Maria Antonia Josepha Joanna was born in Vienna on 2 November 1755. She was the 15th child of Empress Maria-Theresa of Austria and her husband Emperor Francis Stephen. Soon after the birth, the baby was put into the care of a wet-nurse named Constance Weber, the wife of a magistrate. As she grew, she would still keep in touch with the Weber family. During her childhood, her mother Maria-Theresa would bring her to visit them and bring them gifts. She was also encouraged, as were all her siblings, to play with “common” children.
The relationship with her mother was one of “awe-inspired fear” mixed with love. Years later she commented: “I love the Empress but I’m frightened of her, even at a distance; when I’m writing to her, I never feel completely at ease”. Antonia, as she was called by her family, was closer to her father, who was cheerful, indulgent and good-natured. He transmitted to his daughter his passions for plants, flowers and gardens. Sadly, he died of a stroke when Antonia was only nine years old.
The family was close-knit, but with so many siblings there were bound to be some jealouses and rivalries. She and her siblings were particularly jealous of Marie Christine, who was their mother favourite and the only daughter allowed to marry for love. Instead, Antonia was very close to Maria Carolina, the sister closer to her age, being only three years her senior. The two lively and mischevious little girls grew up together almost like twins.
The atmosphere at the Autrian court was very informal and etiquette was lax. Antonia and her younger siblings would often perform, singing and dancing for the court, and in the long Austrian winters would go sledging. But the young archduchess had to study too. Her education was centered on the need to perform gracefully at court events. But because Antonia was only the youngest daughter in a big family and her parents so busy, her education was neglected and her governess spoiled her, helping her a bit too much in her studies.
While Antonia excelled at dancing, loved embroidery and learned to play the harp well, at 13 she couldn’t read nor write well yet and didn’t know much history either. Her French wasn’t fluent and was full of German constructions and phrases. This became a huge problem when after her sister Marie Josephine died of smallpox and her sister Marie Elizabeth was left scarred by the disease, she became the only available candidate to marry the heir to the throne of France. To improve her education, in 1768, the Abbé Vermond arrived to the Austrian court and became her tutor. A year later she could speak French fluently.
Her education wasn’t the only thing that needed to be improved to become, one day, Queen of France. Antonia was a pretty, lively and graceful girl with a beautiful pink white complexion but her teeth were far from perfect. She had to wear a pelican, a form of braces created by the dentist Pierre Fauchard, for three months to fix them. Next was her uneven hairline. Parisian hairdresser Larsenneur was called to Austria to turn her unruly hair into a stylish, powdered do that disguised her high forehead. Antonia’s transformation was now complete and she was ready to marry the Dauphin.
The wedding by proxy was celebrated on 19th April 1770 and two days later, on the 21st, she said goodbye to her family, friends and the people of Austria, got into the carriage that would bring her to France and left her native country, never to return.