and various farm animals to coo and fuss over before they were eaten.

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A place apart – Hameau de la Reine.

The Hameau da la Reine is a whimsical protest against formality and protocol, a refuge for a woman who would probably never touch an actual peasant’s hand, even if she enjoyed playing shepherdess with the sheep and their lambs.

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Contacting her inner Hobbit – the Queen’s House in Hameau de la Reine.

But then, it was probably Count Fersen’s hands that most interested her. Poor Louis, it seems, might have been cuckolded for most of his life. And unlike his womanising forebears, not that bothered by it.

Marie Antoinette was not, as far as the portraits show, a beautiful woman – certainly not in Ms. Dunst’s league. She was conservative, motherly and fond of her children (she adopted four in addition to her natural offspring), and she retained an affection for Austria all her life. No doubt she always spoke with an accent. Increasingly, she became a focus of hatred for the people of France, including much of the aristocracy. Her refusal to restrain her own extravagance didn’t help.

What though, I wonder, would anyone have done in her place? A more worldly woman might have opted to take the side of the everyday people. But the tragedy of royalty, whether it was the House of Hanover running Great Britain around the time of Marie Antoinette, the Romanovs misruling Russia in World War I or the Hohenzollerns in charge of Germany at the same time, was consistent failure to notice that the tide was turning in the mass mind of their subjects. And the queen of France barely had contact with those subjects.

Instead, she opted for her escape outlet, her gracious house and her fantasy hamlet. It was not ultimately a wise decision, and it led to her demise at the guillotine in 1793. Her real sins, though, were foolishness and ignorance rather than any deliberate cruelty. Her hardest sufferings came, at the end, from knowing her husband and friends were being beheaded, and not being allowed to see her children after she was imprisoned.

We’re all responsible for what we choose not to learn, and there were moments towards the end of Louis’ reign that both he and his wife could have seen what was to happen. Their assumption that they could put matters to rights was seriously naive. But the woman living (mostly) in Le Petit Trianon hoped to the end that she could create a life for herself amid its gardens and her fantasy village. The outbreak of revolution in 1789 ended all that.

I still think it was a neat place to live in, as it is to visit. But the desire for a home, as opposed to a house – in Marie Antoinette’s case, a vast palace – was something I wonder if she was ever truly able to realise.

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