Sunday, October 19, 2014

Marie Antoinette

A lot of the bad publicity surrounding Marie Antoinette emanates from the smear campaigns directed against her by the Jacobins, although incidences such as the Diamond Necklace Affair and the Madame Deficit labelling clearly pre-date the Jacobin attacks. I don’t believe that she was bad person however she does appear to be both frivolous, naive and if I have to say so not particularly bright. Her love for her husband and children is admirable and she did seem to support Jacques Necker in his bid to bring the nation’s finances under control. Historians have debated for some time as to the degree of influence that she had on her husband but I do believe that she had a significant role in encouraging Louis XVI to make his ill-fated ‘Flight to Varennes’, a turning point in the fate of the monarchy as an institution. Her connection to the arch-enemy, Austria, was no doubt a legitimate concern for the revolutionary government, and did materialize into a real threat to France with the War of the First Coalition. I think that is reasonable to compare Marie Antoinette to Catherine the Great at least with respect to their origins in the political scene. Both were foreigners (Antoinette from Austria, Catherine from the Germanic States), both were married to weak kings (Peter III for Catherine, Louis XVI for Marie Antoinette), both arrived in countries with large populations, that had strong nobilities and a gigantic poorly treated peasant/serf /third estate class. Each nation was a key centre for a brand of rigid Christianity (Eastern Orthodoxy for Russia, Catholicism for France). Both countries had a very strong war driven monarch who in the not too distant past had resurrected their countries fortunes from the doldrums (Peter the Great for Russia, Louis XIV for France). Yet one of these women went on to greatness, Catherine, while the other, Antoinette, is associated with failure. It is tempting to blame this on spending but Catherine the Great was no fiscal conservative either. What I do believe was the big difference (other than their intellect) is that Catherine successfully ‘Russified’ herself from day one. She changed her name and dropped all connection to her German background. Antoinette did none of this and was always seen as a foreigner. So that when the revolution came it was natural that she should be vilified as an enemy of the state. If Marie Antoinette had stepped down from her pedestal on day one, it is possible that she may have become the People’s Queen, like Catherine and saved the nation from some of the bloodbath which was slated to occur
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