Saturday, October 16, 2010

Pop History Moment: The Death of Marie Antoinette

By the time of her death by guillotine on this day in 1793, the feel of cold steel on her neck might have seemed like a sweet release to Marie Antoinette, especially compared to the agony her life had become over the previous few years. That she should lose her head to the blade is only apt, as her reputation had by then already been the victim of a serious hatchet job for years...

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketFew stories fill me with such dread and loathing as those of the French Revolution, even when they're as well-written as they are in Antonia Fraser's excellent 2001 biography, Marie Antoinette: The Journey. In her book Fraser limns the life of the sheltered Austrian princess who again and again finds herself in over the head she would one day lose. It is a story told on a tumbrel of a woman who refused to believe in the depths of human evil, even as it was swallowing her whole.

At the birth of the Age of Reason there was an Age of Chaos: disguising mob rule as democracy, the newly 'freed' French went on a killing spree which at the time was unprecedented in the post-Renaissance era. It was only a matter of time, then, before the crowd caught up to its former Queen: both a foreigner and a woman, she would make a doubly good scapegoat. Utterly blameless and with no power to speak of, save the money she quietly distributed to orphanages and hospitals, Marie Antoinette was nothing less than a victim of her class, a martyr caught in the teeth of an unreasoning genocide...

Tales of her behaviour from those who knew her, even those who didn't like her, differ so greatly from the picture of her painted by scurrilous pamphleteers (none of whom had even met her) that only the most bigoted could believe the least of the allegations made against her. They are also testament to the corrosive effects of slander; 200 years later and her legend still calls out for understanding.

Yet xenophobia and misogyny are two of the oldest and therefore fondest of history's prejudices, and so might be the hardest ones to be overcome; Marie Antoinette faced them both with a poise that had been ingrained in her from birth. In fact, of her it could rightly be said she never once lost her head, right up until the moment she did.
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Anonymous said...

I read the book by Fraser when it was first published - very great book - helped me understand Marie A. and all that was going on in France during that time! I stronly reccommend that book to everyone to read!

michael sean morris said...

I loved that book, but then I've loved all of Antonia Fraser's books; I've been reading them since high school. Being Canadian, of course, we got lots of British history but not much French, so it's nice now to be able to fill in those gaps.