Marie-Antoinette: The extraordinary imagined power of a woman

We are in 1789 just before the Revolution. The French people have had enough of paying taxes which keep going up to finance wars which they do not approve of. The Queen Marie-Antoinette is the target of violent criticism. She spends without counting the cost, she is suspected of exerting a bad influence on the government.

That is the rational side of the criticism in any case. But the form the hatred is going to take is going to show another aspect of the Revolution. An extract from the pamphlet “Royal Household” gives the tone:

Marie-Antoinette: Do not complain to me Abbott. I had to give you a Bishop’s Palace in order to have my garden watered ten times. Apart from that you have good Abbeys. What does it do to your benefit? Abbott, take your watering can in your hand and water my garden.
Bishop: Your garden is like a sponge, well more than a sponge: because as soon as the sponge is full of water it stops drinking. On the other hand your garden always receives water without ever being able to have sufficient dampness.

It is one of the texts the least fiendish. Participant in orgies, lesbian, lover of incest, the mentions of Marie-Antoinette tell us in fact much more about the psychology of their authors than of the life of Versailles. And they are the subject of “The Wicked Queen”, a fascinating book by the historian Chantal Thomas.

Other women before who were too visible, had aroused this type of thing, I am thinking of some favourites, for example, Madame Dubarry, but she, as she was not really the wife of the king, she really did all that. But the topics which keep coming back about her, the attacks for example that she was a foreigner, that, that makes it part of the timeless pattern of the scapegoat, because for example, all the queens were foreigners. There had never been queens other than foreign queens, and she, she was less foreign than some, because her father was the Duke of Lorraine. So what is interesting about her is that a set-up was put in place of a scapegoat played by a woman who is assumed to have power.

In her detailed and very persuasive analysis, Chantal Thomas explains how the stereotypes of the female monster were foisted onto the Queen. For this director of research at CNRS, these texts reveal the nature of the Revolution which despite its claims of universal values remained very masculine in its acts.

That tells something and then there was some work also in the USA, very important specially that by Lynn Hunt in particular on the feminine component during the Revolution how at the bottom it liberated, that’s obvious, it also put in place a sort of ideal revolutionary of the revolutionary hero who is profoundly male. And the republic had a male ideal and the female citizen is that one who is going to – in the first place discovers liberty that’s sure, but she is also that one who has no political impact. All the women guillotined, we have said it before, but it is important to say it again, had no reason to be guillotined because they had not political weight; they had no real participation in political life. And the female citizen is the one who give citizens to the state. It is the body of the mother; it is the mother who is honoured.

Marie-Antoinette is also the subject of “Farewell, my Queen”, the first novel of Chantal Thomas. It is a fictitious account of the last days of the monarchy seen by a person who really existed: Agathe-Sidonie Laborde, a former reader of the Queen.

It is a book which is really made from weaving the memoirs of the time, in particular Alexandre du Tilly, the memoirs of Alexandre du Tilly, the memoirs of Madame Campau, the memoirs of the Prince of Ligne, the memoirs of Jacob Nicolas Moreau, the historian. I read all that was possible as memoirs you see and often, it… what I kept was a little bit, a little bit, a gesture. For example, Marie-Antoinette had two gaits, one official, one private, here you are and the game rules which I gave myself were to keep a maximum of true things and then this weaving this meeting between authentic memoirs and imaginative projection makes for a continuous fabric. And what took a lot of time to tell you the truth, that, you see, there may have been this break between what I was obliged to invent, for example, the tête-à-tête between the Queen and Madame de Polignac and on the other hand what I had read… and even there are, there are some things which are literal transcriptions, the way in which the king and his brothers go to the tennis game, I took that from the French Gazette I believe. So there is real work with the materials of the time.

“Alone, the King went ahead. The Count of Provence and the Count of Artois were more reticent. The King, big, weighty, walked heavily with his unsightly waddle and his appearance that he always had that everything he was doing was against his will. For the Count of Provence this was not a chore, but a torture: the gentleman was dragging himself along. Little, obese, suffering from anchylosis[1] of the lower limbs, he had difficulty just moving. The malicious called the Count of Provence “Fat Lord” and it has to be admitted, while being malicious, that the nickname suited him well, as that of “Fat Lady” suited his sister Clotilde, married in Italy. They were putting on the cobble stones, straw and dung to prevent the horses from slipping. His Lordship, whose shoes glistened with buckles and precious stones, was considering the matter with disgust.”

There are some scenes which I wrote without knowledge and afterwards I put some knowledge back in. For example, what was fundamental, it is the first scene of the reading between the Queen and Marie-Antoinette. That one, I wrote it like that and then I went to Trianson in order not to be, if you like, in order not to be blocked in by what might be there and that I would not be able to remove later.

"A chamber lady held out a cup of tea to me. In my emotion, I swallowed it too hot. The table was ready and the stool on which, when she gave me the sign, I sat. My throat was burning. I started badly in a voice which seemed to me without doubt hoarser than it really was and which did not put me at ease. I had thought of reading straight away with a frivolous reading the Life of Marianne because the Queen liked Marivaux, then to continue on a tale of a journey, finally to finish with some pages of pious reading (some extracts from the sermons by Boussuet or some funeral addresses by Fléchier) which from her arrival in Versailles had in accordance with the recommendation of her mother, the Emperatrice Marie-Thérèse, the Queen ought to hear every day. The Emperatrice had died nine years before but I observed that with the years, her orders, far from loosing their force had only gained force, so even if she was permitting them in spite of herself, the Queen was no longer searching to take anything away from them."

Marie-Antoinette was guillotined in 1793. The revolutionary judiciary, believing its own propaganda even started a trial on a charge of incest before finding in its examination of the evidence fended off by a dignified queen firm in her denials, that there was not the least reason to support the fantasies of the pamphleteers. It is then for treason that Marie-Antoinette was finally condemned paying with her life.

But despite all the time which Chantal Thomas has spent in the company of the Queen, Chantal Thomas has never fallen completely in love with her subject.

No, it is strange, isn’t it. Look, in “The Wicked Queen” she is a figure who interests me as a sort of model of where loathing can go and the focus on the imagined power of a woman, in “Farewell my Queen”, she is at the heart of a world which is collapsing. What I like about her is her…, the way in which she did not move, underlying her convictions, even if they are not at all mine, and then a sort of self assurance and of her role which has come to her with bad luck. Bad luck, far from knocking her down, has shown her as she really is, and that is something which I admire, but I cannot… You see as she did not leave any memoirs, there weren’t even many letters, it is difficult to get close to the inner being of someone so it is more a personality seen from the outside for “the Wicked Queen” or else a silhouette like that, very beautiful, but…

Chantal Thomas won the Femina Prize [2] for “Farewell, my Queen” in 2002 and has now started on other projects.

Well, I am going a theatre play with Alfredo Arias, the Argentinean director but who has been living in France for a long time and which has nothing to do with this, and the other project is, it is around the idea of a training novel, and what exactly we are made of, how time passes. It is a sort of search for lost time to be kept as it is. It is an eulogy to A la recherche du temps perdu [3].

Her works are available in translation but you must not be lazy! Dare, then, read the original versions.

[1] Anchylosis – a condition which causes bones to join and joints to seize.

[2] Prix Femina – Prestigious prize awarded annually by the magazine Femina for feminine literature.

[3] A la recherche du temps perdu – A monumental work of twentieth-century fiction published in seven parts from 1913 to 1927 by Marcel Proust.

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