In high school, I developed a fascination for Marie Antoinnette. It came as the result of writing a term paper, the intrigue of a fashionable and profligate queen who taunted the starving masses of Paris. “Let them eat cake.” The purchase of an exquisite diamond necklace followed, when the monarchy was sorely in debt. Thus toppled the throne of Louis XVI, ended the Old Regime of nobility, and began the infamous French Revolution. The city was engulfed in blood and massacre. She was interrogated by the Jacobins, condemned, and executed via guillotine, stripped of all the luxury and satin and jewels of her glory days. Yet she was still a queen.
History paints a flattering picture indeed. Marie Antoinnette was once Princess Maria Antonia of Austria, fatherless and governed by the iron will of her mother, the formidable Empress Maria Theresa. At the naïve age of fourteen, she was promised to Le Dauphin Louis Auguste, a political alliance that was to begin with a marriage.
France loved and hated her. By all standards, she was a radiant, voluptuous merry creature like a nymph of old. Her eyes were blue and translucent, her hair was strawberry blonde and her bust measured forty-six inches (which ought to please the fellows). She loved dancing, singing, wild entertainments as well as expensive clothes. Little did they know her husband was impotent and neglected her, she suffered from the decorum at court, and was virtually friendless in this alien world.
France was hungry. Their queen was an extravagant woman who delighted in grand parties. L’Autrichienne. All hell broke loose.
Now I walked through the garish salons of Versailles, the Hall of Mirrors, all the gorgeous and excessively adorned rooms of gold carvings and rich tapestries. There was an abundance of velvet, feathers, heavy embroidery and gold everywhere. Yes, it was awe-striking and impressive and even intimidating, which may have been the sole intent of the Sun King Louis XIV. “L’etat, C’est moi.” Yet it was impossible to feel comfort, peace, or a sense of belonging within these gilded walls. Perhaps it was my humble station that was talking, but I couldn’t help wondering if Marie Antoinette felt the same way.
Then a visit to Petit Trianon, Marie Antoinette’s retreat, which was really a long walk away that the majority of tourists did not bother to take. It was not grandiose or garish or even royal. It was a simple cottage with beautiful landscaping and I could see the ancient queen confiding with her cherished companion Yolande de Polignac. This seemed the only place she could escape the fury of France.
People do strange things when they lack love. They play, frolic, amuse themselves in expensive ways, and they buy gleaming inanimate things that appear so dear in the moment. I think of Marie Antoinette’s spending, partying, gambling and our present-day “It” celebrities with the drugs, drinking, and binging. Maybe they are not so different after all.
Miraculously, people do even stranger things when they are in love. At some point Marie Antoinette won Louis’ heart and bore him several healthy children. In the later years of his reign, she proved to be a responsible mother and conscientious queen who actually declined to buy that famed necklace bearing the Hope Diamond, the necklace that she ultimately died for.
And at some remote corner of her tragic history, she was reputed to have made a true friend, a kindred spirit. Count Axel van Fersen of Sweden, who organized her family’s last attempt for freedom, the flight to Varennes, out of love for this flawed and yet utterly lovable woman.
It all goes back to love. And friendship.
Perhaps they are the same.