So a few weeks ago, during the Democratic National Convention (which I didn’t watch because I was being a good little author and working on one of my novels –I’m not telling much, only it’s a Victorian historical thriller that takes place in London), I ran across this little gem of a picture.
Which was taken from this birthday card.
Which wasâ€“in my opinionâ€“inspired by this painting.
While Mittens looks great in a powdered wig and eighteenth century makeup – particularly the circles of blush that were so popular at the French court during Marie Antoinette’s first years as queen – there’s something seriously wrong with this. â€œWhat?â€ the uninformed viewer might ask. â€œWhat’s so wrong with it?â€
I’ll tell you what’s wrong with it: Marie Antoinette never said, â€œLet them eat cake.â€
The phrase has been mistakenly attributed to Marie Antoinette, but the story behind it shows up in one of Rousseau’s writings published when Marie Antoinette was still a child in Austria. As Dame Antonia Fraser describes: â€œThis was the tender-hearted Marie Antoinette who, alone among the French royal family, refused to ruin the peasants’ cornfields by riding over them, because she was well aware of the minutiae of the lives of the poor.â€ How would this Queen, then, so easily dismiss the poor when they were starving?
The story has been credited to many women. Marie ThÃ©rÃ¨se, the wife of Louis XIV, supposedly said â€œif there was no bread, let the people eat the crust of the pÃ¢tÃ©.â€ It was also credited to either one Louis XVI’s royal aunts, Madame Sophie or Madame Victoire, â€œwhen reacting to the news that her brother the Dauphin Louis Ferdinand had been pestered with cries of, â€˜Bread, bread,’* on a visit to Paris. But Fraser concludes that the best person to have discredited the story is the Comte de Provence, who wrote about this in his memoirs. He wasn’t a Marie Antoinette fan, but â€˜he remarked that eating pÃ¢tÃ© du croÃ»te always reminded him of the saying of his own ancestress, Queen Marie ThÃ©rÃ¨se.â€
While we can acquit Marie Antoinette herself of this, the common myth of her indifference to the poor people of France must also be debunked as well. We often see her portrayed in pop culture as a frivolous, thoughtless young woman who drinks too much champagne, gambles and dances until dawn, and spends money as though she grew it in the Orangerie at Versailles. Of course, while many recent movies, books, and documentaries try to change our misconceptions and paint the doomed French queen in a different light, the myth still remains engrained in our minds. In a letter to her mother, â€œa piece of reflection on the duties of royalty,â€ young Marie Antoinette writes:
It is quite certain that seeing the people who treat us so well despite their own misfortune, we are more obliged than ever to work hard for their happiness. The King seems to understand this; as for myself, I know that my whole life (even if I live for a hundred years) I shall never forget the day of coronation.
Of course we’ll never hear words like that from Mitt Romney, nor do we even see any consideration for the plight of the poor from him or even the Republican party while he is campaigning to be elected as president. He’s a man who perhaps can’t understand or even feel compassionate for the less fortunate around him, despite all of his glib jokes and pretty speeches. And yet strangely enough, he’s being compared to a queen who was merely the victim of history as it progressed and of those who wanted someone to blame for the effects of two hundred years of problematic rule. But unlike Mr. Romney, who has proven to care nothing for the poor and suffering in the United States, at least Marie Antoinette is proven to understand and feel compassion for the poor and suffering in France, and to do what she could as queen to alleviate their plight, though things were too far gone at that point.
So while we shouldn’t put Marie Antoinette on a pedestal, for she was as human and flawed as the rest of us, let’s not compare her to Mittens, because in my mind, there is no comparison at all.
Fraser, Antonia. Marie Antoinette: The Journey.
*Author’s Note: According to Fraser, â€œthe staple food of the French peasantry and the working class was bread, absorbing 50 percent of their income, as opposed to 5 percent spent on fuel; the whole topic of bread was therefore the result of obsessional national interest.â€