Most people no longer believe that Marie Antoinette said, “Let them eat cake,” or even the less offensive French version, “Why don’t they try brioche?,” which apparently requires less flour to make (the ingredient being in short supply during the French Revolution). However, they still subscribe to the stereotype that she was a light-headed, sexually promiscuous, spendthrift hedonist who conspired against the French Revolution and so brought down the monarchy.
Marie Antoinette’s reputation was swiftly and ruthlessly tarnished by gossip, which must have originated somewhere—the question in looking back is where the truth ended and fiction began. Contrary to centuries-old rumors, apart from her unprepossessing husband, Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette had a single lover, the Swedish count Fersen. After years of restraint, she only started sleeping with Fersen occasionally once sexual relations with the king had stopped. The rumors that she had a lesbian relationship with her favorite, Madame de Polignac, are nonsense.
Diamonds in the Rough
Marie Antoinette was extravagant in her early years, but remember: she was only 19 when she became queen. A teenager escaping from a strict upbringing, she spent her money on clothes, the Petit Trianon (her estate on the grounds of Versailles), and, above all, diamonds, which she bought from the court jewelers on credit without telling the king. Her purchases stopped in 1776, though, 10 years before the infamous cause célèbre known as the Diamond Necklace Affair. She had no part in the heist, but because of her reputation, a gang of fraudsters was able to persuade a highborn cardinal that the queen wanted him to buy her a necklace worth 1.6 million francs from the court jewelers without telling her husband. Cardinal Rohan handed the necklace to the gang, who broke it up with a kitchen knife. The ensuing scandal, and Rohan’s trial, lifted the lid off of the regime to reveal a can of worms—a proximate cause of the French Revolution.
As the Revolution approached, the king suffered a nervous breakdown when his attempts to reform the ancien régime were defeated by the aristocratic Assembly of Notables in 1787. The queen was obliged to step in, and was totally unprepared to do so—the king had kept her away from affairs of state because he suspected Marie Antoinette of supporting her brother, the Austrian emperor Leopold II, against French interests.
Marie Antoinette spent her money on clothes, the Petit Trianon, and, above all, diamonds.
Another source of inaccuracy revolves around the Revolution years, during which the queen is painted as an out-and-out reactionary. Having fought the aristocracy in the Pre-Revolution (1787–88)—the period of her ascendancy—Marie Antoinette naturally supported the Third Estate (commoners) during the early phases of the Revolution (December 1788–May 1789). It was only when she realized that the commoners wanted to strip the king of many of his prerogatives that she favored summoning troops—not for the purpose of besieging Paris and dissolving the National Assembly, but, simply, to protect the royal palaces. This imagined threat is what ultimately led the Parisians to storm the Bastille on July 14, 1789.
There followed nightmare years of constant, corroding terror, when the royal family was taken from Versailles and placed in the Tuileries in Paris under virtual house arrest. On a midsummer’s night, June 20, 1791, they escaped, but were recaptured at Varennes, some 40 miles from their destination, the fortified town of Montmédy in Lorraine. They were not trying to flee the country, as many believed then and as many historians continue to believe to this day. They simply wanted to negotiate a workable constitution, like England’s, from a position of freedom.
Commissioners from the National Assembly escorted the family back to Paris, where they were subjected to ritual humiliation. One of the commissioners, however, Antoine Barnave, a handsome and brilliant man of only 29, thought that “it was time to stop the Revolution” before it descended into barbarism and an attack on property. In snatched moments of conversation, he managed a deal with Marie Antoinette: he would try to have the Constitution revised to make the monarchy stronger, provided she would accept it and persuade her brother, the Emperor Leopold II, to do the same.
The whole thing was kept secret, and for some months Marie Antoinette and Barnave conducted the government of France via coded correspondence, which only came to light in 1913 and was long considered a forgery. This unique experiment was wrecked by the political party known as the Girondins, who incited war with Austria in the hope of smoking out the queen’s supposed treason. The war revolutionized the Revolution, and the monarchy could not survive for long. It fell on August 10, 1792, and after the execution of the king, Marie Antoinette was brought to trial and guillotined on October 16, 1793.
John Hardman is the author of The Life of Louis XVI. Yale University Press will publish his new book, Marie-Antoinette: The Making of a French Queen, on October 29