Marie Antoinette: The Key to the Enigma

How does a Cardinal, a senior member of the French court, come to believe that the Queen of France is willing to meet him on a scandalous midnight rendezvous? How does the public come to believe what a fabrication cooked up by an adventuress named Jeanne de La Motte-Valois?

The “key to the enigma” as Frances Mossiker puts it in The Queen’s Necklace, is the Queen’s reputation. Our friend Comte Beugnot said, “The Queen’s reputation, sad to say, provided the key to the whole diamond necklace enigma.”

Marie Antoinette has come down to us as a tragic icon of fashion and excess. She was queen, was able to indulge her extraordinary whims (like three-foot-tall hairdos and fake miniature villages), and ended up losing her head because her people didn’t like it. Of course this impression is mostly false. Although she indulged a great love of fashion and overspent tremendously, she did gravitate towards simpler (perhaps scandalously simple) dress once

Marie Antoinette as a girl

she passed her twenties. It is also important to remember that the Queen was a target for dislike and dissatisfaction for the people. She had very little to do with the financial troubles of France, despite her spending. In an ocean of debt, her expenditures were minimal, though unfortunately for her they were conspicuous.

It might be fair to say that Marie Antoinette was insensitive of her people’s suffering, or at least that she was sheltered in her palaces. But it’s very unlikely she said, “Let them eat cake.” Marie Antoinette may not have been fully aware of the starvation and misery of the French people, but it would be unfair to say she was unfeeling or uncaring. She set aside a great deal of money for charities of different sorts. The evidence shows that she cared for suffering set before her eyes. Other suffering might have simply missed her notice.

To many people in her own time and ours, the love life of Marie Antoinette is at least as interesting as her flair for fashion and self-indulgence. There is a long list of men that Marie Antoinette was linked to in her own day. She was accused, for instance, of having an affair with her husband’s brother, the Comte d’Artois. The underground rumor mills of Paris (which put ou pamphlet with nasty pornographic or near-pornographic images of the Queen) weren’t above linking her to her female friends, either. There were rumors she was the lover of the Comtesse de Polignac and the Princesse de Lamballe. (Rather sadly, Lamballe was a loyal friend who remained in Paris and died very brutally during the Revolution at the hands of people who believed these rumors and butchered her body.)

Tongues wagged about the relationship between Marie Antoinette and Axel von Fersen of Sweden. There is no firm evidence the two were lovers (and there probably never will be–in 2003 experts attempted but failed to determine what had been erased from letters between Marie Antoinette and Fersen). However, over the years, historians have concluded that they were, indeed, lovers. After all, the Queen installed him in rooms in her own domain at Versailles. Interestingly, the people who created and circulated the scurrilous pamphlets never linked her name with Fersen, probably the only serious candidate for a “lover” for the queen.

There are many reasons that Marie Antoinette’s behavior was viewed with so much suspicion. Her position put her in line for criticism. She was the Queen of France, which under normal circumstances is not a particularly powerful position because of the way queens were traditionally treated. They were purely there for breeding purposes, and very little gloss was put on this reality. Louis XVI, however, was not decisive and was not a born leader. He also loved his pretty wife. The result was that she had some sway over him, and that, to many eyes, she was–most unnaturally–ruling France through her husband. To compound this, Marie Antoinette had no children for the first several years of her marriage because she and Louis XVI weren’t able to consummate the marriage fully. Add to this the fact that Marie Antoinette was a foreigner from France’s old rival Austria, and there was a great deal of suspicion of the Queen. She was a powerful, foreign female, who seemed to be failing in her primary duty as a woman and queen.

Marie Antoinette’s desire for privacy and informality were suspicious, too, to her subjects. The royal family had been put on very public display since the time of Louis XIV in the mid 1600’s. Etiquette had been handed down by the Sun King, and it was expected that this etiquette would be followed to the letter. This meant waking and going to bed with an audience, dressing with an audience, and eating with an audience. While a modern person would consider this all an atrocious invasion of personal space, the French people expected to be able to view and scrutinize their sovereigns. Because Marie Antoinette tried to block this access, the people assume she was trying to hide something. She also balked at the formal rules that governed everything. For instance, she would have suppers with men in the room who were not her family, which shouldn’t have been allowed. The Queen’s desire for privacy and informality probably stems from her childhood in Austria, where her large family lived more like wealthy bourgeois than like divine beings.

Marie Antoinette was undeniably vain and spoiled. She lost great sums of money gambling, and of course she spent massive amounts on clothing and decorating. She lacked judgment, and couldn’t take advice well. Her mother and advisers warned her early and often that her behavior was offensive to the French  nobles and French people. Marie Antoinette did not heed the warnings. Though her behavior was better when she was older and had children, the damage had already been done.

Witness the Diamond Necklace Affair. If she hadn’t already damaged her reputation, no one have believed that Marie Antoinette would condescend to meet a Cardinal in the midnight gardens of Versailles. If she hadn’t gained a reputation for loving diamonds, no one would have thought her capable of duping a Cardinal and stealing from the royal jewelers. Her reputation for sexual looseness and for greed, even if unearned, were enough to condemn Marie-Antoinette in the public mind. Jeanne de La Motte-Valois was probably more clever than she realized when she orchestrated the heist of the diamond necklace. She surely knew the Queen’s reputation and used it to her advantage, but she probably had no idea just how much of her story the public would believe.

Would the French Revolution have happened if Marie Antoinette were a different person? Would the currents of politics, time, and opinion have turned against the monarchy regardless? Or did Marie Antoinette single-handedly bring down the French monarchy? Like with most things, there is no single answer. It’s a combination of all of the above. The only thing that is certain is that the Diamond Necklace Affair would never have happened under another Queen. As Frances Mossiker said, the accusations levelled at Marie Antoinette would never have stuck to a Maria Leszczynska (her predecessor as Queen of France) or a Victoria or an Elizabeth II. Not only did the culture of the day–an odd mixture of promiscuity and public prudery–create the tempest that surrounded Marie Antoinette, her own behavior gave her enemies the opportunity to accuse her of any number of things and for those accusations to be believed.

The key to the enigma–the key to why the plot to steal the necklace ultimately hurt the innocent Queen and why the Queen ended up losing her head–is her reputation. “Reputation” is a complex mixture of her actions; the appearance her actions gave; the public’s perception of her; and the fears,  anxieties, and expectations of the time. 

In the comments, someone brought up this three-part blog entry about Fersen and Marie Antoinette on the wonderful blog Tea at Trianon.

For your perusal, here is an online exhibit from The Newberry Library.

Some books worth looking up on the topic:

Chantel Thomas The Wicked Queen: The Origins of the Myth of Marie Antoinette

Antonia Fraser Marie Antoinette: The Journey

Caroline Weber Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution

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2 thoughts on “Marie Antoinette: The Key to the Enigma

  1. Interesting article, although I think that some of your statements are misleading. To say that Marie-Antoinette was “insensitive” to the needs of the people is proven untrue by the fact that she said: “It is quite certain that in seeing the people who treat us so well despite their own misfortune, we are more obliged than ever to work hard for their happiness.” (http://teaattrianon.blogspot.com/2010/08/michelle-obama-is-marie-antoinette.html)

    As far as the Fersen myth, some biographers may have promoted it but it is false to give the impression that historians believe in it. Some do, but many do not. I would suggest reading the works of Webster, Seward, Bertiere, and Delorme, who do not think that there was an affair.

    As for the “letters” with erased passages, please read this:
    http://teaattrianon.blogspot.com/2007/06/fersen-legend-part-2.html
    http://teaattrianon.blogspot.com/2007/06/fersen-legend-part-3.html

    • Well, the impression that I have gotten personally from reading about Marie-Antoinette is that she was aware of her duty to aid the poor but wasn’t necessarily committed to it. That’s sometihng no one can ever know, of course. She certainly made a lot of charitable contributions. I think she had some real compassion for suffering set before her. In any case, many of her subjects certainly felt she was insensitive to their suffering! That’s the most pertinent part, I tihnk.

      As for the erasures, the sensitive diplomatic information is a plausible explanation–but then again, we don’t know what was there. I don’t know what to believe as concerns Fersen, but there is evidence that an affair possibly happened. Either way, it wouldn’t change my opinion of Marie Antoinette, which is neither positibe nor negative.

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