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Crazy for Marie | History today


Marie-Antoinette, by Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun, 1783 © Bridgeman Images.

In August 1855, Queen Victoria was on a state visit to France to visit Versailles accompanied by Napoleon III. Invited. The last stop for visitors was the Queen's Hamlet, a collection of replica rustic buildings that were built in 1783 as a retreat for Marie-Antoinette. Victoria reflected in her diaries on the lingering presence of the dead queen: the trees that surrounded her were "planted by poor Marie-Antoinette herself", and royal society ate in a cottage that "this poor unfortunate queen" was called.

What is Marie-Antoinette about? Almost 230 years after its end on the Place de la Revolution, now Place de la Concorde, in October 1793 the "poor unhappy queen" is still fascinating. Versailles visitors in the 21st century can buy compact mirrors, tote bags and hairbrushes adorned with their image. In October 2019, an exhibition was opened in the Paris Conciergerie, where Marie-Antoinette spent the last weeks of her life and grappled with her image and her powerful afterlife.

In his new biography of the Queen, John Hardman goes beyond Marie-Antoinette's clichés – the giant wigs, their extravagant editions and "Let them eat cake" – to reveal them as political drivers and shakers with real influence, especially during the last months of the French monarchy. This French queen was made in the political and social greenhouse of Versailles. In her first years in France, the young Austrian archduchess was forced to negotiate judicial policy, an unhappy marriage and close control by the aristocracy and her mother. The lack of an heir – the couple's first child – was only born eight years after their marriage – raised eyebrows in court and in public. Hardman agrees with many of the Queen's biographers, suggesting that her initial lust-seeking and early attempts at political interference were a kind of "repression" for a young woman who had not yet determined her role.

The Marie Antoinette that emerges from this book is a woman who, from the exorbitant expenses and hedonism of the early years of her marriage, has become a political force to be reckoned with in the last six years of her life. When the economic and political crisis of the 1780s worsened, Louis XVI suffered A kind of nervous breakdown. Marie-Antoinette stepped into the breach and became a familiar presence in the meetings of the cabinet committees.

Marie-Antoinette planned her family's escape from revolutionary Paris by 1791. Their attempt to escape ended this summer when they were recognized in the city of Varennes and the royal entourage returned to Paris with armed guards. The so-called "flight to Varennes" made a compromise between king and revolution impossible. However, as Hardman shows, June 1791 marked the beginning of a period when Marie-Antoinette "would be more active in government than ever before". Much of this political role was exercised through the Queen's relationship with politician Antoine Barnave. Marie-Antoinette's friendship with Barnave was, as Hardman points out, politically motivated, but there was undoubtedly a mutual attraction between the queen and the revolutionary. Over time, this developed into both an emotional issue and a "form of government by force of arms" in secret correspondence. The letters from Marie Antoinette and Barnave, Hardman said, show the Queen's commitment to make the constitutional monarchy work.

Hardman's emphasis on Marie-Antoinette as a political player, especially in the last two years of her life, shows a queen who was far from the naive head that some contemporary critics thought she was. However, this detailed account of Marie-Antoinette's attempts to influence the course of French history also helps to appreciate the Queen's modern views as unfortunate innocents without a political role. In 1792, when the war between revolutionary France and Austria quickly became a European conflict, Marie-Antoinette – through her lover, the Swedish aristocrat and soldier Axel von Fersen – Louis XVI, reimbursed the costs of the Prussian military. Through the queen's actions, the king effectively "subsidizes" the invasion of his own country. Marie-Antoinette also considered it appropriate to share the French campaign plans with Fersen and Mercy-Argenteau, the former Austrian ambassador.

In this context, Hardman notes that Marie-Antoinette was "clearly guilty" of the second charge that the Revolutionary Court brought against her in her lawsuit "to have informed France's enemies of plans to campaign and attack." Other allegations were intended to detract from the Queen's reputation and moral character, including a suggestion that she had incested her son. As Hardman notes in his entire biography, both Louis XVI. As well as his wife aware of the ever increasing power of public opinion. Marie-Antoinette knew that she was unpopular: she was described as an "Austrian bitch", portrayed as a raging harpy and became the ignorant star of pornographic prints and pamphlets, which she presented as a nymphomaniac conspirator.

Gender and cultural historians have long argued for the importance of this short-lived, bizarre material to understand how Marie-Antoinette was so abused. It is therefore disappointing to see that Hardman dismisses this valuable scholarship as "chic in some academic circles". This can explain why some aspects of Marie Antoinette feel unsatisfactory. Hardman repeatedly shows us a woman obsessed with her public image, but does not question the means by which that image was created and maintained. However, Marie Antoinette makes a valuable contribution to our understanding of the Queen as a political actor. She may have been a lavish queen of fashion, but Hardman's biography reveals another side of Marie-Antoinette: the political actor who paid the ultimate price for her interventions.

Marie-Antoinette: The emergence of a French queen
John Hardman
Yale 376pp £ 20

Laura O'Brien is a lecturer in modern European history at Northumbria University.

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