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Ladies and Gentlemen, Her: Marie Antoinette

The reputation of Marie Antoinette, the wife of Louis XVI and the last queen of France, has been severely criticised and misrepresented for centuries. She became one of the most despised individuals of the French Revolution after being harassed by pamphlets and media representations of her as a symbol of royal extravagance and cunning, treacherous foreigner who penetrated the French court. Even today, we frequently think of the former Queen as a royal diva who, with the iconic statement "let them eat cake," callously dismissed the suffering and starvation of her subjects.

Strangely, one of the most infamous French women of all time was not French at all. The eldest child of Maria Theresa, the Austrian Empress, Marie Antoinette was born in Vienna in November 1755. She was brought up in a court run by her relentless and strong-willed mother who governed Austria alone for 40 years, one of the only female monarchs to do so at the time . According to one historical story, Maria Theresa gave birth to Marie Antoinette while seated in a chair and reading official documents, which she immediately resumed after the baby was delivered.

At the age of 14, Marie Antoinette married Louis Auguste, the heir to the French throne, and permanently departed Austria. The political purpose of her union with France, which had just recently been at war with Austria, was to bring the two nations closer together. She found it difficult to fit in when she first arrived at Versailles, the home of the French court, as many people despised and distrusted her simply because she was an Austrian, their longtime rival. This made her a convenient target for xenophobia.. She also thought that Versailles' peculiar traditions and practices were absurd, especially the custom of having the noble women at the court openly dress and undress her. She wrote to her mother in 1770: "I put on my rouge and wash my hands in front of the whole world."

Marie Antoinette’s marriage was initially complicated. Her brother, Joseph II, described the royal couple as "two total blunderers" in a letter after visiting them in 1777. Her husband did not have a physical relationship with her, and theories ranged from fear to piety to a genuine medical concern that Joseph II helped resolve. Whatever the problem was, it put Marie Antoinette in a precarious position: in the French court, privacy was as prevalent as liberty, equality and fraternity, and information of her unconsummated marriage was public for seven years.

Madame Deficit

History remembers the Queen of France for her incessant partying and her questionable company such as the scandalous Duchess of Polignac. However, claims of her demanding a life of grandeur are baseless. Ironically, because of her preference for simplicity, she was actually criticised by members of the royal family. According to the modern author Mary Wollstonecraft, she "threw aside the cumbersome brocade of ceremony." However, she made up for her lack of gaudiness with her extravagant spending.. Parties, which she hosted frequently, were a major aspect of Marie Antoinette's extravagant lifestyle. She also became one of the most fashionable figures of her time, and popularised the simple, gauzy dresses that would later come to characterise the early 19th century. The French Queen would have undoubtedly faced accusations of squandering her power by modern standards, as observed by Marie Antoinette's sister, who said, "Her only fault was that she loved entertainment and parties."

However, as she grew into her role as Queen, Marie Antoinette started to live more modestly, cutting back on her spending. Le Petit Trianon is a small farm she created on the property, which stands in stark contrast to Versailles’ ornateness and opulence. Further, in contrast to her reputation as a reveller, she began to become more politically active, frequently supporting her homeland, Austria, whenever required.

Let Them Eat Cake:

Despite her modifications, the populace was open to believing any rumour that was propagated about the queen, making her a victim of propaganda. She was initially portrayed as a foreign spy due to her Austrian heritage, and was accused of taking both male and female lovers due to her close friendship and financial support of women like Polignac. One particularly influential tale concerned a pricey diamond necklace that the monarch offered to give the queen, who declined it on the grounds that it was too expensive. But a gang of con artists came up with a scheme to take the jewellery. They asserted that they spoke for the queen, and Marie Antoinette was held responsible for the plot even though she had nothing.

According to a widespread narrative, when asked what the peasants should do when they ran out of bread to eat, Marie Antoinette responded by saying: “Let them eat cake”. Even though it's unlikely that this rumour is genuine, it was this kind of slander about the queen and monarch that sparked the French Revolution. In fact, within the first few months of the French Revolution, a mob converged on Versailles in October, 1789, with demands for the head of the Queen rather than the murder of the King. Ultimately, Marie Antoinette met her end in 1793, guillotined after the Revolutionary Tribunal accused her of plotting against the state. Her last words, as she accidentally stepped on her executioner’s foot, were: “I beg your pardon, I did not do it on purpose.”

A Product of her Time?

Regardless of the personal sympathy that Marie Antoinette provokes, it is crucial to view her in the context of the time period she lived in. The French royal family had long subscribed to their belief in the “divine right of kings”, and by the beginning of the 18th century, they governed as absolute monarchs. Even worse, the country faced a rising economic crisis. Their treasury was drained by the lavish extravagance of former kings, their involvement in the Seven Years’ War, and their participation in the American Revolution. In 1788, a severe winter resulted in famine and starvation across the vast countryside. The proposed solution was taxation: this burden largely fell on the peasants and working-class citizens, and were collected by private collectors known as “tax farmers”, a method that encouraged abuse and corruption. Even after the Estates-General was formed, the Third Estate (all those who were not clergy or nobility) were taxed the most.

Thus, in many ways, the French revolution was inevitable. Marie Antoinette was a victim of xenophobia and propaganda, was at the wrong place at the wrong time, and met an ultimately tragic death as a convenient scapegoat for the corruption of the French nobility. However, she was also deeply privileged and actively complicit in a deeply unjust feudal system which caused immense suffering across the nation. It is impossible to box her into a single compartment, as her life reveals the complexity of history. Many have attempted to capture her essence, and the most famous depiction of her was probably in Kirsten Dunst’s cult-classic movie in 2006. Ultimately, however, Marie Antoinette remains an enigma, as she was as nuanced a woman as they have been since the beginning of time.

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