History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

08 July 2009

"Let Them Eat Cake" ... Marie Antoinette maligned

I've been doing a fair bit of research on Marie Antoinette lately, a woman who, despite her foibles, friviolities, and frailties, was made the scapegoat of an era, always despised as an outsider (which was in fact the point of most arranged royal marriages), and derided by even her husband's eldest maiden aunt as L'Autrichienne (a mean-spirited pun on "the Austrian" as well as the French word for "bitch," chienne.)

Sure, she was a horrific spendthrift, but so was everyone else at court; and as Queen of France, not only was she expected to set the tone in fashion, but she was supposed to support the kingdom's various factories. "Buy local" was her mandate and so her extravagant purchases of Lyons silks, Alençon lace, and Sèvres porcelain--all of which were emulated by the nobility--was a way of keeping her subjects employed.

Scorn and derision were heaped upon Marie Antoinette's elaborately coiffed head even during her lifetime. It was often repeated that when bread was so scare that there was rioting in the streets, she callously remarked, "If they have no bread, then let them eat cake."

It made the broadsheets, and even the history books, but she never said it. In fact, the origin of the phrase remains in doubt. Although historian Antonia Fraser cites no attribution for her conjecture, she believes the phrase was uttered by another French queen, and another foreigner to boot, the Spanish born wife of Louis XIV, Marie-Thérèse, who was said to have remarked that if the peasants had no bread then let them eat the crust (croûte) of the paté. She she never used the word "cake" either (which is gâteau in French).

In book six of his autobiography, The Confessions, the noted philosopher, novelist, and radical, Jean-Jacques Rousseau referred to the infamous quote, also without attribution. He wrote:

"Enfin je me rappelai le pis-aller d’une grande princesse à qui l’on disait que les paysans n’avaient pas de pain, et qui répondit : Qu’ils mangent de la brioche. J’achetai de la brioche. ", which translates to: "Finally I recalled the worst-recourse of a great princess to whom one said that the peasants had no bread, and who responded: "Let them eat brioche"... [a savory roll often eaten at breakfast; the recipe is full of eggs and butter, and very rich-tasting.]

Although The Confessions was not published until 1782, the book were completed in 1769 when Marie Antoinette was merely a prepubescent Archduchess of Austria. She did not arrive in France until the spring of 1770 when she was all of fourteen years old, a roses-and-cream child whose only desire was to please her adopted family and kingdom. So Rousseau could not possibly have been fingering Marie Antoinette when he referred to "une grande princess."

Marie Antoinette in 1769 when she was 13 or 14 years old; the same year Rousseau finished his Confessions

Marie Antoinette was such a soft touch that she alone of the French royal family refused to trash the peasants' cornfields by riding through them during the hunt. True, in her nearly twenty years of marriage (before her incarceration in the Tuileries after the mob stormed Versailles in July, 1789), she should have ventured out among her people beyond the outskirts of Versailles and the environs of Paris. But she was more aware of the lives of the laborers than one gives her credit for; and, to quote a fairly recent US president, she did feel their pain.

So, even though we're a bunch of history geeks and sticklers on this blog, how do you feel about playing fast and loose with such a well known remark? Let's assume that Marie Antoinette never said "let them eat cake" (or any permutation of that phrase). Would you attribute the quote to her anyway, for the sake of fiction?

And ... have you ever let the facts not get in the way of a good story, so to speak? When?


Blogger Maire Claremont said...

What a great post! I think the trick here is that so often in the minds of the public, perception is a major part of "reality". So, if you try to negate certain ideas about famous historical characters, people might rebel.

With Marie, I think so many people know now that she didn't say that, that it would be to go against perception to paint her that way.

However, Anne Boleyn is still frequently portrayed in a very negative light, (emphasis on her seduction rather than her intellect) Th is is what people expect of her now, and I think they would struggle to see her any other way.

Thanks again for such a great post. I love the portraits.

10:07 AM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

I am fascinated by Marie Antoinette's life and do not think all the lace in the world would be worth the kind of scrutiny she had to bear.

Have you read Caroline Weber's QUEEN OF FASHION? I really like Weber's straightforward and sympathetic view of Marie Antoinette and the way, over the years, the queen defined herself -- often deliberately -- by what she wore, even to the guillotine.

As for being represented by a misquote -- it is not the worst indignity she suffered. In writing about famous people in my fiction, my inclination is to find a motivation that fits their life but shows it from a different perspective. Which is probably why I like was Weber has to say.

Thanks Amanda - love the subject.

11:01 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Wonderful post, Amanda! Marie Antoinette is a fascinating character. I loved the exhibition of furniture, paintings, and other art work and artifacts from Le Petit Trianon that was in SF a few years ago.

I probably wouldn't attribute a well known quote to a famous person if I now knew that person probably hadn't spoken those words. But I am currently writing about the Congress of Vienna, and I think I'm going to move the dates of a few events to fit them into the time frame of my book. I'll definitely have an historical note to explain what I've done.

11:30 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I wouldn't use the false quote, and I'd hope that I was giving the reader enough inside info to compensate.

For more info than you'd want to use about the genuinely vicious sexual slanders directed against Marie Antoinette (but fascinating for a view of the period), check out Lynn Hunt's work.

12:09 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

As someone who shares a birthday with Marie, I've long found her life fascinating. Particularly her final year, when she suffered having her children taken away, and the dignity with which she went to her death. I would definitely not use a quote that had been debunked, even if it was something that had been in the public consciousness for years.

1:39 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Thanks so much to all of you ladies for your insightful comments.

Welcome, Maire Jolie and thanks for the compliments! I'm so glad you enjoyed the post and please do visit the hoydens often! And you make very good points about Anne Boleyn. I hope that I give her intellect the credit it deserves and correct some of the misinformation about her in my chapter on her marriage to Henry VIII in my January 2010 nonfiction release "Notorious Royal Marriages." I have always found Anne fascinating and as much maligned as Marie Antoinette was.

Mary, I think I ordered the Weber book from Amazon and it should be waiting for me when I return from vacation.

Tracy, one of the joys of writing historical fiction is the fiction part -- when you get to move around a few events. Are you planning to add an afterword to the book to confess that you did so?

Pam, I will definitely check out Lynn Hunt's work; I'm not familiar with it. The vicious things that were said about Marie Antoinette (and roundly believed!!) were truly beyond the pale. Speaking of the expression "beyond the pale," I meant to ask you the other day (because something makes me think that you of all people might know this), does the phrase "beyond the pale" have any connection to the Pale of Settlement, where the Russian Jews were more or less exiled/confined for centuries before the revolution of 1917?

Elizabeth, I agree that in Marie's final year in particular, she truly became a queen; regal, dignified, and noble in the face of all she suffered. I love how she chose what to wear to die, which is something Mary alluded to. Forbidden to wear black mourning, she wore white instead, which (the revolutionaries may have been too ignorant to realize) was the color of mourning worn by French queens during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. In fact Mary, Queen of Scots scandalized people by wearing a white gown when she married the dauphin of France, because white was the color queens wore in mourning, not for weddings.

8:30 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Absolutely, Amanda. As I said, I'll definitely have an historical note explaining anything I've changed. When I read historical fiction, I don't really mind when some details are changed, as long as the author has a note explaining what was documented and what fictional and what's been changed for the story.

The Pale was used to describe the part of Ireland under British control, going back to the Middle Ages. I'm pretty sure that's where "beyond the pale" comes from.

8:38 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I don't know how anybody gets through the day without an online link to the OED on her browser.

On the other hand, maybe that's why other writers get a whole lot more done than I do.

The first bunch of OED definitions of "pale" tell the story very clearly (and brook no speculation):

I. A stake, fence, or boundary, and related senses.

1. a. Originally: a pointed piece of wood intended to be driven into the ground, esp. as used with others to form a fence; a stake. Now usually: any of the bars or strips of wood fixed vertically to a horizontal rail or rails to form a fence. [earliest 1382]

2. a. A wooden fence made of stakes driven into the ground, or (later also) of upright bars or strips fixed to horizontal rails supported by posts; a paling, a palisade. Also: fencing of this kind. [earliest 1384]

b. In extended use: a fence or enclosing barrier of any material. Now rare. [earliest 1552]

3. a. An area enclosed by a fence; any enclosed place. Now Eng. regional. [earliest 1440]

4. a. A district or territory within determined bounds, or subject to a particular jurisdiction. [earliest 1453]

b. spec. The area of Ireland under English jurisdiction (varying in extent at different times between the late 12th and 16th centuries, but including parts of modern Dublin, Louth, Meath, and Kildare). [earliest 1586]

c. More fully Pale of Settlement [after Russian {chacek}erta osedlosti, lit. 'boundary of settlement']. A set of specified provinces and districts within which Jews in Russia and Russian-occupied Poland were required to reside between 1791 and 1917. [earliest 1890]

d. Eng. Hist. The territory of Calais in northern France when under English jurisdiction (1347-1558). [earliest 1891]

5. fig.
a. A realm or sphere of activity, influence, knowledge, etc.; a domain, a field. Freq. in within (also outside) the pale (of), in which the figurative senses of 'enclosed area' and 'enclosing boundary' ( 5b) become difficult to distinguish. [earliest 1483]

b. A limit, a boundary; a restriction; a defence, a safeguard. Freq. in to break (also leap) the pale: to go beyond accepted bounds; to transgress. Now rare and literary. [earliest 1525]

c. beyond the pale (of): outside or beyond the bounds (of). beyond the pale: outside the limits of acceptable behaviour; unacceptable or improper. Cf. senses 4a and 5a. The theory that the origin of the phrase relates to any of several specific regions, such as the area of Ireland formerly called the Pale (see sense 4b) or the Pale of Settlement in Russia (see sense 4c), is not supported by the early historical evidence and is likely to be a later rationalization. [earliest 1720]

11:22 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Thanks, Tracy and Pam ... Pam you make me feel terribly guilty for not Googling the phrase when it occurred to me. I claim "vacation" as an excuse for claiming my time! I don't have the online OED, and have always wanted to, but it's a pricy investment. Certainly "beyond the pale" (if an "undesirable" is segregated so to speak within it) shouldn't imply improper behavior, but rather the opposite to the one doing the segregating.

7:17 AM  

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