I was nine years old in 1953, the year of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth the Second. I was living in Jesselton, North Borneo and in those days, before television, our 'celebs' were limited to royalty and the Hollywood stars we watched avidly on the big screen. I loved kings, queens, princesses, and beautifully-dressed actresses and I cut out their images to stick in a series of scrapbooks.
At this time, I was immersed in the complete works of Enid Blyton, but I also read a lot of what my mother happened to be reading. One book that made an enormous impression on me was Marie Antoinette by Stefan Zweig.Thus began a life-long interest in the doomed Austrian princess, who came to marry the Dauphin of France at a ridiculously early age. I found her story, even at the age of nine, quite tragic and nothing I've read since has changed my mind. Her life was one of dizzying contrasts. Immense wealth and power and frivolousness on the one hand and horrendous personal misery, grief, suffering and tragedy on the other. She was cultured, intelligent, educated and involved with much that was going on in Paris during the time leading up to the Revolution. She was always an object of gossip, speculation, envy and dreadful calumnies, such as the accusation of incest with her young son, brought against her at her trial. People who know nothing about her think of her as hugely extravagant and silly: fiddling while her people starved. The infamous "Let them eat cake" remark is actually a quotation from Jean-Jacques Rousseau and probably apocryphal.
My aim in this post is not to provide a full historical analysis, but rather to try to convey what it was about this woman that so fascinated me. I'm ashamed to say (and this probably makes me as frivolous as she is supposed to have been) that part of it was the image. As always with celebrities of any kind, how they look is of the utmost importance. Think of Princess Diana. Think of the Duchess of Cambridge. Think of Michelle Obama. I fell in love, quite simply, with the clothes. And the reason I have scattered this post with so many images of Marie Antoinette is because I want visitors to this blog to see what attracted me in the first place.
When the movie with Kirsten Dunst as Marie Antoinette came out, I was there to see it all reimagined Hollywood-style. I can't remember much about the film, except that I was a bit disappointed in it apart from the clothes, and the settings. They were fabulous. The shoes alone were worth the price of a ticket. And Kirsten Dunst didn't look too unlike my Marie Antoinette. I'm including two pictures of her in my gallery of portraits because of that marvellous wig and the dress she's wearing.
Here is a picture of the real Marie Antoinette in a muslin dress.
Here she's pictured with her children, part of a publicity drive by the Palace at Versailles to cast her in a better light: as a mother instead of a profligate traitor.
At the turn of the 21st Century, Wendy Cooling asked twenty writers, and me among them, to choose a century and write a short story about some aspect of it. I chose the 18th century and my story is called Toinette. It's about a little girl who meets the Queen of France in somewhat unusual circumstances and I loved writing it. The collection is called Centuries of Stories.
I've always known that it's not the done thing to have as a heroine of some kind a woman who is most unpopular in some circles, but I can't help feeling for her: tubercular, probably suffering from uterine cancer and prone to haemorrhages, her husband dead and her children also, and on her way to the guillotine. This dreadful contraption is to my mind quite the most ghastly of all the hideous methods men have devised for executing prisoners. She stumbled on her way up the wooden steps to her death and her last words were an apology to her executioner for having trodden on his foot. This sketch by Jacques-Louis David shows her on her last journey of all. She was thirty-eight years old.