Excerpt from Marie Antoinette by Antonia Fraser, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Marie Antoinette

The Journey

by Antonia Fraser

Marie Antoinette by Antonia Fraser X
Marie Antoinette by Antonia Fraser
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2001, 608 pages
    Paperback:
    Nov 2002, 544 pages

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Maria Teresa was thirty-eight years old and since her marriage nearly twenty years earlier, she had produced four Archdukes as well as ten Archduchesses (of whom seven were living in 1755). The extraordinarily high survival rate of the imperial family--by the standards of infant mortality of the time--meant that there was no urgent pressure upon the Queen-Empress to produce a fifth son. In any case it seems that Maria Teresa had expected a daughter. One of her courtiers, Count Dietrichstein, wagered against her that the new baby would be a boy. When the appearance of a girl, said to be as like her mother as two drops of water, meant that he lost the bet, the Count had a small porcelain figure made of himself, on his knees, proffering verses by Metastasio to Maria Teresa. He may have lost his wager but if the new-born augusta figlia resembled her mother, then all the world would have gained.

If the birth of an eighth surviving daughter was not in itself a disappointment, was there not perhaps something inauspicious about the date itself, 2 November? This, the Feast of All Souls, was the great Catholic Day of the Dead, when the departed were solemnly commemorated in a series of requiem Masses, in churches and chapels heavily draped in black. What this actually meant during the childhood of Marie Antoinette was that her birthday was generally celebrated on its eve, the Feast of All Saints, a day of white and gold. Besides which, 13 June, the feast of her patron saint St. Antony, tended to be regarded as Marie Antoinette's personal day of celebration, just as the feast of St. Teresa of Avila on 15 October was the name-day of her mother.

If one looks to influences, the baby born on the sombre Day of the Dead must have been conceived on or around a far more cheerful feast of the church: 2 February, the traditionally candle-lit celebration of the Purification of the Virgin Mary. An episode during the Empress's pregnancy could also be seen as significant. In April, Christoph Willibald Gluck was engaged by Maria Teresa to compose "theatrical and chamber music" in exchange for an official salary; this followed his successes in Italy and England as well as in Vienna. A court ball at the palace of Laxenburg, fifteen miles from Vienna, on 5 May 1755, marked his inauguration in this role. Two tastes that would impress themselves upon Marie Antoinette--a love of the "holiday" palace of Laxenburg and a love of the music of Gluck--could literally be said to have been inculcated in her mother's womb.

In contrast, the fact that a colossal earthquake took place in Lisbon on 2 November, with 30,000 killed, was not at the time seen as relevant. This was an age of poor European communications and news of the disaster did not reach Vienna until some time afterwards. It was true that the King of Portugal and his wife had been engaged to stand as the coming baby's godparents; the unfortunate royal couple had to flee from their capital at about the time Marie Antoinette was born. But, once again, this was not known at the time. In any case, royalties were not expected to be present at the event; according to custom, proxies were appointed in their absence: the baby's eldest brother, Joseph, and her eldest sister, Marianne, aged fourteen and seventeen respectively.

The baptism took place at noon on 3 November (baptisms were always held speedily and in the absence of the mother, who was allowed to recover from her ordeal). The Emperor went with a cortege to the Church of the Augustine Friars, the traditional church used by the court, and heard Mass, including the sermon. After that, at twelve o'clock, as Count Khevenhuller noted in his meticulous diary, which is an important source for our knowledge of events in Maria Teresa's family, the baptism was held in "the new and beautiful Anticamera" and performed by "our Archbishop," since the new Papal Nuncio had not yet made a formal appearance at court. The imperial family sat in a row on a long bench. Two galas were ordered: a great gala for the day of the baptism, and a lesser gala for the day after. On 5 and 6 November there were two more spectacles that were shown to the public for free, and on those days there was no charge to the public for entry at the city gates. It was all a very well established ritual.

Excerpted from Marie Antoinette by Antonia Fraser Copyright 2001 by Antonia Fraser. Excerpted by permission of Nan A. Talese, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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