For those of you who are into history, you might enjoy reading this. For those of you who aren't, however, may get bored. I have a major fascination with Marie Antoinette and the French Revolution so this paper was super easy to me.
So, here it is:
Marie Antoinette: La Bonne Reine
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Marie Antoinette was a different person than what is widely perceived and taught in history books. Marie Antoinette is often thought of as the ridiculous Queen surrounded by nasty rumors of immoral behavior, endless personal spending (so much that she was labeled “Madame Deficit”), and insensitive remarks such as the infamous “Let them eat cake.” History books and media from her time portray her as all of these things, but never as the kind humanitarian that she actually was. The French queen of the late 1700’s was blamed for the shortage of food and money problems that she herself could not attend to. Although she may not have been a perfect queen, she was not the picture of ruin so many have painted. There are many factors that affected her reign and led to her ultimate downfall, such as her upbringing, the influence of those surrounding her at Versailles, and the vicious rumors that clouded her life.
Marie Antoinette was the daughter of Austrian Empress, Maria Theresa. Maria Theresa was a woman prepared to do anything for her country, including marry off her children to secure alliances with other countries. She gave birth to Marie, her fifteenth child, on November 2, 1755, only to immediately return to paperwork after giving birth. She raised her children in a setting very different from most European royals. Although Maria was very strict and set ridiculously high standards, the children were often found in a relaxed, spoiled setting. European children were taught proper etiquette and expected to use it every day. Maria’s children were completely different: they spent most of their time in an etiquette-free environment. On special occasions, the children knew when and how to use etiquette, but they were more comfortable in informal situations, as that is what they were accustomed to.
Maria Theresa instilled a moral responsibility in her children, a characteristic in Marie Antoinette that is evident throughout her life. Maria had the best tutors work with her children and expected all to strive to be literate and hardworking. Even with a strict teaching regimen and high moral standards, it was clear that political needs were the most important aspect to Maria Theresa. Her children’s value could be compared to pieces on a chessboard. Often contradicting, it can be assumed that she caused a good deal of confusion in her children, as what was produced were rebellious, yet dependent children. She was harsh and impossible, yet managed to affectionately love her children through the chaotic years of her life.
Marie Antoinette had the utmost respect for her mother and throughout her life was in a constant battle of trying to please her. Most of her life, decisions were practically made for her by her mother. Marie is quoted to have said, “I love the Empress but I’m frightened of her, even at a distance; when I’m writing to her, I never feel completely at ease.” (qtd in Fraser, 22). Marie was taught to fear her mother, one of the only older women Marie was exposed to as a child, and therefore developed a fear of older, wiser women.
Meanwhile, the world around Marie was preparing her destiny. Six months after her birth, the Treaty of Versailles was signed to create an alliance between Austria and its traditional enemy, France. This action was the greatest influence on Marie’s life, as it was the act that first lit the path towards her future life as Queen of France. As Marie grew up in Austria, Louis Auguste, grandson of Louis XV, became the Dauphin- the heir to the throne of France. As Dauphin, he was a candidate for marriage. Louis Auguste was eleven and Marie ten when she was unofficially pledged to the future King. This plan was to make the bond between France and Austria firmer and to permit the alliance from being torn.
Marie’s remaining years in Austria were spent in preparation for her future in France. She thoroughly enjoyed her life in Austria and loved her family deeply. Her sweet character is evident at an early age and can be backed up from those who surrounded her during her time in Austria. The Abbé de Vermond had quoted that at age thirteen “her character, her heart, is excellent” and that she was “more intelligent than has been generally supposed” (qtd in Covington). Marie still preferred the fun and adventure that she most often partook in while living in Austria. The palace they lived in was full of interesting things such as theatrical plays, musical productions and activities that came with the weather. Instead of intense studying, Marie could be found sledding in the winter or playing in fountains in the summer. The Abbé de Vermond also quoted her as someone who could barely write in German (her native language), much less French and that she “is rather lazy and extremely frivolous; she is hard to teach.”(Covington). Perhaps if the customs of her family in Austria were a bit stricter, Marie would have learned to be less frivolous. Nevertheless, her playful and whimsical tendencies were permitted in the remainder of her childhood.
Four years after the pledged marriage to the Dauphin, Marie was shipped off to France as the new Dauphine. She was thrown into the glamorous life of Versailles, a court full of extreme etiquette, nonsensical rituals and fanatical gossips. It was expected of Marie to immediately assimilate into the culture of Versailles, yet she seemed to do the exact opposite. Unused to the extreme tendencies of Versailles, her distaste of it caused her to retreat into a way less formal than that expected of her. The nobility of Versailles saw her dismissal of court etiquette and were insulted. As envious meddlers, those nobility members became sources for dirt on Marie and were the main exports for the stories that tainted her name. During the reign of Louis XV, however, these vicious stories remained on the down-low. In fact, from the beginning of her life in France, the French were pleased with Marie. Madame Campan states that “She was always popular with the French people in general, and particularly with the inhabitants of Paris, who went on every opportunity to Versailles, the majority of them attracted solely by the pleasure of seeing her” (Campan).
There is a particular event in her life that gave the public insight in Marie’s true character. During one of her trips outside of Versailles, her group came upon a man who had been brutally wounded by a dog. The man’s wife was with him, thoroughly disturbed, so much that she fainted. Marie is said to have quickly gone to attend to the horrible scene, first giving perfumes to the woman to help her come out of her faint. Marie gave up her carriage for the man so that he could be sent for medical help, also giving up all of the money she had with her. Count Mercy, an advisor for Marie who was most always with her, witnessed the event, saying, “What was even more admirable was the kind and consoling way in which Her Royal Highness talked to the poor creature. Finally, the archduchess, who was touched, moved, shed tears and, at that moment, caused more than a hundred spectators to do the same.” (qtd in Antoinette and Bernier, 125). If only the public could have remembered that moment of tenderness instead of the stories circulated in the following years.
A large influence on the life of Marie Antoinette was the women at Versailles known as the Mesdames. Adelaide, Victoire, and Sophie were the daughters of the King who failed at getting married off to a place of power. When Marie arrived to Versailles, they were the first to try to enter her life as a means of gaining the power that they never had. They acted as her best friends so as to fill her mind with their opinions and use her to their own advantage. The Mesdames were most often the ones who passed around court gossip. A large lot of their gossip circled around Madame du Barry, the King's mistress.
Marie was used to a virtuous living, one where royals did not run rampantly in extramarital affairs. When introduced to Madame du Barry, the King’s mistress, she automatically was her rival. The Mesdames used Marie's automatic dislike of du Barry to their advantage. They caused a great hatred in Marie Antoinette of du Barry, pushing Marie to stand up against her and defy common courtesy to the woman. It is obvious they would know that if Marie were to rival du Barry in such a way, the King would surely be displeased. Count Mercy tells Maria Theresa of the Mesdames by saying, "I have noticed that Mesdames, who urge Mme la Dauphine to remain severe and silent, do not forget discreetly to do little favors for the Comtesse du Barry… It seems that Mme la Dauphine is always put forward and used as an instrument of a hatred they dare not avow." (qtd in Antoinette and Bernier, 71).
The Mesdames would also teach her a habit so awful, that it would ultimately be one that would alter her image forever. Politics, to the Mesdames, were used as a way to gain friends and gossip-allies so as to harm their enemies. Never drilled into the head of Marie Antoinette was the fact that politics should be used in a way of bettering ones country. Between her stuffy tutors and ladies-in-waiting as strict guides, her mother picking on her inadequate conduct during her stay at Versailles, and the Mesdames' deplorable influence, Marie Antoinette was provided a terrible means of confidence boosting as well as no exact way to supervise her intelligently.
On May 10, 1774, the old King of France passed away, leaving the throne to Louis Auguste and Marie Antoinette. It is said that when the court of Versailles went to congratulate their new King and Queen, they found the two on their knees, sobbing and praying, "Protect us, Lord, we are too young to reign." This statement was very true. Louis XVI, twenty years old, was still a shy, unconfident boy, who knew nothing about politics, yet everything about hunting and locksmithing- two things that would surely be useless during his reign. Marie, only nineteen years old, was resistant to the ways of her environment, therefore uninclined and unqualified to perform the ceremonial duties expected as Queen. The couple had already failed to perform their duty of producing an heir as soon as possible and in fact had not even consummated their marriage. This supports the fact that they were young and naive. Within days after being pronounced the rulers of France, they had both exhibited their inexperience in the ways of leadership, as well as their ultimate inadequacy.
Marie became Queen to a country which was already in bad shape. France was in debt. A series of wars, including the Seven Years War, and years of corruption had depleted the French Treasury. France was also preparing to face a severe food shortage due to a failed harvest. The people of France were already unhappy before she arrived. Heavy taxes were sentenced to the poor, while the rich were never taxed. This tax system caused peasants and the working class to get poorer ("The Raucous Royals"). The current King of France at the time could have brought upon a fairer tax law, but the wealthy would not have it without a fight. After realizing they would pay a ten percent income tax, the privileged resisted the very thought of a fair tax law. If the law would have persisted, perhaps the French Revolution never would have occurred. Nevertheless, the poor were thoroughly beaten down by the ways of the French monarchy and it is obvious they would dislike whatever would become associated with it.
The French hated the fact that Marie was Austrian. Prejudices held so long against the Austrians were not going to easily be swept away by an alliance, especially when the French people were suspicious that Austria schemed to manipulate France for its own advantage. Because of her Austrian background, a rumor was circulated that she sent funds to Austria, removed from the French Treasury. Those known as Anti-Austrians did whatever possible to taint Marie Antoinette's name. Madame Campan had said, "It must be observed that the anti-Austrian party never lost sight of the young Queen, but kept on the watch with the malicious desire to injure her through such errors as might arise from her youth and inexperience" (Campan, pg. 68).
Marie's mother was sure to add her input in the way in which the new Queen should rule. She wrote to Marie shortly after her crowning, "You are both very young, the burden is heavy; All I can say and wish is that you rush nothing: see with your own eyes, change nothing, allow everything to continue as it is; otherwise there would be insurmountable chaos and intrigues, and you, my dear child, would be so confused that you could never manage" (qtd in Antoinette and Bernier, 137). Marie seemed to ignore the advice to let everything continue as it was, for once she became Queen, she no longer allowed the custom of letting the public be a part of their everyday lives, but instead lived more privately. She spent most of her time in the Petit Trianon, a domain given to her by her husband a few days after he became King. It was reserved for Marie and her choice of friends as a private place to escape from royal responsibilities. As her mother had predicted, the change to Marie's constant presence at the Trianon produced outrageous rumors of scandalous and perverse actions that took place there, allowing the media of the time to portray Marie as a promiscuous, disgusting woman. The truth is Marie Antoinette was a very virtuous woman, even Emperor Joseph considered it a "strict virtue", although those who didn't know her were convinced otherwise. Madame Campan called her personal modesty "extreme". In 1778, the public loved her for the character she portrayed in public but by 1780, she was the most hated woman in France.
Marie Antoinette never understood that her seemingly innocent actions and lack of propriety would cause the public to despise her. Her overall presence in society, the money she spent, and the effect she had on the government counted heavily in the public’s opinion of her, yet she often overlooked the influence these things had on her people’s assessment of her. By the mid 1780’s, she realized just how hated she was and asked, “But what have I done to them?” She had done absolutely nothing to them and perhaps that is why the French hatred grew. The new queen had started off her reign as a shopaholic, spending less time with the public and more time on herself, most likely because she wanted to escape the insanity of Versailles. She didn’t understand that the money she spent on her extravagant tastes of diamonds, the latest styles and bouffant hairdos affected the people of France. Her mother warned her by saying, “You lead a dissipated life. I hope I shall not live to see the disaster that is likely to ensue.” (Covington).
I actually have this picture blown up in a huge frame in my room.
Restricted to the luxurious life of Versailles, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were unaware of the turmoil that their country was experiencing. After a failed harvest, the price of grain was outrageous and the people of France had grown riotous, marching through the streets of Paris demanding a lowered price of bread. Bread was so expensive, fifty percent of French families income was spent on it. Only knowing that the country hated them and they wanted to regain popularity, portraits were made of the Queen surrounded by the children the royal couple was finally able to have. When the public saw the expensive clothing the family wore, the royal’s plan backfired. Pamphleteers and cartoonists began labeling Marie as “Madame Deficit”, the woman who caused the poverty of France.
After finally being informed the extent in which her country was so horribly failing, Marie cut back on her expenses, wore subdued, simple clothing, and took an interest in politics. She simply grew up. Yet the most permanent and desecrating phrase was attributed to her at this time: “Let them eat cake.” This phrase had been accredited to many royals before her, starting with the Spanish Princess who married Louis XIV--a hundred years before Marie even arrived in France. Still, this phrase even today is used to describe the ultimate character of Marie Antoinette. Whatever Marie's faults, she most certainly was not coldhearted enough to tell her subjects to eat cake when learning that they had no bread. The gracious queen would have been more likely to give her own cake to the starving people had she been given the chance.
Marie Antoinette did everything in her power from that point on to make whatever small difference she could make. She attended benefits for charity, tended to several peasants and gave them shelter and education, as well as used every given chance to get the King to do his duty. She even persuaded Louis to release all the bread at Versailles to Paris. She had no real power to create change, but used every pathway to try and do so, for she was held accountable for it (Pfau). "She was so happy at doing good and hated to miss any opportunity of doing so." wrote Madame Campan, a woman who held insight in the true character of Marie. "This unfortunate Princess, against whom the opinions of the French people were at length so much excited, possessed qualities which deserved to obtain the greatest popularity." (Campan, page 86). Marie began to spend less time and money over herself and more with with her children and family.
Motivated by the victory the United States had received in independence, the French people grew violent and demanding in their want for the monarchy to be overthrown. Marie and her family would soon be taken prisoners to their country, and, charged for mistakes they did not necessarily make, would be killed at the guillotine. Before these events would take place, Marie expressed her lovely character one last moment before the public. A crowd of thousands came one night to Versailles, prepared to breach the palace.
The Queen was hurried to the King's bedroom when the rioters had arrived, where all of the people surrounding her stood crying in fear. Marie did not break, but consoled and supported those around her. Her husband walked out to a balcony overlooking the crowd and was quickly taken back in when the crowd demanded for the queen. Marie was advised to show herself to stop the commotion. "Very well," answered the Queen, "If I have to go to my execution, I shall not hesitate; I will go" (Perry). Marie approached the crowd in humility, looking pale and unkempt in appearance at such a late hour. She came out alone, without fear and showed great composure. She stood there with a bowed head, letting the crowd shout accusations and threats as many pointed muskets at her. The crowd was finally able to see the true Marie Antoinette, not the one the media had painted her as, and shouts of "Long live the Queen!" began to flow from them- even those who wanted to kill her. This however, was not the end of her story. Shortly thereafter, those who had shouted "Long live the Queen!" took her life in the cause of the French Revolution.
Marie Antoinette's legacy has not been one that is labeled good. Anyone who knows of Marie Antoinette recalls the same “facts” that were painted about her hundreds of years ago; yet it is only a product of rumor and speculation carried throughout history. Marie was anything but insensitive or inconsiderate; she only tried her best as Queen, and failed. To be a Queen, one must learn to be a Queen. This was a phrase similar to one Marie often spoke to her foster brother Joseph Weber. He remembered her repeating on the importance of education with that statement (Fraser, 33). Marie was wrongly educated in the way to correctly rule such a heinous country. It is thought that maybe Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI were better suited to rule a smaller, less chaotic country than France. They were simply unequipped to rule a country full of pre-accumulated debt, famine, and ravaging revolutionists. Marie Antoinette therefore was not a bad Queen- she was simply a good person who fell victim to circumstance.
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