The Oxford historians' discovery of Vienna

Marie Antoinette: An Austrian Princess Becomes the Last Queen of France

There is some sense in which one cannot help but feel some sympathy with Marie Antoinette’s notorious remark about cake-eating. Of course, it is outrageous, when faced with hungry people demanding bread, to shrug your shoulders and recommend that they eat cake instead. This is even more so when you are, quite literally, carrying the equivalent of a loaf of bread on your head. After all, one of the ingredients for the hair powder that kept Marie Antoinette’s pouf in place was exactly flour. The rather absurd construction of hair that you can see in her official portrait at the Art History Museum (Kunsthistorisches Museum) in Vienna compliments a gown, the cost of which could have fed a whole village for a year. That being said, who hasn’t been tempted to give up bread in favour of cake?!

Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, portrait by Elizabeth Vigee-Lebrun, 1778, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Marie Antoinette was, in fact, Maria Antonia, the fifteenth child of the Habsburg Empress Maria Theresia. She grew up in Vienna and was married, at the age of fourteen, to the future King of France. She is mostly known for the cake remark and for being the last Queen of France, executed by the guillotine. Historians have repeatedly pointed out that there is no actual evidence that Marie Antoinette ever said “Let them eat cake.” It is interesting, though, that the remark has captured the popular imagination and stayed on. It encapsulates the huge unpopularity and the intense hate that Marie Antoinette inspired in her subjects in the years leading to the French Revolution. Thomas Jefferson, a contemporary of the Queen, famously said that if there had been no Marie Antoinette, there would have been no Revolution.

One suspects that there is a great deal of unfairness about the way that popular outrage focused on the young Queen. And this is quite apart from the idea that a preference for cake is completely natural. At first the problem was that she hadn’t produced an heir. Once she did, matters became much worse as the rumour spread that her children were illegitimate. Then, people disliked her for spending enormous sums of money on clothes, poufs and all that. However, when she had herself portrayed in a simpler dress, wearing a straw hat, the indignation was universe. The Queen was offending the French by exhibiting herself in what looked like undergarments. She was blamed for her expensive tastes, but when she stopped ordering sumptuous dresses, she was held responsible for making the workers of several silk factories unemployed. Besides, while trying to project an image closer to the people, she was buying cotton material from the English, who were the enemy and this only showed how she didn’t care for her adopted country. And so it went. It seems like poor Marie Antoinette was doomed to unpopularity and worse, as it turned out.

However, her tragedy arose not so much from what she did, but rather from what she didn’t do. Her actions were very much what could be expected of a rather silly young woman of poor education. The Viennese writer Stefan Zweig has captured this idea very well in his biography entitled Marie Antoinette: A Portrait of an Average Woman (1932). The intense hate of the French at the time was fed, however, by fantastical and usually completely invented stories that defied all reason. Consider, the likelihood of the Queen engaging in an orgy over the body of the peacefully sleeping King – an episode recounted by a supposed eyewitness and on this basis claiming absolute authenticity.

Such lewd stories, full of obscenities, were circulating all over the country in the form of printed pamphlets. It is, therefore, intriguing to consider Marie Antoinette as an early modern victim of what we call nowadays “fake news,” a slander campaign, based on the fabrication of facts, which is made possible by the media (the printing press in the 18th century and the Internet in the 21st). Interestingly, a Google search for “Let them eat cake” comes up with an astonishing 4.280 000 hits – for a phrase that Marie Antoinette mostly likely never uttered.

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