Let’s get one thing straight from the outset, Marie Antoinette, born November 2, 1755, did NOT say, “Let them eat cake.” Her full name was Maria Antonia Josephina Johanna and she was born an Archduchess of Austria. She was the 15th child of the Empress and Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. She was married to the Dauphin, the heir to the French throne when she was only 14 years old. At first, the French loved her for her beauty and youthful charm, but all too soon they turned on “the Austrian.”
Marie Antoinette and the future Louis XVI had four children: Marie Thérèse, Louis Joseph, Louis-Charles, and Sophie. Louis Joseph died of a brief illness when he was 8. Louis-Charles was nominally Louis XVII, because he survived his father for a few months before succumbing to tuberculosis at the age of 10 while in captivity. Sophie died of tuberculosis when she was less than a year old. Only Marie Thérèse saw adulthood, but she was never in good mental health after the Terror. Marie Antoinette also had more than one miscarriage. In other words, Marie Antoinette knew more than her share of sorrows. She was not just the silly, selfish woman she is often portrayed as.
She was poorly educated, not only because girls were educated with less rigor than boys, but because she really just didn’t give a darn. Unfortunately, she was particularly bad at languages, including the “official” language of Europe, French. When the wedding negotiations opened, her teeth were deemed unsatisfactory and she required multiple anesthetic-free oral surgeries to make her acceptable. Straight teeth notwithstanding, the marriage was not immediately consummated which led to innumerable rumors. Her nickname was soon transformed from “l’Autricienne” (the Austrian) to “l’Autruchienne,” a made-up name composed of “ostrich” and “bitch.”
Still, when the children finally came, she was an affectionate and attentive mother, perhaps because she had feared her own imposing parents and wanted a different life for her children. She shunned court life at Versailles and preferred the much simpler Petit Trianon, and her little hamlet where she played dairymaid, Le Hameau. She developed an interest in Rousseau’s Noble Savage and adopted simpler clothes. She also became fascinated with the Incas. To rehabilitate her image, Vigée-Le Brun painted Marie-Antoinette’s portrait with her children, top.
Her long incarceration, guillotining on October 16, 1798, and disposal in an unmarked mass grave were part of the ignoble end of a woman thrust by birth and circumstance into a situation for which she was poorly equipped. Even her own son was forced to claim that his mother sexually molested him. She was brave during so much of her ordeal, but wept at this allegation.
The phrase “let them eat cake” is translated from “qu’ils mangent de la brioche” (keel manjuh duh lah breeosh). It’s actually from Rousseau’s Confessions, which predated the short life of Marie Antoinette. She may not have been perfect, but she did not say the cruel phrase for which she is best known.