Some Thoughts on Marie Antoinette

This is a rather tenuous link with Wilberforce!  His friend and second cousin, Henry Thornton, saw Marie Antoinette when he was a child (many middle-class British families visited Versailles), but otherwise no member of the Clapham Sect had any contact with her. But of course they followed the events of the French Revolution with obsessive interest and saw them as an awful warning about what could happen in Britain.

As a woman, Wilberforce’s friend, Hannah More, seems to have been especially shocked at the Queen’s fate. Linda Colley (Britons. Forging the Nation, Yale, 1992) has pointed out that for many women in Britain her cruel treatment seemed like a prologned and public rape. Following Marie Antoinette’s execution, More speculated correctly that the next royal victim would be Louis XVI’s sister, Madame Elisabeth.

Marie Antoinette’s story adds period background to the concerns of the Clapham Sect and throws interesting light on how gender operated in the late 18th century and today. So here is the essence of a talk I have given to Open University Summer Schools and to Workers’ Educational Association Day Schools.

To start with, was Marie Antoinette the Diana of her age? What do they have in common?

  • both died violently in Paris in their late thirties though neither was French
  • both were the devoted mothers of two children
  • both were depicted visually as loving ‘hands on’ mothers
  • both had made arranged marriages
  • both were leaders of fashion
  • both were seen as wayward and undisciplined
  • both were (unfairly?) depicted as bimbos and airheads
  • they were distantly related – both were descended from Mary, Queen of Scots
  • both have shrines – Diana at Althorp, Marie Antoinette at the Conciergerie

It is even remarkable that one of Marie Antoinette’s closest friends was the Duchess of Devonshire – born Lady Georgiana Spencer. But the parallels can’t be carried to far. The big difference is that Marie Antoinette was hated and Diana loved – even those who deeply disapproved of her, surely didn’t hate her. She was accused of being manipulative, not of being evil. After her death she became ‘England’s rose’, the ‘people’s princess’. Marie Antoinette was ‘the Austrian woman’ – emphatically the other. An analysis of these two women can indicate the cultural significance of iconic women. No-one can doubt Diana’s cultural significance (even if it turns out to be more short-lived than many of us believed in 1997). What about Marie Antoinette? From the vantage-point of two hundred years, there is no doubting her significance.  Why gender? With the onset of the French Revolution gender came out into the open: the breadwomen: Edmund Burke’s famous panegyric of Marie Antoinette in his Reflections on the French Revolution and his attack on the Parisian breadwomen who marched on Versailles; the mutilation of the body of the Princesse de Lamballe during the September massacres; the tricoteuses knitting under the guillotine (Madame Defarge); Charlotte Corday, the assassin of Marat, Madame Roland, the wife of one of the Girondin leaders, Olympe de Gouges, the first French feminist; the radical clubistes, the conservative rural women who sheltered priests, forcibly opened church doors, and physically protected the image of the Virgin from male derision. The Revolution opened a huge and well-known debate on the Rights of Man. What is less well-known is the debate on masculinity and femininity and how men and women ought to behave. This was recognised as early as the 1840s by the French historian Jules Michelet, who saw women as introducing an enervation into the ‘masculine’ progress of the Revolution. We today might see matters differently! The neglected education Marie Antoinette was born in Vienna, Nov. 1755, the tenth child of Maria Theresa of Austria. In common with many eighteenth-century princesses her education focussed on music and dancing to the detriment of other subujects. When the arrangements were made (1769) for her marriage to the Dauphin, it was discovered that she could hardly read or write in either French or German, that her grammar was bad and her spelling worse. Her tutor noted that she was more intelligent than people thought, but was lazy, frivolous and difficult to teach. The doll In 1770 she journeyed to France to marry the 15-year-old dauphin. The ceremony was highly ritualised and sexualised. She was disrobed in a little pavilion on an island in the Rhine near Strasbourg where she was required to leave behind all her Austrian finery and assume the dress of the French court. Is this like dressing and undressing a doll? As dauphine and then (after 1774) queen, she began a dazzling social climb. This remodelling can be traced  back to her engagement.Before she left Austria her crooked teeth were straightened and a new hairstyle hid her round forehead. She was welcomed at Versailles amidst sumptuous luxury. Her mornings were spent looking over patterns for elaborate fantasy gowns. She became a model who invited imitation.  One year she ordered 93 gowns. Her frivolous, doll-like nature can be symbolised in the Petit Trianon, the little chateau (or doll’s house?) that Louis XVI gave her where she played at being a dairymaid. Trianon was a narcissistic, seductive paradise with its theatre, balls and fashion shows. Mirrors were everywhere, to reflect the queen back on herself. The loose cannon She did not act like a queen. She read sentimental novels, had a passion for flowers, and giggled at court ceremonial.  She rebelled against wearing stays. She surrounded herself with amusing young men. She wore extravagant clothes, especially high feathers for which she was ridiculed. As her brother the Emperor Joseph noted, she wanted the privileges of monarchy without the responsibilities. He told her other brother, Leopold, ‘she has no etiquette, goes out and runs around alone or with a few people without the outward signs of her position. She looks a little improper, and while this would be all right for a private person, she is not doing her job.’ The unfulfilled wife The context was an unsatisfactory marriage. Louis was not as unintelligent as some used to believe but his chief passions were hunting and making locks and clocks. 1774 with the death of Louis XV, Marie Antoinette became Queen of France, at the age of nineteen. Simon Schama has pointed out that ‘for a dynastic regime, by far the most important part of the King’s body lay below the waist’.  The king and queen did not have full sexual relations until 1777 following a man-to-man lecture from Joseph II. In 1778 a daughter was born (though the full celebrations were reserved for the birth of the dauphin, Louis Joseph, in 1781 – he died 1789).  With this event, Marie Antoinette had done what was required of her, but she had become a controversial, deeply unpopular character. She was blamed for the couple’s unfortunate reproductive history. The big differences between her and Diana are (a) Diana’s reproductive history was unproblematic (b) that most of the public probably sided with her and not her husband. The nymphomaniac A huge pornographic literature grew up round Marie Antoinette, and songs were sung in the cafés and on the Pont Neuf. The prototype for these productions was the Essai Historique sur la Vie de Marie Antoinette, first published in 1781 and again in 1783, with revisions right up to her execution. 534 copies were burned by the public hangman at the Bastille in 1783. She was accused of having innumerable lovers and engaging with them in inventive sexual games. When she ventured to the theatre, she was greeted with frosty silence or even hisses. She was seen as a sexual monster infected with disease from sleeping with a cardinal; because lesbianism was assumed to be a German vice, she was accused of innumerable affairs with women. Much of this literature was influenced by Bienville’s misogynist  Nymphomania, or a Treatise on the Uterine Fury. The queen’s body became a symbol of a corrupt and feminised state. The changing images of Marie Antoinette can be seen in the paintings of Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, first summoned to court in 1778. In 1783 she painted the queen in a simple muslin dress, holding a rose. The emphasis was on the natural and the simple.  But was it an appropriate way to portray a queen? In 1787 a grand painting of the queen and her children was exhibited in the Salon. This was an attempt to show the queen as a mother, seated with her surviving children in front of an empty crib showing that she had just lost a child. But she was also dressed very grandly and was portrayed immediately in front of the Hall of Mirrors. The portrait was ideologically confused and met with a mixed reception. It certainly did not fit the distorted image of the queen. By this date she had become unwittingly (and innocently) implicated in the notorious diamond necklace affair, a confidence trick in which  Cardinal de Rohan was persuaded to buy an enormously expensive necklace in the belief that it was for the queen, who would pay him. She emerged from this story (quite unfairly) as a vindictive spendthrift who would stop at nothing. With the coming of the Revolution Marie Antoinette’s reputation was gradually transformed in Britain. Burke celebrated her in a purple passage, widely thought to go over the top. But as she was imprisoned, saw her husband executed, was separated from her children, she became the object of horrified compassion. Many people in Britain became convinced that the French must be a nation of monsters to treat a mother in such a fashion. The guilty mother Here, the resemblance is not to Diana but to Medea, the supreme exemplar of transgressive motherhood. In 1793 Marie Antoinette had become the Widow Capet and when she was arraigned before the revolutionary tribunal, it was as a sexual as well as a political offender, accused of sexually abusing her son the ex-dauphin, then aged eleven. At first she made no reply. Then:

‘I remain silent on that subject because nature holds all such crimes in abhorrence. I appeal to all mothers who are present in this room – is such a crime possible?’

In the last analysis, she wished to be remembered as a loving mother. The scapegoat The victimisation of Marie Antoinette reveals disturbing levels of misogyny. Her death, hardly a political necessity (Robespierre privately opposed it) was seen as a moral cleansing: the foreigner was expelled so that the republic of virtue could be born – and the republic was conceived of as masculine. Her death was a reversal of the adornment of her body after her marriage: the doll stripped to reveal a prematurely aged woman who had lost everything.

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