The Tragic Death of King Louis XVII and the Effect on Jane Austen’s Work

The future King Louis VXII was born on 27 March 1785, the second son of King Louis XVI of France and Queen Marie Antoinette, and named Louis-Charles. When his older brother, Louis Joseph, died of tuberculosis on 4 June 1789 when he was only seven years old, the four year old Louis Charles became the Dauphin and heir to the throne. Unfortunately for the newest Fil de France, the volcanic upheaval of the French Revolution had already begun rumbling.

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After his father met his fate with Madame Guillotine on 21 January 1793, the eight year old Louis-Charles became King of France (at least in name), and despite having never ruled and being only a little boy, the anger (and fears) of the Revolutionaries settled on his small shoulders. The child was taken away from his mother, physically ripped from her arms by guards while mother and son wept and pleaded, on 3 July 1793.

Louis-Charles was given to a cobbler named Antoine Simon, “who had been named his guardian by the Committee of Public Safety and tasked to transform the former young prince into a staunch republican citizen.” Instead, the young king was tortured. The governments of both England and Spain “heard accounts from their spies that the boy was raped by prostitutes in order to infect him with venereal diseases to supply the Commune with manufactured “evidence” against the Queen” and in October the boy was bullied into signing a “confession” that his mother had molested him.

After being forced to declare this monstrous lie about his mother, Louis-Charles refused to cooperate with his captors ever again. He was remarkably resistant to their punishments, which were excessively cruel. On 21 January 1794:

Louis-Charles is said by the Restoration historians to have been put in a dark room which was barricaded like the cage of a wild animal. The story runs that food was passed through the bars to the boy, who survived despite the accumulated filth of his surroundings … no one, according to the legend, entered the dauphin’s room for six months until Barras visited the prison after the 9th Thermidor (27 July 1794). Barras’s account of the visit describes the child as suffering from extreme neglect, but conveys no idea of the alleged walling in. It is nevertheless certain that during the first half of 1794 Louis-Charles was very strictly secluded; he had no special guardian, but was under the charge of guards who changed from day to day.

According to Barras, the boy-king did not complain, but Barras made sure Louis-Charles was bathed, given fresh clothes, and his room was cleaned. He was also given a new attendant, Jean Jacques Christophe Laurent, from Martinique. Laurent took much better care of the small monarch, making sure the boy had his basic needs met and at least a little access to fresh air and exercise. However, Louis-Charles was just as impervious to the good treatment as he was to the bad. He would not speak a word to his jailors, and when he was visited by three commissioners from the Committee of Public Safety shortly before Christmas in 1794, he gave them only stony silence.

It’s hard to think of a child possessing that kind of will against powerful adults, but then it is even worse to imagine the kind of damage that had been done to him mentally, emotionally, and physically.

Louis-Charles died of tuberculosis on 8 June 1795, which he may have already contracted prior to his captivity. When Dr. Philippe-Jean Pelletan performed an autopsy he was horrified by the amount of scarring that covered the boy’s body. It was the embodied record proving that the young king had been badly abused.

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Louis-Charles was buried in an unmarked grave, but his heart was smuggled out by Dr. Pelletan and kept in alcohol and then preserved dry for decades. In 1999 DNA analysis proved the heart belonged to Louis-Charles, and in 2004 the heart was interred in the Saint-Denis basilica, where the monarchs of France were traditionally buried. It will be placed near the ashes of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, which have resided there since 1815 thanks to the Bourbon Restoration.

Other European monarchies were, of course, terrified to think of what had happened to the French royals. So were the upper-classes and gentry of most countries, and especially England. Jane Austen, a gentlewoman from a politically conservative family and a woman who (regardless of her many other good qualities) appears to have believed in the class system every bit as much as her beloved characters, would have been surrounded by the idea that a class revolution was a recipe for hell on earth. Moreover, Austen was in her 20s during the French Revolution, and would have have been keeping up with its events via conservative periodicals. Inasmuch as she was very fond of her nephews, the plight of Louis-Charles would have stirred her pity (as it would anyone’s!) Finally, her beloved cousin, Eliza, Comtesse de Feuillide, lost her husband to the revolutionaries, so the realities of revolt were made personal for the Austen family. 

In my opinion, this fear of disruption to the social order underlies the fear of Mary Crawford that Austen expresses in Mansfield Park. Anthropology has a concept called “pollution”, which is “matter out of place” that a culture therefore regards as inherently “bad”. Mary Crawford was this kind of pollution. She came into Mansfield Park, a bastion of propriety and order, and disrupted its natural order, much like revolutionaries caused socio-cultural chaos. No matter how many “really good feelings” Mary possessed, she was still pollution, and still hazardous to the Park. In the novel, Edmund Bertram, once happily attentive to the uber-domestic and feminine Fanny Price, was ‘endangered’ by his captivation with Mary Crawford. He would have been led away from the ordered life of the Park by Mary’s tempting womanly wiles. Edmund should have been properly embedded in the countryside near his family, but Mary put that at risk. It was only when Edmund realized that Mary Crawford had a “corrupted, vitiated” mind, a mind that did not worship the propriety and religious intractability which equated morality in Regency England, that he understood what a threat she was to the family nucleus of the Park and rushed back to home and Fanny Price to embrace the holiness of the status quo.

I exacerbate this Mary-as-pollution-theme in Mansfield Parsonage. I highlight Mary’s “deviance”by making her explicitly the opposite of Fanny Price and everything the Park would have considered orderly and thus inviolate. Where the Park was built upon hierarchical social strata – their fortune was from agricultural rents and slavery, Sir Thomas Bertram worried lest his niece think she was as good as his daughters, and everyone assumed wealth and ‘breeding’ to be of more importance than personal merit —  Mary Crawford embraced the Enlightenment. She supported women’s education, the rights of workers, and other ‘radical’ ideas that would have given the denizens of Mansfield Park heart palpitations. She was a danger to the whole English establishment, not just Edmund Bertram.

Just because I personally like Mary Crawford and the equality-drive ideology of the Enlightenment, doesn’t mean I don’t recognize how out of place she truly was within the context of Mansfield Park. I wanted to retell Austen’s story, rather than alter it. Mary will be much happier away from the stratified and unyielding atmosphere of the Park anyway, so her removal from it is really a win-win situation  all around.

        

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