Guest blog by Evelyn Farr
‘She who was my happiness, she for whom I lived… she whom I loved so much and for whom I would have given a thousand lives, is no more.’ No, not from a romantic novel, but written about Marie-Antoinette, one of the most tragic figures in European history, by the man who truly loved her. ‘What gentleness, what tenderness, what kindness, what solicitude, what a delicate, loving and tender heart!’
Sofia Coppola’s bizarre new film on Marie-Antoinette will unfortunately do little but perpetuate the myth of a vacuous, heartless, pleasure loving bimbo who got her just desserts from the French peasantry after eating too much cake. The real Marie-Antoinette was a complex, intelligent, passionate woman trapped in a marital and political nightmare from which she constantly rebelled but never managed to escape. Married off at fourteen by her mother, Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, to the Dauphin of France (Louis XV1), she had to battle from the start with a powerful anti-Austrian faction at the huge, unwelcoming French court, the indifference of her husband and the malign influence of some very opportunistic friends. Her image in history is largely that of her teenage years – a young, pretty princess determined to salvage some fun from the ghastliness of her official position. She broke the rules in so many ways – she laughed, she danced, she spoke to people she should have ignored, she ignored people she should have flattered. And she fell head over heels in love – but not with her husband.
The man who captured Marie-Antoinette’s heart at the age of seventeen and kept it for the rest of her life was described by one of his contemporaries as looking ‘like the hero of a novel.’ Count Axel Fersen, son of the most powerful man in Sweden, soldier, diplomat, was handsome, reserved and ‘had a burning soul beneath a layer of ice’ according to one damsel who tried unsuccessfully to detach him from the Queen. The love between Marie-Antoinette and her Swedish count was passionate and enduring, survived war, separation and revolution, and lasted beyond the grave. They both knew it was dangerous, both battled their feelings – he went off to fight in the American War of Independence to try to forget her. She waited three anxious years for his return, and then seized the day to make him her own. ‘Never,’ he declared, ‘has anyone ever known how to love like her.’ He refused countless marriages to remain at her side, and was far more her husband than the hapless man to whom she was shackled.
When the Revolution came, Marie-Antoinette was targeted in order to bring down the King (she had brains, he didn’t). It was Axel who comforted her, accompanied her on the gruesome march to prison in Paris, the heads of her bodyguards paraded on pikes beside her carriage, after the failed attempt to assassinate her at Versailles. He worked tirelessly to rescue her. He even managed to get her out of Paris on the ill-fated flight to Varennes, which in characteristic fashion Louis XV1 turned into a disaster. The royal family were locked up again. Axel had to flee France, a price on his head. And still he returned, in disguise and at great personal risk, to see the woman he loved. Their last day together was Valentine’s Day 1792. He tried to persuade her to attempt another escape. She felt she couldn’t leave her husband, who had grown ever more dependent on her considerable political negotiating skills. She stayed, fought to save the French constitutional monarchy and prevent civil war, but her husband’s weakness and indecision led to his own death and her execution on 16 October 1793 at the age of thirty-seven on the Place de la Concorde. By some miracle, a scrap of paper she managed to smuggle out of prison found it’s way to Axel Fersen in Sweden two years later. ‘Adieu, my heart is all yours.’ He never fully recovered from losing her. On the anniversary of her death in 1794, he wrote in his diary: ‘This day was a memorable and terrible day for me. It’s the day I lost the person who loved me most in the world and who loved me truly. I shall weep for her loss all my life.’ And he did. He died tragically in 1810, assassinated in Stockholm because he opposed the granting of the Swedish crown to an former French revolutionary. He never forgave the men who had destroyed Marie-Antoinette and he never forgot.
My book The Untold Love Story: Marie-Antoinette and Count Fersen is published by Allison & Busby.