Trianon: A Novel of Royal France by Elena Maria Vidal. The Neumann Press. 1997, 191 pp.
Madame Royal: The Sequel of Trianon by Elena Maria Vidal. The Neumann Press. 2000, 328 pp.
But to what shall I liken this generation? It is like children sitting down in the markets who, calling to other children, say, “We played the flute for you and you did not dance; We sang a dirge and you did not beat yourselves” (Matthew 11: 16-24).
This Scripture came to mind as I waded through the tragic story of Marie-Antoinette, Queen of France, and her only surviving child, Marie-Therese, known as Madame Royale. What fragments we know of the former are brief and almost wholly negative, so we must be grateful to Elena Maria Vidal, who has provided two beautiful books, exhaustively researched and yet completely accessible for those who wish to understand the events from a very personal perspective.
So many fundamental questions are raised by the events surrounding these heroic women. What is the justification for a hereditary monarchy? What is the relationship between the Church and secular authority? What are the responsibilities of the rich in the face of poverty? What is the relationship between patriotism and Christian duty? Can authentic charity and humility adequately counteract lies and innuendo? How does hypocrisy undermine the ability to evangelize? What is the Christian response to depravity and evil – and how does one protect children from it? Why do people take glee in the suffering of others – even when that suffering will not change their own status?
And yet the most important question is simply this: how does a woman embrace authentic femininity and motherhood in the most trying of circumstances?
Marie-Antoinette, an Austrian princess was wed to the Dauphin of France in 1770, and each, being conscientious and well-formed Catholics, strived to serve the other and France according to the will of God. Forces were already combining against them, stirring the masses to despise a foreign influence on the throne, to question the monarchy as an institution, to envy the nobility for their money and influence, and to rebel against the Church as a “repressive” structure. These forces represented various and competing interests – the Masons who despised the Church, the poor who wanted food and jobs, and various rival factions within the nobility who simply wanted more power.
The result was the unleashing of years of tumultuous fury – a fury which ultimately swallowed many of its own instigators, and which has not subsided to the present. With such enemies conspiring against the institutions of Church and crown, there was nothing the royal family could have done to change events. Marie-Antoinette was exasperated over accusations of extravagance for her silk gowns, yet likewise was attacked for putting the silk manufacturers at risk if she wore muslin. When she attempted to live a life of dignified transparency, she was accused of promoting opulence, yet when she retired to a preferred life of simplicity and shelter, she was suspected of subversive decadence – for why else would she avoid the public eye?
Her trials underscore one basic tenet in life – that one cannot choose a course of action to please others, rather all decisions must be made solely to please God. The changing winds of public opinion and unpredictable responses of others are hardly stable indicators of anything. Conversely, we are thus reminded not to impugn the motives of others, for we cannot know them, nor can we truly understand their trials and challenges. We must presume that all operate in good faith, according to the lights available to them – and we are called to respond consistently with love. God alone will judge in the end.
The overarching backdrop of this heartrending story is that none of us can choose the circumstances into which we are born, and yet those unique circumstances are the very proving ground of virtue, our own gymnasium of charity. All married women are called to support their husbands – whether princes or private citizens, to form their children to be saints according to their state in life, and to create sanctuaries of holiness amidst the this “vale of tears.” Marie-Antoinette and Marie-Therese each did that in the most trying of settings. They clung to the sacraments, prayed diligently for the cup of suffering to pass, and yet drank it dry rather than deny God or family. While the Church in France was reviled and bled, they stood firm as living icons of the martyred bride.
The answer to the most important question stated above is simply: only with God’s grace. Both women were faithful to that in desperate and tragic circumstances. Their lamps shone brightly in the contemporary gloom, consoling their own husbands who endured scorn and political intrigue, and well as Jesus, the Bridegroom, Who was defiled on every altar. Their success was ultimately in fidelity – despite the visible outcome, and stands as a stark lesson to all of us. Since they didn’t stoop to dance to capricious pipes out of season, they will, no doubt, rejoice to celestial hymns of praise at the nuptial feast. That we could all be so blessed.
Elena Vidal's books and more information about the author and her research can be found at her website.