Biographies & Memoirs

Madame la Dauphine


The only real happiness in this world is a successful marriage.’

All of the grand celebrations and tense discussions about precedence had centred on this one moment, when Marie Antoinette would formally take leave of her own country and step across the border to France to begin her new life as Dauphine and wife of the future King. A highly important ceremonial event, it had been the focus of many fraught hours of negotiation as both sides deliberated the proper etiquette for such a momentous occasion, keen that there should be no loss of dignity on either side and that proper honour should be paid to both Austria and France.

Whereas an ordinary bride would probably find herself being carried over the threshold of her new home by an enthusiastic bridegroom, the arrival of a new Dauphine required rather more ceremony and although both her mother and Louis XV had been extremely caught up in discussions about how best to preserve their own dignity, they seem to have mostly disregarded that of Marie Antoinette, the fourteen year old pawn in their machinations, who was now required to literally strip herself of every link to her homeland before being permitted to step across to France.

The grand handover took place on an island in the middle of the Rhine and was the exact same spot where the Dauphin Louis Auguste’s mother Maria Josepha of Saxony had been ceremoniously handed over to the French over twenty years earlier. The building used on that auspicious occasion had unfortunately tumbled down during the intervening years and so a new wooden pavilion was constructed in its place. Designed to look like a French château, it was furnished with five rooms - the two Austrian chambers where Marie Antoinette would enter, the grande salle de rémise in the centre where the official handover would take place and then two French chambers on the other side where she would finally emerge as the fully fledged Dauphine of France. This charming edifice was hastily furnished with suitably splendid furniture and tapestries, one of which shocked observant onlookers by depicting the rather inauspicious marriage of Jason and Medea, which ended in a mess of recrimination and infanticide. It’s very unlikely however that Marie Antoinette, who never opened a book unless she could help it and had endured an extremely patchy Classical education, would have recognised the story on the tapestry even if she hadn’t been entirely preoccupied with the distressing necessity of saying goodbye to the friends that had accompanied her from Vienna and, worst of all, being parted from her beloved Mops, although they at least would be reunited later on after her arrival at Versailles.

Before it was time to say goodbye, however, Marie Antoinette was required to be formally stripped of everything that linked her to her former life in Austria, specifically her clothes and accessories. It didn’t matter that everything she wore had been made for her by the finest Parisian dressmakers, it still had to come off and everything from her silk gown to her hated corset to her fine cotton shift was removed, leaving the Dauphine shivering and naked in the middle of the room while sounds of thunder and approaching rain emanated ominously from the Black Forest. She was then quickly dressed again in a splendid new cloth of gold dress, part of the expensive trousseau that her mother had ordered for her from Paris while her hair was re-powdered and face and cheeks painted with the heavy cosmetics worn at the French court, an entirely unnecessary garnish for a fresh faced young girl whose complexion was universally praised as ‘literally blending lilies and roses’. However, at Versailles all the ladies wore a thick layer of white paint on their faces and sported comical little circles of pink rouge high on their cheeks (reminiscent of the television character Aunt Sally from Wurzel Gummidge) and so Marie Antoinette, who had been warned by her mother to fit in with her new court, duly followed suit.

Marie Antoinette’s original ‘Austrian’ outfit was destined to be parcelled out between her ladies in waiting, who saw gaining possession of the Dauphine’s hand me down clothes as one of the juiciest perquisites of their job. One can’t help but hope that someone had the sense to forewarn the unfortunate girl about this so that she wore her least favourite and most cumbersome and uncomfortable gown for the occasion and therefore suffered no qualms when she later saw it being worn about Versailles by one of her own ladies.

Fully transformed into a proper femme Française, the little Dauphine, who was suffering from a cold caught during her long journey which had often involved rather inadequate accommodation, was then escorted into the central salle de rémise where she was now expected to say her goodbyes to her Austrian companions before stepping across to the other side of a long table covered with red velvet, which represented the border between France and Austria. Here, she was introduced to her new French attendants, most of whom had also been in the household of Queen Marie Leszczynska of France and had therefore been without an official court function since her death in June 1768. Chief amongst them was the Comtesse de Noailles, who was to be Marie Antoinette’s Mistress of the Household and a figure of great importance during her early years at Versailles.

Madame de Noailles was a quintessentially stiffly upright, etiquette fixated and glacially snobbish denizen of Versailles, a pretentious, hatchet faced woman utterly obsessed with her own precedence and thanks to her arrogant and condescending manner in no way suited to attract the affection and confidences of a candid and warm hearted young girl like Marie Antoinette. However, to the latter, now forcibly separated from the last friendly faces of home, shivering with cold and still feeling pinpricks of humiliation as a result of being stripped of her clothes in front of a crowd of witnesses, the much older Madame de Noailles, who must have seemed about the same age as her mother Maria Theresa (she was actually twelve years younger), must have seemed like an oasis of comfort in the midst of so much misery.

Emotionally overwhelmed by the situation that she had found herself in, exhausted by all the long weeks of travelling and desperate for a scrap of human kindness, Marie Antoinette burst into tears, threw herself at Madame de Noailles and gave her a spontaneous hug, no doubt hoping that here was the substitute mother that she had doubtless been hoping to find in France. Instead there was a gasp of dismay, and probably some stifled giggles too, from the onlookers as the haughty Comtesse stiffly disengaged herself from the young Dauphine, leaving her in no doubt that she had committed a terrible faux pas. Nowadays it would be something of an honour to be hugged so publicly by royalty but the Comtesse made it clear that she was horrified by such a social solecism, which had the effect of making the already unhappy Marie Antoinette feel even more awkward and miserable. Nonetheless, she managed to make a graceful apology: ‘Forgive me, Madame, for the tears that I have just shed for my family and my homeland. From this day forward, I shall never again forget that I am a Frenchwoman.’

Amongst the other ladies in waiting, which must have presented a bewildering array of faces to the nervous Marie Antoinette as she turned away from the unsmiling Madame de Noailles, there was the witty Duchesse de Villars as well as the Duchesse de Cossé and the Comtesse de Tonnerre.Another lady in waiting was the twenty two year old Marie-Jeanne de Talleyrand-Périgord, Comtesse de Mailly-Haucourt, whose mother had been one of Marie Leszczynska’s favourite ladies in waiting. Madame de Mailly-Haucourt was extremely popular at Versailles where, like most of the extensive Talleyrand clan she was known for her wit, merry nature and kind heart and she soon became very friendly with the young Marie Antoinette, who was badly in need of friendly faces during her first puzzling weeks at Versailles. It’s likely that if the unfortunate Marie Antoinette had instead hugged the sweet natured and kindly Madame de Mailly-Haucourt then she might have received a warmer and far more sympathetic response.

Lurking in the background, there was also the pale and very pretty twenty six year old Marie-Paule-Angelique d’Albert de Luynes, Duchesse de Picquigny (later Duchesse de Chaulnes), another former lady in waiting of the dead Queen who had been transferred to the service of the new Dauphine. Quiet, refined and rather shy, Madame de Picquigny was an object of interest and some mild ridicule at Versailles thanks to it being well known that her marriage to Monsieur le Duc, an austere and rather remote young man who had once been betrothed to the daughter of Madame de Pompadour and whose mother was famously promiscuous, had never been consummated, a fact signalled by her habit of never wearing anything other than virginal white.

The all important introductions over, it was time to clamber back on board her splendid coach, this time with the thin lipped and clearly disapproving Madame de Noailles and the Duchesse de Villars for company rather than the cheerful and comforting Princesse de Paar, and make the journey to Strasbourg for her first official welcome to France. Marie Antoinette stared apprehensively out of her rain splattered carriage windows at the countryside, her mother’s watch, which she had somehow managed to keep out of the hands of the ladies as they removed all of her Austrian possessions, hidden about her person. The only relief must have been the fact that it was against etiquette for anyone to address a member of the royal family unless they had already been spoken to and so she didn’t have to talk to Madame de Noailles, simmering silently beside her, unless she absolutely wanted to.

By the time they arrived in Strasbourg, a charming border town which must have seemed reassuring Germanic to Marie Antoinette’s eyes, equanimity was clearly restored and she was seen to chat quite affably with her ladies as she settled back to enjoy her first few days in France. In Strasbourg, the smiling Dauphine was greeted by cheers, shouts of welcome and crowds of children dressed up as shepherds and shepherdesses or in the picturesque local costume, who showered her with flowers, which we are told she received and held as ‘the goddess Flora herself might have done’. The Franco-Austrian alliance may have been the cause of some suspicious eye brow raising closer to Paris but here on the border, where for centuries the people had regularly found themselves caught in the middle of conflict between the two great nations, it was greeted with tremendous joy.

The cheers and acclamations only increased when Marie Antoinette, blinking back tears of happiness, stopped the orator as he began to make a speech of welcome in German, saying, ‘Don’t speak to me in German. From now on I want to hear no language but French.’ Unschooled, awkward and often gauche though she may well have been, it seemed that the little princess had a hitherto unsuspected ability to say just the right thing when the occasion called for it.

That evening, Strasbourg’s magnificent cathedral, built from local sandstone which took on a glorious rose pink hue at sunset, was lit up and the great and good of the city filed silently past the new Dauphine as for the first time she took part in the ‘Le Grand Couvert’, which involved dining in solitary splendour in front of a crowd of gawking onlookers. Never a hearty eater at the best of times and prone to going pink about the ears when stared at, Marie Antoinette nonetheless handled this very well and pleased everyone with her graceful manners and appearance of not appearing not notice that she was being watched like an animal at the zoo. Eating in public would always be a torture to her though and she would never manage to emulate the famous aplomb of her father-in-law Louis XV, who liked to perform tricks like smoothly using his knife to swipe the top off his boiled egg to please the crowds that had gathered to watch him eat.

After what must have been an unsatisfactory supper, there was a performance at the theatre to sit through, followed by a ball, where she was introduced to all the local nobility and danced until past midnight before falling into her bed in the splendid episcopal palace of Cardinal de Rohan, where beneath her windows there was a floating garden created by a flotilla of illuminated boats, all heaped with sweet smelling flowers. In the morning she went to Mass in the cathedral, yawning behind her hand as the Cardinal’s handsome and extremely ambitious nephew Prince Louis de Rohan gave a speech welcoming the Dauphine and fulsomely praising her mother, whom he described as ‘the admiration of Europe’.

After this it was time to say goodbye to Strasbourg and hop back in the gorgeous carriage, which was more window than wall so that she might be better seen by the populace, for the journey to the city of Nancy, where her father Emperor Francis had been born in 1708. Marie Antoinette had been especially looking forward to this leg of her trip as it was a unique opportunity to see for herself the lands of the Lorraine family, which her father had been so loath to give up as a condition of his marriage to her mother. Although Marie Antoinette had been raised to take pride in her Austrian background, she had also been encouraged to feel a connection to her Lorraine roots as well and visiting Nancy, where she was to lodge in the ducal palace where her father had been born, would no doubt have been of great comfort to her at this time.

This visit to Nancy also served as a reminder of Marie Antoinette’s own French heritage as her grandmother, Francis’ mother, had been Élisabeth Charlotte d’Orléans, the only daughter of Philippe d’Orléans and had been born at the Château de Saint Cloud, which Marie Antoinette would later own. It’s not really surprising, due to the vast and complex web of intermarriage that characterised European royalty at the time, that Marie Antoinette and her new husband Louis Auguste were actually cousins due to both being descended from Philippe, known to history as ‘Monsieur’, the controversial younger brother and only sibling of Louis XIV. Philippe was a complex character, famed for his liking for pretty young men and passion for fashion and the more byzantine complexities of court etiquette as well as his bravery in battle.

Perhaps fittingly, Louis Auguste was the great great great grand-son of Philippe and his flighty, pretty, delicate first wife, the Princess Henrietta Anne of England, who was youngest daughter of the troubled Charles I, with whom Louis Auguste would alas, turn out to have more than one thing in common. Marie Antoinette, on the other hand, was the great grand-daughter of Monsieur and his second wife, the sensible, plain talking Protestant princess Elizabeth Charlotte (known as Liselotte), who was the grand-daughter of Elizabeth of Bohemia, daughter of James I and so, like Philippe’s unfortunate first wife Henrietta, yet another sprig from the Stuart family tree.

That there was a dash of that unlucky Stuart blood in both Louis Auguste and Marie Antoinette is perhaps no surprise as they shared James I and Anne of Denmark as common ancestors as well as James’ enigmatic mother Mary, Queen of Scots, who had also briefly been Queen of France. Louis Auguste, who loved his history and was a big fan of Hume’s History of England, was fascinated by his Stuart, Tudor and Plantagenet ancestors and while Marie Antoinette had no interest in the past, she might still have been just a little bit intrigued by the glamorous and romantic personages of Mary Stuart and her granddaughter, the Winter Queen of Bohemia.

It was her more immediate ancestors, however, that Marie Antoinette was interested in as she met her father’s relatives in Nancy, earning herself a sharp reprimand from Madame de Noailles, whom she was by now beginning to heartily detest, for showing them too much familiarity. Lighthearted, carefree and informal in a way that must have brought to mind her own similarly pleasant father, she very much enjoyed spending time with them in surroundings that would have instantly recalled to mind Francis’ stories about his own youth and time as Duke of Lorraine.

Spared the hideous ordeal of keeping vigil alongside her Habsburg ancestors in the imperial crypt of the Capuchin church in Vienna, Marie Antoinette took pleasure in praying at the tombs of her Lorraine ancestors in the church of the Cordeliers, which served as a necropolis for the Dukes of Lorraine and included the tomb of her grandmother Elisabeth Charlotte d’Orléans as well as the wonderful Ligier Richier recumbent effigy of Philippa of Guelders, formidable great grandmother of Mary Queen of Scots. Her father Francis had been laid to rest in the imperial crypt in Vienna, there to await the eventual entombment of her mother beside him, but Marie Antoinette would felt his comforting presence everywhere around her in Nancy and it must have been a tremendous wrench to have to leave and continue with her journey west towards Compiègne, where she was to have her first meeting with Louis XV and, more importantly, her new husband Louis Auguste.

What must Marie Antoinette have felt as her glorious carriage drew ever closer to the appointed meeting place in the heart of the royal hunting forest near the château of Compiègne? Her new ladies in waiting had been acquainted with the Dauphin for many years, some of them had even known him all his life - did she ask them what he was really like and did they raise their eyebrows and shake their heads at each other behind her head? To Maria Theresa, the personality of the French prince had been of as little importance as the identity of the precise Archduchess to be sent to marry him had been to his grandfather, Louis XV and Marie Antoinette, raised to put her absolute trust in the superior judgement of her mother, had probably not wondered too much about it either. However, as her carriage sped through the muddy forest tracks and her ladies fussed about her, primping her in preparation for this all important meeting, the new Dauphine must have felt extremely apprehensive about the boy who was currently just as nervously waiting for her in the forest clearing.

When the carriage pulled up, the Duc de Choiseul, Chief Minister of France, who had been the chief architect of her marriage, was waiting to greet her. ‘I shall never forget that you are responsible for my good fortune,’ Marie Antoinette told him with a charming smile.

‘Madame, the good fortune is that of France,’ the gallant Duc replied with a graceful bow before leading her to where the royal party were descending from their carriage. The meeting had been originally envisaged as an intimate family affair, but word had naturally sped and so there were many witnesses to the touching scene that followed as the Dauphine, impatient to meet her new family left the Duc de Choiseul standing and ran lightly forward before sinking into an exquisite and extremely well schooled curtsey before the King, a still handsome man with the bold black eyes of his Medici ancestors and the Roman nose and refined manners of his dread great grandfather Louis XIV, from whom he had inherited the throne at the age of just five.

King Louis was a complex man. Orphaned in infancy, he was exceedingly reserved and, although charmingly urbane and never anything less than beautifully polite on the surface, actually quite hard to get to know as his exquisite but now sadly departed mistress Madame de Pompadour had often had cause to bemoan. He was completely obsessed with maintaining his privacy, to this end building up a series of warren like rooms beneath the eaves of Versailles where he could retreat and be perfectly alone with his latest mistress and closest friends. His passions were private but it was well known that besides hunting, which was his first and foremost love in life, he was fascinated by astronomy, loved to read and had amassed an enormous collection of several thousand books in his private library. He also enjoyed writing and kept up an enormous correspondence with several members of his scattered family, in particular his grandson and protegé the Duke of Parma, who was the husband of Marie Antoinette’s sister Maria Amalia. Another passion, perhaps surprisingly, was cookery, which prompted him at the age of sixteen to take lessons from a chef in a specially constructed kitchen at Versailles, where he learned to make perfect omelettes while wearing one of his twelve specially commissioned aprons, each one embroidered with the double V of Versailles.

Always a discerning connoisseur of female beauty, the sixty year old Louis XV was completely charmed by his grandson’s young wife, who had the pink and white complexion, huge blue eyes and bouncing strawberry blonde hair of a nymph in one of his favourite Boucher paintings and was not really all that dissimilar in type to the young girls, not much older than she was, who populated his private brothel in the town of Versailles. Knowing this, there was no doubt a great deal of discreet nudging and winking going on from the courtiers as they watched the wily old King greet his new granddaughter, kiss her rouged cheeks and look her over in the French style: swiftly, from head to toe and back again before he gracefully motioned for his grandson, her husband, to step forward and be introduced for the first time.

If the fifteen year old Dauphin bore little resemblance to the miniature portrait that Marie Antoinette had received with such excitement only a month earlier, she gave no sign as she politely curtseyed and replied to his mumbled greeting then offered her cheek for an unenthusiastic kiss, while the Dauphin’s libertine grandfather no doubt watched in sad resignation and perhaps wished that it was he who was to be the bridegroom instead. Although not a monstrous spectacle by any means, Louis Auguste was a rather lumpen, overweight boy with heavy dark eyebrows, his grandfather’s prominent Bourbon nose and a shy and awkward manner. Phlegmatic by nature and schooled since early childhood to hide his emotions, he also gave no sign of his feelings about his new wife, which left Marie Antoinette, used to flowery praise and admiration wherever she went, feeling doubtful and somewhat bewildered.

Louis Auguste was the fourth child and second surviving son of Louis XV’s eldest son, the Dauphin Louis of France and his second wife Maria Josepha of Saxony, who was affectionately known as ‘Pépa’. The royal couple had been considered unusual at Versailles for their domestic harmony and frank and open adoration of each other in a court where it was considered bad form to be openly affectionate towards one’s spouse. The Dauphin was a complicated character: he wrote to a friend that his soul was ‘always gay’ and indeed there was a liveliness and cheerfulness about him that made his company much sought after. However, he had also inherited the morbid nature of his parents Louis XV and his devout Polish wife Marie Leszczynska and was obsessed with death and dying, much as his cousin Isabella of Parma had been during her time in Vienna. His mother kept the skull of the delightful courtesan Ninon de Lenclos on her desk, garlanded with flowers and grinning toothily upon a velvet cushion. She called it ‘Ma chère mignonne’.

It is recorded that in the early days of their marriage, the young Saxony princess Maria Josepha had been horrified to witness her new husband and his sisters spending evenings dressed in black and walking slowly around a dim candlelit room murmuring, ‘I am dead, I am dead, I am dead’ in a continuation of a favourite game from childhood. It all seemed a bit weird and unacceptably morbid to a young princess who adored dancing, laughter, being outdoors, having fun and celebrating life.

It didn’t help matters that the young Dauphin had been married once before, to the pretty Infanta Maria Teresa Rafaela of Spain, who was four years his senior. The court had giggled behind their spangled and painted fans at the young bride’s unfashionable red hair, but the Dauphin had fallen immediately and violently in love with her and was thrilled when she became pregnant. ‘I can hardly believe that I am so soon to be a father!’ he wrote to a friend, his delight echoing that of every young father throughout the centuries.

Maria Teresa gave birth to a daughter Marie-Thérèse in July 1746 and died four days later. Her young husband, just sixteen years old at this time, was genuinely devastated with courtiers likening his grief to that of ‘an inconsolable child’, which in many ways he was. The little princess, his only link with his deceased love, was to live for just two years and would die in April 1748 after being given an emetic in an attempt to alleviate the pain of teething.

No one knew quite what to expect when the Dauphin was married again, this time to Maria Josepha, and she must have been quite perturbed when on their wedding night he collapsed in tears into her arms and sobbed about his dead wife, which must have been somewhat awkward to say the least. The marriage seemed doomed to failure until the Dauphin caught smallpox and his little wife insisted on nursing him back to health herself. It is said that she took such great care of him that a short sighted doctor, unused to the court, said to the Dauphin, ‘You have an excellent little nurse there. Never get rid of her.’ The Dauphin made a full recovery and filled with gratitude, he fell in love at last with his wife.

The young couple enjoyed a blissful life together, almost a second honeymoon in fact, and were to be seen at their devotions together in the Versailles chapel every morning, before taking the air together on the terrace by the Orangerie. They shared exactly the same tastes for music, reading and gardening and loved to spend their time together. The Dauphin was a talented musician and played the violin, organ and spinet as well as singing in a very fine baritone. In common with his father’s mistress Madame de Pompadour (known as ‘Pom Pom’ by her lover’s children) he was also a talented actor, capable of reducing an audience to fits of uncontrollable laughter with his comedic roles.

Their lives were not just devoted to pleasure however. Both were keen philanthropists, who loved to assist the needy and were generous givers to charity. They gave instructions to their children’s tutors that the princes and princesses should be taken to the houses of the needy so that they could see for themselves how the poor lived. ‘They must learn to weep. A prince who has never shed any tears cannot be good,’ the Dauphin explained. He was also very fond of taking his sons to view the baptismal register of the parish of Versailles, where their names were written alongside those of more humble infants. ‘Look, my children, look at your names written after the name of a pauper. The only thing that can establish any difference between you is virtue,’ he would say. One can imagine the effect of all this on his second son, the young Louis Auguste.

When Louis Auguste was born in the Dauphine’s bedchamber on the ground floor of Versailles in the boiling hot summer of 1754, the royal nursery at the palace was already home to Marie Zéphyrine, who was born in August 1750 and Louis Joseph, who was born in September 1751. Another son, Xavier, had recently died in February 1754 at the age of six months. Typically, Maria Josepha was determined not to make a fuss when she went into labour at around four in the morning and, believing she simply had colic, had got up and spent the next few hours alone before waking her husband who in his turn alerted the servants. Their new son was born at quarter to seven and immediately passed into the care of Madame de Marsan, who was already governess to his elder brother the Duc de Bourgogne and a most imposing presence at court where she was one of the few granted the rare distinction of being allowed to sit in an actual chair in the presence of royalty and also use an oval silver chamber pot instead of the usual round one. Lucky lady.

The baby’s grandfather was away hunting at his nearby estate at Choisy when the news arrived that his daughter in law had delivered a child and immediately rushed back to Versailles to inspect the baby. There had been some concerns about the healthiness of the Dauphine’s progeny as her three earlier babies had all apparently inherited her own rather sickly constitution, however this new boy delighted everyone by being gloriously plump, healthy and loud. According to court protocol, he was immediately baptised, presented with a tiny blue watered silk sash of the Order of the Holy Spirit and given the title of Duc de Berry which was always used instead of a Christian name – it was the custom at the time for royal sons to only be known by their titles (which could be recycled if they died in infancy) until they were officially christened with actual names later on.

The first six years of Louis Auguste’s childhood passed as normal, all under the strict but loving care of Madame de Marsan who adored all of her royal charges. There was the usual discussion, fuss and official recording of such usual infant events as weaning, teething, learning to walk and small childhood illnesses, of which Louis Auguste remained mercifully virtually untouched. However, at Versailles where everyone still shuddered to remember the terrible weeks when the King’s family was all but wiped out by small pox leaving him orphaned and without siblings, any sign of illness was regarded with suspicion and dread so that the royal children must have felt ridiculously fussed over at times.

However, during these early years of Louis Auguste’s life, the succession must have seemed not just secure but also in exceptionally good hands – his father was the very picture of health and his elder brother, the Duc de Bourgogne was considered by all to be a very promising child indeed. Bourgogne actually sounds completely annoying but there is no doubt that he was an extremely precocious little boy – we are told that at the age of seven he presented Louis XV, who shared his passion for mathematics and science, with a book of geometry problems that he himself had worked out. Unfortunately, at the age of nine, Bourgogne became ill with tuberculosis of the bones, which would later return to haunt the sons of his brother and Marie Antoinette. It soon became clear that he would not survive and so it was decided that his younger brother, who was then aged six, should leave the nursery a year early and begin the lessons and training that would make him ready to take his place as heir. Up until this point, Louis Auguste had, as was traditional, still worn dresses and had been cosseted and fussed over by Madame de Marsan. Now, however, he was expected to dress like a miniature adult, live with his brother in their own splendid apartment and be raised under the care of his new governor the Duc de la Vauguyon, who was opposed to the alliance with Austria and brought him up to be instinctively suspicious of anything Austrian, particularly its reportedly lovely bevy of Archduchesses.

Poor Louis Auguste was completely miserable as he was now also expected to spend all of his time with that miniature egotist Bourgogne, whose already sharp nature had not sweetened one whit during the rapid onset of his illness. Quite the reverse in fact – he had become even more difficult and imperious and also quite terrifyingly pious, which can’t have been much fun to be around. Not entirely unexpectedly, Louis Auguste became ill too at this point but managed to recover. However, his brother died shortly afterwards in March 1761, casting the entire court into mourning. Difficult, haughty and often irritatingly precocious though the boy had been, there is no doubt that his family and much of the court saw in him the last great hope for the future of the Bourbon dynasty, regarding him as a prospective king in the mould of the great Louis XIV.

For his younger brother Louis Auguste, the sudden rise to prominence as heir to the throne of France was devastating and confusing. Whereas Bourgogne had been flattered, admired, encouraged and adored from the moment of his birth, Louis Auguste had been regarded very much as ‘the spare’ and had received no such adulation, although his parents were affectionate towards him. Furthermore, he had been raised to consider himself in all ways inferior to his elder brother so when he suddenly took centre stage, he didn’t know how to act and certainly didn’t have the carefully fostered and promoted high opinion of himself that Bourgogne had. This awkwardness and lack of confidence would remain with Louis Auguste for the rest of his life, balanced by what were considered to be his less than princely attributes of a warm heart, sensitivity and, eventually, uxoriousness as Marie Antoinette, his new bride, casting him covert glances from beneath her eyelashes in the sunlit clearing at Compiègne, would soon discover for herself. Also present that afternoon were Louis XV’s three unmarried daughters, who remained with him at Versailles and inhabited enormous, splendidly decorated apartments there. Familiar to us as charming, winsomely smiling young princesses in the flattering portraits of Nattier, the three maiden princesses were by now in their thirties and not nearly so delightful to look at as they had been in their fresh faced youth. There had originally been eight princesses born to Louis and his Polish wife Marie Leszczynska, only one of whom, Louise-Élisabeth, had escaped into marriage (becoming the mother of Isabella of Parma and Ferdinand, the husband of Marie Antoinette’s sister Maria Amalia), while the rest remained at Versailles to adorn their father’s court, attend to their mother and cause trouble for the royal mistresses, whom they loathed and regarded as jumped up rivals for their adored father’s affections. For his part, the King was carelessly fond of his unattractive trio of daughters and would make a point of visiting them every day to make hot chocolate with his own hand and enjoy some court gossip, of which they always seemed to have an enormous store.

After the death of his beloved mother Maria Josepha, the orphaned Louis Auguste had turned to his aunts for comfort and was by 1770 in the habit of regarding them as substitute mothers, always willing to listen sympathetically to his troubles and offer advice. However, they had been avowed opponents of his match with an Austrian Archduchess, seeing this as a chance to make trouble for his grandfather’s mistress Madame de Pompadour who had been very much in favour of it, and had done much to poison the vulnerable boy’s mind against the dangers of such a match and, most worryingly of all, the very person of his putative bride who, they spitefully suggested, could never be anything other than an avowed enemy of France and an agent of Austrian interests.

The eldest of the trio of sisters, Madame Adélaïde, who had been considered rather lovely in her youth but had rapidly lost her looks thereafter, was their undisputed leader, both by dint of her seniority and also due to respect of her strong willed, bold and extremely formidable personality. It was said of Adélaïde that as a child of eleven, at the height of the war between France and England, she had been caught sneaking out of Versailles with her pin money, declaring that, ‘I am going to make all of the English lords sleep with me, which they will be honoured to do, and then bring back their heads to my Papa.’ Intelligent, energetic and forceful, she very much ruled the roost at Versailles and resented any other woman who challenged her dominance within the family.

The other two daughters, plump and pretty Madame Victoire and nervously blinking and rather plain Madame Sophie, described by Horace Walpole as ‘clumsy, plump, old wenches’, were much less intimidating than their daunting elder sister but although they seemed more inclined to treat the new Dauphine kindly, they followed the domineering Adélaïde in everything and so remained aloof. The three women were known by their father as, respectively, Rag, Piggy and Grub - extremely unflattering nursery nicknames that had unfortunately stuck.

A fourth princess, Madame Louise, had recently retired to a convent with the avowed intent of praying for her father’s lost and blackened soul and Marie Antoinette would pay her a visit a few days later on her way to Versailles. Now though she cheerfully clambered into the royal coach between the King and her silent, grumpy looking young husband and they made their way to the lovely château of Compiègne, one of the royal family’s favourite summer residences, to meet the princes of the blood, headed by the Duc d’Orléans and his son the Duc de Chartres, who was seven years older than his cousin Louis Auguste. Marie Antoinette was also introduced to the new Duchesse de Chartres, Louise Marie Adélaïde de Bourbon, eldest daughter of the Duc de Penthièvre and herself a great granddaughter of Louis XIV and Athénaïs de Montespan.

The premature death of Louise Marie’s only brother, the dissolute Prince de Lamballe, had left her in possession of an immense fortune and sole heiress to one of the most enormous and fabulous fortunes in all France, if not all Europe, bringing her lucky husband a dowry of 6 million livres (which made Marie Antoinette’s dowry look positively measly) and an annual income of 240,000 livres, which later doubled to almost half a million livres a year. No wonder then that the ambitious and extremely intelligent Duc d’Orléans, originally so hesitant to marry his eldest son to what was after all an illegitimate branch of the royal family, had changed his mind after the death of the Prince de Lamballe and hastened to secure this jewel for their family. For her part, the sixteen year old new Duchesse was madly in love with her husband even if he had allegedly already returned to the fun and dissolute frolics of his bachelor life.

With them there was Princess Maria Teresa of Savoy-Carignan, the widow of the Duchesse de Chartres’ dead brother, the Prince de Lamballe. The twenty year old half German and half Italian Princesse de Lamballe must have been a figure of some romantic interest to the young Marie Antoinette as she was just six years older, had already experienced personal tragedy and was also extremely pretty with soft blue eyes and very long auburn hair, of which she was extraordinarily proud. Sweet natured and not all that bright, the Princesse de Lamballe and the Dauphine instantly hit it off, drawn together by a mutual enjoyment of fashion and normal youthful frivolity.

The next day the royal party travelled to the small pleasure château of La Muette, a glorified hunting lodge in the Bois de Boulogne, a stone’s throw away from the centre of the French capital. However, it was unlikely that anyone present would have been so tactless as to remind the King of this fact. Once so popular that he was hailed by his people as Louis le bien-amé, the best beloved, he was now so universally loathed that he had not dared to show his face in his own capital for several years and discouraging his family from also going there.

At La Muette, Marie Antoinette was introduced to the younger members of the royal family, first of all Louis Auguste’s two younger brothers, the Comte de Provence and Comte d’Artois. Provence, the elder, was almost exactly the same age as his new sister in law (he was fifteen days younger) and even more chubby than the Dauphin but had none of his good nature or shyness and was instead intelligent and rather spiteful, although he was bright enough to mostly hide it with an amiable, amusing chatterbox veneer. Artois, the younger brother, was twelve and, unlike his elders, had inherited all the bold charm and good looks of their suave grandfather and was already said to be something of a hit with the ladies. Naturally, he and Marie Antoinette got on like a house on fire.

Marie Antoinette was charmed by La Muette, which was built along the same small but bijou lines as the Petit Trianon, and it was to remain one of her favourite summer residences, where she could escape the crowds of courtiers while at the same time enjoy the close proximity to Paris. After retiring to her rooms to freshen up and change into a new pretty dress,  Marie Antoinette rejoined the others for a private supper party attended by her new family and a few of their most favoured attendants, most of whom Marie Antoinette had already met. However, when she entered the room it was to a tense atmosphere, quite at odds with the mood of cheerful celebration that had predominated over the past few days. This uneasy feeling only increased when Marie Antoinette glanced up the table to where the King was sitting and noticed him deep in conversation with a beautiful blonde that she had not been introduced to. Seeing that the King was roaring with laughter at something that this lady was whispering in the royal ear, she asked the Comtesse de Noailles, who was rigid with disapproval, who she was. ‘That is the Comtesse du Barry,’ was the bland reply, no doubt uttered in a tone intended to deter any further enquiry.

‘She is very pretty,’ the Dauphine observed. ‘What is her function at court?’

’To amuse the King,’ Madame de Noailles’ mischievous nephew, the Duc d’Ayen said with a wink at his dumbstruck aunt.

Marie Antoinette, too innocent to properly understand his meaning, laughed. ‘Then I should like to be her rival,’ she remarked.

Born Jeanne Bécu in Vaucouleurs in August 1743, the future Madame du Barry was the illegitimate daughter of a gorgeous seamstress and a friar – a shocking beginning to what was to be a scandalous life. Jeanne, dragged up by her mother then fortuitously sent to a convent school by a wealthy benefactor, was to grow up to be exceedingly beauteous with a lovely face, tumbling blonde hair and meltingly seductive violet eyes. Sadly, her prospects were not at all promising and after an initial attempt to attain at least some vague semblance of respectability by training as a milliner, the young Jeanne found herself working in a casino, which was actually little better than a brothel.

She was ‘rescued’ from this life by a noted roué, the spurious Comte du Barry who installed her as his mistress then launched her on a career as a high class courtesan to gentlemen of the court, which suited her just fine as she had been blessed with a budding taste for expensive luxuries. She did very well for herself until 1768 when she came to the attention of another aged roué, Louis XV who, always prone to depression, had been in a protracted state of bored gloom ever since the death of his exquisite mistress Madame de Pompadour. He’d ignored all of his courtiers’ attempts to divert his attention with various beautiful and well born ladies of the court and had instead consoled himself with the less demanding charms of servant girls and the young women who were housed in his private brothel in Versailles.

He was instantly smitten by the young Jeanne, however, and it wasn’t long before her lover’s  brother, the Comte du Barry, was forced to marry her in order to make her position more respectable and enable her to have the title that was so necessary for an entrée to Versailles life. After this there was no stopping her and to the horror of everyone, the King even installed her in apartments in the palace. No one in Versailles had any illusions about the origins of the latest favourite though, lovely thought she was. They’d all sneered at the middle class origins of the exquisitely refined Madame de Pompadour, so their feelings about having the undeniably low born and rather vulgar Madame du Barry prancing around in their midst, dressed up in pink silk and exquisite lace and covered in the flashy diamonds that she adored so much, were more than their aristocratic sensibilities could bear. That a trollop like Jeanne du Barry should be invited to such a prestigious event as the intimate supper party designed to welcome the new Dauphine to the royal family was considered to be an insupportable insult, most especially to Marie Antoinette herself, who luckily for the moment remained innocent of all of this - but not for much longer.

The 16 May 1770 dawned bright and beautiful - perfect weather for a royal wedding day. The King, Dauphin and their attendants left just after dawn to make the three hour carriage journey back to Versailles, leaving Marie Antoinette to follow them a few hours later. Extremely excited to be finally getting her first glimpse of the most magnificent and famous palace in all Europe, the one that had served as the model for all others ever since its inception just over a century earlier, she beamed with delight at the immense crowds that had gathered on the road from Paris to watch her pass. Although their initial suspicion about this unpopular Austrian match would never quite disappear, there had been enough glowing reports of the little Dauphine’s prettiness and charm to make the Parisians quite take her to their hearts, incapable as always of resisting the appeal of an attractive young woman.

Another huge crowd awaited the Dauphine at Versailles where, although admission was strictly by ticket only for the day, well over six thousand people had turned up to swell the ranks of the court and see as much as they could of the royal wedding day. Everyone was dolled up in their finest clothes while the ladies of the court, many of whom had been up since 6am to get ready, had been laced into their finest court dresses with their wide panniered skirts and long trains getting in everyone’s way as they all craned for a first thrilling glimpse of the bride.

For Marie Antoinette her first sight of Versailles, which would be her chief residence for the next nineteen years, was awe inspiring and emotional as her carriage drove through the imposing gilt covered gates and deposited her in the courtyard. As the Dauphine looked up at the splendid gleaming facade of the palace she would have seen dozens of courtiers crammed into all of the windows, all staring down curiously at this small girl who would one day, God willing, be their Queen.

Without further ado, Marie Antoinette was swept off to the Dauphine’s apartments on the ground floor of the palace, where she was to be temporarily housed until the much grander Queen’s apartments on the first floor, which were currently being renovated, were ready for her. The Dauphine’s apartments, which incorporated two antechambers, a cabinet, two sitting rooms, an oratory, a large bedchamber and a bathroom, had not been inhabited since the death of Maria Josepha of Saxony in 1767 and were gloomy, sparsely decorated and rather lacking in privacy, giving out as they did straight on to the gardens. However, they had the bonus of being directly next door to the rooms inhabited by Louis Auguste, which meant that they could see each other easily, should they wish to do so.

Waiting in her bedchamber, where incidentally her new husband had been born, were her wedding presents from the King, arranged on the pale blue silk cushioned drawers of a three foot high and six foot wide crimson velvet coffer which had been specially designed by the architect Belanger. Chief amongst the gifts was a beautiful diamond parure set from the King as well as a diamond encrusted fan and other ornaments, including a diamond bracelet set with a miniature portrait of the King which she immediately snatched up and put on her wrist, prompting an onlooker to say that ‘she loses no occasion of seeking to please him.’ More importantly though, Marie Antoinette was also presented with the jewels traditionally owned by the Dauphine of France, which had last belonged to her husband’s mother Maria Josepha of Saxony. Valued at over 2 million livres, they included a wealth of pearls, diamonds and other fabulous jewels and must have made Marie Antoinette’s eyes widen with amazement as she stared at them. As there was currently no Queen of France, she was also given a beautiful pearl necklace that had once belonged to Anne of Austria, the mother of Louis XIV, and which had been handed down to each successive consort.

Also waiting for Marie Antoinette were her ladies in waiting, headed as always by Madame de Noailles, and also her shy little sisters-in-law Clotilde and Élisabeth. Clotilde, the elder was just ten years old and, like her elder brothers, so chubby that she was known, rather unkindly, at court as ‘Gros Madame’, which being extremely good natured, she just laughed off. Later on her future husband, the King of Sardinia, would say that he adored her generous figure as it just meant that ‘there is more of her to love’. The other sister Élisabeth, was just six and still in the nursery. She was a delightful and occasionally rather naughty child who hero worshipped her eldest brother Louis Auguste.

The Princesses’ governess Madame de Marsan, whom Marie Antoinette had been warned about as an arch schemer and who she was to take one of her quick and unyielding dislikes to, was quick to push her favourite pupil, Madame Clotilde forward but Marie Antoinette, always fond of small children, instead immediately knelt in front of the smallest princess, Élisabeth and gave her a quick hug before she was led away by her ladies to prepare for the wedding.

Sadly, Marie Antoinette’s wedding dress vanished during the chaos of the French Revolution, but enough contemporary descriptions exist for us to know that it was a gorgeous confection of cloth of silver, white brocade and fine lace, encrusted with diamonds and pearls. The still extant wedding dress of another royal bride Hedwig Elizabeth Charlotte Holstein-Gottorp when she married her cousin, the future King Charles XIII of Sweden in July 1774, just over four years after Marie Antoinette’s wedding day at Versailles, gives some sort of clue as to how it may have looked though. Hedwig’s romantic silver tissue gown was made for her in Paris, just as Marie Antoinette’s had been, and was designed to accentuate her dainty 19” waist, while maintaining all the hallmarks of a royal wedding dress of this period - the low neckline, exposed shoulders and frothy lace sleeves above enormously wide panniers. However, in the case of Marie Antoinette, either she had grown since the dress was made or the measurements were wrong for it turned out that her dress was a tad on the small side for the petite Dauphine, which resulted in a bit of a fuss as the ladies hastened to hide the resulting overly wide lacing, which left much of her chemise rather scandalously exposed at the back.

However, what is a wedding day without a hitch or two and Marie Antoinette was sufficiently over awed by her surroundings and eager to please her new family not to make much complaint about the fact that her dress didn’t quite fit properly. With perfect dignity and her head held proudly erect, she mounted the stairs past hoards of staring courtiers to the King’s apartments where the procession to the chapel was due to begin. This was to be Marie Antoinette’s first glimpse of the Hall of Mirrors and other famously splendid state rooms of the palace, a wonderland of crystal, gilt, marble and fabulous paintings and sculptures. Having grown up in Schönbrunn, she was not a complete stranger to such magnificence, but had still never seen anything quite so ornate as Versailles in all its wedding day splendour, crammed to bursting with courtiers decked out in dazzling jewels and fabulous silk dresses and with sunlight streaming through the tall windows on to the highly polished parquet floors.

The royal chapel at Versailles is perhaps one of the most beautiful rooms in the whole palace, a gorgeously light and airy space, tastefully decorated with gilt embellishments and a wonderful painted ceiling that evokes thoughts of Heaven itself to the fortunate worshippers gathered below. As Marie Antoinette gracefully knelt beside the Dauphin, himself resplendent in cloth of gold encrusted with diamonds, before the high altar, she was seen to look serene but prettily moved as the Archbishop of Rheims, Grand Almoner of France, performed the ceremony and then led the nuptial Mass afterwards. In contrast, her new husband was seen to visible tremble as he placed her ring, which had been selected from a choice of several presented to her upon her arrival at Compiègne, on her finger and then go quite pink about the ears as he said his vows.

The deed was done, however and there was nothing more to do but sign the marriage contract, which Louis Auguste did with neat aplomb after his grandfather, while Marie Antoinette blotted her own clumsily sloping signature, before enjoying the celebrations, which kicked off at six in the evening and then went on for nine whole days of parties, concerts, balls and firework displays. For Marie Antoinette the celebrations began with a royal card game, for which she sat beside the King at a green baize covered table placed in the Hall of Mirrors. As with le grand couvert, courtiers and other suitably dressed members of the public were at liberty to silently file past as the royal family played an excruciatingly dull game of cavagnole while blithely pretending not to notice that they were being stared at by the thousands of people on the other side of the gilt balustrade. In Austria, royal weddings were somewhat riotous affairs marked with massive public balls, wine flowing in the streets, parties and all manner of light hearted and joyous fun, here at Versailles, however, they were altogether more sedate and much less enjoyable.

After this endurance test there was the wedding banquet, which took place in Gabriel’s newly completed theatre, where supper was served to the royal family on a table placed on the stage, while the rest of the court crammed themselves into the stalls, galleries and boxes to watch. This must have been an exceedingly unnerving occasion for Marie Antoinette as she sat with the King on one side and her new brother-in-law Artois on the other, while her husband Louis Auguste was opposite her on the other side of the enormous white linen covered table. Also in attendance were the Duc and Duchesse of Chartres and the Princess de Lamballe, who was at the other end of the table, opposite her father-in-law the Duc de Penthièvre. Madame du Barry was not in evidence, although she was in one of the boxes overlooking the stage, enjoying the spectacle and perhaps also some choice dishes sent up to her by her adoring royal lover. Everyone else at the table was already known to Marie Antoinette and she must have taken some comfort from that while doing her best to ignore the stares of the courtiers who were watching them eat as though they were literally performing on the stage.

The banquet went on for several excruciating hours and as the heavens broke outside and the revellers outside in the gardens were forced to take shelter from the rain, the numbers of spectators in the theatre also increased. Marie Antoinette ate very little of the wonderful food placed before her but across the table the Dauphin was seen to be enjoying himself perhaps a little too much, heaping his plate high with delicacies until finally his grandfather leaned towards him and whispered, ‘Go easy, my boy.’

The Dauphin looked surprised, perhaps even pausing with a fork of food halfway between plate and mouth. ‘Why?’ he asked, as his brother Provence giggled beside him. ‘I always sleep better after a good meal.’

When the banquet finally came to an end, the royal family, many of whom were more than a little inebriated by the fine wines and splendid gourmet foods with which they had been treated, got up to escort the newly married couple, who had barely spoken more than perhaps half a dozen words to each other since their wedding, to Marie Antoinette’s bedchamber. The Archbishop of Rheims sprinkled holy water on the bedsheets before the couple retreated to their own sides of the bed and were ceremoniously helped into their nightclothes in front of an intimidatingly large crowd of spectators, with the King handing his visibly terrified grandson his nightshirt, while the Duchesse de Chartres, who was the highest status lady present helped the blushing Marie Antoinette into her lace edged and embroidered nightgown.

The young couple were then helped into the bed and sat there stiffly side by side as the heavy brocade bed curtains were closed for a moment then opened again to symbolise the consummation that everyone optimistically hoped would ensue after the King and courtiers gravely said goodnight and departed. The King paused for a moment in the doorway and gave the little Dauphine a sad last look, no doubt fully aware that his shy and ungainly fifteen year old grandson, whom he had described ‘as not a man like others’ would almost certainly not be making any attempt to consummate his marriage. However, although he was saddened and rather perplexed by the boy’s apparent lack of interest in his bride, his letters reveal that he was at least still relatively sanguine that he would in time grow to appreciate Marie Antoinette’s undoubted charms. After all, how could he not?

The Dauphin had already departed by the time Marie Antoinette was woken up the next morning to face her first formal levée at Versailles. The levée was an old tradition whereby the foremost members of the royal family, specifically the King and Queen formally got up in the presence of their households. It was considered a tremendous honour to take actual part in this, either by holding a basin or handing over an item of clothing, as Marie Antoinette would eventually find to her cost when on one occasion she was left naked and shivering by the side of her bed as first the Duchesse d’Orléans and then the Comtesse de Provence arrived one after the other, delaying the moment when the highest ranked woman present could hand her a shift with which to cover herself, while all the while Marie Antoinette muttered furiously about how utterly preposterous the whole affair was. On the morning after her wedding however, Marie Antoinette was still too bewildered and intrigued by Versailles to raise much complaint as she was chivvied out of bed and then dressed in front of her ladies while the maids stripped the bedsheets, raising their eyebrows discreetly to signify to everyone present that they were perfectly clean and that there had therefore presumably been no consummation.

It didn’t take long for rumours about the Dauphin’s lack of amorous performance to spread through the gossip crazed court and for the next few days no one could talk about anything else as the silent, embarrassed looking young prince squired his enchanting young bride through a series of opulent court events designed to celebrate their marriage. There were more concerts, plays and banquets to be endured as well as a splendid state ball in the new theatre, where Marie Antoinette and the Dauphin led a stately minuet in front of the entire court before the Dauphin glumly departed to the dais beside his grandfather and his bride gave herself up to the enjoyment of dancing with his amusing cousin the Duc de Chartres, who was rather bored by her childish conversation but still very much admired her glowing good looks.

While the courtiers danced the night away in the splendid surroundings of the new theatre, over 200,000 people were enjoying a fabulous bal champêtre in the palace gardens, which were thrown entirely open to the public and filled with the all manner of revelry, such as orchestras playing in the lantern illuminated groves, dancing on the lawns; decorated gondolas wafting slowly across the great canal; jugglers, acrobats, troupes of actors and fire breathers on the splendid parterres and then finally a wonderful firework display, which Marie Antoinette watched from a window in the Hall of Mirrors, no doubt desperately longing to be either outside enjoying the fun or up on the palace roof where her lively brothers-in-law had gone with the other young courtiers to get a better view of the display.

The celebrations were due to conclude with a huge public fireworks display in Paris at the end of May which Marie Antoinette, to her tremendous joy, was permitted to attend in the company of her husband’s three aunts while the Dauphin, for whatever reason, preferred to remain behind in his apartments. Other than her brief overnight stay at La Muette, Marie Antoinette had not caught a single glimpse of the famously gay and beautiful French capital and she was thrilled to be finally going there. However, before her carriage had even arrived at the grand Place Louis XV they were greeted by the screams and cries of the terrified crowd as dozens of people confused by the darkness fell into the open trenches of the Rue Royale, which was still under construction, there to be crushed and suffocated as the crowd continued to surge overhead and carriages still tried to force their way through. The result was wholesale panic and the disappointed and terrified Marie Antoinette was obliged to turn around and return to Versailles.

Horrified and deeply distressed by what she had witnessed, the Dauphine was greeted at Versailles by her young husband who, hitherto so silent and morose by her side, now astonished her by listening sympathetically to her account of what happened. The next morning he sent his entire monthly allowance to the Minister of Police with a note saying simply, ‘This is all I have to dispose of. Use it as best you can. Help those who need it most.’ Deeply touched by his concern and generosity, Marie Antoinette immediately followed suit with her own allowance which had the effect of making both instantly lauded by the Parisians as angels of benevolence, which both pleased and piqued the King, whose own donation had received no such commendation, in equal measure.

Horrible though the tragedy in Paris undoubtedly was, it had the effect of drawing the young Marie Antoinette and her husband, who still remembered his governor Vauguyon’s lectures about the untrustworthiness of Austria, a little further together. Their tastes might be very different, with Marie Antoinette being of a far more lively and sociable bent than her shy and retiring husband, who loved books and history and the long evenings at the theatre that she found so tedious, but here at least, in their shared compassion, kind heartedness and instinctive philanthropy, they found some common ground and were able to begin building a friendship if not a romance. Just a few weeks after their wedding things had progressed enough for Marie Antoinette to be able to write to her mother that her husband had ‘changed very much for the better. He is very friendly towards me and beginning to confide in me. Also the King could not be kinder and is full of attentions. I love him dearly, but it is pathetic to see how weak he is with Madame du Barry, who is the silliest and most impertinent creature imaginable.

Their shared hostility towards Madame du Barry, fanned by Louis Auguste’s troublemaking trio of aunts who absolutely loathed this parvenu upstart, also had the affect of bringing the young couple further together as the Dauphin was pleased to discover that beneath his new wife’s frivolous exterior she was as morally fastidious as he was himself and equally inclined to look upon the activities of his grandfather’s low born mistress with a censorious eye. However, while Marie Antoinette showed her displeasure with a heavy silence and refusal to even so much as look at Jeanne du Barry when they found themselves in the same place, the Dauphin had to at least maintain the appearance of civility for the sake of good relations with his grandfather, especially as she was fond of presiding over the intimate little suppers that the King hosted after his hunting parties which the Dauphin, himself an ardent devotee of the hunt, would usually attend.

Thrown together in marriage at such a tender age, Marie Antoinette and Louis Auguste were barely beginning to know themselves before they were expected to get to know each other as well and it is little wonder that they were at first rather standoffish with each other. Although Marie Antoinette gave the appearance of being a light hearted social butterfly, she was at heart also rather shy and, like her new husband, much preferred the company of a few like minded and well chosen intimates to a great crowd of people. They also shared a taste for the simple life, fostered in the case of Marie Antoinette by her cheerful, informal Austrian upbringing, while Louis Auguste looked to the quiet, affectionate, comfortable life enjoyed by his own parents as his model of how a marriage should be. These were things that they were able to find out about each other over the following few years though, as their tentative friendship deepened and a mutual respect and regard flourished between them.

Emboldened both by her success with his grandfather, who thought she was delightful and petted her in a manner that recalled to mind the way that Louis XIV had lavished attention on his own charming mother Marie Adélaïde de Savoie when she first arrived at Versailles as a girl of ten, and the increased friendliness of the Dauphin, Marie Antoinette began to treat him with the same careless, breezy affection as she treated everyone else, spontaneously hugging him when he visited her rooms and chattering away about her day. She also kept in mind her mother’s advice that: ‘a woman should be in all things obedient to her husband and have no other thought but to please him and carry out his wishes. The only real happiness in this world is a successful marriage. I know what I am talking about. All depends on the woman, if she is willing, loving and amusing.’ Unwilling and bewildered at first, the Dauphin, so starved of affection since the death of his mother, soon came to appreciate her efforts and in time even returned her affection - at first with a punctilious gravity that soon gave way to genuine warmth and then, on his part at least, actual love.

In the bedchamber, however, things remained much the same as they had done on that very first night and although the Dauphin soon proved himself willing to hug his wife and even on occasion kiss her cheek in front of the court, there was very little of that sort of thing going on in the all important marriage bed, where every night the shy young couple would bid each other a civil good night then chastely go to sleep beside each other. Although it was commonplace for young courtiers of the Dauphin’s age to have been introduced to amorous adventures by one of the experienced older ladies of the court or a pretty and, one hopes, disease free young courtesan, Louis Auguste had shown no taste for such affairs and was almost certainly still a virgin at the time of his marriage. However, even if he was not inclined towards sex, he was still very much aware of his duty as heir to the throne of France and the lack of consummation almost certainly weighed as much on his mind as it did on Marie Antoinette’s.

They were both very young though and although both King Louis and Maria Theresa were impatient for the deal to be sealed and matters to advance between them, it was also accepted that there was still plenty of time for a sexual relationship to develop naturally once the couple had got to know each other a bit better. Besides all this, Louis XV was still only sixty years old and to all intents and purposes in the very prime of life - there was plenty of time to go before his grandson and his little Austrian wife would be expected to take up the mantle of real authority or were under real pressure to produce an heir.

Quite apart from getting acquainted with her new husband, there was also the equally peculiar and often confusing Versailles to get used to - enormous, splendid and falling apart at the seams, it was an extraordinary and rather ridiculous mausoleum, completely over the top, built on a massive scale and always full to the rafters of people, many of whom really had no business being there at all. It had swelled and become bloated in size since its heyday a century earlier and was now home to almost four thousand people, only the most privileged and favoured of whom were accorded anything so fancy as a small and exceedingly cramped suite of rooms, while everyone else had to make do with squalid little chambers beneath the eaves. Not that anyone cared - to be accepted and housed at Versailles was still considered to be the most immense honour and if the uninsulated rooms were freezing cold in the winter and intolerably hot in the summer then no one was going to be so ungrateful as to complain about this.

During the day the palace’s residents were also joined by dozens of merchants and hawkers who set up their stalls on the staircases, along the corridors and out in the gardens, selling their goods to both the courtiers and the hundreds of visitors who crammed into the palace every day, much as they do now, to stare about themselves at all the magnificence and perhaps even catch a glimpse of royalty passing by on their way to Mass or sitting down for dinner.

As Marie Antoinette, always accompanied by two ladies of waiting, made her way from her rooms to the chapel for Mass or out to the gardens to walk her badly trained and completely spoilt little dogs, she did so past a vast crowd of people, held back by the palace guards but still permitted to stare at her and even call out comments as she went by. Her every gesture, word and look were observed and discussed at great length, particularly those that were considered to confer favour on other courtiers. Louis XIV had made himself the sun that all the court must revolve around and although the prestige of the royal family had been somewhat tarnished since the glory days of the great Sun King, they were still the central focus of the court with everyone clamouring for whatever scraps of attention and favour they could get from the royal hands.

Also hoping for scraps from the royal hands were the palace dogs, which roamed the galleries and splendid rooms in snarling, barking packs. Most of the royal family had pet dogs (while Louis XV, contrary as always, had an enormous and extremely unpopular and bad tempered white Siamese cat), ranging from the pampered and badly trained little spaniels of the aunts to the bigger hounds kept for hunting and there were also the pets of the courtiers which ran underfoot everywhere in the palace, howling, barking, snapping at ankles and begging for morsels of food. Their presence also added to the revolting smells and odours that assailed visitors and residents alike throughout the palace, where latrines were short in supply and people taken short would often retreat into corners or out into the gardens to relieve themselves so that the ladies of the court had to take a care not to trail their expensive and elaborately trimmed gowns in the effluvia that covered the floors and alleyways.

High up in her beautiful new rooms, which had finally been finished not too long after her wedding, Marie Antoinette was cut off from most of the noise, dirt and squalor that assailed much of Versailles but still she would have been able to hear the distant shouts of the vendors as they plied their trade on the staircases, the barking of dozens of dogs, the ringing of the chapel bells and the endless chatter of the courtiers as they went about their business, their aristocratic high heeled shoes, the soles traditionally painted red in a style since emulated by Christian Louboutin, clip clopping on the polished floors.

Although Marie Antoinette had been warmly welcomed to the French court by the royal family, she still felt isolated and lonely in her new life. Used to being at the heart of a large and boisterous young family, life seemed to her to have a very different flavour at Versailles, where everyone seemed to be in thrall to an excessively constraining system of etiquette that had been laid down over a century before. As Dauphine, Marie Antoinette now found herself at the very centre of this system, heading up as she did an enormous household of her own, most of which had been inherited from the deceased Queen and former Dauphine. Besides her dame d’honneur, Madame de Noailles, there was also a Mistress of the Robes and twelve chief ladies in waiting, the dames pour accompagner Madame la Dauphine, all of whom were exceedingly highly born and well connected. Below these ladies there were femmes de chambre, who were less well born but would have had to have been no less well connected to have been able to secure such sought after positions at court and beneath them there were the Dauphine’s maids, known as the femmes rouges in reference to the red dresses that they wore as uniform, and whose duty it was to perform the most menial tasks in Marie Antoinette’s rooms, such as bringing her daily outfits, looking after her clothes and making her bed. Besides all of these ladies, there were also pageboys, valets, equerries, cooks, surgeons and general lackeys; all of whom devoted their lives to making the existence of this one pampered individual run as smoothly as possible.

Shortly after her marriage, Marie Antoinette wrote a description of her daily routine in a letter to her mother. Although the Dauphine remains typically chipper and upbeat about what sounds like the relentless boredom and loneliness of her life, it also reveals a great deal about her growing closeness with her husband whom, she is at pains to tell her mother, she sees a great deal of during the day and the amount of influence that his aunts were beginning to hold over her.

I get up between nine and ten o’clock, and having dressed say my morning prayers, then have breakfast and go to visit my aunts, where I usually find the King. This lasts until about ten thirty. At eleven I have my hair dressed. After which everyone is allowed to come in - that is, everyone who has the right of entry. I put on my rouge and wash my hands in front of them all. Then the gentlemen go away, while the ladies stay and I put on my formal dress. Mass is at midday, and if the King is at Versailles I go with the King and my husband. If he is not there then I go alone with the Dauphin. After Mass, the two of us dine alone, but anyone who cares to can come and watch us. As we both eat very quickly we have finished by half past one, and I go back with the Dauphin to his apartments, but if he is busy I go back to my own where I read or write or work, for I am embroidering a waistcoat for the King, which is not making much progress, but by the Grace of God I hope to get it finished in a few years. At three o clock I go again to my aunts, where I usually find the King. At four, the Abbé (Vermond, who continued in her household in France) comes to see me and at five there is the music master, who stays until six when I either return to my aunts or go for a walk. I must tell you that my husband almost always comes with me to visit the aunts. At seven we sit down to cards, but if it’s fine then I go again for a walk. At nine we have supper and if the King is not there the aunts come and have supper with us. Otherwise we go to them where after supper we wait for the King, who usually appears at about a quarter to eleven. But while waiting I put myself on a comfortable sofa and sleep until he arrives. When he is not there we go to bed at eleven.’

It’s also interesting that she mentions reading as one of her activities when the Dauphin is ‘too busy’ to spend time with her in the afternoon - perhaps the efforts of Abbé de Vermond, who had travelled to Versailles in her wake to take up the position of Reader in her household there and was thought to have a very malign and unwelcome influence over the young Dauphine, had finally paid off or maybe she was hoping to please her bookish husband, perhaps by asking him to choose some books for her? Alternatively, this could just be an attempt to pull the wool over her mother’s eyes by pretending to be spending her time in a more worthy occupation than just lazing on a sofa while chatting about fashion and hair feathers with the Princesse de Lamballe, who was by now her best friend at court.

Besides the devoted Abbé, Marie Antoinette also saw a great deal of the Austrian diplomat Mercy d’Argenteau, a highly educated, urbane man, utterly devoted to Maria Theresa, who was to become something of a father figure to her daughter over the next few years. It was Mercy’s job to advise the young Dauphine and help her avoid the pitfalls of life at Versailles, which often involved acting as a mouthpiece of her mother, who sent him a constant stream of commands and advice to be passed on to the unfortunate girl. He also acted as a sort of unofficial spy, delicately using his diplomatic skills to pump the unsuspecting Marie Antoinette for intimate information about her relationship with the Dauphin and other members of his family before secretly passing it all on to her mother who then terrified the Dauphine by seeming to have an alarming omniscience when it came to her daughter’s most private affairs.

It was also Mercy’s duty to facilitate the correspondence between mother and daughter which flourished during this most interesting time. Before her departure from Vienna, Marie Antoinette had been ordered to write home once a month to give her mother a full and up to date report of all her activities, including an update about her irregular menstrual cycle and the ongoing efforts to make the Dauphin fancy her a bit more. To these sadly blotched, misspelt and crossed out missives, Mercy would then attach his own secret reports giving a bit more context to the Dauphine’s letters and adding little titbits from his own close observations of Marie Antoinette and her circle.

It was Mercy’s shrewd opinion that the aunts, outwardly so benign and welcoming of this newcomer to the royal circle, exerted far too much influence over Marie Antoinette and were in danger of effectively estranging her from the King by encouraging her to snub Madame du Barry. Marie Antoinette may have been blissfully unaware of the aunts’ true feelings towards her, but it had not escaped Mercy’s attention that they had been bitterly opposed to the Austrian marriage from the outset and had taken to privately referring to their new niece-in-law by the mocking soubriquet of ‘L’Autrichienne’. They were, moreover, busily spreading rumours about her while all the while smiling and welcoming her to their apartments several times a day and commissioning portraits of her to hang there, including the famously delightful Krantzinger one of her dressed ‘à l’Amazone’ in her red masculine cut riding habit and tricorne hat, which delighted her mother when a copy was sent to Vienna in 1771. However, as the Dauphin remained so fond of his aunts there was nothing to be done but hope that his affection for his pretty young wife would eventually supersede the one that he still retained for this triumvirate of unpleasant, embittered women, whose chief remaining pleasure in life seemed to be making trouble for everyone else and were, besides, motivated by a terrible personal jealousy of Marie Antoinette herself who was already such a favourite with their adored father.

However, for now they accepted that she was their best chance to oust the hated Madame du Barry and so encouraged her visits to their rooms, while at the same time filling her pretty little ears with poison about their father’s mistress, sparing no detail while regaling the rather prim girl, Mama’s perfect daughter who was more like the Empress than either might have cared to admit, with stories about Madame du Barry’s scandalous past. For her part, Madame du Barry had initially made friendly overtures towards the Dauphine but upon being so soundly snubbed had instead taken to loudly making fun of her with her catty friends and even nicknamed her ‘Carrots’ in reference to her strawberry blonde hair. The Dauphine’s careless manner of dress was also picked apart by the fashion obsessed Du Barry who mocked Marie Antoinette to the King as a dowdy little prude. There is even a story that the Dauphine, while passing beneath the favourite’s windows at Versailles, was splattered with ordure from a chamber pot that one of her maids was emptying out of the window (not an unusual incident, sadly) and had gone to the King to complain that it had been done deliberately. Louis, bored and fed up with being caught between bickering women, refused to get involved.

It was true, however, that after her marriage, Marie Antoinette had fallen back into her lax youthful habits of not really paying too much attention to her appearance, no doubt encouraged in this by the aunts, who never got dressed unless they could help it and would hide their state of lazydéshabille beneath voluminous silk mantles when their father came to visit. There was an ongoing battle with the Comtesse de Noailles about her unwillingness to wear a restrictive corset beneath her dresses and she barely had the patience to sit still for long enough to have her hair done.

Naturally, thanks to Mercy, it didn’t take long for all of this to come to the ears of her mother, who immediately fired off a letter to her rebellious daughter. ‘I beg you not to neglect your appearance. It is very wrong to do so at your age, and even worse when you are in your position… Which is why I keep pestering you on the subject, to warn you against letting yourself go and ending up like the French royal family, who have no idea how to present themselves or to set the tone, or even to amuse themselves in an honest way… It is possible to be virtuous and at the same time to be gay and sociable.’

All of this was small fry, however, when placed alongside the fact that the aunts were maliciously encouraging Marie Antoinette to be as rude as possible to Madame du Barry at a time when that lady’s ascendancy over her royal lover was increasing by the day. In vain did Mercy berate Marie Antoinette, informing her that her own position at court was not yet so secure that she could afford to completely alienate the King’s mistress and through her, the King himself. He reminded her that with each passing month that her marriage remained unconsummated, her position at court became increasingly invidious as the enemies of the already unpopular Franco-Austrian alliance plotted to get rid of the unsatisfactory Dauphine, whose marriage could still be summarily dissolved and whose position was further weakened by the dismissal from position of Chief Minister of the Duc de Choiseul, who had been the chief architect of her marriage and his replacement with the Duc d’Aiguillon, who was no friend to Austria and furthermore belonged to the cotérie of Madame du Barry.

However, Marie Antoinette, used all her life to admiration and flattery had not yet properly learned that behind honeyed words and empty smiles there often lay far darker thoughts and purposes and so could not quite believe that she had actual enemies at the French court, who would be more than happy to see her ignominiously packed off back to Vienna where she had come from. She had no idea of the nasty rumours and gossip that were already circulating about her, many of them emanating from the gilded apartments of the aunts that she trusted so much, and she refused to believe that the King himself was not entirely pleased with how his grandson’s marriage was progressing.

Maria Theresa was exasperated by her daughter’s intransigence and wrote her furious letters, demanding that she show more favour to Madame du Barry as the current stand off was in serious danger of hurting relations between Austria and France. ‘What is all this fuss and bother… of addressing as much as a word to people whom you have been advised to speak to, the inability to say good morning, or make a compliment or exchange some other triviality. All these tiresome caprices for no other reason than that you have allowed yourself to become so enslaved by your aunts that you have forgotten both reason and a sense of duty… What excuse have you got to behave in this way - none whatsoever! You are only required to know Madame du Barry as a lady who has an entrée at court and who is admitted to the society of the King of whom you are the first subject. It is the King to whom you owe obedience and submission, as an example to the court and to see that his orders are carried out. No one has asked you to become intimate or to indulge in any kind of familiarity, all that is required is an impartial word, a certain regard not for the lady herself but for your grandfather, your master and your benefactor, whom you have let down on the first occasion when you could have obliged him and shown him your attachment.’

Astounded and ashamed by such heated missives, Marie Antoinette promised Mercy that she would do her best to oblige the King in this matter and let it be known that she would address a word to the Comtesse after the evening card game at Compiègne, where they were staying that summer. However, just as Madame du Barry drew near, pleasantly smiling as she anticipated this mark of rare favour from the silly little snobbish Dauphine, Madame Adélaïde, the eldest and most troublemaking of the aunts, who was keen to scupper this reconciliation, stepped in front of her and whispered to Marie Antoinette that they were late and it was time to retire and wait for the King in her apartments. Flustered, Marie Antoinette did as she was told and ran off in Madame Adélaïde’s wake leaving the royal favourite chagrined and mortified while the rest of the court hid their malicious smiles behind their painted and bejewelled fans.

The King was absolutely furious when the sorry tale reached his ears and even the meek Dauphin, who had no liking for Madame du Barry either but knew better than to shout it from the rooftops, upbraided his aunt for her interference in this matter, motivated chiefly by concern for his wife. Although the King did not personally chastise Marie Antoinette for her behaviour, he let his displeasure be known and there was another round of furious letters from Maria Theresa and lectures by Mercy, who did his best to point out just how malign the influence of the aunts actually was. In the event it took quite a few more months before Marie Antoinette, provoked to stubborn defiance, agreed to try again and this time the aunts did not interfere as the Dauphine turned to Madame du Barry on New Year’s Day 1772 and lightly remarked that ‘There are a great many people at Versailles today.’ Everyone was delighted, especially the King, but Marie Antoinette would later bitterly inform Mercy that: ‘I have spoken to her once, but I am determined to leave things there. That woman will never again hear the sound of my voice.’

Basking in the King’s renewed favour, Marie Antoinette began to have more fun at Versailles. She started to throw weekly balls in her apartments where the men came in full court clothes and the women wore white and even the Comtesse de Noailles unbent enough to throw her some parties in order to make her more acquainted with the young people of the court. To Marie Antoinette’s great delight, the Dauphin insisted upon taking dancing lessons so that he wouldn’t show her up at these parties and instead of shyly retreating into the corner would now happily partner her in the occasional quadrille.

As well as dancing, Marie Antoinette also took up riding. Naturally she had learned the rudiments of horse riding in Vienna but had been discouraged from taking a greater interest by her mother who believed that excessive horse riding was injurious to reproductive health and that long hours spent in the saddle were ruinous to the complexion. She was enraged to hear that King Louis had been encouraging her daughter to learn to ride properly on donkeys and then, dressed in a charming riding habit that showed off her slender figure, to follow the royal hunts, although even she had to concede that taking an interest in the Dauphin’s most beloved pastime was probably a good idea under the circumstances. Marie Antoinette delighted in these occasions and would often provide a sumptuous picnic for her husband and his friends which they would take informally beneath the trees of the royal hunting forests.

As Mercy had predicted, the toxic influence of the aunts began to lessen as Marie Antoinette began to increasingly dominate her husband and wean him away from them. The widening of their immediate family circle also contributed to this though as Louis Auguste’s sisters left the nursery and his brothers got wives of their own, which meant that there were more young people on hand to socialise with and the prospect of spending yet another dull evening listening to Madame Adélaïde’s ill natured gossip became far less enticing than time spent with people of their own age.

As her young sisters in law Clotilde and Élisabeth grew up, Marie Antoinette did everything she could to make life more fun for them both, showering them with concerts, parties, picnics and visits to the neighbouring estates of favoured aristocrats and making sure that their circle included young people of their own ages. All three girls adored gardening and would spend hours in the grounds of Versailles watching the gardeners at work and planning their own future gardens.

Marie Antoinette was especially fond of her youngest sister-in-law Élisabeth and they became quite good friends over the years, despite the large age difference between them. Both girls were clearly drawn to each other by sharing the same fun loving, tomboyish nature as well as a mutual feeling that they were somewhat out of place in the huge sprawling palace, where neither was loved as much as they wished to be, although the young princess was absolutely devoted to her brothers Louis Auguste and the handsome, rakish Artois.

Rouget de l’Isle, later to be writer of the Marseillaise, encountered the two princesses shortly after Marie Antoinette became Queen and recalled that ‘I was fifteen years of age and… on holiday with a lady who was a relation of mine, who had her lodgings at Versailles. All of a sudden, I heard the door of her apartment in which I was, being struck in a certain manner, and my relation, very much upset, said to me: ‘Ah, Dieu, my child, hide quickly, here’s the Queen!’ And at the same time she pushed me into the next room, quickly pulling the curtains over me. And indeed, Marie Antoinette and Madame Élisabeth came in, and soon, freed from the yoke of etiquette, they began to jump, to run and to chase one another.’

While Marie Antoinette was busy getting acquainted with the Dauphin and rigid etiquette of life at the French court, arrangements were in full swing for the marriage of her eldest brother-in-law, Louis Stanislas, Comte de Provence to the Princess Maria Giuseppina of Savoy, a cousin of the Princesse de Lamballe, which was to eventually take place at Versailles in May 1771, almost exactly a year after her own wedding. Naturally, as the second son, Provence’s wedding was not quite so grand as that of the Dauphin’s and nor was the wife chosen for him nearly as prestigious, but still Marie Antoinette was delighted to have another young woman of about her own age (Maria Giuseppina, known in France as Marie Joséphine, was two years older than both her husband and Marie Antoinette) join the royal circle, even if her mother and Mercy, who worried that Marie Joséphine might both supplant their protegée in Louis XV’s affections and, worse still, produce an heir, had serious reservations about the match.

They need not have worried though - the Savoyard princess turned out to be not nearly so pretty as Marie Antoinette, with a nose that Louis XV described to his nephew, the Duke of Parma as ‘villainous’. She was also, even by the rather lax standards of eighteenth century France, rather lazy when it came to personal hygiene to the point that a discreet word was dropped in her father’s ear by the French ambassador, asking him to have a word with his daughter about cleaning her teeth more often, having more baths and attending to her unkempt hair. Beside the exquisite Marie Antoinette, who was also something of a natural scruff at this time but was at least scrupulously clean and always scrubbed up well when it was expected of her, Marie Joséphine had no chance and yet the girls managed to become friends of a sort, drawn together by homesickness and a certain wry amusement at the absurd goings on within the family circle that they had found themselves within while Marie Antoinette, so desultory when it came to her own lessons, was rather envious of Marie Joséphine’s intelligence and wit and even demanded a new library, which Madame de Noailles feared would remain sadly untouched, when the new Comtesse, who was a voracious reader, was presented with one upon her arrival at Versailles. However, Marie Antoinette needed to bear in mind that the Comtesse de Provence, outwardly so friendly, was far better versed in the hypocritical arts of courtly dissimulation than she was and had, after all, been busily entertaining the despised Madame du Barry to supper in her apartments while at the same time agreeing with Marie Antoinette that she was the worst woman in the world.

When it came to the production of an heir, there was no need for concern either. The Comte de Provence, who was still just fifteen, was almost certainly impotent at this time, possibly because he was already well on the road to obesity thanks to a lack of exercise and an over fondness for the rich meals served at his grandfather’s court but also perhaps because of a lymph gland disorder that may also have affected his elder brother and sister Clotilde. However, whereas Louis Auguste scuttled about the court, red faced and mortified by the amused chatter about his lack of sexual ardour, Provence, an entirely different kettle of fish, brazened it out with impressive indifference and went about the place boasting of his prowess and claiming to be bedding his plain little wife several times a night and in all sorts of ingenious ways. It was all lies of course but his bravado was certainly impressive.

 As for Marie Antoinette and Louis Auguste, although they were now exceedingly fond of each other and took a great delight in each other’s company even if she never quite got to grips with Louis Auguste’s peculiar interests, which included lock making in his own personal forge and reading history books, matters had still not really progressed all that much in the bedchamber, although the Dauphin’s willingness to at least try and have sex with his wife had naturally increased along with his affection for her. They were sadly hampered however by a mutual lack of experience and also much clumsy embarrassment, which meant that the Dauphin would fumble around a bit, perhaps even get on top of Marie Antoinette, but then quickly give up and retreat, mortified, to his own side of the bed before anything actually happened. He promised several times, often before the court moved to the smaller palaces of Marly, Choissy or Compiègne for the summer, that he would complete the deed but each time whatever plans he may have had were always scuppered either by illness or his own excessive fatigue upon returning from the hunt. It’s probable that the timid Louis Auguste was horribly intimidated by the thought of performing such an intimate act at Versailles or Fontainebleau, where everyone knew everything almost as soon as it had happened and so preferred to attempt it at the less populated and more informal royal residences, where he had always felt more at ease and where life in general was far more laid back.

Towards the end of 1772, King Louis, usually so sanguine about the whole situation, decided to take matters in hand and asked his tactful and kindly physician Dr Lassonne to examine the young couple and discover what was hindering the Dauphin from doing his duty. As with Maria Theresa, it was inconceivable to Louis that his grandson, who was after all a Bourbon, should be so backward when it came to sex, however he was reassured by Lassonne’s reports that there was nothing physically wrong with the young couple but rather that their issues were all down to inexperience and the Dauphin’s ‘surprising nonchalance and laziness’ in bed, in that he made no real efforts to arouse his wife and gave up the attempt to penetrate her far too quickly, put off by the painful sensation.

However, gently encouraged by Lassonne, the prince began to put more effort into his nighttime endeavours and soon, in May 1773, Marie Antoinette was able to report to her mother that her husband was ‘a little more forward than usual’, a delicate way of saying that he had started paying her more attention in bed. Just a couple of months later, in July, Marie Antoinette was able to excitedly report to her mother that ‘my affairs have taken a very good turn… and that I consider my marriage to be consummated; even if not to the degree that I am pregnant.’ A few days later the young couple went together to King Louis and the Dauphin proudly introduced Marie Antoinette to his grandfather as his ‘wife’ in fact as well as name. The King was absolutely delighted and the happy news quickly spread through the court, temporarily ending all rumours that Marie Antoinette would be packed off back to Vienna and replaced with a different princess, although naturally the talk would soon begin again when the Dauphine failed to become pregnant.

On one occasion, shortly before the marriage of Louis Auguste’s youngest brother, Marie Antoinette tried to tell him how upset she would be if her new sister-in-law, the Comtesse d’Artois, became pregnant before she did. ‘But do you love me?’ her husband asked. ‘You must know that I do,’ Marie Antoinette replied rather sadly. ‘I love you sincerely and respect you still more.’ The Dauphin then kissed her and promised to renew his efforts, but sadly it was still in vain and the new sister-in-law would indeed have a child before her.

It had been intended for a long time that Louis Charles, Comte d’Artois should be married to the exquisite Louise-Adélaïde de Condé, daughter of the Prince de Condé, who had recently come to court after leaving the exclusive Parisian convent school Panthémont and become a close friend of both Marie Antoinette and her sister-in-law Élisabeth. Artois was certainly all in favour of the match as he had long been madly in love with Louise-Adélaïde and it had had the approval of his grandfather as well, as after all her father was a prince of the blood and yet another descendant of Louis XIV and Athénaïs de Montespan. However, after Provence’s marriage to the Princess of Savoy it was decided that to further cement the union Artois should marry Marie Josephine’s younger sister Maria Teresa and forget all about the lovely Louise-Adélaïde, who had been nicknamed ‘Hebé-Bourbon’ in tribute to her extreme beauty. They were both heartbroken by this, as was Marie Antoinette, who would have dearly loved to have had Louise-Adélaïde as a sister-in-law, but Artois like his brothers had no choice but to give in and was duly married to Maria Teresa of Savoy in November 1773 with Marie Antoinette performing the office of handing the blushing little bride her nightgown on the wedding night at Versailles.

Although still no great beauty, Maria Teresa, known in France as Marie Thérèse, was still considered far more attractive than her elder sister and was therefore more of a rival to Marie Antoinette. This rivalry was further compounded by the fact that Artois, unlike his two elder brothers, was already an experienced ladies man and had no problems consummating his marriage straight away to the smug delight of his sharp faced little bride who knew all about the problems that the other two couples were having. She and her sister formed quite a formidable little unit at court and although they were outwardly friendly to Marie Antoinette were as fond as the aunts of gossiping about her behind her back and causing trouble for her whenever they could, assisted by the Comte de Provence, who secretly loathed his elder brother and his wife, even if he pretended to be friendly to their faces. On one occasion though his carefully maintained mask slipped when the Dauphin, always clumsy, accidentally broke one of Provence’s most treasured pieces of Meissen china and, enraged, the Comte had lunged at his elder brother and knocked him to the ground. What had at first looked like one of the usual play fights that the brothers liked to indulge in, soon became far more serious and in the end Marie Antoinette, who received some scratches for her trouble, was forced to intervene and pull them apart.

However, all the rivalries and issues aside, the married grandchildren of the King and their friends formed their own merry little cotérie at Versailles and were often to be seen enjoying picnics together in the park, playing cards and billiards, which Marie Antoinette was extremely good at and became something of a passion with her, or simply enjoying each other’s company in their enormous and exquisitely decorated apartments in the palace. The Comte de Provence and the two Savoyard Princesses may have had malicious tongues and a sly eyed tendency to look askance at the fun of the others but the rest of the group, particularly the Comte d’Artois and Marie Antoinette, wanted nothing more than to enjoy life to the full and enjoy the delights of being rich, rather foolish and young at one of the most dazzling courts in the world. In this they were encouraged by their grandfather Louis XV who made no attempt to involve his grandsons in politics and did not even try to prepare his heir the Dauphin for his future responsibilities.

 Instead he encouraged the young people to spend money like water, have fun and generally be an idle, silly lot. Possibly he was afraid of ending up like his Hanoverian cousins across the Channel, living at cross purposes with his ambitious heirs, but his apparent lack of interest in giving Louis Auguste any guidance when it came to his future Kingship was certainly a tremendous oversight. He was exceedingly fond of his bevy of granddaughters-in-law though and in 1773 commissioned a beautiful pair of paintings of Marie Antoinette and the Comtesse de Provence from Drouais. The fashion for classical conceits in portraiture was definitely on the wane by the mid 1770s but for once we are treated to Marie Antoinette posing as Hebé, the messenger of the Gods, graceful in champagne coloured silk and holding a Grecian ewer and a goblet while Marie Joséphine looks equally becoming as the goddess Diana, dressed in blue silk with a leopard pelt draped across her shoulders.

Another favourite pastime was to indulge in secret amateur theatricals with Marie Antoinette and her small circle putting on small plays which they performed on a quiet mezzanine behind the scenes at Versailles. Here, it was the sharp tongued and malicious Provence who excelled as he had a prodigious memory and was actually quite a talented actor. Marie Antoinette was rather less talented but made up for this with great enthusiasm while her husband, still so shy and awkward, refused to act at all but instead learned the plays and acted as an enthusiastic audience (reserving his loudest cheers and applause for his wife) and prompt for the others, particularly Artois who was as lazy and un-bookish as his sister-in-law Marie Antoinette and so never bothered to learn his lines properly.

The atmosphere of this little circle, outwardly so friendly but secretly so riddled with rivalry and deceit is very well conveyed by a letter written home to her parents by Marie Joséphine, the Comtesse d’Artois,  describing her frantic preparations for the annual summer time departure to Compiègne. ‘I don’t know why I haven’t gone crazy. I’m surrounded by caskets, papers, books on the floor; my casket is ready; now it’s been knocked over. I must start all over again. I get angry, they laugh, they grab the paper from me… I’m in a little corner, surrounded by baggage. Madame la Dauphine is knocking everything over, the Comte de Provence is singing, the Comte d’Artois is telling a story that he’s already started telling ten times and he’s shouting at the top of his voice and laughing loudly, and on top of everything, Monsieur le Dauphin is reading a tragedy out loud. I think he thinks we’re deaf. There are also two birds singing and three dogs making a deafening racket, one is mine, two are Madame la Dauphine’s.’ A normal cheerful family party of boisterous, mischievous teenagers then, all determined to make themselves heard and share their enthusiasms with the others. Used as she was to being part of an enormous happy family herself, Marie Antoinette thoroughly enjoyed all of this noise and chaos and didn’t concern herself with what might be simmering underneath the surface.

Added to all this there were now also the joys of Paris, which had seemed like an unattainable dream, so near and yet so far away for the early years of Marie Antoinette’s residence in the closed world of the French court. However, although King Louis, so unpopular himself in his capital, generally discouraged his family from going there, he graciously gave his permission in February 1773 for the young couples, the Dauphin and Marie Antoinette and the Provences, to secretly attend a masked ball at the Opéra House in the last week of the Parisian carnival. The Dauphin and Provences were less than enchanted by the ball, which thanks to its masked and public nature involved a great amount of licentious freedom between the sexes, but Marie Antoinette was in her element, thrilled both by the unusual anonymity of being able to mingle with the public in her mask and also by the wild dancing, the air of flirtatious excitement and the unprecedented freedom of being away from the endless dreary etiquette and protocol of the royal court. Amused by her clear delight the Duc de Chartres invited the incognito royal party to continue the fun at was doubtless an extremely wild after party at his Parisian residence, the Palais Royal but Marie Antoinette sadly declined his invitation, sensing the Dauphin’s disapproval and also a little alarmed by the fact that they had been recognised by other revellers. In the end the royal party arrived back at Versailles at seven in the morning, just in time to hear Mass before collapsing into bed, worn out by their frivolities. Later on, the Dauphine would proudly recount her adventures to her mother, naively adding that ‘everyone appears to be delighted by the fact that Monsieur le Dauphin should have consented to come to the ball, for he usually has an aversion to this kind of party.’

Marie Antoinette, like so many other women before and since, had fallen madly in love with Paris and would not rest until she could taste its pleasures again. She was therefore delighted when King Louis, realising that his own sadly diminished popularity could get a much needed boost from the clear affection that the Parisians had for the younger members of his family, agreed that it was about time she and the Dauphin made their official entry to the capital, after which they would be free to openly visit whenever they liked. The ‘Joyeuse Entrée’ of Marie Antoinette and Louis Auguste took place on 8 June 1773 when dressed in formal magnificence they travelled by carriage to the gates of the capital where the Duc de Brissac, Governor of Paris was waiting to formally present them with the keys and freedom of the city. After this they travelled in a procession through streets lined with enormous cheering crowds to Notre Dame where they heard Mass before inspecting the newly completed church of Sainte Geneviève (now known as Panthéon) and returning to the long abandoned royal palace of the Tuileries which had barely been used since the young Louis XV, brought up there by his regent, the old Duc d’Orléans, had taken the court back to Versailles in 1722.

In the gloomy and decayed surroundings of the old Tuileries palace Marie Antoinette and Louis Auguste dined in solitary state, attended only by the Dauphine’s ladies. A gallery overlooking the chamber was open to respectably dressed members of the public though and they respectfully filed past as the young couple affected not to notice their presence. Less easy to avoid, however, were the shouts and bawdy cat calls of the Parisian market women who were allowed inside in deference to their traditional position as unofficial and extraordinarily outspoken mouthpieces of the general populace and who now began to, albeit in a good natured fashion, heckle the Dauphin and his pretty wife about the lack of an heir.  Luckily, Louis Auguste and Marie Antoinette were sufficiently buoyed up by their enthusiastic reception to find this more amusing than offensive and it all ended well on both sides with the market women congratulating the Dauphin on his pretty wife and him grinning with agreement.

After this interlude the royal couple went out on to the balcony overlooking the Tuileries gardens, there to receive the acclaim of the several thousand people that had gathered there while they were eating. Marie Antoinette took a step back, astonished and a little frightened by such an enormous crowd, whispering, ‘There are so many of them’ to the Duc de Brissac, who immediately replied, with great aplomb: ‘Madame, I hope that Monsieur le Dauphin won’t be jealous when I say that you have two hundred thousand lovers.’

Delighted by this, Marie Antoinette then insisted upon going down to the terrace to mingle with the people, taking her husband’s arm as she went so that the Parisians would see for themselves just how affectionate the young couple were towards each other. The Dauphin was equally keen to be seen and gave orders that the people must be allowed to come as close as they liked and were not to be pushed away by the crowds or hurt in any way. The couple then walked as far as they could until the tremendous press of the cheering, clamouring crowds forced them to return to the palace. A few days later, a still over excited Marie Antoinette would write to tell her mother all about it. ‘Last Tuesday I had a day which I will never forget as long as I live; we made our entrance into Paris. As for honours, we received every conceivable one; but although this was very well, it was not what touched me the most, but rather the tenderness and eagerness of the poor people, who, in spite of the taxes which oppress them, were carried away with joy on seeing us. How fortunate we are, in our position, to have been able to win the love of our people so cheaply. And yet there is nothing more precious and I will never forget it.

Marie Antoinette even tactfully informed Louis XV, who listened rather wistfully to her tales of their great success, that ‘Your Majesty must be very much loved or we would never have received such a welcome.’ They both knew the sad truth of the matter but it was typical of Marie Antoinette’s thoughtfulness that she should try to smooth any potential awkwardness over.

Now that the Dauphine was free to visit Paris whenever she liked, she threw herself into the social life of the capital with enormous delight: visiting the opera, theatre and balls in the city, making excursions to factories, fairs, artistic studios and museums and basking in the adulation of the crowds that turned out in their hundreds to see her. To her great pleasure, the Dauphin usually accompanied her on these excursions, prompted both by his love for her and also the fact that he was all too aware that as future King of France it was necessary for him to win the affection of the notoriously fickle Parisian populace. In this at least, though, he seemed to be having no difficulty as the Parisians looked all set to take both Louis Auguste and his wife to their hearts, seeing in them the hope of a more golden age once the vice riddled regime of Louis XV came to a much longed for end.

Drawn into a new pleasure loving world and encouraged by her friends the Princesse de Lamballe and the Duchesse de Chartres, Marie Antoinette began to see Paris as the perfect antidote to the problems that she faced at Versailles. Now in her late teens, she felt the full weight of her mother’s disappointment about her continued childlessness, a situation that she too found deeply distressing as she longed for a baby of her very own. In the past she had sought distraction by asking her ladies and even the lesser servants to bring their children to her apartments so that she might play with them and spoil them a little with treats and presents. Now, however, all the years of endless reproaches from her mother and those unfulfilling night time fumblings from her husband had worn her down completely and left her desperate for distraction, for some form of escape. She was flattered and pleased by her husband’s growing love for her and the shy way that he tried to appeal to her by trying to participate in her interests even if she couldn’t quite bring herself to entirely reciprocate. However, her own feelings for Louis Auguste, although affectionate were not romantic and she had not, to date, ever truly fallen in love with anyone.

It was the silly, frivolous Duchesse de Chartres, who had the enormous wealth of both her husband and her father at her disposal, who first introduced Marie Antoinette to the polite gaming tables of Paris, where far more exciting games than cavagnole were played and for much higher stakes. It was also the Duchesse who introduced the Dauphine, previously so careless of her appearance that she had needed not one but two interventions, to the workshop of a certain Rose Bertin, a Parisian dressmaker and milliner whose immense talents matched the tremendous costs of the outfits and ridiculous headpieces that she designed for her aristocratic clientele. Fed up with what felt like the endless frustrations of her life at court, frustrated by her mother’s complaints, frightened that Madame du Barry’s coterie would have their way and get her sent back to Vienna and beginning to wonder if she would ever experience for herself what she considered to be the supreme joy of motherhood, the deeply unhappy Marie Antoinette sought to distract herself with all the fashionable, extravagant frivolities that Paris could offer her.

It was at a masked ball at the Opéra on 30 January 1774 that she was to meet Axel von Fersen for the first time and perhaps behold in him something of a romantic ideal. She had gone to the ball with her husband and the rest of their usual party and then, as was now her custom, had wandered off to have delightful little chats with the other party goers, who politely pretended not to know who this pretty little ingenue was. However, Axel von Fersen, as rich and handsome as the hero of a romantic novel and newly arrived from his native Sweden, had no idea of the identity of this ravishingly dressed stranger who accosted him by the dance floor and so enjoyed several minutes informal conversation with her before he overheard whispers of ‘It’s Madame la Dauphine’ and realised whom he had been flirting with so delightfully. The giggling little Dauphine was whisked away by her companions and beyond being a little flattered to have been so singled out, he thought no more of it and nor did Marie Antoinette when they continued to occasionally meet at Versailles over the following few months before Fersen left for England.

Besides, she had other matters to distract her as she had been encouraged by her mother to champion the cause of her former music tutor, the already celebrated composer Gluck who wished to have his groundbreaking opera Iphigénie in Aulide performed in Paris but was having no luck persuading the snobbish directors of the Paris Opera to accept the piece. However, with Marie Antoinette’s patronage, a performance was secured and when the Dauphine announced that she would be attending the premiere on 19 April, tickets began to sell like hot cakes as, already, where the Dauphine led everyone else must surely follow. The performance was, unsurprisingly, a resounding success and Marie Antoinette, used to regarding herself as something of a dunce, was able to instead preen herself for being a patroness of the arts.

However, in the wake of this great public triumph came enormous tragedy when on 27 April, Louis Auguste and Marie Antoinette were informed that their grandfather Louis XV had been taken ill at the Petit Trianon, his pleasure pavilion in the grounds of Versailles, and would soon be told that they must prepare themselves for the worst.

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