If we have to talk about Marie-Antoinette, then we have to talk about Stefan Zweig. Sofia Coppola’s movie “Marie-Antoinette”, so sensitive, so human, may be based on the biography written by Antonia Fraser, but I can never help but see the connection between the work of Antonia Fraser and that of Stefan Zweig.
And if you have to read one and only one biography of Marie-Antoinette, then it shall be Stefan Zweig’s work, published in 1932.
Exceptional biographer, Stefan Zweig is not a historian. Above all, he is this “flying Salburg citizen” celebrated by his friend Romain Rolland, this Jewish bourgeois from a cosmopolitan Vienna who travels a lot, who writes even more and who becomes – once his PhD in philosophy in hand – poet, correspondent, essay writer, novelist. And author of biographies.
Are we talking about biographies, by the way, I’m not even sure – I’d rather talk about portraits. Humanist and psychological portraits (the debt to Freud is immense and fully recognized) which one might wonder if they are totally neutral because of a very lively sensitivity.
Yet it is well known that Stefan Zweig extensively documented his work and never allowed himself to introduce unsupported facts. His biography of Marie-Antoinette is based on first-hand sources: the archives of Axel von Fersen, the Viennese State archives, the private correspondence between Marie-Antoinette and her mother or even official correspondence.
In his portrait of Marie-Antoinette, Stefan Zweig deploys his favorite theme: the human being, analyzed by mixing psychology, empathy, history and culture, without any judgment but with a sharp lucidity.
Why Marie-Antoinette, you may wonder?
Because Stefan Zweig is terribly attracted to the vanquished ones, to the misunderstood ones – as he feels himself defeated and misunderstood: as a fine analyst, he can only sense the disasters which will soon tear his dear Europe apart and the futility of his tolerant voice facing the Nazi fanaticism.
Marie-Antoinette was in her time a vanquished and misunderstood woman, personifying a bloody Revolution tearing France and Europe apart. How not to see a striking parallel with this Nazi hurricane which will tear Europe apart in the years following the publication in 1932 of the biography of Marie-Antoinette?
Let’s talk about this French queen.
To be honest, she is an absolutely average woman in terms of culture, intellectual curiosity, intelligence in happy times, but she proves to be of rare greatness during the Revolution and became an absolute martyr.
Marie-Antoinette arrives in France at the age of 14. Far from the simplicity of the Viennese court, she suffers from the rigidity of Versailles’ etiquette and experiences a marital tragedy. Her marriage to a husband as quaint as she is bubbly will never be consummated for seven long years. This marital disaster engenders a frenzy, a frivolity and a desire for freedom which will be heavily criticized later.
Never has a queen so casually freed herself from her royal duties. She does not know her host country – France is reduced to Paris and its parties – she does not even live in the official castle – preferring Trianon where only a few elected ones are welcomed – she takes a lover under the gloomy eye of her husband and she revolutionizes the dress style of the time by throwing to the wind French dresses and corsets to breathe better in white “creole” dresses. The image of a debauched, featherbrained, prodigal queen quickly takes root in the French psyche, starting with the abandoned nobility then the bourgeoisie and eventually the people.
Yet she senses the wind of history better than her royal husband and becomes a tragic heroine when her confinement begins. She faces the Revolution with lucidity, dignity, grandeur, and everything that is supposed to debase her, actually elevates her.
Without the French Revolution, Marie-Antoinette would have been a queen like any other, perhaps celebrated for her beauty or her fake naturalism, but ultimately forgotten.
This is probably the reason why the years 1789-1793 take an appreciably important place in the portrait of Marie-Antoinette drawn up by Stefan Zweig. The vertiginous and cruel fall comes after the past glory and without this tragic fate, a mediocre Marie-Antoinette wouldn’t have known elevation.
French Revolution made her a queen. Stefan Zweig turns Marie-Antoinette into a Christlike figure who finds her truth in the redemption of the last years, and such path necessarily resonates with Jesus but also necessarily resonates with the author himself.
Because Stefan Zweig committed suicide at the age of 60, in exile in Brazil since he had fled his dear Europe now on fire.
Stefan Zweig is Marie-Antoinette, it’s that simple.
October 1st, 2021
Caroll dress – Vintage hat from Marcel et Jeannette – Repetto flat shoes – Bvlgari handbag – Essedue sunglasses