People do love to simplify things. Complexity is, well… entirely too complex. And so here you have the average American’s concept of the French Revolution: Marie-Antoinette said, “Let them eat cake” when her people were starving, so the people revolted and they chopped off her head, thus doing away with the French Monarchy.
Here’s one of the many problems with that, though. It’s fairly certain that Marie-Antoinette never uttered that famous quote, which has become the epitome of upper class indifference.
According to this article in History.com, that quote, in similar forms, had been rattling around and placed squarely on the shoulders of various female royals for 23 years before Marie-Antoinette had been accused of saying it. In fact, it was a thing three years before she even married into the monarchy.
And according to one biographer, she was actually an intelligent woman who donated to charity and was sensitive to the poor. But will any of us remember her for that? I’m thinking no.
Okay, yes, she overdid it in terms of the lavishness of her lifestyle. But she got married and left home at age 13, and was sheltered from the world and cosseted to an unforgivable degree. Not that that justifies her behavior, but I think it explains it.
She also had the horrible luck of becoming queen at a time when the French economy was in a death spiral. To say that that was 100 percent her fault is a little much. And she came from Austria, which much of that time was France’s enemy. She also had a reputation for promiscuity, which would have been simply winked at if she were a man.
So despite her outrageous behavior at times, I honestly think her head rolled simply because she was one of “them” at a time when the “us-es” had had it up to here, and she was also a powerful, sexually active woman, and to this day that is not acceptable to a lot of people.
When I think of Marie-Antoinette, I try to think of the fact that she adopted 4 very underprivileged children. That’s pretty impressive. And she went to her death with dignity and grace, which couldn’t have been easy while being jeered at by the crowd.
So, the woman was problematic, yes, but also complex. Shades of grey, not black and white. So I say poor Marie, because it must be maddening to be considered the poster child for the French Revolution, and even more maddening to be remembered for having said something stupid that you never said.