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The Perils of Antoinette

She arrived naked; on an island in the Rhine, on May 7, 1770, in a pavilion especially built for the purpose, the Austrian princess Antonia was stripped of her clothes under the cold and curious gaze of a party of aristocrats. She was fourteen years old, and she cried while this happened. A keen wind nipped between the Gobelins tapestries in which the pavilion was draped; a steady rain began to fall and run through the pavilion’s roof.

The child had traveled from Vienna in a golden coach drawn by eight white horses. Now her new life was to begin, under a French name, Marie Antoinette. She was redressed, head to toe, as a Frenchwoman: whalebone stays and paniers to hold up her skirts, silk stockings embroidered with gold, and then the court robe, with its train, its flounces and frills, its beading and trim, gemstones and lace. Her feet crammed into high-heeled satin slippers, she was ready to go: blue eyes and Hapsburg lip, flat chest and pretty fair hair. Her teeth had recently been straightened; what pain and tedium that involved, we can only guess at. In her life so far she had been fond of dancing and playing with dolls. She had come from a musical, family-minded court, informal as courts go. But her formidable mother, the Empress Maria Theresa, sent her off with this warning: “All eyes will be fixed on you.” And in that chilly, liminal space, so they were—taking in every inch of the white body on which history would inscribe itself, and on which we are writing still. She had only just quit the pavilion when the weight of rainwater brought the roof down.

She was being brought to France to marry the dauphin, Louis Auguste, grandson of the reigning Louis XV. Acting always under scrutiny, under the public gaze, conforming to codes of which she was as yet ignorant, functioning within a system that confiscated personal emotions and replaced them with artificial sentiment, where codes of etiquette were more respected than the laws of the land or the dictates of the heart, she was expected to reconcile two nations with a long history of enmity, and she was expected to bear children to continue the Bourbon line.

In her numerous family she was one of the younger princesses, but death and the ravages of smallpox had taken older sisters off the marriage market. She had not been brought up for such a distinguished role; her education had been neglected, and if her personality was pleasant, her attention span was short. Bad omens clustered around the marriage. Black clouds hung over the wedding day at Versailles, and the wedding gown had been made too small, forcing her to stand at the altar with her bodice gaping, to show her shift and the lacing of her stays. At the public putting-to-bed ceremony, the new dauphine dived beneath the covers in shame and horror. What she saw there cannot have lifted a young girl’s heart.

The dauphin Louis Auguste was a staid, corpulent young man, fifteen years old. The Austrian ambassador reported, “Nature seems to have denied everything to Monsieur le Dauphin.” He had little sexual curiosity and no sexual appetite. Some historians think that his difficulties were psychological, others believe that a tight foreskin made the act painful. It was some years before the marriage could be consummated. Childless and pointless, the Queen had time on her hands; Caroline Weber’s entertaining and thought-provoking book explains how she filled it.

There is a delicate novel called Farewell My Queen, by the historian Chantal Thomas, which tells us in great detail about the artificial life of the palace of Versailles, referred to by its inhabitants as “ce pays-ci,” as if it were a country by itself. The waste of ennui that was the Versailles day was strictly timetabled:

There was a Perfect Day; its program had been set more than a century earlier by Louis XIV: Prayers, Petty Levee, Grand Levee, Mass, Dinner, Hunt, Vespers, Supper, Grand Couchee, Petty Couchee, Prayers, Petty Levee, Grand Levee…. Every day since that time was supposed to reenact the Perfect Day…. But reality never ceased to throw up obstacles. The reenactment was never completely successful…. Tiny modifications became snags, reforms became upheavals, and so on, leading down to the days in July of 1789 that saw the King capitulate and the court disperse—the collapse, in less than a week, of a ritual system that I had assumed was fixed for all time.1

At this distance we can see how well signaled that collapse was, how year by year the old regime spun its own metaphors of desuetude, like the cobwebs that would later drape its ballrooms. In summer the palace stank. Bedbugs, fleas, mice, and rats out-numbered even its human parasites. The Austrian princess, with her insistence on washing her face before plastering it with makeup, was thought singular in this as in other matters. It fell to a revolutionary to be assassinated in the bath; you would never have found a courtier there.

To preserve self-respect without actually going to the trouble of washing, a great deal of perfume was required; and how it was supplied is the subject of Elisabeth de Feydeau’s A Scented Palace, a biography of Jean-Louis Fargeon, the royal perfumer. The author is “a professor of the Versailles School of Perfumers,” and is against the Revolution, which she claims smelled “of sweat, rotgut wine, urine and blood.” In her rhapsodic and often unintentionally funny book she supplies a great deal of solid information about how Antoinette’s narcissism was serviced, and reminds us what old-fashioned royal worship sounds like. It seems the Queen had two ways of walking, one for public show at royal headquarters at Versailles, and one for her bijou private residence in the grounds:

Marie Antoinette had a unique way of walking that made her literally and figuratively heads above any woman in France. She carried her head high, with a majesty that made her stand out as the sovereign in the midst of the entire Court, yet this regal air in no way spoiled her look of gentleness and kindness, her combination of grace and nobility. In the Trianon, however, her walk was different, more relaxed, but nonetheless inspiring no loss of respect.

Given that she had the usual complement of legs, how unique could her gait be? Please, the reader wants to say, let this poor woman, whom you insist on adoring, at least be human. She was not a goddess, and could not keep a deity’s distance from events. Long before the Revolution, Antoinette (as her new subjects called her) was in a deeply vulnerable position. Figuratively speaking she may have moved, as Edmund Burke put it, “just above the horizon, decorating and cheering the elevated sphere she just began to move in,” but daily in her satin slippers she had to tread the same dirty floors as her jealous courtiers, and catch the acid comments of the disaffected and the disinvited.

In a court of factions, the princess was sure to upset some powerful body of gossips, whichever friends she chose and however she spent her time. From Vienna came a stream of advice and criticism: “One day,” her mother wrote, “you will agree with me, but it will be too late.” The princess was expected by her mother to exercise pro-Austrian influence in affairs of state; a powerful anti-Austrian lobby among the courtiers watched her to make sure she did no such thing. One faction constellated around Madame du Barry, official mistress of Louis XV, whose existence for a time Antoinette refused to acknowledge—a refusal that threatened diplomatic relations between the two countries. Another faction supported the King’s elderly aunts; then she must consider the King’s brothers, Provence and Artois, each with his followers and cliques.

In an atmosphere of vigilant malice, it was hard for the little princess to grow up. Dressing in the morning, she had to stand naked until she was handed a shift by the highest-ranking lady present; if, halfway through the ceremony, a lady of higher rank entered, Antoinette must shiver till the newcomer took her place in the lineup. She could do nothing for herself; if she wanted a glass of water, and the right person was not available to pass it to her, she had to go thirsty. Like a modern faddist, she made a pet of herself, and would drink only one kind of mineral water, which later, during the term of her imprisonment, the revolutionary Commune continued to supply.

After her husband’s accession in 1774, she was not in his confidence, though to save face she pretended to be. French law did not allow a consort any formal status; though she had been crowned in a private ceremony, revolutionaries would later remind her of her unimportant role by pointedly referring to her as “the King’s wife.” As time went by with too little to fill it, Antoinette detached herself from the concept of her future: “When one has passed the age of thirty, I don’t know how one dares show oneself at [Versailles],” she said. She had not been encouraged to consider physical decay; when she had made her triumphal entry into France, and crowds turned out to see her, ugly people had been warned to stay away.

So how did she assert herself? Through dressing up, it appears; through the setting of trends, rapid changes of style, and highly conspicuous consumption. Caroline Weber says:

…I have scrutinized Marie Antoinette’s fashion statements. And I have discovered that they were, in every sense, accessories to the campaign she waged against the oppressive cultural strictures and harsh political animosities that beset her throughout her twenty-three-year tenure in France.

Male biographers, Weber says, have not seen the importance of how the Queen dressed. Weber speaks of “the startling consistency and force with which her costumes triggered severe sociopolitical disorder,” knitting the Queen’s fortunes, at each stage of her career, to what she was wearing. The Queen “identified fashion as a key weapon in her struggle for personal prestige, authority, and sometimes mere survival.”

The metaphor of the body politic runs through the discourse of early modern Europe, a commonplace device for writers of all political tendencies. For some time now, contemporary feminist scholars have been looking at how the history of the Revolution was written on women’s bodies: the bodies of the amazons of street warfare, of the goddesses of Reason who replaced the Virgin in desecrated city churches, and of the Queen herself, pilloried by public opinion, then imprisoned, stripped of her grandeur, stripped of her womanly dignity, then executed. Antoinette was brought to France to perform the duty of a royal wife—to breed. Because at first she failed to do so, her intimate life became the focus of hostile attention. Scurrilous pamphlets chronicling her supposed infidelities and perversions were disseminated throughout Europe—not, initially, from revolutionary sources, but bankrolled by alienated courtiers who knew all the latest rumors. Provence was a culprit, as was the King’s cousin the Duke of Orléans, who cultivated his popularity with the people of Paris, as times grew hard and hunger bit, by large-scale charitable works.

At the same time, in the years leading to the Revolution, criminal gangs in England conspired to produce defamatory material in the hope that the French crown would buy them off. Robert Darnton among others has studied the production and dissemination of these libelles, and Chantal Thomas in her book The Wicked Queen2 has pointed out that it is useless to scrutinize them for any correspondence to the Queen’s real life or character; they are exercises in mythmaking, in the creation of time-honored extended metaphors by which the lechery and impotence of rulers are characterized as diseases in the body of the nation. But queens of France, by convention retiring and religious figures, had not usually been such high-profile targets. It is the strength of Caroline Weber’s book that she spells out in detail how—and by how many inches, and dressed with what sort of feathers and plumes—Antoinette put her head above the parapet.

What was her style like? Weber says that she “cultivated looks that were playful and coquettish, ephemeral and unpredictable, alluring and modern.” But a good deal of the pictorial evidence is against the author. The pouf, the tower of powdered hair worn by Antoinette and her imitators, is as modern and alluring as foot-binding. It didn’t crush the bones, but what did it do to the brain? Like foot-binding, it was a mark of status; it said, I am an upper-class woman who need do nothing practical and nothing for myself, not even get through a doorway without inconvenience. Antoinette did not originate the style, but—as Weber admits—she adopted it early. One could multiply examples of the absurdities of this headgear, but Elisabeth de Feydeau gives us a pouf worth mentioning, one belonging to the Duchesse of Lauzun: it displayed

a churning sea with ducks swimming near the shore, a hunter lying in wait, and at the top of the hairdo a mill, with the miller’s wife flirting with a priest. Beneath the ear, one could glimpse the unsuspecting miller, pulling a stubborn donkey by the halter.

Immobility would have been the best posture for the lady wearing her pouf and her paniers—and the caricaturists of the day found these fashions as ridiculous as we find them. High-born ladies at Versailles were ferociously corseted, even during pregnancy. They wore a thick paste of white makeup with rouge applied in unblended round spots. They walked with a peculiar shuffle, designed to stop them from treading on each other’s trains, which was described by Henriette de La Tour du Pin in her lively memoir of Versailles—a book still unrivaled for conveying the social perils and absurdities of day-to-day court life under the old regime.

Did Antoinette rebel against the court’s style? It seems she did, with limited persistence and limited success, and the help of Rose Bertin, an expensive, pug-faced arriviste who set about dressing and fleecing her aristocratic customers with guile, persistence, and panache. The Queen’s critics called Bertin “the Minister of Fashion,” with the implication, Weber believes, that women were mimicking male prerogatives. Bertin and M. Léonard, the Queen’s hairdresser, were commoners who found themselves close to her, licensed to touch her skin. Their “presumption” was disliked and feared in court circles; perhaps they were the forerunners of a greater presumption to come?

The years went by, one costly trend succeeded the next, national bankruptcy approached, and by 1788 there was talk of calling France’s version of a parliament, which had never met in living memory. Bodices were loosened in pursuit of the simple look; they were tightened again in the name of propriety. Hemlines went up, ankles and embroidered slippers were exposed. Jewels were worn, then not worn, then worn again. Turning thirty, Antoinette had reverted to the conventional court gown, structured and rigid, and she eschewed the color pink. As the years of revolution approached she was no longer a glamorous woman—she had lost her figure, and her hair was falling out, but she retained, as she has for posterity, a sort of mystical body-double in which her charms were intact. What can she have felt when she saw the simple white dresses she had pioneered become the everyday dress of women sympathetic to the Revolution? She cannot have felt her initiative had succeeded.

In the first year of the Revolution, Weber tells us, the Queen dressed as splendidly as she knew how, in a firm statement of her unassailable position. Within a few months, as a gesture to the nation, she adopted simpler dresses trimmed with the bleu, blanc et rouge. But when she and the royal family attempted to abscond, she not only ordered a lavish new wardrobe for the trip but took with her on the flight from Paris none other than M. Léonard, who contributed to the debacle that saw the family hauled back to the Tuileries and kept under guard. At this juncture—the time when the royals had lost most of their remaining friends among France’s new rulers—the Queen, Weber writes, dressed in imperial purple, in a campaign planned in sessions with Rose Bertin. She had been a fan of pastels, but she thought that now was the time to show who was boss.

From the beginning of the Revolution, Antoinette had dressed up for the wrong party. In France when the Bastille fell, there were few republicans, and no one who imagined cutting off royal heads. There had been time, so much time, to negotiate, and so much goodwill squandered; Antoinette could never differentiate between mild constitutionalist reformers and those who became, after they had despaired of the monarchy’s cooperation, its enemies. When France declared war on Austria in the spring of 1792, the monarchy still had a degree of formal power, and Antoinette used her position to feed her adopted country’s war plans to her native land. She was, as her enemies had always suspected, sailing under false colors.

On August 7, 1792, Antoinette ordered her last pouf from Rose. Three days later the Tuileries was invaded, and women from the streets raided her apartments and took away her personal possessions. After the fall of the monarchy, her advisers tried to persuade her to wear stab-proof bodices, but she refused them. Perhaps she knew it was too late; clothes weren’t going to save her. Caroline Weber makes the case for fashion as a statement of selfhood: “Marie Antoinette’s clothing had time and again conveyed insubordination, autonomy and strength.” But you could just as easily argue that her clothes had made her seem a greater fool than she was, and that it was through fashion that she unraveled herself. She had helped defeat her own mystique.

Before M. Léonard, whose arts she found so indispensible, ladies of rank had dressed the hair of queens of France; Léonard was the first commoner to touch the royal head. In the dark days of 1793, M. Sanson, the executioner, was waiting in line for the same privilege; but in between, only at the very end of her life was Antoinette reduced to doing her own hair. Imprisoned in the Temple with her husband and children, she continued to order from Rose; the Commune paid her (much-reduced) bills. Her last parcel consisted of black bonnets, black stockings, and a black fan, mourning clothes for the death of her executed husband. It was at this point that the perfumer Fargeon—who, like Rose Bertin, had once been driven to bankruptcy by his clients’ failure to pay their bills—decided to cut his losses and send the new regime his unpaid accounts for the last two years. It is one of the most piquant facts in de Feydeau’s book: meticulous, the new Republic settled up.

Antoinette’s last months, locked away without her children, were sad beyond bearing. Perhaps defeat was woven into her existence. It is Caroline Weber’s great achievement to show how every thread was fought over during her years at Versailles. If court protocol made it hard for the Queen to get dressed in the morning at all, the way she chose to dress was often misread, or, one should perhaps say, read against her. When hunting she sometimes rode astride, rather than side-saddle, wearing riding breeches, a choice which caused a certain amount of psychic panic. With Louis impotent and clueless, were women taking the reins? The fact was that Antoinette was equally clueless, though capable of holding and expressing strong opinions. Her fitful pursuit of more comfortable clothing was equally doomed. The loose muslin dresses that she introduced for informal occasions—one is tempted to say for picnic-wear, picnicking being a solemn royal duty—signaled to critics her sexual availability. Her outerwear looked like underwear. She had ensnared herself in contradictions; an unused or underused wife was posing as a sexual toy.

No doubt, as Caroline Weber sees, her spending power and her ability to set the fashion were ways of asserting her personality. Early in the reign she held lavish costume balls twice weekly; she was fond of masks, and would sometimes go to the masked balls in Paris, but one cannot help feeling that superficial concealment was designed only to draw attention to the special status she both did and did not want. Always seeing the mask, unable to read what lay beneath the surface, she judged the people around her by their appearance.

At Versailles she was far from alone in superficiality and extravagance. The behavior of other figures at court reinforced hers. The King considered himself thrifty but spared no expense on his table and his horses. In 1777, his brother Artois ordered 365 pairs of shoes, so that he would have one for every day of the year; Antoinette got by on four pairs a week. Though what she spent was a drop in the ocean of the nation’s needs, her consumption was so conspicuous that she became known as “Madame Déficit.” She intended, her courtiers thought, to be “the most à la mode woman alive.”

Was this a worthy pursuit for a queen? It was certainly a new ambition. Queens of France, Caroline Weber tells us, were expected to cost less than royal mistresses. Louis XVI had no mistresses; one woman was rather too much for him. So Antoinette took on both roles, and their dress allowances. At one of her regular costume balls, she persuaded the King to appear as Henry IV, while she dressed as his legendary mistress, Gabrielle d’Estrées. When her mother complained that, in a portrait sent to Vienna, she looked like an actress, she was saying in effect that she looked like a prostitute. Antoinette had a pretty singing voice and loved amateur theatricals. She seemed set on making royalty a branch of the entertainment industry, an ambition not revived until Grace Kelly married Prince Rainier, and Princess Margaret, younger sister of the present Queen of England, began to spend her time with show-business people, and married a photographer. All roads lead to Diana—another mismatch, another fashion-plate, another doomed victim whose forms of self-assertion were puny and self-defeating.

Just before Diana’s death her dresses were auctioned for charity at Christie’s in New York. When they were turned inside out, they showed their secret structure, second dresses built inside the first; they were nothing like the dresses ordinary women wear, and with their elaborate frosting and beading they looked as if they might be stab-proof, if not bulletproof. The dresses stood up and almost walked; after her death, they alone retained the shape of the princess.

Antoinette’s clothes also formed a sort of anticipated ghost. In the years before the Revolution, you could go to Versailles as a tourist and see the Queen’s dress collection. Any respectably dressed person could turn up and take a look at the French monarchy in action. It seems odd, in one way: you would have thought that the monarchs would have cultivated their legend at a frozen distance from the populace. But if you actually visit Versailles you can see how it worked; the palace is so spectacular, so awe-inspiring, that proximity could create in the onlooker nothing but the conviction that the Bourbons were here and here to stay. In the medieval alleys of Paris revolution might have seemed possible, but at Versailles it hardly does, even now; the mind and will are benumbed by excess, the imagination is taken captive.

Antoinette had her own house, the Petit Trianon, a neoclassical château made over to reflect her exquisite taste. It was a stylistic break with the old-style opulence of Versailles, but the new style could not be mistaken for simplicity. The Queen did not break the codes of artificiality, but substituted a new code, which looked different, but was no more easy to achieve for outsiders. Vast expenditure and enormous contrivance produced what Caroline Weber calls the graceful, careless ambience of this retreat. The fashionable English garden had to be planned and landscaped just as carefully as the geometric gardens that Le Nôtre had contrived for the palace itself. Antoinette was not a great reader, and had probably never read Rousseau, but she had picked up the idea that what was natural was good, and to be imitated, at great expense if necessary. She turned Rousseauist thinking into a style statement and perverted it; the flowers you saw at the Petit Trianon were not just nature’s flowers, but flowers of porcelain and enamel, gilded flowers, painted flowers. She sanitized nature and made it whimsical; at her toy farm, Le Hameau, she kept perfumed sheep. At the Petit Trianon and the toy farm, the Queen ruled, not the King: here, she said, “I am me.”

A code of aesthetics, then, shielded the Petit Trianon from the dangers of strong emotion or the effort of hard thinking. A public figure, Antoinette wanted the one thing money couldn’t buy her—a private life. For the Queen to be “me” meant an effort of self-denial, in the true sense. In the musical comedies she was fond of staging in her private theater, she liked to play the part of servant girls. They were cute, well-dressed little servants; it was an abdication, nevertheless, and a telling one. For how can the psychic space be filled between “Queen” and “me?” In Sofia Coppola’s film Marie Antoinette—as in Stephen Frears’s The Queen, about Elizabeth II—there are repeated scenes in which a rumpled royal person wakes up, dazed, and—yawning and rearranging herself—passes from the unreality of dreams to the unreality of a waking life as a queen.3 Coppola’s film has a beautiful sleepwalker at its center, and offers, for all its conscious absurdities and anachronisms, an emotional truth. The Queen is self-absorbed, but not self-possessed. It is the people who dress her who own her. The couturiers of the eighteenth century used to create dolls to show off their designs, and in the reign of Louis XV such a doll, dressed as his mistress Madame de Pompadour, had caused excitement as it traveled through Europe. These dolls were known as “Pandoras.” Rose Bertin made and dressed a life-sized doll to look like Antoinette, and so one wonders: Was she ever “me” or only a simulation of a person, a dressed doll wheeled along by other people, its outer surface decorated with mirrors to reflect her times?

Perhaps it is the concentration on surfaces that has bred oddities in Caroline Weber’s treatment of the historical background to her story. Writing of events following the harsh winter of 1774–1775, she tells us:

That May, a scarcity of grain and misguided reforms by Louis XVI’s Controller-General, Turgot, impelled starving people throughout the nation to stage riots known as the Flour Wars.

It is an odd locution; though there is an element of ritual behavior in the events of that spring, in that the protesters petitioned for relief, as they usually did in time of famine, at the King’s own gates, the riots were presumably not a theatrical performance to those who engaged in them; they were not “staged.” She goes on to tell us that

to quell the rioting both far and near, the historian Simon Schama has written, “Turgot call[ed] out twenty-five thousand troops, and institute[d] summary tribunals and exemplary hangings.”

Could she not have checked the facts and given them direct, instead of quoting another historian? It is her anxious tactic, throughout the book, to ornament quite uncontentious assertions with frills and tassels of received opinion, as if we might not like them if she left them plain.

The year 1789 saw in a plainer age. In the time of Louis XIV—the Sun King—the splendor of his buildings, his court, and his own costume were what proved to his people that he was a king. In those days, to seem it was to be it, but Louis XVI’s court, powdered and reeking of Fargeon’s chemical experiments, seems to exist in a different time frame from that of the sober black-clad deputies who met in Versailles in the spring of 1789 to represent the Third Estate, the common people of France. By 1789, the King’s power to regulate his subjects’ style and taste was in the past, though the King had not noticed. The deputies had been commanded into black, to contrast with the parakeet colors of their betters; but this was an age of commodification, where the illusion of caste could not be maintained. The marchandes de modes of Paris catered to the middle classes as well as the aristocracy.

As long ago as 1773, Rose Bertin had set up her shop on the rue Saint-Honoré, with lavish window displays. She tried to limit her clients to the nobility, but anyone could look and imitate. If anyone can dress up as a queen, anyone can, at a casual glance, seem a queen. In the complex pre-Revolution scam known as the Diamond Necklace Affair—which was a public relations disaster for Antoinette, although she was not at fault—she had been imitated by a prostitute who had been specially coached, to ape her style. The demimondaine had sent out all the right signals to the man who was to be conned. She moved in silence, in a floating white dress, a rose in her hand; at dusk in the grounds of the palace, she walked the walk.

Caroline Weber’s book is absorbing, fascinating, a wonderful display of grace and expertise, full of telling details. She shows what she sets out to show: speaking of Antoinette’s fashion choices, she says:

I will argue that these ensembles, too often dismissed as mere instances of the Queen’s frivolity, identified her as a woman who could dress, spend, and do exactly as she pleased.

But what is new here? To posterity that is how she has always looked: a woman whose empty self-regard was at the center of her world, and who employed considerable resources to salve her wounded vanity.

We can sympathize with the young exiled princess—isolated, homesick, not very bright. That she decided “to play the game of fashion by her own, unconventional rules” cannot be doubted, but Weber comes close to representing Antoinette’s fight against her personal circumstances as a proto-feminist campaign. But to reflect the great world only through what you wear is surely an acceptance, an accentuation of a subservient feminine role. The fashionable woman at Versailles marked the partition of Poland by adopting a new style of skirt, caught up in three separate hoops—one for Russia, one for Austria, one for Prussia. It’s doubtful that Polish patriots were much cheered.

Antoinette is, as we say, having a moment. This is her season, because of the new film, and because 2005 was the 250th anniversary of her birth. The papers have been full of the news that she did not in fact say, of the starving populace, “let them eat cake”; but in Paris, the Ladurée patisserie on the Left Bank has been filling its windows with tiers of pastel-colored macaroons, inspired by her gowns. A rehabilitation movement is unneeded in English-speaking countries, where readers for generations have been sentimentally fixated on royalty and aristocracy, and there is always room for a new biography with a new version of the Queen’s sufferings.

At the Bourbon restoration the French treated her as a martyr, an icon, but for many years seem not to have taken much notice of her—as a brand name, anyway—making do with their own set of sentimentalities and pieties about the Revolution. The palace of Versailles has presented itself to tourists as a grand and chilly spectacle, though one that is underrealized and underexplained. But over the last year, the Petit Trianon and the Hameau have been marketed as a major attraction. An expensive Marie Antoinette fragrance is on sale—which must please Elisabeth de Feydeau. The Queen’s old bones have been dug up and re-dressed, providing a welcome distraction for a nation that hardly knows its role in the world, that has lost its sense of a civilizing mission and is filling the hungry void with pastel froth.

The thinking of cultural historians for many years now has been that the revolutionary period embodied a crisis of patriarchy; the nation murdered its father, having found him wanting in fatherly care. It was her motherly credentials that were assailed when Antoinette stood trial. Her eight-year-old son had been induced to accuse her of teaching him to masturbate and of sexually abusing him as he lay in bed with her; the court was told that she did this to gain a physical and moral ascendancy over him, which she could assert if he ever became king. The accusation came from the peculiar mind of the prosecutor Jacques-René Hébert, who had long before turned current events into a perverse circus, with the royals as blood-bespattered mechanical dolls. Brought out in open court, this weird allegation brought cries of sympathy for the Queen from the public galleries. Caroline Weber quotes a contemporary report, to the effect that when Robespierre

heard what a sensation the sublime manner in which the Queen had met the charge had made, and the effect it had on the audience, he, being then at dinner, broke his plate with rage.

Now, Weber is a respected commentator on the Revolution, having published a scholarly work called Terror and Its Discontents: Suspect Words in Revolutionary France. Presumably she knows that Robespierre was not the kind of man who smashed the crockery. It’s more likely that, as Robespierre’s latest biographer Ruth Scurr reports, he simply said that Hébert was a fool and risked making Antoinette an object of pity. It’s hard not to think that, by bringing forward this picturesque version of events, the historian, like her subject, is playing to the gallery.

Antoinette’s failure came early, as Weber describes: “Her white blank slate of a body had failed to live up to its promise as a site of inscription for Bourbon custom.” It also came late—when the Revolution came she turned her elegant back on the zeitgeist. It seemed, briefly, as if the Revolution itself might deliver to women a share of political power; this didn’t happen. Set against this great disappointment, it doesn’t seem to matter much whether pre-revolutionary nobles, finding their wives’ bills mounting, feared that “women were trampling sacred male authority beneath their dainty satin heels.” This form of female self-assertion had no payoff, no consequences. The Revolution provided many occasions for dressing up, and many sartorial codes to be cracked: one can brood for a lifetime on Saint-Just’s cravats and Robespierre’s embroidered waistcoats.

Such speculations would be interesting, but would hardly have commercial appeal to readers. It appeals to us to look at the Revolution as a giant piece of theater, and this year it is a girlie show. But the Revolution is more than this, and it cannot be understood by overstating, however entertainingly, the importance of its iconography. It is unfashionable to say this, in post-Marxist times, but it is true: if you want to understand what happened in the Revolution and why, it is better to keep your eye on fluctuating bread prices, rather than fluctuating hemlines. Antoinette did not know this, but it seems that we should know it, on her behalf. Antoinette was culturally retarded, a clumsy figure running to keep up with the times and tripping over her own skirts. Her private impulses were at odds with the general will, her caprices were at odds with republican vertu. After her death, the scraps of her clothing that remained were given to poor women in a hospital. But in the end, though the Queen did not foresee it, it was the bourgeoisie who triumphed: those who had the nerve to send in the bill. Monsieur Léonard, Rose Bertin, the perfumer Fargeon: all of them died in their beds.

  1. 1

    Chantal Thomas, Farewell, My Queen, translated by Moishe Black (Braziller, 2003), p. 17.

  2. 2

    The Wicked Queen: The Origins of the Myth of Marie-Antoinette, translated by Julie Rose (Zone Books, 1999).

  3. 3

    Sofia Coppola’s film was reviewed by Daniel Mendelsohn in the November 30 issue of The New York Review; Stephen Frears’s film was reviewed by Andrew O’Hagan in the November 16 issue.

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