Marie Antoinette is a key figure in French history. She has served as an over laboured source of satire for decades, propping up the careers of middling comedians and historians alike. Her apparent disconnect from the suffering and profound poverty of the people of France has made her an easy target. But is her reputation deserved?
Spoiler Alert: Yes it totally is.
Hameau de la Reine
Tucked away in a corner garden on the grounds of Versailles stands the village of Hameau de la Reine. An idyllic little settlement that ws created entirely for the Queen. It contained ten houses, a tower, a watermill and a working farm.
Its purpose was to allow the Queen and her friends to dress up as milkmaids or peasant girls and experience the hardship that was life for the third estate by tugging on a cows udders for ten minutes.
Side note: given how much the Queen and her possie likely knew about animal husbandry I wonder if this is where the song “I once saw a maid milk a bull” came from. Also I bet when the Queen asked the King for a secluded village where she and a few female friends could dress up as maids and frolic he thought all his christmases had come at once.
The village required a full host of servants to keep it in perfect condition should the Queen fancy a bit of cosplay at any moment. The Queen only consumed the produce of the village during her visits. The rest of the time much of the produce appears to have been wasted.
The other side of the story
Marie was the daughter of an Austrian Duke. Raised in a palace and rarely exposed to the world outside the lavish furnishings and top tier servants of her home. At the age of fourteen she was married to the French Prince and lived in equal splendour in Versailles. The difference between France and Austria at the time was that French Royalty were living in opulence the country couldn’t afford entirely at the expense of the third estate (everyone who wasn’t either Royalty or Clergy). The young princess had no idea of the contrast in quality of life that was punctuated by the walls of the palace. When offered a village of her own to play in she almost certainly thought it would give her some perspective on the life of the working classes. She had no way of knowing this was a heavily romanticised and entirely fictional perspective. Whilst it is widely accepted that she didn’t actually say “Let them eat cake” the fact the story persists comes from contemporary perceptions of the Queen. Her naivety, rightly or wrongly made her the perfect lens for the anger and fear of a starving population.
Unfortunately her life was littered with demonstrations of her absolute lack of social and political insight. There was an incident regarding the most expensive diamond necklace ever made that she had absolutely nothing to do with, her signature was forged on a note. None the less the scandal only served to bolster public hatred for her.