Marie Antoinette

The teenage queen was embraced by France in 1770. Twenty-three years later, she lost her head to the guillotine. (But she never said, “Let them eat cake”)

Marie-Antoinette, her children, and Madame de Tourzel face the mob at the Tuleries on June 20th, 1792. (The Tuileries, 20th June 1792)
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Late September sunlight filters onto the blue velvet furnishings of the jewel-box theater built for Marie Antoinette at Versailles. The painted, original backdrop depicts a rustic farmhouse hearth, and I can just imagine the young queen reveling in her role as a shepherdess while her witty friends and dull husband, French king Louis XVI, applaud politely.

At the time I was there, the theater was closed to most visitors (it is now open to the public from April 1 through October 31), and I wanted to take full advantage of my access. "Go ahead. Have a good, long look," said Christian Baulez, Versailles' chief conservator.

On the way out, Baulez, who has worked at the former royal palace for four decades, locked the gate with a heavy iron key. "From time to time, you have to visit a spot like the theater when there's no one else around to give the place a chance to trigger an emotional reaction," he said. "You're thinking about other things, then all of a sudden, you're totally surprised. It's a state of grace, an aura you sense—even after 40 years here."

The frivolous 14-year-old Austrian princess who came to France to marry the future king, Louis XVI, developed strength and character over the years. (Public Domain)
To escape palace life, Marie Antoinette built a hideaway for herself and her intimate friends that included cottages equipped with couches, stoves, and billiard tables. (Creative Commons)
"The moment when my ills are going to end is not the moment when courage is going to fail me," the former queen (sketched en route to the guillotine) said shortly before her execution. (Public Domain)
Thought of as the power behind the throne, Marie Antoinette prophesied, "They are going to force us to go to Paris, the King and me, preceded by the heads of our bodyguards on pikes." (Public Domain)
The Austrian Empress Maria Theresa gave birth to her fifteenth child, Marie Antoinette, on November 2, 1755. (
After Louis XVI's execution, Marie Antoinette was transferred to the Conciergerie Prison, dubbed "death's antechamber." (Public Domain)
(© Bettmann/CORBIS)
King Louis XVI with Marie and their children (© Bettmann/CORBIS)
Arrest of Marie and Louis XVI at Varennes (© Bettmann/CORBIS)
Marie and children embracing King Louis XVI before his execution
Marie condemned by the Revolutionary Tribunal (© Bettmann/CORBIS)

I did not commune with Marie Antoinette's ghost, as some claim to have done. But I had to admit that there is a poignancy about the playhouse and its fantasy world. Less than a decade after the theater's inauguration in 1780, the curtain would come crashing down on the French monarchy and its Austrian-born queen, who seemed to grow in moral stature as she approached the guillotine.

With the possible exception of the Corsican-born Napoleon, another outsider who overstayed his welcome, no one haunts French history like the Hapsburg princess. The frivolous, high-spirited tomboy who arrived at Versailles at age 14 was quickly embraced by her subjects. Yet by the time of her execution 23 years later, she was reviled.

Thrust into a social and political hurricane, Marie Antoinette, biographer Stefan Zweig wrote in the 1930s, was "perhaps the most signal example in history of the way in which destiny will at times pluck a mediocre human being from obscurity and, with commanding hand, force the man or woman in question to overstep the bounds of mediocrity." Ultimately, even Marie Antoinette herself grasped how suffering gave her fortitude. "Tribulation first makes one realize what one is," the queen wrote in August 1791, soon after the royal family's failed escape attempt from their detention in Paris.

Marie Antoinette's fairy tale turned tragedy has spawned biographies, fictionalizations, operas, plays, ballets and memoirs. Even her hairdresser and her executioner published ghostwritten recollections. And, like the 300 gowns the queen ordered each year, the story is a perfect fit for Hollywood. The 1938 film Marie Antoinette, starring Norma Shearer and Robert Morley, is considered a classic of historical melodrama. Now, Sofia Coppola has directed a new interpretation, with Kirsten Dunst and Jason Schwartzman in the lead roles. Based largely on British biographer Antonia Fraser's 2001 biography, Marie Antoinette: The Journey, the new film, also called Marie Antoinette, was released in the United States last month. "I was struck by the fact that Louis and Marie were teenagers—he was 19 when he was crowned, she was 18—in charge of France at the most vulnerable time in its history," says Coppola. "I didn't set out on a campaign to correct the misperceptions about her; I just wanted to tell the story from her point of view."

Each year millions of visitors flock to Versailles and Fontainebleau, where the queen maintained a second palace, to admire her exuberant tastes in furniture and décor. But it is her furtive love life that arouses the deepest interest—and sympathy. Tarred by pamphleteers for sexual wantonness, she was actually rather prudish, at least according to her brother, Austrian emperor Joseph II. Despite a number of innocent flirtations, she deeply loved—probably with Louis' tacit approval, according to a confidante—only one man: Swedish military attaché Count Axel Fersen.

Although Marie Antoinette initially condescended to her husband, she eventually developed a genuine fondness for him. For his part, Louis was completely devoted to her and never took a mistress, exhibiting a restraint virtually unheard of in an 18th-century French king.

About Richard Covington

Richard Covington is a Paris-based author who covers a wide range of cultural and historical subjects and has contributed to Smithsonian, The New York Times and the International Herald Tribune, among other publications.

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