Category Archives: 18th Century

Let Them Eat Cake

‘Qu’ils mangent de la brioche’ or ‘Let them eat cake’, is a famous quite generally attributed to Marie Antoinette in popular culture and she is said to have uttered it after being told that the people of France had no bread. However, there is no evidence that Marie Antoinette ever said this. In fact, there is every proof that she never said it.

So when was it first attributed to Marie Antoinette? 1843- 50 years after her death and in the Victorian Era, notorious for historical inaccuracies. The Victorians were also the ones who decided that all rumours concerning the Tudors were true and laid the basis for the majority of widely believed historical inaccuracy today. Most modern historians would ever trust the things that Victorian historians made fact. Also, considering all of the gossip and pamphlets against her at the time of her reign and downfall I think if she did ever say it there would be an almost certain public outcry and much propaganda attacking her for the quote.

When was the phrase first introduced? It was written in book six of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions, written in 1765 (when Marie Antoinette was 9) and finished in 1769, before she was even in France. Rousseau doesn’t specify who said the quote, merely saying ‘some great princess’. As there are many inaccuracies in the Confessions anyway, it could be said that the quote never existed at all.

Does the quote fit Marie Antoinette’s character? Certainly not. We have much evidence that Marie Antoinette was a very charitable person. When some people were crushed to death at a display during her wedding celebrations, she visited the relatives of the victims and offered support. She very often gave food and money to the poor and if any particular cases in which she could help in were bought to her attention she’d be more than willing to help and would offer much support. She devoted much time to charity and this makes the quote very unlikely for her to have said.

Concerning the bread shortages which occurred during her reign (1775 and 1788), she wrote in a letter to her family (where she could have been entirely honest about events) that ‘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’, which certainly doesn’t support the ‘let them eat cake’ thoughts of things.

There is no evidence that the quote belongs to Marie Antoinette and it would be lovely if  popular culture stopped attributing it to her. It’s become part of her identity today and really darkens her character. As Antonia Fraser states in her biography of Marie, ‘It was a callous and ignorant statement and she, Marie Antoinette, was neither.’

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Georgiana, Dutchess of Devonshire

Lady Georgiana Spencer was born to Earl and Lady Spencer on June 7 1757. Her family were supporters of the Whig party and she was married on her seventeenth birthday (1774)  to the strongest patron to the Whigs, William Cavendish, Duke of Devonshire.

William was a man of very few words and was only really happy when with his dogs and the Duke is often refered to as ‘the only person not in love with his wife’.  Georgiana was extremely popular amongst the aristocrats as well as political personalities and was often seen as a fashion-icon for many women. She worked as an active political campaigner for the Whigs, using the great attention on her to her advantage. During the general election on 1784, Georgiana was rumoured to have exchanged kisses in favour for votes for a distant cousin, Charles James Fox, whom the Devonshires often campaigned with. In 1782, Georgiana met Lady Elizabeth Foster in Bath, who would become a lifelong confidant and later mistress to the Duke.

However, the marriage wasn’t playing out to be a very happy one. Early on in the marriage, Georgiana suffered a number of miscarriages early on in the marriage and William was very distressed not to have a son and heir. Their first surviving child, Lady Georgiana Dorothy Cavendish (known as ‘Little G’), was born July 12 1783, nine years into the marriage. Soon after, their second child, Lady Harriet Elizabeth (or ‘Harryo’ to the family), was born August 29 1785. At the same time Lady Elizabeth gave birth to a daughter by the Duke. Two years later Elizabeth had a son. The Duke finally got his legitimate male heir on May 21 1790, William George Spencer Cavendish (‘Hart’), Marquis of Hartington. She also brought up the Duke’s illegitimate daughter, Charlotte, who was conceived by a maid.

Georgiana found herself involved in a great scandal when she started an affair with Charles Grey (later Prime Minister) and soon became pregnant with his child. However, Georgiana refused to leave to Duke to live with Grey after the Duke said that if shee left him he would never let her see her children again. Her and Elizabeth went abroad where she gave birth to her illegitimate daughter, Eliza Courtney, who was bought up as Grey’s family.

In the mid-1790s her health rapidly deteriorated. She had an infection in her eye and doctors were worried that she would never regain sight. Leeches were often applied to her eyes. She died March 30 1806, aged 48. Crowds were gathered outside of her residence of Devonshire House though her final weeks.

She was also famous for her debts and love of gambling. She kept the extent of her debts secret for fear of the Duke’s reaction and they were discovered after her death. The debts accumulated to a total of today’s equivalent on around 3.7 million. When the Duke found out, he famously remarked, ‘Is that all?’

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