The original material girl

The story goes that when Queen Marie-Antoinette was told that the French people were starving through a lack of bread, she flippantly replied, “If they have no bread, then let them eat cake.” In the aftermath of the recent New Orleans tragedy, hundreds of American journalists compared the Bush administration’s slow response to the clueless indifference of this Marie-Antoinette. Alas, for journalists (and the authors of pub quizzes everywhere), this popular legend has not even the slightest vestige of truth to it. Rumour has it that the line has not been included in the new $40m biopic of the queen, directed by Sofia Coppola and starring Kirsten Dunst. Marie-Antoinette’s reputation for frivolity would have surprised her contemporaries.Republicans and royalists died disputing whether she was a she-wolf or a saint; even strong-minded English politicians, like Horace Walpole and Edmund Burke, gushingly described her as “the goddess of our age”. When the fiery young republican Antoine Barnave met her in 1790 he instantly became a royalist and went to the guillotine clutching a portrait of her in his pocket. It was only decades later that history stereotyped her as an 18th century bimbo with more money than sense: the Paris Hilton of her day.Marie-Antoinette-Josèphe- Joanne was born on 2 November 1755 in the Hofburg Palace, Vienna. She was the eleventh daughter of the Empress Maria-Theresa, who was so used to having children by this point that she didn’t even stop reading and signing state papers during labour. Antoinette’s childhood was idyllic, and she was very pretty.Legend has it that when the young Mozart performed in front of the Imperial Family, he was so smitten with Marie- Antoinette that he asked the Empress if he could marry her. The Empress laughed which, then as now, was the acknowledged way of decimating someone in a social situation. At the age of fourteen, Marie-Antoinette was sent to Paris to marry the heir to the French throne.Rotund, awkward, shy and socially-retarded, Louis preferred reading atlases and mending locks to engaging in court life; if he had hoped for a plump hausfrau for a bride then he was sorely disappointed when he laid eyes on the vivacious Marie-Antoinette. “How does she do everything so gracefully?” he lamented, before tucking in to his gargantuan dinner.The marriage, needless to say, did not get off to a great start. Aside from the obvious clash of personalities, there was also an element of sexual discord. When someone jovially advised him not to eat so much before his wedding night, Louis declared between mouthfuls that he always slept better on a full stomach. In this pre-Cosmo, Sex and the City and FHM era, no-one had ever told Louis or Antoinette what sex was exactly.So this royal marriage was not fully consummated for its first seven years, even though a genuine fondness did grow between the couple. Most pinned the blame on Marie-Antoinette, asserting that she must be frigid. She escaped humiliation the way countless people have before and since: shopping. Once her husband became King Louis XVI in 1774, Marie-Antoinette and her friends indulged themselves spectacularly.She owned thousands of dresses, hundreds of shoes, gloves and hats, and a mountain of exquisite jewellery – pearls and diamonds were her favourites. Her perfumers, milliners, tailors and hairdressers were the best in Europe, and she had a strict beauty regime which included abstinence from drinking anything but water in order to maintain her famous alabaster complexion.A never-ending series of balls, banquets, dinner parties, opera visits, dances at the queen’s own private village and farm, performances in her new personal theatre and midnight dances in the illuminated grottos at Versailles were the stages on which Marie-Antoinette, bejewelled and bedazzling, earned her place as ‘the Queen of the Rococo’. Economists and liberals had toreach for their smelling salts when the queen’s expenses were calculated, and they never forgave her for any of it.Royalists, outraged at liberals’ having the gall to express an opinion of any kind, retaliated by loudly declaring that all liberals were stupid or bitter and that Marie-Antoinette was both beautiful and fabulous. Royalists couldn’t (and still can’t) see what all the fuss was about, especially when they pointed out how generous Marie-Antoinette was to charity.They were right to argue that she was being made a scapegoat for over one hundred years of financial mismanagement, but what they failed to grasp was that the queen’s spending was a PR disaster. In 1778, after Louis had finally achieved sexual maturity, Marie-Antoinette was forced to give birth to their first child in front of a crowd of two hundred courtiers, as precedent demanded.This humiliatingly public birth for her daughter, Marie- Thérèse, marked the end of Marie-Antoinette’s patience with Versailles’ infamous etiquette. Her three other children, Louis-Joséph, Louis-Charles and Sophie-Béatrix, were all born in private. Marie-Antoinette’s last ten years at Versailles were spent as a devoted mother, loyal friend, charming hostess, compassionate wife, good Catholic and generous patroness of charity – in short, the perfect Queen Consort.She was particularly generous to children, who she adored; she burst into tears if she heard of the slightest pain inflicted on any infant. Events now overtook the Royal Family, and indeed the entire world, when France finally admitted bankruptcy in 1789. The problems stemmed from the ineffi ciency of the tax system and the astronomical cost of providing aid to George Washington and his rebel army in America.Louis XVI was forced to call a national assembly, known as the Estates- General, to tackle the problem, but conservatives were worried that the liberals would use this as a platform to attack the entire monarchy. Just at that moment, Louis suffered a complete nervous breakdown when hiseldest son died an agonising death from tuberculosis. Marie-Antoinette, equally devastated, tried valiantly to revive her husband’s spirits, but for the last three years of his life Louis XVI suffered from intermittent clinical depression. Anti-monarchists played shamelessly upon the people’s xenophobia against l’Autrichienne, and a torrent of pornographic journals accused Marie-Antoinette of every imagined sexual and political perversion. Mob violence now became the real currency of politics in France and, in Marie-Antoinette’s own words, everything around them was “hatred and violence”.Versailles was besieged and the royal family were taken to the capital to be placed under virtual house arrest. Marie-Antoinette made several attempts to escape and tried to convince foreign armies to intervene and save her family, but events spiralled out of her control. On a hot August day in 1792 the mob attacked again, and the National Assembly voted to make France a republic.The royals were instantly incarcerated in the grim prison-fortress of La Temple. Two weeks later, over a thousand royalists were butchered on the streets of Paris, including the queen’s best friend, Princesse Thérese de Lamballe, who was tortured and mutilated. Her head was placed on a pike and carried through the streets to be displayed outside Marie- Antoinette’s prison window.Over the next few months, the rest of the royals spoke occasionally to their gaolers, but Marie-Antoinette would look through them as if they were glass. Later, King Louis was separated from his family, condemned as a traitor and sent to the guillotine on 21 January 1793. His widow never recovered from his death: somehow she had grown to love him and recognise him for the good-natured gentleman he truly was.The final horror took place when her beloved eight year old son was taken from her. He was placed in the room beneath his mother’s cell where she could hear him crying out for her. “Why is he crying?” she sobbed, “What are you doing to him? Why won’t you let me go to him?” Later her tears stopped, and when she suffered any physical pain she would respond in a dead tone of voice, “Nothing can hurt me now.”In the middle of October she was finally placed on trial on a series of charges so viciously absurd (treason, debauchery and incest) that they actually had the effect of provoking sympathy for the queen. Still, the republicans wanted her head, and on 16 October 1793 they got it. “It gave me great joy”, crowed the journalist Hébert, “to see that fucking tart’s head separated from her body.” Haggard and prematurely-aged, the thirty-seven year old Marie-Antoinette went to the guillotine without any sign of fear. Her body was later recovered by royalists and lovingly interred in a beautiful crypt, where it remains to this day.The Marie-Antoinette that legend has built has almost nothing to do with the real woman. Marie-Antoinette deserves our sympathy and, personally, I admire her enormously, though I can see why others would be hesitant. She died defending a system of government which now seems antiquated, and her mistakes were numerous. But she was not stupid, nor was she cruel or indifferent to people’s suffering, and that, in the age of the French Revolution, is surely to her eternal credit.ARCHIVE: 2nd week MT 2005