Uneducated opinions about the French Revolution, gleaned from novels and popular histories
I’ve recently read Antonia Fraser’s Marie Antoinette: the Journey. It’s a fairly hefty biography and the basis of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (you know, the one with Kirsten Dunst and that fabulous pastry-eating scene).
Fraser is very sympathetic towards the French royal family in the book. She almost considers them victims of chance rather than contributing in any way to their own demise (with the exception of their inability to flee Paris in a timely and non-farcical manner. She's pretty exasperated with some of their choices around that).
We all know that the French Revolution wasn’t caused by one single factor, but of course the attitudes and actions of royal family had an impact on the events that lead to their sticky end—yes, they inherited an antiquated court system that had been tinkered into bizarro-ness by Louis XIV, however check your privilege French royal family. Be more involved with your country! Be a little less the product of your time!
One thing does make my heart ache, for Marie Antoinette at any rate, was the royal couple’s apparent infertility (too close to home, perhaps). I do feel sorry for MA—especially as it seems as though she was a person who just loved children for their own sake, and craved their uncomplicated affection.
Fraser attributes their seven years without conception to Louis XVI’s reluctance to *ahem* complete the act. She quotes the Austrian Emperor Joseph II to his brother Archduke Leopold:
Imagine, in his marriage bed—this is the secret—he has strong, perfectly satisfactory erections; he introduces his member, stays there without moving for about two minutes, withdraws without ejaculating but still erect, and bids goodnight… Nevertheless, the King is satisfied with what he does.
The actual point of all this
How did MA deal with her lack of children? By lavishing attention on a series of small people that she co-opted at will.
Things were much more lax then in terms of adoption—especially if you had the cash. In her book, Fraser includes a slightly opaque reference to MA’s acquisition of a child called Jacques who she almost flattened with her carriage while riding through the countryside. Less than half a page reference that breezes over the topic! My interest was piqued.
This brief reference raises far more questions than it answers. What did Jacques think of this whole situation? What happened to him? I googled and found—a very little more information online. Mostly references to this passage from Madame Campan’s memoirs (Campan was part of MA’s household staff—and part of the economy in MA biographies that boomed immediately after her execution):
A little village boy, four or five years old, full of health with a pleasing countenance, remarkably large blue eyes, and fine light hair, got under the feet of the Queen's horses when she was taking an airing in a calash, through the hamlet of St. Michel, near Louveciennes. The coachman and postilions stopped the horses, and the child was rescued without the slightest injury. Its grandmother rushed out of the door of her cottage to take it; but the Queen, standing up in her calash and extending her arms, called out that the child was hers, and that destiny had given it to her, to console her, no doubt, until she should had the happiness of having one herself.
"Is his mother alive?" asked the Queen. "No, Madame; my daughter died last winter, and left five small children upon my hands." "I will take this one, and provide for all the rest.; "Do you consent?" "Ah, Madame, they are too fortunate," replied the cottager; "but Jacques is a bad boy. I hope he will stay with you!" The Queen, taking little Jacques upon her knee, said that she would make him used to her, and gave orders to proceed. It was necessary, however, to shorten the drive, so violently did Jacques, scream and kick the Queen and her ladies. The arrival of her ladies at her apartments at Versailles astonished the whole household; he cried out with intolerable shrillness that he wanted his grandmother, his brother, Louis, and his sister, Marianne; nothing could calm him.
He was taken away by the wife of a servant, who was appointed to attend him as a nurse. The other children were put to school. Little Jacques, whose family name was Armand, came back to the Queen two days afterwards; a white frock trimmed with lace, a rose-colored sash with silver fringe, and a hat decorated with feathers, were now substituted for the woolen cap, the little red frock, and the wooden shoes. The child was really very beautiful. The Queen was enchanted with him; he was brought to her every morning at nine o'clock; he breakfasted and dined with her, and often even with the King.
She like to call him my child and lavished caresses upon him, still maintaining a deep silence responding the regrets which constantly occupied her heart. The child remained with the Queen until the time when Madame was old enough to come home to her august mother, who had particularly taken upon herself the care of her education. This little unfortunate was nearly twenty in 1792; the incendiary endeavors of the people, and the fear of being thought a favored creature of the Queen, had made him a most sanguinary terrorist of Versailles. He was killed at the battle of Jemmapes.
So, what do we know: a tiny child was taken from his family, he cried and cried because he didn’t want to leave them, and later became a revolutionary. Also, apparently it’s ok to call a child “it” if they're very small and from an inferior social class.
It’s also reported that MA “provided" for the rest of Jacques’ family until the Revolution—including organising one of his brothers music lessons. All this is apparently covered in detail in a book I haven’t read, Marie-Antoinette by Marguerite Jallut and Philippe Huisman (Viking Press, 1971), and covered in the Marie-Antoinette blog Tea at Trianon.
What I’d really like to read is some information about this from the perspective of Jacques or his family, but I couldn’t find anything published or even reported. Yet another situation in recorded history where a real person brushes up against the wealthy and powerful—for a second a light shines on their life, and then they sink back into obscurity.
Bonus video of the best bit from the movie
Picture credit: Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette at the Entry of the Tapis Vert in the Gardens of Versailles, 1775 , by Hubert Robert.
Something about food, probably.
SCP history (weeks of 1-23 May)
Edited for truly embarrassing entries of the kind written in the mid-2000s, for posts that have mysteriously lost their images, and for those where an embedded video has been pulled down from YouTube or Vimeo.
- 2013: The week in Self-Conscious Posturing History (May 20-27)
- 2013: The week in Self-Conscious Posturing history (May 13-19)
- 2013: In which my blog post is in a room
- 2013: In which I begin to fill in another novelty-shaped money thermometer
- 2013: What I have learnt from Sookie Steakhouse
- 2013: Cooking from blogs: Smitten Kitchen's lentil soup with sausage, chard and garlic
- 2013: What is making me happy this week: family lunches
- 2012: Drinking somebody else’s liquor cabinet: Golden Margarita
- 2011: Wednesday List: Uniquely and Peculiarly Satisfying
- 2011: Investigative Blogging: Saving $1000 on a student budget
- 2011: Eating some food in Wellington, a review: Deluxe
- 2011: Another Monday list of awesome
- 2010: In which I am sick, eat a bunch of chocolate, and am bitten in the ass for my procrastination and general slackness
- 2009: I’m moving to the future with Klaus Nomi