Several months ago on a weekend jaunt to one of my favorite cities, Hoboken, I purchased the novel The Hidden Diary of Marie Antoinette from a used book shop on Washington Street. In it, author Carolly Erickson imagines details of Marie’s daily life spanning her engagement to Louis XVI all the way up to her tragic death at the hands of the Paris Commune.
Do I believe in democracy, freedom and republican government? Of course. However, it’s impossible to have studied French history as much as I have and not feel at least some sympathy for the famille Capet that happened to be on the throne during that bloodiest of revolutions. I believe that Marie Antoinette was a mix of many qualities, just like all people. Frivolity, a light heart and ostentation may have characterized her, yes. However, she was also known for her kindness, compassion and respect as well as being a doting a loving mother.
When she arrived in France, she was barely a teenager, stuck in a foreign country. Worse yet, she was unable to produce an heir for many years, which was of course the principal reason she had been married off and sent away. She was the target of malicious gossip from hundreds, if not thousands, of jealous French noblewomen at the Versailles court. Of course, I understand that Antoinette had it pretty darn good, but it makes me sad that so many understand her as a villain that said “Let them eat cake!”, when in reality she campaigned to feed the poverty-stricken.
Common misconceptions about her character aside, I wholely admit that I am absolutely seduced by the utter beauty which surrounds everything “Marie Antoinette.” The France I love the most is one I will never see because it was revolutionary France. (Yes, that’s easy to say in the twenty-first century, far removed as I am from being either a noble woman controlled by arranged marriages or, conversely, the perils of true hand-to-mouth peasant existence.) No, I’m quite content to sit on my modern perch and dream about France’s fabulously beautiful and checkered past. Here are a couple of photos, paintings, and musings that especially evoke France’s soon-to-disappear late XVIII century monarchy for me.