The Big Question: Does Marie Antoinette deserve her infamous reputation?

John Lichfield
Thursday 12 October 2006 00:00 BST

Why the sudden interest in France's last memorable queen?

Marie Antoinette, air-headed Austrian princess and then much traduced French queen, was born 250 years ago last year. The anniversary has generated aHollywood film starring Kirsten Dunst and several exhibitions.

From today, the Archives in Paris will be showing for the first time most of the personal and public documents related to Marie Antoinette held by the French state. They range from her marriage certificate (as thick as a telephone directory) to her death warrant and the last, moving and courageous letter she wrote just before she was sent to the guillotine on 16 October 1793.

Did she really say 'let them eat cake'?

Non. Or at least probably not. Marie Antoinette is reputed to have suggested that the starving, pre-revolutionary poor, if they were unable to afford bread, should develop a taste for "brioche", a form of cake. There is no historical record that she said any such thing. Her most celebrated words were almost certainly invented by a rumour-monger or pamphleteer.

That being said, the pre-revolutionary Marie Antoinette was probably capable of saying something just as insensitive. Her own early letters suggest an under-educated, gossipy, plump young queen, with a taste for plumed coiffures (the "big hair" of its era), young male friends, horse-riding, gambling and diamonds.

Why else is her reputation so lousy?

Long before the revolution began in 1789, Marie Antoinette was much detested and lied about in the snake-pit of late 18th century France. This was partly because she was foreign and partly because she was an independent-minded woman. She was known - to nobility and poor people alike - as l'Autrichienne, the Austrian, but emphasising the chienne, which means "bitch".

She failed for many years to produce an heir (through no fault of her own). She refused to tolerate the sillier traditions and people in the court at Versailles. She invented a parallel court at the Petit Trianon in the palace grounds where she dressed up as a milkmaid and cared for heavily perfumed sheep and goats. Aristocratic gossip, and the popular "gazettes" of the day, accused her of multiple affairs with young men, and women. She was decried, both by aristocrats and the bourgousie, as extravagant and immoral. Marie Antoinette was both - but no more so than the rest of royal and aristocratic society.

The new exhibition at the national Archives contains several letters in which Marie Antoinette defends herself to friends, or alleged friends, in strong, confident, rather modern-looking handwriting.

Was she an 18th-century Princess Diana?

Evelyne Lever, the greatest French authority on Marie Antoinette, believes there are many similarities. "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," Mme Lever says.

The historian believes the many parallels with Diana, Princess of Wales, partly explain the resurgence of interest in Marie Antoinette. "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," she adds.

Did the revolution change her then?

Yes and no. As the daughter of an empress and wife of a monarch, Marie Antoinette remained convinced of the divine right of kings. In coded letters from captivity, she describes the democratic ideal as a "tissue of absurdities". She dismisses the revolutionaries as "monsters", "scoundrels", "madmen and "animals", egged on by "freemasons".

The royal family clearly had difficulty adjusting to its new life, first under house arrest and then in prison. The Archives exhibition contains the minutes of the revolutionary tribunal of the Commune of Paris when it discusses, pompously, a request from Marie Antoinette for a pair of nail-scissors for herself and her children. She is refused.

All the same, this was a different Marie Antoinette from the pleasure-loving girl of the early years of her marriage. In adversity, she became the constant friend and ally of her rather hopeless husband, Louis XVI. It is she, not him, who worked tirelessly post- 1789 to save the family business and all of their heads.

She plotted to organise a failed royal flight from Paris towards Austrian-controlled territory in June 1791. Returned to captivity in Paris, she began a long, secret correspondence with a moderate revolutionary leader to try to rescue a kind of constitutional monarchy on the British pattern from the Jacobin radicals who threatened to hijack the Revolution. Her letters are tough, wily and shrewd and demonstrate a close grasp of the ever-changing minutiae of revolutionary politics.

Is there a case for Marie Antoinette as a tragic heroine?

Yes. She had several opportunities to escape alone but refused to do so without her family. Even moderate revolutionaries with whom she conspired were astonished by her fortitude and mental strength. She was, however, also plotting behind their backs to persuade her brother, the Austrian emperor, to restore absolute monarchy in France.

The king was tried and executed in January 1793. Marie Antoinette's eight-year-old son, Louis, was taken from her and brainwashed until he accused her of sexually abusing him. He died of illness and neglect. The exhibition contains a lock of his hair; it also contains a transcript of his mother's trial, where she was accused of incest. She defended herself with great dignity.

Marie Antoinette never grasped the causes of the Revolution, but it exposed in her unsuspected depths of courage and loyalty. In her celebrated final letter to her sister-in-law, written a few hours before her execution in what is now the Place de la Concorde, Marie Antoinette, by then a wizened old woman of 48, wrote: "I pardon my enemies the wrongs that they have done me... I also had friends... Let them know that, to my last moment, I was thinking of them."

Has Marie Antoinette been wronged by history?


* She never said 'let them eat cake'

* She was a more complex, even tragic, figure than popular memory allows

* In the most desperate circumstances she proved a loyal friend, wife and mother


* She sums up the vanity, extravagance and arrogance of the 'ancien régime'

* She remained a die-hard, absolutist monarchist to the end

* Her air-headed early behaviour as queen gave ammunition to her enemies

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