Queen fatale: There's something about Marie

Decadent, vacuous, brave - her character has been picked over for two centuries. But do we know her at all? As Sofia Coppola's biopic opens, the historian Frances Wilson seeks out the real Marie Antoinette
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Here we go again, losing our heads over Marie Antoinette. The cake-fixated clothes-horse whose rumoured appetites are widely held to have resulted in the French Revolution appears on screens this Friday in the much-anticipated film by Sofia Coppola. Marie Antoinette, sporting a head of hair which would put Marge Simpson in the shade, is played by Kirsten Dunst. Her "sprite-like spirit and dazzling, pale complexion" were precisely what Coppola was after.

The last actress to take on the role was Norma Shearer, whose performance in the 1938 MGM production of Marie Antoinette inspired Eva Peron to dye her own hair blonde. Dunst's glamour is already having a similar effect, and the catwalks this autumn have taken their inspiration from her sumptuous costumes. No matter that the fashions in the film bear little relation to any of the jewel-encrusted creations actually worn by the queen: the relationship between reality and fantasy has long been broken down when it comes to Marie Antoinette.

She was the most hated woman in France. In the Republican pamphlets written to stir up animosity towards the monarchy in the years before the Revolution, the bride of Louis XVI was called the "Austrian she-wolf", a "monster who needed to slake her thirst on the blood of the French".

Recent historians have suggested that the figure seen as a vampire by her people, satisfying her own desires by sucking the country dry, was no more than a construct of the revolutionaries, a convenient scapegoat for the excesses of the ancien régime. In reality she was brave and courageous, a dedicated wife, mother, and monarch, a committed conservative who was prepared to die for her beliefs. Saint or sinner: will the real Marie Antoinette please stand up?

Coppola, who won an academy award for Lost in Translation, does something rather different with her version of the French queen, representing her as a woman who rightly enjoyed her privileges and was wrongly made to suffer for them. Kirsten Dunst plays the part with the determined superficiality of an American teenager home-alone for the holidays. Once you get to know her, Coppola says, Marie Antoinette is really "quite sweet". She sees her as someone who has been lost in transmission, obscured behind two centuries of myth-making. The she-wolf who was said to have told her starving subjects eat cake during a bread famine was in reality a naive Austrian teenager negotiating her way between the sexual intrigue, stifling etiquette and endless extravagance of Versailles on the one hand, and a France precariously positioned between the ancien régime and a new sense of nationalism on the other.

Coppola's indulgent celebration of court decadence, which she sets against a thumping soundtrack by the likes of Adam Ant, was greeted by the critics at Cannes with a chorus of boos. Even if it has now been proved that Marie Antoinette didn't actually say "Let them eat cake", Coppola's unapologetic and shallow heroine does little to explain her or to account for the hatred she generated. As ever, Marie Antoinette divides opinion, and the role she played in the history of the French Revolution is in the midst of a retrial.

Born in Vienna in 1755, the Archduchess Maria Antonia von Habsburg, she was the 15th daughter of the redoubtable Maria Theresa, Empress of the Holy Roman Empire. Austria was the world superpower and the Empress, political to her marrow, saw her children as pawns on a chessboard. To consolidate an alliance between France and Austria - enemies for years - Marie Antoinette was married off at the age of 14 to the equally youthful dauphin, who would become Louis XVI on the death of his grandfather in 1774. Once the date for the wedding was fixed, the young girl would never again see her mother, her dog or Vienna. "Farewell, my dearest child," were her mother's parting words. "Do so much good to the French people that they can say that I have sent them an angel."

When the entourage transporting her to her new home reached the French border, she was stripped of her Austrian outfit and dressed in French fashions. It was then that she became known as Marie Antoinette, the Frenchified version of her real name. Her body and identity, she was soon to realise, were the property of others.

Marie Antoinette met the dauphin on 14 May, 1770 and married him on 16 May. The next morning her sheets were examined for signs of consummation. For the next 20 years, from the moment the curtains were drawn back on her bed to the moment she was handed back into it, there was never a point in the Queen's day during which she was not surrounded by a crowd of courtiers surveying her every move. "I put on my rouge and wash my face in front of her whole world," she wrote to her mother.

Her undoubted acting skills would stand her in good stead not only as a means of surviving Versailles but later, too, when her role changed dramatically, and she faced crowds of a different sort. In October 1789, when the palace was mobbed, the guards massacred, and a gathering in the courtyard demanded to see her, Marie Antoinette came to the balcony in her nightgown and stood alone and in silence for 10 minutes while muskets pointed at her face. She then bowed her head and returned inside. It was a magnificent and mesmerising performance, that inspired cries of "God Save the Queen". To the very end, she was a actress in a round-the-clock show.

What beauty she possessed, her mother informed her "was frankly not very great". Marie Antoinette was to get by on her good nature alone, but this, so the Empress became weary of telling her, was clearly not enough to please her husband. To her utter humiliation, Marie Antoinette's marriage remained unconsummated for seven years. Because everything, from her menstrual cycle to what she had for breakfast, was a topic of concern in Versailles, no one seemed able to speak of anything else. Was the queen trying hard enough to satisfy the king? What was it about her that could reduce an absolute ruler to this mockery of a man?

Antonia Fraser suggests in Marie Antoinette: The Journey that it was the increasing sense of her own pointlessness during these years that drew the queen into the vortex of card playing, diamond buying, hair-dressing and tittle-tattle for which she became notorious. Louis XVI, historians now believe, suffered either from ignorance or phimosis - an overtight foreskin - but the evidence for the former is the most compelling. Following a heart-to-heart with Marie Antoinette's concerned brother, Louis at last understood what he was doing wrong. "He introduces the member," reported Joseph II, "stays there without moving for perhaps two minutes, withdraws without ejaculation and says goodnight." Within two months the royal period was late.

Marie Antoinette was a devoted and exemplary mother. "A son would have belonged to the state," she told her new baby girl, "but you shall be mine." She went on to bear three more children, two of them sons, but by the time her firstborn finally appeared in 1778, she was seen by the public not as a delighted new parent but as an unrepentant whore.

Beyond palace walls, rumour had it that the queen was promiscuous and the king was impotent, and no matter that no evidence for her promiscuity existed - the one love affair she probably did have, with the dashing Swedish soldier Axel Ferson, went entirely unnoticed - the idea that it was the Queen's sexual excess rather than the king's sexual ignorance which had prevented an earlier pregnancy was implanted in the minds of the public.

It seems that anything said of Marie Antoinette would be believed, and the years of slander were gradually eroding the attachment of the people to the monarchy. An important contribution to this culture of defamation was the deluge of underground pornography known as libelles, in which the Queen was presented as a debauchee whose sexual liaisons included even her female friends.

When the monarchy collapsed like a house of cards in 1789 it was not because the nation had been fired up by the works of Rousseau, but because they had been reading the libelles, whose tales of royal buggery, incest, adultery and promiscuity became a metaphor for the diseased body of the state.

Jean-Charles-Pierre Lenoir, lieutenant general of the Paris police, believed that the mud-slinging caused by the libellous publications "caused great harm to domestic tranquillity, to the public spirit, and to submissiveness".

The most curious aspect of Marie Antoinette is not the speed with which she became the image of all that was wrong with France, but how various her different images are. There is hardly a genre in which she has not played a leading role. Her life began as a royal romance and ended as a tragedy; in the intervening years there was a great deal of farce, particularly on the occasions she was left standing freezing and naked in her bedroom while her underwear, which was meant to be put on her by the woman with the highest social status, was passed along the pecking order as women of more and more importance entered the room. "This is maddening! This is ridiculous!" muttered the shivering girl as she tried to conceal her breasts.

Marie Antoinette chose for herself the part of chaste pastoral heroine, spending more and more time at Trianon, her retreat in the palace grounds, where she indulged the fashion for simplicity and, to general ridicule, kept her own cows, chickens and sheep.

How little idea she had of the character she was seen to be in the outside world is evident in two portraits of her painted by her friend, Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun. These show Marie Antoinette not as an absolute monarch in all her regalia but as a fresh-faced woman in a loose white chemise, with soft flowing hair, a flower and a straw hat. The public reacted to what she considered to be a pose of simplicity and spontaneity with inevitable distaste, seeing it as a mark of her licentiousness. What the queen thought charmingly untraditional, the public took to be her usual disregard for the order of things. What the queen thought natural, the public thought unnatural.

In many ways the life of Marie Antoinette backfired from the moment her unconsummated marriage was spun into an effect of her promiscuity, and when the final turning point came it was the result of a similarly bizarre twist of logic.

In 1784, a prostitute called Nicole Le Guay was paid by the impoverished aristocrat Jeanne de la Motte to impersonate the queen and pass a message to the Cardinal de Rohan, who would meet her in the Grove of Venus in the gardens of Versailles.

Dressed in the queen's trademark white muslin, Nicole Le Guay approached the cardinal, handed him a rose and murmured "you know what this means," before sliding back into the shadows. The down-at-heel prostitute and the corrupt cardinal, both potent images themselves, set in motion a chain of events which have become known as The Affair of the Diamond Necklace.

All Paris was agog with this story, but it was Marie Antoinette whose reputation would never recover. A plot in which the Queen was impersonated succeeded in bringing down not the impersonator, who was acquitted as a sympathetic character, but the hapless queen herself. The guilty party was seen by the thousands who followed the events to be not the confidence trickster, but the ancien régime, whose greed and corruption could produce the dissolute cardinal, the desperate prostitute and diamonds of that scale.

With tedious predictability the libelles put it about that a lesbian tryst had taken place between Jeanne de la Motte and Marie Antoinette.

This tangled story is typical of the way in which Marie Antoinette's reputation worked. Not only was she made perpetrator of events in which she was only partly involved, at the same time as being fictionalised in endless libels. But it now appears that the publications whose steady flow of gossip are thought to have stirred up the hatred that started the revolution were not actually available until it was well under way. In an important new book, Blackmail, Scandal and Revolution, the historian Simon Burrows suggests that many of the defamatory pamphlets did not appear until later. Even then they were the work not of republican hacks in Paris but of blackmailers in London. It may also have been in England that "Let them eat cake" was cooked up.

This suggests that the real reason for the hatred of the queen is not that she was promiscuous but that she lavishly spent on herself while the country went bankrupt, and that she was rightly suspected of plotting to stop the revolution.

But according to Munro Price, author of The Fall of the French Monarchy, the two key factors against Marie Antoinette had nothing to do with her extravagance either, and were things she could do nothing about. The first was that she was Austrian and therefore the enemy. The second was that she was a woman. Time after time, it is the femininity of Marie Antoinette that is made the issue. Her supposed promiscuity was a mark of the danger she posed to the natural order of things: the state was becoming feminised; the king was weak and the queen had made him so.

As events drew to their climax, the king got even weaker and the queen became stronger, which served to reinforce public opinion. The country was bankrupt, there was an impending war with Austria, two of her children had died, and Marie Antoinette's appointment of a new prime minister was intensely disliked. On 14 July 1789, a mob seized control of the Bastille. "This is a revolt?" Louis XVI asked when he heard the news. "No, sire," came the reply. "It is a revolution." Rather than fleeing, Louis XVI insisted on staying put, thus condemning his family to death.

Marie Antoinette's final, and many say best, role was that of prisoner, after which she began to plot the restoration of the crown, thus proving herself a more adept politician than she had been given credit for. In 1791, the royal family escaped from Paris, hoping to reach the royalist stronghold of Montmédy, but were foiled and escorted back to the Tuilleries. Louis was tried for treason and guillotined in January 1793.

The queen was brought to trial on 14 October. Having no evidence for the crimes of which she was accused, the case against her was that she was impure and unnatural - the most powerful and disturbing accusation being that, together with her sister-in-law, she had sexually molested her own son, for which a confession had been exhorted from the prince.

In her final letter, to her sister-in-law, Marie Antoinette wrote of her son's allegations: "I know how much pain this child must have given you. Forgive him, my dear sister; think of his age and how easy it is to make a child say what one wants, even things he doesn't understand." The psychological intelligence is acute; perhaps she was not as shallow as she seemed.

Standing before the scaffold on 16 October 1793, Marie Antoinette had lost her identity as queen, wife and mother. She was 37, stick thin and thoroughly composed. She died with a dignity of which her mother would have been proud, but by then no one believed that she had "sent them an angel". As the Republican journalist and politician Jacques Hébert reported it: "The bitch was audacious and insolent right to the end."