October 16, 2017
A Waste of Space
Today, October 16th, happens to be the 224th anniversary of the raccourcissement—“shortening”—of Marie-Antoinette. Naturally, various historical websites and various historical writers’ blogs will be full of weepy commemorative articles with titles like “Marie-Antoinette went to the guillotine on this date, displaying unmatched courage and dignity.”
Poor, poor, victimized, saintly Antoinette, riding to the scaffold with great courage and dignity, as if she was the only person who ever did. Boo hoo.
Give me a break.
What is it about this spoiled, vacuous, overdressed waste of space, much of whose life was significantly lacking in dignity (if not courage), that grabs people’s imaginations? Only, apparently, that she was her decade’s No. 1 Party Queen and then (quite deservedly) had her head chopped off. If, instead, she had died in 1788, far more unpleasantly, of smallpox, childbed fever, or tuberculosis, this brainless Valley Girl-turned-Real Housewife of Versailles-turned-plastic-socialite would have been about as well-known and interesting to pop history as, say, Marie Leczinska, the dull, dowdy, fecund queen of France who preceded her—that is to say, barely at all.
But no: Poor, fashionable, ill-treated Antoinette had her head cut off, and—just like the equally witless Mary Stuart and various other poor, put-upon, over-romanticized, headless blue-bloods beloved of hack historical novelists—instantly became a mythic figure to all the people out there who worship tragic and romantic royalty, no matter how idiotic and useless its representatives may be.
Sure, she was a victim of her times—to a point. Few people will deny that the young Antoinette was a victim of eighteenth-century politics, under the creaky medieval theory that an alliance between kingdoms was best sealed with a royal marriage; that she was a victim of her mother’s political designs by being shoved, as a silly, naïve, clueless teenager with little education and less common sense, into the court of Versailles, the most treacherous and vicious snakepit in Europe; that she was then the victim of ruthless courtiers who used and manipulated her to pursue their own agendas. But the time comes when even the silliest teenager has to grow up and take some responsibility for her life. And once she did, once she grew out of her party-girl phase and began giving her bumbling, vacillating husband all the wrong advice at all the wrong times, Marie-Antoinette was no longer even remotely a tragic victim.
People may argue about whether or not Mary Stuart or Anne Boleyn really deserved to lose their heads: whether or not they were guilty of what their contemporary accusers claimed they did. But there is no doubt whatsoever that Marie-Antoinette was guilty of treason against the country where she’d been queen for eighteen years—even guiltier than her accusers knew. While the revolutionaries in 1793 were busy cooking up ridiculous stories about the ex-queen molesting her son and conspiring to bankrupt the state by buying too many ball gowns, there was a selection of her letters sitting quietly in the archives in Vienna, in which, for the past couple of years, she had sent state secrets—including details of French military actions against the Austrian Empire in wartime—to her nephew, the Austrian emperor.
Was Antoinette, in 1793, technically Austrian (by birth) or French (by marriage and residence)? Whatever the case, she was acting as either a traitor or as an enemy agent. Even the most enlightened nation on earth executed spies in the eighteenth century, folks. If anyone else had betrayed his or her country’s military secrets to an enemy power the way Antoinette did, they would have been instantly convicted of treason. Yes, the revolutionaries guillotined Antoinette for a lot of the wrong reasons: (1) as a symbol of abolished royalty, and (2) before someone could rescue her and use her as a royalist rallying point, and (3) for being (before the Revolution) an extravagant dingbat who couldn’t produce an heir to the throne quickly enough (and for being a slut, as she was labeled in a vicious, years-long, and quite untrue smear campaign), and (4) for being (during the Revolution) a bad influence on the king, having consistently managed to drag the dithering but amiable and progressively-minded Louis XVI back to a hard-line, pigheaded, anti-revolutionary stance every time a crisis came up. But there is simply no doubt at all that the real evidence against her, had they had it, would have convicted her even more quickly.
Poor, poor, victimized Antoinette. Poor Antoinette, the royal-worshipers will protest, to have fallen so far, from the opulence of Versailles where she had everything she could ever want and where people pretended that the sun shone out of her backside, to a damp little prison cell where, to top it off, the evil revolutionaries invaded her privacy and were rude to her. Oh, boo hoo, poor, poor, mistreated Antoinette.
Surely, when you look at the Versailles etiquette that Antoinette had had to deal with for nineteen years before the Revolution, a lack of personal privacy was scarcely new to her. When every intimate detail of the royals’ bodily functions was soon known by all the court, when the queen of France ate in public with tourists gawking at her, when she gave birth in front of fifty or sixty witnesses, and when she woke up every single day to a crowd of nattering duchesses squabbling over exactly whose higher status gave her the God-given right to drape the queen’s chemise over her naked body, the revolutionaries setting up a couple of permanent guards in her cell could hardly be described as an unprecedented and shocking invasion of Antoinette’s sacred personal space.
In my Palace of Justice I briefly included a scene of Antoinette on her way to execution, and the character François’s reaction to it:
* * * *
Marie-Antoinette sat staring straight ahead, rigid as a primitive statue, her back to the driver and the ambling horse. She seemed unaware of what was happening around her. The priest beside her bent toward her, reading from his prayer book, but she ignored him. Aristide could not decide whether she was numb to her surroundings, or so terrified that she had been reduced to immobility.
He could not help muttering, “The poor creature.” François shot him a glance.
“You think so?”
“No, I don’t. To hell with her.” He shrugged and stood glowering at the cart as it inched past. “That woman had the best of everything all her life, pampered and fussed over, never had to worry about one damned thing except shoving out babies and how her hair would be dressed for the next court ball; why should she deserve anyone’s pity?”
“But to fall so far—” Aristide began.
“So what? So she’s been locked up. Well, none of the precious royals lived so badly out there in the Temple tower, I hear. The grocer next door, he told me someone he knew sold the Commune supplies for them. They weren’t living on bread and water, not on your life. Chicken every day! So just how, after a whole lifetime of luxury, does spending a year in a nice cozy prison, with your needs met, make you somebody to be pitied?”
“She’s been in the Conciergerie since August,” Aristide said, noting how pale and haggard Marie-Antoinette appeared. “I doubt it’s as cozy as the Temple.”
“So what?” François glanced at him for an instant before turning his attention once more to the cart. “When you’re the queen, or even the ex-queen,” he continued, “even lodging in the darkest, dampest cell in the Conciergerie must be cushier than the life of your average peasant. They fed her, didn’t they? Kept a fire going? Emptied her chamber pot? Gave her fresh body linen when she asked for it, I suppose? Well, Her Majesty still wasn’t lifting a finger for any of it, was she?”
“I expect not,” Aristide said, surprised by the normally easygoing François’s vehemence.
“No, she was not. Don’t make me laugh. What about the peasant who’s never had one minute’s taste of the luxuries that that useless bitch enjoyed all her spoiled, selfish life? She never spent fourteen hours a day out in the fields behind a plow, or wearing down her fingers in a weaver’s workshop, all the while wiping the snotty noses of half a dozen brats, before she earned a few sous so she could eat a bit of moldy bread. Oh, dear, the insolent Jacobins didn’t take their hats off in front of her, and called her rude names? Well, hard luck. I’ve had worse, and nobody shed any tears for me.”
Aristide did not respond and François glared at the women standing near them, a few of whom were openly praying as they watched the cart’s progress, before continuing.
“So now she’s had it a bit rough, and they’re going to cut her head off. What do I care? Why should anybody care? She still had it better all her life than everyone else.”
* * * * *
You’ve probably gathered by now that François reflects my own attitude. The twenty-first-century romantics who weep over poor Antoinette’s cramped and uncomfortable lodgings during the last weeks of her life conveniently manage to forget or ignore the standard of living of most of the French peasantry and working class during the eighteenth century. To the average Parisian sans-culotte or subsistence farmer, Antoinette’s private cell at the Conciergerie would have seemed no worse than the damp, drafty quarters most of them were sharing with six or eight other family members, and without the personal maidservant that Antoinette was assigned.
“But,” the royal-worshipers protest, “poor, tragic, saintly Marie-Antoinette went to the scaffold with great courage and dignity!”
Well, bully for her. So did a lot of other people, including her dull, pudgy, unglamorous, well-meaning failure of a husband. So did most of the revolutionaries. So did murderess Charlotte Corday. So did prostitutes and peasants. Queens and aristocrats had no monopoly on courage and dignity in the face of public execution.
The attribute of saintliness ascribed to Antoinette is most puzzling of all. If you’re going to canonize Antoinette, you may as well canonize Kim Kardashian.
Despite the vaporings of at least one nauseatingly sentimentalized novel about her that would like to present Marie-Antoinette and her husband as saints and martyrs, Antoinette never did one thing above and beyond the average eighteenth-century aristocrat’s everyday religious practice that would have singled her out for sainthood, or even as an example of an ideal Catholic life. Sure, she was pious, went to Mass when she was supposed to, and gave plenty of alms to the poor (when it occurred to her to do so in the midst of spending ungodly amounts of money on herself for gowns, diamonds, and building Disneyland Versailles out in the palace gardens). Sure, during the Revolution, she refused to have anything to do with priests who had taken the oath of allegiance to the French nation, and finally died with the consolations of her faith, having been given secret absolution by a “true” priest who was loyal to Rome.
Well whoopity doo. Plenty of her contemporaries did all those things, including her devout, loyal sister-in-law, Madame Elisabeth, who had devoted a lot more of her time to prayer and good works than party-girl Antoinette ever did. No one among the Antoinette-worshipers is calling very loudly for canonization for her—perhaps because she never had a very interesting story; Madame Elisabeth, any historian will admit, was achingly boring in her rigid piety and her virtuous life at court, and she hadn’t dressed nearly as well or partied as hard or ever had a romantic boyfriend like glamorous Antoinette.
As for being a martyr, Antoinette never “died for” anything except possibly the outmoded and expiring concept of absolute monarchy. She most certainly did not “die for her faith”—the revolutionaries who tried and condemned her couldn’t have cared less about her personal religious convictions, beyond what such convictions demonstrated about her lack of loyalty to the Revolution’s reforms, and the French Revolution was scarcely Nero’s Rome or the Spanish Inquisition. If anyone believes that Antoinette deserves sainthood simply for—as thousands of ordinary French citizens also did—clinging mulishly to the outlawed form of Roman Catholicism during the Revolution, they need to take a closer look at the Catholic Church’s requirements for canonization.
I’m probably not going to convince anyone who tearfully worships Antoinette that they’re wasting their time and their tears over someone who most definitely never deserved such slavish adulation. But try, at least, to feel less sorry for Marie-Antoinette than for the hundreds of “little people” who also were guillotined during the Revolution, the people who led hard lives and who could not even conceive of, much less experience, the luxuries that a pampered princess like Antoinette took for granted for most of her life.
Try, at least, to feel sorrier for the hundreds of faithful Swiss Guards who gave their lives to protect the royal family in the brutal massacre at the Tuileries Palace on August 10, 1792, after being inexplicably ordered—by Louis XVI—not to fight back. Try to feel sorrier for the people who were screwed over in political infighting, like scholar and astronomer Bailly or the kindly and liberal Bishop Lamourette; for the people who were guillotined after show trials simply because of who they were, like the unassuming Madame Elisabeth or the great chemist Lavoisier, who had been a tax collector; for the many insignificant, ordinary people who were arrested and executed for some trivial misstep because someone spitefully gave information against them: for the people who, unlike the spoiled and clueless Marie-Antoinette, were actually worth your tears.
An earlier version of this essay was first published online at Susanne Alleyn's author website in 2013.