Debauched spend-thrift? Royalist martyr? When it comes to Marie Antoinette, history wants to have its cake and eat it

It’s during a particularly tiresome lesson that Mrs Lintott, the history teacher and (rather ironically) only prominent female character in The History Boys, observes: “History is a commentary on the various and continued incapabilities of men. What is history? History is women following behind with the bucket.”

Synonymous with frivolity and opulence, it’s hard to imagine Marie Antoinette, 15th child of the Empress Maria Teresa and the Holy Roman Emperor, whose silk-clad caricature trails cake crumbs, carrying any kind of cleaning paraphernalia. But has a patriarchal system and male-centric history curriculum given Antoinette an unfair trial?

In BBC Radio 4 Podcast In Our Time: Marie Antoinette, Melvyn Bragg and guests crack open the gilded façade of Antoinette’s life to extract fact from fiction, from the misattribution of “let them eat cake” to the Queen’s reputation for debauchery. So, assemble the jury. Order in court. Let’s examine some of the evidence.

BBC Radio 4 Podcast In Our Time: Marie Antoinette

A pawn in a game

Born in Vienna, 1755, Marie Antoinette was just 14 when her mother married her off to the future King of France in the hope of forging bonds between hostile nations. She was, as Kate Astbury, Professor of French Studies at the University of Warwick, says, “a pawn in a dynastic battle”. France and Austria had been hereditary enemies from the 15th century, and Marie Antoinette became “the seal of an alliance” intended to curb Prussia’s powers.

Though her marriage to Louis XVI was not consummated for 7 years – more on that later – Marie Antoinette fulfilled her primary function in France of bearing an heir, but died on the guillotine in 1793 during the French Revolution, shortly after her husband.

By the time of her death, aged 37, Marie Antoinette was widely viewed as a vain, traitorous spendthrift, who conspired against France and bankrupted the nation. How much truth is there to these accusations?

The shocking painting of Marie Antoinette in a gaulle by Marie-Louise-Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun (1783)

The charge: personally bankrupting the nation

It’s true that in the mid-1780s, the French economy was in dire straits. Simultaneously, Marie Antoinette was spending in the region of 300,000 livres a year on clothes. Put in perspective, an ordinary worker might have earned 30 livres a year. In that period, Marie Antoinette was known as Madame Deficit.

David McCallam, Reader in French Eighteenth-Century Studies at the University of Sheffield, stresses that context is key. He speculates that the frivolity we associate with Marie Antoinette was a distraction from the fact that her marriage was not consummated – a pressing concern given that her allotted function was to produce an heir – and that by the standards of Versailles, created as “a place of conspicuous consumption and ostentatious expenditure”, Antoinette was “not exceptionally profligate”.

The crucial point, says, McCallam, is that the Court’s extravagance was centred around the King. “He embodied the regime and the realm, and so while this [expenditure] was to the greater glory of France, displaced onto the Queen, it looked like unfettered self-indulgence.”

The charge: conspiring against France to further Austrian interests

Alongside accusations of frittering away France’s money on fine food and clothes, Marie Antoinette was seen to be a manipulative woman who betrayed France to enemy powers.

Catriona Seth, Marshal Foch Professor of French Literature at the University of Oxford, describes how Marie Antoinette arrived at court as a teenager with little experience of the systems in place. Though a bond between nations had been forged, Austria was “not a natural ally of France”, and Marie Antoinette was “representative of a foreign nation which a number of the French still thought of as a hereditary enemy – public opinion had not moved with the change of power.”

Comte de Mercy-Argenteau, the Austrian ambassador, was a minder of sorts to Marie Antoinette, and Seth describes how he effectively used the young Queen to “further Austrian interests”. Letters written by Comte de Mercy-Argenteau reveal his frustrations over Marie Antoinette’s refusal to lobby for certain political ends at his suggestion.

Seth concludes that the Queen was seen as “not Austrian enough by the Austrians, and too Austrian by the French – something which all through her life was a problem.”

Kirsten Dunst in Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette

The charge: debauchery, resulting in an illegitimate heir

By 1789, a number of scandal-mongering pamphlets and pornographic depictions of Marie Antoinette were in circulation, depicting the Queen in lesbian sex scenes and orgies.

A seven-year delay in the consummation of Marie Antoinette’s marriage (now believed to be the result of mutual inexperience and physical disparity) resulted in gossip that the King was impotent and the Queen therefore sex-depraved.

The King’s lack of interest in taking mistresses (traditional, at the time) furthered his reputation for sexually inadequacy, and meant there were no prominent female figures in court to divert gossip away from Marie Antoinette during her reign.

McCallam describes the libellous pamphlets as “a way of stimulating anti-Royalist sentiment, and a deflection tactic – the King at this point cannot be criticised because the idea is that he will become a cornerstone of a new revolutionary constitutional monarchy, whereas the Queen is fair game as she has no political status.”


A convenient scapegoat

Marie Antoinette’s legacy is split down the middle, dividing – in McCallam’s words – “sharply along ideological lines”. Like the gorgon and sphynx creatures she was frequently depicted as, many of us know more about her myths than her history. Look to 19th century portraits, and she if often “depicted in white, eyes heavenward”. A two-headed figure, she is at once ‘the whore’ and ‘the martyr’.

The push-pull of the public and private sphere was the metronome of Marie Antionette’s life. Asbury believes she “tried to react against the stifling effect of court etiquette… and carve a private life for herself at a time when as a public body, she doesn’t have one”.

In the longer term, we can see Marie Antionette as what McCallam calls “a gendered victim”, representative of women who “are too close to power, who have a lot of public visibility and very little public voice… the ideal combination for a scapegoat.”

And that, ladies and gentlemen of the court, is where the bucket part comes in.