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Imperial Mother, Royal Daughter

By Nigel Aston | Published in 1986 
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Two books on the age of Marie Antoinette and the Enlightened Despots
  • Imperial Mother, Royal Daughter: The Correspondence of Marie Antoinette and Maria Theresa
    Olivier Bernier - Sidgwick & Jackson, 1985 – 326pp - £12.95
  • Enlightened Absolutism (1760-1790)
    Edited by A. Lentin - Avero Publications, 1985 – XX+291pp - £23
These two collections of translated documents vary greatly in quality, and Lentin's book is immeasurably superior to Olivier Bernier's latest offering. Following his biography of Louis XV, Bernier has produced a new translation of the letters which passed between Marie Antoinette and her mother Maria Theresa in the years 1770-80, turning into very Americanised English much of the material found in Georges Girard's 1933 edition of the correspondence between mother and daughter. He has supplemented it with translations of some of the tell-tale despatches of the Imperial Ambassador, Mercy-Argenteau, scrupulously edited by Arneth and Geffroy in 1874 and originally translated in a two volume edition of 1902 called The Guardian of Marie Antoinette. The one unfamiliar run of letters used by Bernier is in the Staatsarchiv, Vienna; Joseph Il, on an incognito visit to France in 1777, offers his brother the Grand Duke of Tuscany characteristically acerbic comments on the French court and a frank description of Louis XVI's sexual difficulties.

The letters show Marie Antoinette's progression from a gauche fourteen year-old Dauphine to a twenty-five-year-old wife and mother exercising an influence on affairs of state, though never as substantial as Bernier suggests. Much in these pages is familiar: the scorn for Madame du Barry, the twitterings of Louis XVI's pro-Austrian devote aunts, late nights at the faro table, the rise of the Polignacs, and the Queen's seven-year wait for a consummation of the marriage. Marie Antoinette was the well-placed protectress of the Franco-Austrian alIiance of 1756 which, twenty years later, was wearing thin, and it was her main task (as her mother and Mercy saw it) to ensure that her husband's ministers gave the Empire their unambiguous support. She did an indifferent job. Bernier offers ample documentation of the so-called 'Potato War' (1778-9) between Austria and Prussia, and it is clear that no amount of special pleading by the Queen would induce Vergennes to give meaningful French assistance to Joseph II's objective of annexing Bavaria.

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