The final scene is not what we have envisioned – a humbled, critically ill forty-year-old woman who probably appeared seventy, carried in the wagon used for the lowest criminal...”She mounted the steps rapidly…not pausing to attempt to speak.” Thus, tied and locked in the wooden stock, did Marie Antoinette find death at last. It’s film noir, certainly not the Hollywood version of events.
Married when barely out of childhood to the boring, near impotent, clumsy, painfully shy Dauphin, heir to the French throne, Marie longed for Vienna and her domineering mama. She was immediately mistrusted by the French courtiers and her sharp remarks, meant for humor, were taken badly. When she dared express her pique, she was mercilessly shamed by the old king, and there were no further incidents. Like a happy slave, she knew her place and kept it. Still, she made the best of a bad lot. She exercised and danced, attended the stultifying court functions like a good girl.
She came to like the Dauphin and was one of the only friends he had. She cosseted him and often cuffed him, regarding him – properly – as a big baby in need of guidance and discipline. He, ironically, often sneaked out of the palace to work with common laborers. The man who was to be executed in the name of the power of the populace would have made a pretty decent peasant, and possibly longed for that authenticity of experience. Sadly, his life as a royal made him gluttonous and kept him badly informed. Based on his few public sallies, he truly believed he was a beloved monarch.
Had she been married to anyone other than the ill-fated Louis XVI, she could have been a real contender for a positive legacy. As it was, Marie Antoinette sided with her husband and he sided with the losers (and there were few winners in the final analysis). To the end “she stood by Louis, defending him, refusing to criticize him, never allowing herself to be overtaken by bitterness or blame.” There may have been one illicit affair, according to author Carolly Erickson, who has made an extensive and detailed study of the documents in the case, but only one. Antoinette’s attachment to Louis was a true bond.
Despite her abstemious ways and her attempts to please both her husband and her adopted homeland, she was accused of the worst licentiousness, without proof, and condemned as much on the basis of those spurious accusations as for her connection to the throne.
This book is a rich tapestry of fact woven without embroidery. It’s quite easy to believe that Erickson would have laid aside any bias to present the plain truth about Marie Antoinette.