In her last letter, Marie-Antoinette wrote to her sister-in-law Madame Elisabeth: “Happiness is doubled when shared with a friend….” In those words are contained the value she placed on friendship as being intrinsic to her happiness. Indeed, the queen had a great capacity for friendship, although she was not always prudent in her choice of companions.
In some cases, especially in regard to Madame de Polignac, the friendship spilled over into girlish infatuation. Her enemies seized upon such weaknesses and perceived faults to feed the false rumors that Marie-Antoinette had lovers of both genders. No serious biographer of the queen gives the least credence to the scandalous stories; even Lady Antonia Fraser insists in her recent biography that there is not the slightest indication that Marie-Antoinette ever participated in homosexual acts.
However, people with promiscuous backgrounds tend to judge others according to their own behavior. The French court, being the French court, was the kind of setting that shadowed the most innocent relationships with tawdry connotations. Marie-Antoinette, with her beauty, naiveté and sentimentality, was the perfect target for every sort of calumny.
In an age famous for florid and exaggerated expressions, the queen was especially gushing and emotional when revealing her feelings. In my opinion, it speaks of the deep loneliness and sense of isolation that she experienced as a young girl, sent away from home at the age of fourteen to a hostile court. To some extent, her emotions remained fixed at that age, with all the intensity of early adolescence, as can be seen in the lyrics she wrote for a song, “Portrait Charmant:”
Portait charmant, portait de mon amie
Gage d’amour par l’amour obtenu
Ah viens m’offrir le bien que j’ai perdu
Te voir encore me rappelle à la vie.
Oui les voilà ses traits, ses traits que j’aime
Son doux regard, son maintien, sa candeur
Lorsque ma main te presse sur mon coeur
Je crois encore la presser elle-même
Non tu n’as pas pour moi les mêmes charmes
Muet témoin de nos tendres soupirs
En retraçant nos fugitifs plaisirs
Cruel portrait, tu fais couler mes larmes
Pardonne-moi mon injuste langage
Pardonne aux cris de ma vive douleur
Portait charmant, tu n’es pas le bonheur
Mais bien souvent tu m’en offres l’image
Charming portrait, portrait of my friend
Token of love, by love obtained
Ah come and give me back the good I have lost
To see you again brings me back to life
Yes here they are, her features, her features I love
Her sweet looks, her bearing, her ingenuousness
When I press you to my heart
I think I still embrace her herself.
No you don’t have to me the same charms
Silent witness of our tender sighs
By recounting our fleeting pleasures
Cruel portrait, you make my tears fall.
Forgive me for my unfair language
Forgive the cries of my bitter woe
Charming portrait, you are not happiness
But so often you give me the image of it.
“Portrait Charmant” was written for one of the queen’s close friends, perhaps Madame de Lamballe. It would be unwise to interpret the lines in terms of our contemporary American culture, so colored by Calvinism and yet ready to sexualize everything. In the lifestyle the queen tried to design at Petit Trianon, life was beautiful, love was pure, everything was rustic, pristine, and natural, a place for small children to play in innocence. In her letters she was always covering everyone with kisses, completely unaware of any double entendres, of any sordid misinterpretation.
Why did Marie-Antoinette have such a need for close friendships? In the vast palaces where she was born and raised, amid a many-peopled court, where she often went for ten days at a time without seeing her busy mother, the Archduchess Antonia’s closest family member was her sister, Maria Carolina, three years her senior. Maria Carolina was bossy but very motherly and extremely protective of her little sister. When Antonia was about twelve, Carolina married and the two sisters never saw each other again. Later, Marie-Antoinette, far away in France, separated from her mother, who was always highly critical of her anyway, tried to find a friend, a “big sister” to take Carolina’s place. Both of her closest friends, Madame de Lamballe and Madame de Polignac, were a few years older than herself and, especially Madame de Polignac, were highly maternal. The queen seemed to grow in emotional maturity and balance after she herself became a mother and had to fight for the survival of her family.
The fact that her marriage had so many difficulties getting started, and that her husband Louis XVI, although a worthy man, was known to be moody, the queen gravitated to her girlfriends for emotional support. Louis XVI had high regard for Madame de Polignac and encouraged his wife to befriend her, seeing her as someone who could guide Antoinette into being a good wife and mother.
Throughout her life, Marie-Antoinette had many friends from all walks of life, including artists, musicians, and theater people, so that her maid Madame Campan in her Memoirs described the queen as being “too democratic.” In the last few years, she grew closer to her pious sister-in-law Madame Elisabeth; it was to Elisabeth that the queen, about to die, expressed her last thoughts and her restrained agony. “I had friends,” she wrote. “The idea of being forever separated from them and from all their troubles is one of the greatest sorrows that I suffer in dying. Let them at least know that to my latest moment I thought of them.”