Joined: Fri Oct 26, 2012 8:25 pm
Lafayette and Marie Antoinette
Hello, everyone! I'd like to open this thread to stories, questions, comments, etc., about Marie Antoinette's history with the Marquis de Lafayette. For openers, here is an excerpt from the book Madame de Lafayette by Constance Wright (New York: Holt, 1959), telling of an act of kindness toward Lafayette and his wife in 1782. I hope you all enjoy as much as I do this pretty story!
Paris, which today is a city of light, of broad boulevards, of endless vistas, was at the end of the eighteenth century still a walled town. It was surrounded by field and woodland and by sprawling suburbs, some of them as hideous slums as one could find anywhere in Europe.
The streets of the city proper were narrow and crooked. In winter they were thickly smeared with mud and sewage, but on the day preceding January 21st, 1782, a miracle of municipal house cleaning was brought to pass. The entire city was swept clean; thousands of firepots were distributed for after dark illumination--for January 21st was to be a day of fête, of fanfare. At Versailles, Queen Marie Antoinette of France had borne a son. In the morning she would come from La Muette, a royal hunting lodge on the edge of the Bois de Boulogne, for her churching in Notre Dame. Later in the day, the King would join her for a state banquet at the Hotel de Ville.
The weather on the 21st was clear and bright. Everyone was out; everyone wanted to see the royal processions as they entered and left the city. In the afternoon, however, sensation seekers discovered that there was a counter attraction. In the Rue St. Honoré, which was off the expected line of march, a crowd gathered in front of a large, handsome house, which, with its wide forecourt, its pillared façade, and beautiful formal garden that stretched as far as the Tuileries and what is now the Rue de Rivoli, was one of the showplaces of Paris.
This was the city mansion--a hotel in the primitive sense of the term--of a very important family that for generations had held high positions in the government of France. The Duc Maréchal de Noailles was the patriarch of the clan; his eldest son, the Duc d'Ayen, was Captain of the King's bodyguard. The Hotel de Noailles had always been admired, but for the past five years passers-by had stopped to gape at it in wonder. It was widely known that this was the home not only of the Noailles dukes and duchesses but of a Noailles son-in-law, the Marquis de Lafayette.
All knew the life story of this remarkable young man. In 1774, at the early age of sixteen, Gilbert du Motier, one of the richest boys of noble blood in France, was married to Marie Adrienne Françoise, the second of the Duc d'Ayen's five daughters. Three years later he left abruptly to fight in the American War for Independence. In 1779 he returned a universal hero, the darling of the court and of the nation, only to depart for another long campaign across the Atlantic which had recently ended in victory. Three days ago, Lafayette had landed at Lorient and word had just been spread about in the capital that he might arrive at any moment.
Among those who waited at the gate of the Hotel de Noailles were some women who sold fish in the Paris market. Dressed in their Sunday best, they had brought with them sheaves of laurel to present to the conqueror. That Lafayette had routed the British almost single handedly at Yorktown they were sure; they were also sure that in some way, not yet revealed to them, he would be the champion of liberty--their liberty--at home.
Presently a carriage appeared; cheers and cries of 'long live Lafayette" went up. The tall young man of twenty-four who emerged from the post chaise, with his broad shoulders, his great beak of a nose and his reddish hair, was no Prince Charming, but the crowd had not expected that he would be as pretty as a porcelain doll. In his uniform of an American Major General, Lafayette was an impressive, a soldierly figure.
As always, his manners were equal to the occasion. He accepted the fishwives' offering gratefully and without the slightest hint of condescension. He made a little speech of thanks and waited patiently until all had had a good look at him before entering the house.
It seemed as if the show was over. The servant who opened the door to him, and even the fishwives, could tell the Marquis that his wife, the person he had wanted most to surprise, was not at home. She and all the adult members of her family--her father, her mother, and her sisters--were at the reception at the Hotel de Ville. When they would return was anybody's guess. By this time the town hall dinner must be over, but protocol demanded that no one should leave before the Queen had been bowed into her coach. After her would come the King, the Princes of the Blood, and all the high dignitaries of the realm in slow moving, well-established order of precedence. This might mean a wait of several hours, and the crowd began to thin out soon after Lafayette had disappeared from view.
A short time later, however, those who lingered got their reward. A fresh wave of sightseers began to pour in from the direction of the Hotel de Ville, filling the street and the courtyard of the Hotel de Noailles and lining the steps of the parish Church of St. Roch across the way. First, distant shouts and the blare of trumpets, then, the thud of horses' hoofs and the jingle of harness announced that there had been a change of royal plan. The Queen's coach, with its mounted escort and outriders, all decked out in their beribboned birthday finery, came lurching down the Rue St. Honoré. It ground to a halt before the house of the Duc d'Ayen.
Again a shout went up, a double-barreled shout, for the Queen was not alone in her jewel box setting. Beside her on the velvet cushions was seated a young woman, elaborately dressed, elaborately jeweled, but not as resplendent as the Queen, for no one was permitted to out-glitter royalty. Dark haired, white skinned, with delicately chiseled features--what one noticed first about Adrienne de Lafayette were her very large, her very expressive eyes, deep set under thick, dark eyebrows. Because she was so small and slight, Adrienne-who had recently celebrated her twenty-second birthday--looked almost like a school girl; her youth, her pallor were perfect foils to set off the triumphant, full-blown beauty of her carriage-mate.
That the Marquise de Lafayette should be riding in the royal coach was due to a generous impulse on the part of Marie Antoinette. Just as the dinner party at the Hotel de Ville was breaking up, the news of Lafayette's return was passed from mouth to mouth, from ear to ear, until it reached the Queen. She realized Adrienne's predicament. All the ladies at the dinner were expected not only to wait their turn here but to follow the coach as far as La Muette for another round of curtseying, a second ceremonial farewell.
Marie Antoinette sent word to Adrienne to leave at once and to hurry home to her husband. When Adrienne demurred, the Queen offered to alter her route and invited--in fact, commanded--the young wife to come with her. There was kindness in the invitation; there were also showmanship and a consideration for popular sentiment with which the Queen was seldom credited. She saw, no doubt, that on this day of days the people of Paris would like to view the mother of the Dauphin, but they would also like to see the wife of their favorite Marquis.
Lafayette himself, when he heard the noisy overture to the Queen's arrival, hurried out of the house and pushed his way through the crowded courtyard. He was standing bareheaded at the gate when the coach drew up. The Queen leaned out; she extended a hand for him to kiss; she smiled. She knew Lafayette far better than she knew Adrienne. He had been one of the rather fast and foolish set that revolved about her in the early days of her marriage. At that time she had not thought too highly of him--an awkward, tongue-tied youth, a clumsy figure on the ballroom floor. Once Marie Antoinette had laughed at the Marquis when he was chosen as her partner in a quadrille and had made a few blundering missteps that spoiled the pattern of the dance. When he became a hero she learned to be more gracious.
And she was very gracious now. She congratulated him on the American victory and on the part that he had played in it. "As you see," she said, "I have brought you Madame de Lafayette. Her place today is not with me, but with her husband."
Lafayette murmured his thanks. All eyes during this brief and largely one-sided conversation were fixed upon the Queen. When the signal for the coach to move on was given, all eyes were fixed on Adrienne, who had not spoken a single word. She had been helped out on the farther side of the carriage and stood staring speechless at her husband.
If possible she had become more pale; all color had drained from her lips and cheeks. She took a step forward, stumbled, and would have fallen if Lafayette had not sprung forward to catch her. Sweeping her up in his arms, her head against his shoulder, her voluminous skirts trailing to the ground, he carried her toward the house, much impeded by the curious who pressed about him and followed to the very doorstep.
The crowd was enthralled. Those who couldn't get near enough to see plainly, shoved their neighbors, craned their necks, and stood on tiptoe. Those who had handkerchiefs took them out to wipe their eyes. There were enthusiastic ululations, ohs and ahs of commiseration and delight.
For a legend had grown up about Adrienne, just as it had grown up about her venturesome husband. She was his faithful, virtuous wife; she was Penelope to his Ulysses; she was the mother of his only son, who had been named George Washington Lafayette after the American general. When the treaty of alliance between the colonies and France had been signed, the American envoys went to pay her their respects. It was even said that when Voltaire--the great Voltaire--returned to Paris from exile in 1778, he sought out Adrienne and fell on his knees before her. "I wish," he cried, "to present my homage to the wife of the hero of the New World; may I live long enough to salute him as the liberator of the old!"
Closely identified as she was in the public mind with Lafayette, it seemed altogether fitting to the onlookers in the courtyard of the Hotel de Noailles that the poor little woman should faint at sight of her husband after years of separation. Fainting was much in fashion, particularly among fine ladies--and Adrienne was, after all, the daughter of a duke. In losing consciousness she had behaved just as her audience had hoped she would, and it went away well-satisfied after the door had closed upon her. What it had just witnessed was as good as the finale of a stage play, and soon a popular ballad was being sung in the music halls of Paris that told how Lafayette had come home from the wars to offer to his wife "a heart of flame."
It so happened that the little drama of Lafayette's return had been judged correctly, though across the footlights, so to speak, only its crude outlines could be grasped. Its finer points were known to none but the principal actors.
Adrienne was indeed a good and faithful wife--and her faint had been quite genuine; she was not given to swooning for stage effect. When she came to herself in the privacy of her father's house, she was dissatisfied with the part she had played. This was not the greeting she had intended for her husband. She had been overwhelmed as much by the publicity of her meeting with Lafayette as by the sudden release from long tension.
During the past eight years Adrienne had known moments of exquisite happiness, but she had also known much sorrow, much frustration. The history of her marriage to Gilbert du Motier was--and would forever after be--the history of her life.
From the author's "Bibliography and Comments":
The meeting of Adrienne and Lafayette in 1782 is not mentioned in either Adrienne's life of her mother, nor in her own biography by Virginie. Adrienne may have wished to forget her moment of weakness; Virginie may never have heard of it. The incident, however, is described in various memoirs of the day, among them Volume I, page 188, of the Comte de Ségur's Mémoires, Souvenirs et Anecdotes (Paris, 1827).
Recently, The American Friends of Lafayette distributed to its members printed copies of the words and music of the popular song cited at the end of this chapter. It was probably one of many that were being sung at this time. Its title is Adieux de Ventre-à-Terre, Dragon, a Margotton Sa Mie.