The Myth of Marie Antoinette
Marie Antoinette: infamous throughout history as a Queen with a never-ending sexual appetite; a Queen blamed for the poor conditions of the peasantry; a Queen often blamed for the failure of the French monarchy. Yet this Austrian-born princess was a more complex character than many people have made her out to be. Stephan Zweig’s excellent biography argued that there was a more human side to Marie Antoinette. She managed to put her stamp on The Palace of Versailles and the fashion of the day. Her husband, Louis XVI, was unusual in the sense that he did not have affairs and lovers to replace his wife; this caused, rather surprisingly, suspicion, and resulted in Marie Antoinette embodying the roles of both Queen and Courtesan. Her ostentation and her extravagance earned her contempt from those below her, as in effect she was an emblem of everything that they hated.
Analysing some of the pamphlets that circulated about her provides fascinating insight. As Chantel Thomas tells us, the “flagrant unreality” of the Marie Antoinette created by the masses proves how much she must have been disliked. The list of her lovers, according to pamphleteers, was exceedingly long; Lafayette, abbé Maury, comte d’Artois, many of her own ladies and other ladies at court. Marie Antoinette’s personal letters, however, show her to be a very emotional person. Many who were close to her claimed that she was capable of loving many people and that this caring character was what made her vulnerable to such severe hostility. Her exploits with Lafayette are told in Love Under Seige, or the Last Pleasures of Marie Antoinette: A Comedy in 3 Acts in which she has the perversity to find out what “a commoner” could do for her in the bedroom. This image of Marie Antoinette was, in fact, one of the more common ones, with most of the pamphlets relishing in describing her sexual appetite in detail. A close friend of hers, the Prince de Ligne, described how her “most innocent pleasures appear criminal,” and this is what the pamphleteers played on; her look of innocence in comparison to her “true” shamelessness. Other pamphleteers described her as flippant about her affairs (the affairs were, after all, the norm for Marie Antoinette in their opinion), and one explained how she frivolously passed off becoming pregnant by the comte d’Artois. Her affairs, however, were not only with men but also with women; this image of Marie Antoinette could be seen as coming from masculine fears that men were losing their political hold on France to a woman, for many believed that the King was her puppet. Hèbert said at the time of her trial that “she should be chopped up like meat for pâté” to recompense for all “the bloodshed she had caused,” showing how, from a political point of view, she was very much blamed for the problems of the people and the outbreak of the revolution. Hunt suggested that her involvement in causing the revolution of 1789 allowed “republican men” to “reinforce their bonds with one another,” and therefore to bring the revolutionaries together in hatred of her.
In the End
It is fair to say that Marie Antoinette was doomed almost from her arrival in France in 1770. Her Austrian heritage meant that the French immediately saw her as incestuous, lewd and brutish; she was bound to find it difficult to gain the complete respect of her subjects. The pamphleteers made her a criminal, from prostitution to infanticide, extravagant tastes to poisoning; she was the worst of the worst – for them she was the cause of the revolution. One of Marie Antoinette’s closest friends Elizabeth Charlotte (Liselotte to her nearest and dearest) wrote of the complications she saw her friend encounter as Queen: “Being Queen is not the happiest condition in the world… You suffer the worst restriction, you have no power whatsoever… you must put up with everything and somehow be happy regardless”. This seems to encompass the sad end to Marie Antoinette, a Queen who had no power and who found delight through her extravagance, yet was despised and ridiculed by her subjects for crimes she is seriously unlikely to have committed. Her last letter talks, almost constantly, of forgiveness – for herself, for the people who condemned her, for her son. The letter ends abruptly and the page is smudged with tears. This is the emotional side to Marie Antoinette which is often overlooked, for misogynistic reasons and to create a popular image that focuses on the licentious myth that surrounds her.
I would have used more of the original pamphlets but they are almost all horrendously explicit. Here are a few of the pamphlets so that people can look them up themselves:
- The Patriotic Bordello
- The Love Life of Charlie and Toinette
- The Austrian Woman on the Rampage (The Royal Orgy)
- The Royal D***o
Written by Lauren Miller
Fraser, Antonia. Marie Antoinette: The Journey. : Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2002.
Hunt, Lynn. “The Many Bodies of Marie Antoinette”. In The French Revolution: Recent Debates and New Controversies, edited by Gary Kates, 201-218. New York and London: Routledge, 1998.
Pilkington, I.D.B. Queen of the Trianon. London: The Mayflower Press, 1955.
Thomas, Chantel. The Wicked Queen: The Origins of the myth of Marie Antoinette. Translated by Julie Rose. New York: Zone Books, 2001.