Marie Antoinette is a fascinating historical figure of the late eighteenth century. Born as Maria Antonia, the youngest child of the of the Holy Roman Emperor, Marie Antoinette was married to the Dauphin of France, Louis-Auguste—who became Louis XVI of France—at the age of fifteen, and presided with him as the last King and Queen of France before the French Revolution. Though she is not a figure of the time of the Regency, her life, her actions leading up to the French Revolution and subsequent Napoleonic dominance exerted great influence over Europe and setting of Pride and Prejudice.
Of her early life as Queen of France, I do not want to spend a lot of time. She was initially popular when she arrived from Austria, but as the problems in the French empire grew, her popularity declined, pushed downward by her own behavior and actions. She was seen as profligate and promiscuous, her actions contributing to the downfall of the economy and the troubles of the people of France. The famous line attributed to her “Let them eat cake” was first written in 1767, three years before she arrived in France, and was almost certainly an invention of the writer, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Regardless, she had given enough reason for the commoners to hate her, and by the time revolution had broken out, she was widely despised.
On July 14, 1789, the Bastille was stormed, marking the beginning of the French Revolution and the beginning of the end of the French monarchy. Through the ensuing months and years, the situation continued to deteriorate, with many of the nobility going into exile, ordered to leave by the king himself. While Marie Antoinette herself was in much danger, to her credit she refused to leave Paris, choosing instead to stay with her husband and support him. As the months passed, the king’s powers were slowly stripped away, leaving the king and queen largely at the mercy of the revolutionaries and under house arrest at the Tuileries Palace in Paris.
As the situation deteriorated, the royal family began to take some thought of escaping from Paris, joining loyalist forces which would protect them and allow them to begin a counter-insurgency. Many of these plans were rejected, or opportunities were lost due to the king’s indecision. Their eventual escape plan was also delayed several times, allowing for additional problems to creep in, increasing the chances of discovery.
When they finally did commit to a course of action, it could be argued that it was already too late. The plan called for the royal family to flee to the northeast toward Montmédy, where a concentration of 10,000 regulars of the French army were waiting. The plan called for the family to travel in two light carriages, which would allow them to move swiftly and in secret. This plan would have necessitated the splitting of the family in two carriages, however, which neither the queen nor the king could countenance. As a result, they traveled in a more conspicuous and slower heavy coach, drawn by six horses.
Disaster struck when they were recognized in Châlons and arrested in Varennes, only fifty kilometers from their ultimate destination. They were quickly returned to the palace in Paris, their confinement now official.
The aftermath of the attempted escape led to the final destruction of the royal family’s popularity. Marie Antoinette was finally executed in 1793 by use of the guillotine. The only survivor of the royal family remaining in Paris was Marie Thérèse, her eldest daughter, who would not be liberated until 1795.
I will not attempt to determine the full guilt or innocence of Marie Antoinette. Did she do anything which would, in a civilized society, lead to a sentence of death? Certainly not. But in the heightened state of the French Empire at the time, there is little doubt her actions contributed to her ultimate fate. And remember what I said about this month’s post in my last—while such a historical character as Marie Antoinette is unlikely to make an appearance in a Pride and Prejudice adaptation, a slight change in her actions may very well have some effect on a future story!
I hope you enjoyed our little historical trip!
P.S. Remember Whispers of the Heart is scheduled for release on September 18!
EDIT: Do not listen to that silly fellow up there—the release date is actually October 18!