Posts Tagged ‘french revolution’

Marie Antoinette, the Dauphine of France (1773), by François-Hubert Drouais.

Marie Antoinette, the Dauphine of France (1773), by François-Hubert Drouais.

What immediately springs to your mind when the name Marie Antoinette is mentioned?

Pretty? Fashionable? Selfish? Expensive?

She is often remembered as the most famous Queen of France. Sometimes even as the Cause of the French Revolution, with that infamous and outrageous (and untrue) quote “if they [the poor people of France] don’t have bread, let them eat cake”, which had been circulated about other foreign princesses throughout the eighteenth century. Even more graphically (and literally) she could be remembered as The Head of the French Revolution.

There have been movies that have depicted Marie Antoinette as an extravagant, shallow, and flighty Queen, a spendthrift, and even a bit mentally unstable. And she was portrayed in an even more derogatory light in the contemporary press of eighteenth century France. However, it is interesting to ponder what she was like as a person, and particularly how she was known by those closest to her.

Marie Antoinette: The Journey, by Antonia Fraser (year).

Marie Antoinette: The Journey, by Antonia Fraser (2002).

Antonia Fraser’s book, Marie Antoinette: The Journey, explores a very personal account of this well known woman, using first hand accounts of those people who knew her best and most intimately. This is an insightful account of Marie Antoinette The Person, rather than the more public figure of Marie Antoinette The Queen.


Marie Antoinette (1755-1793) was the fifteenth child (of sixteen) born to the Emperor and Empress of Austria, and as one of the many archduchesses of the realm was destined to make a marriage alliance for the good of her country.

However, because she was the last female child born to the Royal family and because she had seven older sisters whose responsibility it was to also make important political marriages, her own importance in making a political alliance for her empire was not initially uppermost in the minds of her parents.

During her childhood, Marie Antoinette was often left alone with her younger siblings to play and it was not until she was older that her mother discovered she had a remarkably poor education by royal standards. She later ascribed her inability to concentrate on matters of the state (surely a task that is necessary to a Queen) as being due to an inadequately supervised childhood.

A brief summary of the lives of Marie Antoinette's sisters. There were four other daughters who did not survive infancy.

A brief summary of the lives of Marie Antoinette’s sisters. There were four additional daughters who did not survive infancy.

Due to several cruel twists of fate, four of her older sisters died, became ill or were permanently disfigured, which prevented them from marrying. One of her sisters, Maria Christine, married her second cousin for love, which left only three of the sisters to make marriage alliances for the Austrian Empire. In the end, Maria Antonia (as she was christened) was married to the Dauphin of France, the future Louis XVI. In short, of all of her sisters she had made the most illustrious match, one day to be Queen of the powerful nation of France, yet she had the least preparation for it.

Preparation for Marriage

Marie Antoinette

Marie Antoinette’s marriage to Louis XVI was always going to be fraught with difficulties, particularly when you examine the ways in which they had both been prepared for their positions.

They are born to obey, and must learn to do so in good time.

Maria Theresa on her daughters (1756)

Marie Antoinette’s mother, Maria Theresa, held a firm view that a wife, and more particularly a Queen, should be deferent and submissive to her noble husband. In this way she could endear herself to him and then – in return – he would be likely to love, adore and trust her. In the Empress’s opinion, everything depended on the wife.

Everything depends on the wife, if she is willing, sweet and amusante.

Maria Theresa in a letter to Marie Antoinette

However, despite her sermons on how it should be done, she offered her daughters a very different model of reality in the form of herself. Maria Theresa, while displaying respect and love for her husband, was anything but meek and subservient. She was strong in her ideas and decisive in her plans. She would spend hours at her state papers while her much more placid husband went hunting.

Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, in coronation robes, by Jean-Baptiste Gautier Dagoty (1775).

Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, in coronation robes, by Jean-Baptiste Gautier Dagoty (1775). Image source: Wikipedia.

Marie Antoinette did not share this strong personality with her mother. Instead, as a child she was pretty and graceful, but also compassionate, maternal, soft-hearted and eager to please. Upon her marriage and removal to France, one cannot help feeling sorry for Marie Antoinette as she received instructions from her mother on how she should be submissive, obedient, never introducing new customs to the French court, but following the lead of others and making herself agreeable to them. Yet in other letters the contradictory, and even harsh, missives flowed. She should not go riding with her husband, although he had asked her to; she should strive to share a bedroom (and bed) with her spouse, even though it was not the practice in Versailles; she should exert more influence on her husband in matters of the state, for the good of her home country.

You are a stranger and a subject; you must learn to conform; […] you must not seem to dominate […] you know we are subjects of our husbands and owe them obedience.

Maria Theresa to her daughter Amalia on her marriage

So Marie Antoinette began her role as the Dauphine of France with what surely must have been a great deal of confusion as to what was expected of her.

Louis Auguste

Likewise, Louis Auguste (1754-1793) had received his own particularly woeful preparation for his eventual position as king and husband. At the time of his birth his grandfather, Louis XV, was king and Louis Auguste was in line for the throne after his father, his oldest brother, and his second brother (who died in infancy just before Louis was born). However, tragedy continued to haunt the family with the death of the eldest brother in 1761, and of the father in 1765, after which the eleven-year-old Louis Auguste became the new Dauphin of France.

His confidence as the future king had already been eroded upon the death of his eldest brother, whom he was unfavourable compared to by the Governor of the Children of France. The resulting feelings of inadequacy for his new role were compounded by his clumsiness, weight problems, and difficulties participating in the court life at Versailles. In the face of this, his favourite and frequent retreat was hunting. These circumstances made the contrast between the current king and the future king very stark, as Louis XV was – in looks and personality – the sort of king that Louis Auguste could never be.

To further complicate Louis’ marriage to, and relationship with, Marie Antoinette, he had been warned in his childhood of Austrian archduchesses and their predilection for domination. This domination over a head of state by a foreign woman was something that always needed to be resisted, and this lesson had the unfortunate later consequence of denying the already unconfident, indecisive and uncertain King Louis XVI of an understanding ally, that of his very tender-hearted and kind (but not domineering) Queen.

The French Revolution

The French Revolution, where the French people overthrew the aristocracy in an attempt to change the way the country was governed, was the result of the complex interrelationship of many factors within and around France during the eighteenth century. One of these factors was the relationship between the royal family and the French people, which had become increasingly strained towards the end of the century.

After examining the backdrop of the King and Queen of France, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, it seems apparent that they were possibly both ill-equipped to deal with the situation that confronted them.

Louis XVI was far from firm or decisive, but this was a time when both firmness and decisiveness was required. He struggled to stand up to the aristocracy who refused to pay taxes and whose claims on the state treasury were bankrupting it. He also struggled to make decisive decisions that would have a positive impact on the issues that the French people were dealing with, such as food shortages and Enlightenment ideals.

Marie Antoinette (1783), painted by Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun.

Marie Antoinette (1783), painted by Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Likewise, Marie Antoinette struggled to know how to help her husband overcome his weaknesses. Her husband’s unwillingness to listen to her advice contributed to this, but her lack of early education regarding political affairs made it hard for her to concentrate and learn in this environment.

The French state had been so eroded during the course of Louis XV’s reign that it would have taken an expert hand to guide France to better times, and unfortunately the two hands that guided it seemed to lack the qualities to make their reign successful.

This book provides a fascinatingly detailed and in-depth description of Marie Antoinette’s life in its entirety, and attempts to paint a realistic picture of who she really was. I highly recommend it!

Note: All quotes are obtained from Marie Antoinette: The Journey, by Antonia Fraser.

Related Posts

Farewell, My Queen

The Case for a Dictator

Sources and Relevant Links

First image source: Marie Antoinette in purple – by Versailles and More

Marie Antoinette: The Journey, by Antonia Fraser – buy on Amazon

Marie Antoinette’s sisters, by History and Other Thoughts

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Last week I took my newborn to see his first movie! It was an attempt to begin early the parental practice of educating children in the “cultured arts”, which (by my definition) includes – but is not limited to – exposure to all types of musicals, plays, literature and historical movies (and probably costuming too…).

The danger of taking a two-week-old baby to a movie for their “education” is there is always a risk that they will do the unthinkable and sleep through it… which, of course, he did. Nevertheless, I really enjoyed myself!

Farewell, My Queen is a movie based on a novel of the same name, written by Chantal Thomas, which is now on my list of books to read. The story follows a servant, Sidonie Laborde, who is Reader to Queen Marie Antoinette. It is set during the early days of the French Revolution, in July 1789, when the Bastille was stormed by the French people.

Diane Kruger as Marie Antoinette, in Farewell My Queen (2012).

Diane Kruger as Marie Antoinette, in Farewell My Queen (2012).

The storming of the Bastille represented the brutal beginnings of the French Revolution, where the long standing and deep resentment of the French people towards the French court began to take the form of violent upheaval. This movie depicts the uncertainty surrounding the Royal family as King Louis XVI began to capitulate to the demands of the people in an attempt to preserve control, while much of the remainder of the French royalty and nobility hurriedly fled the country.

One of the focal points of the movie is the friendship between the Duchess de Polignac and Marie Antoinette, who pleads with her to leave France when the ferocity of the people against Versailles is made clear.

The story is ultimately told through the eyes of the fictional character, Sidonie Laborde, of whom we know little. She, as Reader to the Queen, has the opportunity to see the Queen’s progression from her fanciful preoccupation with novels and fabric swatches before the fall of the Bastille, to her distress as she attempts to plan her family’s escape to Metz, a plan later abandoned by the King.

Lea Seydoux as Sidonie Laborde, in Farewell My Queen (2012).

Lea Seydoux as Sidonie Laborde, in Farewell My Queen (2012).

This movie offers such a brief perspective of Marie Antoinette’s life – only 4 days – that it is difficult to see the complexities of the Queen as a person. Likewise, with an equally limited view of the complexities in the main character of Sidonie, it is hard to get a full appreciation of her as a character. What is clear is the way in which Sidonie is impacted by the decisions of the Queen, both negatively and positively, which must have often been the fate of servants in a feudal society.

One of the things I always enjoy in historical movies are the costumes, and they were lovely in this film, even though many of the characters were servants and were dressed in much more ordinary fashions.

The photography in and around the palace of Versailles was also beautiful and gave a real sense of the grandeur of the times.

I also thought that having a film in French (with English subtitles) made the story more genuine and believable. In fact, it reminded me of the stark difference between this movie and Marie Antoinette (2006), starring Kirsten Dunst, where the Queen spoke with a very strong American accent.

Unfortunately this movie only screened in select cinemas for an extremely short time in Australia, but it is one I would love to add to my collection. I find movies set in the 18th century are such good costume inspiration! They are my cup of tea!

Related Posts

A Royal Affair

The Case for a Dictator

Sources and Relevant Links

Farewell, My Queen (2013) – the movie

Farewell, My Queen: A Novel, by Chantal Thomas

Marie Antoinette: The Journey, by Antonia Fraser – buy through Amazon

Marie Antoinette (2006) – the movie

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In the western world, dictatorship or despotism is commonly thought of as a great evil, where a country’s people live under the control of an all-powerful person who has ultimate control in deciding the fate of others below them. Whilst this might be true, a dictatorship can play an important part in the forming of a country.

For the purposes of this discussion, I am going to polarise the various forms of government into only two.

Despotism: is defined here as a form of government whereby an unelected person or small group rules a country with supreme power. This type of government often limits freedom of speech, controls the media, limits opportunities for education, and actively squashes any criticism of itself.

Whilst despotism can be good – when a person rules for the good of their country and its people rather than for personal gain and the enjoyment of power – it can easily turn bad if there is no one to hold them to account for their decisions.

This type of government includes an absolute monarchy (where a monarch holds supreme control and whose power is not limited by law), an autocracy (where a single person holds supreme power, i.e. a dictator), and an oligarchy (where a small group of people hold supreme power).

Democracy: is defined here as a form of government whereby a group of people (government) are elected by the citizens to represent them in the running of the country. Essential to the ideology of this type of government is ensuring fair elections, freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

A democracy can take different forms, like a republic (which I struggle to define, for there are so many different types) or a constitutional monarchy (where the monarch is the head of state with limited power and rules alongside an elected government).

Mr John Thornton (Richard Armitage), in North and South mini-series (2004).

Mr John Thornton (Richard Armitage), in North and South mini-series (2004).

I initially began thinking about this concept of government formation when I read a line from North and South (1855), by Elizabeth Gaskell. In this excerpt, Mr John Thornton – a business owner – talks about his ideas about how people should be governed.

..we are all – men, women and children – fit for a republic: but give me a constitutional monarchy in our present state of morals and intelligence. In our infancy, children and young people are the happiest under the unfailing laws of a discreet, firm authority. I agree with Miss Hale so far as to consider our people [the workers] in the condition of children, while I deny that we, the masters, have anything to do with the making or keeping them so. I maintain that despotism is the best kind of government for them; so that in the hours in which I come in contact with them I must necessarily be an autocrat.

Miss Margaret Hale, the heroine of this story, believes that workers should be encouraged to be intelligent, rather than having “a blind unreasoning kind of obedience”. While Mr Thornton does not object to this, he believes that he should make decisions concerning his business without having to explain his reasoning to his workers.

Whilst business owners rarely conduct their business in the form of a democracy (with the exception being maybe businesses that have shareholders, as the shareholders are allowed to vote as to who can take positions of leadership in the company), this did get me thinking about how forms of government can be dependant on the state of the people.

The government of a family is a very simplified example. When children are small, parents do not usually run a democracy in their household. Parents in this stage have a firm authority and they make decisions on behalf of their dependants, very much as an autocrat. However, as children grow older, more independent and more mature, they are able to contribute to family decisions and have more of a say as to what they desire for their life.

Historical Dictators

There are many examples in history of the development of democracy from despotism. What I find interesting is that this usually occurs alongside a change in the state of the people, for instance, the community’s ideas change about people’s equality, rights, and freedoms in making decisions that affect their lives. For these changes to happen, the availability of literature and education also usually increase.

RevolutionIn the American Revolution (1763-1783), the American colonies wished to gain independence from the British State. The colonists had been refused representation in the British Parliament, yet were still required to submit to the King’s demands. They declared the King a tyrant (or dictator) when they were refused their rights as British subjects and revolted against the Crown. The writings of John Locke, Montesquieu, Thomas Paine (among others) had a large impact on the emerging  American ideology. As a result, the American people formed their constitution on a very different set of values compared to the historic British ideals.

french-revolution-2In the French Revolution (1789-1799), the French people overthrew the French monarchy. The people had become disillusioned by an absolute monarchy that seemed indifferent to the harsh realities they were suffering under. The resentment built and the resulting violence caused the deaths of a large number of the Royal Family and French aristocracy. This enormous change was also influenced by the ideas of the Enlightenment. Interestingly, this period was followed by the rule of the dictator Napoleon Bonaparte (1799-1804). France was to have several monarchy restorations and several more revolutions before finally settling in to their newfound democratic state in the mid-nineteenth century.

A demonstration on the streets of Petrograd, just after the military have opened fire (1917).

A demonstration on the streets of Petrograd, just after troops have opened fire (4th July, 1917).

The Russian Revolution (1917) involved the overthrow of the Tsar autocracy, an absolute monarchy that had developed in the 17th and 18th centuries. Russia had suffered a series of severe losses in World War 1 (1914-1918) which had created a dissatisfied and mutinous army. The people were also suffering through shortages of food, high inflation, and a large number of worker’s strikes. When the Tsar required the army’s support to squash the people’s rebellion, he lost their allegiance and was forced to abdicate. The ideas behind the Enlightenment had taken a lot longer to develop in Russia, but with an increase in populations of cities, the transmission of new ideas had become easier. After the abdication, a civil war was waged and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was created in 1922. Vladimir Lenin, strongly influenced by Marxism, led the communist party that controlled the USSR until 1924. He believed that a socialist revolution was required, where his political party would lead the working class in taking over the leadership to form a communist country. Instead, his rule effectively replaced the dictatorship of the Tsar, as his party killed those who were in opposition and stifled dissent. Joseph Stalin took over after Lenin’s death, and communism in Russia did not dissolve until 1991.

Christian and Doctor Struensse

Christian VII and Doctor Struensse, in A Royal Affair.

The movie A Royal Affair depicts the Danish struggle with the changes in ideas brought about by the Enlightenment. In 1769, Christian VII sacked the very conservative privy council and employed his doctor, Johann Struensse, as privy councillor. Together they wanted to bring about reform to the country, which had tight censorship controls and operated with a strong feudal system. In the space of 13 months, Struensse passed 1069 cabinet orders and, while all of them would today be considered as positive reform, they were not received well by the public. Struensse was eventually arrested and beheaded, and it was not until 1784, when Christian’s son – Fredrick VI – became Prince Regent, that many of these reforms were reintroduced. This particular instance seemed to indicate a case of too much reform too fast, and when it was instigated by a foreign (German) person in authority it was opposed by the Danish people, even though many of the changes would have benefitted them.

In these examples, a successful change in the form of government happened at the same time as a change in the ideas and state of the people. In addition to this, such a change seems to be often accompanied with quite a lot of violence and struggle.

Modern Dictators

There have been some very well known dictators in recent decades. Sadam Hussien in Iraq, Mubarak in Egypt, Colonel Gadaffi in Lybia, the Kim family in North Korea, to name a few. Some of these have been overthrown by their peoples in quite violent circumstances, leading to the beginnings of revolution. Others remain firmly in power.

I have been intrigued by the western perception (in the media, at least) that they are incredibly bad people. Now, granted that they have been accused (and in some cases found guilty of) atrocious crimes against their own people, and often actively inhibit free speech and freedom of the press. But one positive thing that can be said of dictators is that they can usually keep their country under a level of control. This control is important for the proper daily functioning of trade, business, education, health and family life, and often countries that have been unstable in the past have needed the strength and stability provided by a despotic leader. After all, the choice between the rule of a dictator and anarchy doesn’t seem that difficult.

However, as people within a country change, developing and communicating new ideas about their equality, freedom, and rights, suddenly a revolution has the power to occur. As a country grows in this way, they are then able to throw off their despotic leader and form a government of the people. But the birth of such a nation is often extremely violent and uncertain.

The development of the different types of government is quite a complex study, and my knowledge of it is not all that detailed. I have simplified it a lot for the purposes of this discussion, but political history is something I would love to learn more about in the future!

Related Posts

North and South, by Elizabeth Gaskell

A Royal Affair

Sources and Relevant Links

North and South (1855) – read online

A Summary of the American Revolution

A Summary of the French Revolution

A Summary of the Russian Revolution

A Royal Affair – the movie

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