Story of the French Revolution - Alice Birkhead

Before the Deluge

There was hope in the hearts of the French peasantry when the young King and Queen succeeded Louis the Well-Beloved. He had been buried with a lack of ceremony that contrasted ill with the state he had maintained. Now there was to be a fete day, a coronation of the sixteenth Louis at Rheims, with all the ancient rites. Even the Austrian wife became popular for the moment. Her enemies dared speak no ill of her while the preparations for the King's anointing were toward. She did not claim the honor of being crowned herself, though the ambitious Empress would have urged it. She was content to go in splendor from Versailles with milliners, ladies of honor, and the usual accompaniments of royal journeys. She added materially to the expenses of the ceremony. In vain, Turgot, the shrewd minister of France, pleaded the advantage of using the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. Louis was not moved by the argument that the spectacle would be more imposing, nor Marie Antoinette by the foolish idea that it would be well to save two millions for the State.

From Clovis, the wild, warlike barbarian, to Louis XV, most finished of courtiers, most civilized of Bourbons, the French monarchs had been invested with their royalty at Rheims. To Rheims, then, the sixteenth Louis would repair, though the roads were so bad that the corvee  had to be put in force and peasants' backs broken by the work of haste.

Down those roads the marvels of the Court flashed in carriages, hung high and driven furiously. Unlucky those urchins or curious women who crossed the path of the Queen's coach, which had been elevated to an unusual height to give a glimpse of the wonderful head-dress she adopted. In those days pedestrians had a sorry time of it, either in town or country. In Paris there was a sharp distinction between the man who drove and the man who walked. It was impossible for a well-dressed lady to cross a street without ruining her toilette, and people of moderate fortune dressed in black with black stockings that they might not have their clothes spoilt if they were splashed by the one-horse cabriolets, driven by fops at a most dangerous speed. On country roads children were trampled without the aristocrat suffering a pang of compunction. He would be annoyed by a jolt, perhaps, and would look out to see a bundle round which a weeping crowd gathered, but he was generally satisfied by throwing a few gold pieces to the bereaved, and went his way at the same risk to life and limb.

So the spectators gaped to see the Queen's fine head-dress but forbore to approach too near. She was always pleased by the cheers that saluted the royal carriage. She held her head high now, though it was burdened by a magnificent coiffure. It was the fashion to wear a head-dress that bore some reference to a great event of the period. On Louis XVth's death, mythological allusions were brought into the barber's latest novelty. A cypress on one side represented the mourning of the nation, and on the other was a cornucopia, overflowing with every good gift as an emblem of the prosperous era that was dawning! When Rousseau brought rusticity into favor, the "belle jardiniere"  was worn by every truly modish woman. It was heavy with turnips and beetroots, carrots and cabbages, and must have been as trying a fashion as the "coiffure a l'anglomanie" in vogue when the young men of quality took to crossing the channel and introduced the races and outdoor pastimes of the English. The belle of Versailles then had to poise her head carefully to preserve from damage a miniature race-course with jockeys, dogs, and five-barred gates arranged on the mighty scaffolding!

The procession met a royal greeting. The ceremony itself was gorgeous. The old cathedral formed a fitting background for the wealth and might that gathered in its aisles. The walls were hung with crimson cloth of gold, the dignitaries of the Church were decked magnificently in their robes of office. Ladies in court dress, then more luxurious than at any other epoch, accompanied peers and princes of the blood whose garb did not suffer one whit by comparison. Even the King, so humble and plebeian in aspect, had a certain majesty when he put on the violet velvet robes and took in his hand the sceptre, which was to prove unwieldy. The pealing of the organ, the sweet chant of the choir, hailed him and the crown was almost on his head. Then, with a sudden awkward movement, Louis XVI raised his hand to thrust the emblem on one side. It was the hottest day of .June, the weighty trappings irked him. He suffered from an impulse of strange apprehension. "It burdens me, it tires me," he said uneasily when the costly bauble was placed upon his head. It had cost 800,000. It was to cost his life. He had a vague instinct, no doubt, which made him hesitate to take it.

But the weakness passed, and once again the Queen breathed freely. Her pride had been hurt, though she concealed the wound by a haughty bearing. She was to govern rather than this coward. She would let him indulge his passion for the chase, and herself give audience to ministers, transact the public business with her favorites, while he put down in his diary the day's sport or made these curious entries. "To-day nothing; remonstrances of the Parlement. Nothing: death of M. de Maurepas. Nothing; retirement of M. Necker."

Louis Seize passed out of the cathedral now amidst the roar of cannon and the acclamations of the people. Thousands of singing birds were freed from their cages to symbolize the "vieilles franchises"  or "ancient rights" of France, medals were scattered among the mob by heralds-at-arms who cried "Noel" and "Largesse," as they strewed them broadcast. The day of splendid festivity was concluded by a banquet in the Hall of Rheims, where statues of other kings crowned there were placed to welcome the King who dreaded sovereignty.

On the morrow Louis received offerings from the Mayor of Rheims, who delivered the old formula of the citizens. "'Te, Your Majesty's loyal subjects, crave leave to offer you of the best we possess—our wine, our pears, our hearts."

[Illustration] from Story of the French Revolution by Alice Birkhead


The sick were brought to him that he might heal them by one touch of the royal fingers, debtors were set free because a King had graciously assumed their debts. All was feting and merrymaking in that June of 1774. The Queen wrote in high spirits to her mother. She did not know that it was a false gaiety she met on the way through a concourse of French loyalists. The deformed and crippled were forbidden to obtrude themselves upon the sight of the exalted. Disease and poverty must not be too ugly. They were swept aside that the path of King and Queen might seem all roses and sunshine, that they might not suffer from the sight of human pain and human sorrow.

The King doffed the purple and went hunting or made locks busily in the slovenly disarray that caused valet and barber to despair of his doing them honor. The Queen cast off the restraints that had been imposed on her when she was a princess. She was beautiful and commanding, in the flower of youth and of a fascination that brought her real homage. If she danced to a measure carelessly, the music itself must be out of tune. If she acted in the mimic theatre of her palace, the audience did not whisper that her voice was weak and her gestures artificial. With the frivolous Count of Artois she went to masked balls and set up gaming tables. The King paid her debts though he did not accompany her on the wild frolics she enjoyed among the common people of Paris, who penetrated her disguise and yet pretended no suspicion. She drove in a sleigh through the streets without attendants. The Princesse de Lamballe was her companion—a foolish pretty woman, whose delicacy was such that she fainted at the scent of a bunch of violets! The Princesse must share the royal wealth, acquired so easily. A post was created for her at Versailles that she might be given an enormous salary. The scandal spread beyond Court circles. There were murmurs that the Queen cared nothing for the people. They suffered cruel want during the winter of the sledges, and the King ordered carts of fuel to be given to them, declaring that he would spend money on a different kind of hobby.

Marie Antoinette, too, had impulses of kindness. She brought up a little boy who had been run over by her carriage. He was transferred from cottage to castle and soon learnt to play the role of courtier, but the Queen's whim made him her bitter enemy in the days when she had no longer the right to indulge such fancies.

The old Court with its faded beaux and belles looked askance at the caprice of the new Court. Scandals were in the very air, and the King's brother and his wife fostered them continually. They were jealous of the Austrian and believed the worst of every harmless folly.

"The Queen goes incessantly to the opera and to the play, gets into debts, interferes in law-trials, adorns herself with feathers and knots of ribbon and laughs at everything." It was a true enough description. She loved finery, and swam, a splendid vision, down the Galerie des Glaces  when the ceremony of Mass claimed her. The King was religious; he would have been shocked by inattention.

[Illustration] from Story of the French Revolution by Alice Birkhead


Caron de Beaumarchais played on the Queen's love of the theatre. He wrote The Marriage of Figaro  and the Barber of Seville, both satires on Court manners and the Court wished to hear them. The King was moved to assert his authority. He sent the clever playwright to prison, using the arbitrary method of a "lettre de cachet,"  which dispensed with a formal trial. The Queen overruled him. Beaumarchais read his play in her Salons, and when it was acted the crush was stupendous, fashionable ladies deigning to sit by women of the humblest class and to endure a lengthy time of waiting. They applauded Beaumarchais, amused by his witty exposure of their morals. They saw the glass held up for others to see them as they were and did not realize that they were bringing about their own downfall!

The Queen had a fancy for country life in the course of her extravagances. She had received the little village of Trianon as a gift from the King and went there alone to play the dairymaid. The teaching of Rousseau had inspired her with a desire for simplicity. She would have an English garden, differing from the prim beauty of Versailles. Bridges and tiny streams and rustic hedges diversified the profusion of flowers and green sward. There were grottoes lined with green moss and pleasant dells where the elegant friends of the Queen ate strawberries and imagined themselves real inhabitants of the peasant village. It was costly to build the Swiss houses and the model farm and to put the mimic mill in motion, but every detail must be perfect to continue the illusion. There was a house for the cure and a house for the bailli, grouped near the more pretentious dwelling of the lady of the manor. The King came to Trianon only by a special invitation. The Queen's orders were paramount. She gave great offence by signing notices with her own name to foot a legal proclamation. There was a special mode of dress to wear at the butter-making and the pie-making. A rustic hat displaced the coiffure symbolical, and muslins were so much the fashion that Lyons silk merchants complained of injury done to trade by this cult of simplicity.

There was nothing real in this play at poverty. The grounds of Trianon afforded only "the sort of country where lambs are as well-washed as lap-dogs, and dairies have white marble tables and china bowls," but it pleased Marie Antoinette mightily, and she was careless how large a sum of money was added to the expenses of the nation. She insisted on places being made for favorites regardless of the waste that the rewards entailed. The Comtesse de Polignac was greedy for her family, and she was the companion of the Queen always when the Princesse de Lamballe failed to charm.

The delights of gorgeous apparel inspired the new Court with its parti-coloured carnivals. The heroic Henri IV figured so gallantly that the courtiers longed to return to the dress of an earlier period. If the King had not frowned at the idea, they would all have ruffled it in garments that were picturesque but absurdly cumbrous.

English habits became the rage as the admiration for liberty seized the fickle aristocrat of France. Benjamin Franklin lived for a time among the Court of Louis, and, homely in speech and appearance, was flattered by the class who were doomed to hear the fatal repetition of his favourite phrase "Ca ira." Lafayette went to offer his sword to General Washington and enthusiasm rose high for the rights of free government. It was vain babbling for the most part, but it brought a new sensation, and English racing was better calculated to make the pulse beat high than the card-games that were too dull and solemn for the Austrian princess. English clothes were imported and English jockeys, strange little wizened creatures, who sat behind the French dandies in their cabriolets. English clothes displaced the richer garb of the fantastic; poplins, tabinets and lawns were more precious than brocades; "they sold their diamonds to buy steel beads and English paste and Gobelin tapestry was stowed away in cupboards and blue English paper took its place. The evenings were devoted to tea-drinking and eating bread-and-butter." There was talk of Pitt, the English Prime Minister, marrying an ugly but vivacious daughter of M. Necker, the French minister. The house of Necker was a resort of the most brilliant intellects. Necker had displaced Turgot, the one sound minister of finance in that unsound nation. His wife helped to sustain his credit by her entertainments. He was the idol of the people because he published an account of the money spent in the kingdom. It was appalling and showed a grave deficit. Yet Necker did nothing to bring about reform.

In 1781, a Dauphin was born and welcomed with rejoicing. The King rushed into the streets to embrace his humblest subjects, the Queen was almost stifled by a throng of noisy visitors. The whole life of royalty was public in those days—the royal apartments never free from intrusion. Marie Antoinette's brother had been shocked by the stalls which blocked the splendid corridors of Versailles and filled the air with the clamor of a market. He complained of the sale of ginger-bread and the cry of newsvendors. When such an event as this birth was toward, privacy became impossible for the royal family. The fishwives and market-women hastened to claim their ancient privileges. They arrived in full force to compliment the Queen, and afterwards were allowed to fill the royal box at the opera with their comely figures in black silk gowns, the full dress of their order upon such occasions. The chimney-sweepers claimed a similar privilege from ancient days. Behold them at the opera, pretending to listen to the new music, but, in reality, preening themselves in handsome broad-cloth and powdered hair, with faces cleaner than was usual.

Marie Antoinette began to take her duties seriously, though she was declining in the favor of the nation day by day. She was ruling the King, they knew, and distrusted all her measures. By what right did she dare to choose Calonne as minister? He was flippant and polished in manners, but he did nothing which should avail to put him in the place of Necker.

Calonne, indeed, made the Queen a very gallant promise. She was to have her way, however the nation suffered. "Madame, if it is possible, it shall be done," he declared agreeably; "if it is impossible, it shall still be done."

Never was the Court more splendid than in the time of this flattering man of finance. The rich bourgeois began to ape the class above him. "Never did the looms of. Lyons produce, even for Madame de Pompadour, silks of richer quality or greater beauty of design; or Alencon and other lace-making towns more exquisite specimens of their beautiful art. Every article of the toilet was of the finest and costliest kind. Elegant equipages became more generally used, and the number of servants increased. Silver plate was more abundant, and inlaid and artistically carved furniture, and the tapestry of Beauvais and the porcelain of Sevres were in unusual demand."

In cruel contrast was a picture of the streets of Paris in the winter of 1783, which was memorable as a winter of hard frost. Crusts of black bread were thrown to the hungry, wretched creatures who were strong enough to struggle for them through the masses of snow that covered the mud with a delusive beauty. The open places of the city witnessed a horrible eagerness for such a dole of charity. None could scorn black bread when they were bidden to eat grass by their contemptuous rulers. It would have gone hardly with Marie Antoinette if she had driven her costly sleighs through the avenues of Paris, where there was so much want and misery.