Marie-Antoinette’s Life of Contrasts


As a little girl, I had somehow managed to pick up a sufficient amount of European history to know that Marie-Antoinette had been a gray-haired queen of France. When I learned that the real name of my great-grandmother, whom I called Mom, was Mary Antoinette, I could not believe my luck. My Mom was old and had gray hair and had once been the queen of France! Here she was, taking care of me every day in New Jersey.

Outside Versailles

So my eras were a little messy, and even though she had been a teenage bride whose reign as queen ended when she was just 37 (that whitened hair was the color of her wigs), the real Marie-Antoinette still would have been far, far too old to have been my Mom even if she had managed to escape, not to Austria as she had hoped, but to Jersey. Her actual fall, of course, was even further.

The wretched excess of Versailles was too much for me to take in when I visited in my 40s; any teenager expected to stay there and live, no matter what the era, would have a few adjustment issues. Life in a palace, no matter how much gold leaf adorns the furnishings, is really life in one super-large office building. She was surrounded by bureaucrats all trying to get a piece of that French pie.

The view from within Versailles

It was amusing to me that macarons can now be purchased at the home of the woman who is supposed to have let the peasants with no money for bread eat cake, but I have to wonder at her life.  Marie-Antoinette seemed ill prepared for the role she would play, and even after all I have learned about her, from books like Eleanor Herman’s Sex with the Queen, Antonia Fraser’s Marie Antoinette: The Journey, and Sofia Coppola’s 2006 film, the sorrier for her I feel. She seems to have been raised to be a breeder but wasn’t sufficiently schooled in how to coax a reluctant husband or how to lead, if one step behind the king, a country. If one’s very ascension was by divine right, then apparently one could do no wrong.

A visit to the Conciergerie showed just how far she had fallen; it’s still incredible to me that Marie-Antoinette was only 37 when she met her fate, which was far worse than becoming a nana to a little girl in New Jersey.

—Lori Tripoli

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