Fatal Non-Readers

Hilary Mantel

  • The Wicked Queen: The Origins of the Myth of Marie-Antoinette by Chantal Thomas, translated by Julie Rose
    Zone, 255 pp, £17.95, June 1999, ISBN 0 942299 39 6

In June this year the BBC showed a documentary called Diana’s Dresses. It was about the auction which took place at Christie’s in New York two months before the Princess’s descent into the Paris underpass. The purchasers spoke reverentially of Diana when she was alive, but her death turned glad rags into relics. ‘I wanted to have a part of royalty,’ one explained. ‘I am in awe of the dress,’ said another.

When the clothes are turned inside out for the camera, you can see the bones and secret skin of them, second dresses built inside so that a princess’s mortal underpinnings wouldn’t show. Only superficially do they bear a resemblance to clothes worn by ordinary women. They seem constructed rather than sewn, durable as stone with their elaborate frosting and beading, and capable of standing up on their own. But their owners worry about their survival. One appears on display only under armed guard. When a Boston shop-owner bought three of them and put them in her window, passers-by made a pavement shrine to them, with mourning bouquets and tearful messages. One owner described his prize as ‘historically, one of the most important dresses Diana ever wore’. It is clear that the garments can hardly be picked a part from the flesh. And there is one dress that leads a double life: two people claim to have the original. Bi-location is an attribute of saints – and of their party-frocks too.

With this in mind I searched in the Carnavalet museum this summer for a scrap of cloth from one of Marie-Antoinette’s dresses, which Chantal Thomas mentions in her lively and imaginative examination of the public personae of the French Queen. This fragment of cloth was carried to the scaffold, she says, by Barnave, who was first seen as an extreme revolutionary but later became an adviser to the Court. I looked hard but could not find it among the royal souvenirs: curls of hair, the Dauphin’s lead soldiers, chess pieces, the King’s geometry set, shaving-bowl and razor, and fragments of his waistcoat, whimsically made into butterflies. Perhaps, like one of Diana’s dresses, it has gone on tour. Even more than Diana, Marie-Antoinette was her frocks. They defined her and betrayed her. Madame Roland reported that when Marie-Antoinette tried to eavesdrop on a conversation between Pétion and the King, Pétion detected her presence by ‘the rustle of silk’.

‘It is she who invented the modern princess,’ says Chantal Thomas. She was the prototype: blonde, blue-eyed, with porcelain skin. Until Marie-Antoinette, the queens of France had been of interest only as breeders. With her appetite for dresses, jewels, parties and public entertainments, she was more like a favourite than a queen: more like Du Barry, Louis XV’s mistress, the frequent target of lampoonists. She imposed her style on Versailles, and it was a style of contrived, artful, expensive simplicity, of model dairies and muslin; it was a charade of private life. Invited to the Petit Trianon to walk in the gardens, Gouverneur Morris, an American in pre-Revolutionary Paris, at once saw the hopeless ambiguities of her situation: ‘Royalty has here endeavoured at great expense to conceal itself from its own Eye but the attempt is vain.’

When Antoinette left the Austrian Court for France she was 14 years old and, according to the Duchess of Northumberland, looked about 12. In a dreadful ceremony on an island in the Rhine, every stitch of Austrian clothing was taken from her, and she was handed over naked to be dressed as a Frenchwoman. Louis, still the Dauphin, had not yet seen her, and asked a courtier whether her breasts had developed. The courtier responded with praise of her rosy complexion and bright eyes. ‘That’s not what I mean,’ said Louis doggedly. ‘I’m talking about her breasts.’

Thereafter she was a virgin in a nest of vipers. Every party and faction at Court scrutinised her for whimsies and gaffes. She had very powerful enemies. Provence, the brother next in age to Louis, was deeply resentful of his secondary position. Among the constant intriguers and gossips were the King’s unmarried aunts, Adelaide, Victoire and Sophie (who had been known to Louis XV as Snip, Piggy and Rag.) For the anti-Austrian party, Antoinette was the power to be destroyed, the natural target of attack. Her mother the Empress kept her under double surveillance. Each month a courier left for Vienna with a letter from the Princess and reports from the Ambassador. But the Ambassador sent a second, secret report for the Empress alone, filled with minute unofficial detail about what her daughter had said and done. As Chantal Thomas says, it must have seemed to Marie-Antoinette that her mother was clairvoyant.

It was not surprising that she sought allies outside the usual royal circles. Her favourite dressmaker, Rose Bertin, was given free access to the royal apartments, and was known as ‘the female minister’. Choosing what to wear was Antoinette’s waking duty each day. With her first cup of coffee came a catalogue of samples from her wardrobe. Though the fashions of the Court were widely studied in the outside world, there were aspects of them that could never be emulated. Madame de la Tour du Pin spoke in her memoirs of the strange gliding walk that the ladies of Versailles developed to prevent them from treading on each others’ trains. Rouge, also, had a peculiar function as caste-mark. It was applied with a heavy hand and in a circular pattern. It was worn most lavishly on the day of a woman’s debut, when she was obliged to simulate the flush of the contrived orgasm bestowed by royal favour.

For outsiders, the Court ladies were targets of satire rather than envy. The use of feathers in head-dresses had the unfortunate connotation of fetishism, as well as stigmatising their wearers as bird-brained. Similarly, high hair excited public derision and a quasi-sexual disgust. It required one to kneel, not sit, inside a carriage. It required hairdressers who stood on ladders. Indeed, hairdressers were exalted as never before. Until Marie-Antoinette’s day, only noble ladies had touched the royal head. But she employed a man and a commoner, Léonard, and thought so highly of him that she took him with her in 1791 when the royal family tried to escape over the border.

Marie-Antoinette’s chief talent was for amusing herself, which she did with some style. She was grandly conscious of the effects of her good looks, and enjoyed performing in amateur theatricals. ‘She was fond of charity,’ Thomas reports, ‘and never tired of the spectacle of her own goodness.’ Instances of her benevolence had the flavour of a pageant about them. Sometimes her initiatives went badly wrong, as with her forcible adoption of a peasant child who, having been almost run over by her carriage, was taken back to Versailles to have his lot in life improved. Despite the advantages conferred by his new white suit and his pink scarf with a silver fringe, the child screamed constantly for his sister. Later he went to the bad, hung about with revolutionaries and would die for the Republic at the battle of Jemappes.

Thomas’s book is not a biography but ‘a history of mythification’, the narrative of Marie-Antoinette’s representation in the pamphlet press between the 1770s and her execution in 1793. What the historian Antoine de Baecque calls ‘the unmasking of politics through the scandalous chronicle of the bed’ had been a widespread practice in the age of Louis XV, but now there were fresh young targets and, as the Revolution approached, a more beleaguered censorship. In the early pamphlets, beginning in 1770, the focus was Louis and his presumed impotence. The source here was gossip and perhaps leaked correspondence, and it seems likely that the first lampoons came from the Court. The Queen did not become pregnant for seven years, but diplomatic bags grew fat with anecdotes from doctors and valets and confidantes. The King’s nightshirts were studied for stains, and the nature of the stains debated. The goose-queen, writing to her mother, did not know whether her marriage had been consummated or not. She always hoped to be pregnant, but was vague about whether it was a possibility; much had been omitted in her education. All the rumours trickled down from the royal household through the clandestine press to the streets. The Parisians sang: ‘Some say he can’t get it up! Some say he can’t get it in.’ The King’s limp organ and the Queen’s bodice-ripping frustration were portrayed in copperplate engravings. The pamphleteers, mysteriously, knew every bitter word the couple exchanged.

From 1789 the number of publications directed against the Queen rose rapidly. Some denounced Marie-Antoinette’s political crimes: being an Austrian, spending too much money, corrupting the King with her notions, favouring this party or that. Some ribald tracts were concerned primarily with her alleged promiscuity. She was an adulteress, given to ‘uterine furies’, who prevented herself from having children by indulging in lesbian practices or aborting her pregnancies; later, she was an adulteress who gave birth – but to bastards. A great number of pamphlets were hybrids of satire and pornography in which political and sexual innuendo swirl in a pantomime mix of scenes of copulation and conspiracy, endless unbuttoning and tupping and frotting and plotting.

‘All our calamities, past, present and to come, have always been and will always be her doing’ was the constant theme of the pamphlets. Like a Sadean heroine, she tries her hand at every crime. Louis is portrayed in the pamphlets as a snoring booby, not just a cuckold but a drunk; his physical impotence has become moral impotence too, and the King who was once a cipher, ‘a naught’, is fitted out in verse and engraving with gross animal characteristics. The Queen’s sexual style is crude and voracious: ‘If all the cocks that have been in my cunt were put end to end, they would stretch all the way from Paris to Versailles.’ She sucks men in and spits them out, symbolically castrating them. In ‘The Royal Bordello’ the Queen copulates with a knight, and ‘the Baron, the Marquis and the Bishop bugger each other while awaiting their turn.’ After several bouts of copulation, the Queen exclaims: ‘Get off now. It’s time for soup; we’ve had enough bawdiness.’

Early this century the historian Hector Fleischmann found 126 pamphlets against Marie-Antoinette in which the main theme was ‘libertinage’. But this figure does not give much idea of the way the pamphlets multiplied, edition after edition, and disseminated their libels through all levels of society. A particular title often had different authors at different stages of its life, and was reissued with supplements and up-to-date slurs. There were forgeries of the most popular titles, so that libels bred shadow-libels. The pamphlets took various forms: songs, burlesque playlets, mockbiographies with the appurtenances of cod-scholarship. They often purported to be fragmentary manuscripts found by innocent passers-by and made public by their scandalised readers for the good of the realm. The Palais Royal was a favourite place to ‘find’ these manuscripts. The public gardens were owned by the Duke of Orleans, the King’s cousin and rival. They were full of brothels and gambling joints, and a centre for the unrespectable opposition to the regime; writings were ‘found’ there because it was there that they were created. Others were ‘found’ in the captured Bastille.

Chantal Thomas is not interested primarily in the source of the pamphlets or how they were distributed. Robert Darnton and Daniel Roche, among others, have made extensive studies of the underground press, of the mechanics of clandestine production and distribution. Some of the pamphlets are translated here for the first time, but of course there is nothing new in the observation that the Old Regime was undermined by slander and pornography. Few biographers of the Queen have tried to avoid reference to or quotation from these pamphlets. But Thomas thinks there is a problem with the way they have perceived them. They have interpreted the writings ‘as though they had a direct relationship with the personality of Louis XVI’s wife’. They judge the Queen in as far as they believe, or disbelieve, the pamphlets. They trace a particular slander to an innocent mistake by the Queen; or they believe that exaggeration always contains the germ of a reality: or they believe ‘she brought it upon herself.’ Louis is seen as well-intentioned but weak, she as the stronger character, who leads him astray and makes his people hate him. Even the gushing sentimentalists who have made Antoinette their special study are quick to point a moral, saying she should have been sweeter to her spouse. History is reduced to a highly personal analysis of cause and effect; the ‘character’ of both spouses and of the marriage itself is picked a part and Antoinette is castigated, more in sorrow than in anger, for being light-minded.

Struck by the ‘awesome monstrosity’, the ‘flagrant unreality’ of the figure represented in the pamphlets, Thomas approaches them as a student of Roland Barthes, seeing them ‘not as testimony but as an autonomous system endowed with its own rules, its own rhetoric, its particular function’. For her, myth is a system of communication, not an object or concept in itself, and the function of the pamphlets was to elaborate a mythology, but ‘the symbolic violence of the pamphlets cried out to be made real by action.’

It was the misogyny of contemporaries and historians that, Thomas believes, made possible the traditional approach, whereby the pamphlets are given the status of evidence. Both the pamphlets and historians’ responses to them reveal the hatred and fear engendered by ‘the dark continent of the feminine’. It has become a commonplace to say that the Revolution mobilised intense anxiety about the role of the father and to claim that in the course of the Revolutionary years the role was redefined, from that of tyrant to that of nurturer. At the same time, it is said, the role of mother was explored and in some senses exalted; women become good patriots not by direct action but by being fecund wives and dutiful mothers. Thomas is conscious that this is a complex and much-explored area, and is content to point out that Revolutionary feminists (of both sexes) had to contend not only with deeply embedded and irrational fears of the feminine but with the Revolution’s own sacred texts: with Rousseau’s horror of women in public life and Diderot’s conviction that women together are always up to no good. The women about Marie-Antoinette, as portrayed in the pamphlets, are sniggering helpmeets to her festering schemes. They introduce her lovers to her presence and arouse her physically in preparation for them. Reproductive sex gives way to sex as libertinage. Antoinette is undermining the dynasty, first by failing to have children, then by presenting Louis with bastards. She is unnatural, denatured; the journalist Louise Robert says ‘a woman who becomes queen changes her sex.’ All the men in the news copulate with Antoinette: the King’s brother Artois, the cardinal Rohan, Lafayette, Axel von Fersen. But times are changing. Suddenly, the ‘man in the street’ is the man in the news. ‘You have to be Swedish to mean anything to me,’ the ‘Queen’ says, thinking of Fersen; but then adds, democratically: ‘or you have to be a great strapping man.’ The people itself can copulate with Antoinette; the Declaration of the Rights of Man, rolled into a sheaf, is the people’s phallus. But what can be born of this union? What can come from the stranger’s womb other than monsters?

In The Family Romance of the French Revolution, Lynn Hunt explored the pamphlet literature in detail and observed all its contradictions. How can a vain, half-educated and frivolous woman become a ‘political tarantula’, and exercise a demonic cleverness in affairs of state? But no one at the time was concerned with consistency; the pamphlets have only the logic of fantasy. What sprang into existence, Thomas says, was ‘a caricatured double who lived her own life and developed according to the internal logic of a genre that required “ever worse” as a law of necessity’. She compares Marie-Antoinette to Sade: ‘The condemnation of each arose from the same lack of distinction between person and text.’ Sade, in her view, paid the penalty for the crimes of his characters, and Antoinette for the crimes of the characters she incarnates.

For in the underground literature Marie-Antoinette exists in various personae, ancient and modern. She is Messalina; she is Eve, facilitating the work of the devil. Not only is she the daughter-agent of that other atrocious feminine ruler, the Empress of Austria, she is the malign spirit of all the queens who went before her; Catherine de’ Medici appears in her dreams and urges her to ‘let rivers of blood flow.’ The wombs of these wicked queens are poisonous caverns, like feudal fortresses or the lairs of fabulous beasts. Antoinette is the bad mother of fairy tales. She is compared to the wicked Queen Fredegond, ‘executioner of humankind’, of whom Louise Robert reports that one day she showed her daughter a chest containing rich fabric and jewels, and when the daughter bent over to examine them, slammed the lid on her head.

What did the real-life Antoinette make of these pamphlets? Early in her career, Thomas says, she was oblivious to the danger, referring lightly to the libels in a letter to her mother. The police took them seriously, because they were about personalities, and Court politics was about personalities too. But Marie-Antoinette was a ‘fatal non-reader’, as Sue Townsend described Diana. No one had ever known her to finish a book. Perhaps, Thomas says, it was because she did not want to know the ending? If you are not armoured by the vicarious, by the pleasures and pains of imaginative experience, all that occurs will seem new and personal. It appears that people outside the palace thought about the Queen constantly, but she never thought about them. She had barely travelled outside her palaces. Her public was ‘presumed to bear good will’. She had no language in which to negotiate with the new order; she was accustomed to banter, not dialogue. She did not witness her own mythification, but performed the process in her turn; she called the legislators of 1791 ‘beasts’ and dreamt of revenge.

How did the people of the time understand these pamphlets? Did they believe them? It is evident that the writers did not believe themselves, and often seem to be winking at the reader, inviting complicity in myth-making. One pamphlet of 1789 says in its preface: ‘the incredible things you are about to read were not invented for pleasure; even if they are a little bit exaggerated for fun, at least the foundation is true.’ The writer then goes on to say: ‘anyone can add what he knows to what he is about to read – and who hasn’t heard something?’ This suggests that the public of the time believed/disbelieved in the crimes of the Queen just as people now believe/disbelieve in aliens. They think there may be something in it, though they know the stories don’t bear looking at too closely; anyway, believing in aliens is more fun than not, and at the root of the whole problem is a restless intimation that ‘they’ are keeping something from us, that in dark palaces and laboratories something is going on that ‘they’ think we ought not to know about. But relentless exposure to even the most ludicrous stories breeds a sort of popular wisdom, a spirit of ‘everybody knows.’ An Essai historique sur la vie de Marie-Antoinette appeared in 1789 and in its final form ran to 146 pages. It was a summary of most of the accusations levelled at the Queen over the previous dozen years or so, and some early authorities believe that Sade wrote part of it. Marie-Antoinette speaks in the first person, unabashed, calling herself ‘barbarous Queen, adulterous spouse, woman without morals, polluted with crimes and debaucheries’. Unlike her real-life counterpart, this mythic Antoinette has no illusions: ‘My death is the object of the desires of an entire people.’ She needs no denouncing; she does it herself.

So what was to be done with her? The pamphleteers have various suggestions. She could be shut up in a convent, but that doesn’t make much of a show. More humiliation and pain is desired. Her offences have been not just against law but against nature, and a fate is called for that will distinguish her from the ordinary criminal. Perhaps the guillotine is too good for her? She should work in the Salpêtrière, or sweep the streets. Her corpse should be eaten by dogs. The fantasies were not confined to the public realm. Lucile Desmoulins jotted in her notebook a violent fantasy called ‘What I would do in her place’. Pray for three days in public, she suggested, go through a process of public mourning and penance, then burn oneself alive on a pyre. Such a death, she said, would ‘overawe the whole world’.

The reality was more sordid, and deeply strange if you stand back to look at it afresh. It is easy, if you have read many accounts, to forget how disturbing the events of the Queen’s trial became, as the dream logic of the pamphlets invaded the legal process. Her trial was different from the King’s: she was not brought before the Convention, but the Revolutionary Tribunal, supposedly like any private citizen. She had aged – no doubt the Parisians thought that she had the face she deserved – but the focus on her sexualised body was intense. The Tribunal moved from the descriptions of the pre-Revolutionary orgies at Versailles to her ‘intimate liaisons’ with the forces of counter-revolution. She was also accused by the journalist Hébert of incest with her small son. It is unlikely that anyone believed this charge, and it was superfluous to the proceedings. But France was two countries, where the Queen was concerned; there was a separate realm in which anything could be true, in which no accusation could be too monstrous. Her sexual body had corrupted the body politic. It was a whited sepulchre, ready for her own bones. ‘Myth has a life of its own, based on an internal logic,’ Thomas writes. ‘It is independent of its support: the latter may die the physical death of the body, but the myth still hovers over the cadaver.’

When Marie-Antoinette was imprisoned, she worked hard to keep the clothes she had respectable, mending and patching. When her scissors were taken away she broke the thread with her teeth. After her death, her clothes were sent anonymously to a hospital. The women who wore them would never know the name of their first owner.