New College of the Humanities

Imperial Mother, Royal Daughter

Nigel Aston | Published in
  • 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.

Marie Antoinette carelessly (or perhaps deliberately) over-estimated her political importance and power over her husband. It was what her mother wanted to hear and slightly deflected attention from the reports reaching Vienna (invariably from Mercy) about the Queen's debts and late nights. Throughout the 1770s Maria Theresa's apron strings stretched all the way from Vienna to Paris, and became increasingly irksome. The Empress' letters in the last years of her life reveal that she had become something of a tiresome shrew obsessed with piety and pregnancy, distrustful of her daughter and insisting on obedience. Marie Antoinette was ordered to think of her mother 'every month, every week, and every day, so that you forget neither my love nor my advice and the examples I give you'. (October 31st, 1776).

While it is helpful to have a modern English edition of this Correspondence, Bernier's book otherwise has nothing to offer the serious student of eighteenth-century France. His comments are, alas, too often glib, vague, or downright inaccurate. We are given the stale old view of reforming Crown frustrated by selfish, 'privileged' magistrates, and a high spending court led by the Queen, leading inexorably to nemesis in 1789. Mr Bernier has seemingly disregarded the work done in the last thirty years on the latter part of ancien regime France, and hasty editing has greatly reduced the value to the general reader of the letters in his book.

In glaring contrast, Dr Lentin's Enlightened Absolutism is a model of its kind. His purpose has been to assemble documents to illustrate the practical policies and intellectual underpinnings of European monarchies to which he has given the more accurate and satisfying label of 'Enlightened Absolutism' rather than the familiar 'Enlightened Despotism'. He rightly stresses the high regard for the supremacy of law held by these monarchs, who viewed themselves primarily as the servants of the state, dedicated to the supposedly compatible aims of public efficiency and the welfare of their subjects.

In these pages students will find a much wider range of monarchs discussed than the familiar triad of Frederic II, Catherine II, and Joseph II. Spain, Sweden and Tuscany are also included to point out unmistakeable Enlightenment influences on government policies. Enterprisingly, Lentin gives some prominence to contemporary critics of 'Enlightened Absolutism', and this breadth of reference makes the book one of the most valuable selections of printed primary sources on late eighteenth-century monarchies to have been translated into English. Lentin has a feel for the small details which convey the individuality of these different rulers; characters are not crushed beneath ideological posturings. The documents bring out the engaging vanity and resourcefulness of the Russian Empress, the sardonic humour of Frederick II, and the Arnoldian earnestness of Joseph II who had the nervous trick of jingling the spare change in his pocket. The book is arranged into ten sections dealing with policies on religion, the state, law reform, education, and international relations, through to a final consideration of gradual ideological demise under the related pressures of domestic discontent and the appeal of the French Revolution.

Enlightened abolutism/despotism remains an elusive phenomenon. As Professor M.S. Anderson has written, 'It changes its shape as we grasp it and even threatens to dissolve before our eyes'. Problems of definition apart, there can be little doubt that the various Enlightenment influences on these late eighteenth-century monarchs gave a new intellectual justification to the continuing and intensive dedication to raison d'etat expected of rulers since the Renaissance. In the 1760s and early 1770s monarchical policies and the wishes of some of the most publicly acclaimed philosophes tended to converge – to their mutual satisfaction. Such harmony barely survived the death of Voltaire, and the aggressive power-politics of Austria, Russia, and Prussia in the 1780s intensified the disillusionment of radical thinkers in Western Europe. As the First Polish Partition of 1772 showed, the political values of the Enlightenment – reason, conscience, and natural law – were ultimately incompatible with the requirements of forceful, secure absolutist monarchy. Lentin has not overlooked the need to offer material on the foreign policies of his sovereigns and there is a concentration on the international tension and division of the spoils which preceded the First Polish Partition.

As one might expect from the editor of Catherine the Great's Selected Correspondence with Voltaire, there are some splendid extracts dealing with Russia. The Empress's provisional draft for a code of laws, the 'Nakaz' of 1767, is liberally quoted, as well as the critique of that document produced by Prince M.M. Shcherbatov. As elsewhere in the book, there is a well-balanced choice of material, though Lentin pays disappointingly slight attention to the organisation and strength of the armed forces on which the power of the 'Enlightened Absolutist' monarchies critically depended. Dr Lentin's comments are sensible and thought provoking, and there are few better short introductions to the subject. Hopefully his book will attract the student readership it deserves, despite its high price and lack of a paperback edition.
  • Nigel Aston is the author of The Politics of the French Episcopate, 1876-91, to be published in 1987.
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