Marie-Antoinette was only 14 when she married Louis-Auguste who was 15. They were not in love, they didn’t even know one another. They married simply to create a political alliance between France and Austria. Once engaged, the French snobs imposed a Hollywood Makeover on the then 12 year old betrothed Marie-Antoinette. A tutor was sent from France to educate her in the court’s oppressive ceremonial rituals. But that wasn’t enough. They didn’t like her crooked teeth so she was subjected to a very painful operation to straighten them. They didn’t like her high forehead so wigs and hairdos were created to hide it. They didn’t like the way she dressed so a new wardrobe was created for her. The French taught Marie-Antoinette that appearance was everything.
On her wedding day, the groom didn’t even show up. She was married by proxy on the French border but only after she’d been stripped of all her clothing and redressed with a “fabriqué en France” gown. All of her possessions were taken from her including her pug, Mops. Her personal companions were sent back to Austria isolating her even more. Even her name was taken from her. “Maria Antonia” now became Marie-Antoinette.
Marie-Antoinette’s problems didn’t end here. For seven years the marriage went unconsummated creating much anxiety as she was expected to give birth to an heir. Some believed that Louis XVI suffered from a sexual dysfunction until Marie-Antoinette’s brother, Emperor Joseph II, arrived in France to see what the problem was. He deduced that the young couple’s lack of sexual experience was partially to blame as they were both “two complete blunderers”. Luckily the couple resolved their problem and eventually had four children.
By the time I got to Versailles, Marie-Antoinette and Louis XVI had grown to love each other despite their differences in personalities. Yes, Marie-Antoinette loved to spend money on clothes and wigs and jewels. But hadn’t it been the French who had criticized her lack of Je Ne Sais Quoi. And now that Marie-Antoinette was the trendiest royal around and set fashion norms, they still criticized her. Marie-Antoinette was also very generous but the French failed to mention it. Before motherhood, the Queen adopted several children in need as well as establish a home for unwed mothers. During the Famine of 1787, Marie-Antoinette sold the royal flatware to buy grain for poor families.
Louis-Auguste, on the other hand, was a skilled locksmith, went hunting every day, and liked to read. His favorite book was Robinson Crusoe that focused on Enlightenment ideals. By the time Louis XVI became king, France was already a bankrupt country. Unfortunately, his admiration of Enlightenment philosophy didn’t help. The Enlightenment produced an economic theory that a nation’s wealth came from its land thus the price of agricultural produce should be deregulated. Pity that, for several years, climatic condition had created an agricultural crisis which led to a shortage of grain leading to an inflation in bread prices. Plus French demographics had radically increased during the 1700s making bread even more difficult to find. The poor people could no longer afford to buy bread, their main staple. Their fear of hunger intensified when it was rumoured that the rich were hording the food for themselves.
Mothers were unable to feed their children. Motivated by hunger and despair, women united and, on October 5, 1789, they marched from the Paris market towards Versailles with the intention of forcing the royal couple to resolve the situation. Revolutionary agitators (men, of course) took advantage of the march for their own political agenda and transformed the women into an armed, vicious and vindictive mob.
Although Louis XVI was the king and had the power, Marie-Antoinette became the scapegoat. The French hadn’t like Marie-Antoinette from the start simply because she was from Austria. They called her the “Austrian Bitch” and Fake News pamphleteers engaged in a full blast character assassination falsely accusing her of horrible atrocities as well as having said “Let them eat Cake” .*
I, unlike those bloated by ignorance, prefer to feed myself on facts and not opinions and thus am quite a reader. That’s how I know that the cake phrase was never said by Marie-Antoinette and, actually, came from a revolutionist mentor. In Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions written when Marie-Antoinette was only nine years old, Rousseau writes of a great princess who, when told that the peasants had no bread, replied “Then let them eat brioches.”
Revenge had replaced reason and the revolutionists were blood hungry. Aristocrats and their friends were all in danger. Marie-Antoinette had tried to warn her friend and confident, Princesse de Lamballe, to leave France. But the loyal princess did not want to abandon her Queen. As a result, she was imprisoned and, when Princesse de Lamballe refused to swear hatred towards the King and Queen, she was taken to the streets where she was raped, mutilated, beheaded, and her head put on a pike and paraded beneath Marie-Antoinette’s window.
Unless I wanted my head on a pike, too, it was time for me to leave France.
(from “TONI O, The Beholder” 2021 ©)
* The actual phrase is “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche” that translates “Then let them eat brioches.”