We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

Marie Antoinette: how little we can know of her · 16 May 05

My dear Fanny,

I just finished a superb collection of essays, the one I mentioned twice yesterday: Dena Goodman’s Marie Antoinette: Writings on the Body of the Queen. You would have liked this one. I went through it like a house afire. It’s brilliant. It insists on the importance of the queen’s body, of a woman’s body to the image and reputation and life of that woman. That’s where it begins and by beginning there the essayists uncover a great deal about how Marie-Antoinette was regarded and used in her period.

It has galvanized me to take down Thomas’s Les Adieux à la Reine, Carla Hesse’s The Other Enlightenment: How French Women Became Modern (which like Goodman’s book I picked up at the Boston ACESC), and Madame Campan’s Mémoires (whose subtitle reminds you that it’s a defense of this queen: "première femme de chambre de Marie-Antoinette"), browse in Mary Sheriff’s biography cum-art historical criticism of Elizabeth Vigée-LeBrun, The Exceptional Woman, and sigh yet more deeply that I have yet—after all these years—actually to read my ancient English translation of the memoirs of the unfortunate Princess de Lamballes (who today I discover was not only beheaded but also raped and then cut across her body from her genitalia to her abdomen). The full title begins: Secret Memoirs of Princess Lamballe being her journals, letters, and conversations during her confidential relations with Marie Antoinette . . . " Catherine Hyde is the translator, editor, writer, and we are told she was the Marquise de Gouvion Broglie Scolari, a lady-companion to Lamballe. The whole title page (at the bottom) is rounded off with the boast the "special introduction" is by Oliver H. G. Leigh (a 19th century scholar of French history and literature of the 18th century). The paper is strong with much rag content; the book lovingly bound. Doubtless (to echo the heroine of The Female Quixote by Charlotte Lennox), I found it in the now dying Argosy Bookstore in NYC: many empty shelves there. (Ah, Gotham’s Book Mart on 47th Street is gone. No more "wise men fishing here" among the diamonds fools buy to make De Beers richer yet.)

I’ve had these memoirs of Lamballe since I first read your diary in the 1892 three-volume edition by your great niece. Since I’ve read about your time as a lady-in-waiting, I’ve been intrigued by these diaries of ladies-in-waiting in France. In my early teens I read (and have just about forgotten) Zweig’s life of Marie-Antoinette where he argues she was an ordinary woman, around the time I read his biography of Mary Stuart. So I must acknowledge fascination with Antoinette too.

All this made me hunger to do the paper I promised Ted I’d do for a collection by EC/ASECS on Sophie Cottin’s Amélie Mansfield, which I certainly will do when once I’ve finished the review for which I am reading some of this material. "On Living in a New Country" and Trollope will have to stay on hold. I have a book at least based on the memoir by one of these 18th century French diarists that Trollope was apparently much taken with, as he used it the Mémoires of La Marquise de la Rochejaquelein for his La Vendée: a life by "the Hon. Mrs. Maxwell Scott."

I intensely enjoy the later 17th and 18th century French women writers as well as the modern scholars who write about them. George Eliot was accurate when in her review of Madame de Sablé’s letters she argued that the modern feminist movement began with French women in the later 17th century: she put it down to their sexual freedom which encouraged freedom of thought & to their creating, inhabiting and extending a talk culture with intelligent people in their "salons." She lamented the loss of this talk as it turned into writing, for she saw in it a rich reservoir of what makes books.

I just loved the selection of Julie de Lespinasse’s letters in English that I read, just loved them. I long to read my two-volume edition in the original French from Elibron. So too do I long to read the whole of (I did only part but in the original French) of the letter Lespinasse’s aunt, the sharp tongued (malicious) but yearning and blind Madame du Deffand about whom an Italian woman wrote a wonderful biography which is translated into English. Had I known about this sort of thing I might not have given up studying French and not done my dissertation on Richardson’s Clary but rather Louise D’Epinay’s Montbrillant.

I like Italian women who write in the 18th century and since too.
My favorite book from last year remains Andrea di Robillant’s A Venetian Affair, a semi-novelistic deeply sympathetic treatment of the letters and writings left by Giustianna Wynne (a later 18th century half-English, half-Italian woman).

What is so remarkable about Goodman’s collection: the essayists together study the representations of Marie-Antoinette the way I did in a small way a little while ago of representations and stories told about Diana Spencer Windsor and Camilla Parker-Bowles; about Parker-Bowles getting married to Prince Charles in the English language papers; and about Parker-Bowles getting married to him in the French and Italian ones. They discover a great deal that is important about how women are regarded, and particularly women in power in the 18th century and today still. Sheriff reprints a picture of Marie-Antoinette dressed boyishly which her mother treasured ("en Amazon") and explains why the public was incensed at the depiction of Antoinette as an ordinary woman in simple fashionable dress (actually Gaskell explains that too in Wives and Daughters —at a ball the local neighbors are offended when a Duchess doesn’t show up in her diamonds—what did they stay to see her for?); Maza explains how the Diamond Necklace affair so destroyed the queen’s reputation when she was innocent of all its events (Antoinette was part of a faction which loathed the man who was duped into buying the necklace and giving it away to the crooks, and the factions and lawyers created the narrative which poisoned Antoinette’s image); Terry Castle is amusingly brilliant on Marie-Antoinette as an obsession, and Laura Mason explicates the 1938 film with Norma Shearer. One remark stays with me from Piere Saint-Amand’s comparison of the way Hillary Clinton and Marie-Antoinette are treated by the media ("Terrorizing Marie-Antoinette"): "how profoundly imovable mentalities are, how stagnant collective representations." A picture of Hillary Clinton dressed as a dominatrix (complete with her breasts showing prominently in a leather outfit and whip) startled me.

I think I am even slightly frightened as well as appalled by the intense hatred and horrible pornographic (grotesque, vicious) images and words applied to Marie-Antoinette. These images anticipate are the same sort of things Gillray did to women in England. I suggested on WWTTA that Angela Carter takes over this imagery in her Nights at the Circus and displays it in woman-centered context. The virulence and violence of the tone directed at Antoinette reminds me of the way Hillary Clinton is a lightning rod for base resentments, panic at someone living differently and women having power. Marilyn Monroe escaped the recourse to the female scapegoat after her suicide. The pathos of Antoinette’s having been accused of inflicting incestuous relations on her son is just one instance of how this material evokes pity for this woman. I agree with Mary D. Sheriff that David’s famous drawing of Antoinette taken through the streets in an open cart with her hands tied behind her back is not majestic, but rather "a misogynistic and perversely royalist gesture." The twlight of the goddesses indeed.

On Antoinette as one essayist wrote, it all adds up to our having to realize how little we can know of this woman as we can know little of other women so turned into a taboo figure, so sheerly lied about. I’d apply this to many famous women famous because they are famous (in particular not writers so they left little behind for real of themselves). Another such woman is Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Empty at the center while overwrought from the stupid cult.

Today too I got a note from the editor of the journal for which I’m doing my review. This reassured me I am not doing all this for nothing: it’ll get published. He gave me 200 more words :)

I’m better today. I was not able to say in public what was the objective correlative which made me remember my grandmother’s face. I am trying to subdue my response & hope for something better: Shakespeare’s Time tells us we must look forward. Nothing irretrievable has as yet occurred.


Posted by: Ellen

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  1. Marie-Antoinette came to France as the result of an ill-advised Austrian alliance, and she was mistrusted from the start as a foreign agent – not without reason. Her body, therefore, was an impurity. People were unusually curious about it, and, when they didn’t see it (because there was no tradition of queenly publicity, and Marie-Antoinette was no Princess Diana), they made up things about it, such as the ghastly tales of incest with her children.
    R J Keefe    May 18, 1:36pm    #
  2. Dear RJ,

    I revise my first response so I hope you stop by. Your comments show that
    you don’t realize much of what we are said to "know" about Marie Antoinette is the result of image and convention. There was a tradition of queenly publicity but it was a dangerous one which could turn murderous. I say to read Goodman because she’d bring home to you the hard troubles the representations of women and especially powerful women in the world then and now inflict on the individuals caught up in it—whether they are themselves complicit and collude or not.

    Chava    May 19, 8:33am    #

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