Last summer was the summer of biographies. I read the biography of Truman Capote, the real authors of the Nancy Drew series and, my favorite, the biography of Marie Antoinette by Lady Antonia Fraser.I don't know what got me started. I just thought it might be interesting to find out what it was like to marry the crown-prince of France at the age of 14. Wouldn't you have been totally ready to marry someone you've never met and subsequently be judged daily by the French court?
What is most interesting to me is Fraser's examination of the monarchy. Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI were born into their roles as Queen and King and never really wanted to rule a country, let-alone the posh, hard-to-please France of the late 1700s. Louis wanted to hunt the great stag and Marie Antoinette wanted to, well she wanted to buy clothes and host fancy parties. And who can blame her? She was coming into the best years of her life (says the "very happy with her current age" 26 year-old author of this blog).
Long Story Short
Marie Antoinette of Austria and Louis-Auguste of France (her second cousin once removed) were married in 1770 at the ages of 15 and 17, respectively. The young couple took up residence at the palace of Versailles and were plagued with an unconsummated marriage for seven years. Why not consummate, you ask? Well, they were a real pair of clueless individuals. He apparently had no desire to sleep with his wife and she was consistently accused of the inability to inspire passion in her husband. It has also been said that the two young-uns simply didn't know how to complete the act.
Louis-Auguste's grandfather, Louis XV died of smallpox in 1775 and Louis XVI was crowned King of France. The marriage was finally consummated in 1777 and she would eventually birth 4 children, two sons and two daughters.
My Favorite Part
During the seven year lack of sex and child bearing, Marie Antoinette made herself famous for big hair, expensive dresses, and the growing national debt. During what I'll call her mid-life crisis (she only lived to 37 after all), Marie Antoinette did what any upstanding Queen would do and quit wearing silk and diamonds opting instead for muslin and flowers. She also ordered the construction of a real working farm on the grounds of the Petit Trianon. Excuse Moi? Yes, that's right gals, she said screw you France, traded in her gilded palace and chose milking cows and a small chateau for her pure enjoyment.
Let's explore this...
She was given her very own chateau to escape her royal responsibilities, host endless slumber parties, and hide away her various lovers. Aha! It's all clear now.
The queen began to institute changes in the archaic customs practiced at court. Most importantly was the abandonment of heavy make-up and the popular wide-hooped skirts for a more simple female look, typified first by the rustic and simple muslin dress she adopted. She also began to participate in amateur plays and musicals, starting in 1780, in a theatre built for her and other courtiers who wished to indulge in the scandalous delights of, gasp, acting and singing.
Her most well-known love affair involved a Swedish military man by the name of Count Axel von Fersen. It's possible that her second son was actually Fersen's child and that Louis XVI accepted this reality.
In 1789, the royally family was forced from the palace of Versailles by an angry mob complaining of a severe bread shortage. Marie Antoinette is famously quoted as saying "Let them eat cake" in response to the hunger of the French people. The origin of this quote is highly contested. Upon being alerted by a messenger that her people were starving due to having little bread to eat, she is said to have replied "Let them eat cake..." The storming of Versailles marked the beginning of the French Revolution.
Oh Marie, why must you have been shouldered with the responsibility to uphold the selfish values of a country in a debt you had nothing to do with? Her head would eventually fall due to her lack of devotion for a country that judged her before she ever stepped foot across its borders.
She was declared guilty of treason and executed by guillotine on October 16, 1793. She was dressed as a common French housewife, an insult probably lost on Marie Antoinette as she had so famously adopted the garb of a milkmaid years earlier.
Why Do I Love Her So?
To be frank, I think she was punked by circumstance. Plain and simple, she was an icon. Perfect to take the blame for the selfish history of the French monarchy.
I admire her for her gumption through the accusations of tabloids of that time and for promoting good fashion. My favorite film depiction of her is Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette starring Kirsten Dunst. Coppola does an excellent job of tapping into your imagination and depicting Marie Antoinette's Versailles in all its fabulousness. Marie Antoinette, her friends, and lovers are all portrayed in a fabulous rainbow of pastels and towering hairpieces.
Oh and I've forgotten to mention the sweets! It is widely reported that the King and Queen were gluttons for good food and drink and Coppola uses sugary sweet desserts as part of every scene.
If you need to take a mental break and experience complete frivolity of self and finances, I encourage you to watch Coppola's Marie Antoinette. For all the glorious details of her life and times, be sure to spend some time with Lady Antonia Fraser and her book about the journey of this iconic woman from Austrian child to guillotined Queen of France.