Marie Antoinette Was 'One of Us': British Accounts of the Martyred Wicked Queen

Article excerpt

Like many other feminist intellectuals I know, I found myself weeping in the aftermath of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. In those sad and sensational days following her death, many of "us"--that is to say, women (for it was primarily women who flocked to the floral shrine at Kensington Palace)--were surprised by our unaccountably emotional responses to the death of a woman whose only claim to fame was that she had given birth to the future King of England. Many well-known feminists published sympathetic elegies mourning the "People's Princess." Carol Gilligan, for example, meditated in the New York Times on why she felt "such a raw edge of grief for this woman I did not know." (1) In many cases, the tears were understood through an intense identification that women, including feminists, felt for Diana. Do you remember hearing, or perhaps even uttering, the oft repeated remark that Diana was "one of us"? Women could understand and identify with the tragedies of Princess Di's life: she was imprisoned in a loveless marriage with a cheating husband and a evil mother-in-law; she, too, suffered from body image problems which had led to bulimia; and she, too, struggled against the social stigma of single motherhood. Her bad marriage and bulimia, her victimization at the hands of patriarchal femininity, made her like "us." This woman who lived in a palace, had a chauffeur-driven Mercedes-Benz, and wore a different designer dress every day became, in those first heady weeks after her death, the figure of Everywoman. She, too, was a woman. "One of us."

It would be preposterous to venture that Marie Antoinette could be considered the "People's Queen." She certainly was not popular with her subjects at the time of her death and Versailles witnessed no scenes comparable to those at Kensington. Across the channel in Britain, however, popular public sentiment following the guillotining of the Queen in Paris on October 16, 1793, was often reverential. (2) Like Princess Di, Marie Antoinette was a woman in her mid-30s, also a young mother who died of unnatural causes, and in both cases, commentators evoked sympathy through turning a powerful royal figure into a symbol of sacrificed and victimized womanhood. How does the identification of one very unique woman--a queen or a princess--come to stand in for all women, all mothers, all wives? This essay probes various representations of Marie Antoinette--some constructing her as wicked, others as the martyred royal--with the intent of unpacking how the category "woman" operates in the moment of the royal woman's death. For some British writers and feminists, Marie Antoinette was "one of us," a woman like "us" whose essential femininity was the basis for sympathetic mourning. For others, she was "one of them," a woman whose essential femininity aligned her, instead, with a corrupt female sexual power. The first half of the essay takes a broad survey approach to Marie Antoinette and cursorily discusses how a wide variety of writers (French feminists, Edmund Burke, pornographers, journalists) figure her relation to "woman" through invocations of sexual difference (that is, the difference of "woman" from "man"); in the second half, I turn to the responses of 1790s British feminists to this image of public womanhood with the interest of unraveling the tensions within feminism between how the singular woman is included in the larger political category of women. My curiosity about Marie Antoinette in Britain began when I encountered two radically different accounts of her within 1790s feminism. While Mary Robinson reveres Marie Antoinette as a symbol of victimized womanhood, Mary Wollstonecraft, even as late as 1794, was decrying the Queen as a sexual and political abomination who was the corrupt head of an oppressive political state. Why the difference in views? And what does this say about their own understandings of feminism, "woman," and sexual difference?

Feminists have long posited the difference between Woman (the patriarchal ideal of what a woman is, a constraining symbol of femininity) and women (the commonality of real embodied beings who are sexed female). …