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Marie Antoinette 1755–1793

Marie Antoinette
1755–1793

The youngest daughter of Holy Roman Emperor Franz I (1708–1765) and Empress Maria Theresa (1717–1780), the archduchess Marie Antoinette married the dauphin Louis Auguste, future Louis XVI (1754–1793), in 1770. The marriage was intended to cement the alliance between France and Austria, but powerful factions at Versailles opposed the pact, and dubbed the dauphine l'Autrichienne, emphasizing chienne, which means bitch. Marie Antoinette's extravagance and unwillingness to submit to French royal protocol, coupled with the kingdom's declining finances, contributed to her unpopularity, drew virulent attacks on her allegedly deviant sexual behavior, and fueled monarchical destabilization.

Between 1774 and 1780 Marie Antoinette's reputation for recklessness was established: incognito journeys from Versailles to balls at the Paris Opéra, astronomical sums spent on lavish clothing, excessive gambling losses, all of which, she explained to her mother while dutifully reporting on her menstrual cycles, to which she referred as la générale, resulted from anxiety over being childless. It was seven years before the royal marriage was consummated (Louis XVI may have suffered from phimosis), and vicious gossip about the king's impotence and the queen's alleged sexual escapades accorded her a host of lovers, including the comte d'Artois (the king's youngest brother) and the Swedish count Axel von Fersen. Among the slanderous pamphlets that began to appear in the 1770s, Le Lever de l'aurore, transformed the queen's peaceful viewing of the sunrise into an orgy at which she hid her adulterous couplings in the shrubbery.

Fantasies about what Marie Antoinette might be hiding were fueled by her frequent withdrawal to the Petit Trianon, a private house in the park at Versailles presented to her by the king in 1774. Most of the court, excluded from this intimate realm and unable to witness what happened there, imagined it instead, and always to Marie Antoinette's detriment. In 1779 the queen chose to recuperate from the measles at Trianon, accompanied by only a few ladies and four gentlemen, providing ample material for titillating gossip. The impact of such behavior culminated in the disastrous Affair of the Diamond Necklace (1785), when the Cardinal de Rohan, hoping to gain the queen's favor, purchased an excessively valuable necklace at the instigation of the so-called Comtesse de Lamotte-Valois, whom he believed to be acting secretly on the queen's behalf but who confiscated the jewels and fled. Believeing that Rohan was attempting to slander her, the queen insisted on his arrest and a public trial before the Parlement. Openly hostile to the queen, the Parlement acquitted the cardinal and humiliated Marie Antoinette. The scandalous plot was largely possible because of the queen's sexual reputation, and hinged on a fictitious meeting between the Rohan and the queen alone at night in a bosquet at Versailles. The queen's nocturnal jaunts to Paris, nighttime strolls in the gardens, and gallant male companions predisposed many to believe the story.

Already accused of moral and sexual disorder, Marie Antoinette's influence over royal politics was criticized as that of a virago bullying her impotent husband. When the revolutionary leader Mirabeau's (1749–1791) remark declared that Marie Antoinette was the only man supporting Louis XVI, the remark was meant as a compliment but might be construed as referring to what the queen's enemies considered inappropriately mannish behavior. At Trianon, Marie Antoinette's small private domain, postings by order of the queen were accepted, but they caused scandal at Saint Cloud, likewise the queen's private property, but a much larger one, and it was declared immoral for a queen of France to own palaces and give orders in her own right, because, as the pamphlet Les Crimes des reines de France (The crimes of the queens of France, 1791) proclaims, "A people is without honor and merits its chains,/When it bows its head to the scepters of Queens."

Marie Antoinette's alleged sexual proclivities were illustrated, embellished, and magnified in pornographic pamphlets, which invented a nymphomaniac queen equally voracious for women as she was for men. The queen was frequently portrayed engaging in sex with her closest friends, the princesse de Lamballe and the comtesse de Polignac. In the pamphlets Marie Antoinette sometimes takes a dominant male role, as in Le Godmiché royal (The royal dildo, 1789), where she appears in the guise of a dildo-wielding Juno. Other pamphlets, including Les Fureurs uterines de Marie-Antoinette (The uterine ragings of Marie Antoinette, 1791) and La Vie privée, libertine et scandaleuse de Marie-Antoinette d'Autriche (The dissolute and scandalous private life of Marie Antoinette of Austria, 1793), venomously construct a phantasmagorically deviant, sexually omnivorous creature more insatiable and dangerous than Agrippina or Messalina, Roman empresses reputed to have had insatiable sexual appetites.

Not only was Marie Antoinette accused of weakening France in favor of her homeland, but the uncontrollable uterine ragings that supposedly provided her alleged lovers liberal access to the queen's sexual organs placed the kingdom in jeopardy. As tribade the queen dominated the king (and through him the kingdom), forsaking her marriage and the production of heirs; sexual activity with men cuckolding the king and threatening the legitimacy of the Bourbon succession. Some purported Marie Antoinette's children to be bastards:

    Louis, if you want to see
    A bastard, a cuckold, a whore,
    Look at your mirror,
    The Queen, and the Dauphin
             (de Decker 2005, p. 101; Zweig 1999, p. 170).

The most perverse sexual accusation against Marie Antoinette was made during her trial in 1793: incest with her eight-year-old son, the duc de Normandie (Louis XVII, 1785–1795), whose alleged corruption by his mother would ultimately empower the Austrian pantheress, ravenous to gorge upon French blood. By dominating her son sexually, the queen would control him and dispose of the kingdom as she pleased.

Marie Antoinette's unwillingness to submit to the performative demands of her station proved personally deadly and ultimately hastened the fall of the monarchy.

see also Lesbianism; Political Satire; Sex, Race, and Power: An Intersectional Study.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Campan, Jeanne Louise Henriette Genet, Mme de. [1988]1999. Mémoires de Mme Campan, première femme de chambre de Marie-Antoinette, ed. Carlos de Angulo. Paris: Mercure de France.

Castelot, André. 1962. Marie-Antoinette. Paris: Perrin.

Chalon, Jean. 1988. Chère Marie-Antoinette. Paris: Perrin.

Colwill, Elizabeth. 2003. "Pass as a Woman, Act Like a Man: Marie-Antoinette as Tribade in the Pornography of the French Revolution." In Marie-Antoinette: Writings on the Body of a Queen, ed. Deena Goodman. New York: Routledge.

Decker, Michel de. 2005. Marie-Antoinette: Les dangereuses liaisons de la reine. Paris: Belfond.

Fleischmann, Hector. 1976. Les Pamphlets libertins contre Marie-Antoinette. Genève: Slatkine-Megariotis.

Hunt, Lynn. "The Many Bodies of Marie-Antoinette: Political Pornography and the Problem of the Feminine in the French Revolution." 2003. In Marie-Antoinette: Writings on the Body of a Queen, ed. Deena Goodman. New York: Routledge.

Lever, Evelyne. 1991. Marie-Antoinette. Paris: Fayard.

Marie-Antoinette. 1874–1875. Correspondance secrète entre Marie-Thérèse et le comte de Mercy-Argenteau, avec les lettres de Marie-Thérèse et Marie-Antoinette, ed. Alfred d'Arneth and Auguste Geffroy. 3 vols. Paris: Firmin-Didot.

Staël, Mme de. 1996. Réflexions sur le procès de la reine, par un femme. Paris: Mercure de France.

Thomas, Chantal. 2003. "The Heroine of the Crime: Marie-Antoinette in Pamphlets." In Marie-Antoinette: Writings on the Body of a Queen, ed. Deena Goodman. New York: Routledge.

Thomas, Chantal. 1989. La Reine scélérate: Marie-Antoinette dans les pamphlets. Paris: Seuil.

Walter, Gérard, ed. 1993. Le Procès de Marie-Antoinette. Brussels: Editions Complexe.

Zweig, Stefan. 1999 [1938]. Marie-Antoinette, trans. Alzir Hella. Paris: Livre de Poche.

                                           Desmond Hosford

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