Antoine Barnave was one of the most romantic figures of the French Revolution: handsome, well-dressed, brilliant teeth and brilliant mind, imprisoned at 30, guillotined at 32. He was the model for Julien in Stendhal’s Scarlet and Black. But the romance does not stop there. Unknown at the time and for over a century later Barnave had a deep relationship with Marie-Antoinette. There was undoubted sexual attraction between the two who sat together in the coach as the royal family were taken back to Paris having been stopped at Varennes before they reached safety in the fortress town of Montmédy in Lorraine. The two, however, were never lovers despite the suspicions of Marie-Antoinette’s real lover Axel von Fersen.
Instead they together secretly governed France by correspondence in the last months of 1791. We know this because miraculously their correspondence has survived. It was entrusted by the queen to Fersen on his secret last visit to the Thuileries months before the fall of the monarchy. She risked offending her lover because, like Hamlet, she wanted her story one day to be told. The letters remained in the possession of the descendants of Fersen’s sister in Sweden until they were published in 1913. Many thought they were forgeries -too good to be true and written in neither Barnave nor Marie-Antoinette’s hand. In 1934 the mystery was solved: for security they were in the hand of the go-between.
The foundations for their relationship were laid in that coach. Marie-Antoinette was pleasantly surprised by Barnave- a bourgeois with the perfect manners of a gentleman .After all he had been one of the leading radicals not just in the National Assembly but in the lead-up to the Revolution in his native Dauphiné. The written constitution that he had had a large part in framing denied the king the means to govern a country as large and populous (28,000,000) as France and louis XVI had just said so in the manifesto he left behind when he escaped from his prison-palace. But now in snatched conversations under the eagle eyes of Barnave’s republican colleague Pétion and during pit stops -though Pétion was amazed that the royal ladies -the queen, her daughter, the governess and the king’s sister Elizabeth, never needed to relieve themselves- Barnave and Marie-Antoinette and Barnave came to a deal: he would persuade the Assembly to revise the constitution in light of the king’s manifesto and she would persuade her brother, the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II to renew the alliance with France and thereby give international recognition to the French Revolution.
They were sincere: a month later Barnave told the Assembly that they must ‘end the Revolution’ because ‘the next step towards further liberty could entail the destruction of the monarchy and the subsequent lurch towards equality would involve an attack on property.’ For the queen, if the king could gain all he had asked for in his manifesto -a strong constitutional monarchy such as England’s- without risking a civil war which he dreaded, what was not to like? However though the canny Leopold was willing he did not want to show his hand; and Barnave had used up most of his credit merely saving the king’s throne after his flight which was seen by many as a betrayal.
Barnave managed to get some changes – he got the king a bodyguard of 1500 men and had his status raised from the insulting ‘first functionary’ to ‘hereditary representative of the nation’. But it was disappointing. Nevertheless when the king was restored to his functions on accepting the constitution Barnave and Marie-Antoinette governed together in secret, the mechanism being: letters between Barnave and the Queen to thrash out a policy, transmission to the justice secretary to be finalized in a ministerial committee, thence to the king in his council for a rubber stamp. There was a sporting chance of success but it was wrecked by Brissot’s success in bringing about war with Austria in order smoke out the presumed treason of Marie-Antoinette confronted with war with her brother. Barnave’s whole policy was predicated on peace with Austria and he kissed the queen’s hand and retired to Grenoble.
The correspondence was not discovered but a scrap of paper found in the king’s bureau after the sack of the Thuileries on 10 August 1792 showed that Barnave was advising the ministers on the use of the king’s veto over punitive legislation against French émigrés and priests. He was arrested and kept in prison for eighteen months before appearing before the Revolutionary Tribunal on 28 November 1793 and being guillotined the next day.
Whilst in prison wrote he an analysis of the Revolution which many historians regard as the precursor of Marxian dialectic materialism. He argued that the Revolution was inevitable once the bourgeoisie had become the equals of the dominant nobility in wealth and education. And though in the past the bourgeoisie had been happy to aid the king in his struggles against the nobility now they would exact a price: that the absolute monarchy must give way to a constitutional one.
John Hardman is the author of Barnave: The Revolutionary Who Lost His Head for Marie-Antoinette, published by Yale University Press.