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Marie Antoinette, born Archduchess Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna von Habsburg-Lothringen, is known as the queen who led a tragic yet romantic life, who spent more time on her own pleasures than being a responsible royal, and the poster girl for the Ermine Cape Effect.
Her childhood in the Habsburg (Austrian) empire was relatively free compared to her eventual life in Versailles; as the fifteenth of sixteen children she was certainly not brought up as might befit a future occupant of the greatest European throne of its time, as regards either education or life experience. In fact, she was sent to France only after a series of misfortunes took her older sisters out of the running.
In the interim, many Austrian court customs had been discarded as too stuffy by her mother, the Empress Maria Theresa. Antoinette (as she was known) tried to impose this same openness on Versailles, and brought with her an overall distrust of the intensely rigid formal etiquette which characterised the French court.
Unfortunately, although to modern eyes this makes her sympathetic, at the time she was seen as a legitimate threat to the prestige of many powerful courtiers, many of whom were already uneasy about this representative of France's ancient enemy. France's governmental system may have glittered outwardly, but its rapidly decaying core of greed and self-interest made for a complex maze that even the most astute princess might have had trouble negotiating.
And astute Antoinette was not. It didn't help at all that she was stuck with a heavy, lumpish husband who openly preferred the company of the palace workmen over hers (told that he shouldn't eat so much at his wedding night banquet, the future Louis XVI responded, "Oh, I always sleep better after a good supper."). Lonely and neglected, trying to shut out the mockery over her nonexistent sex life, the teenage princess embarked on the whirl of gaiety that became her legend.
Partying till all hours, gambling, private theatricals, wildly extravagant jewels and clothes, ludicrous hairstyles... basically, whatever new fad came down the pike, Antoinette was up for it. Including, most unfortunately, the one for simplicity and rusticism. Again, it sounds great now -- and in fact, was no more then than an expression of a newly emerging general trend -- but in the moment, an ostentatiously realistic model of a peasant village (minus the starving, over-taxed peasantry), where the Queen and select noble friends could kick back and dress down every now and then, was just asking for trouble.
The pamphleteers (tabloids of their day, only with even lower ethical standards) pilloried her for all of it -- and a lot more they outright made up. If she organised an innocent ride into the country to watch the sunrise, it was construed as an orgy. If she indulged in close female friendships, they were naturally lesbian; if she showed favour to certain male courtiers, they were naturally her lovers. All France "knew" of the insane amounts she spent on frivolities; but when she appeared in a formal portrait wearing a simple peasant blouse, she was of course trying to ruin the silk trade ― etc. etc.
Meanwhile, back in reality, she was really no more extravagant than other members of the family, and although her marriage situation did improve -- she eventually gave the nation two heirs -- her political influence was actually close to nil, just because her husband's ministers distrusted her so much. Throughout her reign her mother criticized her for not representing the Empire well enough, while any attempts she did make ensured further scorn from the French, who soon dubbed her L'Autrichienne -- a word which in French means "The Austrian" but also carries the rather unfortunate double meaning of 'The Ostrich Bitch'. The nobility that might have been her natural allies were more than happy to use her as a figurehead to distract from their own follies.
This is not to say she was a misunderstood saint. Marie Antoinette lived in a time in which France was nearing bankruptcy owing in large measure to centuries of an uber-extravagant nobility propping itself up on the taxes of the peasantry. Even the more well-off Frenchman was struggling to feed himself and his family. Riots over skyrocketing bread prices were only the first symptoms of a wider discontent that no-one in power at the time fully understood, based as it was around the then-revolutionary notions of liberty and equality for all men. In short, having been so thoroughly disappointed for so long, the French were starting to ask themselves if they even needed a King, let alone his useless courtiers.
Although the Queen didn't actually dismiss the concerns of her suffering subjects with the line "let them eat cake", against this backdrop of misery she did lead an unnecessarily frivolous life, and very visibly so. Although kindhearted and generous on a personal level, she lacked the broader vision to be anything other than a fairytale princess at a time when history was spectacularly unforgiving of such. "The Diamond Necklace Affair," in which a prominent courtier was tricked by a conman into buying the priceless trinket under the impression he was doing the Queen a discreet favour, finally did in her waning public popularity. Even though there was no proof of her involvement, her reputation was so bad that nobody doubted it.
After the revolution, she and Louis were executed during the Terror, and their second son died in prison (their oldest daughter lived, given that she couldn't legally inherit the throne or pass it on). This would have ended the French monarchy, but Louis's brothers escaped and were actually put back on the throne after Napoleon was defeated (twice, the first brother the first time Napoleon was defeated, and the second brother the second time).
Tropes associated with her and the films:
- Anachronism Stew: The 2006 film, which used sneakers and modern music to get the frivolity across to modern audiences.
- The hidden Chuck Taylor Converse shoes were atually used as a message that Marie Antoinette was only a teenager by the time she married Louis XVI and became Queen of France, implying that this was the reason why she appeared so inept to the French masses.
- Beam Me Up, Scotty: "Let them eat cake" was actually said 100 years earlier by Maria Theresa (not Marie's mother, but a distant cousin of the same name), and was made famous by Jean-Jacques Rousseau 22 years before Antoinette was even born.
- Break the Haughty: Though it's debatable if she really was that haughty.
- Broken Bird: A popular portrayal of her by the end of her life.
- Costume Porn
- Courtly Love: With Swedish military officer Count Axel von Fersen, a member of her intimate circle - there is very little doubt that she was the love of his life, and she likely returned his feelings, but no evidence that this affaire de coeur was ever consummated; the likelihood is slim because she could rarely, if ever, be away from the prying eyes of the court.
- Dances and Balls
- Did Not Do the Research: Some film versions of her story (I'm looking at you, Sofia Coppola) have her surrounded with cake. The famous line, according to some historians, was actually referring not to cake, as in the dessert, but rather "cake" as in the caked-in remains when bread is baked in the tray. Which while still somewhat unsympathetic, is not nearly as clueless as typically she is made out to be. Not to mention the above note (Beam Me Up, Scotty), that she did not even say it.
- Did They Or Didn’t They?: It's unclear if any of her rumored affairs actually happened.
- Though given her pious Habsburg Mother, the latter is more likely.
- It's unlikely that even her worst detractors of the time really believed she did it. As one of them said, the best way to topple the King is to paint the Queen as a whore; even those dedicated to the hereditary principle will abandon it if the Queen's children aren't the King's.
- Dramatic Irony: The 1938 film, at least.
- Ermine Cape Effect
- Everything's Sparkly with Jewelry: Her love for diamonds.
- Face Death with Dignity: See Famous Last Words below.
- Famous Last Words: After stepping on the executioner's foot as she ascended to the guillotine: "I apologize, monsieur. I did not do it on purpose".
- Fluffy Fashion Feathers
- The French Revolution
- God Save Us From the Queen: Not as a ruling queen, but still otherwise applies.
- Gorgeous Period Dress
- Hair Decorations: The extremely fancy wigs the women at the French court wore.
- Hot Consort: Well, sort of. By the standards of the day she undoubtedly was a pretty and graceful woman, but it's hard to sort the actual details of her appearance from the fawning tributes of courtiers.
- Off With Her Head: Endured the regular execution method that many French nobles and many victims of Law of Suspects knew back then : guillotine.
- One Steve Limit: Averted, she had ten sisters and they were all called Maria due to Hapsburg naming conventions. Hence why she is always referred to by both her first and middle name.
- Overly Long Name: She was baptised "Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna."
- Parental Incest -- At her trial during the height of the Terror, she was accused by Hébert of personally teaching the Dauphin to masturbate, in order to weaken his character and control him. She refused at first to answer to the charge (saying that nature itself made such a charge too revolting to dignify with an answer), but when one of the jurymen insisted, she turned to the women in the court, appealing to them as mothers. This nearly secured her acquittal, much to the fury of Robespierre.
- Pimped-Out Dress: Was actually required to wear the most grand, and scandalized many for wearing an extremely simple dress in one portrait.
- Pretty in Mink: In addition to an ermine cape or two, she wore a few dresses trimmed with fur
- The 1938 film had quite a few outfits with fur, and even the 2006 film had her wearing a jacket trimmed with ermine.
- Princesses Prefer Pink: One of the dresses she wore in the 2006 film, when she was still the crown princess, was a pink feather-trimmed dress, with a matching hat and muff.
- Replacement Goldfish: An older sister was to have been the one to marry Louis, but died of smallpox, bumping Marie up to the plate.
- Rescued From the Scrappy Heap: At the beginning of the Revolution, a mob gathered outside of Versailles. They called for the Queen, by then a national hate figure, to appear on the balcony above them. She did, taking her little ones with her in an effort to gain sympathy, only to have the mob scream "No children!" Convinced by this that she was about to be assassinated, she sent the children inside and remained, head high, facing the crowd. The mob was so impressed by her courage that some began to cry out, "God save the Queen!" It was the first time in a long time that she had been seen in a positive light by her subjects, and it would unfortunately be the last.
- And of course there's her modern-day vindication, now that it's known in hindsight that she wasn't such a bitch after all and that The French Revolution was far from a heroic endeavor.
- Requisite Royal Regalia
- Star-Crossed Lovers: Marie and Fersen in the 1938 film and Rose of Versailles.
- Ugly Guy, Hot Wife: Save for the 2006 film and Rose of Versailles.
- Upperclass Twit: A trait exaggerated by her enemies.
Other Works Featuring Her:
- The French Revolution, where she is played by Jane Seymour. The film was produced in 1989 for the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution.
- Rose of Versailles, and its spoof Rose of Versailles Abridged.
- The comedy Start the Revolution Without Me, where she is portrayed as a lustful schemer, but it's Played for Laughs.
- She is the star of one of the Royal Diaries books.
- In the Disney channel original movie H-E-Double Hockey Sticks, her head works as a secretary in hell.… Nice.
- A sketch from Histeria! revolved around the overthrowing and execution of Marie and Louis XIV.
- Juliet Grey's historical fiction trilogy, heavily researched and covering her from age ten until her death:
- Becoming Marie Antoinette
- Days of Splendor, Days of Sorrow
- The Last October Sky (forthcoming)