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.
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.
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’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 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.
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.
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.
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