Friday, April 20, 2007

Rosewater and Cake

I think many readers such as myself hold only a rudimentary knowledge of Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, beheaded during the French Revolution in 1793. She is most famous, or notorious, for her alleged retort, "Let them eat cake!' when asked what the poor of France should do without bread during the terrible years prior to the Revolution. This remark and many, many other things attributed to Marie Antoinette are revealed, once again, as falsehoods and ugly distortions of the true nature of the Queen as researched by Antonia Fraser in her book Marie Antoinette: The Journey.

Fraser tackles the biography from a more humane and explicitly feminist perspective: specifically claiming that the teenage queen quickly became a scapegoat for the excesses of the monarchy, French hatred towards the Austrians, and a vicious misogyny directed towards her and anyone whom she appeared to favour.

Insensitivity to the poor may be the one of the lesser evils she was charged with by the libelistes of radical France. Vicious pamphlets (18th c. France's extreme version of the tabloids) accused her of adultery with numerous lovers who plotted against the state, incest with her beloved son, lesbianism with royal favourites (one accused woman ended up with her head on a pike), engaging in countless orgies, siphoning off badly need funds to her Austrian homeland, treasonous activities against the state, undue influence of King Louis, etc ... The degree and vehemence of the accusations are mind boggling - none of them proven, none of them substantiated aside from accusations of extravagance.

Although printed a number of years ago the book has gained a certain resurgence of interest as it was cited as the inspiration for Sofia Coppola's 2006 film Marie Antoinette. It is a pretty confection which fails on so many levels although it is mesmerizingly beautiful to look at. The film does convey a few important points though: that Marie Antoinette, an Austrian Arch Duchess, a member of Hapsburg royalty, was married off at 14 to the Louis XVI, the Dauphin of France, and used as pawn by both sides until her horrible death during the revolution. It also conveys the sweetness of the Queen, her gentle and maternal nature as well as her love of extravagance. She came to epitomize the worst excesses of the ancienne regime. The film is shot as if through the lens of a pretty, slightly vacuous young girl obsessed with shoes, gorgeous pastries, parties and beautiful clothing.

As a revolutionary notes in Fraser's book: "Revolutions are not made from rosewater!" Indeed, they are not. And the institution of monarchy was a wasteful, profligate, convoluted mess of protocol and vanity during the reign of Louis XVI; however, dragging men, women and children from their beds, subjecting them to degradations and abuse, imprisoning them, beheading the royals and one of the queen's closest associates, orphaning the children of royals, only to have one die of tuberculosis in prison, is not one of the ideals of progress and democracy.

Luckily, for those interested in the history of the French Revolution, we have Fraser's dispassionate and sensitive eye to compassionately present the excesses and tragedy of Marie Antoinette's life and death.


Unknown said...

An excellent review of a book I must now run out and get!

I've been going back and forth about ordering the movie from my cable provider, but will save it for one of those nights when I'm craving something light and decadent like a mille feuille.

A Lit Chick said...

Thanks for your supportive comments Maria. I don't think that Antonia Fraser's book will disappoint. The movie is quite beautiful too despite its flaws. Please enjoy!