Marie Antoinette: The French Revolution’s Anti-Hero

Maquart Fidel Dominikus Wocher, Harpie Monstre Amphibie Vivant, 1784, courtesy of Images of the French Revolution from Stanford Libraries.

Author: Greta Kantor

Sub-editor: Avalon Welch

CW: Sexual assault

Marie-Antoinette entered France in 1770 as the young Dauphine and was executed in 1793 as a common Austrian whore. The Revolution found its anti-hero in the foreign Queen: she served as a symbol of Austrian conspiracy, the Old Regime and the malign woman. Marie-Antoinette’s subversive identity made her the target of heated, and mostly misogynistic, vitriol. The Revolution’s hostility towards foreign and domestic monarchical powers found its ideal target in Marie-Antoinette and popular depictions of the Queen branded her the ultimate subversion of the good woman. Ultimately, gendered and Austrophobic rhetoric further served to scape-goat the Queen as the orchestrator of a counter-revolution, purging the Republic of its greatest (notional) opponent. Marie-Antoinette’s harmful ‘political choices’ were part of this scapegoating project, particularly in the context of incredible hostility towards, and limitation of, ‘women in power’. 

Austrophobia, conspiracy and the Old Regime 

Marie-Antoinette’s reception in France was hostile from the outset; her Austrian heritage did not bode well with the longstanding Austrophobia of the French people. Austria was considered dangerously imperial, fraudulent and cruel. Fears that Austria sought to expand their empire over Europe were heightened by a series of unpopular treaties, including the 1748 Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle and the 1756 Franco-Austrian Alliance, which disproportionately benefited Austrian interests to the detriment of France. According to a French official, Austrian courts were riddled by a ‘bad faith as dishonourable as it is crudely disguised’. It was believed that this  chicanery had infiltrated France via the proxy of Louis XV’s mistress, Madame de Pompadour, whose corrupt manipulations of the King were targeted by the court dévots as the cause of the problems of the 1756 Alliance. Marie-Antoinette’s arrival into the court-scene inherited the same suspicions as those directed towards Pompadour: she was a woman with power over the future King and, even more dangerously, she was Austrian. 

The threat of Marie-Antoinette summited in the conspiracy of the Austrian Committee. In 1790, it was believed that the Queen and a conclave of internal counter-revolutionaries congregated at the ‘dead of night’ to plot against the Revolution. Marie-Antoinette, satirically named ‘Madame Veto’, was blamed for Louis XVI’s refusals of the new constitution’s laws against emigrants and non-oath-taking clergy. The Queen’s attempts to ‘destroy [the constitution’s] energy’ were not only perceived as an attack on the Revolution and an attempt to reinstall the Old Regime, but were also bound up in suspicions of Austrian imperial interests. In fact, her alleged cabal was used by the Brissotins in 1792 to justify a ‘defensive’ war against Austria. The atrocities of this war reinvigorated austrophobic tensions; Austrian armies were considered barbaric and tyrannical. When bombarding Lille, they reportedly targeted the poorest neighbourhoods but spared the aristocracy, a prejudice which evidenced invasive royalist interests. Although Marie-Antoinette claimed in her trial that relations between her and Leopold II were only ‘those of consanguinity’ and ‘not of a political nature’, it seems that in the context of bloody Revolution, family and politics were not mutually exclusive. The Prussian army’s Brunswick Manifesto, which threatened ‘ever-memorable vengeance’ should the royal family be harmed by insurrectionary rebels, reified suspicions of Marie-Antoinette’s allegiance.

Hostility towards the Queen was also derived from her identity as a symbol of Old Regime power, privilege, and indulgence that the Revolution firmly opposed. To Evelyne Lever, this tension was ‘irreconcilable’: as long as the Queen lived, the threat of an Old Regime revival remained potent. Popular suspicion that Marie-Antoinette sought to reinstall the monarchy is expressed in her execution ballad:

‘J’avais grande espérance
Que les rois, mes parents,
Rétabliraient en france
La puissance des grands…’

According to this verse, the Queen not only wished to resurrect the Old Regime aristocracy, but she wanted her Austrian family to rule this reactionary France. Marie-Antoinette’s devotion to a life of pleasure and indulgence was targeted by revolutionaries as evidence of her corruption. One overt symbol of this extravagancy was her clothing: she had ‘12 full dresses’ and ‘12 fancy dresses’ all of which were ‘discarded at the end of each season’. In a nation struggling with abject poverty and famine, the Queen’s frivolities were the focus of intense criticism. She allegedly ‘squandered the finances of France (the fruit of the sweat of the people) in a dreadful manner to satisfy inordinate pleasures’ and siphoned money to Austria. The Queen was considered an ignorant, unfeeling aristocrat who playfully stole money from the French people to pursue her own extravagant lifestyle. Consequently, as Pierre Etienne Goupil wrote in 1794, Marie Antoinette’s ‘unrighteous hand’ was responsible for all ‘calamites past, present and to come’ in France: as an Austrian and Old Regime defender, she conspired against the revolutionary constitution, caused French defeats in the war and squandered the money of the masses for her own ends.  

Marie-Antoinette as malign woman

The gendered characteristics of hostility towards Marie-Antoinette and her transformation into the Republic’s anti-woman merits further discussion. Marie-Antoinette subverted the ‘good woman’ as a public political figure, sexual seductress and malign mother.  

Hostility towards Marie-Antoinette was partly derived from her title as queen. Occupying a position of power defied the social expectation of woman’s exclusion from public life; the good woman participated in the private realm. As an intruder into the public sphere, a queen is a masculinised woman. According to Louise de Keralio, ‘a woman who becomes queen changes sex.’ This blurring of gender boundaries was threatening to a patriarchal society, particularly given the revolutionary context of a re-valorisation of gender roles. As Robert Darnton asserts, the moralisation project of the Republic, strongly influenced by Rousseau’s ideals of family life, was quasi-puritanical. It sought to completely reassert the public-private divide and equated virtue with the performance of gender roles. However, despite her public title, the Queen in effect had limited political power; she had no practical authority in state affairs and could not inherit the French throne. Rather, the Queen was the wife of the King and symbolic mother of the people. Therefore, I would argue that Marie-Antoinette’s aforementioned cabals, manipulation of Louis, and fraternisation with the Austrian enemy were not her own ‘political choices’, but conjectural accusations that sought to scape-goat the Queen for the failures of men in power. 

Perhaps fear towards the Queen did not lie in her masculinisation, but her ability to feminise and corrupt the King. As Rousseau stated, women are ‘unable to make themselves into men’ and so ‘make us into women’. Women of the French courts were considered duplicitous performers whose irrational female methods of sex, deception and manipulation perverted the King and his ministers, resulting in unreasoned political choices. As Mary Wollstonecraft claimed, Marie-Antoinette was an ‘actress’ and ‘profound dissembler’. The Queen’s ability to conceal her emotions, remaining coldly composed throughout her trial, was targeted by a Republic that valued transparency in reaction to the deceitfulness of Old Regime salons. Wollstonecraft blames Marie-Antoinette’s false education in what it means to be feminine: unlike the revolutionaries’ criticisms, Marie-Antoinette was not a bad woman because she subverted feminine traits, she was a bad woman because she performed feminine traits. Rousseau’s belief that ‘political’ women propagate a contagion of feminisation is echoed in popular anti-Antoinette rhetoric. In Pere Duchesne, Hebert writes: ‘[it is] deadly if a king lets himself be governed by women [as women have caused]the misfortunes of France.’ In popular illustrations of the royal couple, Louis is represented as a hog being fed by Marie-Antoinette. These depictions demonstrate that the Queen was viewed as the manipulator and corruptor of Louis, feeding him with lies and harmful decisions. Power is ceded from the King and dangerously handed over to the puppet-master Queen. This rhetoric made it possible for the failures of the monarchy and its ministers to be blamed on the Queen. 

Perhaps the most overt example of misogynistic hostility toward Marie-Antoinette can be situated in the intensely sexualised and pornographic nature of popular libels. Many of these attacks took the form of sexual verbal assaults that sought to undermine the Queen’s legitimacy and brand her as an illicit sinner: she was the ‘Austrian whore’, ‘barbarous Queen’, ‘adulterous spouse’ and ‘tigress of Austria’. These names, Simon Schama argues, rendered Marie-Antoinette a non-citizen by anonymising and dehumanising her. Consequently, she not only becomes the negative ideal of bad woman, but also of bad citizen. The bestial motif of the Queen as ‘tigress,’ ‘wolf’ and ‘harpy’ stripped Marie-Antoinette of her femininity and personhood while simultaneously perpetuating the narrative of her bestial sexual virility. The image of the double-tailed harpy-Queen likely references the Homeric monster Scylla, a dangerously sexual, femme-fatale monster. The monstrous seductress metaphor reinforces the attributes of duplicity and corruption that constituted the aristocratic ‘bad woman’. 

According to Robert Darnton, the sexual sensationalism of popular pamphlets not only attacked Marie-Antoinette, but the monarchy as an establishment. Pornographic rhetoric was intimately connected to the political landscape. The publication of these pamphlets steadily rose from 1774 to 1788 and increased significantly after 1789, in line with the rise of revolutionary agitation. The Queen allegedly held an ‘absolute orgy’ in October 1789 in which she urged participants to express their ‘devotion to the Throne’ and trample on the revolutionary cockade. She was also accused of sexual relations with the Comte d’Artois, as depicted in the satirical play l’Autrichienne en goguettes of the ‘Prince polisson’ (naughty prince) and ‘Reine catin’(harlot Queen). This suspicion corresponded to a commonly held theory that the dauphin was not Louis’ son, a situation that would have had immense repercussions for the stability of the throne if true.  She ostensibly seduced Lafayette, causing him to support and aid the royal family’s flight to Varennes. In one political drawing, a fully clothed Lafayette is depicted sexually pleasuring the Queen, whose skirts are hiked up to reveal her bare legs and genitalia. In another, Lafayette is mounted upon a horse in the shape of a phallus and being guided by the Queen. In both of these depictions, Marie-Antoinette is represented as the woman in power: in the former, Lafayette is on his knees delivering pleasure to her; in the latter, the great military hero becomes a ridiculous sex-driven fool. Therefore, Marie-Antoinette’s powerful sexuality is dangerous because it perverts good and strong men. The Queen’s alleged sexual crimes are equally political and pornographic. The most damning characteristic of the orgy accusation was the evidence of a counter-revolutionary conspiracy; the Comte d’Artois affair effectively sought to undermine the throne and the seduction of Lafayette was political propaganda against a delegitimised revolutionary. Therefore, these attacks served two purposes. Firstly, they were gendered attacks that over-sexualised Marie-Antoinette in order to render her the archetype of a ‘bad woman’. Secondly, they were political attacks that sought to promote revolutionary agendas. 

Marie-Antoinette was considered the anti-woman not only as monarch and seductress, but also as bad mother.  Hunt argues that la Nation was a good mother, capable of giving birth to the revolution, while Marie-Antoinette, who did not reproduce an heir until 1781, was a bad mother. The most notorious depiction of the ‘anti-mother Queen’ was the allegation that she molested her son Louis XVII. As her trial records reveal:

‘The Widow Capet, in every respect immoral, and a new Agrippina, is so dissolute and so familiar with all crimes, that forgetting her quality of mother, and the limits prescribed by the law of nature, has not hesitated to prostitute herself with Louis Charles Capet, her son…’

The language of this accusation embodies the three heads of the subversive Marie-Antoinette:  she was the dangerous woman in power as a ‘new Agrippina’, a label which evokes the formidable Roman empress; she was the sexual deviant who engages in incestuous prostitution; and she was the anti-mother who forgets her maternal duty and disrupts nature. In the court room, Marie-Antoinette vehemently denied the allegation and appealed to the women present to empathise that a mother could never commit such an abhorrent crime. The writings of Germaine de Staël are sympathetic to this appeal and recognise the Queen as a sacred mother and devoted wife.  Unlike Wollstonecraft, she idolises Marie-Antoinette as the embodiment of female sensibility, claiming: ‘if you are sensitive, if you are mothers, she has loved with all the same power of soul as you’. However, given de Staël was an aristocratic woman, her sympathetic account seems strongly influenced by a pro-royalist sentiment that sought to symbolically resurrect the Queen. Nonetheless, revolutionary rhetoric irrevocably branded Marie-Antoinette the anti-hero of the Republic. 

Marie-Antoinette was the victim of great revolutionary upheaval. Her subversive identity as a foreign queen whose existence embodied everything the Revolution opposed rendered her a threat to the security of the Republic. Pro-revolutionaries accessed and fuelled pre-existing Austrophobic and misogynistic sentiments of the French people in order to transform the Queen into the anti-citizen; the bad queen and the bad woman. Even when stripped of her ostensive political power and rendered the Widow Capet, the symbolic power of this subversive Marie-Antoinette was too dangerous. She was sent to the guillotine on the 16th of October, 1793.  

Image credit

Maquart Fidel Dominikus Wocher, Harpie Monstre Amphibie Vivant, 1784, courtesy of Images of the French Revolution from Stanford Libraries.

Bibliography

Primary Sources

Figure 1. Fidel Dominikus Wocher, Maquart Harpie Monstre Amphibie Vivant : Ce Monstre a environ 12 pieds de longueur, sa face est semblable à celle d’un homme. 1784. Estampe. 23.5cm x 30.5cm. Images of the French Revolution Stanford Libraries. https://exhibits.stanford.edu/frenchrevolution/catalog/rf920px6566. 

Figure 2. Anon. My Constitution. 1790. In Laura Auricchio, The Marquis: Lafayette Reconsidered, Unflattering Portraits. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014. https://erenow.net/biographies/the-marquis-lafayette-reconsidered/18.php.

Figure 3. Anon. unnamed. In Laura Auricchio, The Marquis: Lafayette Reconsidered, Unflattering Portraits. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014. https://erenow.net/biographies/the-marquis-lafayette-reconsidered/18.php.

Figure 4. Anon. Cette leçon vaut bien un fromage, sans doute ! La Fontaine. 1791. Estampe. Bibliothèque nationale de France. https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b6947815b.item.

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