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? Continue reading