BOOKS: by William L. JamesNews Weekly
MARIE ANTOINETTE: The Journey, By Antonia Fraser
, August 9, 2003
MARIE ANTOINETTE: The Journey
by Antonia Fraser
Phoenix, RRP: $25.00First things first. Marie Antoinette never said, "Let them eat cake!" What is more she was not, contra the libellistes of her day, bloodthirsty, nymphomaniac, lesbian, incestuous, or adulterous. There is no case for accusing her of exercising petticoat government from behind the throne, and she did not attempt to betray France as an Austrian spy and traitor. She was vivacious, graceful, kind - even to peasants and servants - and, when the circumstances of her last tumultuous years called for it, courageous and resourceful.
Marie Antoinette was born in 1755, the fifteenth child of the formidable Maria Teresa, Empress of the Holy Roman Empire and her husband Francis Stephen. Her childhood was happy enough, but her education was patchy and haphazard. There was never the slightest chance of her developing the intellectual sophistication of her Enlightenment-era contemporary, the "enlightened despot", Catherine of Russia. What she loved instead were music, theatricals (both as spectator and participant), balls, dancing, clothes and interior decorating. These last two involved considerable expenditure, but by royal standards before and since, she was not unconscionably extravagant.
At the age of fourteen, only months after reaching puberty, she left Vienna forever to marry the Dauphin, the future Louis XVI. He was only a year older than his bride.
Like her father, her husband was more interested in hunting than in affairs of state, but unlike her father, he lacked both charm and libido. The marriage was not consummated for three years.
Eventually, Marie Antoinette bore four children. In 1795 the elder boy, the ten year old Louis XVII, died in prison two years after his parents' executions.
There is no point in glamorising the cruelties and injustices of the ancien regime
. The conservative English writer Edmund Burke, in his Reflections On The Revolution In France,
lamented that "the age of chivalry is past", but Thomas Paine (who, incidentally, later tried to have Marie Antoinette's death sentence commuted to exile in the United States) in his The Rights Of Man
retorted with some justification that Burke "admired the plumage and forgot the dying bird".
The central mystery that emerges from Fraser's biography is why the naive and well-meaning Marie Antoinette should have been execrated, then and ever since, as the personification of all that the revolutionaries opposed. This process went beyond mere scapegoating. It involved objectifying her as the very touchstone of bien-pensant
opinion. To refuse to uncritically damn her was to consign oneself to an outer darkness of ostracism and contempt.
It was Zhou Enlai, one of Chairman Mao's henchmen, who, asked by a Westerner for his opinion of the importance of the French Revolution, replied, "It is too early to say". He was right. The French revolution let loose an eclectic torrent of ideas which continues to rage through our culture. We owe to it the values of liberal democracy, but also the various forms of totalitarianism thrown up by the 20th century.
Fouquier-Tinville, the Revolutionary Tribunal's public prosecutor, conducted Marie Antoinette's trial. As the exponent of what Fraser calls "revolutionary justice or what was in effect a show trial, with the verdict predetermined", he is the spiritual ancestor of figures such as Andrei Vyshinsky, who perpetrated Stalin's purge trials, and Roland Freisler, Nazi chief judge of the People's Court.
One particularly sinister precursor of 20th century legal procedure in "peoples' democracies" was the manipulation of children to incriminate parents; in this case, Marie Antoinette's son was pressured to testify that his mother had incestuously molested him.
Marie Antoinette was spun along like a cork on the surge of events. She had little comprehension of what she was caught up in, but then, neither did anyone else at the time. Perhaps Madame Roland, who personified the principle of the revolution devouring its children (she was a member of the moderate revolutionary faction, the Girondins, who were overthrown by Robespierre's Jacobins) came closest with her famous words on the way to the scaffold: "O Liberte! que de crimes on commet en ton nom! - O Liberty! what crimes are committed in your name!"
Marie Antoinette was never particularly interested in religion as such, but she maintained her Christian faith to the end. Her calm and dignified death was in marked contrast to that of the quasi-rationalist Robespierre, executed in 1794 after the Thermidorian reaction. When it came to the crunch, his impersonal Supreme Being appeared to impart little in the way of strength or comfort.
Fraser has a long record as an accomplished historical biographer, and this, her latest offering, is generally sympathetic, balanced and honest. A few biases show through. She desperately wants to believe, on the basis of quite inconclusive evidence, that Marie Antoinette had at least one extra-marital affair, and she is pleased that Marie Antoinette has become a gay icon, despite admitting that she was not a lesbian.
The book contains a series of (literally) gorgeous reproductions of the Queen's portraits, the earliest painted when she was only seven. It culminates in Jacques-Louis David's stark, lightning pencil sketch of the prematurely aged thirty-eight year old on her way to the guillotine. Sic transit gloria mundi -
So passes away earthly glory.