You know you have an image problem when, some 225 years after your death, people as wildly dissimilar as Steven Mnuchin’s wife, Louise Linton, her polar opposite, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and now even Barack Obama are all accused of having a “Marie Antoinette moment.”
The passage of centuries is usually accompanied by more objective re-assessment, but this hasn’t happened with the notorious Queen of France. Marie Antoinette is still the go-to name for cruel callousness—the rich, stuck-up, self-centered party girl everyone loves to hate. My goodness, even Richard Nixon gets a kind word now and then.
Let’s consider the facts, shall we?
Marie Antoinette was 14 years old, the equivalent of a freshman in high school, when she arrived in France in May 1770. Not only had she never been away from her family before; she’d never even been out of Vienna.
Prior to her departure, as preparation for her new life as the future queen of Europe’s biggest power, tutors had spent months working on her accent and cramming her full of information, such as which aristocrats were of sufficient rank to warrant a nod of the head and the proper way to curtsy.
Armed with these vital life skills and strict instructions to forget her Austrian homeland and “become French,” Marie Antoinette was then sent to live at the Palace of Versailles, home of the reigning King of France, Louis XV (grandfather of Marie Antoinette’s new husband, the 15-year-old future Louis XVI).
Corrupt and Predatory and Entitled—Mon Dieu!
While we are on the subject of who might actually have been responsible for the abject poverty and unrelenting misery that would eventually explode into the French Revolution (and who has to date gotten off scot-free from any blame for the deplorable conditions under which the general population labored), may I just make a small, quick case for the repellent Louis XV, the Jeffrey Epstein of the 18th century?
For nearly 50 years prior to Marie Antoinette’s arrival, Louis XV reigned over France and, during that time, pursued a corrupt, predatory, entitled, and contemptuous agenda. Government bored Louis. He spent his days hunting and spending lavishly on ostentatious entertainments, luxury goods, and sex. (He conveniently kept a brothel called Parc-aux-Cerfs, which specialized in young women, on the palace grounds.) Aristocratic privilege flourished during his rule, and the gap between the wealthiest 1 percent (who paid no taxes) and everyone else grew.
When Marie Antoinette first arrived, Louis XV kept showing up at her private apartment first thing in the morning, angling to get into her bedroom, and often pulled her onto his lap, demanding a kiss, until she figured out how to avoid him.
When Louis XV died, of smallpox in 1774—someone didn’t get his vaccine—19-year-old Marie Antoinette and 20-year-old Louis XVI, neither of whom had ever sat in on a council meeting, scanned a treasury report, or received any government training whatsoever, inherited his throne and with it all of the underlying problems that had been festering for decades.
Compounding this already fraught situation is the fact that Louis XVI was born with autism-spectrum disorder, a condition no one understood at the time. So, although highly intelligent and in every other way a more compassionate, moral, honest, and better-intentioned ruler than his predecessor, the new King of France was unable to look anyone in the eye.
He could not read others’ expressions; spoke rarely and then in an odd, toneless voice; cried when under pressure; and, most importantly as it related to his young wife, did not understand the sex act until five years into their marriage, when Marie Antoinette’s older brother came for a visit and explained in a gentle, factual manner the mechanics of conception.
Consider, then, what Marie Antoinette was up against. Although recognizing her husband’s essential goodness, she didn’t understand his behavior any better than anyone else did. She was publicly ridiculed for not providing an heir. And although as queen she was assumed by the general populace to wield enormous influence, she was in fact shut out of the government by Louis XVI’s ministers, who figured out early how to manage the king in order to get the policies they wanted passed.
Small wonder, then, that she craved diversion and spent her first years as queen escaping as often as she could to Paris. As for her focus on high living and haute couture, that was simply the result of those critical teenage years spent absorbing the behavior and values of Louis XV’s court at Versailles. As instructed, she had learned to “be French.”
When Marie Antoinette first arrived at Versailles, her father-in-law kept showing up at her private apartment first thing in the morning, angling to get into her bedroom.
This is the Marie Antoinette everyone knows, but it is only a small part of her story. When, as was inevitable, the royal treasury defaulted, the economy crashed, the harvests failed, bread ran short, Louis’s ministers squabbled, and the resentment over the inequities in the French class system that had been simmering for decades finally boiled over, it was left to her to salvage the situation.
It was the equivalent of being suddenly thrust behind the controls of a speeding train full of passengers and trying to get it back on track after the first cars had already plunged over a cliff. The prospects for success were limited.
And that is how Marie Antoinette landed the starring role of designated villain in the French Revolution. “Madame Deficit,” her subjects sneered. It was likely around this time that the infamous “Let them eat cake” remark was attributed to the queen, although there is absolutely no credible evidence she ever said this. Quite the opposite, as Louis and Marie Antoinette were in the process of trying to institute a land tax on the nobility when the citizenry took matters into their own hands and stormed the Bastille.
Even then, when it was clear that she was the focus of public wrath and that her life was in danger, Marie Antoinette did not flee with the rest of the aristocrats. She was, by this time, her husband’s chief emotional support. She had to act as intermediary between Louis and the rest of the world. So she stayed and faced her fate.
As for her focus on high living and haute couture? As instructed, she had learned to “be French.”
Marie Antoinette was attacked numerous times, but probably the most memorable occasion was on the afternoon of June 20, 1792, when a mob of some 30,000 frenzied Parisians, armed with pikes and axes, broke through the barricades and swarmed into the Tuileries, destroying everything in their path and braying for blood.
The outnumbered Capitol Police—excuse me, royal guard—whisked Louis off to one room and the queen to another, the better to thwart the invaders. For hours, Marie Antoinette and her terrified seven-year-old son faced wave after wave of these brave patriots as they filed by brandishing their blades and screaming insults, with a skeleton crew of swordsmen and her steely composure as her only shield.
If she had faltered for even one moment and exhibited fear, she, her child, and the guardsmen could all easily have been massacred. She demonstrated this same extraordinary courage and dignity 16 months later, when she climbed the steps to the guillotine.
How’s that for a Marie Antoinette moment?
Nancy Goldstone is the author of several books on subjects ranging from Mary, Queen of Scots to Catherine de’ Medici. Her latest, In the Shadow of the Empress: The Defiant Lives of Maria Theresa, Mother of Marie Antoinette, and Her Daughters, publishes next week from Little, Brown