For if you suffer your people to be ill-educated, and their manners to be corrupted from their infancy, and then punish them for those crimes to which their first education disposed them, what else is to be concluded from this, but that you first make thieves and then punish them.
(Utopia, Tomas More)
Mary Wollstonecraft in Thoughts on the Education of a Daughter (1787) encouraged mothers to instruct their daughters in analytical thinking, self-discipline, honesty, social contentment and skills that they could use to make a living. If Marie Antoinette, youngest daughter of Maria Theresa Empress of Austria and Francis Holy Roman Emperor and Duke of Lorraine, had received a better education, would she have been a better Queen?
Marie Theresa the eldest of two daughters born to Charles VI and Elizabeth Christine, became Empress of Austria and inherited a catalogue of problems from her father, including the contesting of her right to succeed him. Like many aristocratic women of this time, she was instructed in music, dancing, and drawing, excelling in French, German and Latin. Her father gave her no instruction in statecraft, but she learned from his example. When she became Empress, she appointed Frederick William von Haugwitz to modernize the empire. He introduced a standing army, paid for from crown lands and introduced a new taxation on the nobility. He created a central administration which by 1760 numbered 10,000, including a Ministry of Finance to oversee the revenues of the monarchy and a Council of State to advise the Empress. In 1751 she established a military school and in 1754 an Oriental school for diplomats, but her lasting legacy was establishing primary schools for all children aged 6-12 with lessons in social responsibility, social discipline, work ethic and the use of reason. Undertaking to reform serfdom as the basis of agriculture, she acted on the peasant’s grievances, collected in the 1770-1 census, by issuing regulations to restrict working hours. She divided up the large crown estates into leases, which farmers could then pass to their children. This devotion to country resulted in her neglect of her children’s education.
Marie Antoinette’s book learning was neglected and although French was the common language of the nursery and she was taught Italian by Abbe Metstasio, she had difficulty understanding German. She knew nothing of history or geography and her music and drawing were either hurried or neglected. Steadman points to Vermond who was appointed by the court of Versailles to be her tutor and his damning assessment of her education. He said her French was not pure and she lacked the ability to write it, her handwriting was babyish, slow, with appalling spelling. Vermond is credited with transforming her into a prolific letter writer during the revolution. They discussed history, but never went any further back than Henri IV, the first King of the Bourbon branch of the Capetian dynasty. Steadman points to Vermond questioning his young pupil about when the King had encountered a problem, what would she have done? He was pleased that she often took the right course of action, showing a capacity to reason rather than simply rely on memorized facts. This lack of education became a source of regret, as it exposed her to the malicious talk of the French court. She took pains to rectify the situation, taking lessons in more than one accomplishment during her early years at Versailles.
Marie Theresa disliked the rigid courtly manners of her father Charles VI, who as Holy Roman Emperor had boasted of being the representative of Ceasar. When Marie Theresa succeeded him, she introduced a more relaxed atmosphere to the Habsburg court. Francis, her husband, as Duke of Lorraine often interacted with his subjects and he disliked formal ostentation. Marie Antoinette would tell affectionate tales of raising money in Lorraine by standing up in church on a Sunday and requesting an amount they wanted to collect, and this would be received through voluntary contributions by the end of the week. Unfortunately for Marie Antoinette, the French court of Louis XV was steeped in etiquette, intrigue and influential family factions. It was the gay abandonment of her early years that the 15-year-old Marie Antoinette brought to the French court, not the judgment and prudence of an adult. Yonge in his biography suggests that the Dauphin’s aunts should have supported the young Dauphine, but they were narrow-minded, malicious and jealous of her influence over their nephew. He describes a young lady full of health and vitality willing to please and naïve to the treachery of others.
This strict etiquette was obviously apparent in her marriage to Louis Auguste. Married by proxy in Vienna with her brother Ferdinand standing in for the groom, the young Marie Antoinette then travelled to Kell where Russell refers to a ceremonial custom to which all foreign brides were subject. She was not permitted to bring anything from home, into her adopted country, this included all her clothes and her attendants. After being dressed in French attire she met Louis in Compiegne for the first time, where he greeted her with cold civility, they then continued onto Paris where they were married. A state ball was given to celebrate their wedding with a firework display in the evening. The display was erected on three sides and when the platform caught fire it was believed to be part of the display. This error was soon realized and panic ensued, with only one exit, which was blocked by carriages, horses became unmanageable, people were trampled underfoot and those who escaped to the road and the river drowned. The young couple was so shocked at the loss of life and injury that they sent their expenses for the month to the municipal authorities to relieve the suffering. Yonge points to Marie Antoinette’s compassion in visiting the families who were affected by the tragedy, mirroring her mother’s example when she had visited peasants in their cottages on her walks in Austria.
Marie Antoinette’s lack of formal education meant she was ill-prepared for a French court that was steeped in a rigid hierarchy, governed by strict etiquette that had kept ruling families in place for many years. The naïve carefree girl was not only largely unsupported by her husband’s family but was viewed with suspicion as a supporter of Austria, a view hard to deny considering her mother’s influence and manipulation of her daughter. Even her compassion was turned against her, when she offered to take care of an injured child, it was rumoured to be her illegitimate offspring. She canceled the diamond necklace originally commissioned by Louis IV for his mistress, on the grounds that it was too expensive, but despite the jeweller’s fraud, she was still tainted by the scandal. Marie Antoinette was the naïve victim of political manipulation, in a role for which she was ill-prepared.
Goldstone, N. (2022, September 20). In the Shadow of the Empress: The Defiant Lives of Maria Theresa, Mother of Marie Antoinette, and Her Daughters. Back Bay Books.
Hardman, J. (2019). Marie-Antoinette: The Making of a French Queen. Amsterdam University Press.
More, T., & Turner, P. (2003, May 6). Utopia (Penguin Classics) (Revised ed.). Penguin Classics.
Russell, W. (1857). Extraordinary Women: Their Girlhood and Early Life. G. Routledge.
Yonge, C. D. (1876). The life of Marie Antoinette, queen of France (Vol. 1). Harper & brothers.