Marie Antoinette, Maine & Me

Queen Marie Antoinette

Lea Wait

When I was about 10 years old my parents and grandparents pooled their funds and bought a home built in 1774 that they’d fallen in love with.  They began the restoration work that has brought our home back to life …  and is still going on, three generations later.

Part of what we all loved about the house was that it came complete with a story.

In the late 18th century the house was owned by Captain Stephen Clough, who shipped Maine pine masts and spars to France for the French navy on his ship Sally and imported fancy French goods for retail stores in Boston. His partner in this venture was Bostonian James Swan, who’d lived for many years in Paris and had friends at the French court.

Of course, history tells us that life in late-18th century France wasn’t calm. The French people revolted, and Queen Marie Antoinette and her husband and children were imprisoned in the Bastille, where the children died of disease. King Louis was the first to be beheaded. After that there were a number of plots to free Marie Antoinette, but all failed and she followed him to the guillotine. 

What has this to do with Maine? Well, one story is that James Swan and Stephen Clough were part of one of the plots to free Marie Antoinette. She was to sail to Maine on the ship Sally and stay in Captain Clough’s home until she could find a more suitable dwelling place. Perhaps a note to warn her was hidden in flowers but was discovered by her jailer.  Perhaps she refused to leave without her children. But in any case, the plot, if there was one, failed. Marie Antoinette was executed.

What really happened? We’ll never know. These are the facts:  James Swan had many contacts among Royalists in France, and knew people at the Court.  Stephen Clough and his ship were in LeHavre at the time of the Reign of Terror when many wealthy French aristocrats were arrested and executed, as was Marie Antoinette. He sailed in the middle of the night (a most unusual action) with a shiploaded with expensive French clothing, tapestries, furniture, and furniture of all sorts. (Some of which are now in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.) When Clough returned to Maine, he named his next daughter Hannah Antoinette. A a girl in every generation in the family since, down to the current day, has also borne the name Antoinette.

At minimum, it would appear he was trying to help some wealthy Royalists to escape from France, and then fled when they were arrested.

But the stories connected with these facts are ..legion. Kaitlin referred to one in her blog on Maine Coon cats last week, because many books report as fact that Captain Clough brought back one or more of Marie Antoinette’s Persian cats to Maine. The queen’s cats then mated with local raccoons, resulting in today’s Coon Cats. 

Several Down East Press books on ghosts in Maine mention that Queen Marie has been seen in the house — or in its rose gardens — and cite the home’s gardener as a reference. I can only add that there is no gardener, and no rose garden, nor has there been for at least 100 years. (And no Marie has been here, in person — or otherwise.)

Captain Clough certainly never had a love affair with the queen. Nor was he imprisoned with her. (In case anyone asks.)

An historical novel supposedly based on the Marie Antoinette House story, “A Royal Tragedy: When Kings and Savages Ruled,” by Nat Wilder, Jr., published in 1910, would certainly be a contender for one of the worst 

“A Royal Tragedy”, 1910

historical novel of all times. It manages to combine  the French Revolution, the French & Indian Wars, the War of 1812, the American Revolution, and several other minor confrontations, confuses geography, puts Captain Clough’s daughter in the Bastille with Marie Antoinette  (and in love with James Swan,) after being kidnapped by a handsome Indian during the French & Indian Wars) — and gave rise to a lot of the strange stories

about the Marie Antoinette House, because, of course, it puts a lot of the action that doesn’t take place in France right here in the house I live in.
 
     But, as a writer,  I’ll admit I’ve also taken advantage of my home’s history. I’ve used its story as background in my mystery Shadows on the Coast of Maine (where something mysterious is discovered when a 1774 fireplace is uncovered, as we uncovered the kitchen fireplace in our home,) and I’ve included one of Captain Stephen Clough’s daughters in my historical novel for young people,
1774 Kitchen Fireplace

Stopping to Home, set in 1806.

The Marie Antoinette House is in a lot of Maine guidebooks, but it has never been open to the public, and as long as I’m alive it never will be.

About every couple of years another publication digs out the old story and runs a story about it, and someone calls me to verify some fact or another.  Usually the reporter is disappointed when I tell them that, no, the house wasn’t built for Marie Antoinette, and, no, she never lived here. (It’s amazing the number of people who think she did.) 

But sometimes it’s fun to think of what she might have thought of the place.

And, after all.  It IS a darn good story.

 

 

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7 Responses to Marie Antoinette, Maine & Me

  1. Kate Flora says:

    There’s no doubt that growing up in a house that has a “story” is a strong influence. So is growing up in a small town, where as you pass the houses on your road, you know who lives there and what the families’ histories are.

    We have a family story about an ancestor and a group of his neighbors rowing out to a British ship moored in a Maine river during the revolution, boarding the ship, and capturing the captain “in his nightshirt.” He considered it an outrageous act against his dignity (the British captain, that is) that they didn’t permit him to put on his clothes. The soon-to-be Americans found it clever and appropriate.

  2. Barb Ross says:

    I love these stories about your house, which is beautiful in its own right, and then has the benefit of these amazing stories (both the true and the apocryphal.)

    Our house has a well-referenced ghost as well. Perhaps she meets Marie for tea occasionally,

  3. Pj Schott says:

    Fascinating. Loved the link to Maine Coon Cats.

  4. So much history–in a house, in a state, in a realm. I really love this new blog.

  5. Fascinating story about the house and the possible rescue plot! However…I’ve been writing about the French Revolution for the past 28 years, so pleeeze fix a couple of minor, dead-wrong facts in your piece:

    The French royal family was never imprisoned in the Bastille, as the Bastille had been thoroughly demolished by the end of 1790, two years before the royals even lost their thrones. They were imprisoned in the Temple fortress (demolished later by Napoleon), at the (then) edge of Paris, and later Antoinette was imprisoned at the Conciergerie, on the Ile de la Cité, where you can still see a little bit of what’s left of her cell. There were, indeed, several plots to rescue her, which all failed for one reason or another. Captain Clough’s possible plot sounds quite likely.

    The children did not both die of disease in prison; Louis-Charles, the Dauphin, did, but the daughter, Marie-Therese, survived and was eventually traded to the Austrians for some important prisoners and lived until 1851, aged 73! She married her first cousin, the duke of Angouleme, son of King Charles X of France (Louis XVI’s youngest brother), and when Charlie was ousted, technically she was Queen of France for the 20 minutes between when Charlie signed his decree of abdication and the moment when her husband signed his own.

    Sorry, I’m a history geek with a bee in her bonnet. I’d love to meet Antoinette’s ghost at your house. (But we do know, all of us, that cats can’t mate with raccoons, right, though it’s a nice legend???) 😀

    Susanne

  6. As a former student of history, I want accuracy, accuracy, accuracy. As a novelist, I say never let facts get in the way of a good story!

  7. Ramona says:

    I’m late here, but love this post. I’m a Marie Antoinette junkie as well. There’s a town in Pennsylvania (French Azilum) built as a refugee settlement for Queen Marie and her children. They never arrived, of course, but there remains a rest stop called the Marie Antoinette Overlook.

    A number of aristocratic families fled to south Louisiana (where I am from) and brought along the exacting etiquette, the opera, balls, salons. The city of New Iberia was nicknamed Le Petit Paris because it was so transformed from its quiet little village origins.

    Enjoyed reading this!

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