Madame Campan’s Memoirs is a Gutenberg book I read in short instalments. As it’s old-fashioned and hefty, I’d thought I’d just browse a few pages but I ended up reading the whole thing. It was actually real fun. I think it’s one of the sources that inspired Sophia Coppolla to direct her movie Marie Antoinette (other biographies were written by Stephan Zweig at the beginning of 20C and Antonia Fraser recently).
Madame Campan was the personal maid of Queen Marie Antoinette and followed her every movement from the moment Marie Antoinette arrived from the Austrian court to France to her death on the scaffold. As Madame Campan was born in 1772 and died in 1822, she lived through one of the most tumultuous century in French history and it’s rather miraculous that she survived the Revolution: she was 15 when she was appointed at the court, so she witnessed not only the court of Louis XV (with the scandalous royal favourite Mrs. Du Barry), the court of Louis XVI, but also the downfall of monarchy, the excess and bloodsheds of the Terror period and then the rise and fall of Napoleon and of the next new King!
Her memoirs are two-fold: the first part a precise description of the daily life at the royal court, the habits of the royal family she served, and the second the events of the revolution and what happened to the royal family. She is very partial to her mistress Marie Antoinette, and as the Queen was harshly criticized by both the people and the court for being thoughtless and spending too much, Madame Campan sets about to defend her and make her portrait as a young queen, innocent at heart yet well-meaning, whose actions have been misconstrued by all:
Kings have no privacy. Queens have no boudoirs. If those who are in immediate attendance upon sovereigns be not themselves disposed to transmit their private habits to posterity, the meanest valet will relate what he has seen or heard; his gossip circulates rapidly, and forms public opinion, which at length ascribes to the most august persons characters which, however untrue they may be, are almost always indelible.
Many aristocrats were irritated by Marie-Antoinette because she didn’t care for formal dressing and etiquette. She acted naturally according to her personal tastes. By many aspects she didn’t seem to appreciate being a queen. The moment the old king dies find them at a loss as to what to do:
This extraordinary tumult informed Marie Antoinette and her husband that they were called to the throne; and, by a spontaneous movement, which deeply affected those around them, they threw themselves on their knees; both, pouring forth a flood of tears, exclaimed: “O God! guide us, protect us; we are too young to reign.”
She introduced a new fashion for women where aristocrats were no longer much better dressed than mere bourgeois… thus introducing an idea of equality. That’s why some people said that she called the Revolution (and her fate) upon herself.
[The extreme simplicity of the Queen’s toilet began to be strongly censured, at first among the courtiers, and afterwards throughout the kingdom; and through one of those inconsistencies more common in France than elsewhere, while the Queen was blamed, she was blindly imitated. […] Long trains, and all those fashions which confer a certain nobility on dress, were discarded; and at last a duchess could not be distinguished from an actress. The men caught the mania; the upper classes had long before given up to their lackeys feathers, tufts of ribbon, and laced hats. […] Many humiliating scrapes were the consequence of this metamorphosis. Bearing no mark to distinguish them from the common herd, some of the lowest classes got into quarrels with them, in which the nobles had not always the best of it.–MONTJOIE, “History of Marie Antoinette.”]
Madame Campan credits the Queen of a lot of good intentions, but the King Louis XVI. comes out very weak and clumsy indeed. Many mistakes due to naiveté or misunderstanding of basic human emotions seemed to have accelerated his downfall, he is shown taking wrong decisions all the time. The second part of the book has a tragic tone and many tears are shed, but I couldn’t help but wonder how Madame Campan managed to survive all these tragic events while being so close to the person the Revolutionaries hated most. There is certainly an untold story of Madame Campan’s manoeuvring to accommodate with the new authorities. Writing her memoirs in 19C, she still is a 18C woman, thinking in terms of masters and servants, of ranks and obedience, and has not assimilated any of the notions of liberty and equality that has risen during her lifetime.