‘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.’

The situation of the prisoners worsened when the Convention decided to separate Louis-Charles, now recognised as Louis XVII in royalist circles, from his mother, aunt and sister. Louis-Charles was eight years old and had been ill with whooping cough. The women could still hear his cries through the prison walls. His keepers were a shoemaker, Antoine Simon, and his wife, who dressed the child as a sans-culotte, and tormented him. Marie Antoinette could sometimes catch sight of her son through a crack in the wall; this, Marie-Thérèse remembered, became her mother’s ‘sole occupation’. Marie Antoinette was taken from the tower in August 1793, held in the Conciergerie on the Ile de la Cité, and guillotined on 16 October. Her daughter knew only that her mother had gone. Similarly, when the guards came for Madame Elisabeth, Marie-Thérèse was told that her aunt had gone ‘to take the air’. She asked to see her brother, otherwise she did not speak. Her journal records that: ‘One day there came a man who I believe was Robespierre. The officers showed him great respect. His visit was a secret even from the people in the tower, who did not know who he was; or at least, would not tell me: he stared insolently at me, cast his eyes on my books, and, after joining the municipal officers in a search, retired.’ Another source claims the princess passed Robespierre a note: ‘My brother is ill. I have written to the Convention for permission to go and take care of him. The Convention has not answered me. I repeat my request.’ What was the inscrutable regicide looking for in Marie-Thérèse’s cell? And if it was Robespierre, did he go downstairs to inspect the squalor in which Louis-Charles was slowly dying? Even the most ardent revolutionary might have felt qualms walking away from the tower, its child prisoners and their abusive guards.

Michelet said: ‘History is a resurrection.’ In his introduction to La Jeunesse de la Duchesse d’Angoulême (1892), Imbert de Saint Amand claimed this as the motto of Michelet’s disciples:

The new historic school, inaugurated by men of genius whose obscure disciples we are, has employed the methods of philosophy, painting and the dramatic art. Considering that the life of peoples is a series of grandiose dramas, now brilliant and now dismal, it has undertaken to dispose the scenery and light up the stage, to bring to life again, not merely the principal actors, but the secondary ones and even the supernumeraries, and is persuaded that if local colour is faithfully preserved, if descriptions are exact, if monuments and places where events took place appear plainly before the reader, if, especially, characters are studied conscientiously, a historical work, while adhering scrupulously to the truth, may yet be made as attractive as a play, a historical romance or a novel.

Part of the revivification method, according to Imbert de Saint Amand, was due recognition of the role of women: ‘It will perhaps be said that we are inclined to attach an exaggerated importance to women. In our opinion they have been too often neglected in history.’ His book on Marie-Thérèse, and its predecessor, La Duchesse d’Angoulême et les deux restaurations (1887), was published in a series of chronicles called Les Femmes des Tuileries. He was well aware of the affinity between his subjects and ‘the heroines of Walter Scott’. Going a step further than James Fenimore Cooper, who saw the Duchesse d’Angoulême in Paris after the Restoration and remarked ‘I never see this woman without a feeling of commiseration and respect,’ Imbert de Saint Amand wrote about her ‘like a saint’: ‘Nothing is affected in the Duchesse d’Angoulême, nothing theatrical, nothing factitious. All is sincere, all is austere and all is true.’

Susan Nagel’s new biography follows the hagiographic tradition. It is divided into two parts: ‘Sinner’ and ‘Saint’. The first deals with the period from Marie-Thérèse’s birth until her escape from the Temple tower ‘at precisely midnight on her 17th birthday, 19 December 1795’. If ‘sinner’ is an appropriate term for her during these years, it can only be from the perspective of diehard revolutionaries like Robespierre, and even he, Nagel is scrupulous enough to point out, seems to have intervened in November 1793 to save Marie-Thérèse from ‘the national razor’. The question of saintliness is more complicated. After her escape (really a diplomatic exchange between Austria and the Directory that was trying to govern France in the wake of the Terror) she said religion alone had saved her in the tower. Finding refuge with the Habsburg side of her family, in Laufenburg she entered a church for the first time in more than three years to attend a Mass in honour of her parents, whose deaths she now knew in gruesome detail. Later she was sent the bloodstained chemise her father had worn to the guillotine. Nagel tells that it became ‘her banner’ and never left her side: white was the Bourbon colour, Louis XVI’s blood the badge of suffering his daughter would dedicate her life to redeeming. Still believing in the divine right of kings, she wanted more than anything to see a Bourbon back on the French throne.

Nagel shows convincingly that this desire animated all Marie-Thérèse’s important decisions. She married, in Ancien Régime style, a Bourbon cousin, the Duc d’Angoulême. Their uncle, brother to both their fathers and formerly the Comte de Provence, was now Louis XVIII in exile. He knew that of the two, Marie-Thérèse was more committed to restoring absolute monarchy; the Duc d’Angoulême had spent time in England and was more inclined towards constitutional monarchy. Meanwhile, in France, Napoleon reigned.

Marie-Thérèse longed for a child. The same pressure that shaped her mother’s public and private life in Versailles fell on her in exile: to bear a child, preferably a boy. She couldn’t do it. There were rumours that the guards in the tower, determined to end the Bourbon line, had destroyed her fertility. The obsession with bloodline that led her to marry her first cousin was the more likely cause: when pregnant she miscarried. At the Restoration in 1814, the Bourbons returned to France and Marie-Thérèse hoped even more ardently to provide an heir to the throne. After years of disappointment, attention shifted, to her relief, to a more junior branch of the family: when the Duc and Duchesse de Berry at last produced the longed-for son in 1820, Louis XVIII took the baby in his arms and declared, ‘This is mine!’, then handed the mother an astounding set of diamonds saying: ‘And . . . this is yours!’ A little later, aged 42, Marie-Thérèse mistook the symptoms of early menopause for pregnancy and appeared radiant at a ball in a lace dress that had belonged to her mother.

If not precisely saintly, there does seem to have been something otherworldly, even a bit ghoulish, about Marie-Thérèse. She was at her most animated rousing the troops in Bordeaux when Napoleon escaped from Elba in March 1815. She was, he said, ‘the only man in the family’. Vowing to ‘teach the generals how one serves the king’, she began and ended each day with the soldiers. Even so, they shrank from civil war. Exasperated, she declared: ‘It is so cruel, after 20 years of exile and unhappiness, I will have to expatriate again. I, nevertheless, will never cease to swear – I make this vow: For France! Because I am French! You are no longer Frenchmen. About-face! Withdraw!’

When Napoleon’s Hundred Days were over, Louis XVIII returned to the throne for a second time, aided by allied forces under the Duke of Wellington’s command. His niece was disgusted: this was not the restoration of absolute monarchy that she had dreamed of. ‘For hours on end, even with guests present, Marie-Thérèse would sit at her needlework, performing her craft at a staccato pace, as she had in jail where, with the skill her mother and aunt taught her, she sewed and embroidered diligently for both her sanity and her self-preservation.’ After she left the tower, people called her ‘the new Antigone’, but perhaps ‘the new Penelope’ would have been more apt. She did not bring to her needlework the hatred of the tricoteuses; she was not a vicious woman, except where the offspring of the Duc d’Orléans was concerned.

In his will and testament, Louis XVI asked his family to ‘forget all hate and resentment’. Marie-Thérèse couldn’t forget that the Duc d’Orléans, her father’s cousin, had voted for his death. Philippe Egalité, as he called himself during the Revolution, got his comeuppance soon enough when he followed Louis XVI to the guillotine. After the Restoration and the death of Louis XVIII, the next king of France, Charles X, hoped to reunite the branches of the Bourbon family. In 1824, at the funeral of Louis XVIII, Marie-Thérèse found herself sharing a carriage with the new Duc d’Orléans. When the July Revolution of 1830 came he betrayed Charles X and assumed the crown as Louis-Philippe the ‘Citizen King’. Marie-Thérèse went once more into exile, her worst suspicions confirmed. As she left she saw the white flag of the Bourbons replaced for the last time by the tricolour. When Charles X died, she, finally, became queen, in exile at the Castello di Strassoldo in Gorizia. It was a quiet life, the remnants of the Bourbon line gathered in one house; the kind of life her parents might have led, if the vote in the Convention had gone the other way in 1793, and the royal family had been sent abroad from the tower.

The story is gothic enough as it stands. Sainte-Beuve was an early critic of the literature it inspired:

The Duchesse d’Angoulême has been, or rather could have been, the centre of a whole contemporaneous literature, of which we can follow the trace, from the song of M. Lepitre, sung beneath the walls of the Temple, and the novel of Irma, or the Sorrows of a Young Orphan (published by Mme Guénard in the year VIII), to the Antigone of Ballanche, which more nobly crowned that allegorical and mythological literature in 1815. But one distinctive trait in her was to remain completely aloof from this rather tardy invasion of public sentimentality. It is to her honour that she never, in the slightest degree, suffered literature, romance, drama, to enter the sanctuary, veiled for ever, of her sorrow. ‘I do not like scenes,’ she said one day, a little brusquely, to a woman who threw herself on her knees before her to thank her for some benefit.

Sainte-Beuve knew Marie-Thérèse’s own account of her experiences in the Temple tower would be the standard against which other versions of her life would be judged. Croker recommended reading the princess’s prison journal at one sitting. Imbert de Saint Amand quoted from it extensively and without embellishment. Nagel is less inclined to let her source speak for herself. Instead she combines two distinct narrative tones: the first, a straightforward exposition of information in chronological order (where Marie-Thérèse was from one month to the next, who she saw, what she did); the second, borrowed from detective fiction, aims to resurrect the life not as historical romance, but as historical mystery. The first can result in a great deal of plodding and does so here despite the dramatic subject matter. ‘She had begun her journey down the path of her own choosing: she would live her life devoted to the memory of her parents and to serving and promoting the Bourbon cause,’ one chapter ends. ‘Now, as the adopted daughter of the new king in exile, her uncle, she had achieved that position, at the centre of the heart of the king of France. They were father and daughter, political allies as well as conspirators, and for all intents and purposes, there were three in her marriage. And she was still childless.’ But the linear plotting imposes a bigger, possibly insurmountable problem. It is difficult to understand much about the Revolution or the Restoration by following Marie-Thérèse’s path through the economic, social, political and constitutional upheavals in France from 1789 to 1848. She was a diehard ultra whose insight into the Revolution was as deep as it was narrow: the Revolution was unspeakably cruel. Her view of the Restoration was just as stark: it meant one thing, effacing the fact of the Revolution. So while Marie-Thérèse was undeniably at the centre of events, her perspective on them remained isolated and oblique. She was literally and metaphorically in a high tower.

Nagel’s decision to cast Marie-Thérèse’s life as a historical mystery is inspired by two genuine uncertainties, the more important of which was extensively explored in Deborah Cadbury’s book, The Lost King of France: Revolution, Revenge and the Search for Louis XVII (2002). Marie-Thérèse never saw her brother’s body. He was visited by Dr Pierre Joseph Desault on 6 May 1795, who reported that he had ‘encountered a child who is mad, dying, a victim of the most abject misery and of the greatest abandonment, a being that has been brutalised by the cruellest of treatments and whom it is impossible to bring back to life . . . What a crime!’ Soon afterwards, Desault himself suddenly died. A new practitioner, Dr Philippe-Jean Pelletan, was appointed, but Louis-Charles became unconscious on 8 June 1795 and did not recover. Pelletan performed the autopsy and stole the boy’s heart, possibly in deference to the old custom of embalming a king’s heart and keeping it in the crypt of St-Denis. After she left the tower, Marie-Thérèse was haunted by the idea that her brother was still alive. From time to time, a new claimant would emerge to disrupt her grief. At one point she went in disguise to visit the wife of her brother’s jailer, Madame Simon, in the mental institution where she was now confined. Arriving at the Hôpital des Incurables as an ordinary visitor, she questioned Madame Simon, who insisted that Louis-Charles had been smuggled out of the Temple in a washing-basket, and had even come to visit her in 1802. When Marie-Thérèse asked how she had recognised him, the old woman answered: ‘Well, I recognised you, Marie-Thérèse, despite your disguise.’

In addition to the impostors, Marie-Thérèse also had to cope with Pelletan’s story about the heart. He had meant to give it to her on the eve of Napoleon’s escape from Elba, but the subsequent political turmoil prevented him. Pelletan was 81 before he gave the heart to the archbishop of Paris for safekeeping in 1828. The archbishop preserved it in a jar of alcohol hidden behind books on his library shelves. It smashed onto the floor during the Revolution of 1830 that brought Louis-Philippe to the throne. Pelletan’s son went to clear up the mess and preserve the evidence, which was DNA tested in 2000 by Dr Jean-Jacques Cassiman and identified as the heart of Louis-Charles.

The second mystery Nagel presents concerns the ‘Dark Countess of Hildburghausen’, also known as Sophie, who died at Castle Eishausen in 1837. For many years, this mysterious blonde woman lived in seclusion with her Dark Count ‘like a couple in a fairy tale’. Dr Lommler, who performed an autopsy, professed himself ‘stunned by the corpse’s resemblance to Marie Antoinette’, and local women were pleased to acquire chemises embroidered with fleurs-de-lys from the deceased’s trousseau. A rumour started, very much in the interest of the area because of the tourists it attracted, that the Dark Countess had been the real Marie-Thérèse. Several successful romances on the topic appeared: The Dark Count (1853) by Ludwig Bechstein; The Mystery of Hildburghausen (1872) by Brachvogel and Névtelen vár (1877) by Jókai Mór, translated into English as The Nameless Castle (1889). As Nagel explains, ‘rumours started to fly that the coffin buried in Hildburghausen did not, in fact, contain a body, but a wax figure. On 8 July 1891, the coffin was opened and a female corpse was found within, laying one part of the fable to rest.’ No one seems to know who the eccentric count and countess were, and frankly, who cares? But this is not enough for Nagel: ‘I wanted scientific proof, the kind of proof provided by Dr Jean-Jacques Cassiman concerning the heart of the dauphin.’ Deborah Cadbury had recent and pertinent DNA evidence, in the light of which it made sense to revisit the abuse Louis-Charles suffered in the Temple tower. There is no such evidence in the case of Marie-Thérèse.