New portrait of a princess: A revolution in French thinking

Following the 250th anniversary of her birth and with a Hollywood film on the way, a more balanced view of Marie-Antoinette is emerging. John Lichfield reports

Marie-Antoinette lives again. The last great queen of France, guillotined in 1793, threatens to make us all lose our heads in 2006. She may rival, or even eclipse, her close contemporary and fellow Austrian, Mozart, as "historical personality" of the year.

Michèle Lorin, the president of the Marie-Antoinette Association in France, confidently predicts that we are about to plunge into a warm bath of "Marie-Antoinette mania".

A much-awaited film on her pampered and troubled life at Versailles, pre-revolution - written and directed by Sofia Coppola with Kirsten Dunst in the starring role - will open this summer.

The British fashion designer John Galliano chose Marie-Antoinette, the ancien régime and the French Revolution as the theme of his spring-summer fashion show in Paris last week.

In July, the Palace of Versailles will extend its acreage open to visitors to include a new Marie-Antoinette domain surrounding her beloved private retreat, the Petit Trianon.

And an exhibition of artefacts from the Marie-Antoinette era which opened on 2 November, the 250th anniversary of her birth, continues at the Wallace Collection in London until 28 February. On some days, visitors are invited to maker plaster heads, and then guillotine them, as a "family activity".

But why? Why this sudden surge of interest in a woman long held to be the personification of all that was worst about France's absolutist ancien régime? Was she not, after all, the woman who advised the starving, breadless French peasantry to "eat cake"? (Answer: no, she never did).

Weren't her extravagances, her love affairs and her foreign intrigues partly responsible for the bloody collapse of the French monarchy? (Answer: possibly, but her naughtiness was much exaggerated. She was much detested and lied about in the snake-pit of late-18th-century France because she was foreign.)

Evelyne Lever, the foremost French authority on Marie-Antoinette and the ancien régime says: "The renewed interest is partly linked to the emotions evoked by the death of Princess Diana. It may partly be my fault. I had lunch with Sofia Coppola a few years ago and mentioned the many parallels between their lives. In certain portraits of Marie-Antoinette, there is even a startling resemblance with Diana.

"Here was a young woman pushed into a loveless marriage, who had little in common with her husband, who had loves of her own which she could not publicly express, who wanted to live her own life, who became the centre of great scandals and died in dramatic circumstances.

"The great difference is that, in the final years, adversity brought Marie-Antoinette closer to her husband. The revolution revealed in her, depths of character and toughness which were not apparent before."

Mme Lorin cautiously welcomes the boom in popular interest in her heroine. But she is anxious about the Hollywood film which comes to cinemas in August with a script based on the books of Antonia Fraser. Apart from Kirsten Dunst as the queen, the film has Steve Coogan in the improbable role of Austria's ambassador at the French court.

"I've seen the trailer for the film on the internet. It is a fright," said Mme Lorin. "We've spent years trying to convince people that the Queen was not just a libertine who told the starving to eat cake. What do you see on the trailer? You see Marie-Antoinette eating cake. You see her lying naked on a chaise longue. I fear that the film is going to set us back many years."

Judging by Antonia Fraser's pro-Marie-Antoinette books and the subtlety of previous Sofia Coppola creations (such as Lost in Translation), Mme Lorin may be worrying needlessly. The movie, filmed at Versailles last year, will be more than just a costume romp.

In the meantime, it is possible to "hear" the voice of the real Marie-Antoinette. Unusually for a royal figure of her epoch, the queen was a great letter writer. Most of them have survived, even though many were written secretly and some in code.

Marie-Antoinette's letters - those she wrote and those she received - have just been published in their entirety for the first time (Marie-Antoinette, Correspondence 1770-1793, Editons Tallandier, €33.25.) The book is edited and introduced by Mme Lever, who has led recent efforts by French historians to draw a more balanced portrait of the queen.

The letters begin in July 1770, when Marie-Antoinette is a beautiful, air-headed, 14-year-old Austrian princess. She is about to enter an arranged, diplomatic marriage with a sickly, impotent youth she has never met, the 16-year-old future Louis XVI.

The correspondence ends with a courageous, unbowed and unself-pitying letter to her sister-in-law on 16 October 1793. Within hours of writing it, Marie-Antoinette was hauled, as the skeletal, grey-haired, 38-year-old "Widow Capet", to the guillotine at the Place de la Revolution (now Concorde). The 800 pages of letters in between read like "the true novel of a heart-rending life", Mme Lever says quite rightly. "There has always been interest in Marie-Antoinette in France but rarely much willingness to look at her real life and real character.

"There have been two versions of her. The royalists make her into a martyr queen. They refuse to this day to recognise any stains on her character, even though she was much criticised and traduced by royalist circles in her lifetime. For hardline republicans, she will always be seen as a wicked, frivolous woman.

"It is only recently that a truer portrait, somewhere in between these two, has emerged, a more human portrait of a woman born to luxury and privilege who was brought down to a human level and then to suffering beyond the imagination of most people."

Who was Marie-Antoinette? She was a Habsburg, the daughter of the emperor and empress of Austria, married into the French royal family to protect the quarrelsome interests of what remained of the Holy Roman Empire. Her early letters suggest an under-educated, gossipy, plump princess, anxious to please her new family at Versailles, but also to satisfy her scheming, manipulative mother, Marie-Thérèse.

She writes to tell her mother that Madame de Barry, the mistress of the old king, Louis XV, "is the stupidest and most impertinent creature imaginable." Her mother writes back advising her daughter on everything from prayers, to corsets, telling her off for being too critical about her new relations and urging her - in the interests of the Austrian empire - to place her husband, the future king of France, under her thumb.

For seven years, first as princess, then from 1774 as queen, Marie-Antoinette writes a series of embarrassed and evasive explanations for the fact that Louis XVI has yet to consummate the marriage.

"The king has no taste for sleeping with another person," she tells her mother in September 1777. Eventually, Louis is persuaded to have a minor operation and Marie-Antoinette finally becomes pregnant in 1778.

In the meantime, the dowager empress despairs of what she sees as Marie-Antoinette's dangerous tastes for extravagant, plumed coiffures, gaudy clothes, young male friends, horse-riding, gambling and diamonds. Marie-Antoinette replies tartly that her mother should not believe all that she reads in "the gazettes". Tabloid royal-watching did not start, it appears, with The Sun.

Her husband was not, as usually supposed, an arrogant man stuck in a disappearing world. Louis XVI's tragedy was that he was too modern - a man obsessed with the new technologies of the emerging Industrial Revolution. In a letter to Comte Rosenberg in 1775, the queen explains jokily, and a little bitterly, her energetic social life and her failure to produce a child. "My tastes are not the same as those of the king, who only likes hunting and mechanical inventions," she says.

"You will agree that I would not appear very graceful in charge of a forge. I am not Vulcan and I displease him more in the role of Venus than in my other activities, which he does not object to." Her other activities in this period included her mock farm and village at the Petit-Trianon where she dressed up as a milkmaid and cared for perfumed sheep and goats.

After her mother's death in 1780, the correspondence is taken up - usually when he wants something - by her brother, now the Emperor Joseph II. (The same Emperor Joseph who told Mozart that his music contained "too many notes".)

Unwisely, she tried to intervene with Louis on world affairs at her brother's behest. Her efforts were seized upon by her many enemies at court, who detested her because of her separate social circle; because she was foreign; and because she was an independent-minded woman. Aristocratic gossip, and the gazettes, accused her of multiple affairs with young men, and women. She was decried as extravagant and immoral - although she was probably no more guilty than the rest of royal and aristocratic society.

Her surviving letters are annoyingly quiet on this troubled period. They are also uninformative on the first year of the revolution in 1789, when the royal family was forced to move to the Tuileries Palace in Paris as virtual prisoners of the mob.

When the correspondence picks up pace in 1790, a very different Marie-Antoinette emerges. The flighty wife, dismissive of her husband, becomes his constant friend and ally, working tirelessly to save the family business.

She is contemptuous of the revolutionaries, who are dismissed as "monsters", "scoundrels", "madmen" and "animals", egged on by "freemasons". She plots with her friend, and probable former lover, Count Axel de Fersen, the Swedish nobleman who organised a royal flight from Paris towards Habsburg territory in June 1791.

The king and queen were arrested just short of safety. The letters she wrote to Fersen, when she was back in gilded captivity in the Tuileries, are terse and courageous. "Don't worry about us. We are alive ... I exist and I am worried about you."

Marie-Antoinette then began a long, almost daily, secret correspondence with a moderate revolutionary leader, Antoine Barnave. On behalf of her inert and depressed husband, she became the centre of attempts to rescue a constitutional monarchy on the British pattern from the Jacobin radicals who threatened to hijack the revolution.

Her letters, some running to several pages, are tough, wily and shrewd. They demonstrate a close grasp of the minutiae of revolutionary politics. At times, she seems to trust Barnave and his friends "even though they cling to their [democratic] opinions".

At other times, all the haughtiness of her royal blood surges through her pen: "Is it possible that, born in the rank I was ... I should be fated to spend my days in such a century with such men?" Her other letters of 1791, smuggled out of France in code, or in vanishing ink, show that Marie-Antoinette was also conspiring to reimpose absolute monarchy. She sent letters to her younger brother, by then Emperor Leopold II, begging him to start a war against democracy ("this tissue of impractical absurdities"). The emperor replied, promising much, but did nothing.

If Marie-Antoinette and the king had wholeheartedly seized the moderate option, could French royalty have been saved, and the bloody terror of 1793 been avoided? Could Barnave and the other "constitutional monarchists" have prevailed over the radicals? Probably not. In any case, Barnave, like Marie-Antoinette, paid for his efforts with his head.

The king was tried and executed in January 1793. Marie-Antoinette's eight-year-old-son was taken from her and brain-washed until he accused her of sexually abusing him. He later died of hunger, illness and neglect. The queen had several opportunities to escape alone but refused to do so without her family.

To the end, Marie-Antoinette believed in the righteousness of absolute monarchy. All the same, a case can be made for France's last great queen as a tragic heroine.

She never grasped the causes of the revolution but it exposed, in her, unsuspected depths of fortitude, courage and loyalty. By contrast, the Jacobin "democrats" and mobs who took over in 1793, acting in the name of common humanity and "the rights of Man", demonstrated little but pettiness, bad faith and viciousness.

Unfortunately, by all accounts, the Coppola film ends in 1789 and misses the less glamorous, but most moving, part of Marie-Antoinette's life.

In her final letter, to her sister-in-law, she wrote: "I pardon my enemies the wrongs they have done me ... I also had friends ... Let them know that, to my last moment, I was thinking of them."

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