history

Marie Antoinette’s last letter

marie antoinette's last letter, helena fairfax
Harewood House

Harewood House is a stately home on the outskirts of Leeds in the north of England. It’s owned by the Earl and Countess of Harewood, and the state rooms and gardens are open to the public. It’s a magnificent place to visit. At the moment they have a special exhibition, where the last letter written by Marie Antoinette is held in a glass case.

marie antoinette's last letter, helena fairfax
Marie Antoinette’s last letter

Marie Antoinette wrote the letter to her sister-in-law, Madame Elisabeth, a few hours before her execution. It is dated le 16 Octobre 1793. 4h30 du matin.

Before reading this letter I didn’t know much about Marie Antoinette except the stories that have been passed down: that she was a shallow spendthrift with no thought for her people, and of course the famous story that when told her subjects had no bread to eat, she is supposed to have replied, ‘Qu’ils mangent de la brioche.’ (‘Let them eat cake.’)

After reading her letter I was astonished and moved to find a very different woman altogether from the one that history has painted. It’s a moving, courageous and thoughtful letter. Here are the opening lines:

C’est à vous, ma soeur, que j’écris pour la dernière fois : je viens d’être condamnée non pas à une mort honteuse, elle ne l’est que pour les criminels, mais à aller rejoindre votre frère, comme lui, innocente, j’espère montrer la même fermeté que lui dans ces derniers moments.

Here’s my translation: It’s to you, my sister, that I write for the last time: I have just been condemned, not to a shameful death –  that is only for criminals – but to rejoin your brother. Like him, I am innocent, and I hope to show the same firmness as he did in these last moments.

If she were a selfish woman her last words would all have been about herself, but Marie Antoinette’s letter is only concerned with her love and antonia fraser, helena fairfaxfears for the people she is leaving behind. ‘It’s my deep regret that I’m abandoning my children. You know that I lived only for them and for you, my dear and tender sister.’

She goes on to ask her sister to pass on her last words to her children, begging them in most heartfelt terms to love and take care of each other and expressly repeating their father’s last request to his son: « qu’il ne cherche jamais à venger notre mort » (That he never seeks to avenge our death.)

It’s a most heart-rending letter that tells also of Marie Antoinette’s deep regret that she is forced to leave all her friends in this time of trouble. The letter is stained with tears in several places.

je vous embrasse de tout mon cœur, ainsi que ces pauvres et chers enfants : mon Dieu! qu’il est déchirant de les quitter pour toujours. Adieu, adieu

(I embrace you with all my heart, and my poor, beloved children. My God, how painful it is for me to leave them for ever! Adieu, adieu.)

helena fairfax, stefan zweigWinston Churchill once said ‘History is written by the victors’, and I think the revolutionaries left a false picture of Marie Antoinette that has survived to this day. I don’t think she was the shallow egotist that she was portrayed, and after reading this letter I’m determined to find out more about her. I’ve already discovered that she was sent away to the hostile environment of the French court at the age of only fourteen, and must have felt lonely and isolated for much of her life.

There are a couple of books that have been recommended: Stefan Zweig’s Marie Antoinette: The Portrait of an Average Woman, and Antonia Fraser’s Marie Antoinette: The Journey. I’m going to read at least one of these, and try to see beyond the rumour and gossip that surround this poor woman, even long after her death.

What do you know of Marie Antoinette? Do you think she was misunderstood by her subjects, or do you think she deserves her infamous reputation? If you have any questions or comments at all, I’d love to hear from you!

 

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38 thoughts on “Marie Antoinette’s last letter

  1. Aloha Helena!

    Wow. You always have interesting blogs. This is fascinating. I don’t know much about her either. Only the ‘popular culture’ I suppose. This letter certainly puts her in a very different light. What a strange life it must have been, living at Versailles etc, even with the ‘regular’ houses there. He couldn’t even birth a baby in private, back then. All and sundry could be present, to check the royal infant, wasn’t swapped at birth, etc.

    It must have been a ghastly life in many in many ways.

    I’ll be interested to hear what else you find out about her.

    Thanks as always. Aloha Meg :-)

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    1. Hi Meg,
      Yes, a strange life, indeed. I’m curious to find out more. I visited Versailles many years ago. It’s very beautiful, but it lies outside Paris, and in those days must have felt like a gilded cage.
      So glad you enjoyed the post. Thanks very much for your comment!

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  2. Thanks for sharing that interesting post, Helena. I’m sure she’s not the only historical figure to be so cruelly maligned by history. As you say, it must have been terrible to be in a strange place at such a tender age. Enjoy your reading!

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  3. Hi Helena. I read Antonia Fraser’s biography of Marie Antoinette. It gave a very different picture of her as a woman and her life than most of us realize. She actually had a chance to escape with her children, but she refused to go without her husband. Another part I recall is that the woman, who cared for her while she was in prison before her execution, remembered how brave she was all the way to the end.

    Indeed, it’s sad that history hasn’t erased the negative view of this strong woman. BTW, the same is true of Mary Queen of Scots. Fraser’s biography of her life is also very revealing.

    Thanks for sharing that most exquisite letter.

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    1. Hi Joan, thanks so much for sharing that information. I’ve heard Fraser’s biography of Mary Queen of Scots is also very good. Both tragic women. That’s interesting that MA is revealed as strong, as we imagine her today as childish – playing at her toy farm, etc. Her letter certainly paints a different picture. Thanks very much for coming by with your insight. I’ll definitely check out the biography.

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  4. I live in Vienna, Austria right now and Marie Antoinette is found many places here because she was the youngest daughter of Empress of Austria, Maria Theresa. Part of the myth comes because she was a strong woman in a time when women were to be demure and agreeable. Sure, she was spoiled but she was beautiful, smart and knew her politics as well. Unfortunately, she, like many of the aristocracy, didn’t believe their people capable of such horrible things. The one problem with the French court was an overindulgence on the material things they wanted without noticing the world around them too much. And it mattered not that the King and Queen were not necessarily that way but the rest of the aristocracy were.

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    1. Thanks so much for your interesting comment, Lynn. Marie Antoinette comes across as strong in her letter. And who could believe that people would be capable of the atrocities of the revolutionaries? Even today the super-rich don’t notice the world around them. I hope you’re enjoying living in Vienna. It’s a beautiful city!

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  5. Thanks for sharing this information, Helena. I love biographies, and look forward to reading one of those mentioned above. Of course, I think I have to go with the author named “Fraser”…

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    1. Haha! Yes, I think you should, Heather. That author is actually quite well known in the UK. She was married to the playwright Harold Pinter, and is in fact a real Lady. Lady Antonia Fraser. I think Lady Heather Brainerd has an equally fine ring to it :)

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  6. I was fascinated by Antonia Fraser’s portrayal of Marie Antoinette. As you remarked, or quoted, history is indeed written by the victors.

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  7. Fascinating, Helena. All I know is from old movies and I remember being profoundly moved (at a young age) at the idea of walking to the guillotine on my own two feet and not being dragged. MA and MQS just blew me away.
    A agree about the victors writing the history. And remember, Despite a few queens with much power, for the most part, women have been seen as less than second class citizens, chattel, for the many centuries and even today are in some countries. Easy to forget what others have endured and still do when we live in relative wealth and safety. Thank God for a good education!
    Helena, I’ll share. Everyone should see your blog. Thanks for this eyeopener.

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    1. Hi Marsha, you’re so right that atrocities still go on in the world, and women lack power in many countries. I wonder what future generations will make of us all in three hundred years time. Thanks for your great comment!

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    1. Hi Julie, I had no idea Marie Antoinette spent her childhood in the Caribbean. That must have been so interesting to visit her home. And what a prediction for her! If only the psychic had told her the whole truth about her future. Thanks for your fascinating comment!

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  8. Wow! I love learning something new! What a great blog post. Now my curiosity is whetted and I must find out more. And how fantastic that this letter was preserved for so long.

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    1. Hi Margaret, it’s amazing that this letter survived. Another heart-breaking fact is that it was never delivered. I’m not sure who preserved it but I hope to find out. I’m also intrigued to find out more. Glad you enjoyed the post, Margaret. Thanks for coming by!

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  9. Hi, Helena. I had a similar experience not too long ago involving the letters of Aaron Burr, who has been vilified in this country for killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel (right across the Hudson from NYC). The exhibit In a small local museum contained letters to his daughter and demonstrated a warm, loving human being. I love reading original sources.

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    1. Hi Ken,
      I’ve never heard that story of Aaron Burr. He’s not well known in the UK, but now I’ll look him up. It’s great that his letters still exist. And I also love to read the original sources. It would be great to be a historian! Thanks very much for your interesting comment. I’ll check out that piece of history.

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  10. Thanks, Helena. It must indeed have been very moving to read this letter, written by a woman about to be executed. It is all the more sad to read Marie-Antoinette’s words of love and concern for her children when she was always accused of being a shallow and selfish woman – and even worse, since at her trial there were rumours of her being guilty of incest. The French revolution was a chaotic time with terrible excesses of violence, and as always in such troubled times, propaganda and the control of public opinion is paramount for those in power.
    I hope I’ll be able to go to Harewood and read it for myself.

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    1. Hi Marie, I hope you can get to see the letter. It’s a temporary exhibition. I don’t know where Marie Antoinette’s letter is usually kept, but it was wonderful to get the chance to see it in Leeds. You’re so right about controlling public opinion. It just makes you wonder how much of what we see and hear in the news even now is propaganda. Thanks for your comment!

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  11. What an eye-opening post. To think, there were people who spun their stories to influence the public way back in the 1700’s much like the politicians do in Washington, D.C. in the 21 st century. Seeing the actual historical documents fills me with wonder and the sense of all those generations who have gone before us. Another case for writing our life stories now, so history won’t be spun into lies and cover ups of what really happened in our lifetimes. Thanks for sharing. I’d love to visit Harewood House someday.

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    1. Hi JQ, what a great comment. I was also filled with wonder on seeing this letter, at the fact that it has been so well preserved for more than two hundred years. It’s good that we’re now able to document our lives in a lasting way. Even so, propaganda and spin still happen in politics everywhere! And I think you would love it at Harewood House. The state rooms are fabulous. Hope you make it some day. Thanks for your comment!

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