Marie Antoinette

Published in History Today

'Let them eat cake’ is the saying most frequently attributed to Marie Antoinette, the unfortunate consort of Louis XVI of France. Her supposed indifference to the fate of the peasantry gave an edge to her alleged extravagant follies and general irresponsibility in the years leading up to the French Revolution of 1789. Later, these views were combined with images of her dignified conduct at her trial and of her courageous bearing on the scaffold to create an enduring example of human tragedy. Biographers tended to be hostile or hagiographic, and rehabilitations of Louis XVI have usually blamed the Queen for what went wrong. Antonia Fraser has produced the first biography of Marie Antoinette for almost fifty years. One of the legends it lays to rest is that the Queen uttered the phrase about the cakes.

The chief merit of the book is that Antonia Fraser is determined to place Marie Antoinette in her contemporary context. She reminds us that, as an archduchess, daughter of the formidable Empress-Queen Maria Theresa and her French-speaking husband Francis-Stephen of Lorraine, Marie Antoinette was simply a pawn in the complex dynastic game of European politics. Her education was that of her sex and status, her marriage no different from those of other princesses of her day. Her mother and her brother Joseph II were unscrupulous in using this inexperienced girl to advance their own interests at the French court. Marie Antoinette was too beautiful and entrancingly royal for her own good (her predecessor had been reassuringly plain). Her predilection for close exclusive friendships and the mishandling of the Necklace affair in 1786 created jealousy and resentment in the hothouse atmosphere of Versailles. Perhaps a new development was the way in which these hostile feelings could be spread through pamphlets and public discourse. The Queen’s reputation was irretrievably damaged in the process.

Many historians continue to argue that the Queen prevented the emergence in 1790-91 of a new constitutional order based on hope and progress. She caused the ‘derailing’ of the Revolution. Such a view does not stand up to critical analysis. By 1791 France was a country in which almost all existing institutions had been abolished at a stroke and what replaced them either did not work or could not work. Once he had been forcibly removed to Paris in October 1789, the King never had the chance of regaining the initiative. One of the strengths of this biography is the author’s awareness of the constraints under which the royal couple exercised such little influence on events as it could manage, with the aid of a small group of trusty followers.

This absorbing and well-illustrated book is full of sharp insights about Marie Antoinette, her relationship with the handsome Swedish nobleman, Count Ferson (her romantic knight), her loyalty to those she loved. Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire, gave an apt description of the Queen facing her accusers: how, even when confronted with a disgusting allegation extracted from her impressionable seven-year-old son, ‘her answers, her cleverness and greatness of mind’ shone through.

  • John Rogister is the author of Louis XV and the Parlement of Paris, 1737- 1755  (Cambridge University Press, 1995).

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