Did She Really Say, "Let Them Eat Cake!"
As time wore on, the love affair lost its sheen. The queen's sparkling image became tarnished when a history teacher chastised me for writing a favorable paper about her - someone he deemed "frivolous, vapid."
Marie Antoinette is hardly worth your devotion," my teacher intoned. "After all, when told there were thousands of people starving in the streets of Paris because of a lack of bread, she callously told them to eat cake."
Let Them Eat Cake. Four cruel words that dampened my enthusiasm and tested my loyalty to the queen. I waned, the love affair suffered a major set-back. For awhile, Marie Antoinette and I parted ways.
I was in college when I bumped into her again. I was taking a course on European History, when I stumbled upon a book that would reawakened my interest in Marie Antoinette.
Louis and Antoinette by Vincent Cronin. The cover has a touching portrait of the royal family. In the foreground stands Louis, regal in his white flounced shirt and blue waistcoat. Marie Antoinette is at his side, about to swoon. the couple are flanked by their sad-faced children. In the background, Revolutionaries stand at the door, waiting to take the King to the guillotine. It was the first time I saw the portrait and I found it telling, moving. But it was what lay beneath the cover of Cronin's book that truly captured me. There, in the preface, was a startling revelation.
"Antoinette too has been tagged with a bad line. 'If they have no bread, let them eat cake.' She never spoke it. In deed, such words are almost inconceivable to one living in the humanitarian late eighteenth century. They were spoken a century earlier by another queen, Marie Therese, wife of Louis XIV.
My queen had been vindicated. I felt at once, joyous and melancholy. Marie Antoinette, the tiny queen with the graceful walk and sparkling blue eyes, had not said the words that cast her as villain. My history teacher and countless others had been wrong. Now I could study the queen with open, unapologetic fascination.
Cronin's book dispelled more myths, about spending and frivolity, indifference and ignorance. His Marie Antoinette was not callous and cruel, stupid or vapid. The woman that lived in the pages of his book was impulsive and young, loyal and tender, clever and intelligent.
I have spent many years reading every book I could find on Marie Antoinette. The most reliable sources, I have found, are the letters Marie Antoinette wrote to her mother, Empress Maria-Therese of Austria. Letters written by a person are the clearest window into their soul. Marie Antoinette's letters to her mother are sweet, respectful, and candid.
After all was said and done, I found myself entranced by the queen. I decide to use the myriad of facts I had learned about her to dispel the "let them eat cake" myth. I will be publishing a assortment of articles about Marie Antoinette. I hope the reader will enjoy learning that Marie Antoinette wore frayed, plum-colored shoes to the guillotine, that she adopted an orphan after he was nearly run over by a royal carriage, and that she had a delicate stomach and ate very little.
At the very least, I hope the reader learns that Marie Antoinette never said, "Let them eat cake."