Monday, October 27, 2008

Madame Déficit

Marie-Antoinette has become the symbol of extravagance and decadence of the ancien-régime. It is overlooked that from the moment of their succession in 1774, she joined her husband in desiring to cut back on the enormous expenses of the court. She refused to collect the customary droit de ceinture tax levied on behalf of the queen at the beginning of every reign. Moreover, her charities were quite extensive.

The Queen's spending on hairstyles and gowns was nothing compared to the extravagance of the mistresses Madame du Barry and Madame de Pompadour in the previous reign. Antonia Fraser in her biography of Marie-Antoinette says that when the eighteen year old queen adopted the elaborate poufs, it actually caused a lucrative trade in feathers to spring up in Paris. Patronizing French luxury goods was a duty of the crown. According to Lady Fraser:
...Paris was a city dependent on the financial support of the noble and rich to maintain its industries, which were in the main to do with luxury and semi-luxury goods. For foreigners, fashion was part of the point of being in Paris....As the Baronne d'Oberkirch remarked on her first visit to the French capital, the city would be sunk without its luxurious commerce....Against the spectacle of an exquisitely dressed Queen, her appearance a work of art in itself- French art- must be put in the balance of the dress bills that mounted, and the dress allowance that was never enough. (Fraser's The Journey, pp 148-149)
Within a very few years, as she matured, the Queen herself had introduced much simpler fashions and hairstyles. Her simple white dresses were not well-received, and were seen as an attempt to patronize the Flemish weavers of the Habsburg Empire over the French silk merchants. How ironic that Marie-Antoinette was given the nickname of Madame Déficit by her enemies in the 1780's at a time when she was trying to be cut expenses in her household and in her wardrobe, which included having old gowns refurbished so that they could be worn again.

There is no doubt that she went over her budget, especially as a young Queen, on clothes, jewelry, gambling and gardening. Nesta Webster, in Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette before the Revolution, breaks down the Queen's expenditures. It should be noted that in 1774 when Louis XVI became king, Marie-Antoinette was put on pretty much the same budget as the staid Queen Marie Leszcinska, who had died some years earlier. However, the livre had decreased in value, while costs had risen due to inflation. Interestingly, even Queen Marie had exceeded the limits of her privy purse and had to ask for extra money, three times. To quote Webster:
Under the old régime, the expenses of the Queens of France were paid out of at least three different funds. These were:-
1. The sum for the maintenance of the Queen's household, which for centuries had stood at 600,000 livres....This sum had long proved inadequate and had to be supplemented by what was called the dépenses extraordinaires, which by July 1774...had mounted up to two million livres....The Queen had no control over these dépenses extraordinaires, which led to great abuses.

2. The cassette de la Reine (or privy purse) for alms, presents, pensions, and other acts of generosity...but not for anything in the way of dress. For this, Marie Antoinette received the same as Marie Leszcinska, that is 96,000 livres a year, and out of it she continued to pay pensions accorded by the late Queen....

3. The Wardrobe, for which 120,000 livres was allowed yearly, a fund which was administered entirely by the dame d'autours (lady of the bedchamber).... (Webster's Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette before the Revolution, pp. 60-61)
Because Marie-Antoinette insisted upon paying, out of the cassette de la reine, the pensions of the old servants of the old queen (although Count Mercy begged her to drop them) she went over the budget of her privy purse. In addition, she paid pensions for her own retired servants. She refused to petition her husband for more money; it was Count Mercy, the Austrian ambassador, who intervened for her allowance to be increased. (see Webster, p 31)

The Queen's ladies were given commissions from various merchants for buying their wares for the royal wardrobe; likewise, the ladies were permitted to sell the gowns after the Queen was finished with them, and pocket the money. Such confusion and potential for abuse contributed to the Queen's expenses going beyond the budget, along with the high prices of her dressmaker, Rose Bertin. Caroline Weber in Queen of Fashion discusses how Marie-Antoinette used fashion as previously only royal mistresses had used it, as a means of strengthening her position in a hostile court, where she was a foreigner. Former queens had been less stylish; her clothes, therefore, caused quite a stir.

However, Marie-Antoinette's situation in those years before she became a mother was tenuous, especially from a political point of view. Her marriage was not consummated and the potential of an annulment was hanging over her. Louis XVI deliberately kept her out of political matters in the beginning of his reign, encouraging her to divert herself at Petit Trianon. (He thought that Madame Pompadour had ruined France and so was suspicious of women meddling in political affairs.)

As a fourteen year old bride, Marie-Antoinette was quick to notice that the person with the most influence over her husband's grandfather the King was not one of the pious aunts, neither had it been the late devout and dowdy Queen. It was Madame du Barry who ruled the roost, of whom the young Dauphine innocently exclaimed, "I want to be her rival!" It became important for Marie-Antoinette to give the impression that she was her husband's mistress as well as his wife, to appear to be the one who influenced his decisions, even though she did not, as the matter of Bavaria proved in 1778, and the American Revolution as well. Her brother frequently pressured her to use her role as consort for Austrian interests. Louis XVI, to Joseph's frustration, continued to do what he thought was best for France, not what was best for Austria. Placed in a very awkward situation, Marie-Antoinette used clothes to establish herself; her interest in fashion was not mere hedonism, not at all.

Once Marie-Antoinette became the mother of a Dauphin, of course, her position changed dramatically, and her influence on the king became genuine. She no longer needed the flamboyance, and dressed with greater moderation. She had become, however, like the mistresses of old, a convenient scapegoat for all the problems of the nation. As the determined and energetic mother of the next king, she was perceived as a genuine threat to the adversaries of the crown. The pornographic pamphlets, the epithets such as Madame Déficit, were only the beginning of the attempts to weaken the esteem of the people for the Queen. Share


Lucy said...

What a beautiful post- Thanks for helping to set the record straight:) Du Barry and Pompadour were way more excessive- you're absolutely right!

May said...

Thank you for putting the Queen's expenses in perspective. So many situations in history were much more complex than we are usually led to believe.

Susan Higginbotham said...

Excellent post! I can only echo Matterhorn's comments.

elena maria vidal said...

Thank you, all!

Unknown said...

I think it's important for people to realize that our modern cliches (saying someone spends like Marie Antoinette) are a little more complicated. Thanks for bringingmy attention to this on Twitter. I liked to this on my own blog today.

elena maria vidal said...

Oh, thank you, Mistress. I will be writing more about it, too! The comparison is too ridiculous for words.