The story of Queen Marie-Antoinette of France and the Count Axel von Fersen has been told many times. The reason why the Swedish author Margareta Beckman has chosen to do so again in her new book Axel von Fersen och drottning Marie-Antoinette is that she, unlike other writers, has had privileged access to their correspondence in original in the French National Archives. However, this does not enable her to reach any new conclusions.
The letters between the French Queen and the Swedish nobleman were first published by the latter’s great-nephew Rudolf von Klinckowström in 1877, but with several words and sentences replaced by dots (..........). The originals, which turned up in 1982 and ended in the National Archives in Paris, are also heavily censored and despite repeated attempts by various means it has proven impossible to reveal what is behind the black ink. Beckman has also been unable to solve the riddle.
In her book, Beckman tells the story from beginning to end – the main protagonist’s respective backgrounds, Marie-Antoinette’s teenage marriage and the marriage which remained unconsummated for years, the meetings and the correspondence between the Queen and Count von Fersen, the affair of the necklace, the growing criticism of the Queen, the revolution and the royal family’s attempted escape in which Fersen played a leading role. There are also rather long digressions to tell the entire history of the regiment Royal Suédois up until Fersen joined it (Beckman has earlier written a book about the regiment) and the fates of Marie-Antoinette’s two surviving children. All this is well-known from a mountain of previous books.
The Queen of France was in Beckman’s words “the great love of his [Axel von Fersen’s] life”, which seems a reasonable conclusion based on what he wrote in his letters to his sister Sophie Piper: “I cannot belong to the only person I want to [belong to], the only one who really loves me; thus I will not belong to anyone”. “She who was my happiness, she for whom I lived, yes my gentle Sophie, I have never ceased loving her, no! [...] she whom I loved so much, for whose sake I would be willing to sacrifice a thousand lives, she is no more!” “It was the day when I lost the person who loved me most in the whole world and who really loved me”.
Although aristocrats of the late eighteenth century tended to be effusive in their expressions of affection and used the word “love” more liberally and generously than we do today, it seems fair to conclude that Fersen did indeed love Marie-Antoinette. But we have no letters in which the Queen expresses similar feelings for Axel von Fersen.
The closest thing is a letter she wrote to Fersen after the royal family had been captured in Varennes during their attempted escape, in which Fersen had been instrumental in trying to save the French royals. “Farewell, the most beloved and most loving among men. I embrace you of all my heart”, the Queen’s letter ends.
This, Beckman points out, is the only one of the letters which has not been censored and she concludes that it must mean that the other letters were certainly not censored “for political reasons, as it has been claimed”. But drawing conclusions about what has been censored in other letters based solely on the contents of one uncensored letter is a risky business and not really very conclusive.
Indeed Beckman occasionally shows a willingness to jump to conclusions. For instance, Madame Campan later claimed that Fersen had been in Marie-Antoinette’s bedroom when Versailles was stormed, but Beckman interjects that Madame Campan herself was apparently not at Versailles that night and that her story is thus not a primary source. The claim that Fersen was in the Queen’s bedroom “can thus with the greatest certainty be completely rejected”, Beckman writes rather bombastically. But this is really to go too far – that an unproved piece of information comes from a secondary source does not automatically mean that it can be “completely rejected” with “the greatest certainty”.
It is really quite difficult to know what Beckman’s aim is or indeed what her view is about whether or not there was an affair between the Queen and the Count. It seems she wants to convince the reader that they did love each other, yet when she quotes Lady Holland’s memoirs describing Fersen as “the unfortunate Queen’s lover”, Beckman inserts an indignant “[sic!]” and she mentions the claim that he had been Marie-Antoinette’s lover as “worst of all” the accusations against him. Yet she does not refrain from indicating that Fersen might have been the father of Marie-Antoinette’s second son, Louis-Charles, based on Louis XVI writing in his diary about the boy’s birth that everything happened “in the same way as when my son was born”. (Beckman adds italics to the word “my” when she repeats the quote).
The book is generally well-written, the author mostly manages to avoid getting carried away sentimentally and there are not too many factual mistakes, but it does not provide any answers or any new information. Occasionally one feels a bit talked down to as the author finds it necessary to explain in brackets that “l’ancien régime” means the French monarchy before the revolution or that “Bruxelles” is the same as Brussels. But if one has never read anything about Queen Marie-Antoinette or Axel von Fersen this book might be a good introduction to their story.