Wednesday 17 January 2018

Marie Antoinette: a woman misjudged

As the anniversary of Marie Antoinette's death approaches, our reporter asks whether she really was a sexually insatiable spendthrift who brought down the French monarchy

Kirsten Dunst as the ill-fated queen in Sofia Coppola's 2006 Hollywood movie, Marie Antoinette.
Kirsten Dunst as the ill-fated queen in Sofia Coppola's 2006 Hollywood movie, Marie Antoinette.
Marie Antoinette as painted in 1783 by Louise Vigee Le Brun, her official portrait painter.
Liadan Hynes

Liadan Hynes

At midnight in the gardens of Versailles in August 1784, Cardinal Louis de Rohan, leader of the French church, stole out to what he believed to be an assignation with Marie Antoinette, Queen of France. Handing him a rose, the woman murmured 'you may now hope that the past will be forgotten.' The cardinal had fallen out of favour when letters of his, mocking her mother, the Empress Maria Theresa, were leaked while he was serving as ambassador to the court in Vienna. A rapacious type, Rohan was desperate for a way back into the queen's good graces.

In fact, the woman in the garden was a prostitute who resembled the queen. The true architect of events was Jeanne, Comtesse de la Motte-Valois. She had led the cardinal to believe that she was a close confidant of the queen. The cardinal gave her money to act as a go-between, and she forged letters, allegedly from the queen. The meeting in the garden was the culmination of this secret correspondence.

All might have ended quietly were it not for the diamond necklace. Made by the crown jewellers, they had over-extended themselves greatly, and were horrified when the queen turned down the gaudy piece - 647 diamonds, weighing 2,800 carats. Jeanne persuaded Rohan that in fact the queen was forbidden from purchasing it by the parsimonious king. What if Rohan was to purchase it, to be later reimbursed by Marie Antoinette? Jeanne would deliver the piece. Rohan's suspicions were aroused when the queen failed to wear the necklace, which had by this time been sold off in London by Jeanne's husband. The matter came to the attention of the King, Louis XVI, who had them arrested. The subsequent trial captured the attention of the nation. Rohan was acquitted; Jeanne sent to prison.

But in fact it was the queen who could be said to have suffered the most long-term damage from the affair of the diamond necklace. It was a turning point in the French public's attitude to their monarchy. Years later, Napoleon declared that "the queen's death must be dated from the diamond necklace trial". The queen's reputation never recovered from this episode, unfairly, as she was completely faultless in the whole affair. To the French people she became the focus for their building rage in the lead-up to the Revolution. To history, she became a by-word for cruel indifference on the part of nobility. Even more than 200 years after her death, the obsession over this beautiful, fascinating creature continues, most recently manifested in Sofia Coppola's 2006 movie.

The second youngest of 16 children of the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, the future Queen of France was an also-ran, neither the most beautiful nor most brilliant of her sisters. Such was the extent of neglect she suffered in her upbringing, that by the time of her marriage negotiations, Marie Antoinette, who bore the title archduchess, then 13, could barely read or write. Dancing and singing were her preferred pastimes.

Physically, she had a perfect complexion, big blue eyes and a long elegant neck. On the downside, she had an aquiline nose, and a prominent lower lip. However, her warm smile and a wish to please created an overall pleasing impression. In comparison, her husband to be, the 15-year-old Dauphin Louis Auguste, was a bright, scholarly type. He was also lacking in confidence, and easily led. Always of heavy build, his weight merely increased over time. Life in Versailles was a dramatic change for the young Marie Antoinette. "I put on my rouge and wash my hands in front of the whole world," she is recorded as saying. On one famous occasion, the queen's morning toilette was repeatedly held up by arrivals of members of her household who outranked each other. The queen was left standing naked whilst her chemise was passed from noblewoman to noblewoman.

Her domineering mother took a huge interest in her daughter's affairs, specifically, how Marie Antoinette was failing in her task: to solidify the Franco-Austrian alliance. While Marie Antoinette was feted, the alliance itself was not popular in France, Austria being the traditional enemy of France. Her chief fault was a failure to produce an heir. Louis was a virgin at the time of his marriage. It took the royal couple more than seven years of marriage to consummate their union. This sexual stalemate has been attributed to everything from Louis's shyness, to problems with his penis. Several physical examinations by court doctors found nothing wrong. Louis XV, was not hugely popular at his death in 1774. The young couple were a welcome contrast to the debauchery of his reign, and huge expectations of change were placed on the new king. Louis XVI's lack of sexual appetite created several problems for Marie Antoinette. Traditionally, the French court would have a queen, and a mistress. The mistress was usually the focus of a certain amount of misogyny - she would be painted as a manipulative creature, trying to control the king, while the queen, in relief, was the mother of France. Now Marie Antoinette was cast as the would-be schemer, while also failing to fulfil her destined role as mother. Furthermore motherhood would have provided her with a function. As it was, she was at a loose end. Bored and somewhat immature, partying, gambling, the theatre, shopping, increasingly extreme fashions, and extravagant interior decorating occupied her days, and no doubt contributed to her reputation as a wanton woman.

'There was beginning to be something desperate about her enjoyment of pleasures . . . the levity, the lightness of spirit, the volatility . . . with which Marie Antoinette is so much associated can be traced back to this period, when disappointment in her marriage began to be masked by enjoyment of her position,' writes her biographer Antonia Fraser. The careless comment, 'let them eat cake' had actually been attributed to princesses going back a hundred years before Marie Antoinette.

Pamphlets, which were scurrilous to the point of pornographic, accusing the queen of all manner of licentious behaviour, began to be published. The evidence, as elaborated by Fraser, would seem to suggest that she was a flirt rather than an adulterer, except in one case, with the Swedish Count Axel von Fersen, a dedicated royalist who would later plan the royal family's attempt to escape the revolution, whom Fraser posits as the queen's one affair. It was also at this time that she began to incur great personal debt, through expenditure on gambling and her wardrobe. Of course it was France's involvement in the American War of Independence that led to disaster for the nation's finances, not Marie Antoinette's shopping budget. But, increasingly, 'Madame Deficit' became a focal point for the building ire of the people.

A visit from the queen's brother, the Emperor Joseph, finally brought to an end the barren nature of the marriage. He harangued and lectured, concluding that the king seemed to have an extraordinary apathy with regard to sex, and was making half-hearted attempts that would never lead to impregnation. More than seven years after they married, the pair properly consummated their marriage.

Motherhood engendered a slow maturation of the queen's character. However, the popularity afforded her by the arrival of her children, four in total, was short-lived. The trials arising from the affair of the Diamond Necklace unleashed a torrent of accusations of sexual perversions against the queen. The queen was devastated, but the affair, Fraser suggests 'brought new steel to a fundamentally pliant character'. The king, on the other hand, in the face of the increasingly fraught political situation in France, seemed to be exhibiting all the signs of depression - weeping, falling asleep in Council meetings. Having recently turned 30, the queen consciously adopted a new seriousness. The deaths of two of her children, Sophie, just before her first birthday, and the Dauphin Louis Joseph, at the age of seven, had further sobered Marie Antoinette.

In October 1789, a mob of thousands marched on Versailles. Bodyguards were killed and the crowds shouted that they would cut off the queen's head and fry her liver. Marie Antoinette escaped her apartments through a secret passageway. The royal family were moved to Paris, to the Tuileries Palace. For one so pampered, Marie Antoinette showed great strength of character and hardiness. "It is in misfortune that you realise your true nature," she wrote. "From the point of the revolution onwards, there's a lot to be said for the idea that she's actually playing a very significant role in national politics," argues Dr Joseph Clarke, Assistant Professor in European History at Trinity College. The move to the Tuileries Palace, he points out, led to a stripped-down court which in turn increased the queen's proximity to, and influence on, the king. To underestimate her would be to do her a disservice, he suggests.

Unfortunately, as the situation spiralled, the king's lifelong indecision left him vacillating, and Marie Antoinette, whilst in contact with conservative revolutionaries, and anti-revolutionaries, as well as acting as the driving force behind their doomed escape attempt, refrained from actually forcing Louis to some sort of decisive action. In August 1792, the royal family were forced to flee the Tuileries after a mob attacked the palace. They were moved to the Temple. Run by strict jailers who closely monitored the family, they were now, undeniably, prisoners. On September 21, the monarchy was abolished. In October, Louis was moved to separate quarters. He would see his family one final time, the night before his execution in January 1793. At the king's death, Marie Antoinette was said to have gone into a deep depression. 'She no longer had any hope left in her heart or distinguished between life and death,' her daughter Marie Thérèse recalled. Her health had deteriorated dramatically. Things worsened when, in June, their jailers came for her son. For an hour, she fought not to let go of the eight-year-old boy, only relenting when they threatened his sister.

A month later, she was moved to prison. In one of a long list of misogynies perpetrated against the former queen, where her husband had months to prepare for his trial, she was given days. At the trial, one of her son's jailers accused her, on the Dauphin's behalf, of sexual abuse of her son. Attempting to undermine Marie Antoinette as a mother was an attempt to destroy her last shred of humanity. 'I appeal to all mothers here present,' she declared with dignity. Two days later, on October 16, she went to the guillotine, hair hacked off, hands tightly bound behind her, but, all agreed, composed to the last.

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