Queen Marie Antoinette (1755-1793), born Archduchess Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna von Habsburg-Lothringen, is known as the queen who led a tragic yet romantic life, who spent more time on her own pleasures than being a responsible royal, who was obsessed with fashion, pageantry and the Ermine Cape Effect; who was the subject of scathing cartoons and scandals and who eventually lost everything she held dear during The French Revolution. Today, she's best known for saying "let them eat cake," which she never actually said.
Her childhood in the Habsburg (Austrian) empire was excessively pampered and free spirited. This did not prepare her for her eventual life in Versailles. As the fifteenth of sixteen children she was certainly not brought up as might befit a future occupant of the greatest European throne of its time, in regards to either education or life experience. In fact, she was sent to France only after a series of misfortunes took her older sisters out of the running. In the interim, many Austrian court customs had been discarded as too stuffy by her mother, the Empress Maria Theresa. Antoinette (as she was known) tried to impose this same openness on Versailles, and brought with her an overall distrust of the intensely rigid formal etiquette which characterised the French court. Such youthful optimism is understandable to a modern audience, but she was seen as a legitimate threat to the prestige of many powerful courtiers in Versailles, many of whom were already uneasy about this representative of France's ancient enemy. France's governmental system may have glittered outwardly, but its rapidly decaying core of greed and self-interest made for a complex maze that even the most astute princess might have had trouble negotiating. And astute Antoinette was not. It didn't help at all that she was stuck with a heavy, lumpish husband who openly preferred the company of the palace workmen over hers (told that he shouldn't eat so much at his wedding night banquet, the future Louis XVI responded, "Oh, I always sleep better after a good supper."). Lonely and neglected, trying to shut out the mockery over her nonexistent sex life, the teenage princess embarked on the whirl of gaiety that became her legend.
Partying till all hours, gambling, private theatricals, wildly extravagant jewels and clothes, ludicrous hairstyles... basically, whatever new fad came down the pike, Antoinette was up for it. Including, most unfortunately, the one for simplicity and rusticism. This sounds quite banal now — and in fact, was no more then than an expression of a newly emerging general trend, and perhaps even a little less excessive than that of other noblewomen — but in the moment, an ostentatiously realistic model of a peasant village (minus the starving, over-taxed peasantry), where the Queen and select noble friends could kick back and dress down every now and then, was just asking for trouble, especially in the late 1780s when a famine and a rapidly escalating financial crisis was about to clear the ground beneath the feet of the entire monarchy.
Before the Revolution, and in the early years of that movement, Marie Antoinette's percieved vapidity and excesses made her a favorite target for satirists both in France and England. They were the tabloids of their day. Censorship prevented major newspapers from making open political criticism on the person of the King and the Church, but if tabloids reported on gossip and rumor of Marie Antoinette then it fell Beneath Suspicion, allowing them to use the Queen as scapegoat to give vent to all kinds of frustration and dissent. Naturally, some of the stuff they wrote were outright made up: If she organised an innocent ride into the country to watch the sunrise, it was construed as an orgy. If she indulged in close female friendships, they were naturally lesbian; if she showed favour to certain male courtiers, they were naturally her lovers. All France "knew" of the insane amounts she spent on frivolities, when she was really no more extravagant and much less promiscuous than other members of the family, and likewise, her marriage with the shy King improved — she eventually gave the nation two heirs. Antoinette's political influence in the Ancien Regime, however, was close to nil because her husband's ministers distrusted her so much. Throughout her reign her mother criticized her for not representing the Empire well enough, while any attempts she did make ensured further scorn from the French, who soon dubbed her L'Autrichienne — a multi-layered Pun which in Frenchnote combined the feminine form of "The Austrian" ("L'Autrichien"), the French word for Other or Foreigner (autre) and the feminine form of "Dog" ("La chienne") and using it to refer to her by this nickname was a form of subversion.
Some incidents damaged her reputation, including her supposed invocation of "let them eat cake" in a time when bread was scarce and expensive. There is no record of her giving utterance to such a phrase in the callous manner as this quotation implies.note Likewise, "The Diamond Necklace Affair," in which a prominent courtier was tricked by a conman into buying the priceless trinket under the impression he was doing the Queen a discreet favour, finally did in her waning public popularity. Even though there was no proof of her involvement, her reputation was so bad that nobody doubted it. The nobility that might have been her natural allies were more than happy to use her as a figurehead to distract critics from their own follies.
Ironically, Marie Antoinette, so marginal in the years before the Revolution, became a key figure of Royalist Opposition. The Queen was determined at all costs to preserve the ancien regime both in principle and for her young son. She was appalled at such flouting of Royal Authority as the Tennis Court Oath and was filled with fear during the Women's March to Versailles, where Parisian market women, arrived at Versailles, and convinced the Royal Family to take residence at the long-abandoned Palais de Tuileries, whose retinue comprised of members of the National Guard (drawn from Parisian Radicals). In addition to feeling imprisoned by the Revolution, she felt humiliated at seeing the King present himself at the National Assembly. The King was himself unhappy about these changes but he was weak-minded and vacillating. His Queen proved to be more strong willed. Antoinette played a key role in planning the daring escape from the Tuileries. With the aid of her loyal favourites Count Axel von Fersen and the Baron de Breteuil, she organised a scheme in which the royal governess would be disguised as a Russian noblewoman simply travelling through the countryside, with the royal family in tow as her children and servants. They were in actuality headed north to a Royalist region where 10,000 of the remaining loyal soldiers were waiting. Unfortunately, everything fell apart about two-thirds of the way there, at Varennes, when a local official recognised the King from his likeness on a coin. This revelation of the King's Flight led to a humiliating return back to the Tuileries, and the French public who had liked the King for supporting the Revolution now saw him as a liar and a traitor. In this period between the Flight to Varennes and the Birth of the Republic, Marie Antoinette tried to ensure the family's survival by playing Revolutionary factions such as the Feuillants (whose leader Antoine Barnave was manipulated by the Queen into excusing the Flight to Varennes and clamping down on anti-royal sentiment) and the Girondins. Antoinette was supportive of the drive to a war with Austria, her own native place, in the hope that a military defeat would restore the Absolute Monarchy. note .
This all ended with the 1792 Insurrection, the Storming of the Tuileries and the Declaration of the First Republic. The King and Queen took refuge at the National Assembly, now called National Convention and were imprisoned at the Temple Fortress. The King was brought to trial, declared guilty and executed, in January 1793. His widow was brought to La Force prison, separated from her children, the Dauphin ("Louis XVII" for Royalists) and Marie Thérèse, Madame Royale, and her sister-in-law, Madame Elisabeth. Initially, Danton and Robespierre had hoped to ransom her to the Austrians in hope for a peace agreement, but all their overtures were rejected. Eventually, the Parisian Mob, who loudly clamored for the trials and executions of all traitors, got their wish. Marie Antoinette was brought to a trial, which was less a case of justice at her actual crimes (treason) and more a ritual of humiliation with wild misogynist allegations and insults flung at her by populist demagogues. Eventually, she was guillotined in the month of October during the Reign of Terror. Her son was left in the care of a cobbler and his wife, was raised poorly and shortly thereafter died of malnutrition, depression or the shock of the change in habit and lifestyles, nobody is quite sure. Her daughter survived and was eventually exchanged as a hostage and lived a long life. She would live to see the Bourbon Restoration and the return to honour of her parents. The Bourbon and Orleans Restoration led to a period of revisionism where writers who formerly criticized the Queen now looked at her with Nostalgia Filter and Rose-Tinted Narrative.
Marie Antoinette remains a highly popular and enduring historical figure, appearing in novels, manga, comics, music, plays and movies. Modern depictions tend to be more sympathetic of the Queen than usual.
Tropes as portrayed in fiction:
- Anachronism Stew: The 2006 film, which used sneakers and modern music to get the frivolity across to modern audiences.
- Beam Me Up, Scotty!: "Let them eat cake" was actually said 100 years earlier by Maria Theresa (not Marie's mother, but a distant cousin of the same name), and was made famous by Jean-Jacques Rousseau 22 years before Antoinette was even born. And supposedly Rousseau based it on an even earlier saying from a (unnamed) Chinese Emperor when told that the people have no rice to eat, "Then they should eat meat."note
- Disease Bleach: A legend commonly reported about her (notably in The Rose of Versailles) is that her hair turned gray during the return from Varennes to Paris. There's almost no evidence of this, but her hair was effectively grey by the time of her trial, two years later. She was only 38 by then.
- Face Death with Dignity: That she did, despite the numerous humiliations inflicted upon her on the route to the guillotine.
- Historical Hero Upgrade: Her Anglo-American portrayals, when they aren't reproductions of royalist satire, veer towards a romantic tragic portrayal of the Queen as a victim of fate, and her personality as naive and sweet◊.
- Historical Villain Upgrade: This began amongst her many aristocratic friends almost immediately post-execution, with even Thomas Jefferson eventually considering her a scapegoat. More recently it's conceded that while she was indeed nothing close to the depraved monster of legend, she certainly didn't do a lot to help her cause.
- Historical Villain Downgrade: With the possible exception of Renoir's La Marseillaise, almost no movie gives Marie Antoinette credit for her intelligence, namely her scheming during the Revolution. Most films give Fersen credit for the Flight to Varennes rather than her and almost no movie touches on her involvement with the 1792 war which she played no insignificant part in stroking and then sabotaging.
- Pretty in Mink: She has portraits where she's wearing furs, such as an ermine cape, and at least two dresses trimmed in sable.
- The 1938 film had quite a few outfits with fur, such as a fox trimmed cape when she thinks she has to leave France (right before Louis VXV dies), a couple ermine-trimmed capes, and a jacked trimmed with chinchilla with a matching muff.
- In The Rose of Versailles she wears a number of ermine trimmed capes, and she wears an ermine trimmed dress◊ when she leaves Austria).
- 2006 film had her wearing a jacket trimmed with ermine.
- Princesses Prefer Pink: In real life, the queen preferred "puce", a color that ranges from brownish purple-reds to muted purple-pinks. But media will still give her pink when she's still a princess, because of this trope.
- In the anime of The Rose of Versailles, one of her most common dresses is a rose pink one.
- One of the dresses she wore in the 2006 film, when she was still the crown princess, was a pink feather-trimmed dress, with a matching hat and muff.
- Star-Crossed Lovers: Marie and Fersen in the 1938 film and The Rose of Versailles.
- True Blue Femininity: Some works like to put her in blue, especially to symbolize her naivete.
- In both the anime of Rose of Versailles, and the 2006 Marie Antoinette film, she's put in a blue dress when she changes her clothes upon arriving in France.
- Her coronation dress in Rose of Versailles anime is also colored blue.
- Ugly Guy, Hot Wife: Save for the 2006 film and The Rose of Versailles.
Appears in the following works:
- The Rose of Versailles is a historical fiction that's part biography of Marie.
- In Mr. Peabody & Sherman, she's one of the main distinctly presented historical characters to show up in the city later.
- Marie Antoinette, 1938 film starring Norma Shearer.
- Jean Renoir's La marseillaise presents her highly unsympathetically as a queen opposed to any devolution of authority. Louis XVI gets a Historical Hero Upgrade weirdly enough.
- The French Revolution, where she is played by Jane Seymour. The film was produced in 1989 for the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution.
- The comedy Start the Revolution Without Me, where she is portrayed as a lustful schemer, but it's Played for Laughs.
- In the Disney channel original movie HE Double Hockey Sticks, her head works as a secretary in hell.
- Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette, where she's played by Kirsten Dunst. The biography, Marie Antoinette: The Journey by Antonia Fraser provided the source for the book.
- Benoit Jacquot's Farewell, My Queen features Diane Kruger (an actress who speaks both German and French, and so captures the Queen's Double Consciousness well) as the Queen, and narrates the events at the Palais de Versailles during the first three days of the Revolution, with a special focus on the Queen's friendship with the Duchess de Polignac.
- Her biography by Stefan Zweig is one of the most famous, it manages to avert both a Hero and Villain upgrade by arguing that Marie Antoinette was no one special. Zweig argued that Marie Antoinette was neither evil or especially interesting, that she was largely uneducated and eventually made disastrous choices because she didn't know better.
- She is the star of one of The Royal Diaries books, focusing on her engagement with the Dauphin Louis and her first few years in France.
- Juliet Grey's historical fiction trilogy, heavily researched and covering her from age ten until her death:
- Becoming Marie Antoinette
- Days of Splendor, Days of Sorrow
- The Last October Sky (forthcoming)
- French singer Lio's "Marie-Antoinette" (co-written by Ron Mael) is sung by the soon-to-be-beheaded regent's point of view.
- Gets a mention in the The Arrogant Worms song "History Is Made by Stupid People".
Nobility are famous for no reason.
Marie Antoinette enjoyed her cake.
They had a revolution when she would not share
And her husband lost his head for that mistake.
- The Nancy Drew PC game Treasure in the Royal Tower is centered around the Queen and the Diamond Necklace Affair.
- Assassin's Creed: Unity features her in a brief cameo.
- She's a servant in Fate/Grand Order summoned in the Rider class. This version of her is portrayed closer to the Innocently Insensitive aspects of her real life counterpart, and even puts her alignment as Lawful Good. She's quite popular amongst the fandom especially after her attempt to be Totally Radical ("Whassup, my homies?") There is also a Caster version of her donning a swimsuit.
- Marie appears as a Hero in Grimms Notes. Funnily enough, she has a Chaos form which looks like... A child version of herself wearing a magical girl outfit, complete with a Love Freak attitude.
- Her daughter Therese also shows up as an antagonist.
- Marie Antoinette was alluded in Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc, whereas the character Celestia Ludenberg expressed her wish that if reincarnation existed, she'd like to be Marie Antoinette. She said this in her attempt to face execution with diginity, another character pointed out that if she reincarnated as Antoinette, she's going to get executed again in the end.
- A sketch from Histeria! revolved around the overthrowing and execution of Marie and Louis XVI.