Hapsburg Letters: The Disciplinary Dynamics of Epistolary Narrative in the Correspondence of Maria Theresa and Marie-Antoinette
By Larry Wolff :
On 19 April 1770, the fourteen-year-old Hapsburg archduchess, Marie-Antoinette, was married in Vienna by proxy to the faraway Bourbon dauphin, the future Louis XVI. Two days later, Marie-Antoinette left Vienna forever, setting off to join her new husband in France, and taking leave of her mother, Empress Maria Theresa, whom she would never see again. That date—“21 April, the day of departure”—headed the first letter in the ten-year correspondence that then ensued between mother and daughter. It is a correspondence that has exercised a certain historical fascination since its first publication in 1864, especially inasmuch as the empress addressed herself to her daughter’s “frivolity” and “dissipation,” precisely the qualities that were making Marie-Antoinette into an emblem of decadence for the ancien régime on the brink of the French Revolution. The unmitigated separation of the two correspondents leaves their letters as the substance of their direct relations during these ten years until the death of the empress, no personal encounter intervening. This integrity of the epistolary relation offers a model for analysis of correspondence as a narrative form, since in this case it need never be interpreted as a secondary and subordinate epiphenomenon of a more immediate personal relation. This condition, furthermore, encourages the application of literary and textual techniques to the historical correspondence, inasmuch as the historical actors, Maria Theresa and Marie-Antoinette, could come to exist for each other as narrative constructs, more and more with each passing year of separation.
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