PARIS — In January of 1792, less than two years before she lost her head to the guillotine, Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna von Habsburg-Lothringen composed a secret letter.
“I love you madly,” the woman more commonly known as Marie Antoinette wrote from the Tuileries Palace, where she languished under house arrest. “There is never a moment in which I do not adore you.” (See the PDF)
The letter’s sentimental declarations were later blacked out, and for good reason. Its recipient was not her husband, King Louis XVI, but her alleged longtime lover, the Swedish Count Axel von Fersen.
This furtive lettre d'amour and others like it were recently deciphered by a team at France’s Research Center for the Conservation of Collections (CRCC), who used modern technology, including X-ray and different infrared scanners, to reveal the redacted words of love between the count and the doomed queen.
The revelation comes two months prior to the release of a new book, I Love You Madly—Marie-Antoinette: The Secret Letters, due to hit British and French shelves in March. In the book, British historian Evelyn Farr documents the pair’s clandestine courtship through more than 20 other secret letters that Farr spent about a year deciphering as she trawled archives across Europe.
The pair’s lusty liaison has been addressed before in both fictional and non-fictional accounts, including Sophia Coppola’s 2006 big-screen adaptation, with Jamie “Fifty Shades of Gray” Dornan playing the suave Swedish count. Antonia Fraser’s biography Marie Antoinette: The Journey, published in 2001, also addresses their affair. However, as Fraser acknowledges in the book, there was no solid proof that the love story actually took place.
As a result, the torrid relationship has been subject to much speculation among historians, particularly the French. Popular theories include an innocent platonic friendship between the two and a one-sided infatuation. Even the Chateau de Versailles’ official website describes Fersen as an “intimate friend” of Marie Antoinette’s, noting, “The nature of the relationship between the Swedish count and the queen has been much commented on. Historically, their liaison is not certified and this mystery nourishes the legend.”
Farr’s discoveries, coupled with the CRCC's revelations, may take the legend a step closer to confirmed reality.
“French historians have typically been on the fence about this subject,” Farr told The Daily Beast, acknowledging that Marie Antoinette did have many male platonic friends, including the Count Valentin Esterházy, to whom she also wrote.
“However, if you compare the letters she wrote to Valentin and the letters written to Fersen, you can see the difference in tone. With Valentin it was always, ‘my dear count,’ not ‘I love you madly.’ Would you write ‘I love you madly’ to a platonic friend?”
Well, maybe. According to Fanny Cosandey, a French historian and a professor at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences in Paris, while the count and the queen may have shared a love story, it likely only unfolded on the page, not in the bedroom.
“Personally, I don’t think it was possible for Queen Marie Antoinette to have had an actual physical relationship with Fersen,” Cosandey told The Daily Beast. “Maybe it was a platonic love, maybe it was a stronger relationship… but I don’t think these documents are going to tell us much more.”
“We need more information,” she added.
Nevertheless, some of the letters Farr presents in her book—many of which were written in code or in invisible ink—reveal passionate words that seem as cinematic and over-the-top as the legend of the late queen herself.
“I live and exist only to love you—adoring you is my only consolation,” Fersen wrote to her after she had fled to Varennes in an ill-fated attempt to escape revolutionary Paris.
And in another, Fersen wrote: “I love you and will always love you madly all my life… Without you there is no happiness for me.”
Some of the more scintillating claims in Farr’s book concern the paternity of two of the queen’s children. According to the letters and other documents, Princess Sophie and Louis Charles were, in fact, fathered by Fersen—a revelation that Farr admits could raise ire in certain circles.
“I have a hard time believing it,” said Cosandey. “First of all, would it have been possible for the queen to have maintained this secret relationship to the extent that she had children with Fersen without the rest of the court being aware of it at all? Moreover, would the queen have taken such a risk? It would have threatened the French monarchy.”
“Nothing’s impossible, of course, but we would need other proof beyond these letters,” she added. “You must really put everything in context and analyze where the text came from, why he said what he did, why it was anonymous, and so forth.”
Farr, who said that either Fersen himself or one of his descendants redacted the letters, says that she has merely presented the evidence and that it is up to readers to draw their own conclusions.
Regardless of any scandale that could spring from the publication of this centuries-old covert correspondence, Farr sees evidence of the love story as a happy discovery that provides crucial insight into the legendary woman behind the regal myth.
“You can’t understand Marie Antoinette if you do not understand that he [Count Fersen] was the most important person in her life,” she said.