Assess the arguments raised by Zweig, Fraser, Lever, Dunlop, Amand as to why Marie Antoinette became such a hated figure?
The following will assess and discuss the arguments raised by Zweig, Fraser, Lever, Dunlop and Amand as to why Marie Antoinette became such a hated figure in France before, during and after the revolution of 1789. The arguments of these historians will raise common and different factors that contributed to the unpopularity of Louis XVI’s Austrian born wife. The arguments raised by Zweig, Fraser, Lever, Dunlop and Amand could also be used to assess the hatred aimed towards Marie Antoinette and the effect this had upon the stability of the Ancien Regime in France. The factors and arguments that these historians have raised about Marie Antoinette are based around her personal qualities and faults, as well as upon political, social, and economic factors that were arguably outside her direct control. The assessment of the arguments raised will go into greater detail than whether Marie Antoinette became such a hated figure in France just because she was an Austrian and she had advised her poorer subjects to eat cakes when they did not have any bread. Above all else the arguments that are assessed will demonstrate whether her position as a hated figure was based upon justifiable reasons, fact or misplaced perceptions of her influence on events and her role within the monarchy. Marie Antoinette’s marriage to Louis XVI had been a diplomatic and dynastic match that had been intended to maintain peace between France and the Habsburg Empire, political motives came ahead of popularity amongst the French people. Like all royal families during the 18th century, the Bourbon dynasty in France did not believe its future depended on its public popularity or whether its Queen was a hated figure.
Stefan Zweig argued that the reasons behind Marie Antoinette being a hated figure in France were due to her personal faults, her perceived arrogance and lavishness, combined with a dislike of her husband and declining respect for the monarchy itself. Zweig argued that Marie Antoinette’s emergence as a figure of hatred was strongly related to her being Austrian. As already noted she had been married to Louis XVI to seal the alliance between France and Austria. France had been the enemy of Austria for the best part of three hundred years; a great deal of hatred towards the Habsburgs still persisted in France. It was only natural that hatred should be directed towards Marie Antoinette once she married Louis XVI. Louis XVI himself was not believed to like Austria or Austrians with the exception of his wife. The Queen’s popularity was not helped by the failure to have children at the early stages of her marriage, although that was due to the King’s medical condition, rather than disliking his wife. Throughout her time in France though her Austrian birth did not help her popularity (Zweig, 1932 p.21).
Zweig argued that Marie Antoinette inadvertently made herself a hated figure by influencing royal and therefore government policy. Here was a case in which the public perception of her influence was greater than her actual influence. Although that was because previous Queens had virtually influence at all. Louis XVI was more prone to influence from his wife than previous French Kings’ had been by their wives. Interfering in state affairs did not endear the Queen to her subjects, especially those that wanted reform. Marie Antoinette’s interference in politics may have been carried out with good intentions, yet it proved disastrous for the French monarchy. From the start many suspected that Marie Antoinette would only interfere to serve her selfish interests or those of Austria. As opposition to the monarchy increased, the number of people that were prepared to believe that Marie Antoinette’s interventions in government were either inept or directly contrary to French interests also increased. Marie Antoinette did not intervene in politics as frequently or as successfully as her opponents believed or stated she did. At the end of the day once her children had been born she wished to concentrate on her role as a mother, although her position as Queen meant that she was not able to do so (Zweig, 1932 p. 144).
Zweig argued that Marie Antoinette helped to make herself a hated figure due to the lavish lifestyle she led. The Queen enjoyed a luxurious standard of living and liked to appear very wealthy. Marie Antoinette was regarded as being frivolous, fun loving and even uncaring. People grew to hate the displays of wealth and believed she knew little and cared even less about the harsh conditions that the poor had to endure. The Queen did her popularity no favours with allegations and rumours concerning her love life. Respect for her and the monarchy was weakened by such rumours. Her relationship with Fersen was far from discreet with questions raised about the paternity of her children. There were also rumours about affairs with other men including an Archbishop (Zweig, 1932 p. 144). The Queen’s reputation was severely damaged by the ‘Diamond Necklace Affair’, although she did not do anything wrong the verdicts and testimonies heard at the Paris Parlement were disastrous (Zweig, 1932 p. 170). Zweig argued that the faults of Marie Antoinette and the well-publicised rumours or the intrigues of those that disliked her made her hated. However, these factors would not have proved catastrophic if circumstances had been different. Unfortunately for the Queen all circumstances conspired against her. Poor harvests, the failure to reform the economy combined with government insolvency, the return of veterans from the American War of Independence, and finally a weak King proved a recipe for revolution. Zweig contends that these events and factors were critical in turning Marie Antoinette from being unpopular with some of the people into a woman hated by a majority of the people (Zweig, 1932 p. 156).
Antonia Fraser put forward the arguments that Marie Antoinette’s decline from popularity to been a figure of hatred were due partly to how she was perceived by the French public and also due to circumstances beyond her control. Fraser argues that the French disliking foreign-born princesses and Queens had been customary before Marie Antoinette married the future Louis XVI. Previous princesses and Queens though had the advantage of maintaining a lower profile than Marie Antoinette did, whilst Louis XIV and Louis XV were more forceful than the indecisive Louis XVI was. The flamboyant Marie Antoinette stood out from her reserved husband; from her arrival in France she attracted both admirers and detractors. Unfortunately for her the ridicule and dislike that some regarded her with turned into being hated by the masses (Fraser, 2001 p. 44).
Fraser points out that Marie Antoinette should have taken her mother’s advice to behave impeccably, obey her husband, and give no cause for scandal or rumours. Marie Theresa believed that avoiding scandal was the best way for her daughter to remain popular and not become a hated figure. The Empress also believed that Marie Antoinette could serve Habsburg interests more effectively if she was a popular Queen. The future Queen was also advised not to get too close to her future subjects, least they lose respect for her and the French monarchy. Whilst Marie Antoinette could keep away from her subjects, her knack of getting embroiled in scandal or upsetting people without intending to do so contributed to her becoming a hated figure. Fraser does note that Marie Theresa was partly to blame for some of her daughter’s faults. Marie Antoinette’s ability to be a good and successful Queen was hampered by a lack of education. She did not always know how to act like a Queen should, neither could she deal with complicated political issues. When she arrived in France she was naïve in many respects about politics and courtly intrigues (Fraser, 2001 p. 46).
Marie Antoinette did not keep herself free of scandal and rumour. Such court rumours and tabloid pamphlets turned her innocent activities at court into orgies that never took place and the widespread circulation of them could not be prevented. Pamphlets that originally contained unfounded gossip would later prove more damaging in making her a hated figure. Louis XVI attempted to have such publications banned, although censorship was bypassed by using Dutch and British presses (Fraser, 2001, pp. 134-35). For a time after the birth of her eldest son, Marie Antoinette seemed to have achieved a measure of popularity amongst her subjects. The pamphleteers continued to try to undermine her popularity by spreading rumours about the child’s paternity and later the paternity of her other children. The motives of pamphleteers would change from making profits to attacking the monarchy and making the Queen hated (Fraser, 2001, pp.178-79).
The Queen did not help matters by buying the palace at Saint Cloud for the royal family to live in; this showed insensitivity during a time when people were suffering from worsening economic conditions. People were shocked about how much was spent on the palace, the actual amounts spent was high enough yet rumours about its costs dented the Queen’s popularity further. Those that knew how precarious the royal finances were regarded it as unjustified expenses. Others regarded it as being another sign of Marie Antoinette’s power over the King and her pretensions to hold power in her own right. The Queen simply believed that the purchase was needed for her expanding family (Fraser, 2001, p.203).
Fraser argues that Marie Antoinette’s reputation never recovered from the Diamond Necklace Affair, in which Cardinal de Rohan had been tricked into buying a necklace supposedly for the Queen. The Parlement in Paris reached verdicts that punished the conspirators, yet their testimonies tarnished Marie Antoinette’s reputation, even though she was cleared of any wrong doing (Fraser, 2001, p.225). Marie Antoinette became a hated figure amongst the nobility due to her being blamed for the monarchy’s financial deficits. Fraser however, argues that the Queen was not to blame for the spending cuts and the reduction in the number of prestigious court positions (Fraser, 2001, p.236).
Fraser mentions that a factor that made Marie Antoinette a hated figure was that people had no qualms about expressing their hatred for the Queen, whilst they still felt unable to say things about the King (Fraser, 2001, p.251). The dislike of Marie Antoinette would further increase after Austria, Prussia, and Britain went to war against France. The Queen was still disliked for being foreign, which was coupled with the fear that the armies of Austria and Prussia could restore the monarchy which meant that the republican regime wished to execute her (Fraser, 2001, p.383). Marie Antoinette was executed following a show trial in which the charges against her were almost entirely false. She acquitted herself well; her spirited denials that she had never abused her son met approval in the court, although she had no hope of being acquitted in such a biased trial. Her execution was meant to symbolise that the monarchy would never return (Fraser, 2001, p.425).
Evelyne Lever presents Marie Antoinette in largely favourable terms, particularly when putting forward the arguments as to why the Queen became such a hated figure in France. Lever argues that Marie Antoinette inadvertently began the process of being a hated figure by not realising how to behave at the Court of Versailles. Whilst Louis XV was still alive the future Queen had attempted to snub his mistress Madame Du Barry, only to be told by her mother to stop, in order to influence the King. She also set powerful noble families against her by not paying them enough respect (Lever, 2000, pp. 42-43). Lever notes that Marie Antoinette was popular in Paris before she became Queen, for her beauty and her good -humoured nature (Lever, 2000, p.52).
Lever argued that a cause of Marie Antoinette becoming a hated figure was that Louis XVI did not have mistresses. In previous reigns the King’s mistresses were frequently detested and blamed for unpopular government decisions. Mistresses were usually scapegoats for the King, if Louis XVI had a mistress then perhaps she would have become hated instead of the Queen. Marie Antoinette was instead detested and used as a scapegoat for her husband’s faults and policies as well as her own actions (Lever, 2000, p.64). Marie Antoinette’s busy social life in the early years of her husband’s reign attracted much attention and criticism. The Queen gave a great deal of scope for gossip and those that wished to spread more malicious rumours had ample opportunities to do so (Lever, 2000, pp.110-11). Marie Antoinette lost respect and gave people cause to hate with her behaviour and attitudes. For instance: gambling was a frequent event, especially in the early years of her being Queen (Lever, 2000, p. 119).
Marie Antoinette became a hated figure, especially amongst the poor, due to the amount of money she spent. Lever cites the cost of changing the Trianon Gardens, the expense of dances and fetes, as well as the provision of royal pensions to her closest friends and other hangers on (Lever, 2000, p.121). Marie Antoinette did not choose her friends wisely, nor try to limit the dangers of ignoring powerful families or stopping the spreading of rumours. The Queen did not use her patronage sensibly, for instance: the Comtesse de Polignac’s friends and family were given honours and pensions for doing services to the Queen of France yet doing nothing good for their country (Lever, 2000, p.160).
Ian Dunlop presents a more sympathetic view of Marie Antoinette than most historians including the other four whose arguments are assessed here. Dunlop stresses that Marie Antoinette’s faults usually receive more attention than her attributes have done, that she was in fact more capable than her contemporaries often admitted, or historians have given her credit for. Dunlop comments upon the initial popularity of Marie Antoinette in France, particularly in Paris. She was originally regarded as having the qualities that a Queen needed. She was beautiful, loyal to the King and she looked the part. Her expensive clothes and lifestyle were not viewed with horror at that point (Dunlop, 1993, p.146). However, Marie Antoinette’s initial popularity declined for various reasons. Along with Louis XVI, the aristocracy and the higher clergy, Marie Antoinette lived in luxury, whilst many French people faced poverty and harsh living conditions. Although the Queen’s extravagance had not been widely resented at the start of her husband’s reign, it contributed to a growing hatred of Marie Antoinette as economic conditions went from bad to worse to disastrous. Opposition to the monarchy had the chance to be heard with the first gathering of the States General since 1614 in 1789. For the Queen it also coincided with the death of her eldest son. Such was the desperation of the political situation that the royal family gained no sympathy for the loss and faced increasing hostility (Dunlop, 1993 p.254). The monarchy and the French State headed towards bankruptcy due to the failure to achieve economic reforms and the costs of supporting the American War of Independence. The monarchy’s near bankruptcy was coupled with a series of bad harvests, which meant that more French people found it harder to survive. Marie Antoinette still appeared to be excessively privileged and wealthy to the poor that could not afford to feed themselves. The Queen became a hated figure due to the fact she could still eat as much as she wished. Poverty and jealousy fuelled hatred, not only of Marie Antoinette but also the King, the aristocracy and the higher clergy. The claim that she said the poor should eat cake if they could not afford bread appears to have been made up. However the believe that she said it maximised the number of people that hated her (Dunlop 1993 p.258).
Dunlop argues that the belief that Marie Antoinette interfered with how France was ruled contributed to her becoming such a hated figure. Dunlop argues that Marie Antoinette had tried to keep out of politics and concentrate solely on being the Queen consort. When she did become involved it was to protect her family’s interests and in her view those of France. To supporters and detractors of the monarchy the Queen was seen as more capable than her weak and indecisive husband was. Opponents of the crown targeted the Queen, their propaganda greatly contributed to her growth as a hated figure. The desperate poor, especially in Paris, readily accepted that their Austrian Queen was misguiding the King to feather her own nest at their expense. The fact that Marie Antoinette was Austrian reinforced their perceptions that she was an enemy of France and to blame for their plight. After the revolution radicals promoted campaigns against the Queen, they saw her as a danger to change. Her links to the Habsburgs meant that if she lived she could attempt to restore the monarchy with foreign help (Dunlop 1993 p. 385).
Amand’s arguments concerning the unpopularity and hatred of Marie Antoinette can be regarded as being more traditional in stance than the others assessed simply because his book first appeared in 1891. Amand’s biography also differs from the other historians mentioned above as he was only writing about the events of 1792 and 1793. Amand argued that the hatred of Marie Antoinette was a significant factor in the fall of the French monarchy as she was hated more than the King. That hatred had been fuelled by years of negative rumours and propaganda against the Queen. The Queen’s weaknesses had contributed to some of those rumours whilst elements of the revolutionary movement were highly skilled in turning the population against her. This was the period in which the hatred of the French masses towards their Queen reached its fatal conclusion. The facts that France was at war with Marie Antoinette’s native Austria further antagonised the revolutionary elements of the French population against her. She was widely regarded as being a traitor, which further intensified her being a hated figure. Marie Antoinette could be stripped of her crown, her wealth, and all her titles, yet she would always remain an Austrian (Amand, 1891).
Amand argued that Marie Antoinette became a hated figure due to the wealth and extravagance that she had formally displayed. Revolutionary propaganda portrayed her as been rich, selfish, and uncaring. Her unpopularity was promoted by jealousy and poverty. Hearsay and rumours were more important than fact in making her a hated figure. The Queen arguably made herself a hated figure by attempting to persuade the King to take decisive action. Radicals believed Marie Antoinette alongside her brother-in-laws bore the main responsibility for Louis XVI trying to resist revolutionary change. However the King’s indecisiveness meant that consistent and successful counter-revolutionary policies were never fully implemented. The Queen’s position as a hated figure was increased whenever the King had tried to reverse the revolution. Perhaps the one act that sealed the fate of the monarchy was the attempt to escape France that resulted in the royal family’s capture at Varennes. That failure to escape meant the revolutionary government could accuse the King and Queen of treachery. Hating the Queen was therefore a revolutionary and patriotic duty (Amand, 1891).
There are some convincing arguments as to why Marie Antoinette became such a hated figure in France. Her Austrian origins were always going to be a potential banana skin. France and the Habsburgs had a long history of war and rivalry; therefore it was not surprising that members of the royal family, the nobility and the French people did not always trust her. Mistrust of the Queen’s intentions and loyalty to France were frequently played upon by opponents of the monarchy in general as a means of targeting Marie Antoinette to increase her unpopularity. She was an unpopular and later a hated figure as it was believed she was serving Austria’s best interests rather than those of France. Although Marie Antoinette did try to influence French foreign policy to suit the Habsburgs interests, she was as the frequent complaints from Vienna attest, particularly ineffective at doing so. Of course, once the revolutionary France was at war with Austria, it further increased hate towards the Queen. Radical elements successfully took advantage of the fear that Marie Antoinette would use her family connections to reverse the revolution. The royal family’s unsuccessful escape bid meant that they were hated even more. Accusations of treachery and duplicity certainly made the Queen a detested figure. Opponents of the monarchy regarded Marie Antoinette as a figure to be hated, as they believed she was a threat to their ambitions of reform or revolution. They used propaganda, such as pamphlets to discredit her. Her private life allowed them to spread many rumours, although with the exception of Fersen these would appear to be unfounded. Perhaps the most damaging rumour was that she said ‘let them eat cake’ when grain was scarce and the cost of bread was too high for the poor.
France’s severe financial problems certainly made a contribution to Marie Antoinette becoming a hated figure. Much more than that, these factors acted as a catalyst for revolution. The Queen could not be blamed for the bankruptcy of the Crown or food shortages, but all the factors noted already meant that a majority of the French population saw her as a scapegoat who needed to be punished before their lives would get any better. Her apparent greed, adultery, conservative political outlook, and the belief that she was looking after Austrian interests all combined to make her hated. In Marie Antoinette’s defence it has to be mentioned that she was not the cause of France’s long-term problems and that there was little she could have done to solve them. Louis XVI was a weak and indecisive man, completely unsuited to be a King. The cost of the Seven Years War and the American War of Independence were the main cause of the Crown’s crippling debts and not the Queen’s expenditure. The government was certainly unable to deal with food shortages, yet that was mainly due to the scale of the problem than deliberate neglect. As Queen, Marie Antoinette performed her main duties of being the King’s consort and producing heirs to the throne. After the revolution she attempted to protect her family’s position and later their lives. She acted in a way that the majority of her royal contemporaries did. She was hated as much for what she represented, as opposed to who she was.
To conclude, Zweig, Fraser, Lever, Dunlop, and Amand present common and different arguments as to why Marie Antoinette became a hated figure. They all point out the Queen’s personal faults as important causes of her unpopularity. Zweig attempts to explain those faults by the argument that Marie Antoinette was just an ordinary woman that through the accidents of birth and marriage became the Queen of France in a period in which its monarchy faced many problems. Fraser, Dunlop, and Lever attempt to account for the Queen’s failings by pointing out that she was inadequately educated for her roles. Dunlop is sympathetic to Marie Antoinette in that he argues that circumstances conspired against her. Fraser, Lever, and Zweig are more critical of her shortcomings, although also sympathetic to her position. As Amand concentrated on the years 1792-1793 he argued that hatred of Marie Antoinette was promoted by the war against Austria, Prussia, and Britain. She was hated for trying to prevent the revolution destroying her family, even if she could not prevent the end of the monarchy. All the historians argued that Marie Antoinette was hated due to the rumours and propaganda that was spread against her. Before the revolution the government had tried to censor such publications. After the revolution, particularly once the monarchy was abolished, the revolutionary government targeted Marie Antoinette. Ironically enough, Marie Antoinette was a bigger political threat after Louis XVI was executed. Her trial featured all the crimes or errors she had committed since arriving in France, greed, immorality, treachery and being of foreign birth.
Dunlop I, (1993) Marie Antoinette, Sinclair Stevenson, London
Fraser A (2001) Marie Antoinette, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London
Lever E (2000) Marie Antoinette: The Last Queen of France
Saint- Amand I (1891) Marie Antoinette and the Downfall of Royalty
Zweig S, (1933) Marie Antoinette: The Portrait of an Average Woman
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