Monday, January 14, 2008

In the Conciergerie

Christine of Laudem Gloriae is translating a French essay about the brave priests who ministered to the prisoners of the Conciergerie during the Reign of Terror. The essay, by Jacques Hérissay, president of the association of French Catholic Writers, is called The Chaplains of the Guillotine. There is a great deal in it about the last hours of Queen Marie-Antoinette.

I also came across an article that I read years ago but have not been able to find online until today. "'Let Them Eat Cake': The Mythical Marie-Antoinette" by historian Nancy Barker explores the reasons why the queen came to be libeled beyond anything that resembled reality. Some excerpts follow, but the entire article is worth reading.
The early attacks on Marie Antoinette originated within the court and spread to the masses. This is not surprising, as Marie Antoinette lived within the confines of the chateau of Versailles or other royal palaces, which afforded the public few opportunities to form an opinion about her. A host of ready-made enemies were within the chateau, including the ascendant anti-Austrian cabal, which included "Mesdames," Louis XV's elderly, unmarried daughters, important ministers, and the party of the devots; the king's mistress, Madame Du Barry, jealous of the rivalry of a youthful, pretty dauphine; and Monsieur, Count of Provence, younger brother of the dauphin and next in line to the throne as long as the dauphin remained without a male heir. These members of the royal family and of the court had access to the dauphine and possessed intimate knowledge of her daily routine and court politics, which was evident in the early libels. When, for example, Marie Antoinette took a notion to see the sun rise and arranged a party of young people for the purpose, one of the first of the later flood of hostile pamphlets, Le lever de l'aurore, immediately appeared. When she became queen in 1774 she was thought to have mocked some of the venerable ladies at court and neglected proper etiquette. Soon after, insulting and threatening couplets appeared, such as: "Little queen of twenty years/You who greet the court with jeers/You'll go back from whence you came." The author of this particular piece, a skillful example of its genre, was privy to information of the most intimate nature. In a play on the word puce, known to the court to be the favorite color of Marie Antoinette, he alluded to the prepuce (foreskin) of Louis, quoting precisely the words of a recent medical examination of the king to ascertain the physiological reason for his childlessness, a matter of general and vivacious speculation.(6)


Probably no degree of saintliness on the part of Marie Antoinette could have successfully rebutted the libels. Ignoring the warnings of her mother, she either paid them no heed or treated them with derision. In addition, the frivolity of her behavior was easily misinterpreted and/or exaggerated and turned against her. On the few occasions Parisians saw her, more often than not she was riding horseback in the Bois de Boulogne, dashing through icy streets on elegant sleighs, or attending opera balls of dubious reputation. Her husband, who retired early, was conspicuously absent. This gilded youth helped create the fantastic image of the profligate, arrogant queen who danced while the people starved.(8)


Another reason for the victimization of Marie Antoinette not often recognized by recent historians focusing on gender is the fact that she was a foreigner. In late eighteenth-century France, Marie Antoinette was always L'Autrichienne. Hostage in a land where the Imperials were the traditional enemy, she could from the outset be suspected of the worst. A symbol of the Austrian alliance, she revived in French memories the disasters Of the Seven Years War and its humiliating peace. The libels naturally exploited the Austrian identity of the queen to the fullest. A 1774 pamphlet emphasized the queen's Austrian origin in showing her decision to take her mother's advice and choose a lover (or lovers) so that she could get pregnant since the king proved inadequate. The anonymous author wrote: Remember that she is Austrian, and so is ambitious. Remember of what mother she is born and . . . [who] will be her able confederate in such schemes." The queen's Viennese birth was her original and irremediable sin.(11)


Finally, the quintessential femininity of Marie Antoinette completed her undoing. With her youthful blond beauty, grace, and coquettish vivacity, she was the perfect example of woman. Seemingly the eternal Eve, she possessed the power to tap the visceral emotions of the masses and to bring to the surface the misogyny prominent in the French Revolution.


The monster whose death these revolutionaries were celebrating was the creature of the Revolutionary press and bore no resemblance to Marie Antoinette. It was this monster, not the queen, who had captured the imagination of the masses, aroused their fury, and united them in a frenzy to act. The journalists obliterated the real woman and put in her place an imaginary queen of crime. Marie Antoinette was the perfect target of radical media, the perfect scapegoat of the morality play that the Revolution in part became. Although the political culture of the late eighteenth century was becoming more democratic and egalitarian, it was also increasingly xenophobic and misogynistic. Aristocrat, foreigner, and female, Marie Antoinette stood to lose on all accounts. Some of the most lurid and indelible images of the French Revolution are associated with her. Thomas Jefferson was probably wrong to believe that without the queen there would have been no revolution; but with the mythical Marie Antoinette of the media as queen, could revolution longer have been avoided?


Anonymous said...

As I was reading this I was thinking...'they were planting the seeds of revolution with their scandalous and libelous statements towards the Queen'....then the last paragraph expressed my thoughts. We will never know if revolution would have come about in any case, but we do know that Louis was working toward solving some of the problems that were causing unrest, but was meeting with resistance.

elena maria vidal said...

That is very true. And he was meeting with resistance from the privileged.

lara77 said...

One wonders if Her Majesty had lived a more "open" lifestyle in the Chateau de Versailles and refrained from the Petit Trianon the stories would never have circulated. Of course, the Comte de Provence and the Duc d'Orleans would still have spread their lies. If only they knew they were destroying not only the Queen but the monarchy and France.

elena maria vidal said...

Yes, Lara, because the basis of many of the initial calumnies were the private bedroom matters of the royal couple, which had nothing to do with the Trianon. However, as time went on, the queen's retreat fueled new gossip. Louis gave her the Trianon as an attempt to protect her by isolating her from a hostile court, but his plan backfired. But such was the malice of those who sought to destroy Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette that anything they might have done would have been used against them.