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“Confessions Of Marie Antoinette”, Cake Not Included

On Thursday night, The Guy I Am Currently Dating sent me a gift on my Kindle: the third book in Juliet Grey’s Marie Antoinette trilogy. By 5:30 AM on Saturday, I’d finished the 400 page book and was lying in bed pondering the French Revolution. *laughs*

I’m not a history buff, by any means, but I love historical fiction. Particularly, there are a few personalities and time periods that intrigue me, and the life of Marie Antoinette is one of them. I own most of the major biographies and works of historical fiction that have been published about her, as well as the court of Louis XVI. I suppose there is just something about her with which I find it easy to identify, something other than her alleged love of fine clothes, parties, and throwing masquerades and putting on plays.

It took me a while to figure out what it was, because the outlandish persona of Marie Antoinette does not much resemble the real person. In reality, she was a petite strawberry blonde who felt self-conscious about not being a natural beauty, not a vain and flamboyant libertine with tall white hair, seeking to always be the centre of attention. She was not very well-read, not academically inclined, and her heart often kept her from following her intuition. She did not drink, did not smoke, ate little, had one long-term love affair outside of her marriage, looked down on mistresses and courtesans, and was actually quite prudish and conservative in her societal views. She loved family life, flowers, and convinced the women of an outlandish French court to walk around in what we call “peasant dresses” because she quickly tired of corsets, stays, petticoats, and the overly adorned way in which both men and women dressed at the time. In short, Marie Antoinette would have had a happier life as a French housewife than as an Austrian queen. Her husband, Louis XVI, was a natural introvert with a terror of crowds of people, a disinterest in sex, drinking, and staying up past 10 PM, an utter dislike of war or violence, and an honest desire to live a quiet life and see everyone happy. It is almost tragic that two people who were so despised that they were used as scapegoats for one of the most senselessly violent times in history were, by nature, ill-suited to everything they were meant to represent.

I think what fascinates me about Marie Antoinette and her life, and what makes it easy for me to identify with her, is this: When it comes to reputation, it doesn’t matter who you are. It is who people think you to be that becomes relevant.

This is something I’ve never really been able to understand, but a way of thinking that has hurt me a great deal in life. I’ve been judged tremendously and lost a great deal in my life simply because of how others perceived me, or what was heard of me “by reputation”. It is easy to say, “Let people talk; what others think of you is not important”. Yet, the story of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI is one of people who were turned into sacrificial lambs on reputation alone. The story of the French Revolution, in its entirety, is that no one person is of more value, respect, or esteem than another—and taking that view to the extreme created conditions where the greatest illustration of equality was that anyone could be killed, on any given day, and no human life meant more than another. In fact, if Juliet Grey’s portrayal is accurate, human life grew to mean nothing at all. The French Revolution began as an “us vs. them” complaint, and turned into a world of mob rule where there were eventually no more sides, no more ideals to fight for, no more plans for a better future, just a daily fight for survival.

It is interesting to note that while Marie Antoinette, Louis XVI, and most of their family, friends, and supporters were executed during the French Revolution, less than a year later, the group of military men and governing officials clamoring for their heads were similarly guillotined. Although the revolution was begun as a statement against the idea of aristocracy and monarchy, and that one class of people should live well while others starved, the death toll amongst all classes of people turned out to be roughly equal. It was death and an utter lack of humanity—to the point where people stopped fearing for their lives as much as they stopped valuing the lives of others— and not politics, that became the great equalizing force.

It is absolutely true that Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI had no idea regarding the proper management of money, or how to avoid war or put an end to a revolution, but they were a pair of teenagers who ascended the throne and didn’t make it to see 40. Juliet Grey describes the various buildings in which the royal family was imprisoned, and even those being full of relics that, if sold, could feed a small town for a year. It is absolutely true that the aristocracy did not consider liquidating a portion of their assets to keep the country from going into debt. However, when Paris and Versailles were under siege, the equivalent of billions of dollars worth of both precious heirlooms and current-day valuables were simply torn apart, smashed, and burned. The idea of holding someone, or a group of people, accountable for unpleasant living conditions was more important that sensibly working together to save the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.

It is an interesting study in how the ideals of compromise and working for the greater good are not the default tendency of society. Society, when acting on base instinct, is self-protective, irrational, and vengeful.

It is also interesting to make comparisons between the world in which we live today, where an “us vs. them” mentality is created at every possible turn and the people suffer more for that divisive mentality, and the economic instability that turned into the French Revolution.

Marie Antoinette, when informed by an angry mob that the peasants were starving, never said “Let them eat cake”. (the offending statement has been attributed to more than one princess, all of whom lived centuries before Marie Antoinette was born.) In fact, she led the royal family to face a mob that stood in front of the palace with every manner of weapons, and threw her own expensive garments into the crowd. Louis XVI ordered that all the stores of bread in France be freely distributed and casks of wine set up in the streets. It would have happened, had a group of revolutionaries not attacked the palace and tried to kill the family, anyway.

Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were degraded in the worst of ways (the charges against her included incest with her own son, who was half-starved and beaten into signing an affadavit that he was molested by both his mother, and the King’s spinster sister Elisabeth. Elisabeth was only 30 when she was executed.), and their “trials” were shams that only prolonged their suffering. There was no doubt that no member of the royal family with any power or connections would be allowed to live. However, since the new regime removed both class and religion from the equation, it paraded around the idea that the law itself was supreme.

This, of course, was an exercise in hypocrisy. Marie Antoinette’s lawyer refuted every charge against her, proved most of the 141 witnesses against her provided false testimony, and did not find a shred of incriminating evidence. It didn’t matter, as jurors feared to not find her guilty or vote for her execution. Shortly after her death warrant was issued, her lawyer was arrested. In the trial of Louis XVI, the jury struggled with the issue of whether or not to execute or exile the former King. In the end, the vote that led to execution was the king’s own brother-in-law, a fellow aristocrat who lived a live of decadence on par with that of Marie Antoinette.

The irony is that both Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were guilty of their crimes. They were both charged with treason, and conspiring with foreign enemies against the state. They did, and often. Every plot devised failed, typically because conspiracies involve trusting numerous people, and many people either turned on the royal couple or abandoned them in time of need. Both the royal families of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette provided little or no assistance to the family in the midst of the revolution, fearing for their own safety. It was Marie Antoinette’s lover, a highly decorated Swedish officer, who accomplished the most in trying to save them.

If the law were really supreme during the Revolution, the royal couple should have been executed, as they were indeed guilty. Marie Antoinette, in particular, clung to the idea that royal blood meant something and her aristocratic birth was one thing that could not be taken from her, even as she was paraded to the guillotine in rags, resembling an 80-year-old woman. The problem is that the couple, often taken for being frivolous and dim-witted, were actually quite clever and not a shred of evidence was discovered to prove a guilty verdict.

It is difficult, when reading the biographies of those who lived during the time of the French Revolution, not to feel an intense sense of empathy. People subjected one another, rich and poor alike, to terrors and indignities unimaginable today. Perhaps only the accounts of the Holocaust reflect a time that is as dehumanizing and full of pointless death and suffering. For those like me, who have cried through the musical Les Miserables 30 times and found A Tale Of Two Cities utterly tragic, it’s important to remember that such stories are fictional—but the tip of the iceberg in reflecting the reality of the Reign Of Terror and French Revolution.

For those interested in the time period, Juliet Grey’s Marie Antoinette trilogy is one of the best reads around. Each book is close to 500 pages, but beyond addictive.

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