I hear a lot about Helicopter Moms, those parents who hover over their children’s lives, micromanaging every play date and homework assignment. This isn’t a recent development, though. Stick with me as we learn more about this centuries-old bad habit…
I’m reading Marie Antoinette by Antonia Fraser. It’s a nice look at the Austrian princess, born Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna on November 2, 1755, the 15th child of Empress Maria Teresa and Emperor Francis Stephen.
The Emperor died in 1765, leaving Maria Teresa alone to find a husband for Maria Antonia, then 10. Our Weird Word Moment happens right around this time, as Fraser explains that “(Maria Teresa) allowed nothing, neither mourning nor Joseph’s promotion, to interrupt her sedulous policy of planning her children’s marriages.”
In this case, sedulous means “diligent in application or attention; persevering.” Hmmm…was Maria Teresa a Royal Helicopter Mom?
Back then among royals, marriage was serious business, more a means of cementing alliances between countries than finding a soul mate. Sure, love may have blossomed later…maybe…but that wasn’t the main ingredient of those marriages. According to CBC News, “personal affection and romance were secondary to…diplomatic and political reasons.”
At the beginning of 1767, Maria Teresa had five daughters left to be married off. Fraser reports that she looked at Maria Antonia with “a critical eye,” noting the young girl’s crooked teeth, short-sighted eyes, and uneven shoulders. A system of “pelican” braces were installed to fix the first dilemma; the second received nothing short of a political spin: “short-sighted” was renamed “a misty look” and the uneven shoulders were remedied with clever padding.
Sedulously, Maria Teresa turned to the southwest, finding a mate for Maria Antonia in the form of the Dauphin of France, himself a sketchy prospect. Not his parents’ favorite, Louis Auguste was described as lacking in self-confidence, heavily built with a tin ear and myopic eyes.
These minor difficulties didn’t stop Maria Teresa. On May 16, 1770, when Maria Antonia was 14 and Louis Auguste was 15, the couple was married at Versailles. Fraser said an earlier marriage by proxy happened in April in Vienna.
Even though Maria Antonia, now Marie Antoinette, never saw her mother again, that didn’t stop Maria Teresa from continuing her sedulous behavior. Letters to her daughter prodded her on proper court behavior, how to handle Louis Auguste’s father, King Louis XV, and how to win over the French public. Not a letter went by without some sort of motherly/Queenly advice, helicopter parenting from afar.
“It’s not your beauty, which frankly is not very great,” wrote Maria Teresa in one letter. “Nor your talents, nor your brilliance (you know perfectly well that you have neither).”
Ouch! Maybe Marie built the Petit Trianon, her beautiful estate on the grounds of Versailles to not only escape court life, but her mother’s stringent missives! We visited her getaway this September – compared to the over-the-top grandeur of Versailles, the Petit Trianon seems almost simplistic in its design. With only one story, the palace spreads out, rooms filled with light and beautiful furniture.
By 1793, both Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI were dead, victims of the barbarity of the French Revolution. By then, the couple had learned to care for each other, having four children in the process.
And if she didn’t escape death, Marie Antoinette at least escaped the fate of her older sister, Maria Carolina. Their mother’s sedulous devotion to their marriage prospects resulted in Carolina marrying the “ill-educated but well-meaning” King Ferdinand.
“Although an ugly prince, he is not absolutely repulsive,” Maria Teresa attempted to console Carolina. “At least he does not stink.”