‘Because I am French!’

Ruth Scurr

  • Marie-Thérèse: The Fate of Marie Antoinette’s Daughter by Susan Nagel
    Bloomsbury, 418 pp, £25.00, July 2008, ISBN 978 1 59691 057 7

‘The most ardent revolutionists and those most wrought upon by hatred and regicidal passions were not able to pass the tower of the Temple when the Terror was at its height, without experiencing certain qualms.’ Baron Arthur Léon Imbert de Saint Amand began his late 19th-century biography of Marie-Thérèse from a place of desolation. Marie-Thérèse-Charlotte, Madame Royale, later Duchesse d’Angoulême was the first child of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, and the sister of the dauphin, Louis-Charles. All four members of the royal family, together with the king’s sister, Madame Elisabeth, were imprisoned in the Temple, a medieval fortress in the Marais, after the collapse of the monarchy on 10 August 1792. Told it was to be her family’s new home, under the new republic, Marie Antoinette said: ‘I always begged the Comte d’Artois to have that villainous tower of the Temple torn down; it always horrified me.’

Marie-Thérèse kept her own record of what went on in the tower. First published in France in 1817, the princess’s prison journal was translated into English by John Wilson Croker in 1823. Croker noted that

several passages are obscure, and one or two contradictory: there are frequent repetitions, and a general want of arrangement. All these, which would be defects in a regular history, increase the value of this Journal: they attest its authenticity, and forcibly impress on our minds the cruel circumstances of perplexity and anxiety under which it was written.

Marie-Thérèse was 13 when she entered the tower, 17 when she left. She had witnessed much violence during the Revolution; she had seen at Versailles in October 1789, for example, the severed heads of two of Louis XVI’s bodyguards, men who had once looked after her. Later, the royal family moved to the Tuileries Palace in Paris. From here, 18 months later, they tried to escape to the Austrian border in a custom-built coach. Arrested at Varennes, the party was jeered, threatened and spat at all the way back to the capital, Marie-Thérèse taking turns on her aunt’s and governess’s laps to make room inside the coach for representatives of the nation. At the final collapse of the monarchy she and her brother hid in the Cabinet du Conseil from the slaughter in the Tuileries gardens. She was, as her mother remarked, ‘old enough always to remember these scenes with horror’.

It is impossible to rationalise the blood-letting that took place in Paris’s prisons in the weeks between the end of monarchy and the declaration of the republic on 22 September 1792. Priests, women and children were among the victims. Danton claimed he saw them afterwards in his dreams, shaking their gory locks at him. The municipal commune did little to intervene, merely sending Robespierre to the Temple to check that ‘everything was quiet there.’ It may have been by the time he arrived: earlier, the guards had been forced to allow a delegation into the compound, to parade round the garden with the head of Marie Antoinette’s friend the Princesse de Lamballe on a pike. ‘My aunt and I heard the drums beating to arms all night,’ Marie-Thérèse remembered. ‘My unhappy mother did not even attempt to sleep; we heard her sobs. We did not believe that the massacre was still going on, and it was only some time after that we learned that it had lasted three days.’

The princess’s journal does not need to strain for effect:

When I took my lessons, and my mother wrote out extracts of books for me, a municipal officer continually looked over my shoulder, thinking we were employed in conspiracies. They had refused us the newspapers, that we might not know the state of affairs abroad. One day, however, they brought one to my father, telling him it contained something interesting for him. Monsters! – it was a statement that they would make a cannonball of his head. The calm and contemptuous silence of my father disappointed the malice of those who had sent this infernal writing.

The problem of what to do with the deposed Louis XVI, constitutionally and bodily, was solved when a slim majority of deputies to the nation’s new Convention voted for his death. Among those in favour was the soi-disant king’s cousin, the Duc d’Orléans. In his memoir, the king’s servant Cléry claims that Marie-Thérèse became hysterical during a harrowing goodbye to her father, the night before he was guillotined on 21 January 1793. But in her journal she wrote only: ‘Thus died Louis XVI, King of France, at the age of 39 years, five months and three days, of which he had reigned 18. He had been five months and eight days in prison.’

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