No. 1: Marry well
The empress, my mother, studied me as if I were an unusual
creature she’d thought of acquiring for the palace
menagerie. I shivered under her critical gaze. It was like being
bathed in snow.
“Still rather small, but I suppose she’ll grow. Her sisters
did,” my mother said half to herself. She caught my
eye. “No bosom yet, Antonia?”
I shook my head and stared down at my naked toes,
pale as slugs. “No,Mama.”
Swathed in widow’s black, the empress frowned at
me as if my flat chest were my own fault. “She’s no beauty,
certainly,” she said, speaking to my governess, Countess
Brandeis. “But pretty enough, I think, tomarry the dauphin
of France.” She signaled me to turn around, which I did,
slowly. “My dear countess, something must be done about
her hair!” my mother declared. “The hairline is terrible—
just look at it! And her teeth as well. The French foreign
minister has already complained that the child’s teeth are
crooked. King Louis has made it quite clear that everything
about my daughter must be perfect before he will
agree to her marriage to his grandson.”
Brandeis inclined her head. “Of course, Your
“One thing more, Antonia,” said my mother sharply.
“You must learn to speak French—beautifully. And this
too: from now on you are no longer Antonia. You are Antoine.”
She dismissed us with a wave and turned her attention
to the pile of official papers on her desk.
Antoine? Even my name must change? I gasped and
groped for an answer, but no answer came, just one dry
sob. The countess rushed me out of the empress’s chambers
before I could burst into tears. That would have been
unacceptable.Mama didn’t allow her daughters to cry.
I’ve thought of thismomentmany times. And I think
of it again, no longer attempting to hold back my tears after
all that has happened to me since then.
My mother was known to all the world asMaria Theresa,
Holy Roman Empress, archduchess of Austria, queen of
Hungary and Bohemia, daughter of the Hapsburg family
that had ruled most of Europe for centuries. Mama believed
the best way to further the goals of her huge empire
was not through conquest but throughmarriage. I’d heard
her say it often: Let other nations wage war—fortunate Austria
marries well. She used us, her children, to form alliances.
There were quite a lot of us to be married well. My
mother had given birth to sixteen children—I was the
fifteenth—and in 1768, the year in which this story begins,
ten of us were still living. Three of my four brothers
had been paired with suitable brides. The eldest, Joseph,
emperor and co-ruler with ourmother since Papa’s death,
was twenty-seven and had already been married and widowed
twice. Both of his wives had been chosen by our
mother. Joseph still mourned the first, Isabella of Parma,
with whom he had been deeply in love, but not the second,
a fat and pimply Bavarian princess whom he had detested
from the very beginning. I was curious to see if
Mama would make him marry well for a third time.
Next in line for the throne, Archduke Leopold was
married to the daughter of the king of Spain. Then came
my brother Ferdinand, thirteen, a year older than I, betrothed
since he was just nine to an Italian heiress. No
doubt he would soon marry her. The youngest archduke,
chubby little Maximilian—we called him Fat Max—was
not onMama’s list for a wife.He was supposed to become
a priest and someday an archbishop.
Of my five older sisters, Maria Anna was crippled
and would never have a husband, and dear Maria Elisabeth
had retired to a convent after smallpox destroyed her
beauty. (All of us archduchesses had been given the first
name Maria—an old family tradition.) My other sisters
had been found husbands of high enough ranks.
Maria Christina, calledMimi, was my mother’s great
favorite, and somehow she had been allowed to marry the
man she adored, Prince Albert of Saxony. Lucky Mimi,
one of the most selfish girls who ever lived!
Maria Amalia was madly in love with Prince Charles
of Zweibrücken, but Mama opposed the match—he wasn’t
rich enough or important enough—and made Amalia
promise to marry the duke of Parma. Amalia didn’t like
him at all, and she was furious withMama.
“Mimi got to marry the man she loved, even though
he has neither wealth nor position,” Amalia stormed, “and
Mama gave her a huge dowry to make up for it. So why
can’t I marry Charles?”
Silly question! We all knew she had no choice. Only
Mimi could talk Mama into giving her whatever she
wanted. Maria Carolina, the sister I loved best, had to
marry King Ferdinand ofNaples. This was the final chapter
of a very sad story: two of our older sisters, firstMaria
Johanna and then Maria Josepha, had each in turn been
betrothed to King Ferdinand. First Johanna and then
Josepha had died of smallpox just before a wedding could
take place. Ferdinand ended up with the next in line,
Maria Carolina. He may have been satisfied with the
change, but Carolina hadn’t been.
“I hear he’s an utter dolt!” Carolina had wailed as her
trunks were being packed for the journey toNaples. She’d
paced restlessly from room to room, wringing her pretty
white hands. “And ugly as well. I can only hope he doesn’t
It didn’t matter if he stank.We had been brought up
to do exactly as we were told, and Mama had a thousand
rules. “You are born to obey, and you must learn to do so.”
(This rule did not apply toMimi, of course.)
Though she was three years older than I, we had
grown up together. We had also gotten into mischief together,
breaking too many of Mama’s rules (such as talking
after nightly prayers and not paying attention to our
studies), and our mother had decided we had to be separated.
In April, when the time came for her to leave for
Naples, Carolina cried and cried and even jumped out of
her carriage at the last minute to embrace me tearfully
one more time. I missed her terribly.
That left me, the youngest daughter, just twelve years
old. I knew my mother had been searching for the best
possible husband forme—best for her purposes; my wishes
didn’t count. Now she thought she had found him: the
dauphin of France. The Austrian Hapsburgs would be
united with the French Bourbons. But she also thought I
didn’t quite measure up.
After my mother’s cold assessment, Brandeis led me, sobbing,
through gloomy corridors back to my apartments in
the vastHofburg Palace in Vienna. She murmured soothing
words as she helped me dress—I had appeared in only
a thin shift for Mama’s inspection—and announced that
we would simply enjoy ourselves for the rest of the day.
“Plenty of time tomorrow for your lessons, my darling
Antonia,” the countess said and kissed me on my
forehead. She hadn’t yet begun to call me Antoine, and I
Her plan was fine with me. Neither Brandeis nor
I shared much enthusiasm for my lessons. I disliked
reading—I read poorly—and avoided it as much as I
could. Brandeis saw no reason to force me. She agreed
that my handwriting was nearly illegible—I left a trail of