Marie-Antoinette: Victim of the Media
Burrows, Simon, New Statesman (1996)
Queen Marie-Antoinette has always been associated with scandal. In her lifetime, salacious pamphlets portrayed her as a sexual libertine and, at her trial in 1793, she was accused of sexually abusing her son. So it is no surprise that trailers for Sofia Coppola's biographical film, due out towards the end of October, emphasise rumour, scandal and sex.
Historians have linked scandals about the queen to the outbreak of revolution in 1789, arguing that popular pamphlets helped strip the monarchy of the sacred aura essential to its legitimacy. This "pornographic interpretation", as it has been called, regularly features in treatments of the era.
There is a fundamental problem with this, however, because my own research shows that the timing and purpose of the sexual libels against Marie-Antoinette have been misunderstood. Though some scandalous pamphlets were written about her before the revolution, they were few in number and none of them was available to the public until 1789.
Early scandalous works about Marie-Antoinette emanated from a handful of blackmailers, based mainly in London. Rather than market their works openly, which was dangerous and financially risky, these people preferred to sell their silence to the French government. Royal agents would thus seize or buy entire print runs, and the pamphlets would either be destroyed or placed in the security of the Bastille.
If any libellous pamphlets about the queen did circulate before 1789, they did so in manuscript form and in small numbers at Versailles, where powerful factions sought to undermine her position, marriage and children, as well as France's alliance with Austria (she was Austrian-born).
The first printed libel against Marie-Antoinette, the memoirs of the Countess de la Motte, did not appear until February 1789. A breathtakingly mendacious work, it linked the queen with a tangled conspiracy, also involving the countess and a cardinal, to acquire a fabulous diamond necklace by fraud. …