When it comes to Marie Antoinette and women like her, there is much dispute in who she actually was. Today, we watch films and read books, each offering various characterisations of these women. These are all very different and leaves us wondering which is accurate as none of us really have the time to go down to the British Library in London to pour through a series of primary sources for several hours which we know won’t come to any help anyway as Marie Antoinette wasn’t British and even in her own time was much maligned. So it all comes down to one thing- the Amazom reviews. Yes, I know you know exactly what I’m talking about. Unless it’s just me…
Over the years we’ve seen much of Marie Antoinette in popular culture. The earliest film I can recall was made in 1938… Those of you who know me best will know which part I actually watched- the execution. I’m not sure why but I do tend to judge a film on the quality of the final days of anyone who is executed. This film I was not particularly fond of. I found something a little sickly about it with the scene which I think is supposed to be Fersen. But I really did love the references to the darkness of poor Louis-Charles, so I’m really not sure what to think… There was another b&w film but I just can’t think what it is! I had a look around the web but can only find a tiny clip as part of a fan video. My personal favourite is next- L’Autrichienne, 1990. It follows the last days of Marie Antoinette and I think that it really offers a very sympathetic approach to her life. I think the a certain quote was used in the writer’s research:
‘I was a Queen and you took away my crown; a wife and you killed my husband; a mother and you deprived my of my children: my blood alone remains- take it, but do not make me suffer long.’
It really empathises this and I did really enjoy the film. It had a very detailed trial, showed her as a woman, and makes you really admire her no matter what you’ve seen before. And no Fersen, but Rosalie instead! (Rosalie was a maid who served Marie Antoinette in her final days). There is just one issue with this film it’s all in French. I know absolutely no French, so that was a slight problem… But I enjoyed it much anyway. There is also then ‘The Affair of the Necklace’, staring Joely Richardson (plays Katherine Parr in The Tudors). This film follows the ‘Diamond Necklace Affair’ before taking you forwards to the ends of the characters. Once again, it was slightly more sympathetic when it came to the execution, though it didn’t thrill me enough to watch the rest of the film. There is also another French film with Jane Seymour as Marie Antoinette. It’s a film about the Revolution and I really enjoyed this one too. It showed Marie Antoinette the mother, wife and Queen without a mention of adulteress, whore, spendthrift etc. Same problem though and no English subtitles. And then of course there is the one we all know… 2006 saw the film that apparently was based on Lady Antonia Fraser’s biography, Marie Antoinette: A Journey. Hmm… I’ve got that biography and it certainly wasn’t like the film. This has the rather ludicrous (in my opinion anyways) scenes such as ‘I want candy’ and an affair with Fersen. This shows the Queen as an adulteress, a silly girl who expected everything to be done for her and a major reason for the French Revolution. I couldn’t find any sympathy in this film at all. I just couldn’t stand it because of the awful characterisations, and yet there were some truly beautiful scenes with Marie-Therese, the breakdown with the letter, running through some le Petit-Trianon etc… But I think the negatives outweighed the positives in her portrayal.
However, which does the modern-world choose to believe? For many, it’s the 2006 one. It’s the film our history teacher (under the influence of something methinks) showed us, it’s the one the tribute videos use, the one that comes up first in a video search, the one everyone knows. And now it’s becoming the image of Queen Marie Antoinette in popular culture. It annoys me and I can’t deny it… The film gives the rumours and propaganda used against her more so than things like the memoirs of her friends, her final days… It seems as if their only primary source was the charges held against her at her trial (a load of rubbish that her enemies made up including incest with her son). It shows her as a awful wife, a mother only to her eldest daughter and little more than a girl. If I remember rightly it does not include Sophie-Beatrice (her youngest who died at eleven months) and doesn’t take you as far as the death of her eldest son, Louis-Joseph.
I think that the film gives us a pretty bad impression of the final Queen of France as probably justifies the Revolution itself. But the real Marie Antoinette I think is summed us well by her herself in the quote I mentioned above.
She was an Archduchess of Austria and a Queen of France. It was a time when they were enemies. The marriage between her and Louis XVI came about only because of a small alliance in the seven-years’ war. It was difficult for her from both sides: the Austrians expected her to mend the relations between the countries and heal old wounds; the French hated her almost from the start because she was Austrian. She was given no say in the way her country was ruled despite her roles as Dauphine and Queen. Her mother, the formidable Maria-Theresa, has a staunch Catholic and brought her daughters up so; at the time in France religion was growing old- no one wanted faith anymore and the corruption of Church made it something hated just as the court-culture had begun to be.
She was a wife to Louis XVI. When they married, she was just 14 and he 15. It took them seven years to consummate the marriage. This was so often blamed on Marie Antoinette when in fact it is safe to say that Louis was the guilty one. He was reluctant to consummate the match as many people hating the Austrian alliance tried to turn him against her and for a while he believed that she would manipulate him. He was also a very shy boy and it was only on persuasion from Marie Antoinette’s brother that their marriage was finally consummated. He treated her with a coldness in public which must have been a great humiliation to her. However, the marriage grew loving as the years went on and she never left her black from his execution to her own (she was forbidden to die in mourning.)
She was a mother to four children. She had the woes of any other woman of the time, losing her youngest daughter, Sophie-Beatrice, when she was eleven months old. Her eldest son, the Dauphin Louis-Joseph, died aged seven at the beginning of the Revolution. When he had been born, she had been told, ‘Madame, you have fulfilled our wishes and those of France, you are the mother of Dauphin’; on his death from TB eight years later, the revolution was starting and the event was literally ignored. There was also a rumour of a miscarriage which was noted in the memoirs of Madame Campan. She suffered like anyone else as Queen and the Revolution took her further. Louis-Charles, her youngest son, was taken from her after much of a fight. When threatened with her life, Marie Antoinette would still not hand her son over. It was only when her daughter, Madame Royale Marie-Therese, was threatened that she allowed Louis to be taken from her. He was subject to mental and physical torture which poor Marie Antoinette could do nothing to stop as she heard his screams. He died soon after her aged ten from abuse.
So next time you’re watching a film about Marie Antoinette remember the woman behind the rumours.
Here’s a few clips from L’Autrichienne made into a short film (please click the link I can’t work out embedded).