Peter Dutton writes in defence of Marie-Antoinette


I normally avoid American politics, especially during Presidential elections. Their conservatives never seem especially conservative, and their liberals anything but liberal. Everything seems upside down, as is best summed up by the fact that the former party of slave owners is now the party of Black Lives Matter. However, when I read that conservatives in the States are comparing Nancy Pelosi to Marie-Antoinette, Queen of France, I feel that some comment is necessary.

For those who missed the story amongst the concatenation of events which has made up 2020 thus far, here it is in brief. Ms Pelosi, the octogenarian Speaker of the House of Representatives, was reported for visiting a hair salon in California, which, being an indoors appointment, was illegal at that time. She also failed to wear a mask, something she had repeatedly lambasted Donald Trump for doing. Her non-apology for this (in which she both blamed the salon and pleaded ignorance as to the laws of California, where she lives) was quickly translated by her opponents into ‘Let the peasants cut their own hair’, and Donald Trump Jr tweeted ‘Nancy Pelosi is the Marie-Antoinette of the 21st Century’. The fact that she also has an extensive wardrobe of designer clothes and a freezer full of gourmet ices seemed to confirm the image: let them eat ice cream!

I have always felt somewhat protective over historical figures who, in my opinion, get an unfairly bad press. In particular this has drawn me to Richard III, Mary Tudor and Charles I. However, in those cases there is a germ of truth behind the image, before it was then exaggerated into the Ladybird history book caricature. Richard III probably was something of an ambitious political schemer (hardly unusual in late 15th Century England!); Mary Tudor did order the persecution of religious dissidents and signed the death warrant of a 16-year-old girl; Charles I was an ineffective administrator who declared war on Parliament. Marie-Antoinette emphatically did not say ‘Qu’ills mangent de la brioche’. 

The first recorded instance of this famous phrase is in Rousseau’s Confessions, where he writes: ‘At length I remembered the last resort of a great princess who, when told that peasants had no bread, remarked “Then let them eat brioche”’. Given that this book was written in 1765 when Marie-Antoinette was nine and had not yet come to France (although not published until 1782), there can be no possible connection between the two royal females. According to Lady Antonia Fraser, the remark was made by Marie-Thérèse (Louis XIV’s Queen) over a century earlier. It would certainly have made more sense, given that she was renowned justly for her arrogance and thoughtlessness, but there is no direct evidence for this and, in the opinion of many historians, Rousseau simply made it up to illustrate a point. With the increasing unpopularity of the Royal Family throughout the 1780s, the phrase became a neat shorthand amongst radical journalists to depict how out of touch the House of Bourbon was with needs and concerns of ordinary people. 

The real historical Marie-Antoinette was a far more complex, intelligent, and, above all, likeable figure than the caricature would suggest. Devoutly religious, she devoted much of her time to charitable works, organising soup kitchens, clothing donations and supporting orphans and single mothers. Whilst she never said ‘Let them eat cake’, we know she did write: ‘It is quite certain that in seeing the people who treat us so well despite their own misfortunes, we are more obliged than ever to work for their happiness’. Contrary to the popular myth, her spending on clothes was relatively moderate compared with the royal family as a whole, and the financial crisis that engulfed France in the 1780s (at which point she was dubbed Madame Deficit) was not of her making, stemming largely from French involvement in the American Revolution. Away from her public duties, she tended to dress simply, igniting a fashion among aristocrat women for wearing plain white dresses. At the end of her life, whilst enduring the humiliation of a show trial (at which she faced many bizarre accusations, including arranging orgies at Versailles, and incest with her son), she behaved with great dignity: even at the last, when being transported to her execution in a cart (her husband had least gone to his own execution in a carriage), hands tied behind her back and with a leash around her neck, she never lost her composure. A faithful Catholic to the last, she pointedly ignored the constitutional priest who had been appointed to hear her final confession and to give last rites: Pope Pius VI had condemned the 1790 Civil Constitution of the Clergy, which had subordinated the Church to the State and led to the end of monasticism and the confiscation of church land. 

Of course, she was not perfect. She schemed for the dismissal of reforming ministers like Turgot and Jacques Necker, men whose relatively progressive ideas might well have alleviated the nation’s fiscal problems, and hence probably prevented the Revolution of 1789. Whilst she had demonstrated political skill in negotiating with the aristocrat Mirabeau, after his death she refused to cooperate with other moderate revolutionary leaders. However, nothing in her life warrants her name being used as an insult, especially by conservatives, and, nearly 230 years after her death, her honour is still worth defending.