In the first place, it is mere fiction that represents Maria Antoinette as having been physically beautiful. The painters and engravers have so idealized her face as in most cases to have produced a purely imaginary portrait.
She was born in Vienna, in 1755, the daughter of the Emperor Francis and of that warrior-queen, Maria Theresa. She was a very German-looking child. Lady Jackson describes her as having a long, thin face, small, pig-like eyes, a pinched-up mouth, with the heavy Hapsburg lip, and with a somewhat misshapen form, so that for years she had to be bandaged tightly to give her a more natural figure.
At fourteen, when she was betrothed to the heir to the French throne, she was a dumpy, mean-looking little creature, with no distinction whatever, and with only her bright golden hair to make amends for her many blemishes. At fifteen she was married and joined the Dauphin in French territory.
We must recall for a moment the conditions which prevailed in France. King Louis XV. was nearing his end. He was a man of the most shameless life; yet he had concealed or gilded his infamies by an external dignity and magnificence which, were very pleasing to his people. The French, liked to think that their king was the most splendid monarch and the greatest gentleman in Europe. The courtiers about him might be vile beneath the surface, yet they were compelled to deport themselves with the form and the etiquette that had become traditional in France. They might be panders, or stock-jobbers, or sellers of political offices; yet they must none the less have wit and grace and outward nobility of manner.
There was also a tradition regarding the French queen. However loose in character the other women of the court might be, she alone, like Caesar’s wife, must remain above suspicion. She must be purer than the pure. No breath, of scandal must reach her or be directed against her.
In this way the French court, even under so dissolute a monarch as Louis XV., maintained its hold upon the loyalty of the people. Crowds came every morning to view the king in his bed before he arose; the same crowds watched him as he was dressed by the gentlemen of the bedchamber, and as he breakfasted and went through all the functions which are usually private. The King of France must be a great actor. He must appear to his people as in reality a king-stately, dignified, and beyond all other human beings in his remarkable presence.
When the Dauphin and Marie Antoinette came to the French court King Louis XV. kept up in the case the same semblance of austerity. He forbade these children to have their sleeping-apartments together. He tried to teach them that if they were to govern as well as to reign they must conform to the rigid etiquette of Paris and Versailles.
It proved a difficult task, however. The little German princess had no natural dignity, though she came from a court where the very strictest imperial discipline prevailed. Marie Antoinette found that she could have her own way in many things, and she chose to enjoy life without regard to ceremony. Her escapades at first would have been thought mild enough had she not been a “daughter of France”; but they served to shock the old French king, and likewise, perhaps even more, her own imperial mother, Maria Theresa.